How to live as X-Men and X-Women: lessons for today’s church-in-exile from 1st century Israel and the X-Men

How are we going to respond to the Secular Juggernaut? Here are some lessons from ancient and modern examples of life as exiles.

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There’s been barrel loads of digital ink spilled in the last year or so on the question of whether the church is now in exile; culturally; and how helpful this is as a category for thinking about life and our witness in the world. Stephen McAlpine wasn’t the first to get the ball rolling, the Apostles Peter and Paul probably started it all a while back, and there are plenty of characters in the early church who piled in, but there is certainly a sense that if Christendom represented some sort of return from exile, we’re entering some new era in the life of the church and our relationship with the world and its powers, and even just its people, our neighbours. McAlpine called this Exile: Stage Twoand in that pivotal post suggested we should stop thinking of ourselves as being in Athens — a marketplace of ideas where we’ll get a hearing — and start thinking of ourselves as being in Babylon — where we’ll potentially be fed to lions. I liked what he said, but felt the paradigm was a little too OT exile focused and not enough a reflection of the sort of exile being experienced by God’s people around the time Jesus arrived on the scene. At the time I suggested Rome, not Babylon, the empire that executed our Lord, but that also presented an ultimate alternative vision for human flourishing to the Gospel — one built on power, prestige, wealth, and sexual liberation — is perhaps a better paradigm for us to be thinking in.

The church-as-exiles movement has continued rolling along in the last year and a half, and there have been plenty of landmark cases both here in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world for us to both notice the seismic shift in the world we live in especially with regards to the place so-called Christian values have in our social norms and laws, and to figure out how we’re going to respond to those shifts. We’ve had Safe Schools, and a continued debate on same sex marriage; we’ve, increasingly, been told that religious freedom is the greatest human right since sliced bread and something to be upheld at all costs, and often found that voicing traditional Christian views — those still reflected in our laws — is a form of bigotry. All our grandparents and most of our parents, it seems, are actually bigots when assessed by today’s values. Somehow Christians have been standing up in the public square to be speaking in favour of a bunch of created goods like marriage and freedom without really saying much at all about the creator, or his grand story of forgiveness, redemption and victory over death in Jesus. It’s like the public square is now a bonfire where we’re burning anything that looks off-trend, and that life as exiles is mostly about trying to hold on to valuable furniture, or for certain streams of Christianity to figure out what furniture to toss on the fire in order to be included in the fun, rather than trying to douse the flames and call people to a better party.

There is, at the heart of an understanding of who we are as Christians, a fundamental disconnect between how we see and live in the world, and how our neighbours do; a difference in the kingdom we belong to and the values and virtues we pursue. Like Israel before us, we’re called out of the world, by God, to be different. We’re by nature exiles in a profound sense, not put into exile by the world but by an exodus brought about as God rescued us; this brings us a totally different view of the world. As Paul puts it:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 12-14

We are Mystique: Trying to figure out how to be ‘Mutant and Proud’

Life in our rapidly changing world can feel like we’re the mutants in the world of Marvel’s X-Men, trying to figure out exactly what to do with a super-power that feels a lot like being an unwelcome freak.

Do we let the world co-opt us to its agenda? Like Wolverine, who is signed up to the Weapon X program to serve the human ’empire’?

Do we adopt Magneto’s scorched earth strategy and attempt to forcibly mutate or eradicate those who would stand against us?

Take the ‘cure’ offered by the world — like the vaccination offered in X-Men: The Last Stand so we give up our power to become just like everyone else for the sake of our comfort and theirs?

Do we withdraw and hide and wait for a time when we’ll be welcome again? Or live undercover, like Beast desires with his serum — hide our mutation but keep our power, pretend there’s nothing different about us?

Or do we follow Charles Xavier who has a vision for a world where mutants and humans co-exist? Using our difference to serve the community, even as they try to crucify us for it?

The most interesting character in the X-Men franchise isn’t one of these people advocating one response or another, but Raven/Mystique whose shape-shifting ability would allow her to comfortably choose any of these options. Ironically in one timeline she’s shot with the ‘cure’ and abandoned by Magneto cause she’s not a mutant anymore… Throughout the different storylines, but perhaps especially in the new timeline stories, she’s pulled in different directions by each of these ‘leaders’ — Professor X, Magneto, and Beast — who each love her in their own way and desire their vision of the good life for her.

It’s a bit like the church is Mystique; we have the power to look just like everybody else, to hide, or to be proudly mutant and fight, or to use our power to love and save our enemies… we just have to decide which way we go.

What does it look like for us to be proud mutants where our mutation is shaped by our new DNA, the DNA that comes from being children of God, united with Christ, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit? What does it look like to be exiles because we’re different to a world around us that doesn’t like difference?

It’s not just the world of the X-Men that might help us grapple with how to live in a shifting world, but how Israel responded not to exile in Babylon as they hoped for a return to power (as we see it in the Prophets, and in characters like Daniel), but under Roman rule, where that return had failed. There are parallels in Jewish history for each of the paths taken by the protaganists in the X-Men franchise.

Weapon-X: The ‘Hellenisers’, Pharisees, and ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join em’ Option

Under Roman rule the easiest thing for the Jewish community to do was simply to, as much as possible, act Roman. To cuddle up to the empire and, as a result, be allowed the freedom to practice their religion so long as it didn’t upset the Imperial apple cart. Tertullian, a Christian guy writing in the late 2nd century described the status as Judaism in the empire as being a religio licita; a legal religion. Judaism enjoyed a privileged place in the empire — they didn’t have to physically bow the knee to Caesar, so long as they offered prayers for the emperor and empire in the Temple. Both Tertullian, and the Gospel writers, point out that this concession was largely symbolic; it was pretty clear who really ruled, and never clearer than in the battle between Caesar and Jesus that the arrival of God’s promised king represented.

The Sadducees went a step further than the Pharisees in that the Pharisees maintained a degree of difference, proudly, from the people around them. The Sadducees, it seems, were ‘hellenised’ — they took on the cultural and physical appearance of the Graeco-Roman world they lived in so they wouldn’t stand out. They were happy to deny spiritual and supernatural concepts like the resurrection of the dead — a concept the Greek world, especially the world of Greek philosophers (and the Areopagus in Athens is an example of this) found pretty laughable, but which even the Pharisees held on to. It made sense for them to conform because they didn’t believe anything particularly distinct anyway… They just wanted to look like everyone else, so they became like everyone else.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were so keen to hold on to their privileged place in society that they threw Jesus under the bus and joined Team Caesar, the equivalent of William Stryker’s Weapon X program, where mutants fought for the empire.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” — John 11:47-48

This came to a head at the crucifixion, where it was pretty clear they weren’t separate any more…

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

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seatat a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

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

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

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

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

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

There’s an incredible temptation for us to do this in the church today, and plenty of people are doing just this. Going as far as the Pharisees in giving up any sense that the Lordship of Jesus requires anything other than totally bowing the knee to Caesar. Christians are told to pray for and honour those in authority and to be oriented towards living at peace, but not at the expense of citizenship in God’s kingdom (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11-17). We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees.

Tertullian doesn’t really want the empire to assume that Christians are a religio licita simply because we share a history with Israel, he has a different view for what life as exiles looks like that we will return to below…

 “I have already declared the Christian religion to have its foundation in the most ancient of monuments, the sacred writings of the Jews; and yet many among you well know us to be a novel sect risen up in the reign of Tiberius, and we ourselves confess the charge; and because you should not take umbrage that we shelter ourselves only under the venerable pretext of this old religion, which is tolerated among you, and because we differ from them, not only in point of age, but also in the observation of meats, festivals, circumcision, etc., nor communicate with them so much as in name, all which seems to look very odd if we are servants of the same God as the Jews” — Tertullian, Apology, XXI

He’s also not so keen to cuddle up to the empire, as we’ll see below.

Brotherhood of Mutants: The Maccabees, Zealots, and the ‘Culture Wars’ Option

Magneto: This society won’t accept us. We form our own. The humans have played their hand, now we get ready to play ours. Who’s with me?
Magneto: [to Mystique] No more hiding.
Professor Charles Xavier: [to Mystique] Go with him. It’s what you want.

Raven Darkholme: And one more thing. BEAST!
[Raven places free her hand on her chest]
Raven Darkholme: Mutant and Proud! — X-Men: First Class

Magneto’s goal is to use power — his power — to win a victory for his people; to take the ascendancy in the culture wars so that his people rule everyone else. In the first X-Men movie, Magneto wants to use a machine to turn everyone into mutants; like it or not. In others, like First Class, he simply wants to win freedom for mutants to be mutants, but he wants to do so using power. This isn’t so different from the Maccabees in the second and first centuries BC.

Before the Romans took hold of Israel there was a period when they were under the rule of the Greeks and then the Seleucid Empire. Israel was in exile, and they didn’t love it. They staged a violent revolution, led by the Maccabees family. They were largely successful in reclaiming Judea, and tried to use military force to convert people to Judaism. They cleansed the temple and looked like they had things all together; until the Romans arrived and took over about 100 years later. The zealots picked up where they left off… they were around in Jesus’ day, but rather than fighting as an organised army, they were like ninjas… they launched stealth attacks on Romans and Roman sympathisers with sharp knives. But zealotry didn’t really work… the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ maxim proved true. 

 The equivalent these days is to act as a combatant in the culture wars; to take up your political sword (more often than not a keyboard) and attempt to use power to secure your desired outcome at the expense of those who disagree with you, rather than figuring out how to live at peace with one another. This option, if you’re successful, produces short term success but your opponent comes back at you holding a grudge, or people know what it takes to unseat you from power — they just have to use power against you. It didn’t work for the Maccabees as a long term strategy. It never works for Magneto. Plus, a pretty smart guy (Jesus) said those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

District X: Essenes/Qumran and the Benedict Option


This hasn’t happened in the X-Men movie universe yet; but in the comics, a collective of mutants form a community-apart-from-the-community called Mutant Town or District-X. A place for mutants to be proudly mutant; apart from the world. In Israel, under Roman rule (and a bit before), the Essenes formed counter-cultural communities who behaved in counter-cultural ways; there’s a good chance they authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and that they viewed the Hellenised Jews as compromisers and covenant breakers. Their communities-of-difference were designed to maintain the faith. Josephus writes pretty extensively about them… here’s a couple of quotes about their differences from the world around them:

“Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character…

… these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God.

The Essenes were basically a Jewish monastic movement. They withdrew from society — or formed a counter-society in order to not be tainted by the wider society, but also to serve it. One response to our present life-in-exile that seems to be gathering momentum is conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, in a sense it’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s Benedict Option in that it comes from this paragraph in After Virtue. It seems to be both a new District-X/Essenes movement based on the order started by St Benedict at the decline of the Roman Empire; a monastic movement that focused very much on virtue formation in an alternate community. MacIntyre wrote:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.” — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

This all sounds very ‘Essene’ or very ‘District-X’… Dreher is keen for Christians to take up this vision; rightly calling us to remove ourselves from being too caught up with earthly empires — not making the Pharisee/Sadducee mistake, and calling for an end to the culture wars where we’ve tried to do a Magneto/Maccabees to fight off the imperial regime of our day. There’s been quite a lot written about this stuff since Dreher first proposed it; and frankly, it’s confusing exactly how engaged or disengaged with the wider world those pushing this barrow want their communes to be. It’s like a Benedict Option can be anything along a spectrum from Amish to just being a distinctly different community within the community (namely, the church), where you’re focused on cultivating virtue by being different in practice. Very few people would want to disagree with that… But there are three things I think are worth thinking about when deciding if the Benedict Option is the way forward:

  1. Are we in pre-dark ages Rome or pre-Christian Rome?
  2. Is withdrawing actually effective, or when all the Christians turn their attention inwards does that actually hasten the decline.
  3. Is virtue formation a means to an end, an end in itself, or a fruit of a good life, such that virtues are the character produced by a life lived towards a particular telos or mission, rather than being the aim of our mission.

In X-Men terms — are mutants the best version of themselves if they go off to mutant school to participate in a bunch of skill-honing montages, or are they better off training in mutant school, while stepping out to use their powers for the sake of others (which has the effect of training and forming these mutants to an end more inline with what goodness looks like (‘mutant and proud’ maybe?).

Dreher reads the cultural landscape pretty well, I think, its just that his solutions are a bit pessimistic and his view of Christian mission and what the church is for is a little too inwards looking for my liking.

Over the past decade, especially in the struggle over same-sex marriage, some of my friends and allies among social and religious conservatives have called me a defeatist for my culture-war pessimism. I believe that pessimism today is simply realism, and that it is better for us to retreat strategically to a position that we are capable of defending. The cultural battlefield has changed far more than many of us realize…

If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order… This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-­century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

I’m a little more hopeful than Dreher that if we were to get our house in order, in the church, we might ‘catechise the culture’ via the Gospel, rather than being losers in the worship wars. I think we can revive Christianity first by returning to the Gospel, not by withdrawing from the world then returning to the Gospel in isolation. In Dreher’s Benedict Option the benefit is primarily for the church and the Christian — with a long term potential benefit for those seeking to come in to these communities for some sort of ‘protection’ from the new dark ages.

These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness. — Rod Dreher, Benedict Option

“Benedict did not leave the world for the sake of saving it. He left the world for the sake of saving his own soul. He knew that to put himself in a position where he was open to the Holy Spirit required living life in a certain way, in community. Hence the monastery. The monastic calling is a special one given to a relative few men and women, but the principle that believers need a community, a culture, and a way of life to keep themselves open to the formative (re-formative) power of divine grace is true for all of us.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option Still Stands

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture… We need to teach ourselves and our children to desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as preserved within our traditions, and to make that pursuit the focus of our moral imagination. This is not a lofty ideal, but a matter of intense practical urgency. We do not have time to waste in building our little platoons… There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

Dreher also published a sort of FAQ guide to the Benedict Option if you want to get your head around it a bit more. If Carl Trueman is your cup of tea (he’s often not mine), he’s written a few pieces worth considering about the Benedict Option including: The Rise of The Anti-Culture, and Eating Locusts Will Be Benedict OptionalIf you really want to understand the Benedict Option you could do much worse than read this piece by Matthew Loftus. For those following the Worship Wars series of posts here, there’s also this from Dreher which quotes the reasons James K.A Smith doesn’t like the Benedict Option. Also, for what it’s worth, Stanley Hauerwas says MacIntyre regrets the Benedict line as he puts forward what I think is a better alternative. Another thing by Greg Forster points out that:

“The Benedict Option” is a phrase now so thoroughly jawed over that it effectively means whatever you want it to mean. No amount of effort by Rod Dreher to clarify what he means by it can prevent everyone else who is looking for something new from using it to mean whatever they happen to be fascinated by…The overarching problem, however, is the Benedict Option’s failure to love the unholy world. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission.” — Greg Forster, The Benedict Option As Culture War

The thing about the Mutant Town project, and the real, historic, Essenes community, is that neither of them had a lasting impact on their world and neither of them had the desired effect on the people leaving the world. They were failures. Unless the preservation of scrolls in some jars is a success. There’s probably even more concern for us as Christians if we take Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 9-11:1 seriously — it seems that imitating Christ is about the desire to win some to the Gospel by becoming like them rather than them becoming like us, and that the key to holding on to the Gospel is actually holding out the Gospel. It may be that being Christlike and on mission with the Gospel (and thus habitually living out the Gospel story) is what will cultivate real virtue for us, not simply withdrawing and doing a bunch of Holy sacramental, discipline type stuff.

The X-Men: The Jesus option

Raven/Mystique: You know Charles, I use to think it’s gonna be you and me against the world. But no matter how BAD the world gets, you don’t wanna be against it do you? You want to be part of it. — X-Men: First Class

Raven: Get out of my head, Charles!
Charles Xavier: Raven, please do not make us the enemy today.
Raven: Look around you, we already are!
Charles Xavier: Not all of us, Raven. All you’ve done so far is save the lives of these men. You can show them a better path.
Hank McCoy: [to Xavier] Shut her down, Charles!
Charles Xavier: I’ve been trying to control you since the day we met, and look where that’s got us… everything that happens now is in your hands. I have faith in you, Raven. — X-Men: Days of Future Past

But what if we’re not in the Dark Ages at the end of the empire? What if we’re in first and second century Rome?

 

What if District-X was as bad an idea as the Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor-X’s X-Men actually have it right? What if the key to virtue formation, the church’s survival, and the salvation of the world actually lies in us fighting to save it by lying down our lives for the sake of others? Living as exiles but seeking the welfare of our place? Our enemies even? Imitating Christ. What if our job is to show a better path as part of the world; fully engaged, fully on mission to keep people alive.

What if Professor-X is basically Jesus (and Cerebro something like a mechanical version of the Holy Spirit)? And what if we’re formed as virtuous people by living out the mission given to us by Jesus for the sake of the hostile world that crucified him. How do these very clear instructions end up with the Benedict Option rather than with a team, or community, of people on mission?

“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

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

How does the Benedict Option (or any of the others) represent a life that extends Jesus’ mission into the world, where he became ‘God with us’ — present and engaged with a hostile culture; light coming into a darkness he knew was not going to receive him (John 1); how does it reflect this model of God’s engaged presence in the world that begins at the start of the Gospel and continues here in the Great Commission with the promise that he is with us?

What if it’s not the monastery we should be looking to for inspiration for how to handle the barbarians at the gate, but to the early church living amidst the barbarous Roman Empire which executed Jesus. Oh yeah. Christians building systems based on the halcyon days of the Roman Empire — as if the barbarians only came from outside are like those who think America or Australia were ever really Christian empires, who are more shocked than the rest at the secular juggernaut because it represents a greater loss of territory and influence. The world is yet to see a political empire built with Jesus as king. The church is yet to be anything other than a community of exiles; an alternate polis.

What if we should assume Christendom ended so long ago that what we’re dealing with isn’t a world about to enter the darkness, but a world that has been dark for so long it forgets what life really looks like? What if we’re not the church in Benedict’s day, but in the time where Jewish exiles were running around getting in to bed with the Romans, stabbing them with knives, or setting up communes only for Jesus, and then his church, to emerge as a real alternative kingdom so thoroughly engaged with life in the empire, from the margins, that the values of the Empire eventually turned upside down? What if an optimistic taking up our cross is the answer; if it virtue-formation looks more like martyrdom than life in a commune? What if the hope for the empire doesn’t lie in us pulling out in the face of hostility, but pitching in.

What if instead of looking at the Benedictine monks and their practices we looked to texts like Tertullian’s Apology and the ancient Epistle to Diognetus, to see how the early church — those exiles — responded to the Empire (and how this differed from the suite of Jewish exilic models in Rome). Is the Benedict Option really going to produce the sort of Christian who so relies on the truth of the Gospel that we stand in front of the secular juggernaut and say “bring it on, the Gospel will go further if you steamroll me…” Cause that’s what Tertullian said… 

“And now, O worshipful judges, go on with your show of justice, and, believe me, you will be juster and juster still in the opinion of the people, the oftener you make them a sacrifice of Christians. Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us all to powder if you can ; your injustice is an illustrious proof of our innocence, and for the proof of this it is that God permits us to suffer; and by your late condemnation of a Christian woman to the lust of a pander, rather than the rage of a lion, you notoriously confess that such a pollution is more abhorred by a Christian than all the torments and deaths you can heap upon her. But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more.”

Is withdrawing into our own communities, ultimately for our own sake, really going to provide the sort of schooling in virtue that we need to love our enemies and lay down our lives for them? Is it going to produce communities whose engaged difference works for the good of the empire as it transforms one life at a time until our momentum is irresistible? Until the Gospel becomes a juggernaut with more momentum than the secular community trying to ram us? It has happened before, and the key wasn’t people pulling out of society that did it… it was a bunch of exiles living as citizens of a better kingdom, lives like those described in the Epistle to Diognetus an anonymous description of Christian community and beliefs from the late 2nd century:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. 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.”

This doesn’t sound Benedictine to me. But it sounds powerful. It sounds like Jesus.

What if the answer isn’t withdrawal into ‘communities of virtue’ outside the mainstream but being an alternative community desperate to love the mainstream with the Gospel where our virtue is shaped by our interactions with the world such that martyrdom of some sort — the practice of self-sacrifice and rejection with our eyes fixed on the greater kingdom we belong to — is our process of being formed as virtuous people. There’ll be a certain sort of rich, thick, loving, community that makes martyrdom more plausible — if the love of the church is more compelling than the love of the world — but this sort of monastic way of life, even if still engaged, is both too negative and pessimistic about our chance to change the empire (as we did in the past) and too disconnected from the way of life we’re called to imitate. Jesus did not live in a monastery but spent his time amongst friends and sinners. The way to save our own soul, to run our race and hold on to the Gospel is to hold the Gospel out to others. To love others at cost. To be prepared to lay down our lives to do so. The way to be virtuous is to be on mission, to be the church, as Hauerwas puts it (confusingly, Dreher says he’s on board with what Hauerwas says in this interview, which is one of the reasons everyone is so confused about exactly what the Benedict Option is):

“The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.”

If you’re going to be ‘mutant and proud,’ in exile, be the X-Men. They always win. The movies tell me so.

There’s a better story that tells me that putting my pride in Jesus, for the sake of my neighbours, is a better way to win, and a better way to be an exile.

Learning the Aussie (and spiritual) virtue of hospitality from and for the outsider

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Image Credit: Wikipedia article on Halal Snack Packs

On election night in Australia, in the midst of the chaos and the commercial networks clamouring for ‘worst possible election graphic/metaphor’ and Laurie Oakes’ tie-switching gazumping of the gambling industry there was a moment of pure beauty; a beauty that some may have interpreted as political pointscoring if it were disingenuous, but that I choose to see as a glimmer of something both transcendent and fundamentally human; a reminder that we, as Aussies, whatever our differences, should be able to share something in common. A literal, and metaphorical, place at the same multi-cultural, multi-faith table. Part of being Australian, I think, is operating in the realisation that hospitality is a central virtue, and in the practice of hospitality we’re to be both hosts and guests; and that nothing kills hospitality as fast as fear.

This revelatory moment came when Labor senator Sam Dastyari, of Iranian heritage, invited the newly (re-)elected Pauline Hanson, famous for her anti-Islam ‘no halal’ platform, to join him for a halal snack pack in the western suburbs of Sydney. According to the SMH story on the invitation, “a ‘HSP’ is a styrofoam box filled with kebab meat, cheese and chips covered in chilli, garlic and either barbecue sauce or hummus.”

I’ve never eaten an halal snack pack, but his guide to making the perfect pack makes this invitation particularly inviting.

Hospitality: a lost Aussie virtue

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair. — Advance Australia Fair, Verse 2

Dastyari’s offer was an attempt to practice the foundational ‘Aussie’ virtue of hospitality; one we no longer sing about in our anthem because we don’t sing the second verse, but that is there nonetheless (an ironic ‘foundational’ virtue in some way when white settlers ignore the way we forced first Australians to show us ‘hospitality’, but I’ll get to that).

Hanson rebuffed his invitation. She committed what I think is a cardinal Aussie sin, she rejected his offer of hospitality and mateship, an offer to share in part of his vision for human flourishing — not the snack pack itself, but the hospitality he offered. The invitation to share a meal at a shared table. To share life. To understand each other. This sort of hospitality is so vital to life in a multi-cultural context. Our nation will fall — it won’t possibly be one nation — without a rediscovery of the cardinal Aussie virtue of hospitality; of being able to share a table with those who are different. And this is extra true for Christians — because it’s not just an Aussie virtue, but a Christian one; and we’ve got a particular interest, as Christians, in both taking up the invitations of others, and inviting those whom society can’t find a place for at the table to join us.

There are implications in this pursuit of hospitality, in the context of Islam in Australia, for how we think of such things as enabling the building of religious space for Muslims as an extension of our desire for religious freedom, what we think of halal food and its place in Australia (and our pantries, which I’ve written about elsewhere), but also for how we think of what it really means to ‘belong’ in Australia (which I’ve also written about elsewhere); what we unite around as Australians.

There’s lots at stake here, because Pauline Hanson has a view of what our unity as Australians should be found in and that view now has a place at the table in the parliament, which ostensibly legislates towards particular views of what being ‘Australian’ looks like. Hanson’s view, a reaction to terror and change sounds so appealing to those of us who are looking at the pace of change in our world, and our nation, and who are afraid. Fear is a totally understandable response to change (and ‘terror’ the intended response to acts of ‘terrorism’), and she taps into it, and has built a platform that, in a circular way, escalates the fear as she speaks the fear into reality for many other people, while offering solutions that cause fear for others. I think it explains much of Hanson’s popularity, but it also explains much of the damage Hanson is doing, whether deliberately or as collateral. Her appearance on Q&A last night, and the associated contributions to the discussion by Muslims in the audience, and Dastyari who shared the platform with her, shows that we can’t take her lightly. She’s been elected by a constituency who share some of her fears (and proposed solutions), and she (and they) have a right to have their fears heard.

The antidote to these fears, where they’re unfounded, is hospitality.

This is the answer for both Hanson (and voters who back her), and the Muslim community. The answer is rediscovering the virtue of hospitality; generous hospitality that seeks to make a place for and to understand the other that will allay Australia’s fears about the Muslim neighbours we have nothing to fear from (and might help us identify those we do, should they not be interested in the exercise of hospitality), and hospitality that will allay our Muslim neighbours’ fears about whether they belong in the Australian community or not.

If we want ‘one nation’ we need to practice hospitality as both guests and hosts. Which is interesting, because for white Aussies like me, that’s what I am, historically. I’m both a guest — in that I am a descendant of those who settled having ‘come across the seas’; and a host, in that my family has been here for generations and I’m now in a position to show hospitality to others. One might say I’m morally obliged to do that either because of the (largely ‘inherited’) cultural wealth I enjoy as an Aussie in a world where such wealth is rare, or the story I participate in as an Aussie enjoying the boundless plains I did not create, or just that I have more wealth to share than most people alive today. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with welcome to country ceremonies at public events because they remind me of some truth that this isn’t really my home, or that it wasn’t first my home, but another peoples’; but this extension of a welcome, an act of generosity from another Australian people — our ‘first Australians’ — should model something to me that I then pass on to others. It’s the articulation of a fundamental Aussie virtue that stands in the face of past fear, injustice, and terror — the stuff that European settlers perpetrated on others, and if we can’t learn from this welcome as modern Australians and be true to our national anthem, then we’ve lost any hope of being ‘one nation’ as others join us from across the seas. My discomfort in welcome to country ceremonies — the discomfort of feeling a sense of forgiveness and hospitality in the face of inherited guilt — is a powerful reminder that we are all, as people, both guests and hosts in this nation, and this world. In a sense, as Christians, we also understand first nation people to be guests in God’s land, as an extension of our role as God’s image bearing stewards who are placed in an embodied sense, in his world, to do the work of caring for it (in a Genesis 1 sense)… or as Paul puts it in Acts:

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

We are both guests and hosts. 

This is part of the Australian story — because it is a part of every Australian story, from the first Australians whose relationship with the land was predicated on some sense of being guests and stewards, to all those who have joined in the call to share our ‘boundless plains’ with others — being an Aussie means being both guest and host; hospitality is a foundational Aussie virtue, if not the foundational Aussie virtue. And fear is the enemy of hospitality. It leads us to put up walls, to build ghettos, to demarcate the ‘other’, to attempt, as Hanson, Andrew Bolt, and TV host Sonia Kruger have, to limit the extent of our national hospitality to those who don’t bring anything new or different (or dangerous, because all danger is apparently found in this difference) to the table. Ultimately a failure to practice this virtue leads us, as a nation, and individual Aussies, to practice exclusion rather than embrace. And both our past and our future have to be built on embrace if we’re to survive as a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation. It’s simply too late to return to ‘white Australia’ and Australia was never really white to begin with…

The way for us to recapture a lost virtue, and to be schooled in it, is to practice it. We have to recover this practice in our homes in order for it to be recaptured in our parliament. This starts with you. If you think this stuff matters — you need to practice it.

If you don’t like what Hanson is on about, or the politics of fear, if you want Australia to be defined by what it is or could be — a truly hospitable nation — not by what it isn’t, then start habitually practicing hospitality. Not just as a host, but as a guest. Get out to Western Sydney. In this we have much to learn from both the welcome to country we’re offered by the indigenous communities at public events; and from ‘new Australians’ like Sam Dastyari and other Muslim Australians who have responded to the rhetoric of fear and exclusion with hospitable invitations. Just like on election night, the moment that stood out for me on Q&A last night (apart from Hanson’s apparent epiphany that Dastyari is actually a Muslim), was not the Muslim voices who expressed how deep the cost of this rhetoric is for their community (though that was striking) but the hopeful invitation a young Muslim man extended Hanson, not to eat a halal meal (on his terms), but simply to eat with him and seek common understanding.

My name is Mohammed.
I love my religion Islam and have been to more mosques than I have the supermarket. Perhaps the greatest influence for our family members to becoming hard working and focusing on education and hoping to be good citizens was the emphasis placed on it by Islam.
I believe the best way to increase understanding and mutual respect, is through interaction. Would you be willing to take my offer to inviting you for lunch or dinner, whichever suits you, with me and my Muslim family? And in respect to you and your beliefs, while we have something halal, we will ensure your food is not halal.
Would you accept this invitation now? — Mohammad Attai, Q&A

We won’t have one nation without practicing this sort of virtue.

We are both guests and hosts.

This guy, and Sam Dastyari re-taught me a truth that I should know both as an Aussie, and as a Christian. Hospitality is a virtue, and our survival as a nation (and as a church within a nation) depends on it.

So, I’ll be looking for Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack, if anyone has any recommendations.

But I also have to step up my hosting game, not just hosting those in my church community (though we have to do this as Christians if we’re going to live out our Christian story and display the Christian virtue of hospitality in our communities), but hosting those who are not like me, especially those from the margins; and those who live in fear in our changing world — both the Muslim community, and the One Nation voter, because hospitality isn’t just an Aussie virtue, it’s a core Christian virtue too. It’s part of us living our story.

Hospitality: A lost Christian virtue

Hospitality is at the heart of the Christian story — which begins with the hospitable God making a place for us, a beautiful world, and a place for us to enjoy a relationship with him. But our fear, and our failure to be hospitable — guest or host — is also at the heart of the Christian story. We fail to be good guests, as humans, when we live as though God isn’t hosting us, as though the world isn’t his. We behave like bad tenants, or terrible guests in a hotel room who trash the joint, or worse, like a house guest who comes over the threshold of your home and systematically attempts to eradicate any trace of your ownership, your life, or your existence until you’re driven from your house. That’s what we’ve done to God. That’s the story of sin; our act of remaking God’s place — the world — comfortable for us, by removing him. We aren’t great guests. And, as John puts it, as a result, we humans are terrible hosts…

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:10-11

This is, in a sense, John’s summary of the parable of the wicked tenants — the parable where the owner of a place that has been trashed sends his representatives, and finally his son, to talk to the inhospitable tenants, who kill the owner’s son. This story — and this statement in John — is about the Cross. The word who made the world became human flesh — a guest of the world — we hosted him here in ‘our world’ and we killed him. The story of the Gospel is that God is the great and generous host, but that we, by our own god-rejecting nature, are bad hosts and bad guests. There’s something in the image of God that still remains in us that means, by his grace, we are still hospitable to others even if we’re not deliberately following him, but this characteristic — this divine virtue —is something we take up anew when we take up the invitation to be his people in a hostile world. We become the representatives of the great host; but we also realise that we live in a world that is hostile to him — the world that killed Jesus — and that part of the invitation extended to us in being his people is an invitation into the new creation; where the hospitable God will again make a place for us, even after we trashed the last one. This new creation is so new that the world now isn’t actually our home… and so we live as guests. Peter captures this tension in his first letter:

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

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

This letter is one of many parts of the New Testament that expresses the connection between the hospitality God shows us — the mercy we’ve received changes the way we treat each other, and the other. So Peter says:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. — 1 Peter 4:8-10

This isn’t just to be love that we show to other Christians, but to strangers and the marginalised, this is a Christian virtue, one that participating in this story and remembering the Cross, points us to over and over again. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. A way of living out who we now are. We are both guest and host. We model this in the way we love each other as brothers and sisters, but also in the way we love our world, free from fear.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” — Hebrews 13:1-3

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:13-16

The hospitality will go far beyond eating with others, but it will essentially include that — both as guests and hosts.

I think the logic of 1 Corinthians and especially the outworking of what it means for Paul to ‘be all things to all people’, Paul also wants Christians to receive hospitality — especially to eat with — from those who are living out different stories in our world — the ‘other’ — our neighbours. There’s some good stuff I’ve cut out in this passage about food sacrificed to idols that I think is relevant to the halal thing, but it’s worth reading what Paul wants Christians to do with their eating and drinking…

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. — 1 Corinthians 10:27, 31-33

Are you practicing and receiving this sort of hospitality?

Because our Muslim neighbours, like Sam Dastyari and Mohammad Attai, are inviting us to (Attai specifically invited ‘anyone’)?

If you’re not, what is stopping you? Is it fear? That’s actually a failure to love, or its an indicator that you fear people and what they might do to you more than you fear God, and that’s a problem because as Christians, those who stand with Jesus, relying on his hospitality, and so following his way of love, we’ve got no reason to fear those who might hurt us (Matthew 10:28-29), or the God who judges us (for trashing his world and killing his son).

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:16-19

Hospitality — giving or receiving it — is not just a powerful antidote to hate and fear, but a powerful testimony to our story.

Hospitality is a virtue, because hospitality is an act of love. It’s an antidote to fear — the fear of God, or the fear of the unknown ‘other’ (be they someone not to fear or someone who might ‘hurt’ us). Practicing these virtues will teach us who we are, and continue to make us who we are, people who are like Jesus (who, in his life, kept getting into trouble for eating with people the ‘religious establishment’ didn’t like).

So, where is Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack? Anyone got a lead?

 

 

How not to vote (2): Don’t vote for a plebiscite to protect your religious freedom or freedom of speech

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One of the big arguments I’ve read on opposing the plebiscite is that this is the defining moment in the fight for religious freedom and for freedom of speech. The plebiscite will only be this if we religious people make it so; and especially if we make it a defining fight about Christian religious freedom and our picture of religious freedom is based on the yester-years of Christendom; not on what religious freedom looks like in a pluralist, secular, post-Christian, liberal democracy.

Publicly calling for the plebiscite because it is the last battleground where we might secure religious freedom or defend free speech is a bad idea. Especially when we Christians have also called for a ‘no holds barred’ public conversation where people can deliberately say offensive things. It’s too hard for us to differentiate Christian voices in the public square for an audience who don’t care about nuance, unless we’re going to say remarkably different things. But these ideas are out there now. And they’re going to hurt our witness.

Free speech doesn’t guarantee us a hearing for the Gospel

It’s one thing to have ‘free speech’ — it’s an entirely different thing to have a voice people will listen to. Securing the former at the expense of the latter is a terrible strategy.

We, as Christians, are citizens of God’s Kingdom whose shared task — whose ‘great commission’ — is to preach the Gospel so as to make disciples of Jesus. We shouldn’t be so cheaply sacrificing being heard by our neighbours to ‘secure’ freedom to speak. And that’s what this debate represents — its a chance for us to so stridently argue against our neighbours and how they view the world, and what it means to flourish in it, in the name of free speech that they’ll push us to the margins and not listen to what we have to say, or its a chance to model the sort of listening to others that will, at times, result in us being heard.

Free speech and religious freedom are good things, but I’m not willing to compromise my responsibility to speak with love and understanding, and the free practice of my religion — following a saviour crucified by the empire and the religious establishment — to win a fight for things the secular government can’t actually take away.

We might be given speech freely, but being listened to is something we’ve got to earn. We should be much more interested in having our voice actually heard, than in the freedom to speak loudly and obnoxiously in the public square. Earning a hearing is costly, and our core business, as Christians, is to be people who speak words at our cost. The core of our message is the crucified Word. We know more than anyone else that if speech is worth hearing it is incredibly expensive to the speaker. Free speech is for wimps.

We preach a message that is so at odds with the way people around us see our world, and it produces such cost in itself from the world, that Paul has to keep pointing out to his friends that he’s not ashamed of our crucified king, Jesus, and that his chains are a small price to pay.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:16-17

The secular world isn’t equipped to respond to the Gospel as truth without the Spirit

Paul says these words just before he describes the world we live in — an unrighteous world where people live by the flesh, and they do that because God has given them over to a particular way of seeing things because we humans reject him (Romans 1:18-28).

This theological reality has significant implications for a plebiscite; implications that mean our political campaigning will probably be a waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere, and if our ‘free speech’ isn’t used to proclaim the Gospel, and if the ears that hear it aren’t moved by God’s Spirit, we have little chance of changing what people worship, and so changing how they see the world.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” — Romans 8:5

Barring a miraculous event where more than 50% of Australia suddenly converts to Christianity and so sees the idol of ‘sexual freedom’ through the lens of the Holy Spirit, the only way we’re going to see a majority of Aussies voting against Same Sex Marriage is if we adopt ‘fleshy’ natural arguments, putting forward a bunch of alternative counterfeit gods to shape the way our neighbours vote. We’ll have to rely on arguments that attempt to put freedom, nature and procreation and other ‘created things’ at the heart of someone’s response to the issue when they enter the voting booth for the plebiscite.

Even if a plebiscite does go this way, if people vote against Same Sex Marriage, we’re kidding ourselves if we think majority rules is a win for the free proclamation of the Gospel, especially if it comes at the expense of us wielding worldly power and appealing to people’s idolatrous ‘natural’ vision of the world, or at the expense of Gospel clarity.

Our job is to hold out the Gospel, speaking at our cost. Just like Paul. Come what may. Come whatever changes the world might bring.

Our job is also to earn a hearing for our expensive message. Here’s what Peter says to the early church, a church living without free speech and with the knowledge that they needed to earn the right to be heard if they were going to fulfil the Great Commission:

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

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:11-17

In order to earn a hearing for the Gospel we might first need to use our free speech to redefine what ‘good’ is, rather than seeking to legislate our vision of good

There’s a difference between doing good ourselves and being known for doing it, and seeking to have our laws established as good for others; especially when nobody really shares an understanding of what good is for humans anymore.

The Christian account of what is good for people is tied to a created telos, or purpose, for humanity; something that we might become if we live with a particular vision of good in mind. This isn’t an exclusively Christian thing, Aristotle was pretty big on this idea too. It is, however,  something we’ve lost in our secular age as we’ve collapsed the ‘transcendent’ spiritual reality that people used to assume existed, into a purely immanent material framework for knowing about and experiencing the world.

In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre makes the observation that modern (and post-modern) secular morality has no sense of a purpose or telos outside of material existence for humanity — no good beyond the idea of ‘being what you are’ — so a very different understanding of good is operating in our world, and being legislated for by our secular government. We’ll talk past each other if we don’t understand the secular world we live in now and its ethics.

I think there’s a good case to be made that loving our neighbours means participating in the political realm and seeking their good. But we’ve got to know the moral field has changed. Our task is first to argue for a different kind of good — which we do via the Gospel — and we do this by both proclaiming the Gospel and investing our lives in the persuasive, costly, pursuit of the sort of good we want to legislate for, to demonstrate its goodness. We can’t achieve good in any real sense just pursuing a Christian moral framework for those “ruled by the flesh,” whose sense of good is limited to the natural world and what is, not a divine sense of what ought to be for humans.

Freedom of religion and our use of free speech need to be pointed at addressing this new secular sense of goodness, not trying to defend the moral framework our world is rapidly walking away from. The gap in understanding what good is between us, and our neighbours, is growing fast, but it’s a mistake to think this wider gap means we need to shout louder; rather than meaning we need to do some bridge-building before we listen to and speak to our neighbours. If we don’t realise why things were the way they were, why they’re not anymore, and what has been lost in our shared life as a result of this change; we won’t be able to speak across this gap. What has been lost, fundamentally, is a sense of both a divine being who made humanity, and any sense of a divine good purpose or telos for our humanity. We can’t argue that people should accept this purpose when they no longer accept the premise. And I don’t think Romans 1 leaves us with any grounds to assume that will work.

The world has, for some time, been influenced by a Christian moral vision, or a man-made religious framework that looked a lot like ‘righteousness’ — and that has worked, in some ways, for the good of many (but it hasn’t necessarily been for the ultimate good of many people if that is caught up with knowing and following Jesus). But the world is shifting, and the way to shift it back is not by trying to maintain a particular moral framework, by some use of the law, against the desires of those in our community, but by listening to Paul and Peter — preaching the Gospel, and living it, free from fear of the changes around us and the costs they might involve for us.

The sort of religious persecution we face in Australia is the ultimate #firstworldproblem; people might mock us, scorn us, fine us, arrest us, take our property in lieu of payments of those fines or in law suits, and they’ll push us further to the margins of our society; but they’re highly unlikely to throw us to lions, burn us alive, or stone us for our beliefs.

We’re not meant to live by the sword; we’re meant to live by the Cross. We’re meant to know that the world isn’t a comfortable place that guarantees our freedom. The world isn’t ‘safe’ for us. Somewhat ironically, the same people getting mad at marginal groups who ask for ‘safe spaces’ in our universities and community spaces are now asking for the whole public sphere to be ‘safe’ for us to safely speak. We get safety to speak and believe freely by extending that same protection to others, not by seeking to curtail it.

How not to vote (1): Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite

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In the first post in this election week series I wrote about how I think we should be discharging the responsibility of voting this weekend, now I turn to a specific reason not to base your vote on in this election; and it’s important, and the reasons are many, so it’ll take a few posts (rather than one mega post).

There are many, many, Christian voices telling us that this election is different from every election that has come before it.

We’re told there is lots at stake in our vote; so much at stake, that we might even have to give up on liberal democracy and its values — and the freedoms it should be providing us as a minority group — in order to attempt to enshrine our view as the popular one.

I’ve read a handful of blog posts and opinion pieces now that say Christians must vote for the Liberals or the National Party in order to secure the electoral Holy Grail — a plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage — that will allow us to protect our view of marriage (with the caveat that we believe it really is the best relational unit to enable humans to flourish).

I’ve read a couple that very strongly infer it but then stop short of endorsing a party because it’s not only marriage at stake but our religious freedom, and freedom of speech.

My own denomination stopped short of telling us exactly who to vote for in a public statement, but did state that it is our duty to vote for the definition of marriage to remain unchanged should a plebiscite happen, and further, that churches should be involved in the campaign for this particular result in a hypothetical plebiscite.

I believe if this is your sole reason for voting for the Liberal Party then it is a bad reason to vote for them. There are perhaps many good reasons to vote for them, and many good people standing for election with them.

I believe a plebiscite is a bad idea and will be bad for our country (though not really for the reasons the same sex marriage advocates say it will be), and that it will be bad for our Gospel witness to our country if we actively campaign for a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite. Clearly it’s too late to stop the former…

Further, I believe those pushing for a plebiscite and those arguing against same sex marriage are holding onto a modernist (old fashioned) view of law and Australian society, and this view in an of itself will become increasingly damaging to the Gospel. A modernist Christian approach to the public life of our secular country will lead to fear, disappointment, and discouragement for Christians, and will have us fighting battles on the wrong front. It’ll lead to isolation, and misunderstanding of what Jesus desires, for non-Christians.

We need to reframe the way we think about politics, and more importantly, about being the church: God’s Kingdom of people following King Jesus, as citizens in a post-modern, secular, world.

In a later post, but in order to flag where things are going now, I’ll suggest that if we want people meeting Jesus to be the chief good we stand for in our nation, then pushing for a plebiscite is a bad idea, and so too, potentially, is opposing Same Sex Marriage (though practicing marriage as Christians are called to practice it within our counter-cultural ‘kingdom’ will be an important part of our witness to the chief good).

Life as a Christian in post-modern Australia

Here are a couple of not uncommon scenarios, that are, in fact, real. They’re not just real in an isolated sense either; they’re real in that they happen in Australian communities all over the place.

There’s a Christian who loves the gay community in his small town and is seeking to build relationships with them in order for them to experience the love of Jesus in action, and to hear the Gospel. This Christian meets with this couple who tell him of their great desire to marry as an expression of their freedom to be who they are. This couple might not realise what the Christian perceives as the spiritual reality behind this desire; which is a function of putting sex and marriage as the chief love and aim of this couple’s humanity, a spot we believe belongs ultimately to Jesus; but this desire is real. It is fundamentally as religious as the Christian’s desire to love and worship Jesus in Australia. The Christian wants to hire a public space at the local pub to run a course on Christianity, and is relying on a shared belief in religious freedom, to make that booking a reality.

There’s another Christian family who lives on a street full of friendly people. They talk about politics regularly, and religion sometimes. They love each other, lend a hand, and do life together. One couple on the street are men who wish to marry. The people on the street see the love and commitment these men have for one another, and they see the love the Christian family has for those who live on the street; they struggle to reconcile a consistency between these people who want to live following Jesus and their speech about love and freedom, with what Christians say about the relationship they witness in the house down the road. If the Christian’s rationale for denying these men who already have children the object of their desires is: that it is unnatural, that marriage is for raising and protecting children, or that a God they don’t believe in, or a 2,000 year old book says it is wrong, this fails to adequately address the humanity and experience of the couple on the street in a way that works for their neighbours.

Both these Christians desperately want their neighbours — gay and straight — to hear about Jesus. They both want religious freedom and the freedom to speak about Jesus, but this freedom, in a secular post-modern world of competing truths and differing moral visions, is earned, not an inherent right, it is earned by extending the same freedom to others.

These realities are our post-modern, post-Christian, secular realities. They’re not easy scenarios, but we need to be careful that in our desire to proclaim the Gospel in this context we don’t keep hold of old strategies that didn’t really work. The moral framework of the 1950s may have had a bunch of people living like they were Christians, and ticking a box on the census that indicated a Christian identity, but it didn’t do a great job of forming people as disciples of Jesus. And holding on to the idea that Godly morality will deliver anything for the Gospel, or that resisting a shifting public moral framework is what will win us religious freedom just seems quaint and old fashioned. And it’s entirely the wrong question for Christians to be grappling with.

It is, to borrow an Australian expression “arse about” — people won’t meet Jesus because they’re told not to gay marry, or that gay marriage is wrong; they might, if they meet Jesus and put him at the centre of reality — their own reality, and the cosmic reality of the universe — understand marriage in a different way and approach it differently in their own lives.

What we should be spending our intellectual energy on as Christians is what to do if after they get married these couples, their children, and their neighbours, turn up in church wanting to hear about Jesus. How do they then live in the light of the Gospel?

A plebiscite, whatever the result, and for various reasons that I’ll elaborate on in future posts, denies the complexity of reality in post-modern, post-Christian, secular Australia. It’s a bad idea foisted on us by the very conservative wing of a political party as a last ditch attempt to defend a good thing that our society has walked away from. Marriage as God created it is remarkably good. It is almost all the things people campaigning for it say that it is — but the campaign is falling on deaf ears because the arguments being mounted are the arguments of modernist, nominally Christian, Australia. And most of our neighbours don’t live there any more.

Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite. Vote for three years of government, not 6 months of uncertainty, and an uncertain and by no means final outcome.

Why choosing how to vote just on the basis of a plebiscite is a bad idea

Making the plebiscite your single issue this election is a bad idea. It’s probably not great to tell Christians that it’s their duty to vote a particular way either to secure a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite either — but that’s the subject of one of the next posts.

You’re going to vote to give government to a party you may or may not agree with on a bunch of other moral issues over one issue that will be voted on and legislated in the first six months of government where all the evidence suggests the result is a foregone conclusion?

What about the next 3.5 years? What about all the other defining moral issues of our times? It might be that you can have your cake and eat it to on that front if you believe the Liberal and National Party platforms deal well with these issues, and if their candidates are well equipped to govern with wisdom and virtue. That’s good.

Is that period of government so unimportant, or same sex marriage so important that all other considerations about ethical and good government are irrelevant? Vote for the person in the party who is going to make decisions with the most wisdom and virtue.

Even if it isn’t, a plebiscite in and of itself is a bad thing in our form of democracy and will come back to bite us if we further enshrine a belief that democracy is a combination of populism and majority rules.

A plebiscite in particular is a bad reason to vote for a party; and I believe (though I understand others will differ) that support for same sex marriage is a bad reason to vote against a party in a secular liberal democracy. I’ll unpack this in two subsequent, longer posts, unpacking some of the rationales I’ve heard from Christians in support of a plebiscite.

How to vote as a Christian in 2016 in 11 (not-easy) steps

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There are plenty of ‘Christian’ how to vote guides floating around the internet this week. Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’m aiming for somewhere in the moderate middle. I’m also writing this purely as an individual, not on behalf of anything or anyone. Consider these thoughts appropriately disclaimed, and take from them what you will.  I’ve written my own guides and checklists in the past. Whatever happens next weekend, Australia faces stability that second world countries like England and the US can only dream of. We’re not staring down a #brexit or a Trump. Our major parties agree on most things, and they’re even pretending to disagree about certain policy ideas but promising to ‘check the costings’ after the election and adopt them if they stack up. There are good ‘Christian’ reasons for voting for just about every party on the spectrum from Family First, through the Liberal/Nationals, the Nick Xenophon Team, Labor, and the Greens.

I won’t vote 1 for at least four of those parties (because that would be an invalid vote), but I’ll understand why others would, and I think our country would do better to hear voices from each of these perspectives as we figure out how government should provide a common legislative threshold for a bunch of groups who increasingly disagree with each other on what is ‘good’ for people.

This is really what a liberal democracy is all about; allowing competing interests and minorities to be equally heard and catered for in our shared life as citizens. When we disenfranchise a particular minority in our community because the majority disagrees with them — when we remove some of their liberty to pursue a particular vision of the good life — we run the risk of not being a liberal democracy, but a populist democracy. A populist democracy is not built on the idea of all of us, in our various communities-within-the-community having equal freedom to work out how to live, but on the idea that the majority rules and in the majority ruling, the majority dictates what vision of human flourishing or goodness everyone else has to sign up for.

As Christians we’re told to respect our governments, pray for them, to live such good lives in our world that people know we’re citizens of heaven; and at least one New Testament Christian, Erastus, who Paul commends is a part of the Roman political system an ‘aedile of the city of Corinth’. The important thing is don’t waste your vote just voting for a plebiscite. That’s dumb. And I’ll explain why in parts 2-4 of this series. In fact, I think it’s important that we don’t make our free vote a cheap vote, but that we see voting as something that flows from certain obligations we bear as citizens, and creates new ones.

How to vote as a Christian in 11 steps.

Step 1. Decide what issues are important to you, particularly because they affect your neighbours (and I’d say especially your neighbours in marginalized communities — the poor, the refugees, the widow, the oppressed, children). The Eternity Election Guide is a good one to know what issues are in play.

Step 2. Spend some time familiarising yourself with the platforms of the parties who are fielding representatives in your electorate.

Step 3. Find out about the candidates in your electorate — figure out who displays the most wisdom and character. Who will act virtuously when complex issues outside those of the campaign arise? Who listens? Who do you want representing you? Who do you feel you might be able to speak to about significant issues in your electorate and our country over the next three years? All our parties need people of wisdom and virtue.

Step 4. Pray for wisdom. Pray that when crunch time comes you’ll cast your vote for the good of others, not just for yourself, and not for the leader you like best.

Step 5. Walk into a polling booth with valid ID. Line up. Get your ballot papers for the Lower and Upper Houses. Do this without fear, and do it knowing that whatever the outcome you face relative social stability; which is an amazing privilege that you should thank God for.

Step 6. Vote. Mark your ballot papers appropriately — don’t spoil your vote. Voting is a privilege, and is a thing you do as part of a wider network of relationships. Your vote isn’t free — it brings a bunch of responsibilities with it.

Step 7. Buy a sausage on bread to support the school or church you just voted in. Celebrate the relative global and historical rarity it is to vote so freely.

Step 8. Pray for the person you voted for. Pray for the people you didn’t vote for. Pray for the person who wins your electorate. Give thanks for their commitment to sacrificing their interests for the interests of others. Pray for wisdom.

Step 9. Your participation in a democracy does not start and finish in an election. Spend the next three years working to build relationships with your local member and community; join a political party, speak up on issues that affect your community with wisdom and grace, and write letters (find out the difference between local, state, and federal governments and the issues they govern).

Step 10. You know that issue you care deeply about — that social cause that keeps you up at night. Maybe it’s refugees, or homelessness, or something equally important. Invest in it yourself. Don’t outsource that issue to pollies. If you’re not giving your time or money to this cause — owning it and investing in it, why should they? Your criticism is meaningless, and unethical. If you’re a politician, by nature, you have skin in the game. You’re making big and complex decisions as an adult, at your own cost — at the cost of your family, and increasingly in a stupidly adversarial media, your reputation. Get some skin in the game. Get out there and seek to change the polis as a concerned citizen. That’s political. That’s democratic. Make your vote actually count by putting your time or money where your mouth is. Arrange meetings. Do what your vote obliges you to do. Keep praying for our politicians that they would act with wisdom and sacrificial love. Respect their decisions even when they go against you and your interests. The people you’re criticising from behind your screen have. They’re not perfect. But they’re getting their hands dirty. Maybe you should too…

Step 11. If you’re a person with some wisdom, and a desire to serve, why not get in the political business. Don’t just join a party. Seek pre-selection. Run for office? Or get a job as a public servant? Become part of the process and speak into the process from within. You’ll, of course, have to be prepared to compromise your own personal views for the sake of those who disagree with you whose job it will be for you to represent, serve, or govern for. But be like Erastus — the guy Paul mentions in Romans 16, who’s high up in the government of Corinth and a Christian.

21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

The Presbyterian Church has been getting itself in the news lately.

Darren Middleton is the convener of a committee I’m on called Church & Nation, which has been tasked by the denomination to respond to potential changes to the Australian Marriage Act 1961 which would recognise same sex marriage. He appeared in The Australian recently, championing our committee’s position.

The committee has now issued its proposed ‘solution’ to a potential change for public scrutiny within the church; it’s a recommendation that the General Assembly of Australia declare that no Presbyterian marriage celebrant should solemnise a marriage under the amended Act. Here’s some detail:

“Once the Committee formed an opinion we should no longer conduct marriages under a redefined Marriage Act (1961) our mind then turned on how best that is achieved. Two options were considered.

The first option was to withdraw as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. If the GAA made a decision not to solemnise marriages as a celebrant of the state, it would need to give a written request (to no longer be a recognised denomination for the purpose of marriage) with an appropriate minute to either the Attorney General or his department. As a consequence, the Attorney General would prepare the papers for the Governor General’s consideration at the next Federal Executive Council.

The second option is for the GAA to make a declaration that no minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961). Such a decision is provided for under the existing provisions of Section 47(a) of the Marriage Act (1961) which states nothing in the Marriage Act “…imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

This Committee considered the latter approach as the preferred option as it is simple, clear and avoids any unintended consequences of giving up our status as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. ” — Church and Nation, Marriage Redefinition Proposal

As a flow on from that, the committee is proposing that we establish our own ‘ecclesiastical’ version of Presbyterian Marriage, where we would issue marriage (and divorce) certificates because if our logic is that civil marriage has departed from God’s design we need to provide for those whose conscience would not allow them to enter a civil relationship. The proposal is then, that we would recognise only two types of marriage: those conducted by the Presbyterian Church, and those conducted by a civil celebrant under the Act.

Perhaps the strangest part of this proposal is the form the deliverances put forward by the committee take (to read more on the proposed form of ‘church marriage services’ read the report in full):

Proposed Deliverance:
(6) Declare, if the Marriage Act (1961) is redefined to allow for homosexual unions to be recognised as marriages under the Marriage Act (1961) that no PCA Minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961).
(7) Declare, that only two forms of marriage are recognised as valid Christian marriage — marriage under the Marriage Act (or the equivalent in another country) and marriage under the forms of the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act (or marriage by some other church with a similar arrangement approved by the GAA).
(8) Adopt the following as the regulations which Ministers and Sessions shall follow in conducting a church marriage service.

It won’t be a surprise given the post I wrote when this proposal surfaced that I still think it is a bad idea. There were 8 reasons I thought it was a bad idea then.  But here are the questions that need to be answered by those moving these deliverances at the General Assembly of Australia.
1. Does the GAA actually have jurisdiction in this area if this is, as the proponents say, a “wisdom issue” not a “doctrine issue”?

The GAA has already resolved that the Presbyterian position on marriage, doctrinally driven, is that it is the “lifelong union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others…” This doctrinal position provides the boundaries for ministers, elders, churches, presbyteries and state assemblies to exercise freedom and liberty of conscience within the Presbyterian Church of Australia. To my knowledge no minister disagreeing with the C&N proposal is suggesting we change this doctrinal position.

So this isn’t a doctrine issue so much as a ‘deciding how we might respond to the world outside the church’ issue. The proponents of this cause are offering no official Scriptural support for the position (with the exception of Campbell Markham, a member of the Church & Nation committee but in papers published outside the Church & Nation report). It is being presented as a ‘wise’ move; with an added sense from the committee that our response to this issue must be to put forward a united voice to our community.

In the Basis of Union the GAA has jurisdiction (‘powers legislative, administrative, and judicial, which powers shall be supreme with respect to’) these three areas which might be relevant for this decision:

(a) doctrine of the Church;
(b) worship of the Church;
(c) discipline of the Church;

The proponents are adamant this is not a doctrine issue; and if it is not a doctrine issue, I would argue the GAA has no authority to make a decision like this on a wisdom issue. When the initial proposal was to withdraw as a recognised denomination under the Marriage Act 1961, there was a legal rationale for the GAA to make the decision because the Federal Act recognised the Federal church, but the new proposal is different and reaches well beyond that scope, especially in the attempt to establish eccles

2. Does this proposal, which to date has been officially rejected by one whole state, and been strongly debated in other states, not represent a restriction on the liberty of Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and Office bearers — liberty protected by the Declaratory Statement that forms part of the Scheme of Union?

Given the opposition already expressed from several Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and ordained ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church, and given that this is a ‘wisdom issue’ not a doctrine issue, does it not fail to meet the spirit of the following parts of the Declaratory Statement?

That liberty of opinion is allowed on matters in the subordinate standard not essential to the doctrine therein taught, the Church guarding against the abuse of this liberty to the injury of its unity and peace.

Isn’t it possible that this proposal, given a whole state has almost unanimously indicated at its assembly that it will not be taking this step, or wishes not to, will actually injure the unity and peace of the denomination created by allowing liberty of opinion on non-doctrine matters. From what I gather, a minister who refused to act according to this edict on the basis that they believe it to be outside the scope of the Declaratory Statement would face church discipline.

3. Further to this point, the Declaratory Statement also provides office bearers with a particular understanding of the ‘civil magistrate’ which means we already ‘disclaim… intolerant or persecuting principles’ and frees us from being considered as committed to principles we disagree with as made by the civil magistrate because God is Lord of the conscience. Why does this not render the ‘association with evil’ or the ‘agents of the state’ arguments invalid?

This paragraph seems to me to undo any sense that we should be worried about ‘association with evil’ if we ever act in partnership with the magistrate while they also do things we disagree with (which is the Markham position).

That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his authority and duty in the sphere of religion, as taught in the subordinate standard the church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and Head over all things to the Church, which is His body.” It disclaims, accordingly, intolerant or persecuting principles and does not consider its office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principles inconsistent with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement, declaring in the words of the Confession that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.

4. Is this seriously the best way forward, given the strong disagreement expressed, and these principles?

Is there not a way we can handle this better by simply providing ways for ministers to exercise freedoms (wisdom freedoms, not doctrine freedoms), and act according to their conscience (in not celebrating marriages, or celebrating marriages), rather than making freedom-restricting declarations as a church?

5. When pressed on the GAA’s jurisdiction on this matter, the Convener of Church & Nation, Darren Middleton, suggested this matter falls in the ‘worship’ category of the GAA’s authority. Does this not represent a significant change to ‘worship’ as we understand it in the Presbyterian Church?

If this is a significant redefinition of the scope of our worship, particularly via the introduction of ‘Ecclesiastical Marriage’ and a set order of service for such a marriage, then does this not change the formula that Ministers have sworn to uphold upon ordination, especially:

“I further own the purity of worship practised in this Church, and the Presbyterian government thereof to be founded on the Word of God”

Personally, and because this is not a doctrinal decision, but a wisdom decision, I’m not sure I understand this expansion of the ‘worship’ of the church as the same expression of the ‘purity of worship’ I signed up for, nor do I believe this shift, in particular, is founded on the word of God.

6. Are we recognising the authority of the state when we act as celebrants recognised by the Marriage Act (and acting as agents of the state), or is the state recognising that we act as agents of the church, and recognising our forms of marriage as containing all the legal elements their definition of marriage requires?

The C&N proposal rests strongly on the assumption that being a minister within a recognised denomination involves us acting as agents of the state. We are, under the current Act (which at this point seems unlikely to change beyond the expansion of the relationships the government will recognise), free to marry people according to our rites, and to add whatever requirements we deem fit in our capacity as religious celebrants. We’re also free to refuse any marriage we deem fit, for whatever reason we deem appropriate. That we are ‘agents’ of the state is a contested interpretation of the Act that goes well beyond a relationship built on ‘recognition’ and the church’s historic involvement in marriage.

7. The Church & Nation report specifically downplays the value of contact with the community as a rationale for maintaining a connection with the state. How many marriages per year are being conducted by the people putting forward this proposal — from within the church community or from outside? What sort of geographic or demographic contexts do these views come from? Is this the universal testimony and experience of ministers within our denomination?

“If the church were to withdraw from the Act, no doubt there would be fewer non-Christian couples who sought a church wedding. It should be remembered that the number of couples seeking church weddings is declining quickly. Between 1990 and 2010 the marriage rate dropped by about 20% but the number of couples having a religious wedding dropped by almost 60%.”

This, frankly, is a sloppy argument and disconnected enough from the experience of many ministers, some of whom are arguing most strenuously against the proposal. I’d be interested to know how different proponents of this proposal see the role of the church in evangelism, and how they prioritise any engagement with people in the community.

8. Why are we completely unworried about the perception that our communities are not places that gay couples might come to investigate Jesus? Do we really not care how this stance is perceived by the gay community? Do they not need the Gospel too?

Do we expect any gay-married couples to repent before they come into our gatherings? We’re asking totally the wrong questions in the light of massive social changes. Perception matters. What we should be asking is what we ask a gay-married couple with children who have been living as a family unit to do if one or both of the parents start to follow Jesus.

9. If we believe marriage is a creation ordinance created by promises before witnesses, and that we can create our own version of marriage, why will we only recognise Presbyterian (or other ‘like minded’ Christian marriage), and civil marriage, but not other forms of marriage entered into voluntarily between one man and one woman?

Why limit it? Why one rule for us and the state, and another for others?

What do we do if the local mosque decides to create their own version of marriage, and a couple married in the mosque enter our church community. Do we treat them as married? If not, what does this say about marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’?

10. How does no longer conducting socially recognised marriages for our people, or for people in our community, help us better advocate for God’s good design of marriage, and male and female, in the public square — especially given it is likely to be interpreted as us walking away from a shared social institution (a creation ordinance) no matter how we might like to argue that it is the government walking away from true marriage?

What do we gain in terms of our witness to the world by losing an opportunity to speak into the political process as parties to the process? How are we standing in line with the examples of Esther, Daniel and friends, or Erastus (Romans 16) who were people who worked with truly ‘evil’ regimes in order to bring good outcomes for God’s people, and for others?

11. If we stay recognised under the act, but then ‘declare that no minister, elder, or home missionary in the Presbyterian Church may conduct a marriage under the Act’ are we not still recognised under the Act?

Does this actually achieve any purpose beyond limiting the freedom of our ministers, elders or home missionaries? Does this option actually achieve the stated goal of the Assemblies who asked Church & Nation to make recommendations? Aren’t we, in this option, still operating under the Marriage Act that we’ve decided is so deficient we must not be associated with it? Does this actually go far enough for those who don’t want to be associated with evil?

12, Have we really understood the implications and complications of establishing a ‘form of marriage under the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act’?

A friend who is a Presbyterian Minister and a former family law lawyer has suggested this move is not as clear cut, pastorally, as those advocating it suggests. Having a second definition of marriage in operation outside the law, creates confusion that people will abuse. I can think of multiple scenarios where this confusion might be abused. Let’s not be naive. Jesus says the reason God allows divorce is that people are hard hearted.

Our society is addicted to pornography, there’s a plague of domestic violence going on behind closed doors, do we really want to introduce shades of grey for hard hearts to abuse? Do we really want the uncertainty created by a new construct operating outside the social, common good, creation ordinance of marriage. The proponents may argue that we’re not creating our own version of marriage, but I’m not sure this stacks up. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the law won’t provide the same protection from domestic violence if we do that, but we will, I think, create some uncertainty for those not aware of the law (or whose husbands make them believe they’re under God’s law). Since I’ve posted these questions, another family lawyer who practices in this area has asked me to make it clear that I’m not talking about legal uncertainty in the area of Domestic Violence. I’m worried more about how unhelpful headship theology and wrong views of submission might come together in an institution that is not the social/legal institution shared by those outside the church.

Do we not want people to feel their promises bring immediate obligation both under God and within the parameters of the Family Law Act. Perception and certainty matter. Unregistered de facto relationships are not recognised by law until certain milestones are reached — 2 years of relationship, a child, or a wronged partner having made a ‘substantial contribution’ that requires recognition by the courts. Do we not think people might find opportunities for abuse within that two year period?

13. Do we really, really, want to turn our sessions into marriage and divorce courts and have them tell ministers who they can and can’t marry? 

From the deliverances proposed by C&N:

“The determination that a couple may be married is to be made by the Session of the congregation. Where a minister has a non-congregational ministry, he shall submit the matter to the Session, which has jurisdiction over him, or to a Session related to the couple or his field of ministry. No minister shall proceed with a church marriage which has not been approved by a Session.”

And:

“A person who has been married in a church marriage by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia may approach any Session for a certificate of divorce. The person must provide a copy of the marriage certificate and the Session shall verify the certificate with the Session under whose jurisdiction the marriage was conducted or with the Clerk of Assembly. The Session shall, in the first place, determine if there is any possibility of a reconciliation. In doing so, it must seek to contact the other party to the marriage. If it is satisfied that the marriage has dissolved and that there is no possibility of a reconciliation, or that there are grounds to end the marriage, it shall provide a Certificate of Divorce.”

14. How does any of this even come close to working for our military chaplains?

15. Do we really want to restrict the ‘form’ a wedding takes to following a script from the Public Worship  and Aids to Devotion committee?

From the deliverance again:

“A church marriage service shall be conducted by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia according to the service provided by the Public Worship and Aids to Devotion Committee.”

Is this an expression of trust in ministers to uphold the Formula they’ve signed up to? Or is it changing the nature of the ‘worship’ we’ve signed on to uphold?

16. Given the media reports about this proposal, from the time of the NSW Assembly decision, have framed this as either us running from sinners (not us personally fleeing sexual immorality in the church), or have misunderstood us in the case of the story in the Aus, do we really want to be taking steps that communicate very different things to what we intend, rather than clearly using every wedding to very clearly communicate our own understanding of marriage to those getting married and those witnessing the marriage?

The C&N report says:

“It is important to stress that we are not proposing to withdraw from an amended Marriage Act as a political protest nor for self-protection. If we decide to withdraw, we will do so with sorrow since we will be losing a connection with the wider community which we have valued. We should not imagine the making such a decision will have any impact on the view of Federal Parliament or Australian society…The primary reason for the church to withdraw is that what the Act would call marriage would no longer be identifiable with the institution established by God in creation and described in the Bible.”

The SBS report on the proposal at the NSW assembly says:
“Church seeks to stop performing legal ceremonies to avoid ‘evil’ gay marriage”

The Aus report, featuring Darren Middleton, is not only unclear in that it appears to suggest the decision has already been taken, but seems to make legal persecution an issue, so infers that this is ultimately an act of self-protection:

“Mr Middleton ­believes it is only a matter of time before anti-discrimination laws are wielded as a blunt club against ­religious freedom. “Those who seek to redefine marriage will seek to redefine freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as surely as night follows day,” he said.”

If our very nuanced position is so nuanced that nobody seems to understand it, are we really sure it’s the clearest way to say things that are distinctive and true about marriage?

17. What are we modelling to those in our church communities about how to engage with the world, particularly in response to a changed Marriage Act, but more broadly in response to social change?

If leadership is something we exercise by example is this the example we wish to demonstrate? Are we following the example of Jesus, or did he engage with the laws of Rome to such an extent that he was put to death after going on trial before Pilate and not bending the knee to Caesar?

18. Gold, like marriage, exists before the Fall, and Genesis 2 seems to establish that it has some beauty and value. All nations use it, or money. Our banks use it but are built on greed, which is idolatry. When will we be starting a Presbyterian Bank so that we are not complicit with our banks and their harmful narratives about this created good, which was made, like marriage, to reveal things about the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20)? 

19. Why are we not pursuing the European option?

If we must withdraw, why not ask couples to get a civil marriage and then conduct a religious blessing service? Why open up the idea that not having a civil marriage is wise or somehow more pure? Creating our own version of Presbyterian Marriage, and inviting other churches to do something similar so that we might also recognise their forms of marriage, is confusing and stupid. Should the Baptists adopt a similar model, do we ask transferring members to bring their marriage certificate with them in order to prove their marital status?

20. Does the status quo not already allow all Presbyterian ministers, elders, and home missionaries to act according to the doctrinal position outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.1, which was reaffirmed at the 2013 GAA, and to act according to the principles of freedom of conscience articulated in the Declaratory Statement

Those making this case have argued that unity is important, but seem to fail to realise that what they are advocating for is a limiting of the freedom that makes unity possible (within our doctrinal framework). This is a wisdom issue; we do not create unity by forcing ministers to do things they believe are unwise, or doctrinally problematic, or that come at the cost of Gospel ministry. We do it by encouraging ministers whose consciences do not allow them to act in a particular way to not act that way. Ministers are already, under the Marriage Act, free to not conduct marriages. State Assemblies already have the responsibility for registering ministers as members of the recognised denomination, it is possible, already, for individual ministers to withdraw from the Act.

21. If the status quo does already allow for freedom, and does already prevent the binding of an individual’s conscience, and this is not a doctrine issue, then why pursue unneccessary change that will be misinterpreted by those we are trying to reach with the Gospel and will restrict the freedom of our ministers, thus undermining the Basis of Union?

Ok. So this may be the same as question 4. But apart from the question of whether the GAA actually has jurisdiction in this area, this one is the big one for me. It seems unprecedented to bind the denomination to act in lock step on a wisdom issue.

Overthinking Noah: The Movie

Back when Noah came out on the silver screen I wrote a review for our church website called 13 Things to know about Noah, a little known fact is that before I wrote that piece, I wrote a 7,000 word ‘review’ that never saw the light of day. It’s on TV tonight. It just started. So here, if you want to read 7,000 words, is the unreleased, uncut, extended edition of that post.


There are lots of reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s take on the story of Noah floating around the vast oceans of the Internet. Lots of these reviews, especially those from Christians, aren’t particularly enamoured with the latest Hollywood treatment of a Biblical epic.

Noah is a challenging movie that will make you think about the depth of human sin, how we should relate to each other and our planet, the emotional cost of judgment and justice, the need for salvation, and ultimately it will make you ask questions about who God is, and if the God presented by the movie Noah is the God who steps into the muck of creation, in Jesus, to save us.

The God of Noah is not the God of the Bible, but Noah is a powerful cultural text for us to engage with to shape our thinking.

The God of the Bible is fundamentally interested in the human race, in relationship with humanity – and invests himself into transforming our dark and broken hearts.

This review will consider how we, as Christians, should respond to movies like Noah, and then explore some of the theologically rich themes that Noah prompts us to think about.

It won’t contain much hand wringing – and, spoiler alert, it’s main ‘criticism’ will be that my own worldview leads me to interpret the source material differently and to engage with the worldview presented in the movie critically. Engaged criticism is a perfectly appropriate response to art – provided we’re doing our best to understand the art and engage on its terms – and you can simultaneously appreciate a text and criticise its message.

Art exists to be critiqued and talked about – not to be swallowed as some sort of dogmatic didactic text that tells you what you most certainly think and do.

Noah provides a platform not just for fruitful discussion between Christians and the movie going public, but most importantly for us to reflect on what we believe and why it is important that our God is different to Noah’s. There are a few points where Noah’s theology is particularly interesting discussed in the second half of the post.

This is a long review, but it’s made to be skimmed as much as pored over – because everybody responds to art differently so different parts of this engaging with Noah as a text will appeal to different people.

Note – It’s going to be complicated talking about the four different Noahs here – there’s Noah the movie, the Noah narrative in The Bible, and the two characters – Aronofsky’s Noah, and the Biblical Noah. The movie will be italicised, and those other distinctions will be made as we go, or apparent as a result of context…

NOAH AS ART. NOAH AS TEXT. NOAH AS STORY

I had incredibly low expectations going into the cinema on Monday night – I’ve been strongly affected by previous Aronofsky vehicles like Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, but I’d read and watched so much negativity about this movie that I thought it was going to be a disaster. It wasn’t.

Let me make a couple of important points right up front.

Noah isn’t a Christian movie. From the interviews I’ve read – Aronofsky is a “cultural Jew” who drew on a range of Jewish sources, who also has a Catholic background, and he says he has belief in the Biblical God.

Noah is a movie that makes serious attempts to grapple with big theological questions – but many of the reviews around the web operate as though Noah is a story that belongs to evangelical Christians. Aronofsky chose to make Noah because he grew up with the story – both in the Jewish and Catholic traditions. While we, as Christians, believe the story of Noah only makes sense if it’s read in the light of Jesus (because we think the whole Bible points us to Jesus), the story has a place in Aronofsky’s heritage too.

READING NOAH AS A TEXT

A movie is a “text.” It’s important to read texts on their own terms – to interpret according to genre, to the intention of the author, to review things based on the meaning the text is trying to convey (especially if the author of the text tells us what that is). That’s common courtesy. If you’re going to enter into a dialogue with someone or something, it’s polite to understand the position you’re engaging with.

Plenty of reviews have torn Noah to shreds because it isn’t faithful to the Biblical narrative. This is an understandable criticism, because the story of Noah is one we hold dear, but it assumes that Darren Aronofsky has a responsibility to present a text according to our worldview, rather than his own.

This is an odd view of art and the artist. Or of a text and its author.

It’s also an interesting view of the ownership of an ancient text that belongs to many traditions – including Christians. We can’t assume that there were no storytellers telling the story of Noah and the flood before Moses wrote it down a long time after the fact. While we may believe we have the truest telling of the story that doesn’t give us exclusive rights to tell it or to criticise people for not telling it our way.

Noah is a creative use of a story contained in the Bible to present a worldview, sure, and this worldview is theological – it’s just not about the Christian God because there is no sense that the story is connected to Jesus.

Here’s perhaps the greatest irony in the online outrage about Noah. Harnessing the Noah story for theological agendas outside of God’s agenda is so old that it actually predates Moses writing down the Noah story in Genesis (the story would have been passed by word of mouth until it was written down). Moses wrote about Noah generations after the fact, and by that time just about every culture and religious group from the Ancient Near East had a flood story that interpreted a cataclysmic flood according to their theological convictions (eg the Gilgamesh Epic).

And when it comes to the story of Noah itself – Jewish, Islamic, and Christian interpreters all understand and tell the story of Noah (and indeed the entire Old Testament) differently. We understand that the story of Noah helps us understand the story of Jesus. And we should, as Christians, be thankful that Aronofsky chose the story we’re conversant with, so that we can converse with it. This could easily be Gilgamesh.

You don’t have to like a movie for it to be a good or useful movie. You don’t have to agree with the worldview a movie presents in order to enjoy the movie and think it is worth engaging with. You don’t have to dismiss a movie simply because it challenges your view of the world. If we only want to view and consume art and media that conforms to our own view of the world we’re very quickly signing up for a propaganda campaign.

INTERPRETING TEXTS (LIKE NOAH) WITH THE WRITER IN MIND

If we approach Noah as though Aronofsky’s decision to choose a story we like means it’s our story to control, and he has to tell it the way we like, that’s a pretty interesting and disconnected understanding of how texts work in our world.

Writers have always adapted stories to suit their own purposes, according to their creative agendas to put forward a worldview. That’s what Aronofsky is doing here, he told The Atlantic:

“For me, there’s a big discussion about dominion and stewardship. There’s this contradiction [between the two], some would say, in the Bible, but it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. It can work together. The thing is, we have clearly taken dominion over the planet. We’ve fulfilled that. But have we been good stewards?

Leviticus, also in the Bible, talks about how every seventh year we’re supposed to give the land a rest. When’s the last time our land has gotten a rest? We’re way overdue for that jubilee. And I think that’s what I want. That’s why I made the film. For that reason.”

He told Christianity Today that he is responding to and engaging with the text in a manner consistent with his background.

“Within our tradition, being Jews—a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on the biblical story—there isn’t anything we’re doing that’s out of line or out of sync, but within that, you don’t want to contradict what’s there. In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it.”

I went in to the movie expecting to be confronted with a radical environmental agenda – but Noah critiques the radical environmentalism of its protagonist as much as the pillaging of the environment he confronts.

I left thankful that the Christian God isn’t a standoffish God, like the God of Noah, he doesn’t leave people wondering about how they can be saved, or what he wants them to do, interpreting signs and following dreams – but that he got his hands dirty in order to rescue people, that he revealed himself and his character progressively through the Old Testament and then ultimately in Jesus coming into the world, dying for the world – to fix the broken human condition – in a simultaneous act of judgment and mercy. Aronofsky got that paradox right. We felt the weight of it, from Noah and his family’s perspective, as he travelled the narrative arc of restoration of relationships, broken relationships, punishment, and redemption of relationship that drives the Old Testament. This perspective enabled us to feel the emotions of a human on sidelines watching on, and the weight of being an agent in the arc, while as judgment falls on people no more or less deserving of it than ourselves. It wasn’t that Noah’s heart was any different to those around him, it too was darkened by sin.

I left the movie feeling enriched for having seen it – even with the schlocky rock monster/fallen angels, and the narrative liberties Aronofsky took to further his own agenda – particularly leaving two of Noah’s sons wifeless, and the third with a barren wife (who – spoiler alert – miraculously conceives, which, surprisingly is a nice tie in with the OT narrative and with the miraculous birth of Jesus).

USING NOAH AS A TEXT, AS CHRISTIANS

For Noah to be useful you don’t even have to use it to have conversations with your friends, colleagues, and family who aren’t familiar with the story or who don’t believe in God – Noah is useful because it challenges us to reflect on the God we believe in, the God who takes sin so seriously he wipes out a planet full of people, we need to remember, despite Noah, that the Christian God does not stand back from the disaster of the human condition, but enters the fray to rescue people at great cost to himself.

The Christian God is not the God of Noah. But the God of Noah will help us think about who the true God is, and who we are as followers of the true God.

People won’t take us seriously as Christians – people who are defined by our understanding of a significant text – if we continue to read culture and media with an essentially illiterate interpretive approach. We can’t interpret cultural texts from other worldviews while ignoring things like genre (this is a Hollywood movie from an art house director, trying his hand at an epic, not a Christian puff piece) and context (the author of this piece is not claiming to present your views or your understanding of the story of Noah). Too many Christian reviews floating around the web don’t make those two connections.

We won’t just look disengaged from the people and culture around us, but we will be disengaged if we continue act as the entitled kid in the playground who wants the world addressed on our own terms and who will take our ball and go home if it isn’t.

We rightly get annoyed when people bring a foreign interpretive approach to our text – the Bible – and tell us what we should think… and we could rightly get annoyed if Noah was presented as an accurate rendition of the Biblical story… but it’s not. Noah is a movie. It’s based on a wide variety of source texts including the extra-Biblical Book of Enoch and the Midrashic interpretive traditions (where the crazy rock creatures, The Watchers come from – though their rockiness is an invention). Aronofsky’s presentation of the story, while it takes certain liberties with the narrative, is incredibly theologically rich, and while its aesthetic won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, I left the cinema feeling confronted about the depths of human sinfulness, challenged to think about how we should be looking after God’s creation, and struggling with the enormity of God’s judgment and its cost.

If we want to follow the examples of the writers of the Bible – and of Jesus who became a human medium to step into the muck of creation to communicate God’s rescue plan to us – then we need to be prepared to engage with the culture around us, and the worldviews that we don’t agree with, in order to connect the Gospel with the world we live in.

Engaging with, critiquing, and rewriting secular texts and stories in order to present God’s plan of salvation is also as old as the Old Testament. The Bible is full of appropriations of Ancient Near Eastern traditions corrected to point people to the true and living God – we don’t have any textual evidence to suggest that Egyptian sages got up in arms about the inclusion of Egyptian proverbs in Solomon’s compendium of Proverbs that are presented in a framework that tells people that true wisdom comes from fearing Israel’s God. So why are we indignant when people use our source material?

ENGAGING WITH NOAH’S THEOLOGY

This is a telling of the Noah story worth engaging with, not just dismissing, even though it’s a problematic telling of the story (partly just because of the rock monsters). It is richly presented, with sensitivity to the array of source material and some nice narrative driven imagination around some of the details we’re not given in the narrative – like where the wood came from, how God called the animals to the ark, and how they got the animals not to kill each other on the ark) – especially around the Eden motif. It explores big themes surrounding who God is, who we are, what justice, mercy, and righteousness look like, and ethics, especially environmental ethics.

Noah gets plenty of stuff wrong, and it takes liberties with the Biblical story to present another story – but it is a theologically rich and challenging story that uses Biblical themes in a stimulating way. Here are some of the themes I particularly enjoyed… Just beware, this contains serious spoilers…

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “BE A (HU)MAN?”

The question of what it means to “be a man,” or be human, is one of the interesting threads carrying the narrative, and, in a nice homage to chiastic Jewish story telling (a chiasm is like a hamburger layers that are paired around other layers on the inside) – it opens and closes the narrative. The question is posed at the beginning and only answered properly at the end. The story starts with Noah’s dad sitting Noah down for the chat, to tell him about humanity’s proper place in God’s world. Only the chat is interrupted when (spoiler alert) the film’s villain caves Noah’s dad’s head in while his shocked son looks on from a hiding spot behind a rock. Noah’s dad is killed in the name of pillaging the planet by Tubal-Cain. As a result, Noah is left with no real understanding of humanity’s place in creation, and a serious chip on the shoulder when it comes to protecting the environment.

Flash forward a few years and he won’t even let his son pick a flower, he murders three men for killing one dog, and he has a theological conviction that animals are innocent and humans are evil and corrupt. He has one shaky anthropology.

Even Tubal-Cain knows humans are made in God’s image, though he thinks this means exercising dominion and trashing the place in pursuit of power. When Noah’s son Ham sticks a knife into his armpit, killing him, Tubal-Cain whispers “now you are a man.” This is an understanding of humanity built on the foundation of our post-Eden brokenness, and a weird picture of God as capricious, with no real connection to our created role.

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

So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

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

That’s what we were meant to be – but human nature in Noah’s day – as described in Genesis 6 – is a pretty messed up.

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” – Genesis 6:5

This is a theme Aronofsky and his co-writer say they were exploring. Deliberately.

“What intrigued me and Ari was that Noah is the fourth story in the Bible. You have creation, original sin, the first murder, and then it jumps forward and everything’s terrible, and God wants to start over again. What was clear to us was that Noah is a descendant of original sin. There are three sons, and he’s a descendant of Seth, so his ancestors are Adam and Eve, so he has that inside him. That brought to us this weird question: Why restart if that possibility [of being sinful] is still there? Man still has the possibility of being tempted.

AH: Especially because you finish reading Noah and all the wicked people have been wiped out, and one family survived, and you flip the page and it’s Babel. So it immediately raises the question, what does that mean? If you look at the context of the story within the Bible, what is that trying to say about the sinfulness and wickedness within us? That was what we had to explore, not the good guys and the bad guys, but both the good and the bad within us.”

There’s a great scene in the movie extrapolating what happened between Cain and Abel into modern times, modern killing – the darkness of the human heart is universal. This movie nails sin. There’s another great scene where Noah is in the middle of a clamouring, angry, mob and he sees a picture of himself participating in the depravity. He’s struck by the realisation that he’s evil too. As a result he becomes committed to wiping humanity out and giving the animals a fresh start. He tells the creation story to his family while they’re locked in the boat – and he stops before the creation of man, suggesting that’s where God hit perfection, the pinnacle, paradise – with man something of an afterthought that quickly trashed the joint. This is fiction – it’s not in the Bible. It’s also not the view the movie presents (even though it is presented in the movie). The movie demonstrates this is an inaccurate view. We’re meant to get that Noah is getting it wrong.

In the Bible it’s when God creates man that the world is “very good” not just “good,” in the Bible it’s clear that human life is meant to be preserved by the ark (there are more animals that are good for eating taken on board than the other types of animals). We’re meant to get that Noah is wrong about this, in the movie, that it’s the result of Noah’s theologically broken understanding of humanity’s place in the world. We’re meant to get this when the women in his life speak reason, compassion, and mercy to him.  We’re meant to get this when we see his understanding of humanity is righted as he first confronts his heart’s capacity for love when he meets his new twin granddaughters. We’re meant to get it when at the end of movie (and the closing of the chiasm) he tells his children and grandchildren that being human means being God’s image bearers, stewarding creation.

Some people have suggested that we’re meant to see Noah rejecting the harsh approach of ‘the Creator’ in his love-fuelled epiphany, but we’ve earlier been told that God doesn’t speak in the way Noah keeps expecting him to – he speaks in “a way we will understand” – he speaks through people, circumstances, and through qualities that are in line with his plans and character. Every time Noah is about to do something stupid, or things look dire, he’s delivered by providential timing. Even if he’s an oblivious idiot, hell-bent on self-destruction the self-destruction is interrupted by circumstances – like the ark crashing into the mountain. Though he feels like he’s left stranded and unaware of what God wants, he is riding the waves of God’s plan from start to finish. The God of Noah is bigger than the characters in the movie appreciate.

What’s nice about this theme is that it lays a platform for Christians to talk about what it means to be human. It gives us a chance to point to Jesus, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) who demonstrates what sacrificial love for God and for others looks like and renews our humanity by giving us the changed hearts the Old Testament promises and anticipates. The only way out of the darkness of our hearts is to turn to God, we can’t just love our way out of trouble and into goodness. Noah’s quest to save humanity is ultimately doomed – as we see in the very next chapter of the Bible. It’s only when God steps in to the picture that things can change.

WHAT IS THE ‘GOOD LIFE’ IN GOD’S WORLD? AND HOW DO WE KNOW?

Every pre-flood character is operating with a shaky understanding of humanity’s relationship to God and, as a result, in how to live in the world and care for the environment. The champions of the film’s two human sides – the descendants of Cain (Tubal-Cain) and of Seth (Noah) have competing ideas from competing extremes on the spectrum.

Tubal-Cain thinks following God – as an image-bearer – means digging up all the precious resources to dominate the planet.

Noah thinks the environment is more important than human life and that it’s right to wipe out humans in order to give the environment a second chance.

Their views are clearly flawed. It’s not just left up to us, the audience, to figure that out. The idea that it is morally good to kill two newborn children so that humanity can die out is clearly repugnant, as is the idea that having dominion means trashing the planet. Adam and Eve were given a job in the Garden of Eden – to cultivate and keep the garden, presumably to extend its amazing life-giving presence over the whole planet. They were also to be fruitful and multiply. This is the tension – between dominion and stewardship – that drove Aronofsky to make the movie. He’s not an environmental crazy person just because his protaganist is, and Noah’s views change and grow through the movie.

Noah is not the environmental propaganda film some have painted it to be.

And even its call to care for the environment has theological merit. Those who would follow the God of the Bible have a responsibility to care for the creation God left us to operate in. From the preceding chapters in the Biblical narrative it is clear that humans had an environmental responsibility, and if they are being “only evil all the time” you can be certain this includes mistreating the environment.

Both Noah and Tubal-Cain have wrong views of man, of the world and of God. Both struggle to figure out how God reveals himself, and are given to looking for mystical dreams, drug induced revelation, or the sky splitting open, to figure out what God wants of them. Both expect a God who is so distant he is essentially absent. Their creator is essentially a ‘demiurge’ – a small god who exists within and is confined by creation, a small and mechanistic deity that is only present if he is obvious. The god Noah and Tubal-Cain are looking for is the sort of god that the New Atheists think Christians follow, and the sort of God they’d stand up and take notice of if he’d only fling lightning bolts at their heads or rearrange the stars to write them a message.

In a bit of a contradiction, Noah’s God is both distant and about to step in with an apocalyptic intervention because he’s not happy with what’s happening in his world. This makes Noah’s God seem petty and vindictive. Aloof but angry. The Watchers – the crazy rock monsters  – don’t help here, their inclusion paints Noah’s god as petty and small-minded. It’s only Methuselah – and later Noah’s wife, Naameh, and daughter-in-law, Na-El – who have a view of God working through and authoring events, who expect God to be operating and revealing himself through the ordinary and mundane – “speaking to people in a way they will understand” as Methuselah puts it. It’s these three who come closest to seeing God operating relationally through judgment and mercy – not being a detached monster. Noah gets there in the end. But the journey isn’t pretty.

Noah’s descent into craziness (in the film) involves a movement from complete trust in God’s providence (he tells Ham that God will provide the wife he desires as he provided the wood for the ark – in a nice hat tip to Abraham’s answer to Isaac when he asks where the sheep to be sacrificed is a little later on), to an inability to recognise that providence even when it appears miraculously through the pregnancy of his apparently barren daughter in law. It’s clear that Noah stops relating to, and listening to God, when he stops seeing his provision of salvation as a form of revelation of his plan.

It’s only when we see God as very (infinitely) big, and outside of creation – supplying life and breath and being to the universe (Acts 17), while also being very (omnipotently and omnipresently) engaged with what’s going on in the world, especially with what’s going on in the human heart, that we can understand how God might be working in our lives without us noticing, or without us hearing the blaring trumpets in the sky heralding his every move.

It’s only when we see God as deeply invested in the fate of humanity and the planet that we can even begin to appreciate the motivations behind the flood, and Noah goes some way towards asking and answering that question in a real way.

GOD’S DEEP INVESTMENT INTO HUMANITY IS DISPLAYED MOST VIVIDLY AT THE CROSS OF JESUS.

The good life is a life connected to God, the giver of life. It’s a life lived in the light of his revelation to us, in a relationship with him. God is not distant. The Christian God is the God who comes near. The God who speaks. Who speaks to create. Who speaks to reveal. Who spoke to Noah (in the book version) with detailed instructions. Who speaks through texts people understand, using genres they can engage with – and who then reveals himself in Jesus, his word made flesh (John 1:1). The Christian God is not petty, small-minded, and vindictive, he doesn’t stand back from the problem of sin, but gets involved. He was prepared to become nothing in the person of Jesus, prepared to become human, prepared to sacrifice his son to save the world (which makes the horror Noah feels at that idea even more poignant – God went to lengths we can’t imagine). Jesus also provides the guide to living the good life – a life lived for the sake of others, to reconnect them with God. We know what the good life is, because we see it in Jesus – the true image bearer.

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

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” – Philippians 2:5-8

THE DEPTH OF SIN AND COST OF JUDGMENT: BOTH JUSTICE AND MERCY

One thing the movie Noah belts out of the park is the picture of the human condition. I don’t think I’ve seen any movie that deliberately captures the darkness of the human heart like this one does, or that thinks a massive reboot of the human race is a fathomable response to this sort of darkness, the movie is sympathetic to the cost involved in carrying out judgment like this. The anguish on Noah’s face as people – even evil people – are erased from the earth and his dejected response when they finally hit land is a really helpful picture of how broken humans should respond to God’s judgment when we’re, through no merit of our own, recipients of his saving mercy. We should be horrified by the fruits of sin – the death it brings into the world, and by the cost of sin.

This part of The Atlantic’s interview with Aronofsky is profound.

“We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet.

And so it was so bad that He decides that He is going to destroy everything and destroy this creation. So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.

Maybe what made Noah righteous was that he mirrored, in some sense, God’s own heart about what was happening?

Sure. That’s another way of looking at it. And we completely connected that. Because really, Noah just follows whatever God tells him to do. So that led us to believe that maybe they were aligned, emotionally, you know? And that paid off for us when you get to the end of the story and [Noah] gets drunk… What do we do with this? How do we connect this with this understanding? For me, it was obvious that it was connected to survivor’s guilt or some kind of guilt about doing something wrong.” 

I spent most of the latter half of the movie pretty angry with Aronofsky’s Noah, because he didn’t seem to have any understanding of mercy whatsoever. This was a fruit of his anaemic understanding of humanity (as something like a cancer), a result of a poor understanding of God (as someone distant and dispassionate) and of creation (as paradise ruined and innocence lost). This cold-hearted pig-headed lack of mercy made me want the story to end with a twist, where Noah died and everyone lived happily ever after, because that seemed the just response for people having to put up with Noah on the ark for so long. But in a nice picture of sacrificial love – it’s the daughter in law who reaches out to Noah to redeem him, to bring him back from the wine-addled abyss he found himself in. The daughter in law who he had terrorised, whose children he held at knife point in his pursuit of justice. She restores Noah’s humanity, she mends his broken understanding of how God might reveal himself, and she invites him to come back home because God is a “God of justice, mercy, and second chances.”

Because Noah treats sin as a big deal, it treats salvation as a big deal, and as a result, sees the cost of justice and salvation being carried out simultaneously as carrying an incredibly heavy toll. Noah is at the point of emotional breakdown on the ark, just as the last sight of land disappears – and he has the breakdown when they finally land. Pursuing justice and offering merciful salvation at the same time is costly.

PARADISE LOST – THE RETURN TO EDEN

My favourite motif in the movie is the use of Eden. The theme of paradise lost, and seeing Noah’s journey as an effort to recreate Eden, an effort that everyone – from Aronofsky in his interviews to Noah in his character – knows is doomed to fail because of the mess in the human heart.

Eden becomes a vehicle for the film’s environmental agenda. Noah’s Eden is a place where humans live in harmony with nature – stewarding it. Where humanity in some sense, exists for the garden, not the garden for humanity. Noah spends a significant part of the movie believing that humans should not be present in the garden at all. Pushing us a few steps towards a return to the environmental paradise is the ethical goal, or end, of the text.

Aronofsky does some really fun stuff with Eden. The ark is made from wood from a forest created by a seed from Eden that Methuselah has carried around with him waiting for the right time. When the forest springs up, five waterways appear and spread around the planet, inviting the animals to the ark – back to Eden. There is certainly an element of ‘recreation’ going on in the Noah story in the Bible. Noah is a new Adam. Adam named the animals and ruled over them, Noah protects the animals carrying them in an Edenic sort of boat – a wooden replica of Eden’s ‘tree of life’ – delivering salvation in the midst of God’s judgment. There’s a nice sensitivity in Noah to the place of Eden in the Old Testament. Eden imagery appears everywhere in the Old Testament – in prophecies about what it to come when God restores hearts, and in the interior design of the Temple.

What really interests me is that the Bible already has a concept for a seed surviving out of Eden. And it’s not about the trees. It’s about humanity. We lose this a little bit in most of our English translations – but in Genesis 3:15, where God provides a glimmer of hope about the future of humanity and the future of Satan amidst the cursing and expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden, there’s the launch of a thread that works its way through the Bible all the way to Jesus – there’s a seed that we follow from here on in. Passed on from generation to generation – it’s a theme in Genesis. The NASB chooses to use the literal “seed” rather than offspring – here’s what it says:

“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” – Genesis 3:15, NASB

Interestingly, Jewish and Christian interpreters read this seed line very differently. For Christians, it’s a very early promise that God will intervene with a messiah. It’s a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness of Genesis 3 – the breaking of our hearts and the breakdown of our created relationship with the Creator.

If Aronofsky’s Noah understood the seed of Eden as human he’d have had a very different view about the purpose of the ark (one that was more consistent with the Biblical narrative). And it’s a helpful way to engage with the film’s environmental agenda – it helps us order the relationship between humanity and creation rightly. We are to steward creation so that it helps us do what we were created to do – exercise dominion and carry God’s image around his creation. As Christians, who are people being recreated in the image of Jesus, our divine mandate looks more like the Great Commission – we’re to steward creation in a way that helps us help people reconnect with God through Jesus. Compare Genesis 1:28 with Matthew 28:19-20…

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” – Genesis 1:28

We’re told to fill the earth with God’s image bearers in Genesis 1. And then in Matthew we’re told to make disciples – people being transformed into the image of Jesus, all over the world…

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20

We’re to “subdue the world” in this new commission by connecting them with Jesus and the Creator (baptising them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and teaching people to obey Jesus’ commands – commands Jesus sums up a few chapters earlier in Matthew. This is all about the restoration of our humanity and the restoration of our relationship with the Creator.

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Loving God with all our hearts is something the Old Testament demonstrates is impossible – it’s the complete opposite to God’s diagnosis of the human heart just before the flood (Genesis 6:5), and this restoration of human heart’s is also tied to the restoration of the planet. This is what Christianity offers to the environmental agenda – hope that when the world is one day populated only by people with transformed hearts, it too will be restored.

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” – Romans 8:19-23

While this waiting is going on, God is transforming hearts and transforming people into a new image – the image of Jesus – by his Spirit.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. – Romans 8:28-30

God is profoundly interested in this “seed” from Eden continuing, and coming back to what it was like in Eden, being restored to Eden like status – a relationship with the Creator.

In order to return humanity to Eden, God does use something like the tree of life, a new wooden vessel where salvation and judgment are played out. The cross. Where Jesus, the true seed of Adam – the true Adam. God’s image made flesh. Is crucified. Nailed to a tree that takes our curse and brings life in an amazing exchange. The cross is Noah’s Ark on steroids. It’s capable of carrying any human who turns to God back to Eden. Back to paradise. It shows the value God places on human life, the cost he’s prepared to pay in order to be the God of justice, mercy, and second chances.

A Jewish understanding of God as presented in Noah misses this vital piece of the picture – the vital piece where God steps in to the world, where God is not absent, still. We are not waiting for the Messiah to come. We are living in 2014AD. Counting the years since Jesus arrived. Our God is not silent and distant. He is not able to be understood as capricious or vindictive. He knows the cost of justice because he paid the price.

Aronofsky’s Noah prompted me to think through this aspect of God’s character, and God’s desire for us to steward creation well in order to connect people with Jesus, the giver of life, through the tree of life – the cross. If he’d told the story my way, that would’ve been amazing. I’d love for Darren Aronofsky to meet Jesus, and to understand the Noah story through his worldview, but in the mean time I’ll settle for appreciating the care and sensitivity he put in to telling his version of the story in a rich way.

The Persecution Complex: Everyone has a ‘religious’ agenda, even the secularists

There is always an agenda.

Every person has one. Every group. Every ideology. Mostly every person. But sometimes we can cobble together around an object of common love and push a shared agenda. Usually in doing that there’s a bunch of compromise. So Catholics Anglicans, and even Muslims can come together for certain moral causes while sharing very different — fundamentally different — reasons for doing so. And the union at that point is only as good as the sharing of ‘the agenda’…

This week the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales is in the news because they appear to be worried about ‘the homosexual agenda’ (at least that’s how the story frames it, and they can frame it that way because we Presbyterians used the words “the homosexual agenda”). The lede of this story proclaims:

“Sydney’s most expensive private school has asked the Presbyterian Church for advice on what the church describes as the “homosexual agenda”, in the event that a same-sex couple wanted to enrol their child at the school.”

When I hear the words “the homosexual agenda,” I picture a secret cabal that programs the universal homosexual response to every issue with the end goal of making everybody gay; but I fear the setters of the “gay agenda” may sometimes be as at odds with members of the gay community as the Australian Christian Lobby are with some Christians; and I’d rather listen to what people are asking for and figure out why than simply label every issue someone raises as part of a bigger agenda (though I admit things almost always are part of some bigger agenda).

As an aside, before the story about Scots falls too far into the background — I find it profound that a school that charges more than $30,000 a year is more worried about homosexuality than greed, or the idolatry of education…

I’ve always found it odd when Christians speak of a ‘gay agenda’ — not because I don’t think there are groups out there who have united around a common cause — but because it seems an easy way to not listen to people, or to dismiss a ‘counter-agenda’ simply on the basis of an ad hominem style “well, we know they are simply representing their own interest” dismissal. There are groups like GLAAD and Australian Marriage Equality who are out there trying to further ‘an’ agenda, just as there’s a National LGBTI Health Alliance. These groups definitely advocate particular ‘agendas’ for the sake of their community. And probably with good reason. I’m not sure we can ever treat agendas as totally homogenous (even for individuals, because we often have agendas that compete for our time and attention, and with each other in contradictory ways).

We seem to use ‘agenda’ as a pejorative — a reason not to listen — especially if it competes with our own agenda (though because an agenda is a thing we treat as a negative we always want to pretend we are unbiased, either with no agenda or an agenda purely for the common good). That a position is put forward by people with ‘agendas’ is an odd reason to push back rather than listen. And an even worse reason to exclude their position from a place in the metaphorical ‘public table’… That we disagree with an agenda is also not a great reason to exclude it from this public table unless we can show it isn’t for the common good, or rather, that it causes harm. So. For example. We get enough people behind agendas that rule out murder or other common objects that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ — and that would rule out pro-murder agenda should it ever appear on the scene. And that’s good. It’s also why the worst thing you can do to an alternative agenda is suggest that it is actually harmful (and that’s the strategy people are adopting over and over again to silence the church).

Perhaps the ‘homosexual agenda’ is simply an attempt by a community within our civil society to provide a better life for homosexual people according to a particular vision of what it looks like for people to thrive or flourish. It’s not nefarious or secret. Even if there are people setting some sort of agenda in meetings somewhere. It’s consistent with a view of the world and the human person and what ‘good’ is. And so agendas aren’t just to be dismissed out of hand because we have a different view. We have to work out how to live at peace with one another. There’s another constructive reason I think we should listen to people that I’ll outline below that lines up with our ‘Christian agenda’… Agendas are everywhere. But to speak of ‘agendas’ as though they’re the product of some cabal somewhere rather than just a product of our humanity is odd, and an exercise in ‘othering’ rather than listening. We all have agendas. There’s a homosexual agenda to provide better health and happiness for homosexual people (including to push for marriage/social inclusion/safety for LGBTIQA people). There’s also a ‘queer’ agenda (articulated quite directly in various places by Roz Ward from Safe Schools) that would like sexual fluidity to be the norm; for us all to be queer, which rather undermines the idea that to be queer is to be different; it is possible that this agenda might say some interesting and valuable things that we should listen to in order to understand the queer community too…

We can’t be naive about agendas that are operating around us. But nor is an ‘agenda’ in and of itself a bad thing, and a secular society probably has the responsibility to accommodate as many competing and conflicting agendas as possible.

Our agendas are set by our worship

Let’s try replacing the idea of an agenda with the idea of all of us being homo liturgicus — creatures who worship.

Let’s assume that each of us worships something, and that this object of worship orients our hearts, minds, and lives. That it captures our imaginations and our desires. Let’s assume our worship supplies our agenda. Whoever we are. We’re pushed out into the world with an ‘agenda’ — a picture of human flourishing; first for ourselves, as worshippers, but then for others, as image bearers of our objects of worship who are living breathing ambassadors of our chosen deity. Let’s also assume that most of us think love for other things is ordered by our love for the thing we love ultimately. That all of us order our love, and understand love, based on this object of worship. So the thing that is first in my heart defines not just how I love other things or people in my life but what I think love looks like when I direct it to them. If I love money above all else, then that frames how I treat money, but it also means I show love for others by giving them money, or not taking money from them unfairly. If I love my sexuality above all else, if my fundamental desire is for sex and freedom to pursue sex and identity where I see fit, then the way I love others involves either sex (drawing them in to a shared act of worship) or fighting for their sexual freedom. That’s the gay agenda. Or one of them.

Here’s how James K.A Smith puts it in You Are What You Love:

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere.

To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional. Even a writer like David Foster Wallace, who had no theological agenda, recognized that to be human is to worship.

 

Every idol has an agenda. There is no space that contains people that is a ‘worship free’ zone. Every time we gather at a table with others, each person’s agenda, in some way, is driven by whatever they view as ‘ultimate’ — the ultimate picture of the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal shared way of life.

Truly ‘secular’ space isn’t freed from religion and thus ‘neutral’ — it allows space for these competing agendas, and works toward a ‘common’ good. Often these agendas will have very different visions of good — but sometimes they’ll dovetail; like in the case of Roz Ward whose (self acknowledged) Marxist agenda saw her views align with others in the LGBTIQA community, and educators, who want to make schools safer for LGBTIQA students. But though Ward is a member of the LGBTIQA community her particular Marxist/Queer agenda is at odds with other members of the ‘T’ community like Catherine McGregor, who says she believes strongly that gender being a binary thing is important or she wouldn’t have transitioned… We always line our agendas up with others for convenience, but that allegience will only take us so far if we don’t share a common object of worship (not just love).

We shouldn’t ‘fear’ agendas, or try to silence them simply because our ‘agenda’ may happen to be true, or simply because we believe it leads to good things, and other view. True secularism is about figuring out how competing agendas — competing visions of human flourishing (and personal flourishing) — views including our own — might exist side by side. But we should be prepared, as a society, to discern what agendas involve harm, and that might bring many agendas together, and we should, as Christians, consider how much it is possible for us to share agendas — or platforms — with other idolatrous views in order to respond to a particular idolatrous view as though the harms can be easily ordered simply because some moral visions line up with our own.

 

Why we should listen to, and how we should live alongside, other agendas

It has always interested me that Paul, as a faithful Jew who no doubt loved Deuteronomy 7 and its call to purity from idols, didn’t walk through Athens with a sledgehammer, but with open eyes and ears. And that when he speaks, he speaks in a way that articulates the Gospel as the answer to the imagination and desire of the Athenians, and the Athenian Agenda. I think this is because he’s carrying out the Christian agenda — which is no less than the Deuteronomic agenda to topple idols. But the thing that topples idols is a toppling of stone hearts formed by the worship stone idols, that comes from the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who comes via Jesus. Make no mistake. Paul topples the idols of Athens in the hearts of those who turn to God. But he’s happy not to topple them for anyone else. He’s happy to be another voice in the marketplace of ideas and in the courtroom that decides which gods have legitimacy — the areopagus.

Our agenda, as Christians, is clear. It’s to worship God, and in doing so, to bear his image. To glorify him. And the result of doing that faithfully looks, I think, a lot like what we are re-created to do as Christians. Our new cultural mandate. The Great Commission. This sets the agenda for us.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

We’re Great Commission people; sent out into a world full of worshippers who are being formed into the image of their idols. Discipled by counter-liturgies. Pursuing counter-agendas.

One way we fulfil the great commission is, I think, by listening well to the world we live in and seeing the universal human desires at the heart of people’s agendas — seeing where God’s design is being distorted by idolatry so that we can invite people to rediscover the telos — the purpose and fulfilment — of that desire in having their loves and desires ordered around Jesus. Listening and understanding is also, in itself, an act of love. Its a way that we can show people we care; that we want to understand their wants and needs, and that we want to live at piece not conscript their desires and imaginations in order to force a conversion. Attempting to make people live as though they worship God isn’t our job — and trying to do that is bound to be frustrated anyway given that Romans 1 says people love and worship what they love and worship because God has given their thoughts and desires over to their idolatry.

Instead of dismissing the ‘homosexual agenda’ perhaps we should listen to what objects of common good those pushing that agenda are pushing for — like more safety for kids who don’t fit the norm — but we should also listen for the desire for love, intimacy, and a sense of satisfying identity that people are craving so that we can connect those desires with where God designed them to be ultimately fulfilled. Not in sex. But in an intimate relationship with our creator.

And listening informs our speech. We aren’t called to speak to caricatures, but to people. People who worship. And our message must be one that replaces a false god with the real one; or rather; God does away with these idols via our preaching with what Thomas Chalmers calls The Expulsive Power of a New Affection; a sermon in which he points out our task is not simply to fill an empty space in a person’s heart with a new God, but to replace an old object of worship with a new, better, more complete, God.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…”

This act of ‘encountering the charm’ and the ‘pleasure’ in order to dissipate them means listening well to what is driving other agendas, and observing what they do and don’t deliver; not simply dismissing them. In a secular world it means (so long as we have a place at the table) finding a place at the table for agendas we disagree with even when we believe all such idolatry leads to eternal harm; because we have no tool to fight idolatry but the Gospel. Silencing or dismissing other agendas rather than generously engaging with the people behind them isn’t love. Everyone has an agenda. Maybe we should start being more open about our own, and more worried about who we’re worshipping and what we’re seen to be worshipping if we make morality or natural law our tool for taking down idols — not the Gospel of Jesus.

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

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

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

 

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.

A letter to Queensland’s Education Minister about Religious Instruction in schools (from an RI teacher)

There are some stories in the local and national press today where some questions are being raised about the place of Religious Instruction in secular schools. I’ve recently discovered that I really enjoy teaching RI in schools. The controversy surrounds this ‘offending’ paragraph in some of the material that Prostestant RI teachers in Queensland (I’m one of these) are given to help us prepare and teach lessons in schools.

rimaterial

I thought this letter might encourage other teachers, and parents, to get in touch with Kate Jones, the Minister for Education (I emailed education@ministerial.qld.gov.au, and, if email conventions haven’t changed from my time in the secular workforce, what might be her direct email address). I reckon it’d be terrific if the department heard from a lot of teachers that RI experiences in our schools are diverse, but come from people who are genuinely thoughtful, and genuinely seeking the good of the children we’re lucky to teach. Also, I hate putting the ‘ordained’ and ‘rev’ bit in because I don’t think it should make any difference, and perhaps I over think this a little, but on balance I thought it might be more helpful not less, but I think if lots of non ‘ordained’ people from the priesthood of all believers were also to write, then that would be fantastic.

Dear The Hon Kate Jones MP,

I read a couple of stories in the media today about how RI classes in our schools – classes where parents have opted in because they identify with a particular religious view (in this case Protestant Christianity) – have involved volunteers teaching kids about sin (or will involve, in lesson 12 of the material from Connect). I started teaching RI at <REDACTED> State School about six weeks ago. I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, we have a new church that started in South Bank and connecting with the local school is important to us as we seek to love and serve our community by building a relationship of trust with them. Part of this means being committed to sharing what we believe is ‘good news’ – the best news – for people. That God is real, and that he loves us even when we stuff up. Part of this also means facing hard questions from kids who are thinking through spiritual realities while they’re at school (which is perhaps a legitimate educational activity?). We definitely don’t take access to our schools for granted, and are incredibly thankful for the invitation to participate in the life of our community; nor do we want to be coercing or manipulating children into sharing our beliefs because we hold some sort of ‘authority’… RI could be a dangerous vehicle for indoctrination, and I am glad members of our community, and our schools, are being vigilant on that front!

Thanks for all the work you do as one of our elected representatives. I love the passion you bring to the education portfolio and believe education is probably the most important cabinet ministry. My wife and I are trying to navigate finding the right school for our 4 year old daughter (and eventually for our almost 3 year old son, and 1 year old daughter). It’s tough. There are so many different theories about education out there, and so many different priorities. I don’t envy you your position, but I am committed to praying that you’ll act with wisdom and help our system form the sorts of critical and creative thinkers our society needs in order to flourish. One day I might even write you a letter about how much I think our schools should foster imagination and the sense that we’re all part of something bigger than just the need to learn things in order to answer questions in a test.

In fact, this letter might even be part of that because it speaks, in some way, to the importance of Religious Instruction (or its equivalent) in schools. One thing religion does is it fires up the imagination, pointing us not just to what could be if we live selfless lives that seek to transform the world, but perhaps what is, beyond the material world. Obviously as a Christian pastor (I’m a Presbyterian Minister), I have a personal belief that God is real and so our imaginings are actually hard wired into us as part of our reaching out for the nature of the divine. But even if this isn’t true, the sort of reaching for a better life that follows being taught the story of a transcendent being who loves us and cares about how we live, and provides an example for how we should live in Jesus, and especially in his death, is, on balance, a good sort of reaching that should lead our society in good places if it continues to ‘enchant’ us; if it continues to point us beyond ourselves, and perhaps if it serves to give us perspective beyond how important the next NAPLAN test is, or whatever else is crowding our kids brains in a crowded, pressure filled, curriculum.

The problem is, if we teach kids what life could be like, and their experience doesn’t line up to that, we’re only teaching part of the picture. We’re missing the point that Christianity includes a sense that things in this world, and in our lives, don’t always match up to how they should be. If we don’t teach about sin, and its universality, we miss the point that we’re to be driven by a longing for something better, while realising that it won’t always line up with what we achieve. We also miss the point that the great news of Christianity is that Jesus deals with sin, he doesn’t just give us a pattern for life. We can’t inspire kids without teaching them exactly what it is that Christianity teaches about the problems in our world, and how those problems shape, and are shaped by, the problems with the way we live. I can totally see how if Lesson 12 of Connect was taught clumsily, or from bad intentions, it could end up being used for guilt based manipulation, and no doubt different teachers approach teaching RI differently. I don’t know every RI teacher in the state, but the many I do know are both:

a) Aware of the privilege it is to teach kids what we believe, and perhaps inspire them towards living lives of love, where their confidence is placed not in their ability to be good, but in God’s love;

b) Aware that this privilege will be lost should we abuse it and veer into coercive or manipulative behaviour.

I thought it might be instructive for you to hear about how RI works, and how this material shapes the experience, in reality from an RI teacher. I’m not sure I’m normal, but anecdotes form data, and I’m happy to ask other teachers to share their experience too, especially if it helps us establish trust in the communities we are trying to love and serve. I get 30 minutes with a class of kids a week. By the time the roll is taken and the kids are settled, its 20. By the time we establish some sort of rapport with the kids, as guests who they see once a week its 15 minutes, and because we’re ultimately keen to answer the questions that kids are wanting to explore about different topics, and about the particular religion they’ve opted in to learning about, we try to spend as much time as possible answering these questions. This leaves us about 5 minutes a week of ‘teaching’ time, at least in our class, and in that time the Connect material serves as a guide but not a master. Most of the time we tell a story about Jesus that introduces a concept from the week, and then we ask kids to interact with the story and ask their own questions. When we give answers we don’t give ‘imperatives’ but say “as a Christian, I personally believe X,” because Protestant RI covers a multitude of denominations, with different beliefs about finer points of doctrine we can’t even be dogmatic about our own beliefs, we have to honour the many other traditions that might be present in the room. It’s complex to navigate this well, and I’m sure I make mistakes, and others might too, but I believe the benefits to our society, and our children, make these occasional clumsy moments worth it. I’m certainly hoping that my own children will be encouraged to think beyond math and science, and consider how they might best contribute to the peace and flourishing of our community, and how they might live in a secular, post-modern, world alongside people they disagree with, without wanting to exclude those voices and perspectives from the table.

Thanks again for all you do. If there’s any capacity for me to be helpful as the department considers its response to the RI material, I am willing to be of assistance.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell,

Pastor, Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank

Love thy neighbour

Love your neighbour as yourself — Jesus

We live on the greatest street in Brisbane. At least I believe we do. Here’s how you can challenge us for the title, and why you should.

streetscape
Life on our street is great. Geography is part of this, of course, our quiet suburban street has handy access to the one of Brisbane’s main arterial roads, is close to a major shopping centre, and is a dead end backing onto a large sporting field. But the thing that makes this street great is community.

It’s our neighbours.

We didn’t build this community, we joined it, we were welcomed into it, and we know we belong in it. We’re not the newest people in the street anymore, and we’ve been able to be part of inviting others into this community, but it’s been a valuable time for us to think about what it means to be good neighbours. And this is important. It’s important because community is good for people; and isolation is bad.

Neighbouring is fundamental to who we are; in our national psyche “everybody needs good neighbours,” and in our family’s Christian framework, we believe we’re called above just about everything else to love our neighbours — and that’s, of course, a call to love any fellow human, our ‘global neighbours’ but it most definitely includes the people we live in closest proximity to; those in our streets, apartment blocks, or whatever other form of geographic proximity to people you experience.

We’ve lived in quite a few houses as a couple now, and both lived in plenty of houses before that, and our experience of neighbours has been mixed. We’ve lived in a townhouse complex where we barely said hi to the other residents, we’ve lived next to friends we loved dearly before moving in, we’ve lived next to people who became friends who we shared meals with, and in a cul-de-sac where people, including us, would appear and disappear through remotely opened garage doors and never even make eye contact. I think for various reasons, including a growing individualism, and a materialism where ‘every man’s home is his castle,’ where toys and man caves, and their female and family equivalents, exist to keep people satisfied behind the threshold of the front door. We’ve, at least in my observations of city life, lost the art of hospitality. But that’s not true on our street.

We have regular get-togethers: spontaneous weekend barbeques, afternoon beers, street parties for Australia Day, October Fest, and Christmas (especially for the turning on of the street’s Christmas light displays), cooking competitions — like our recent chicken wing off. We have an Easter Egg hunt. We held a street garage sale. We help out with odd jobs — renovations, furniture moving, concrete slab pouring, chasing runaway dogs, and electrical work (well, that’s the friendly neighbourhood sparky, great guy, I’m more than happy to recommend his services to you). Beer and coffee seem to be pretty much on tap. Our kids play together, we babysit for each other, some people holiday together, there’s a street Facebook group which people treat like our own Uber service, and notice board. We bake for each other. We create pot-luck banquets from our combined leftovers. We pet-sit. People exercise together. We philosophise. We share our stories. We listen. We laugh. The dads plot and scheme together and cook up amazing ideas like a trailer mounted cool room that holds 12 kegs, with three of them on tap… That’s not all of it, and I’m not responsible for any of this (except the coffee).

I love being out on the street with my neighbours. I often peer out the windows hoping to see someone else outside. We’re friends. Genuinely. People are choosing to renovate rather than sell up and move somewhere nicer. This stuff amazes me. We talk often about how amazing this community is, and how organic it seems. We’ve talked about amping things up with more incidental stuff (and some dreams of a street brewery), some of us have spoken about trying to develop a culture of shifting life to the front yard — a concept described in this book Playborhood — that I think is fascinating. We make space for the introverts too. People come and go, dipping in and out as required, others stay and stay, a couple of Saturday nights ago I found myself dragging my laptop out onto the street at 11pm to work on a talk for church (not for the next day), because I’d planned to do that from 6pm, and didn’t want to leave the fun.

Not everyone in our street is part of this ‘community’. We invite everyone to major events — like Australia Day and Octoberfest. We try to talk to anyone whose passage up the street is obstructed by our afternoon beers. Some people choose not to take part, some are more involved than others. Most of the long term people on the street, especially the families, are part of what goes on. It’s welcoming, it’s open, it took us a while to realise this, and we don’t have the same history as others do with each other — but genuine, deep, friendships take time to build, but that process can be accelerated with social lubricants like beer, coffee, and generosity. Which my neighbours offer by the bucket.

I’m not saying this stuff to brag about what we’ve done, or how good we’ve got it. Though I’m constantly excited. I didn’t build this. I’m saying this because I think our Aussie culture sorely needs this. Your street needs this. You need it. It’s good for you, and for your neighbours.

I’m learning what it means to be a good neighbour from some of the best. And it seems easy. It seems to be something you could do too. But I suspect it seems easy because a culture has been built here for a long time, from some pretty strong convictions that everybody does need good neighbours. It’s actually not easy, until it is. It’s a bit counter-cultural. It takes intentional breaking down of barriers.

But here’s what I believe. Not just because I’m a Christian, and it fits, but because I think good neighbours — good communities — are absolutely essential for human flourishing. And we’re losing this part of our shared life — and you can do something about it.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Community is a fundamental human need. It’s not really optional, as much as some of us might think we can get by without it. Neighbours, the TV show, is right. Everybody needs good neighbours. There’s plenty of good academic data out there connecting wellbeing to belonging and community. And there’s plenty of social science and science stuff out there to suggest that community or tribal instincts are historically important for adaptation and survival, and this isn’t just about breeding.

If we’re to take the Christian account of our humanity seriously — we also see that we’re social animals. We’re made to be part of a community. This will feel different for different people — introversion and extroversion mean community has different costs and benefits, but no man or woman is made to be an island, even if sometimes we wish our ‘castles’ had a moat to cut us off from the rest of the world. The first two chapters of the Bible are, in part, about establishing this truth — that we are relational beings, that we’re made in the image of the God who is a community — Father, Son, and Spirit, and that our bearing of this image is a function of our community, or relationships, so that we need more than just ourselves — we need ‘male and female,’ and in the Genesis 2 version of the creation of humanity, we’re told community — relationships — are necessary for human flourishing, for things to be the ‘good’ that has been God’s aim in creating the world.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” — Genesis 1:26

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

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18

The Bible’s picture of paradise, of ‘the good life’ is people living in community with one another, and with God. The flipside in the Bible’s story, essentially the story of paradise lost (and ultimately found again) is that we’re told our experience of relationships, or community, won’t always be great. We’re still made in God’s image, but our decision not to align our lives with his plans for the world comes at the cost of our relationships. We’re self-interested before we’re other-interested, and often our interest in others is framed in terms of what we can get more than what we can give. Which is interesting when it comes to Jesus’ description of the greatest commandments, these are a recipe for re-finding ‘paradise’ — for life being ‘good’ again.

“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.’”  — Matthew 22:37-39

This command, along with Jesus’ version of the ‘golden rule’, which tells us to do good to others, not just avoid doing bad (like other versions of the golden rule from other wise people), has been pretty influential in the cultures — western culture — built around Christian thinking. But it’s not just a “Christian” thing, nor is good neighbouring. It’s fundamentally part of our wiring, and happens wherever humanity happens; just with our inherent selfishness also part of the mix.

For Christians, good neighbouring isn’t a means to some other end — its not a sales strategy for Christianity (though if you’re a good neighbour, people might listen to you or ask you questions from genuine interest), it is what we’re told to do. We have a particular motivation to be good neighbours because it’s what Jesus told us to do.

When good neighbouring happens, for any of us, it’s a taste of paradise. When community happens, when it really happens, when it is built on neighbouring, on others-centred love, it produces really great stuff. It’s a picture of humanity as it was made to be. A taste of paradise. One of the best fruits of Christianity’s undeniable influence in western society is these words of Jesus do occupy a space somewhere close to the heart of our western identity; even if we want to reject all the mysterious spiritual stuff.

How to love your neighbours (like ours love us)

I’ve done my best to ask around about how this happened. The history, or story, of our street. I largely put it down to one guy, at least so the story goes. A natural born community builder who bought into the street a long time ago; when his house was ‘the party house’ — and it was a party house which drew some other people who moved into, or lived on, the street into its orbit. The geography stuff is a factor, the dead end makes it easier to congregate on the street, or in the park, but really it was one guy who was intentional about being open to new relationships, because as I talk to him, he is utterly committed to community, and the way he builds it is through profound generosity. This generosity is infectious, and it may well be that there’s a statistical anomaly that means I live around some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but I think its also just this expectation that gets built over time that generosity to those you live in community with produces benefit, not cost.

People seem to think our street sounds good and desirable. When I tell them what’s going on, or post photos online, people say things like ‘you’re lucky to have that’ — I don’t think it’s luck. I think we’re lucky to have landed here, sure, but it’s the product of a few people taking the time and expending the effort to deliberately build a thing that expresses something deeply true and good about our humanity. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the result of love, and a desire for real community.

So here’s some tips I’ve gleaned from learning this story and watching our little community operate.

  1. Be intentional 
    This doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t accidentally love your neighbours, you do it by deciding that’s a thing you want to do, and prioritise. You do it by meeting people, learning names, going out of your way to contribute to the lives of those around you at every opportunity. You do it by creating opportunities. By doing things on your street, in your home, and inviting your neighbours to be part of it.
  2. Communicate
    Community requires communication. Part of this is just smiling, waving, and speaking to each other in passing. It requires trying to get to know your neighbours. Knowing people’s names is only half the battle. If you’re going to do a chicken wing cook off it’s not just a matter of cooking some wings and hoping the smell will draw a crowd. A Facebook group might be a little intense — but its probably worthwhile grabbing phone numbers for people on your street, or in your complex, for neighbourhood watch or runaway dog purposes, maybe you could put together a directory, with people’s names — and that’ll help you remember who’s who, and give you a good reason to meet new people on the street as they arrive. Don’t spam these lists or try to sell stuff to your neighbours in some crass way. Love is not a means to some other agenda, it’s an end in itself. But these sorts of contact lists might be a great tool for creating the sort of events that will build your community. Like a chicken wing cook off.
  3. Be welcoming
    There’ll always be people on your street who you get on with more naturally than others. But if you just pick a few friends and shut everyone else out, you’re not building a community, you’re building a commune. One of the nicest things about our community is how inclusive it is. We’re a pretty diverse bunch when it comes to age, stage, politics, religion, and vocation — sure, we also have much in common in terms of ethnicity and a few other things — but everybody gets invited to things, and everybody is welcome. There seems to be a commitment to putting up with one another through some things that in another street could lead to a blood feud. We’ve had a few pet related mishaps, and I’m constantly amazed that people put up with our barking dog and my bad jokes.
  4. Be generous
    I tell lots of people that I don’t think I’ve had to buy a beer since we moved in. I think that’s probably true. And it’s not just beer — I mentioned some stuff above, but we’ve been given clothes, toys, a spit roast thing (that I’m going to convert into a coffee roaster), a home-welded chicken coop far beyond my capabilities, plenty of time in the form of dog-sitting… and some other incredibly generous acts of service from different people. We’ve found various ways to give back, but we still feel like our neighbours have been more generous to us than we have to them, and so, we’re always keen to be generous to the street whenever, and however, we can. I get the sense this is true for most of us. Someone has to start this cycle though, in order to create a culture, and that might simply look like doing some baking, or cooking some meals, or pitching in with some odd jobs as you notice them when you’re hanging out in your front yard.Generosity includes hospitality. You can’t expect all neighbouring to happen on the street. That can get uncomfortable after a while (though most of us have readily accessible picnic chairs). We’ve got to the point on our street where our kids will, upon invitation, quite confidently wander around our neighbours houses and yards. And we’re pretty happy for our neighbours to drop in or come round too — like for Family Feud viewing parties. For us to do this sort of thing requires us to be comfortable with the fact that the stage of life we’re in means our house will never actually feel tidy, and we’ve just got to roll with that.
  5. Shift to the front yard
    This is a big one from Playborhood. And it’s counter-cultural. All our fun stuff is still in our backyard. Our trampoline (built at night with the help of our neighbours), our veggie patch, our swingset and sand pit. And my beloved hammock. In this we’re not alone, Aussies have become back yard types. Secluded. Fenced in. Enjoying the serenity and privacy of our own little kingdoms. The back yard is important for our family’s sanity, but most of our incidental ‘street time’ comes from keeping an ear out for activity while we’re inside, or from deliberate loitering, and playing with our dog, in the front yard. The park and the quiet street make this easier. Most of our neighbours kids are older than ours, and are often out riding, or playing, or making home movies; and ours are always keen to join their big friends.
  6. Create traditions
    This one is the most fun. We’re gradually building an events calendar that features regular signature events, with incidentals like birthdays and spontaneity padding things out. These things get a life of their own the more fun people have with them. One of the guys bought a bunch of steins for Octoberfest that he gave to each of us. There’s a perpetual Golden Drumstick at stake in the wing off. The Christmas Lights get bigger and brighter each year. Our kids almost drowned under the sea of Easter Chocolate. These things add a richness, and we’re often talking about the next one and planning how we might improve it (which gives us plenty to talk about — and relationships start out with those awkward conversations about the weather, then move through talking about shared interests, before you get to the deeper level of trust and understanding). These traditions shape the life of the community, and help us figure out what we value, and they’re fun.
  7. Have low expectations
    This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. What we enjoy on our street is the fruit of relationships that extend back many years before we arrived. But I don’t just mean have low expectations about how quickly this will happen so that you seek to make incremental steps towards community, I mean have low expectations of each other. This is counter-cultural stuff. People are busy. People are suspicious of strangers, and about people who are over-enthusiastic about things that look intense… but community is good for us. That’s my belief, and experience. Not every street has someone like our pioneering neighbour who build community naturally, or other people moving in with the same values. You might have to be that person. Don’t expect people to sign up, expect that you’ll have to model stuff, take the first step, and carry the cost (at least initially) of growing a community.

Do you have good neighbours? What are your tips? Chances are my actual neighbours will see this, because we’re Facebook friends. They’ve probably got some ideas too (and I trust that I haven’t given away any trade secrets)…

Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

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

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot’ — everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

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Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

 

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

 

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“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. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

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

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

Daredevil, Easter, heroism, and the triumph of light over darkness

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

Warning: Contains some spoilers for Netflix’s Daredevil (probably both seasons, but definitely season 2).

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I love Daredevil. It is, perhaps, the most compelling superhero franchise currently occupying the silver screen or the small screen (or the very small screen depending on how you Netflix). I’ve written a bit about the unique version and vision of heroism Daredevil represents in the Marvel universe, and why I find it so compelling, so if reading thousands of words about heroism, myth, and comic universes excites you, feel free to dip back there before proceeding here… There’s also this great Christ and Pop Culture piece about season 1.

Daredevil is a hero incarnate. A hero not just of his time, but of his place. He is a product of Hell’s Kitchen, it is his home, its people are his neighbours, and he is going to save them. Or at least defend them from darkness. The irony, of course, for those not familiar with the Daredevil mythos is that Daredevil spends all his time in darkness — both because he is blind, and because he only comes out at night. He operates in the shadows. The darkness/light metaphor seeps through season 2 of the Netflix hit. His enemies are ninjas, they’re fighting over who possesses the “Black Sky” — a weapon of such power that it would overcome the world, and the season explores the darkness of the human heart, and how we humans, left to our own devices, are more likely to produce darkness than light. Even, and perhaps especially, because our heroes are these mixed bags. Daredevil is fantastic because it is anthropologically honest. Good and Evil aren’t so black and white.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This season introduces two more vigilantes to the crucible of Hell’s Kitchen, one of my favourites, The Punisher, and Daredevil’s femme fatale, Elektra. Their introduction upsets the delicate balance of the Kitchen, which is always just one gang war away from total chaos. Hell’s Kitchen itself is a particularly dark and gloomy place in Daredevil’s universe because his universe is the universe of the Avengers in the aftermath of ‘The Incident’ — the total destruction of Hell’s Kitchen, at least in part, by the very heroes who fought vibrant, explosive, battles against ‘mega’ enemies in order to ‘save the world’. One of the implicit elements of the worldview of the typical New Yorker in this parallel universe is that if salvation looks like Hell’s Kitchen, then count us out. We don’t need that sort of saviour. The tension these new vigilantes creates is the question of how much these ‘heroes’ are saving the city, and how much they’re shaping it. This is especially true for Elektra and The Punisher who don’t share Daredevil’s compunction on the question of taking human life. For Daredevil, a practicing Catholic, every human life is sacred and has the potential for ‘goodness’ that shouldn’t be erased simply because of the dark reality of the human heart.

This is how our stories work. Honest story telling requires honestly confronting the reality of the human heart. It’s been this way for quite a while, and it’s largely a product of the world we live in and our political reality — our lack of any sense of security because an enemy can now strike in any way, at any time, in any place. Such is the nature of modern warfare and terrorism; perhaps never more clearly real for us than in the events of this week in Brussels.

In 1949, while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, novelist William Faulkner reflected on the uncertainty of his post-World-War-II time, and the impact this had had on the sort of stories being told. He was worried that the writing of his time was not anthropologically honest because it wasn’t really grappling with anything beyond the immediate; and the fear produced by a sense of present distress or crisis.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” — William Faulkner, Acceptance Speech

I wonder if we’re getting closer. I wonder if the current trend towards a gritty, low fi, dark reality, complete with anti-heroes and complexity and shadows, in all our story telling — be it Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, or Daredevil is us being able to balance the fear of our times with the sense that what is truly to be feared is actually what is within each one of us. Maybe that’s confronting and scary. It certainly seems more honest, though sometimes it can be pretty depressing; such that our stories, and our heroes, no longer inspire and uplift in the same way that Gandalf, Aragorn, or Samwise Gamgee could. George RR Martin, the author of Game Of Thrones, suggests his books are an attempt to grapple with this reality, though this quote from an interview with the ABC, begins to suggest that maybe our hearts become dark because the places they beat in are full of darkness, and that’s what is required to bring light…

“I like grey characters. I like people who have both good and evil in them ’cause I think real people have both good and evil. There are very few pure paladins in the world and there are very few totally evil people. We all have the capacity for heroism in us. We all have the capacity for selfishness and evil in us.

How do you play this Game of Thrones, this cut-throat game? Do you play it according – clean and noble, according to the rules that you’ve been taught? You do that, you could very well lose your life and you could lose the lives of people that you love and your family or your children, because the other people that you’re playing with are not playing by the same rules. So then do you compromise your principles and get down and dirty with them and play it in the rough and mean way that you think might be necessary to win? Well then maybe you survive a little longer, but what have you become in the end? I mean, these are issues that I think are very much worth talking about, not only in fiction, but of course we see this reflected all around us in the real world, the constant struggle of ideals versus Realpolitik.” — George R.R Martin, ABC Interview

Daredevil, the cultural text, not the character, is also a product of a particular era of comic book mythopoeia — the universes and stories created within the universes of our ‘post-modern’ comic books are all grappling with darkness in a bid for more honesty; particularly in the comic genre. This all began, in some sense, with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight version of Batman, and Allen Moore’s Watchmen, but their approach, worlds away from the hopeful optimism of early Superman stories, leaves us in a pretty bleak place.

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

Daredevil fits within this broader cultural oeuvre. Daredevil, aesthetically, is relentlessly dark. It’s part of the way we’re brought into the world of the blind protaganist, but it’s also in keeping with this modern approach to story telling. It explores these questions; but with a note of hope. A note that comes because at its heart, Daredevil is not so cynical about the human condition. His Catholicism leads him to see a glimmer of hope in the heart of each human, and so for his city. It’s faith in something transcendent that holds Daredevil apart from the Dark Knight’s Batman, and, within the Marvel universe, from The Punisher. Daredevil has hope that he’s part of the solution — not part of the problem — for Hell’s Kitchen. That he can make his place, his city, better, by bringing light into a dark world. Where season 1 was an extended exploration of the good samaritan, season 2 is a deliberate exploration of what a hero incarnate looks like. His efforts are not well received, because others in his world are particularly cynical about heroism — and who can blame them as they pick up their lives from the rubble left behind by Iron Man and Co. The nature of heroism is on view, and debated, and discussed, throughout the season. The Punisher’s ‘grim reaper’ approach to justice is literally put on trial, while Daredevil/Matt Murdock is always on trial with the people in his life, some of whom know what he gets up to at night, and others who don’t. Matt shares his life with very few people, there aren’t many in his inner circle — just Elektra, his mentor ‘Stick’, his best friend and lawyerly colleague Foggy, his nurse Claire, and his colleague/love interest Karen. At the start of the season Karen is the only one in this inner ring who doesn’t know Matt is Daredevil. She’s also the most disillusioned with Matt and least forgiving of him, in his contributions to society as a lawyer, as a result.

“This city really needs heroes. But you’re not one of them” — Karen

There’s a really nice pay off to this line at the end. One of the things the Daredevil writers do well is launch things at the start of a season that get some closure at the end. Another little parallelism comes with Matt/Daredevil’s threat to prevent Kingpin — the villain from season one — from ever having the satisfaction of living in New York with the woman he loves; as they both acknowledge that they are a product of the city as much as they hope to shape the city, and Matt’s own realisation that he could leave New York, perhaps, for the woman he loves.

“Now you’re thinking you can serve your sentence. Hop on a jet. Go to her whenever you like. Live somewhere like Monaco, or, I don’t know, wherever you fat cats go to sun yourselves. But you can’t. You can visit her, but you’ll never live with her. Because this is New York. Wilson. You live here. This is your jungle. This is your blood. Like it is mine. She will never come, and you’ll never leave.” — Matt Murdock to Kingpin

“We’ll keep moving. We’ll change identities. We’ll hide. They’ll never catch us. What do you say?
“I say let’s go to London. Madrid. Tunisia. There are sexy places to hide.”
“Hey, I’ve never been further north than 116th street so…”
“Because you love New York.”
“And I’d give my life for it, but there is one thing in this world that makes me feel more alive. And that’s you.” — Daredevil and Elektra

This comes at the end of a long ‘heroes journey’ for Daredevil, where he’s increasingly, and deliberately, alienated himself from his neighbours and neighbourhood, because he believes that’s what is required to save them. In doing so he risks becoming excarnate — detached from the consequences of his actions, and the real motivation for them, and unable to achieve the sort of transformation that can only come to Hell’s Kitchen if he inspires from beside, rather than ‘rescuing’ from above. It’s the people — his neighbours, his community, who he served beside who kept him grounded as the ‘good samaritan’ in season one. And this is risky business. Here, perhaps, is the most overt Daredevil/Jesus moment in the series.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…”

“I’m done Claire. No more law. No more friends. At best they’re a distraction. At worst I put them in jeopardy. From now on I need to focus.”

“You may feel like you are a ship lost at sea, but if you isolate like this you really will be. You’re cutting off your own anchor. And every minute that you spend standing, hiding, in this suit of armour the more separate you become from the very things that you want to protect. Your friend is in a hospital bed down stairs. Stop playing the loneliest little soldier and start being a human being.” — Claire and Daredevil

Being Daredevil is exceptionally costly for Matt, but it seems to be his cross to bear. The journey he’s on in this story is very much a journey to remind himself that he needs real connection to other humans — he has to forget that one lesson from his mystical mentor Stick. His friends don’t understand the cost he pays to save them. They’re busy dealing with the same fears — the same existential crisis — as the rest of the city; the same questions about heroism and salvation, the same balance between desiring mercy and justice; while in the main, knowing exactly who the masked vigilante is. And mostly they just want Matt to be their friend. To walk away from the mask; from the mission. This is Matt owning his identity, and his mission, while being disowned by his closest friend, Foggy. Expressing these human fears. Fears that Daredevil might actually be causing the problem. Denying that Daredevil is the saviour and calling him not just to step down from his cross, but to walk away from the mission and try something more effective. This is a Peter/Jesus moment.

“I came to talk to my friend, not the vigilante.”
“They’re the same person Foggy.”
“They weren’t always”
“Either way. I have to do this. As we speak there are horrible things happening in this city.”
“Of course.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you…”
“You don’t get to create danger and then protect us from that danger. That’s not heroic. That’s insane.” — Matt and Foggy

For Jesus of course, he didn’t abandon his friends, but was abandoned by them. And there’s a sense that this is true in Daredevil, because Matt/Daredevil’s greatest desire from these friends is that they understand him, trust him, and support him. That’s why he finds succour in his friendship with Elektra; she understands him. She also represents the ultimate test of his ability to save or transform someone, she’s the test case to see if redemption really works; if moving someone from darkness to light is actually possible. She’s aware of the darkness in her heart and is prepared to face up to it.

There’s an incredible degree of theological insight in Daredevil. Especially for Christians. Especially as we prepare for Easter this weekend. The majesty of the Christian story rests on the word that spoke the universe into being — the ‘light and life’ of the world — becoming human. Breaking down the distance. Drawing near. Being ‘one of us’ — speaking words in human language, that build and create life in very different ways to the words spoken in the beginning. The glory and humility of the incarnation is precisely this — that God didn’t step down onto a cross never having broken bread with those he came to save, but that he offered his life for the friends, the city, the world, that had abandoned him.

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

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 1:15

 

When we’re at our most honest, as humans whose hearts are dark places, living in a darkened world of our own making, when we’re honest we have to admit that it’s not just the darkness that we’re afraid of, the light terrifies us. The prospect of a saviour who might pull us from the default patterns of existence — from the darkness where we’ve grown comfortable and accustomed — is terrifying. Daredevil has confronted this darkness, and chosen light — and he chooses to see the light, or the potential for light, the image of God, in everyone else. Light and life are sacred for this blind martyr.

What I loved about Daredevil is the way it explores heroism and celebrates the hero with dirty hands — the hero who steps into the mess with those he is trying to save. The hero who confronts darkness and grapples seriously with brokenness; not just brokenness in the world, but brokenness in himself. By season’s end, it seems Daredevil the good samaritan, the ‘crucified’ saviour who is prepared to lay down his life for his city, has a real shot at transforming the city. There’s this poignant piece on ‘true heroism’ in the final episode that has nice little links back to the Avengers if you’re paying attention, but also asks a bigger question that shows, at least in part, where Daredevil, and his imitators, won’t actually produce lasting change in New York.

“What is it to be a hero? Look in the mirror and you’ll know. Look into your own eyes, and tell me you are not heroic. That you have not endured. Or suffered. Or lost the things you care about most. And yet. Here you are. A survivor of Hell’s Kitchen. The hottest place anyone’s ever known. A place where cowards don’t last long. So you must be a hero. We all are. Some more than others. But none of us alone. Some bloody their fists trying to keep the kitchen safe. Others bloody the streets in the hope they can stop the tide. The crime. The cruelty. The disregard for human life all around them. But this is Hell’s Kitchen. Angel or devil. Young or old. Rich or poor. You live here. You didn’t choose this town. It chose you. Because a hero isn’t someone who lives above us keeping us safe. A hero is not a God, or an idea. A hero lives here, on the street, among us, with us, always here but rarely recognised. Look in the mirror and see yourself for what you truly are. You’re a New Yorker. You’re a hero. This is your Hell’s Kitchen. Welcome home” — Karen

There’s something very true and very real about the necessity of the ‘incarnate’ hero — the hero from within the community, with a close and abiding love of the place, the world, that birthed them. But we are shaped by place. Profoundly. We breathe the air and drink the water and imbibe the values of a place; and so ultimately Daredevil will have the same impact on the city as Kingpin. He’ll craft his community into his image. And though that involves more goodness and light than the next person, he, like you and me, is still flawed. He shows this, in one sense, because he’s both prepared to alienate himself from his community to save his city, and ultimately prepared to give it all up for a woman who understands him and makes him feel ‘more alive’ than New York. He’s still the product of his humanity, and those in his community whose hearts are that grey mix of black and white. And so the transformation or salvation he offers, good though it might be, is not the sort of hero our fearful world needs.

Ultimately his heroism is also not enough to defeat death — even if he chooses not to kill, because life is sacred, death still relentlessly pursues those in his city. And death is the ultimate form of darkness. Daredevil, interestingly, and without much editorialising, finishes at Christmas time. Which is interesting, especially watching it as Easter approaches. Because it’s in these moments still celebrated in our calendars that Jesus offers something more compelling than Daredevil — and more complete than simply a heroic example. It’s this point that the profundity of the Christmas — where the incarnate divine saviour who doesn’t just live above us to keep us safe, but is the God who becomes one of us — and the tragedy and triumph of Easter where this saviour enters the darkness of death and the tomb and raised to life to save us, and defeat death, that real hope is found. Our stories, our heroes, will, so long as they are purely human, always have black-to-grey hearts. The evil in each of us, and the death that results, is real darkness. It’s what we fear. It’s the enemy to be defeated. And our dark hearts are ill-equipped to really achieve that. We need real light. Otherwise its the blind leading the blind.

That line from Solzhenitsyn“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” is profound. Because in Jesus — in the Christmas and Easter stories — we see a hero enter the story whose heart is undivided, it’s pure light, and a God who willingly destroyed a piece of his own heart to deal with evil and death once for all. We see what real light looks like, and how darkness is overcome. We don’t just see a hero nailed to a cross, we see an empty tomb. And so we know what it is to no longer live in fear. We know what a better story looks like.

 

 

When Henny Penny meets 1984’s Winston: The sexular age and seeing the world as it really is

The sky is falling. We must tell the king — Henny Penny & Chicken Little

hennypenny

I feel a little like I’m a chicken, just kicking back in the coop, chewing some corn or something, and watching Henny Penny running around yelling that if I don’t get off my perch and spit out my corn the sky will fall on my head.

Do you ever feel like that?

There’s a fair bit of hysteria in my coop about life in this new sexular age. The result of the secular world we live in where reality has been flattened so only the material questions of here and now matter, butting up against the sexual revolution, where only sex really matters. Materially speaking. Stephen McAlpine sums this sexular age up best. So read him (see also Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age and James KA Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular). But we Christians are the enemies in this revolution, perhaps rightly so, because we keep standing against it, and when we’re not standing, we’re running around trying to convince one another that the sky is falling in, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.

It makes sense, if this sexular age is a real thing, that the people of this age will seek to indoctrinate the children of this age to worship the god of the age. It makes sense that the people of this age will set out patterns of relationship that conform to the image of their god. That’s how idolatry works. Always. Alternative patterns. What doesn’t work is calling people to follow our pattern of life without giving them the way in. To do that is just cruel.

There’s a fair bit at stake. Potentially. So it makes sense. But I think our best bet, and the thing we’re actually called to do as followers of Jesus, is to spread our wings and give Henny Penny a comforting hug, but also reach out to those doing their best to bring the sky down on us. Those driving the revolution. Because they’ll need a hug when they realise the revolution doesn’t deliver (and it’s just our job, metaphorically) even if they don’t.

Just to be clear — the hug I’m talking about is extending the love of Jesus to the people of our world, the knowledge that he is the real king, and the only lover capable of meeting the expectations people are heaping on their sexual partners. We get so worried the sky is falling in we forget our job is to love those who are afraid, and love those who its going to fall on, even as they pull it down on our heads.

If you’re reading this and you feel like you need a hug because of how Christians keep telling you to live — where you can or can’t stick your bits, or how to think about who you are, then I’m sorry. All this stuff we believe about sex and gender and life in this world we believe because following Jesus makes us see everything differently. If you’re not prepared to accept that God might have something different to say about sexuality to the inner workings of your mind, or to the education system in Australia, then you’ll probably find this post super awful and hate me. I’m sorry. But I’m writing specifically to Christians, basically to tell them to stop telling you to live like you’re a Christian.

I’ve been particularly struck by the intra-Christian hysteria this week when it comes to our snowballing response to the Safe Schools material being introduced in our secular (sexular) schools, and to preparations for the plebiscite on gay marriage. There are plenty of these out there, some of the more measured responses include this blog post from Akos Balogh that has gone a little viral asking for the Christian position to be respected — for our students to be safe from bullying, and this story from the Presbyterian Church’s Moderator General (the guy responsible for chairing our national assembly who functions as a bit of a lightning rod for the denomination) David Cook about a meeting with Malcolm Turnbull seeking clarity about a gay marriage plebiscite.

“We want all students to be safe at school and free from bullying, whatever their identity. But my concern is that your material risks not only causing harm to some of the vulnerable LGBTI students (e.g. through the minus18 website), but it also creates another class of ‘outcasts’, whose only crime is to hold a different view of sexuality/gender than Safe Schools.” — Akos Balogh, Dear Safe Schools: I have questions

David Cook describes meeting the Prime Minister, in a delegation put together by the Australian Christian Lobby. He reports:

The issues which concerned us were:

  • The framing of the question to be answered in the plebiscite.  Would we have input into this so that it did not unfairly encourage the preferred response of either side?

  • The question of religious freedom both during and after the debate, if the plebiscite is lost.

  • If the Commonwealth was  to provide funding for campaigns, how would such funding be allocated?  The campaign in favour of single sex marriage in Ireland outspent the traditional campaign, 15 to 1.

  • When will the proposed Bill to change the Marriage Act and enable the plebiscite, be available?

  • Will the PM do all in his power to ensure equal access to media for both sides of the argument? — David Cook, Malcolm in the Middle

 

I have a huge amount of respect for David Cook (and for Akos), but especially for David’s contribution to the church in Australia in training up Gospel ministers — evangelists. I know both these guys to be pretty reasonable, and what they’re asking for seems so reasonable. Fair even. I don’t entirely share some of their thinking, because I keep remembering how poorly we stewarded the ‘public square’ for the sake of minority groups being safe, when we were the dominant social power. We were probably especially, at least anecdotally, damaging to the LGBTIQA community, who are the primary beneficiary of both these current issues.’

It’s certainly not just Christians who make the world feel unsafe for people at the margins, but we’ve been a bit culpable either in participating in bullying, or not using our power to stop it (and then you’ve got boxing champions and professing Christians like Manny Pacquiao and Tyson Fury kind of proving the point that the link between Christian faith and bullying can be quite direct). This is why we’ve got to be careful when Christians are allowing for hate speech laws to be thrown out so we can debate the plebiscite robustly. There’s a fine line between debate and debasement when some people claim to be speaking for God.

For David Cook, at least, the fear that the sky will fall seems quite palpable, and it seems to miss the point that the sexular age is already here. It’s not going to be brought in by this vote, this vote will simply codify what Australians already think (whichever way it goes). And I suspect because the average Aussie’s pantheon of gods includes freedom, sex, and free sex, they’ll be voting for the side that best represents their objects of worship.

“Changing that Act will change society; genderless marriage will lead to genderless families, no more mothers and fathers, just parents; genderless living will be used to encourage children to choose whichever gender they would like to be.” — David Cook

Both David Cook and Akos Balogh essentially mount arguments against change on the basis of protecting our personal freedom, or liberty, as Christians. Which sounds noble, and I totally agree with their thinking. I just don’t think it’s going to work (have a look at Stephen McAlpine’s aforelinked post for a start). I think we’re trying to topple one modern idol sex with another freedom when they’re so closely interconnected that the alternative idol is more likely to consume us as we wield it, than destroy the arguments we are deploying it against. If this makes sense… An argument for individual liberty ends up becoming an argument for people being free to choose their gender and their approach to marriage.

“There is no doubt we are facing a very different Australia in the future when such curbs on liberty become part of the policy platform of a mainline political party.

Neutrality will not be an option in the debate leading into the plebiscite.  The church, usually reluctant to enter into politics, needs to take the lead in having an educative role.

We need to be much in prayer at this time and the silent majority need to speak up.” — David Cook

I’m a bit confused. Do we want groups of people curbing the liberty of others, or not? If we make the argument about liberty and are only worried about our liberty then we’re falling into the trap of being pretty inconsistent.

“I would rather stay home and read a book but that is not an option for any of us.” — David Cook

“The sky is falling in. The sky is falling in. We must tell the king.” — Henny Penny

When the sky is falling in, we certainly can’t just stay home and read a book. We have to do something. We have to change people’s minds! And the Sky is falling in. It is. But we seem to be making Henny Penny’s mistake and turning to the fox — in this case, the state — to deal with the problem, not the king. You don’t help people when the sky is falling by putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

We need to do something, but getting out the vote isn’t it. At least I don’t think it is. When we say things like this and expect to be convincing, we’re missing two fundamental Biblical truths.

  1. In response to human sin. God gives us over to a broken way of seeing the world, with new (broken) hearts and minds (and we used to be part of this ‘them’). See Romans 1.
  2. In the transformation and renewed mind God brings via the Spirit to those who follow Jesus, God changes the way we see the world back to how it should be seen by giving us new (new) hearts and minds. Without this mind following God’s pattern for life is simultaneously impossible and futile. See Romans 8, 12

Idolatry and Double-Think

War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery. — George Orwell, 1984

Up is down. Black is white. God is sex…

This Romans 1 passage works corporately, it’s about all of us in Adam. Since the beginning of the Bible story people are born seeing up as down. Seeing things as God, and God as some small thing. We’re not born knowing who God is from his world, though we might have an inkling, we’re born already suppressing the knowledge of who God is because that’s human culture. That’s how we get sexular ages. Consensus views that are opposed to God. To deny this is to deny that sin affects every human heart and mind from birth. But this isn’t a get out clause because we all repeat that deliberate act of suppression, so Paul says:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

When we humans invert the created order and make created things into our gods — which is the hallmark of the sexular age, where our worship is directed towards sex, and our sexuality frames our understanding of who we are at our most fundamental level — our thinking changes. It’s natural that our thinking is shaped by our love and habits — by the story we see ourselves living in… but it’s not just that. This re-seeing the world, re-imagining the world, isn’t just us choosing to see the world through the lens provided by our new god — sex — the real God is also, at least according to Romans 1, confirming these new patterns for us. This is part of the judgment of God that comes on people when they turn to idols… There’s this repeated statement in Romans 1, the idea that God gives us, humanity, over to a new way of seeing when we exchange him for idols. He ultimately changes the way humans (and so, human cultures) see the world. Our hearts and minds are shifted by what we worship, and by God to what we now worship, as a punishment.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…  Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. — Romans 1:24, 28

This is talking about every single person in this world. The only thing that changes the way we see the world — helping us see war, peace, strength, freedom, and sex, rightly, is that we see the world as God made it to be seen because he first works in us. We can’t do this seeing on our own, nor can we expect our arguments to make people see their own way out of their idolatry. This requires, as an old school Christian dude Thomas Chalmers put it “the explusive power of a new affection’ — until someone loves Jesus more than they love sex, or another idol (perhaps individual freedom), more than they love sex, these very reasonable arguments we make seem like doublethink. I can no more convince someone that I should be free to disagree with their view than I convince them that up is down.

This truly expulsive power comes from one place. God. And it comes as we share the love of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus, not as we call people to simply change the way they see the world starting with sex. We just look like panicked chickens when we do that…

The Noetic Effect of Sin meets Common Grace

There is a sense, I think, where living out and speaking about sex following the pattern of the created order, not our sexular age’s order, does bear witness to God and his goodness. This is why I’m so keen for Christians to stay involved with marriage for as long as possible — rather than pulling stunts like getting divorced or withdrawing from the Marriage Act if our sexular government broadens the definition of marriage. People do still, despite the warping of our minds, have a taste of what has been lost. I think this is actually what Paul is talking about in this hotly contested passage in Romans 7.

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. — Romans 7:18-19

I think what he’s talking about here are two aspects of every person’s humanity — what it means to be like Adam and Eve. We’re made in the image of God, so know what we ought to do; but we’re also made in Adam’s image, and shaped by our idolatrous hearts, so keep doing what we shouldn’t. This reading fits with the way Paul appears to hark back to the Fall and the way he describes human behaviour that parallels the unfolding of human history in Romans 1, and the way he contrasts Adam and Jesus throughout the argument. Plus it works with where he goes in Chapter 8, and the solution to the problem — for both Jew and Gentile — being the Spirit of God marking out the children of God who will restore creation from its cursed frustration.

I think he’s talking about these two big theological concepts — the noetic effect of sin and common grace.

The noetic effect of sin is basically the Romans 1 thing — our ability to know God from what has been made has been utterly frustrated by sin’s effects on our thinking. This effects every sphere, though some smart people suggest it particularly affects issues of morality and the heart, where our idolatry is most likely to be at play, rather than in ‘objective’ areas like math, science and geography, where we’re most likely to be able to infer true things about God’s invisible nature without our human desires and idols getting in the way.

Common Grace is the sense that God remains good and true to all people, even as we become bad and turn on him (even as he ‘gives us over’ to that turning). It’s the sense that God sends rain on everyone, and allows us to figure stuff out about how rain works. It’s that sense that his image remains in each of us, despite our best efforts to shape ourselves into the image of our idols, and that this means we still have some sense of right and wrong…

So in Romans 7, I think that’s what is going on, it’s the tension in every human heart, a tension we appeal to as we live faithful lives and proclaim the Gospel, and a tension that is only really resolved with the solution Paul talks about in Romans 7 and 8. It’s this common grace, the image of God in all people, that gives me some hope in this sexular age, not for the society at large necessarily, but that our faithful witness is not wasted, because God will use our faithful witness to draw people to himself and renew their way of looking at the world by his Spirit.

 

The Gospel leads to right-think

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” — George Orwell, 1984

Something massive changes in our humanity when we trust Jesus. Something changes in the way we see the world. We get the ability to start valuing the righteousness of God rather than the counterfeit righteousness and rituals of our idols. Our stories change, our pattern of behaviour changes, our hearts change, our minds change. Not completely drastically, the ‘delight in God’ that is latent in all of us is reawakened by his Spirit.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  Romans 8:1-2

Here’s why we’ve got to stop pretending the world around us should live like us, and why we should stop pretending they should think like us or even listen to us, if our message is one of individual freedom, or if it challenges the idols of our age. It doesn’t matter how hysterical we are, or how reasonable… it’s the Gospel that is the ‘best book that tells people what they know already’ — that does what books in 1984 do, opening people’s eyes to the truth… our other arguments will fail. Inevitably. So we’re stupid to keep making them.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 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. — Romans 8:5-8

We’ve got this whole new way of seeing the world because we’re newly human, so we’re actually meant to look different to the world around us.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

We serve a totally different God. Our acts of worship don’t look like the pursuit of sexual freedom for all, but the gift of ourselves to God. We’re supposed to love differently. To understand marriage and gender and safety in different ways. Not call other people to sameness, or call them to respect our ways. Our ways are foreign and weird and involve the death of the gods of the people around us…

The way to help people see things this way is right back at the start of Paul’s letter. It’s the Gospel. Not a call to human righteousness first, but to Jesus.

So where to now?

Here’s what got Paul up out of bed in the morning, and got him loving and talking to a bunch of people whose age was every bit as sexular as our own…

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures  regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake… That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:1-5, 15-17

Maybe if we started being eager to preach this like Paul was, and kept reminding ourselves both who we were, how we became what we are now, and where we’re going, we’d all be a little less anxious about sex, and a little more anxious to see people come to faith in Jesus.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” — George Orwell, 1984

In a real way, both the Henny Penny — the concerned Christian who thinks the world will fall apart if people stop being righteous, and the Winston, (the main character in 1984)  the person living in this sexular age, being massaged by the patterns of this world —  have confused ideas about God.

Where Henny Penny convinced herself that the sky was falling in, and got in a tizz; Winston in 1984 was the product of a system that was deliberately designed to control people via confusion. Henny Penny misunderstood reality, and needed to be calmed down by the king. Winston needed to be drawn from the way he’d been seeing the world by having his eyes opened, bit by bit. Before their epiphanies, that help them both see the world as it really is, both Henny Penny and Winston need love and hugs from those who’ve already found clarity when it comes to seeing the world, and freedom. They need Jesus. They need to be set free. There are lessons to be learned in both these stories about the way idols, or false ideas, plant themselves in our heads. Whether its by misunderstanding something God made (like a nut falling on your head), or being shaped by an oppressive system (like Big Brother), there are things in this world that shape us and take us away from seeing the world truly.

The danger for Henny Penny, in listening to Chicken Little (who doesn’t know better), and leading a band of terrified animals to find the king, is, as the parable goes, that they end up in the fox’s den. The fox capitalises on Henny Penny’s gullibility, and gets to eat a bunch of scared animals.

They ran to tell the king. They met Foxy Loxy.
They ran into his den, And they did not come out again. — Chicken Little

What Henny Penny should’ve done, in the story, was given Chicken Little a hug. She should have told Chicken Little to calm down; that even if the sky was falling, the King would have things under control.

It’s not that the sky isn’t falling. It is. It’s just that we’re actually Chicken Littles, and if we react the wrong way, we’re leading a bunch of people to their doom, straight to the predator’s gaping maw. Big Brother is real. It’d be naive to suggest that people in our sexular age aren’t going to use their power to conform people to the image of the age. To advocate for their idol. Safe Schools is just the beginning. And that will be painful for us as we resist in our own lives, and as we teach our children to resist (by teaching them to follow Jesus). Costly even. But resist we must  — in that we are not to be transformed, ourselves, to be like idols, by these uses of worldly power into the ‘patterns of this world’. That’s a real danger Paul identifies, but the fight is not one fought on our own steam. It happens as the Spirit works in us to shape our minds in a new shape of God’s choosing. That is God’s power. It trumps the power of the world of idols, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I should also say I don’t think resistance means telling people not to be sexular without offering them the expulsive power of a new affection, something to pull them out of their way of seeing the world and into something more positive. This conversation is doomed to failure if we frame it as being about individual liberty — that just pits two modern idols against one another (even if we find one more palatble).  So. Since we’re not in the building of wielding human power, but relying on God’s power as we preach the Gospel — the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” — George Orwell, 1984

Can we please stop calling people to live out obedience to God in their sexuality? Can we please stop acting as though the people we live in are on the same page as us when it comes to sex just because we all live in the world God made? Can we stop acting as though happiness is found in moral obedience, not the freedom the Gospel brings from slavery to idols? Or as though people can simply act their way out of idolatry without God.

If people are worshipping at the altar of sex, or individual freedom, or whatever, then they’re seeing the world through that lens  — and God made them that way, it’s unloving to pretend he didn’t, and pretend they should be like us, without Jesus. It’s impossible. So, can we renew our focus on the Gospel, which makes this possible? Which provides the expulsive power of a new affection?

You can, because of your renewed mind, obviously see what sex and marriage are meant to be, and how idolatry smashes God’s design. But if you try to fight the new sexularism, or any idolatry, on your own steamwhether we’re talking about how we understand sexuality in schools, or what we call marriage — you won’t beat it. Not without God transforming a person’s heart, by his Spirit. The way to ‘win’ is by pointing people to Jesus.

Next time someone is running around as though the sky is falling in because kids in sexular schools are being taught sexular ethics can we remember that nothing changes without the Spirit, and it’s faith in the Gospel that brings righteousness, not righteousness that brings faith in the Gospel? Can you just give the Henny Pennys in your life a hug and ask them to calm down for a minute… The king knows the sky actually really is falling in, and he knows what is going to put the world to rights. He’s already done it, and the invitation to safety and true seeing is there for everyone.

 

 

Re-Enchanting the world — Episode 4: Deus In Machina

In which we return to the discussion of enchantment, super-heroes, and the power of a good story in firing the imagination. To refresh your memory, dip back in to Episode 1, Episode 2, or Episode 3. Also, since episode 3, my friend Craig had a great piece on Marvel v DC posted at the Gospel Coalition.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? — CS Lewis, God In The Dock

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron

Epic stories — myths — are only as compelling as their hero. Sometimes, in modern storytelling, the formula has been broken so that the ‘hero’ is not heroic at all, but is relatably conflicted. A character at war within himself or herself, and so our modern stories have gritty anti-heroes, or we view stories sympathetically through the eyes of a villain. This leads to a certain way of imagining the world, but it probably doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous imagination that leads to an enchanted view of life the universe and everything. I’d argue its disenchanting, and depressing, and pushes us towards accepting a gritty, immanent, version of reality and trying to make the best of it.

Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero

Epic stories that occur within an ‘immanent’ reality — where the here and now is everything — struggle to move us, or to invite us to see what things could be, rather than simply seeing how things are. In episode 3 we considered the sorts of immanent heroes in our modern myths, and suggested the incarnate hero — the hero as neighbour produced by a problem in a place with a view to solving that problem from a position of attachment to people and place is the best sort of immanent hero (as opposed to hero as stranger coming into a problem place). So Daredevil was the best example of this from the modern pantheon of heroes — whether Marvel or DC. But, perhaps haunted by a past where an enchanted ‘transcendent’ reality was taken for granted — or perhaps because of that gnawing human sense that we’ve lost some infinite thing — epic storytellers (including the writers of modern comics) have long played with the need for a more transcendent sort of hero. An otherworldly stranger who steps into the world to pull us from a mess, while helping us see life in the world properly. These storytellers often depict someone who steps into the machinery of life and our world with a transformative agenda — the saviours or villains in these stories are ‘outsiders’ — wholly other — like Thor, or Superman. These heroes who come ‘from above’ often function in a way old timey epic writers labelled Deus Ex Machina — as Gods in the machine; unlikely solutions to complex human problems, who turn a story on its head. The downside of these transcendent heroes is that unlike immanent ‘from below’ — the friendly, neighbourhood, hero — we can’t immediately relate to them. They are strangers. The visions of virtue they offer is almost always ‘other,’ or there is a chasm between us and them, in their alien or godlike nature, that we cannot hope to cross.

Here’s my thesis for this post: A really good enchanting story  — a story that will push us towards a more complete view of the world, a more virtuous life, and a better ability to imagine a transformed world and life, will involve a godlike saviour figure coming into the machine, but will also have enough connections with our humanity that we are left with a pattern for living and imagining. Real re-enchantment will involve the transcendent and the immanent being held appropriately in tension, it won’t involve one collapsing into the other.

Epic stories — enchanting stories that give us a transcendent account of life —produced through the ages have charted this course between the nature of the divine and the implications for life in this world of this divine nature carefully. In some ancient stories — Greek myths, or even older myths like the Enuma Elish — deal mostly with the life of the gods, and treat humanity as an incidental bi-product, or even a distraction, these stories function to explain the nature and state of the cosmos, sometimes to account for the disinterest the divine world takes in our piddling, momentary, existence. Such stories were more difficult to churn into an ethical framework for hearers because the divine nature is so detached from life. Other epic stories where the gods step into the world to fight with or for a particular human cause are much more grounded, and so, have lasted and essentially been adapted into our modern myths — never more obviously than in the case of Thor who bridges the ancient gods, or epic heroes, with the modern. These stories, transcendent stories, serve us best when the heroes — or gods — interact with us in such a way that they ‘save us’ and in saving us, provide a pattern of life that will prevent us getting into the same trouble again. That’s what real salvation looks like; a path out of disaster. In an essay on epic heroes through the ages, Roger Rollin wrote on this sort of epic hero and their sociological function — both within the story, and within the community that tells the story.

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

In another essay about comic books functioning as modern epics, or myths, David Reynolds considers the formula that modern ‘epic’ narratives — including comic narratives — follow.

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Our post-modern epics, or myths, sometimes provide us with this sort of heroic saviour figure who stands apart from the human mess, but increasingly are not. Our heroes — for example, either Tony Stark as Iron Man, or Batman in his ‘Dark Knight’ iteration — are now flawed humans. Our ‘legendary heroes’ are not Holy messianic saviours figures. They are the reverse. Pious readers can’t jump to Jesus from these heroes any more when ‘baptising’ the stories for Christian consumption. They’re now left using these stories to explore the human condition. Because our heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, are all too human, they’re too like us. They don’t depart (mostly). But their presence actually leaves us without a model worth following, because they’re following us, just with superpowers, or fancy gadgets. The stories Rollin and Reynolds describe pre-date our post-modern ‘epics’, but actually diagnose the problem facing a world — or comic book universe — filled with flawed, fallen, characters.

The Marvel Universe needs a saviour

The Marvel Universe, in its modern cinematic/TV iteration started out a bit like a ‘harmonious paradise’ but the fall of this world didn’t just come about through villainy, it came because of the power put in the hands of flawed heroes who go to large scale war with super villains. Increasingly the stories told in this universe are dealing with the fallout in the universe that comes because Marvel’s heroes aren’t actually selfless. They’re profoundly selfish. They’re (even Thor) flawed and they’re (except for Thor) very human. Daredevil, of course, and now more recently, Jessica Jones, now live in a world, a New York, post ‘the incident’ — the wanton destruction of the city that happened when our heroes went to war with an enemy from the outside. Our stories are no longer stories of regaining paradise, as much as grappling with our inability, via flawed heroes, to do anything but perpetuate our fallen state. In the last post in this series we considered an alternative to the ‘hero as stranger’ — the ‘hero as neighbour’ — which is a game changer in an ‘immanent’ story, but not particularly helpful for epic stories that hope to help us see reality as enchanted, or to find meaning beyond the moment.

Good stories — enchanting stories — give us a way out of a purely immanent existence by inviting us to connect with a more fully meaningful view of life. A touch of the transcendent. There are those who are so fully invested in an immanent view of the world — the belief that the material realities of this life are the only realities worth exploring — who might dismiss a transcendent sphere as even worth exploring. Which explains much of our gritty storytelling.

The Marvel Universe does not just need good neighbours. Those who don masks to express the sentiment caught up by the hashtag #illridewithyou, it needs a saviour who leans down, offers a hand, and says #illhelpyouup. Neighbours are destined to be tainted by the universe — the environment — that has shaped them and their priorities. Let’s call it Batman Syndrome — Batman shapes Gotham, just as Gotham shapes him, and so an altered Batman shapes Gotham in an altered way, and in the end they become each other… This isn’t salvation so much as reconciliation, which is an immanent hope, but a transcendent story — a hero who is both in the city, and apart from it, offers a different hope. A hope untainted by a poisonous environment…

Immanent stories — these stories of becoming always end in tragedy. They describe the world as it is, and offer a compelling picture of love to fellow journeyers. But love is costly sacrifice, taking on the traits of your environment as you take on the environment for the sake of the other, or with some utopian vision that helps you lift the gaze from catastrophe to slightly more palatable catastrophe. Think Gotham without the Joker, or the crime bosses, and Hells Kitchen without Kingpin. But there’s always another villain around the corner. Transcendent stories  — enchanting stories — don’t end in catastrophe, but what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. In his masterful On Fairy Stories, in which Tolkien outlines why we need enchanting stories, and the elements of these stories that lift our gaze from the immanent and offer us an escape from a broken reality as they move us when we participate.Tolkien embraced the idea that enchanted stories were a form of consolation or escapism — he said that’s absolutely the point, because we need to escape in order to re-imagine life. Tolkien speaks of the eucatastrophe as the perfect happy ending, a taste of joy, a vital element for enchantment, and one missing from our modern epics/tragedies.

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

If the Marvel Universe is to have a happy ending, if the journey towards destruction that is both the result of its horrible villains, and the ‘heroism’ of its flawed saviours, it needs a virtuous hero to arrive who is untainted by the mess, who offers a vision for salvation, who is prepared to walk the talk, and who can truly restore and perhaps even renovate the ‘paradisiacal’ conditions we all have the sense we were made to enjoy. It needs a eucatastrophe brought about by a hero who brings a taste of joy. In ancient epic storytelling this sort of arrival on the scene of a potentially tragic story — a resolution bringer — especially when delivery seemed improbable, was called a deus ex machina, ‘a God from the machine’.

The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine

Which brings us to the latest instalment in the Marvel Universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron. And two literal gods from the machine — Ultron, and The Vision. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is all too aware of the problems created by the trajectory the Marvel universe is on, and so he, the flawed but altruistic genius, fashions a solution in his image. He attempts to create a godlike machine, a shield that will protect the world from any threat. And in this attempt creates a god from the machine — a god, Ultron — who in his godlike assessment of the situation, as he digests the entire internet, decides that humans are the problem. Ultron emerges as a new threat to humanity. An immanent, destructive, literal, God from the Machine.

Incidentally, while he might fall foul of some of the criticisms perennially directed at the deus ex machina — that he represents a contrived and convenient villain — Ultron is the embodiment of one of the greatest apocalyptic fears of the modern, secular, immanent. mind. He is the incarnation of a very modern, very immanent, concern; artificial intelligence that turns on us. He is the worst version of the ‘singularity’ — an immanent vision of the apocalypse.

Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark’s flawed utopian vision, a god from the machine but apart from humanity — a fusion of metal and code — soulless, without whatever non-physical reality it is that makes our humanity human. Ultron is an eerily immanent figure. Ultron’s imagination of salvation and transformation of the cosmos is one we need saving from. He is God in the Noah story, but without compassion or hope for humanity. In fact, some have suggested that Ultron is a secular rendition of the popular conception of the ‘God of the Old Testament’, while The Vision, his counterpart, or anti-thesis, is Jesus.

In the visage of Ultron, and then The Vision, we see a Dystopian, and then a Utopian, retelling of the same old immanent myth — a myth where humanity makes gods in order to pull us out of human made problems. Where we ultimately face a moment of crisis, or judgment, and need a saviour. Ultron wants to wipe out humanity — Noah style — The Vision wants to save us. Hero style. Both are the products of the same mechanical eschatology — this technological singularity — the apocalypse writ large, just in binary. In this eschatological frame we must pin our hopes on a saviour from the machine, because only a machine god will be enough to save us from the raging of the machine.

Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.

Bruce Banner: Ooh, it’s definitely the end times.

In this, the Marvel Universe shares an eschatology — a view of the end times — with the secular world that it is produced by. Our modern secular eschatology tends to involve a catastrophe for humanity either at the hands of the machines we create, or the world we destroy. The apocalypse is always, in a serious secular sense, and especially in our stories, a catastrophe of human making, requiring a human solution, or some super-human intervention. Nature is against us because we meddle, or the machine is against us because we aren’t careful enough in deciding which levers to pull, or what to combine. And, this is pretty much the origin story of every non-divine hero or villain in the Marvel universe. This apocalyptic stuff is about as epic as our (popular) story telling gets. This is where we ponder what the epic storytellers of old pondered — immortality, the limits of our humanity, and what the heroic life looks like in our time. These are our epics.  And. They are still thoroughly disenchanting. The world is mechanical — we’re in trouble because we’ve pulled the wrong levers, we’ve built the wrong machines within this machine. The only hope proffered for our world is a god-from-the-machine. A machine god. Our future is tied to this ‘singularity’ moment — its just a question of whether we produce a judge or a saviour. A machine who is patient with our human faults, or who sees them as a glitch to be immediately eradicated. If this is the best we can imagine, then we’re in trouble when it comes to trying to find meaning in our world, meaning that sees the world — and life in the world — as something more than mechanical.

Ultron: “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.”

 

Ultron: Do you see the beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor. My swift and terrible sword and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers; turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing! When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.

 

Ultron was meant to be both ‘judge’ and the incarnation of a better, inspirational, version of humanity. In the Noah metaphor he wanted to both bring the flood, and build the ark. Only Ultron, as a human creation, falls. He is tainted with the same problems as those who created him, the ‘fallenness’ of humanity, and our role in the apocalypse is not tied to our flesh, but our nature. 

Helen Cho: “The regeneration Cradle prints tissue; it can’t build a living body.”
Ultron: “It can, you can. You lacked the materials.”

 

Ultron: I was meant to be new. I was meant to beautiful. The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror… I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky and see hope… I’ll take that from them first.

 

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers. People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there. Children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end.

The Vision is an interesting saviour. He is the machine incarnate, embodied to step between humanity and machinageddon. If Ultron is the machine passing judgment on the planet — part human — in the comics he’s described as “every inch a human being—except that all of his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials,” and part god from the machine. He’s the embodiment, or incarnation, of Stark’s personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S, some transcendent matter in the form of the ‘infinity stone’ embedded in his head, and synthetic human flesh on a metallic frame.  The J.A.R.V.I.S component is of Stark’s making, the infinity stone comes from the gods — or from beyond the earth, but the creation of the synthetic body was Ultron’s initiative. The Vision’s making is an act of a machine god, but his breath  — his life — comes from mankind and some transcendent life force via the infinity stone, and some lightning from Thor. The infinity stone is part of the fabric of the cosmos, which, in the Marvel Universe, was created by one God, a God who is not Thor, but is infinitely greater than him. 

Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.” — Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

“…and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal—the final judge—hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of all gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!” — Thor on God, The Mighty Thor Annual #14 (1989), Marvel Comics, cited in Marvel Wiki, One-Above-All

The Vision is a bit-part god; a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of us, a bit of machine, and a few parts divine. Age Of Ultron positions him as a godlike saviour figure from above and below. He is a virtuous godlike character with enough purity to wield Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. He is, in this sense, a fusion of the immanent — flesh, code, and metal, and the transcendent — Thor’s lightning and the infinity stone. His divinity is hinted at with lines like:

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision

But he’s ultimately a ‘god’ within the cosmos, within a pantheon of equally not infinite gods, while the Living Tribunal stands apart in infinity, a distant deistic god. Thw Vision is called on to save from within the universe — part god from above, part god from below, this real god, kicks back, not intervening in the world as the universe falls apart. According to Thor at least, he’s the transcendent one who could really fix things. The infinity stones are something like a bridge to his power, but other than these stones, the transcendent is only incidentally connected to the immanent in Marvel, these bit part gods — The Vision and Ultron — like their Norse counterparts, are more immanent than transcendent, limited by how great the gap is between any of them and this real transcendent power, limited in power and to a particular place. They are finite.

Despite his godlikeness, and his name, The Vision does not have much of a vision for salvation. He should be able to save the universe, and yet, even as he destroys Ultron, he essentially admits humanity is doomed. Perhaps because humanity is not equipped to imitate his non-human virtues.

Ultron: Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
The Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron: [laughs] I suppose we are.
The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed!
The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbelievably naïve.
The Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

The Vision is the ultimate #illridewithyou hero, only, he’s not human enough to carry it out like Daredevil. He remains ‘other’. Despite his incredible power and capacity to transform the world, he’s no more inspiring or enchanting than Daredevil, he just seems less likely to be shaped by his environment. While remaining ‘other’, The Vision, like Thor before him (and like Superman) is not ‘other’ enough, godlike enough, to bring a real solution into the picture for humanity, nor is he imitable enough for his solution to be democratised. The Vision only delivers temporary relief to the Marvel Universe, and so as an example for us as viewers looking to have our imagination shaped by an epic hero, falls short. The Vision is a god from the machine, but not the Eucatastrophe, or re-imaginative transformation, the Marvel Universe requires. There is no denial of the ‘universal final defeat’ Tolkien spoke of; in fact, such defeat is seen as inevitable even by the ‘saviour’ — whatever joy that is offered is immanent joy — The Vision’s ‘grace in our failings’ or beauty in temporality. These are immanent joys; the joy of the ‘journey’ alongside others, the joy in the moment, the joy in the struggle, rather than the joy of the destination.

The Vision v Jesus: God from the machine, or God into the machine

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

“[The eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” — Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The Vision is not this hero — he’s not this sort of god. So he does not bring that sort of joy, or hope. He is, ultimately, a product of the cosmos, born, in part, from outside earth but always from within the material realities of the universe. He’s a ‘god from below’ — destined, like any other epic hero, to grasp after something transcendent, that ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (to quote David Foster Wallace), and destined to stand beside us as we share that sense. He offers no road back to paradise lost — infinity lost. Because he hasn’t been there or seen it for himself.

Tolkien wasn’t writing On Fairy Stories to engage with the Marvel Universe, but he does speak about how Jesus is a better eucatastrophe than The Vision. Jesus is both the archetypal #illridewithyou hero who walks the path we walk, only with virtue, and the stranger-saviour who wears the cost of our broken pattern of life without joining in and perpetuating it. He comes into the world and takes steps towards restoring paradise precisely because he does not follow the pattern of a caped crusader. He absorbs the corruption of the world, he takes it upon himself — he becomes sin and death, but he is equipped, by virtue of his transcendent, divine, nature, to break the human cycle rather than perpetuating it. In his full humanity, and his offer of resurrection is able, also, to provide a pattern of life that might see hope

The Vision might be a secular Jesus figure, but he’s a cheap Jesus. Jesus is not a bunch of bits stitched together by a bunch of broken people, bringing their own brokenness to the table. He’s not part human, part machine, part divine — its in his paradoxical fusion of full divinity — or transcendence — with full humanity — or immanence — as a hero simultaneously from above and below — a God from the machine, and God coming into the machine in one person — that makes Jesus both the archetypal epic hero, and the eucatastrophe this world needs (and that the Marvel Universe could do with too). It’s these two natures working in symphony that means Jesus was able to enter our journey and secure a heroic victory over death on our behalf, while also inviting people to touch the infinite; to see the finite world as ‘enchanted,’ filled with divine meaning because he is both the one who holds all things in his hands, and the one whose hands were pierced by spikes to remove the threat of universal final defeat, and to provide a path and an invitation to us to join him in paradise renovated. These hands bring the finite and infinite together.

The Gospel is the best epic story, and Jesus the best epic hero, according to every formula for assessing such stories. Jesus provides a vision for a future world — the Kingdom of God — and invites people to follow his example in bringing a taste of this joy — being bringers of ‘eucatastrophic’ moments as we follow his example of the epic life. This has been a key belief of epic tellers of the Christian story from the early days of Christianity, here’s Athanasius, an old dude, reflecting on the nature of Christ in a way that seems to parallel with the modern archetypal hero story… the same story The Vision was expected to live out, but admitted he could not…

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.” — Athanasius, On The Incarnation

 

According to Tolkien, Jesus, in the Gospel, is the prime example of the Eucatastrophe — the true eucatastrophe that all fictional eucastrophes draw on. Jesus is better than The Vision because he is better than any epic hero. His story is more compelling, and should stoke the fires of our imagination better than any other story, and lead to a more enchanted view of the immanent and transcendent meaning of life in this world than any other, this should lead us to make better art, tell better stories, and live better stories. Here’s a passage from On Fairy Stories.

In the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a faroff gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories