Category Archives: Culture

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The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

For the couple of months I’ve poured more hours than I care to count into The Sims 2. I even built this cathedral with the aim of turning young Jonesy Jones into a mega-church planter (for a while he was appropriately employed as ‘Cult Leader’). In a triumph of church architecture, I built him his own light-filled ‘crystal cathedral,’ with couches for pews, a cruciform layout, a podium as a pulpit, a buffet table as an altar, and state of the art musical instruments in the wings. Jonesy drives a not-too-ostentatious car (the second most expensive in the game, lodged between ‘people mover’ and ‘sports car’ in cost, but high on ‘approval’ from those who track his spending), which is parked in the driveway of his modest, though comfortable, manse, on site.

He, ironically, lost all his friends in the move to this building (I clicked the wrong button), so needs to rebuild his little human empire congregation; though he has maxed out his charisma skills, and he’s a naturally fun guy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s dangerous, because Jonesy Jones also craves human affection, so his happiness is going to depend lots on how people respond to this project.

In short, I’m hoping Jonesy is nothing like me — but there’s a danger that, at my worst, he is a projection of who I think I should be in my darker moments…

It has taken me a little bit to figure out why I find the idea of clicking and controlling the lives of little simulated people so compelling; and to figure out what it is that drives the choices I make as to how they live, and the jobs they do, and the families they create and the homes they build.

So much of it is about control.

Unlike in the real world where I exercise almost little to no control over the lives and decisions of the real people around me — kids, family, colleagues, or congregants — and where that can feel like I’m flinging myself around a sinking ship trying to peg gaps if I’m not careful to remember I’m not God… the Sims lets you play at being God in a controlled environment. Though you’re mostly ‘in control,’ it’s still a matter of ‘life and death’ — a sim can die if you accidentally deprive them of the essentials of life — food, rest, friends, and fun — or if there’s some sort of ‘divine’ action where, for example, repairing an electrical device goes wrong, or a meteor strikes you while you’re looking through a telescope — but you know these risks and love your little sims, so you direct them away from harmful behaviour and towards the straight and narrow… mostly… I might have deliberately killed a sim or two in my time by swallowing them up with a meat eating plant, boxing them in to a room with no doors, or removing a ladder from a swimming pool — I mean, who hasn’t… but I’ve never killed a sim who didn’t deserve it.

I really have been pondering my addiction; there’s perhaps nothing more repetitive than the accretive clicking of the mouse required to build a little Sim empire, and so there’s something oddly liturgical about this game and the story it tells about what life as God is like, or perhaps what life ‘in control’ in the real world might feel like. There’s a danger a game like The Sims feeds a certain dissatisfaction about real life — not just that conflict in the real world can’t be solved by a few pillow fights, or hangouts, or some time around the pool table — but that other people aren’t so easily directed. I can’t just click a mouse and make my problems, or theirs, go away. I can’t organise the lives of others to achieve collective goals or to pursue my own personal narrative.

And, as dad, pastor, and colleague, this bothers me. There are so many spheres of my life where, if I were honest, I’d prefer life to be more like the Sims.  There has never been a time in my life where I’ve felt less in control of the decisions and actions of others, nor more like I’d like to be in control of those decisions in some sort of ‘ideal world’. I’ve been solo parenting two of our kids as part of a 13 day trip for Robyn and our oldest; and our house looks nothing like the carefully curated houses I build in the Sims (with excess space and plenty of distractions, plus a paid cleaner to keep things in order).

I don’t have a highly cultivated ‘personal influence’ ability that allows me to direct and influence sims who aren’t even under my Godlike powers as part of the ‘family’… I’m not a cult leader. I don’t cultivate a following because of my charisma which means people will literally stand for many ‘sim hours’ to hear me speak (I’m lucky if I can hold a room for 15 minutes of my allotted 25 and actual 30).

Our little church community doesn’t have a building to call our own, not a cruciform cathedral with a glass roof like my Sims one, or just a humble hall. And so we’ve been subject to the whims of other hosts (though God has providentially provided an alternative meeting place in fairly bizarre circumstances) — as of January 7 we’ll have moved venues twice in a four month period. We live, it seems, in a perpetual state of spatial flux. Never knowing where home is, and making the best of whatever spot we’re in (or looking for something more suitable), but it’s not ultimately up to us where we land. We don’t own a space, and buying one with the right zoning would require an act of powers greater than mine (both God and the Brisbane City Council).

I can’t click a button to make people sit in the (comfortable) pews. People are leaving our community for reasons from the practical to the political to the theological; and if I could click and send them somewhere — if I were God — I’d keep them and have those decisions resolved around a table and in conversation (or if none of that worked out, my Sims like temptation would be to find some button I could click to make them think like me). People are also joining our community and changing the ‘family ecosystem’ in ways that are great, but also part of the challenge of a dynamic and moving organism — ways that reduce ‘control’ for any one person (me) as we grow.

And yet, in these moments of uncertainty and this growing sense that I’m not in control, I guess I’ve had two options. I could’ve spent these many hours of ‘down time’ responding to these circumstances in many constructive ways (not just virtual reality contructive ways), and yet, I’ve chosen to play a stupid computer game as some sort of catharsis (I’m sure it has worked, and I’m not the sort to be negative about the power of games, or about their entertainment value and the need for rest and recreation). The Sims could teach me to be frustrated about life outside the virtual realm, or it could point me to the one who is in control.

In the midst of my addiction to The Sims I went along to a discussion night on James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love, which, along with Smith’s other ‘Cultural Liturgies’ works provides a useful Augustinian (and Biblical) account of human behaviour and how people change; the idea that we feed our desires and our sense of how life is to be lived by repetitive action — or liturgies — the best, most powerful, and most dangerous of these liturgies, in terms of formation, are the ones that suck us in through our imaginations and our feelings, not through reasoned repetition… but the mindless stuff. When I was asked what habitual actions I hadn’t really assessed in a sort of behavioural audit, I was tempted to gloss over just how many hours I’d spend in this alternate reality. This fantasy world.

This made me wonder what it is my repetitive clicks and the story they are attached to in my imagination — my participation in The Sims and its world and stories — what it forms in my desires and my approach to the world beyond the computer screen. Am I picturing my little sims as real people? Projecting my control into the real world and assessing reality through escapism? Am I feeling dissatisfied that the real world is not like this virtual one? Perhaps not consciously, but am I turning to this game and others like it where I know I am totally in control to escape from a world where I know I’m not… probably… that’s what escapism is all about (and it’s not always a bad thing to escape — a point Tolkien makes brilliantly in On Fairy Stories).  Am I overthinking this? Perhaps… or does this complete control feed a dissatisfaction about the way things are in relationships with real people? Am I likely to idolise control — or a world where I wield godlike power?

Probably.

Is this dangerous?

Definitely.

In exactly the same way as trying to play the superhero pastor… trying to be God, or any recognition that you are not… is absolutely toxic to a healthy life in the real world, but especially deadly in the context of Christian ministry where so many churches have fallen apart because of an approach to leadership that looks just like the pastor is trying to play the Sims with a congregation that isn’t ‘their flock’ but God’s. It’s this desire to be in control (and perhaps a belief a leader should be) that I suspect leads to abusive practices in both public and private. Feeding this desire is dangerous; especially if the desire is focused through a lens of self-pity, or the flip-side, entitlement and self-interest.

There are fleeting moments when I believe I want to be in control. To be able to direct people, to ‘helpful’ places of course. Those are the times when I am sinfully tempted to act like a cult leader, or to get a pattern for leadership from something other than the cross of Jesus. The cross isn’t just a pattern for good Sims church architecture. It’s a way of being in the world; of being ‘in the church’ that teaches me that it’s not by my might or power than anything happens, but by the willingness of God to send his son into the world in a picture of leadership that looks a lot like self-emptying service of others.

I am not in control. I am not the artist or the author — the creator — creating a world with the lives and images of other people.

Other people don’t exist to play my game or be clicked into place.

Other people should be thankful that life is not The Sims, and that I am not the mouse-like God in such a world.

I don’t type these as a mantra to remind myself of things I ought to believe are true (in case you’re worried I’m some sort of narcissist trying to talk myself out of cult-leading). I type these as truths that are fundamental to how the universe actually is… but that are counter to the bit of the human heart The Sims might feed if we let it.

I do not have the sort of control in the real world that I do in the Sims, and I do not want to…

But more than that, I should be thankful that I do not.

What a crushing responsibility that would be to bear — to be responsible for the decisions of every individual in my orbit, or of the rhythms and life of any community or family. I need more chaos in my gaming diet to remind me that I am not in control (so I started playing Zombie survival/horror game 7 Days To Die, which is reminding me that having literally no control over life or death is just as debilitating and frustrating), but more than that I need to keep prayerfully remembering that it is God who authors both my story and the stories of those in my life  — whether they’re in or out of the church community he has placed me in — as part of his story… Or as Paul put it in his sermon in Athens, from Acts 17… that he gives us life, and breath, and everything else — even the sense of how little control we wield — so that we might seek and find him, the grand architect of the cosmos.

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

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

I need to keep seeing my job (as parent, pastor, and person) not as exercising control (or even influence) but as pointing people to the one who is in control. I like another thing that Paul said about how he approached this task knowing that God is God, and we are not. He doesn’t click people into place, or persuade and manipulate through power, coercion, or deception. He lives and preaches the Gospel of the crucified Jesus, and lets God be God.

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:1-2

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10 Lessons the church could hope-fully learn from the same sex marriage fight

It’s fair to say the leaders of politically conservative Christianity here in Australia have been soundly defeated this week. We were told that the best way to secure religious freedom was to fight robustly against same sex marriage (even to make the fight against same sex marriage a fight against religious freedom) and it turns out, at least this week, that this was a terrible strategy. If these leaders led in a secular environment where results matter then they should be lining up for new employment tomorrow… but Christians don’t operate this way; we learn from mistakes, we grow, and we forgive… we focus on character or virtue (means) rather than results (ends) at least when we’re at our best.

Now. Unlike many things I’ve read this week I remain hopeful about the future of Christianity in Australia; and even about our religious freedoms, though I do think there are significant challenges that would require us to learn big lessons from the last few years.

Now. Before we go on down the path of thinking ‘here’s a political (or theological) liberal telling conservatives to suck lemons’ or whatever; I reckon I’m still a conservative theologically, and I struggle to pin myself down politically; the best articulation I’ve found of my dilemma politically is one from a Christian in the US, despairing about the evangelical church throwing its lot in with Donald Trump and arguing for a different conservative political vision.

I wrote a short piece for Eternity’s latest print edition as a bit of a post-mortem of the postal survey; some of the points here are duplicated ideas from there.

1. Hope is found in the Cross of Jesus. Political hope is found in a politics of the Cross.

Politics is not restricted to the corridors of power (or even to power).

Elections are now won or lost at the grass roots; social media is all the rage. Politics is ultimately about people. There was a clear sense that the No campaign understood this (I’ve never been urged to doorknock by church and mission agencies so much in my life). But what we’re missing is that there’s actually more to shaping our shared life together than the law and the courts. There’s a politics of institution building apart from the government; of faithful presence in our communities; of loving those at the margins who we might sit across from in the power struggles that we’ve mostly missed.

There’s a whole element of our engagement with politics missing; we’ve outsourced the professional stuff so that there are only a handful of MPs who grasp how religious faith operates, and we’re too focused on other concerns to join the rank and file of party membership to start civil conversations and disagreeing well at a local level; we’re also too enamoured by the idea that political change happens top down rather than from the community up; yesterday’s decision was the government catching up with the will of the people, not shaping it. If we want to be effective we might practice a different shaping of people’s vision of the good life for our nation by doing grass roots politics differently; it might be more holding barbecues than doorknocking. It’s too easy to outsource our politics to denominational leaders and professional lobby groups (and then to rely on those politicians of faith to get the job done when all else has been lost).

Here’s James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World; it’s worth slogging through this because of his diagnosis of modern life, and what he says about public life, public space, and politics without actually giving a way forward.

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Imagine if we took up our cross, and let that shape our politics. If it wasn’t about winning but about following the example of Jesus whose very public faith was an act of publicly being put to death by those wielding political power; but ironically, it was at this point that he was claiming the crown and the throne of the kingdom of heaven. Imagine if we saw building that kingdom and having it accommodated in our nation as our public, political, priority.

2. Hope is found in a secular, pluralistic, politics of generous compromise

We’ve created the rod for our own back by playing politics as a zero sum game.

A zero sum game is a game where there is one winner and one loser; which is how a debate framed around securing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote operates. Imagine if we’d sought to be peacemakers. The people now asking for religious freedoms are (largely) the same people who campaigned against the freedom for same sex couples to describe their relationships according to conscience and deeply held convictions about the world. As soon as this issue became about winners and losers we Christians were going to lose; and because we aimed to ‘win’ (to have our will and God’s design shape the nation’s laws), there is nothing for us now that we’ve lost. We’re left relying on the goodwill of the victors, and just as we weren’t interested in protecting their freedoms, en masse, they’re seemingly not particularly inclined to protect ours.

It might be too late to play ‘what if’ here; but what if we’d recognised the goodness of religious freedom for a shared life in our diverse community and taken the first step towards compromise. For too many Christians compromise is a dirty word; but we’re talking about how non-Christians live, so compromises might actually be steps towards virtue rather than away from it; and we might view compromise as a dirty word and lose that simply by playing power-politics or seeking to win via worldly power we’re already compromised.

This is probably the best point to address this — but one thing I hope never to see again is us embracing populism on the off chance it will deliver the best result for us; rather than working towards the best result for the unpopular in order for them to live well in community with those who disagree with their lifestyle. It’s pretty clear we’re not the popular ones any more but this would be a pragmatic reason to jump; the virtuous reason is that it’s just the right thing to do in a system of government built on the belief that all people are made in the image of God and so of equal value in a society. Populism is a form of power politics; when we play power politics for our own interest, or against the interest of a marginalised group in society, we undermine the message of the Gospel; that God’s power is present in weakness — the cross, not the sword.

3. Hope is found in a public faith

We’ve got a problem with the secular/sacred divide and how it operates and is understood here in Australia; it cuts both ways. Acknowledging that everything is sacred for everybody is more theologically honest (and has greater explanatory power).

Now. I’m not totally freaked out by the religious freedom stuff from this week — the failed amendments — the way same sex marriage has been introduced has been via the amending of existing acts (especially The Marriage Act); the Smith bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which sought to protect religious freedom while changing the definition of marriage, included amendments to an existing framework which explicitly deals with clergy in their function as celebrants.

But the discussion around the issue has been revealing. One way it has been revealing is that it has exposed our inability to grapple with some of the basic expediencies of governing and that these grey areas will be used by people with agendas… had we listened better (see point 5) we wouldn’t (yet) be feeling like the sky is falling in; but I reckon as we do listen it becomes clear that there’ll be a problem when the government does set about dealing with religious freedom.

When Labor front-bencher Brendan O’Connor, speaking on Q&A after the result of the postal survey was announced, said “the religious freedoms and protections are contained within the bill” he was using this to dismiss the concerns of religious people that marriage re-definition has particular and direct religious freedom ramifications (beyond celebrants); Labor’s position (and that of the Greens, and members of the Liberal Party) seems to be that protecting clergy and protecting sacred space is enough. The Smith Bill says its objects are:

(a)  to allow civil celebrants to solemnise marriage, understood as the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; and

(b)  to allow ministers of religion to solemnise marriage, respecting the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their religion, the views of their religious community or their own religious beliefs; and

(c)  to allow equal access to marriage while protecting religious freedom in relation to marriage.

When it comes to protecting religious freedoms it is rightly focused on religious celebrants because those are the people explicitly included in and affected by changes to the original Marriage Act. The amendment does provide robust protection for religious celebrants, and also for “bodies established for religious purposes” who “may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services.” The act protects sacred people and sacred space; and if these were the limits of religious life then the act does a fine job of achieving its end.

Only. There’s a problem.

One of our founding democractic principles; oft-cited in this debate is the ‘separation of church and state’ — how that is now understood, if James Davison Hunter is right about the current landscape, is that the state is responsible for the public life of a citizen, and religion is an entirely private matter. More; because Christians throughout the ages have bought into an anemic, Platonic (literally) vision of Christianity where belief is enough, and the salvation of the soul is the purpose of the Christian life, we’ve got rampant nominalism in Australia shaping our understanding of what Christianity is, and a thin Christianity being practiced within the church. We don’t just buy the secular/sacred divide. We sell it.

Until we’re a florist or a baker who doesn’t want to participate in a same sex marriage, or medical professional who doesn’t want to participate in abortion or euthanasia, or the myriad other ways the secular/sacred divide is demonstrably falsified in the throes of real life.

Here’s the problem.

There’s a certain secular agenda who want to keep religion private if it is going to exist at all… and a certain predisposition of religious people in Australia to live according to those rules anyway, coupled with a “secular” political strategy being adopted by Christian lobbyists and institutions (which further reinforces the perception that explicitly religious beliefs don’t belong in the political realm.

There’s another problem.

There’s no such thing as a place that isn’t sacred for Christians (or, as I’ll suggest, for anybody). It’s a noble act on the government’s part to consider space and how it is weaponised, and to seek to protect church property becoming a political battleground; but bizarrely, Jacqui Lambie, on a recent Q&A episode, nailed the problem with a scenario:

“You know, I had a bloke ring me back two weeks ago saying, “Jacqui, I want to know what my rights are right now because I only want to marry a man and wife in my garden.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you out with that.” He’s now going to sit in limbo for months. What should he do? He has a freedom in this country. He has a right to say, “You know what? Because of my religious freedom…my religious beliefs, I cannot marry you in my backyard.” And this is what you are doing to people because you’re going out there, bull at a bloody gate, as politicians do, and yet they haven’t filled in the gaps. How long are these people going to have to go through more pain? They’ve lost. They’re feeling the pain. How much longer do they have to feel more pain?”

Is your backyard sacred space?

For Christians all space is sacred because there is no square millimetre that is not in reality created by God and under the Lordship of Jesus. But all public space is capable of being sacred for any of us; some space is more malleable and contested, so, for example, we rent a space used by the Opera to run church on Sundays.

The thing is it’s not just that there is no secular/sacred divide for Christians, there is no secular sacred divide for anyone; and we’d have a much richer pluralism if we just acknowledged that all public space is “sacred” and contested; and that governments either have to pick what the majority believes is right or accommodate different parties in the contest, or both. We can’t pretend the ‘secular’ methodology is neutral if it excludes the sacred reality of mundane life. We don’t expect others to check their beliefs at the door and make a public/private distinction in this way — especially the non-religious — and this is why we should have approached changing the Marriage act as a chance to offer religious freedom to others; not as a contest about the ontological definition of marriage (which is inevitably shaped by one’s sacred sense of how life works), or even the ‘common good’ without understanding all goods as ‘secular and sacred’. We saw evidence in the lead up to the legislation changing (both before and during the postal survey) that the change was being pursued with a religious fervour (often with religious language), where ‘heretics’ were anathematised (Coopers Light anybody), and where ‘priestly actors’ in the religion of sex and the free market made both public pronouncements (corporate advertising for a yes vote) and cleaned up their temple infrastructure (changing employee policies and in extreme cases, dismissing staff). These are pretty much the same freedoms the church is asking for as ‘sacred acts’ being conducted by actors who hold to a different sacred view.

David Foster Wallace once said “everybody worships”; and elsewhere (in Infinite Jest) that worship is what you would lay down your life for, or what you love ultimately. He also said that the term ‘fanatic’ comes from ‘worshipper at a temple’ and that we all have a temple; we just have to choose it carefully. He’s right. We all get our identity from somewhere —ultimately from what we worship — and if that is now wrapped up with politics (and political ideology) then everybody is basically operating with no separation between church and state… everybody but us Christians. This is what Romans 1 teaches too; as part of the theology of the Bible that starts with us being made as the living idols (images) of the living God, who, in worshipping other things, start to represent/be the image of those gods. There’s no secular/sacred divide because worship is enacted love (and belief) and shapes who we are.

We’ve got a problem. The secular world we live in believes faith is private and politics is public. And so do most Christians, most of the time. We need to recapture the idea that our faith is public; which means our faith is also inherently political.

4. Hope is found in listening better

I think this one operates on a few levels; one, we could have listened to the voices and desires of others better so as to understand them, two, we could’ve listened to the decision makers better about how they understood exactly what is and isn’t on the table in this process, and three, I personally think we could’ve listened to God better (and his explanation for departures from his design for life, and what the way back is (the Spirit via the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1-2, Romans 1, Romans 8).

As evidence for the first point, I sat in a room of Presbyterian ministers from around the country who specifically resolved to participate in the Coalition for Marriage, and resolved (minuted) against being on the record as seeking to understand the concerns of the LGBTI community. The thing about minutes isn’t just that they’re public and so can be appealed to to account for how we ended up where we got; they’re also public and so help shape how we act. This was shaping we didn’t believe we needed, apparently, but the Coalition for Marriage campaign lacked both grace (in tone and content) and understanding. We just didn’t care about the other; we cared about truth and winning.

As for the second point; in seeking to make the issue being discussed the secondary impact without actually demonstrating a link between same sex marriage and safe schools (already taught in schools) or same sex marriage and same sex parenting (which already happens in our community), and about religious freedom, we also failed to listen to the way the postal survey was being framed and being understood. We assumed we were in a position to shape the form of the debate; or hosts of the table, and not just participants simply by shouting over the top of the host (the parliamentarians) and the other guests (the yes campaign) who mostly agreed on what was being discussed.

The view of the government was that the postal survey was specifically about whether or not the definition of marriage should change; it was a discussion about what marriage is according to the law of Australia so when we made it about all these other things we were understood not to be listening. It’s still possible we aren’t listening on the religious freedom front when we’ve made it all about the secondary issues and then pinned our hope on amendments to a bill about marriage law. The government has promised a more widespread review on religious freedom. Perhaps that’s where our energy should be, post-postal survey (though I wonder if our energy is better spent showing how religious freedom is a good thing for our society by exercising it in how we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… how we live and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Here’s the attorney general, George Brandis, on the post-postal survey episode of Q&A in November:

“What the Prime Minister and I, as two of the Government’s principal advocates for the Yes vote, have always said is that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between recognising the right of same-sex couples to marry, which this prime minister has worked for in a way that no other Australian prime minister has ever done, and at the same time respecting traditional religious freedoms.”

Now. A little back and forth on that same question reveals the problem with secular/sacred thinking as it operates in our community and how these two issues are actually linked, and that the failure to listen goes both ways… but we don’t compound not being heard well by not listening well ourselves. Here’s a question that assumes no secular sacred divide. The bold bits are telling.

GEOFFREY JONES
My question is to Brendan O’Connor. Regarding the recent plebiscite result, the diverse Western Sydney will want strong conscience provisions when the Marriage Act is changed. Muslim bakers from Bankstown will want the right to opt out of baking cakes for gay weddings, and Maronite families from Punchbowl will want the freedom to establish schools that teach the Maronite ethos, and Christian Samoan preachers won’t want to be dragged before any hate speech tribunals. Can you see why promises to protect these people’s rights at a later unspecified date might sound insincere?

TONY JONES
OK, we’ll go to Brendan O’Connor first, and we’ll hear from Janet as well.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR
Clearly, there are protections afforded to religious institutions insofar as who they choose to marry. That’s contained within the Dean Smith bill. However, it’s also critical to ensure that we do not go backwards when it comes to anti-discrimination laws. I mean, it would be absurd, offensive and ironic that we would find ourselves going backwards in discriminating against same-sex couples in order to reintroduce and indeed qualify anti-discrimination laws that exist already in this country. So, I don’t accept the proposition that religious pastors or religious preachers or others who choose to marry only heterosexual couples are discriminated against insofar as the bill that’s been proposed by Senator Smith. And for that reason, I think… And that’s the thing I’m worried about – that people will attempt to create a scare campaign to misrepresent the actual bill that’s before the Parliament, which we’ve been debating, I might add, certainly in the case of the House of Representatives, for over 40 hours. It wasn’t like we haven’t thought these things through. And there’s been hundreds and hundreds of hours, of course, that has led to the outcome of that bill. And it’s one of the very few decisions… Whilst we didn’t support the survey and we’ve said it was an expensive waste of time, I have to say the result of the survey certainly endorsed the view that overwhelmingly Australians want to see the end of discrimination against same-sex couples, and their right to marry should be enshrined in law. And I don’t think it should be…

Let’s pause for a second; for Labor’s Brendan O’Connor, religious freedoms are about pastors and institutions, but what is at stake here is framed by the limits of the conversation and the bill… who gets married in ‘sacred’ spaces by ‘sacred’ people, (not how marriage is understood, recognised and practiced in public — which was at the heart of the question).

Green senator Janet Rice is in same sex relationship and has been a passionate advocate for marriage equality. She was also on the Q&A panel, and here was her response to that same question.

“Yes, I mean, Geoffrey, you’ve got some serious concerns, but I think largely they are unfounded, because religious organisations and ministers will continue to have the right to choose who they marry. And nobody is going to be forced to marry… If you’re a church or another religious institution, you’re not going to be forced to marry people that you don’t want to marry.”

Again, for her, religious freedom concerns are all about sacred people and spaces, which are protected, but she doesn’t actually listen to the question either to see how the sacred extends beyond the question of who someone marries to how we recognise and practice marriage (and the recognition of marriage) in public. But for these two politicians that issue isn’t on the table even if it was the heart of Geoffrey’s question (and the no campaign).

Here’s how George Brandis responded to this same question:

“… let’s be very plain about this. What the Australian people voted for overwhelmingly last week was a very simple proposition – should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? That was the question that was put to them and it was the only question that was put to them.”

There’s a really interesting back and forth in this discussion in that Q&A transcript that I think gel with what I’ve said above (and a great contribution from broadcaster Stephen O’Doherty who gets it), and George Brandis who says these issues (marriage and freedom) are related but not the same so shouldn’t be dealt with at the same time… But here’s something that should give us hope, that parliamentarians are willing to do the hard work of figuring out religious freedom; just not at the same time as they redefine marriage, here’s Labor’s Brendan O’Connor:

“It’s a debate we should have separate to the bill that’s before the Parliament in a couple of weeks. And it should be something we can look at in the New Year, because we should be focusing on the question of enacting marriage equality.”

By getting angsty about the failure for amendments to be carried when the vast majority of participants understood the amendments as being about a totally separate issue, we’ve failed to listen. There is still hope. It’s always been awkward to me that the same people who say that the government should uphold Christian goods as communal goods are also the most cynical about the likelihood that they might eventually do that. It’s that awkward part of reformed theology where we paradoxically believe that all people are broken by sin, but also that the government will a mechanism for the provision of common grace.

By trying to make this conversation about something else we haven’t been great participants in the dialogue; but by not listening to these genuine concerns (and not understanding the public nature of faith) this hasn’t been a particularly civil, generous, or pluralistic dialogue. The right response to that is for us to practice the virtue of civic dialogue, built on listening well, not simply to speak without seeking to understand.

5. Hope is found in the imagination; in imagining and publicly striving for the goodness, truth, and beauty of the kingdom of God.

Imagine a politics shaped by the imagination; and that sought to present the goodness, truth, and beauty of life in the kingdom of God, where Christians truly saw themselves as ambassadors for Jesus, and happily proclaimed his rule (and relevance) for life in Australia.

What if we’d approached this debate as ambassadors for Jesus; as an opportunity to present the compelling vision of a marriage shaped by the Gospel that so many of us are motivated by in our own public and private lives?

Or, to flog something from Wesley Hill who flogged it from someone else:

“What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.”

What if we’d told stories about the goodness of male/female marriage for kids and communities, and stories of same sex attracted Christians who chose Jesus over the pursuit of marriage? We’d score less political points (and results), but we’d be cultivating virtue. And politics doesn’t have to be a results game; not in an eternal perspective. If Jesus played the results game Caesar would have faced a flaming sword and an army of angels, instead, Jesus faced humiliating death on the cross.

Our entire political paradigm is about winning results, not persuading people. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says since we know what good it is to follow Jesus, to be new creations, to ‘fear the Lord, “we try to persuade others”… that we do this as new creations — a taste of God’s eternal kingdom — and as new creations we are ambassadors for Jesus. This changes our approach to public life, and politics, because it changes the win.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  — 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

6. Hope is found in stories.

Imagine if we’d told better stories; rather than campaigning on fear, loathing, and logic. Their stories trumped our facts.

Being more imaginative and aiming at the imagination would mean a shift from ‘reason’ to ‘reason and emotion’ and from ‘facts’ to ‘true stories’…

Have you been watching the speeches in parliament this last week? The ones in favour of changing the act? They’ve almost universally been stories of people whose lives will be improved by this decision — or from parents of same sex attracted children who wish to marry, or from a mother whose son tragically took his own life. These stories resonate because they speak to our hearts; to our emotions and desires. They continue the trajectory established by the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘No’ campaign, on the other hand, traded on facts and logic, and when it did veer into emotions, on fear rather than joy; and by trading on fear (and stoking fear) around the issue of a marginalised people group who feel ostracised from the mainstream, the no campaign added a dash of loathing.

This was bad marketing and a product of a bad anthropology; people aren’t thinking things, or computers, or rational decision makers. We are storied creatures; virtue is cultivated by the participation in a community that is deliberately living out a story (see Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue); the Bible is a story not just a collection of facts… God is a story teller who both in the Bible, and in history, orchestrated the story of the universe to centre on Jesus. But when it came to politics we played the game like we were addressing modernist, 1950s Australia, and so, obscured the story we should be on about — the one that does answer the same desires for love, intimacy, commitment and being known that the yes campaign was promising marriage would deliver on.

7. Hope is found in adorning the Gospel and seeking to win the person, not the political point

Imagine if we adorned the Gospel with our religion such that it won goodwill from those who would most naturally be opposed to us. If that was the win (the adorning the Gospel bit) and the desired outcome wasn’t the zero sum political win, but winning the person.

This one flows from the last. Imagine if we did this ambassador thing, but went to those who think of us as enemies, and those who are marginalised, oppressed, and downtrodden by public life (not just politicians)?

Playing to win the political argument didn’t win people to Jesus; if the conversations I have with people are anything to go by, these conversations turned people away from Jesus.

I’ve written too much already, so these last three can stand without explanation for now.

8. Hope is found in the rejection of cynicism.

Imagine if we exchanged cynicism for hope; we might get taken advantage of, but we’d lose well. Nothing kills hope faster than habitual cynicism, even if real life seems like something we should be cynical about. Real life is life where every morning is one morning closer to the return of Jesus and heaven and earth merging together (Revelation 21-22). Cynicism is for schmucks. Being hopeful is, itself, a virtue.

9. Hope is found in prayer and through complexity.

Governing isn’t easy. Nobody who believes in any ideology sets out to compromise; and sin and the cursed frustration of life and death in a living and dying planet is difficult to navigate. That’s why the Bible makes such a big deal of wisdom as a virtue. Imagine if we listened to and assumed the best of our politicians who are doing difficult work; and were known for prayerfully carrying the cost of some of that complexity. The Bible also says we should pray for those in government.

10. Hope is found in the pursuit of virtue, not the securing of self interest

Imagine if we were really more interested in virtue than outcomes. For Christians virtue formation comes from living in our story — a story of God being creator and redeemer (and judge). A story that has an ending that we already know, secured through a means (the cross) that brings a certain sort of character formation that happens through politics. Imagine if that meant we could lose well and not be seen to be scrambling to secure our own interests. Imagine if instead of pushing for religious freedom for ourselves, we’d been big on freedom for communities to form around the pursuit of virtue around a story; confident that as we live in one of those communities in public that would be persuasive and see God’s kingdom grow, and more virtue formed… Imagine if instead of seeing religious freedom as an ends, we used the freedom we have as a means to a different ends… seeking to persuade people to be reconciled to God.

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Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

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The superhero pastor

I don’t often write about the day to day business of pastoring a church; I always feel like pastors writing about being pastors is a bit self-indulgent and often it boils down to a sort of ‘woe is me, my job is harder than you could imagine… if only you would do more, good Christian, you would keep me from burnout’… or my personal least-favourite, tips for how to ‘appreciate your pastor in pastor appreciation month’… blurgh…

I love my job and think it’s a privilege to be paid to tell people about Jesus and think about how our church should best shape itself in order to reach our friends, family, and neighbours. I do feel appreciated by lots of people. I’m thankful for my church family. And the answer for how to appreciate your pastor and make them feel better is probably just to turn up to church and love the people who are part of your church family with every bit of who you are — mess included…

But indulge me. Just this once (well. I can’t guarantee it’ll only be once).

Pastoring a church is actually a super hard job. One I’ve only been doing for a few years. I’m a total rookie, and most of the time I feel like I’m in over my head and that I’m making things up as I go, hoping not to hurt too many people… and unlike most rookies, I have an incredible team of people supporting me; a dad whose footsteps I’m following in, a boss who coaches and supports me, a mentor who mentors me, a team of fellow staff who shoulder all sorts of responsibilities, and a pretty great church community… even with the best human support structures in the world this job is hard, and it throws up curveball after curveball.

I’m in a little season of feeling sorry for myself and counting the cost of some of my mistakes; of decisions made, or not made, of structures adopted, but mostly just of spinning plates that have fallen from different sticks while my attention was on the balls I was juggling at the same time. Mostly it’s a season of counting the cost of simply being normal-human rather than super-human. Sometimes I wish I was a super-hero, or super-pastor. Like the ones you see on the Internet (or on TV if you watch that rubbish).

It’s easy to think that a church succeeds or fails on the shoulders of the pastor — that’s what we’re often told; it’s there in the literature in the Christian bookshops, and on Christian websites… pastors grow and shrink churches…  and I suspect that for many people it’s easy to believe your own faith lives or dies on the shoulders of your pastor, because heaven forbid you need to take responsibility for your own growth, or changing how you live to be more like Jesus without someone telling you. Let me stress this is not all people.

I’m almost four years in and I’m reasonably sure my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing this load; the responsibility of growing (or shrinking) a church, or the responsibility of ‘growing’ a Christian using my own power. I’m also six years into parenting, and have three kids, and feel overwhelmed by that load… four years into dog ownership and feel like my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing that load… and just over ten years into marriage. There are a lot of loads for my shoulders to bear should I see my task in these terms. In a lifetime of being around church ministry stuff, I’ve also watched the load of pastoring metaphorically (though perhaps literally on a spiritual level, and a family level) tearing people apart, and I’m pretty determined for that not to be me, or my family.

A huge part of the battle not to be torn apart is the battle not to buy into the myth of the super-pastor.

You know the one, you probably see it on social media if you follow pastors whose official fan pages post clips of their most impassioned preaching (in their lycra-like tight preaching costume, with their slicked-back hair, telling stories about their kids)… it’s the story that the pastor has his stuff together as a family man and only ever loses it as his kids in order to have just the right story for his sermon.

It’s the story of the pastor who has been through the hero’s journey — who set out on an adventure, was broken, but has now returned, like Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to lead the solution to the church’s problems.

The myth of the super-pastor is not just the myth that the pastor’s own congregation needs the salvation that only this pastor can bring, but that the whole church needs this super-pastor. So the platform has to grow; the books have to be published, and screens have to be rolled out across the land. We’ve seen it all before. We’ll see it again. And as a pastor it’s tempting to believe it when things are going well — and to be crushed by it when they aren’t.

It certainly feels like the church needs a super-hero; not just our church (which has its own problems and is enough to leave me feeling inadequate and out of my depth). I sat at our local Westfield this afternoon with one of the guys from church, overwhelmed again by just how many people there are in our city and how many of them don’t know Jesus. People walking by our table living in their own little stories, pursuing their own goals, and identity, and ultimately worshipping something other than Jesus. I was struck, again, by our city’s need for a saviour. I was struck by just how poorly our churches are doing at reaching people.

I went to the Ashes test and the Rugby League World Cup semi-final here in Brisbane on Friday and was, cumulatively, surrounded by almost 60,000 people. The Presbyterian Church of Queensland, across the board, in Queensland, claims weekly attendance of around 7,600 people.

We’re not, by any stretch, the only show in town when it comes to preaching the Gospel in Queensland; but last year we buried more people than we baptised (175 to 152)… and our attendance grew by 289, but more than half of that growth was in a Korean Presbyterian church that ministers almost exclusively to Korean migrants, with minimal input from the denomination… apart from this (and without downplaying it) we grew by 1.7%, which is just a nudge above the rate of population growth in Queensland, which is significant because if our growth rate is smaller than the population growth rate we’re actually shrinking in real terms… and these attendance figures also double count people who attend two services on the one Sunday. We’re not talking about revival. We’re not making a ripple in the pond that is Westfield Garden City on a Sunday, or the crowd at the footy… we’re surrounded by people who need rescuing… even if they don’t know it.

It’s tempting to think we need super-pastors to do this work. People who’ll heroically overturn the status quo (that’s what heroes do), and lead a new revival (that’s what super-pastors do)… part of this temptation comes because it does seem that both these things would be great… I’m all for both of them… just not for the weight of both, or either, of them being put on the shoulders of pastors, rather than the church, or more importantly, its actual hero.

I’m not a super-pastor. But if I was… I’d be Spider-Man.

I’m a sucker for Spider-Man. I love his aesthetic; I love the puns; I love the super-hero mythos generally; and I love that at his best he limits himself to his neighbourhood. I love that he’s young, sometimes cocky, but that he finds redemption, often, in realising that he needs the help of others. The best bits of Spider-Man were captured in his recent introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Homecoming, Marvel explored Spider-Man’s limits — especially through deliberate comparisons to Iron Man; a real super hero. It explored his desire to really count; to be someone significant, who saw his local patch as a stepping stone to the global stage, and local crime as small stuff compared to the world of the Avengers. Ultimately his Homecoming journey left him happy enough being your trademarked ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’; but not without him needing to prove himself, to prove that his shoulders could bear the weight his powers placed upon them (though ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ was implied in this expedition, not explicit). Homecoming was the story of Spider-Man truly learning his place.

There was one particular scene I loved. A vivid metaphor of the temptation to be a ‘super-pastor’… Spider-Man is on the Staten Island Ferry. He has a confrontation with the bad guy who is wielding alien weapons; and as Spider-Man seems to get the upper hand, his enemy, the Vulture, says something along the lines of ‘you have no idea what you’re playing at’, and the weapon Spider-Man has wrested from his hands goes out of control; splitting the ferry in two.

Now. For the purposes of this metaphor; imagine that the ferry is the church. A bunch of people who have been rescued from the water beneath by the boat, but then because of the rookie errors of their pastor, the church is rent in two. It starts to take on water. The people who thought they were safe, and that the pastor was looking after their journey, now face death by drowning. They’re probably worse off than they were before the pastor did anything to get them on board…

Spider-Man recognises that the church is falling apart, and because he is a super-hero, he believes it is his responsibility to save it. He, after all, has the power.

In the movie version, Spider-Man’s technologically-augmented suit calculates the path he needs to traverse through the rapidly falling apart ship, he flings himself, pirouetting like only Spidey can, between fixed points on the boat… and we get this iconic image of Spider-Man, the hero, saving the day. Holding the lives of the passengers in his hands… bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. The sort of image a super-pastor might post of themselves on social media… probably while preaching… probably in the same cruciform pose (for the record, I hate photos of pastors preaching, but every time a photo is posted of me it looks like I’m preparing for take off).

This is the iconic image of the movie Homecoming. Spider-Man. Arms outstretched. Saving the world… or the ferry in the sort of cruciform pose you might expect from Australia’s St Andrews Cross Spider. Just for a moment it looks like Spider-Man manages to pull it all together.

It looks like Spider-Man has saved the day… and sometimes super-hero pastors can feel like this. Job done. Crisis averted. Lives saved… all on your shoulders…

There’s going to be a slight spoiler after this picture.

This looks like an iconic image; a picture of heroism, but it’s actually a picture of Spider-Man’s failure. 

Just when it looks like Super-Pastor… I mean Spider-Man has pulled everything together the voice in his suit congratulates him on a great job… he’s been, it says, “98% successful”… it dawns on him that 98% is not successful enough just as the whole thing falls apart.

He has failed.

His shoulders were not broad enough; he was all responsibility not enough power, and now everything comes crashing down. And in the real life version of this, this is where the pastor has an identity crisis and either starts blaming people for getting in the way, or shouldering too much of the blame for failing… and both are deadly.

This, at least, was how I felt when watching this scene, and its resolution. I’ve been feeling like church is a ship that if not torn apart by alien lasers, at least has a lot of holes that always need to be plugged. It’s always taking on water. People are always at risk of drowning… and too often I, and they, expect Super-Pastor to save them. The thing is… if this ship went down I’m not sure that Spider-Man actually survives anyway; his fate is tied to the fate of the passengers.

So often in the last few years I’ve bought into one of two ‘super-pastor’ narratives, both when things are going well (and it’s easy to believe the hype), and when things are hard: one, that I’m the saviour our church needs; that my shoulders will hold our church together, carry it, plug the holes, and bind up the broken… most often, but not always, this one comes from a sort of internal monologue, but it’s even more unhelpful when it comes from other people.

The second narrative is that the boat falling apart is my fault; if only I’d preached richer, deeper, clearer, funnier sermons, or if only I’d made better decisions, if only I’d been less stressed out because of parenting toddlers, or less distracted by the countless other things that land on my lap, or that I give attention to… if only I’d been better at my job, then people wouldn’t feel like they’re drowning, wouldn’t be falling overboard, or would be growing in the sort of maturity that’d have them strapping on an Avengers uniform and running into the fray as super-heroes too. This one also comes from a certain internal monologue, but is also, I suspect, part of the subtext of many decisions (not all) to jump ship. We’re so geared, in our consumer culture where the cult of personality rules, to pick a church based on the pastor, or ‘the preaching’; and to build our assessment of whether a church is sinking or swimming based on how well the super-hero is delivering… or perhaps I’m so geared, as a pastor, to think in those terms… that any time it feels like something is falling apart it’s because I’ve only been 98% successful, or worse. Then we’re geared to think that it’s our job to be the hero, if not the pastor’s job, that somehow we need to make up what is lacking in ourselves, or tackle the vastness of the mission, by shouldering more of the world’s problems.

But I am not Spider-Man. I’m not a super-pastor. I have no desire to build a platform, or to carry the weight of the world (or just my church) on my shoulders. I’m also not a super-parent or super-husband; but part of what I’m learning good parenting looks like is letting my kids take responsibility for the things they can take responsibility for, but also letting them let go of what they aren’t (which is most things).

Because while I’m not the saviour (and am a naughty boy); there is another whose shoulders are big enough; one whose outstretched arms were not only 98% successful (and had they been, it would’ve doomed us all). And it’s not Iron Man… but the real cruciform saviour. He’s the one holding our church together; he’s the one I need to look at when I’m tempted to believe any super-pastor ideas (that I am one, or am failing to be one), whether from others or myself… and he’s the one I’m to point to. I love the way Hebrews talks about this both in the first chapter, and in chapter 10, in these words, first talking about ‘heroes’ — priests — those who stand between us and God — who aren’t even 98% successful… and then Jesus, the true super-pastor. The one who stood, but then sat down, enemies destroyed. Mission accomplished. Church building.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. — Hebrews 10:11-14

This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything; but it does free us to swing boldly. I don’t need to save any church, or any city. It is Jesus who saves; and that he chooses to use rookie preachers like me, and bumbling communities like ours is a miracle. And a good one. He does choose that which means we should act, freely, and heroically, just without the pressure or responsibility of real power.

My son Xavi loves Spider-Man. He dresses like him, pretends to be him, and has learned some lessons about how to use his muscles from Spider-Man’s example. It’s great when he imitates Spider-Man, but delusional when he starts to think that he is Spider-Man. And it’s like that with us…

Or as Captain Hebrews puts it, our hero secures us the ability to be free and confident, and part of this is knowing that we don’t have to save ourselves, or others, we’re just free to be fans who point people to the real deal through our love and good deeds, as we meet together to encourage each other to cling and imitate while we wait, not as heroes but as those who wait for our hero to return, knowing that he rules, and that he builds his church and draws people near.

Inasmuch as there is responsibility in churches for this encouragement, it’s a thing we own together, a load we share, but a load lightened by Jesus. There is no super-pastor in this picture of life together; there are people coming together to cling to the real hero… together… church is a ‘one another’ not a ‘one other’ deal (unless that one other is Jesus).

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. — Hebrews 10:19-25

I’m not Spider-Man. I’m not Super-Pastor. I don’t need to be. I’m just me. And that’s enough. Anything more than that — whether my expectations or yours — would tear me apart.

,

How The Punisher is a picture of justice without God

Mild, very mild, spoilers. 

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m a sucker for the Netflix section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); the gritty ‘street level hero’ excites me more than the fly-in-fly-out Avengers, and the even more infinitely removed Guardians of the Galaxy (though I do enjoy those). The big guys in the MCU are set to fight the ‘infinity wars’, and they’ve left a power vacuum in street level New York. The city is reeling and trying to figure out what these big heroes mean for the pursuit of justice, and even what heroism means; while the physical fallout from the Avengers explosive battle with the ‘chitauri’ (Avengers 1) — dubbed ‘the incident’ — has created opportunities for exploitative and opportunistic criminals to step in (which is pretty much the story of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Netflix’s Daredevil).

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m also a sucker for The Punisher. Frank Castle. He’s perhaps my favourite Marvel antihero. I grew up reading Phantom comics, so his ‘death’s head’ symbol and willingness to kill criminals in pursuit of justice not just mark them with a skull from a fancy ring (ala the Phantom) makes him feel like a grown up superhero. His story — where he is pursuing justice, or seeking vengeance, after his wife and kids were slaughtered is, perhaps, more poignant now I have a wife and kids. Plus I enjoy his aesthetic generally, and the Marvel take on it specifically (though this series is gritty and violent, and there were scenes where I had to look away or cover the screen of my laptop with my hands (I couldn’t watch this series with Robyn)).

Marvel introduced us to this version of The Punisher in Daredevil season 2; which was framed as a battle between darkness and light — between the conflicted (though blind so permanently in darkness), thoroughly Catholic, ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ who refuses to take life, and The Punisher’s dark pursuit of the violent end of his enemies. There’s a scene in this latest series where the TV news reports Castle has killed 37 people, his new ally Micro (a hacker with his own score to settle), turns to him incredulous. 37? Castle replies that this is just the number they know about. He is judge, jury, and executioner just without Judge Dredd’s state sanction.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

This season is a battle for Castle’s soul — or his own battle to keep his soul in the face of his personal devastation.

And I can sympathise with him. If this life is all there is, and it seems to be in the story, the Punisher offers some hope for justice in the face of the state’s failings. Unlike Daredevil, whose religious faith is overt and shapes everything, The Punisher seems to operate in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’, he’s not haunted by questions of whether his victims are ‘made in the image of God’ and so capable of good, he’s not fascinated by an afterlife, such that his ethics are driven by his sense of where he’s going… he just wants to cause pain, as proximately as possible to the pain caused to him and his family, to those who perpetrated evil against him. He is the grim reaper. The personification of death. The knock at the door for these criminals who are part of a complex system of evil — and for those who happen to incidentally cross his path during this crusade.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

There are moments where Frank has to decide whether to live or die, and a vision of his deceased wife beckoning at him from the other side of death suggests there is something more; but that he refuses to take that step in order to pursue his vengeance suggests he doesn’t have any certainty that these visions are anything other than a delusion.

So if this life is all there is; if there is no hope for justice beyond the grave; then what does justice actually look like in the face of awful systemic crime, that exploits and that treats human life as cannon fodder? That’s the question the Punisher forces us to ask as viewers. In all its grit, blood, mess, and violence. If this flesh and blood existence is all there is, then how do you extract the price required to restore balance — how does the classic view of ‘justice’ (the blind lady with the scales) operate in response to deadly evil?

How does a human participate in the bringing of justice in response to evil without taking on some of that evil? Or admitting that it actually lies there in every human heart? Whose hands are clean enough to exact vengeance without crossing a line into something impure? Or how does one get dirty hands, in the grit, blood, mess, and violence of this world without continuing the vicious cycle?

If this world is all there is, if the dead are not raised, if there is no God who judges, then I want The Punisher in this world, but I don’t want to be the Punisher, and I think it’s reasonably clear (and this is something that both the Marvel and DC cinematic franchises are grappling with) that violence begets violence. In the DC world there’s the perennial suggestion that Batman being the personification of fear, armed with fancy gadgets, has forced Gotham’s criminal underworld to evolve (and so compete) and so you get the cartoonish roll of villains from The Joker to Catwoman (and everyone in between)… what sort of New York exists five years from The Punisher season 1?

What is justice? Where is it found? Castle’s hacker sidekick has this dialogue with the purer face of justice, Agent Dinah Midani, about why he’s thrown in his lot with The Punisher not with the system.

Micro: You want justice. Because you haven’t figured out that there is no such thing yet… 

Agent Madani: You don’t believe in justice?

Micro: No I did. I did. You were it. You and the system. I’ve learned different. 

Agent Madani: Good men have died trying to expose this thing. They believed. 

Micro: Well. I believe the only way to get these assholes is to become like them. 

Agent Madani: No. I don’t believe that. 

Micro: You will. In the end.

The only way to get these assholes is to become like them.

There’s a cost.

To fight evil and pursue justice, in the world of The Punisher, you have to become evil. In a world where death is all there is, you respond to those who bring death on other people by bringing death. Only. If there’s no system… if it’s just vigilante stuff… who decides who is worthy of death? The market? Ability? Castle goes head to head with an old army buddy who is his equal in everything; while being willing to cross more lines.

The Punisher embraces this; the black, the skull logo, the warpaint, this is his embodiment of his cause — death. Justice in a world where nothing resides beyond that door. Painful death (seriously… it’s painful to watch). He’s driven by knowing that death is all there is… that’s his thing.

Micro: You’d rather be dead than feeling? Frank Castle. The Punisher. On a suicide mission, because what, he doesn’t like it when, uh, his feelings get hurt?

That skull. That’s a memento mori. It’s Latin for ‘remember, you will die.’ In Rome, victorious generals would return from war and so they didn’t get blinded by glory, they’d have a slave who would just say “Remember, you’re only human, you’re going to die.”

Frank: Well. That sounds good to me. 

Micro: Well, it’s meant as an admonition to value your life, to live it well. 

Later, when Madani challenges Micro’s faith in Castle because Castle was complicit in the system he’s seeking to overthrow before he realised and started his crusade, Micro says “Frank is resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live. That’s a shame.” This is Frank becoming that which he seeks to overthrow; what’s good for his victims is good for him.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

But what if this isn’t it. What if Daredevil is right, and The Punisher is wrong? What if not only are people, made in God’s image, are in some way capable of redemption (though because I’m not Catholic I think this redemption comes supernaturally from God, it’s not something we can work towards, or that we’re even capable of)? What if there is something beyond death that should shape how we live? What if there’s a judge who judges not just us, but our enemies. Who promises real justice — only, justice that includes justice for the evil in our hearts too?

And what if that judge had a different game plan to handle the same insights The Punisher raises — the idea that to deal with the problem — to ‘deal with these assholes’ — you have to become one of them?

What if you do have to step inside the vicious cycle; but somehow; somehow; you have to break it?

And break it in a way that convicts the offender (while offering redemption), but also comforts the afflicted with justice and hope. If you want mercy and hope in the mix you’d have to break it in a way that reaches beyond the grave to bring both justice and life… because if this life is all there is, how could the death of some ‘innocents’ like Castle’s family ever be paid for by the death of the guilty, especially if they then experience mercy (or if there’s the small mercy of the death of the body being all there is)?

Frank Castle is a man seeking atonement. But he seeks atonement in a purely immanent frame; there’s no horizon beyond the endorsement of the system he rejects that will vindicate him. And one day, when he fails, he’ll die (he certainly cops enough bumps, stab wounds, and bruises to have you questioning his mortality).

Jesus is a man who brought atonement. A man who did enter the vicious cycle of this world in order to break it; one who ‘became sin, who knew no sin, so we might become his righteousness’. A man who on the cross, in an act of substitution, became all the assholes he saved; and experienced justice for them; for us; on our behalf (as an interesting aside, Marvel’s Netflix partnership has so far presented Daredevil as the good samaritan (and New York as the victim), and as the suffering servant, and Luke Cage as a ‘liberation’ style messiah figure, some substitutionary atonement would be great (though the end of the Defenders leaves that possibility open).

Jesus is a man who stepped into the blood, grit, and violence of this world but did not take up his sword to seek vengeance, but a cross to bring both justice and mercy. A man who wasn’t a vigilante, but who was failed by a corrupt, deadly, self-interested state — the Roman empire — whose followers eventually overthrew that system simply by refusing to take part in that particular vicious cycle (at least at first, Christians would later go on their own crusades).

Frank Castle was a man ‘resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live,’ Jesus was a man who was resigned to die though he deserved to live… A true innocent. Blameless.

But a willing victim of injustice; and the grand threat embodied in that Roman memento mori: Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Jesus did this — faced death — bloody, gritty, violent, death — because he didn’t operate in Castle’s immanent frame. He did this because he believed death is not all there is. His approach to life, and justice, and his hope, is meant to shape those who live in the world following him. The writer to the Hebrews says:

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

There’s some interesting stuff in the following versions about how we might discipline or punish ourselves when we take sin seriously, not because we have to pay its price, but because Jesus has. Our sense of how to live in this world comes from what we believe about the judge; the ‘punisher’, and what we believe about our future. Hebrews suggests the short term pain is a result of the discipline of a father who loves us — a father who has lost his son to violent — but that we can believe this pain is good because “it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — its end point is quite different to those being trained by the vicious cycle of vengeance, violence, and blood.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Is it possible these words aren’t just a reminder to live good lives rather than a fatalistic death sentence that leaves us throwing our lives away trying to pursue revenge for wrongs we’ve experienced? Is there more to life, more to justice, than the latin maxim? Is there more to reality than death? Is there a life-giver (God), not just a life-taker (death)?

Ultimately those are going to be the question that shapes our approach to justice in this world; whether we’re on Team Punisher or Team Jesus. Is there more to life than death? Is justice something we’ve got to extract in pounds and pounds of flesh now, or can we trust that God has to exact justice not just for crimes committed against us, but for humanity’s execution and rejection of Jesus — whose blood debt we all owe as participants in a corrupt system. If we believe God will be judge, jury, and executioner it means we don’t need to pull the trigger. It means we don’t need to get our hands dirty, because he did. It means we have hope that death has been defeated, that it has lost its sting, but also that there is a just judge who will give us the justice we crave, and mercy we require, and this means we can live different lives to the cycle we see play out so gruesomely in The Punisher.

So Paul can say, in Romans, in a ‘cycle-breaker’…

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

On the contrary:

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

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21

Don’t become like them.

Don’t be an asshole who just begets the vicious cycle of a broken system. Join a new one. See the world differently. Death differently.

This makes for a truly beautiful and compelling way of life; I’m just not sure this makes for great (though ugly and confronting) television.

,

Death at the Museum: (or reflections on a tour through Hobart’s MONA)

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”  — James Brett, Museum of Everything Curator, MONA Exhibition, describing the room featuring these guns and a few other men imagining the glories of war from the sidelines.

We went to Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) yesterday; and I was reminded that I have a love-hate relationship with modern art. I can appreciate some of the playfulness, and the imagination. I can celebrate the integration of technology and a narrative. I can enjoy, even, the task of determining ‘does the emperor have clothes on’ at each twist and turn through a carefully curated modern art gallery. But I find modern art, typically, so stifling. So caught up in the ‘here and now’ of our existence; so lacking the ‘backcloth’ of certain belief in something beyond us (to borrow a C.S Lewis metaphor from The Discarded Image). The best modern art is, as philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, ‘haunted’ by the loss of something beyond here and now; the loss of something infinite or transcendent beyond space and time as we experience it.

Whatever art, is, or whatever art does, as we experience it, it both helps us see the world and reflects the world as we see it; if we’re in this sort of frame of reference where there’s nothing beyond the here and now then our art helps us to grapple with that reality as it, itself, grapples with that reality. And if the here and now is all there is, then you might expect modern art to both show us, and help us see, what is important in this sort of world, or it might function as something like the opiate of the masses, distracting us from the utter finitude of our existence.

Mona is a privately owned museum; the hobby of David Walsh, a guy who got super rich as a professional gambler. MONA’s website describes the museum as:

“Mona is one man’s ‘megaphone’ as he put it at the outset: and what he wants to say almost invariably revolves around the place of art and creativity within the definition of humanity. We know that sounds lofty, self-important. But we must be honest with you: our goal is no more, nor less, than to ask what art is, and what makes us look and look at it with ceaseless curiosity.”

One man’s megaphone.

One man with a certain sort of curiousity, but also a certain sort of outlook on the world. One way to make art communicate a certain vision of the world, if you’re not going to make it, is to curate it. And Walsh set out with a particular communication agenda that continues to dominate the Mona experience. Ten years ago, before the museum opened, he told an interviewer there’d be two overarching themes to the gallery: sex, and death.

“The pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death are, according to Walsh, the two most fundamental human motives. All ancient art expresses the need for one or fear of the other, he says, and these themes remain common in contemporary Western art.”

There are also plenty of bars, where you can enjoy a drink. Sex, death, and partying. These are the things that occupy our hearts and minds if this life is all there is. In the materialist account of life (and Walsh is an atheist) then these evolutionary impulses are undirected by anything beyond our own sometimes inexplicable internal urges; and perhaps this is where Walsh is probing with his curatorial curiosity; or his exploration into what art is, and how art and creativity work within our humanity; maybe he’s trying to explain why we have these urges at all, why not some other things? He writes frequently (on his blog, and in Mona published books) about the relationship between evolution and art; art that explores these constant themes.

“We think art is useful by definition—useful, in a deep biological sense. We think that it has played a part in the perpetuation of the species (and maybe, then, it has a lot to answer for).” — Mona Introduction

These words have been bouncing around in my head all day, since our walk through the gallery…

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”

This quote, from the Museum of Everything exhibition, from a room that came in the course of a journey through the ‘interior life’ of humanity resonated with me. I posted the quote on instagram with the picture above, because it does ring true. This particular room stayed with me; it opened with a series of paintings of battle scenes from a man deemed too frail to go to war, fringed by self portrait photographs of a man holding a series of invented weapons depicting himself as a war hero; a man telling a story of war away from the frontlines, with himself as the hero. The exhibition’s curator, James Brett described the appeal of this room so sublimely; ‘fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe’ — and there is a universality of this posturing, especially now that we have a ‘material’ world, where we have no God, or gods, to master us. It’s true not just of the men featured in the room, or of a general human experience in the world where the ‘here and now’ is all we have, and ‘leaders’ like Trump and Kim Jong Un seem to play this out writ large… it rings true of Walsh himself, and his museum-as-megaphone, or ‘museum-as-weapon.’

Mona is a striking and at times confronting exploration of Walsh’s twin themes; the pursuit of the ‘good life’ in the face of death; good life with no hope of life beyond death. But there’s nothing new about his particular understanding of the good life… sex, death, and drinks at the bar at the end of the world — or the ‘Void bar’…

“We believe things like art history and the individual artist’s intention are interesting and important—but only alongside other voices and approaches that remind us that art, after all, is made and consumed by real, complex people—whose motives mostly are obscure, even to themselves.

That, and we want you to have fun. Settle in at the Void Bar. Have a drink.” — Mona Introduction

Sex. Drinking. Death.

There’s nothing new about this approach to life if there’s nothing more out there… When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth back in the first century AD, he suggests this is basically a description of life in Corinth; that our impending mortality leaves most of us with a bucket list that looks a lot like ‘have as much sex and fun as you can’ to stave off death, or at least live in some sort of denial, to, as Walsh put it when setting out, live life around the “pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death.”

Paul says the religious practices of the city of Corinth looked a lot like this (‘rose up to play’ is a euphemism, by the way, for the sex that happened at ‘religious’ and private dinner parties).

“The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” — 1 Corinthians 10:7

The catch is; Paul isn’t just talking about the city of Corinth here, he’s actually quoting directly from the Old Testament; for as long as people were recording the texts that were curated into the Bible as a story of our humanity, people were dealing with life in this world by pursuing sex and drink.  Paul even says that’s the logical thing to do, if the whole God thing isn’t real and story of the Bible isn’t true. He says:

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” — 1 Corinthians 15:32

Again, he’s quoting the Old Testament here… but also just describing how we should approach life if the here and now is all there is… And that’s why I have a love-hate relationship with modern art, and why I can appreciate what David Walsh is trying to do with his megaphone; at the very least he’s trying to give humanity a wake up call to stop us destroying each other and the planet and to start enjoying what time we have.

But I find his megaphone depressing.

I find the idea of life presented by Mona, by modern art, and by the belief that the here and now is all there is of little comfort in the face of death. I read Walsh’s blog posts and feel a weight of sorrow, and mostly a sense of hopelessness. If the evolutionary story is all there is, then it leaves me ill equipped to touch the void; and not even a drink from the bar will numb that sense of loss of something bigger. Being left with ‘tomorrow we die’ is being left with not much at all.

Walsh writes a lot about death; there were these two particularly poignant pieces on the Mona blog, where he’s often explicitly dealing with the death of people he loves, and his own mortality. Here’s a response to being questioned about whether or not he fears death:

“I fear dying, as my biological nature compels me to, but that I contrive, through my evolution-given capacity to reason my way through my world, to see it as an undesirable side effect of the astonishing good fortune of having been born in the first place.” — Springs Eternal, David Walsh, MONA blog

He goes on to talk about the vast improbability of existence in an infinite universe (elsewhere he seems to be a proponent of the multiverse theory of infinite universes). Then, in another piece, he shares the lyrics of a song he wrote pondering the deaths of his friends Donna and Mark, a poem he asked Sting to set to music (there’s a link to the song there). Here are some of the verses from the end of a piece titled ‘O Death Where Is Thy Sting (a reference to a passage in 1 Corinthians 15, just after the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ bit, but prompted, obviously, by Sting’s name). It’s an ode to our mortality.

Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her. — David Walsh, O Death Where Is Thy Sting, MONA blog

Death gets us all. That’s his message. Dark triumphs over light. That’s his message. The darkness of death will swallow all of us.

There is little comfort here; certainly nothing like the comfort offered by belief in the resurrection. If his megaphone is being used to proclaim such emptiness then the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ — or the more classically Aussie: ‘drink and have sex,’ life is a gamble — message is of cold comfort. Those things aren’t paradoxically held in tension with death; the reality of death obliterates them. You can’t do what Walsh hoped Mona would do via art — avoid death — if death will swallow us all.

Ultimately modern art with its obsession with the here and now, material world, being all there is just confronts us with the impending reality of our death; it’s either subtle, hovering in the background somewhere, or as overt as the ‘death room’ at Mona with its MRI scanned sarcophagus. Yes. Mona is at least honest enough to confront us with the reality of death and the grave; but then to simply invite us to eat, drink, and be merry, in response.

But Paul tells a better story; and his song, recorded almost 2,000 years ago, removes the ‘sting’… Because ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ is not his first word, or the final word… it’s the  back up plan; it’s what you do if there is no God, and if this stuff isn’t truer and more beautiful.

And there is a God.

And there is a better story.

We don’t want darkness to destroy light; or death to destroy life; or to be the next in the queue. We do want to avoid death. Because ultimately that’s what being human is all about — participating in God’s story. A story where death is the enemy, where God is light and life.

The story of the Bible explains life to us better than art (and has been the subject of so much art that confronts us with this right up to the modern era). It tells us that life beats death; that light eviscerates darkness, and that meaning is found not by confronting our mortality, but by experiencing resurrection. We can confront death without fear; and our art and stories — the works of our hands — and our lives themselves can point to something higher and grander than the here and now (or help us see the here and now in a new light). If life is a gamble; go all in here.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. — 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

 This changes everything.
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How I had my say while abstaining (or the letter I sent my MP, and our parliamentary leaders)

I’ve had quite a few people objecting to my expressed intent to abstain in the postal survey on same sex marriage on the basis that it is ‘deciding not to participate’ in the democratic process; I don’t believe participation in a democracy is reduced to simply casting one’s vote (as most of my posts on interacting with the government on social issues, and on elections should indicate). So here’s the letter I’ve sent to my local MP, and to the leaders of the government and opposition; I’m not convinced they’ll read it, but I am convinced it is every bit as democratic as ticking either box on a voluntary postal survey, or not ticking either (and I’m personally convinced it’s more democratic even if it isn’t read, or isn’t read in full, especially if other citizens read it and ponder its value).


To the Hon Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull MP;

CC the Opposition Leader, Hon Bill Shorten MP;

CC the Member for Bonner, Ross Vasta MP;

Re: The same sex marriage postal survey and my decision to abstain,

There are those who would interpret the participation rate in the voluntary same sex marriage postal survey as a sign that those who do not cast a vote for yes, or for no, have decided not to participate or to exercise their democratic rights in this discussion; that we do not care about the issue or the process.

I write to explain my own abstaining, and perhaps that of other citizens, to indicate that it is not a lack of participation in democracy that led me to abstain, but rather a desire to participate in a purer and nobler form of liberal democracy; one more consistent with our Westminster system.

I write to tell you that I did not vote because I believe that this decision should be made by those appointed to be lawmakers. I did not vote because I believe the best and noblest part of a liberal democracy is lawmakers who balance the interests of a broad constituency; who do not impose the will of a majority on a minority via a blunt instrument (like a popular vote), who don’t govern according to the polls, but who govern for all and seek compromises that allow communities to live together in difference. I believe something more than a yes/no binary, something with more imagination, might have been possible in this instance, but also that a truly secular democratic solution would enshrine the freedoms of different members of our civil society, who belong to communities of identity within that broad society, to disagree with one another and strive towards true tolerance. I did not vote because I do not believe ‘majority rules’ is the philosophy at the heart of democracy, but the nobler view that all people have dignity and should be treated with equality, whether the majority wills it or not. I imagined a plebiscite, or postal survey, deciding something about my freedom to live according to my beliefs in a secular, liberal, democracy and could not bring myself to participate because of Jesus’ teaching that I should ‘treat others how I would have them treat me.’

As a Christian, I believe that the flourishing life is found in the teachings of Jesus, and so I humbly submit to his definition of marriage, contained in the Gospels and taught by churches for almost 2,000 years (and practiced in Israel before that). I believe that marriage is a sacred, God-designed, relationship that reflects God’s great unifying love for humanity; and that there is a coherence to the Bible’s treatment of marriage and gender. Religious freedom is not simply about my ability to conduct marriages according to this view as a member of the ‘institutional church,’ but that church itself is an identity-forming community for many of its members; that those members also hold this view in their own lives and as they participate in our democracy; this is true also for members of other religions that have particular views on marriage. However, I recognise that my views are formed by my particular religious beliefs, and that in a secular state they should be accommodated alongside the views of my neighbours, including my LGBTIQA neighbours, and so the task of forging a way forward is one that requires wisdom and compromise; a task best left to those whose job it is to lead our nation, rather than thrust into the hands of uncompromising masses from either side. I’ve watched enough of the debate around the postal survey to have no doubt that this decision has had deleterious effects on the community at large.

I write in order for my voice to be heard and counted; and in a form of humble but prayerful rebuke, and a prayer that you will discharge your duties with more courage and conviction.

The Bible tells Christians that our governing authorities are placed in their position by God, and that we Christian citizens, though ‘citizens of heaven’ who follow Jesus as king, are to honour you and prayerfully petition you that we might live at peace in this world; free to live lives of love and sacrifice for our neighbours, especially those the powerful would marginalise. There is a long and rich tradition in western democracies of the church speaking up for the voiceless, and it is to our shame that often the voice of the church is indistinguishable from those who speak in self-interest, from positions of power. The best of this tradition sees your task as a noble and complicated one; a task requiring virtue and character, and a task caught up in the exercise of wisdom. It is this wisdom that seems to be the object of the prayers believers are urged to make for you and your fellow parliamentarians; in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul says of the Roman authorities that they are ‘God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.’ Governing is a noble task; a vocation; a call to be leaders of character who exercise wisdom for the sake of the good of all those whose lives are subject to your leadership and authority. Paul also says, in his letter to Timothy, that our submission to government must be coupled with us living good lives, and that somehow our prayerful petitions should be that we might freely live those good and different lives in this world. The three passages in the New Testament that speak of the church’s relationship to governing authorities see your task as one given by God, our task as being to live lives of goodness and love, and the result being a form of religious freedom (Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 2).

My prayer for you is that in the coming days, and years, you might live up to your noble task; that you might govern our country with wisdom, balancing the freedoms and desires of the different communities you govern for, and that we Christians might get back to the business of living good lives, and loving our neighbours so that they, and you, might see the goodness, beauty and love of Jesus in us. This is why I have abstained from voting in the plebiscite, in the hope that by failing to take hold of this power you offered me, you might take hold of the power given to you by God, and the nation of Australia.

In Jesus name,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia

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How (not what) to vote in the plebiscite in 11 (not easy) steps


I made this image for my last how to vote in 11 not easy steps post; it still seems relevant…

It’s funny that in the context of a big sermon in Matthew’s Gospel on how people are going to persecute Christians for being different, that talks about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, and turning the other cheek, Jesus teaches people to pray the most political prayer ever. It’s funny that our politicians pray this prayer when parliament sits too (and they should probably stop it). It goes like this. You might know it.

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

Your kingdom come… your will be done…

Makes voting simple. Right?

This prayer should shape our politics, as Christians, because it should shape our ethics (the sermon on the mount is a picture of what the life of the king of God’s kingdom looks like; and this prayer is one that king, Jesus, ultimately answers — he also calls us to take up our cross and follow him). Because this should shape our politics, it should also shape our engagement in something like a non-compulsary, non-binding, postal survey about marriage in our nation.

But first, a note on why I’m putting this out there…

Lots of Christian leaders are handing out how to vote advice while saying at the same time they’re not seeking to ‘bind people’s consciences’ (though it appears that means something quite different to people to what I think it means). Their how to vote advice has, so far, exclusively been what to vote advice. I said in a recent post that I wouldn’t be telling people how to vote; but I think I missed an important distinction, I think there are things to be said about how we approach voting as Christians that are potentially good and wise things to put out there; I certainly won’t be telling people in my church what to vote; not from me, not from anybody else.

This sort of advice and its relationship to your conscience gets confusing in different church polity structures; there’s a question of how much a congregation member or attendee needs to be bound by doctrinal positions of a church; and how to understand those doctrinal positions, and how much a ‘how to vote’ approach is consistent with a church’s polity, let alone their theology. Senior figures from the Baptist Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church have all issued statements consistent with being part of the coalition for marriage; and those statements have different bindingness in both the theology of these churches and the polity they represent. It’s interesting times…

I assume, on any given Sunday, that barely anybody in my congregation knows what ‘Presbyterian’ means when it comes to our governance; they’re with us because they love Jesus and we’re on about Jesus, they come from a variety of backgrounds — whether they’re Iranian asylum seekers, new converts, people who’ve relocated to Brisbane from around Australia or the world looking for churches, or people who’ve grown up Presbyterian who do hold to reformed theology, but love the way it’s the Gospel that gets centre stage in our community; and that we’re able to gather with quite an eclectic bunch where a plurality of theological views are held alongside our unity in Jesus. Plus I assume there’s going to be a bunch of people with us on a Sunday still figuring out how with us they are, and what they think about this Jesus thing. We’re a church that is seeing people decide to follow Jesus from pretty diverse and extreme positions. This means I’m never going to read out an ‘official position’ statement and assume that anybody but I should hold it (if it’s a question of doctrine), and our polity as Presbyterians means we’re able to make this call as a church (led by our senior pastor). This is true for all other Presbyterian Ministers who are ‘moderators’ of their own church gatherings. We do not have bishops. Our committees are not bishops. Our assemblies are not bishops. How we respond to issues and moderate our communities, while holding to the doctrine and oaths we’ve sworn is not quite so simple as it is in a top down form of church government (think Anglican or Catholic).

People want short soundbite advice and easy conclusions; a one page thing to handout in church or chuck on a website; a simple directive… something accessible. I believe that actually becomes unhelpful both in how it helps people to come to their own conclusion based on conscience (ultimately, belief in what is Godly or not); and in how we then participate in a conversation beyond the soundbite. In West Wing terms, for fans, it’s all well and good until somebody says ‘what’s the next ten words’…

I know there are lots of Presbyterians, and lots of people in my congregation, thinking through how to vote (and asking for advice). So here’s my advice on how to vote (different to the last post where I laid out why I’m not telling people what to vote, in my next ‘how to’ post I’ll talk about how to participate in the conversation).  I think you can follow these steps and end up with a variety of positions on the plebiscite; but these are the things I think we should be weighing up. As Christians.

  1. Consider your vote prayerfully.
    Knowing that God isn’t just the creator, but the sustainer of all things — who works through governments for his purposes, even as he hardens the hearts of these governments in judgment, or uses them to promote good and restrain evil. Pray to God for his wisdom, that he would be merciful, and for the sake of your neighbours. Pray that his kingdom might come (you know, the Lord’s Prayer), and then live as though your life is shaped by that prayer. There’s a great irony that this prayer is prayed by our parliament before it sits — I agree with those who say it shouldn’t be; because I don’t think our politicians are in a position to work towards it being answered the way God answers it in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the launch of his kingdom; the church.
  2. Consider your vote knowing that if you’re a Christian, Jesus is your king and you are a citizen of heaven.
    You live as a dual citizen, or a foreigner, whose first allegiance is to Jesus. This is what it looks like to live the Lord’s Prayer — his kingdom coming as you live for Jesus and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t present issues if you’re a Christian in terms of our Aussie constitution — our government doesn’t recognise this dual citizenship; but you must.
  3. Consider your participation in our democracy carefully.
    Marriage is a big deal. How we engage politically is a big deal. And this is more complicated than an arbitrary black/white view of the world allows. We live in a parliamentary democracy. Consider how parliament should be making decisions for a diverse community. We live in a secular democracy where our constitution says there is no established religion (s116), and we generally consider this a good thing because, for example, it means we’re not a Catholic country, and our head of state is not also the head of a church (though the Queen technically is the head of the Church of England, so, umm…). This stuff — the nature of our political reality — matters more than some voices suggest it does. Different people have different ideas about how democracy functions, and how we should function in it as a Christian; don’t vote blind on this. Consider how you want others treating democracy when it comes to your citizenship, when thinking about how your citizenship should be exercised for their sake too.
  4. Consider your participation as a Christian carefully.
    What does your faith require of you? I’d say we’re people who follow Jesus as king, who live for his kingdom as members of his kingdom, and so we seek to follow his example and his commands. We also want our neighbours to become disciples because that’s the chief good for them. How might our vote (and our conversations around the vote) best serve those ends; not just support a secondary good thing, like marriage, but present and pursue the primary good — people knowing Jesus. Jesus says some very clear things about marriage and how our sexuality is shaped by participation in the kingdom (Matthew 19); but it’s not immediately clear how these words about life in the kingdom apply to our neighbours who aren’t yet citizens of heaven (which, we believe, comes with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). How might the Lord’s Prayer apply to your vote and actions? What best serves the fulfilment of that prayer being not people living as though they belong to the kingdom when they don’t, but people following Jesus as Lord and King.
  5. Consider your vote in terms of what the Bible says and expects of people who do and don’t worship God
    The Bible pretty much begins with marriage, and it ends with marriage. God makes people and gives us marriage as a way (not the only way) to fulfil his command to be fruitful and multiply. Marriage is part of God’s design for human life (but not essential to being human). It is a good gift from God, and when people, Christian or otherwise, enjoy that good gift in ways close to how God designed it, it’s good for them. Marriage as we know it is never as God designed it. It is frustrated by the curse of sin (specifically in Genesis 3:16). There is no ideal marriage; but we still have a picture of that ideal. The Old Testament tells many stories of marriages that are not ideal amongst God’s people (eg David and Michal, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives), and many that aren’t ideal outside of God’s people (eg Esther and Xerxes), and some that appear to be reasonably beautiful (Ruth and Boaz). The Old Testament operates on the expectation that people who reject God as God and turn to other gods will trash God’s design for humanity and marriage — that we will become dead and breathless, reflecting the images we worship, but also that once that happens the natural order of things will be rapidly eradicated (eg Leviticus 18). It also assumes that God’s relationship to his people is a marriage like relationship — and they become adulterous, cheating, spouses who God patiently waits for. The New Testament contains the life and example of Jesus, and his teachings on marriage, but it also contains a wedding invitation — we’re invited to become ‘the bride of Christ’ — to be God’s faithful people again (to join the love story of the Old Testament); without that story people won’t understand marriage as God designed it; with that story how we approach our marriages (if we’re married) will be shaped by the love of Jesus (Ephesians 5), as will not being married (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7). Marriage makes sense to us as Christians because of what we believe; can we really expect it to make the same sense to people who choose not to love and worship God (Romans 1, which is a lot like Leviticus 18).
  6. Consider the models of engagement we have with non-Christian (or non-Godly) governments in the Bible
    Lots of our ‘political theology’ in the west was written in the context of governments that had been shaped by, and were supportive of, Christianity. That’s not the scenario we find for ourselves now, so it’s time to channel the Spirit of the protestant reformers and go back to the source material. The Old Testament Prophets had a particular responsibility as the voice of God speaking to Israel’s government (mostly) calling for repentance; there’s not much evidence of these prophets speaking directly to the nations (there’s some in 1-2 Kings). Joseph participates in and supports the regime of the first Pharaoh, Moses becomes a member of the later Pharaoh’s household and uses that position to unsuccessfully make the case for life God’s way; his success depends on God pretty drastically stepping in to rescue his people from deadly slavery. Jonah is probably the best picture of a prophet speaking directly to a government outside of Israel calling them to but we don’t really hear much of the substance of his message (Jonah 3), the whole book seems to serve as a condemnation of Israel for its collective failure to bless the nations the way they should have (Genesis 12), by representing God well (Jonah ends on a downer, him being in the whale is a like exile from God for disobedience). Solomon also had lots of opportunities to share God’s wisdom with the leaders of the nations (in the world of the Old Testament, like in the story of Jonah, if you converted the head of a state to a religious belief, that became the religion of the people). Esther operated from within the courts of a pretty nasty regime, at personal cost, to bring about God’s promises to his people. Daniel and his friends did the same with Nebuchadnezzar who saw himself as a god (idolatry); but they did this in a manner of faithful difference; they didn’t participate in disobedience to God personally, but by serving that regime they were participants in that system without being corrupted. I’ve seen John the Baptist cited as a political model a few times — but he called Israel to repent and be ready for the coming king and kingdom; and challenged Herod, who had set himself up as a pretender to that particular throne — Herod and his old man considered themselves the kings of Israel. Herod sr had tried to exterminate Jesus as a baby because he didn’t want competition. Jesus told us to expect persecution and to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, including from the authorities and promised to give his disciples the words to say when they were on trial (Matt 10); the government of his day executed him (the same government Paul says is used by God for his good purposes and as a servant). Paul appears before governors and kings on route to his trial in Rome; and uses his trials to proclaim the Gospel — when he’s appearing before Festus and Agrippa, Agrippa even says to him ‘are you hoping to convert me’, to which Paul replies:Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 25:29Imagine if that was the approach Christians were taking when our positions are put on ‘trial’ in the public square. Recognising that governments (and governors) aren’t Christian; but that we can live with them as Christians seeking the good of our neighbours while being different and using that difference to persuade people to love Jesus. If Joseph, Daniel, Paul, and Jesus are your models for engaging with a non-Christian government (I’m not sure you should marry the king, like Esther did), then that’s probably a good thing; the prophets and John the Baptist adopted a particular stance towards God’s people when they looked indistinguishable from the nations. We might one day need Moses types who call the government to ‘let our people go’ — but we’re not there yet. 
  7. Consider your vote in terms of what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself; and to do for them what you would have them do for you
    This one is where it gets tricky and all the options are still on the table because we have to balance competing goods (and life in a non-ideal world with what the ultimate ideal is). Vote out of love for your neighbour. Weigh up what the complexity of life together throws up at us. Consider your ultimate goal for your neighbours — whoever they are — for Christians our goal for one another is to present others mature in Christ; I suspect that pastoral goal should frame all of our political endeavours, and that our sense of what is good for our Christian brothers and sisters (and ourselves) should shape our love for others and the future we would have for them, which means our political goal should also be evangelistic — in that we should want our neighbours to be open to hearing about Jesus. We don’t love people as a means to that ends though; love is an ends in itself for our ‘political life’.
  8. Consider your participation in democracy as much more than voting
    Politics is not about power but about life together as people. It is about citizenship; not government (that’s what the word means). People in a polis are people who in some sense are joined as citizens. Voting is one way we shape that life together, as we appoint people to govern for us (or make our voices heard), but there is much more to life together than voting, and much more to a good life together than simply not transgressing laws; the good and ethical life is not constrained or limited by our politicians but by something like civility, or neighbouring. Consider what being a good neighbour and citizen might look like here beyond this non-binding, non-compulsary, survey  — and how, perhaps, your participation in the conversation around the survey is more political and will shape your relationships with other citizens and what life together looks like than the vote itself.What would happen if we saw politics first as neighbouring or hospitality and our participation in public conversations first as being an exercise in listening and empathy before in being heard? What would happen if every Christian committed to getting to know at least one individual or couple who are seeking a law change because of their desires (I suspect there’d be a lot less slippery slope arguing and a lot less talking past each other). How might that change your vote? Your process of considering your vote? Your approach to politics? What if before you vote you commit yourself to reaching out to people you know in the LGBTIQA community to find out what they desire and why; to figure out what parts of those desires you can understand, empathise with, and recognise? What if you commit to understanding the best arguments for or against by listening and seeking to understand; not simply proclaiming your vision of the truth by vote or declaration (or Facebook profile picture).
  9. Consider gently and respectfully rejecting the status quo as it is served up to you (this is a democracy after all)
    Accepting that politics is about participating in a vote where there are only two options on the table and the contest is framed as a zero sum game is an unimaginative reinforcing of the status quo. Consider that a plebiscite might run counter to the spirit of our system of democracy (where we elect decision makers to act for all, not just to act according to the opinion polls or the popular vote).
  10. Consider not telling anybody how you’re voting or making this a further point of division between Christians and the world.
    It’s one thing to have a stance, it’s another thing to aggressively campaign in the name of ‘participating in the conversation’ or ‘defending what you believe’; you don’t have to campaign just because people organising a campaign tell you to. You’ll inevitably defend a position against somebody who holds that position rather than finding some sort of common ground or different solution. What is gained by publicly taking a stance? I recognise you might think this is ironic given my recent post about abstaining; but I publicly did not take a stance (or took no stance) in response to a call from other Christian leaders suggesting that not only should we take a public stance; but we should be compelled to publicly take a particular stance.
  11. Consider that our best political statement as Christians is Jesus; that praying and living ‘your kingdom come’ and proclaiming the kingdom is political; and allows our words and marriages to be political in a different sense.We Christians have made the mistake of allowing our view to be defined as the ‘no case’ for same sex marriage rather than the ‘yes case’ for Jesus and what he says about marriage, sex, and love. Getting people to love Jesus more than the idea of marriage is the most profound political change we can be part of in our society; it’s also God’s political mission. There’s lots we can say about marriage that is tied to the Gospel; Paul says that marriage is a ‘mystery’ in how it reflects the relationship between Jesus and the Church, so that to speak of one is ultimately to speak of the other; you wouldn’t know that hearing Christian voices in the public square making the ‘no case’ — our challenge, at the water cooler, online, in our marriages, and as we participate in political life (and this conversation about marriage); is to have our dual citizenship on show; to live ‘your kingdom come’; to love our neighbours by pointing them to the marriage proposal we have on the table from God, and to have those we engage with echo the words of Agrippa:”Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

    And our answer be: I pray it’s so, such is my love for you.

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A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
     
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.
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Living Faithfully in the ‘sexular age’ (a talk/panel thing)

A couple of months ago the Presbyterian Church of Queensland met for its AGM, we call it ‘Assembly’, and our committee (The Gospel in Society Today) presented a forum on how the leaders of our churches might process the rapid upheaval in our world around the areas of sex, gender, sexuality and marriage.

I ripped off Stephen McAlpine’s ‘A Sexular Age‘ pun on Charles Taylor’s work to provide what I believe is a framework that is both Biblical and ‘real’ to describe the age we live in and what’s going on in conversations around these topics. We filmed the thing. Here it is. I don’t always blow my own trumpet, but if you want a tight summary of the thinking behind all the stuff I’ve written about sexuality and marriage here on this site, it’s probably 30 minutes of me talking that is almost worth watching… the panel discussion is better because there are more voices and people’s actual questions.

We also launched a website for the committee which you should check out (which has a mailing list you should subscribe to).

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10 Reasons why I won’t be voting in the postal plebiscite (or telling people in my congregation how to vote)

So we have a plebiscite. A non-binding postal plebiscite where MPs will still ultimately get to vote based on conscience. And I don’t know about you, but my newsfeed and email inbox has gone nuts. It feels like D-Day has arrived on the same sex marriage thing in Australia, and that there’s a certain inevitability to the outcome of the postal vote. Cue the hand wringing from Christian leaders (and Tony Abbott) trying to get out the vote for the no case.

The moderator of our own denomination sent out an email to all ministers which included this paragraph:

“It’s important to urge every Presbyterian Christian to engage in the process and vote, and to vote “NO” to change. We ask every attendee at church to both register and vote, and then seek to persuade as many as possible of their family and friends to do likewise.”

I won’t be doing this; I’ll be doing the opposite (hence this blog post). And here’s some reasons why:

  1. I believe the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) isn’t just a nice idea, but an important command for Christians to pursue as we live together with neighbours who disagree with us.
  2. I believe the Christianity we see in the New Testament assumes a society and moral order that is fundamentally different in outlook to the way of being in the world produced by the Gospel, and it’s not our job to police sexual morality outside the church (1 Corinthians 5).
  3. I believe the best version of a liberal, secular, democracy is pluralistic; that our life together as citizens of Australia works best when we allow for and accommodate a diversity of views on what a good or flourishing human life looks like. If I want my definition of marriage recognised by law, and it comes from my convictions, as a Christian, about what God says a good and flourishing life looks like, then I should be prepared (because of the Golden Rule) to make space for others to have their definition of marriage recognised by law.
  4. I believe that religious freedom is a big part of pluralism, and that all people are worshippers, whether they worship God, or something like sex and marriage; that worship is about our primary love and our vision of the good or flourishing life. That’s part of our humanity. This means everybody defines marriage through the prism of their worship, or love, or vision of the good life (Romans 1 seems to make a connection between what we choose to worship (creator or created things) and how we live in the world. I believe that if I, as a Christian, want the legal freedom to define marriage as God defines it within our church community, and as a Christian in the community, then I should allow my neighbours to have their definition of marriage receive the same legal freedom within the context of a liberal, secular, democracy.
  5. I believe the plebiscite is a bad idea (and poorly executed); that democracy is not about populism and ‘majority rules’ but about balancing competing and different visions of the good life, and making space at the table for all views to be protected and represented in our life together. I think Christians should be particularly concerned about how minority groups in our society are treated both while we have power (because of the Golden Rule), but because I’m not sure we’ll have that power for much longer.
  6. I’d much rather encourage people in my congregation to love their neighbours, regardless of their religion or sexuality, because it’s in our Christ shaped love for those who are different (our following of the Golden Rule), that the message of the Gospel as the ultimate account of human flourishing actually has sense. I don’t want to fight for Christian morals apart from the Gospel, because seeing the world God’s way and living in it as those being transformed into the image of Jesus actually requires his Spirit (Romans 8).
  7. I believe that our current public posture (as the ‘institution’ of the church in Australia, or the political arm of Christendom) is damaging the Gospel by, amongst other things, failing to take points 1-6 into account. I want to be a different voice to those voices (also by failing to speak the Gospel at all, a Crikey essay on the ACL I read this week claims they deliberately avoid religious language in their lobbying).
  8. I have big problems with any ‘Christian’ activity that feels coercive or manipulative, or like an attempt to apply our power or clout to the lives of others outside the church. I don’t think coercion is consistent with the Gospel of the crucified king who ultimately renounced human power and influence; and I believe the Cross is the power and wisdom of God, not the sword (or the democratic equivalent). I think lobbying and special interest groups distort the operation of democracy.
  9. I don’t want to talk to my gay friends and neighbours about why the church doesn’t want them to enjoy what they understand as a basic human right in the context of telling people how to vote in the plebiscite, I want to talk to them about the goodness of Jesus, and the (I believe objectively) better life that is produced if we worship the God who is love, and created us to love, rather than what’s wrong with their ‘worship’… I believe, like the old preacher Thomas Chalmers, that what is required for people’s loves to be changed is ‘the expulsive power’ of new loves, not the creating of a vacuum.
  10. I don’t want to bind people’s consciences to follow my lead, or my vote, because I recognise that within my church community, and denomination, there are many different views on the last 7 points, and coercing or manipulating people to act according to my understanding of the world fails the Golden Rule too.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but why not vote yes, instead of abstaining? This one’s complicated. I am broadly in favour of same sex marriage for religious freedom reasons, as I’ve said above and elsewhere, but I also do believe that God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman is the best path to human flourishing not just for individuals, but for communities. I totally get that others disagree and think those disagreements should be accommodated, but I also recognise that if I was to advocate voting for same sex marriage I’d be causing many brothers and sisters who hold deep convictions about marriage to stumble, and Paul talks about this in the context of eating food sacrificed to idols (and whether first century Christians should do it or not), because I believe how we view marriage is a product of worship, it’s in the same ball park of what the Bible says about idolatry (worshipping a created thing instead of God), and so I think similar principles apply.

As a leader in church community, and someone with a little bit of a say in how our denomination engages in the public sphere (through some committees I’m on at a state and federal level), I don’t want to be telling people how to vote on much at all or doing anything that appears coercive; so now that I’ve taken a public stance, the abstinence approach to same sex marriage seems the best way to not appear to be binding another to follow my lead.

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Domestic Violence, the ABC, and the spirit of the Reformation

The ABC ran a longform piece on domestic violence in churches that take a ‘complementarian’ approach to gender roles in marriage yesterday, ahead of a story that will appear on 7:30 tonight. The piece is written, in part, by ABC journalist Julia Baird, and the response within the virtual circles I mix in has been fascinating… especially given stuff I’ve written recently about women, the internet, and the Spirit of the Reformation.

This might just be my observations, and I might be biased, or have an agenda, or whatever… but I’ve seen quite a few blokes (especially in ministry) getting defensive (or going on the offensive — and yeah, there’s Andrew Bolt’s response), and so many women gently suggesting that getting defensive isn’t the response in this moment on this issue.

In the Bible, wisdom is personified as a woman; perhaps we should take our lead from that and listen to some wise women sometimes? All the time? Perhaps Julia Baird is a voice worth listening to?

500 years ago this year, Martin Luther was so motivated by the inherent brokenness in the system of the church he loved and served, and by the cost of its corruption on the vulnerable (through the sale of indulgences), that he nailed 95 things he believed the church was doing wrong to a wall and kick started a movement we now call ‘the Reformation’ — the great irony is almost all the churches this ABC piece specifically mentions (apart from the Catholics) trace their history back to this moment. We should, according to our narrative, welcome voices that call for us to consider how our theology and practice are coherent, or not, and when our practices are damaging to vulnerable people in our world. We should be committed to a ‘priesthood of all believers’, where we expect God to raise up and use all sorts of people to speak truth to the ‘establishment’ (be it church or state)… and we should welcome criticism as the chance to consider whether or not more reform might be necessary.

We, more than other religious traditions, should welcome this sort of criticism as an opportunity for self assessment and reform (and it’s probably worth noting that Baird wrote part 1 of this series about domestic violence in Islam). We have a chance to respond to the publication of a thesis like this the way the Catholic Church should’ve responded to Luther. We should see Baird as a sister in Christ who is so moved by the injustice she has witnessed in this investigation on domestic violence in our churches that she has used her platform with the national broadcaster as a ‘Wittenberg door’. We should see this not as an ‘attack on mother church and all we hold dear’, but as a cry for reform from someone who has, by her account, heard dozens of the sorts of stories she shared in her piece yesterday in the course of her investigations.

And yet; today, on the Christian interwebs, I’ve seen countless heartbreaking examples of the counter-reformation; people expressing suspicion of Baird because she’s an egalitarian who is out to get us, or the ABC (and Baird) hate Christians and is out to get us.

I’ve seen it called ‘a hit job on Christians,’ a ‘conflation’ of her theological agenda with an emotive political one, a ‘smear of the church in general, and Christian men in particular’… I’ve seen people cite Andrew Bolt’s hatchet piece on the article as a voice for Christian values, when he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but Baird does…  and I’ve seen so much discussion that wants to make the point that Baird draws on (peer-reviewed) publications about statistics in the US for part of her argument, and these stats aren’t from our own context and she hasn’t completely summarised the sources (while she has provided links to them).

It is awful and depressing. I get that people feel horrified by the idea that we blokes in leadership might be complicit in this problem (or that it might be as bad as the article suggests). I feel horrified. I get anger and denial as responses; that’s part of the grief cycle. It’s just important we don’t stay there, or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the ‘establishment’ in reformation history… we’ll try to shoot the messenger and that’ll only bolster the message (that churches led by blokes are more likely to be hostile and abusive to women).

Here are some key quotes from the article (which is largely first hand accounts of abuse and the response from churches in Australian churches from real people).

“There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.

But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men, like Sally’s husband, rely on twisted — or literalist — interpretation of Bible verses to excuse their abuse…

What is clear from the women interviewed by ABC News is that they do not resent the church — they urgently seek its reform.”

We need Julia Bairds like we needed Martin Luther. We need to listen to the stories she is telling from real women in our churches about how our real theology has been used to create bad practice, but also to see how it is clear from her piece that bad practice ultimately comes (from the perpetrators) from wolves who twist the words of God to create their own bad theology to justify their insidious practice. Her point is that if we aren’t clear about our theology and practice we provide cover for wolves — ‘false teachers’ — the kinds of people the Bible warns us we should be looking out for.

Baird’s piece is certainly a result of her egalitarian convictions but it doesn’t require egalitarian convictions to agree with her in her observations of the problems, or to listen to the stories she tells and ponder how we might reform from within before a reformation movement happens without us.

I’m thankful for Julia Baird. I wish the church had a thousand more journalists like her. I don’t believe that complementarian theology causes abuse, or that egalitarian theology is the silver bullet (here’s a post I wrote specifically about gender and abuse a few months back); but she is certainly right that the abuse of complementarian theology can be used to keep people in abusive situations. Neither complementrianism or egalitarianism will provide a model that protects people from abuse; Jesus will. And how we respond to the calls of reformers is a chance for us, like it should have been for the Catholics, to keep reforming so that our theology and practice are more closely tied to the God revealed in Jesus, and the way of life demonstrated by him.

In churches where men are in positions of responsibility and ‘authority’; where disclosure of domestic violence in relationships within the church will likely be to these men, and where there’s control and abuse being perpetuated using twisted theology, how we respond to this sort of piece matters; it communicates something. It’s an opportunity either to perpetuate the exact cultural problem that allows wolfish abusers to operate under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, or to reform the culture.

I fear too much of the conversation about this article online has been defensive and about theological differences, where we could, and should (and many have) simply been welcoming this call for reform and heeding its advice (and the accounts of many Christian sisters who have been abused) to bring about real change in how we approach this issue. We might as a reformed church (and by this I mostly mean protestant churches in Australia that hold to broadly complementarian gender roles), bang on about remembering our history and celebrating 500 years of the Reformation; but we’ve possibly missed the essence of the Reformation (a pursuit of Christlikeness through reforming practices and institutions that have become broken by our sinfulness and the enshrining of broken traditions as norms).

What if instead of being defensive we welcomed the light being shone on this issue (and the one shining the light, even if we disagree with her brand of torch).

What if we used this as an opportunity to produce clear statements about our approach to domestic violence, and how the cross of Jesus shapes Christian marriage and also our sense of leadership (what the strong do for the weak)?

What if we’d used this to clean our laundry rather than accusing Julia Baird of either airing the dirty laundry or throwing mud at our clean clothes?

What if we’d used this to thank Julia Baird and celebrate the way she has used her gifts and her platform to both bring this attention into the light (ala Ephesians 5 — which is about more than just marriage), and to attempt to reform the church out of a love for both Jesus and his bride?

What if instead of expressing dismay at ‘shoddy statistics’ we’d simply said ‘this is awful, we commit to working to change’?

I suspect we’d be bringing honour to Jesus and we’d be committing ourselves to healthy change and a healthy expression of how men of God relate to women of God who bring wise counsel… maybe we’d be practising what we preach…

Some positive links.

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Census sensibility: 10 thoughts on the 2016 Australian census results and what they mean for Christians

Almost no Christian commentator involved in church ministry that I’ve read this week is particularly surprised by, or concerned about the findings of the 2016 census. Which might come as a surprise to those out there who’ve used the data as some sort of evidence for the decline of Australian religiousity, or to suggest that the influence of the church on Australian life is on the wane. There is, however, one Christian position that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of the data — and that’s the assumption undergirding some political Christianity that has mounted political arguments based on the size of the Christian population; one such lobby group — the ACL — even urged people to tick the ‘Christian’ box (or fill out the question appropriately) to maintain a strong Christian constituency.

Why is it important? While the census data is rightly used to assist the government to plan for services and infrastructure, other groups, including some atheists, are seeking to push their  agendas by encouraging people to leave the form blank.  Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country.  We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.

I reckon we’re in big trouble if we Christians are reinforcing the idea that Christianity is a values system, not a lived belief in the resurrected Jesus Christ, and we open ourselves up to the sort of chest-beating we read from aggressive secularists if people think ‘Christian’ is just a box you tick on a form. Here’s some more of what I think, and how I feel about this census stuff; and what does have interesting implications for the church in Australia, and what doesn’t, from the data.

1. The Bible takes a pretty dim view of census taking because they’re often a measure of worldly kingdoms and their power.

Which isn’t to say we should pay no attention, just that we should remember who the real king is and what kingdom we Christians belong to. The census data provides us interesting insight into Australia as a mission field; but terrible justification for Christians to wield our influence in the political sphere as a ‘majority’ — we should put this data in its place.

In the Old Testament, David conducts a census (1 Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24) to gauge his own might; which is a slap in the face to the idea that God gives strength to his kingdom and he gets rebuked and punished.

In the New Testament, Caesar Augustus conducts a census as a measure of the might of his empire (Luke 2) — this even gets a mention in his eulogy the res gestae, which makes for interesting reading), and as history unfolds this is the moment of Rome’s undoing — cause it’s the mechanism by which God brings about the birth of the true king, Jesus, as prophesied, in a way that would ultimately be the undoing of Caesar’s ‘divine’ dynasty, as the empire became Christian. I don’t want to overstate the case here against being too worried about shifting dynamics in the worldly kingdom of Australia, but for Christians tempted to panic because we’re going to lose influence, it’s worth pondering this little interchange between Jesus and Caesar’s representative, Pilate:

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” — John 18:33-37

2. Australia has never meaningfully been a Christian nation and the decay of nominal/cultural Christianity is a good thing

But wait, you’ll say, our laws are founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and the church was part of the establishment of Australia as a colony, and we had all those ‘impressive’ Christian types like Lachlan Macquarie and Samuel Johnson running about early in our history.

To that, I’d say, there’s more than one Australian story… there’s a difference between the educated upper class establishment being Christian, and a whole host of other Australians not being Christian but being governed by Christians. Once church attendance was no longer compulsory (as it was for convicts), the population largely stopped going (and early population stats don’t count the significant number of indigenous Aussies not going to church either). So, for example, in 1907, less than 11% of those who identified as Anglican in Brisbane in the census regularly attended church (source: An inquiry commissioned by the Anglican Church diocese of Brisbane, conducted on the “Religious Knowledge and Habits of the People” cited in Tom Frame’s Losing My Religion a book on faith and practice in Australia — I wrote an essay on this census data stuff while at college).

Banjo Patterson’s The Bush Christening describes settler life outside the urban centres…

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty”

3. This data isn’t news it has been a long time coming and Christians have been too complacent on our definition of ‘Christianity’ in part because our understanding of the Gospel is more geared towards ‘decision’ and ‘cultural identity’ than ‘discipleship’ and following Jesus. 

A prominent Christian lobby group in Australia urges people to identify as Christians in the census if they wanted to maintain conservative Christian values by ‘proving the size of the constituency’. I’d rather sign up with the movement that urges people to only say they’re Christian if they hold to the historic creeds.

I’ve finally, after having it on my shelf for years, started reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and while it’s responding to the US context and I don’t want to extrapolate their data too much into our own context, but his diagnosis of what has gone wrong in America where so many people identify as Christian but don’t practice nails us for our wrong understanding and presentation of the Gospel (and what being Christian means), rather than trying to understand ‘Christian’ as a cultural identity thing; and I think he’s on the money.

“The correlation between making a decision and becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not high. Here are some approximate numbers: among teenagers (13-17) almost 60% of the general population makes a commitment to Jesus — that is, they make a “decision”… However we look at this pie, most Americans ‘decide’ for Jesus. But if we measure discipleship among young adults (18-35), we find dramatic shifts in numbers. Barna has some measures for “discipleship” including what they call “revolutionary faith,” a “biblical worldview” and “faith as a highest priority in life.” Take revolutionary faith, which sorts out things like meaning in life, self-identification as a Christian, Bible reading, and prayer, as well as questions about how faith has been or is transforming one’s life. That almost 60% becomes about 6%… Our focus on getting young people to make decisions — that is, “accepting Jesus into our hearts” — appears to distort spiritual formation”

You should read the book. But his point is that we’re sloppy about our definition of Christian and that costs us and creates a perception that isn’t real — and throw in campaigns to distort the data in our favour, for our political advantage, and we’re in a terrible mess.

4. If you’re shocked by this Barna group data, or the census results, you should probably go out and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, then make things worse cause we’re in Australia and have less definitively Christian heritage.

Christianity has not been profoundly part of the Australian experience in the way it is part of the narrative in the United States (again, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the religiousity of the indigenous peoples in both nations). We are not a Christian colony set up by religious people escaping persecution, but rather the church was part of the way the European establishment sought to control the penal colony… we are much more profoundly secular and pluralist in our outlook/story (including in the constitution), I found this vision of religiousity (or secularity) in Australia from this paper on Indigenous Religion in Secular Australia a pretty compelling description of how religion works in our psyche (and history). It’s talking about what exactly our Constitutional provision around religion (that we have no official state religion or church) emerged from (which is different to similar provisions in the US).

Australian secularism owes less to theory than to culture. It emerges in our foundation myths of frontier self-reliance and working-class larrikinism and in our modern self-image of cosmopolitan hedonism. Where other nations have often developed secular constitutions while retaining vibrantly religious cultures, Australian cultural secularisation was arguably well-advanced before Federation opened the agenda in which the issue of constitutional secularism became relevant.”

Or, as this paper on Secularisation and the Church/state relationship puts it:

As religious organisations became differentiated and secularised from the state, their relationship to the state was changed in three fundamental ways. First, the state no longer maintained a monopoly over religion. As a result, individuals were now able to choose whether they would follow a particular religion. Second, religious plurality was able to be developed and maintained. Third, all religious organisations would receive equal rights under the law. In addition, religion could maintain public significance as it would be supported but not controlled by the state.”

This ‘secular frame’ means that Taylor’s secular age thesis happens on steroids in Australia… because our national narratives are already a couple of steps down the path towards irreligion than in the US. I’d suggest our religiousity in the census is much more ‘cultural’ than a product of a meaningful narrative that people see themselves participating in (or a story that shapes one’s experience/identity). One implication of this sort of secularity though is that Christians should be more upfront about how our religion shapes us in public conversations as a legitimate secular/pluralist expression of our national identity.

5. Migration is part of the story of the decline in cultural Christianity, but also part of the story of opportunity for the church

26% of Australians alive today were born overseas. Many more are second generation Australian. Migration from non-European nations has altered the responses to the census religion question since it was first asked… This change isn’t all ‘European-background Aussies de-converting’… there’s a more complex picture underneath the data.

It should be obvious, but the more Australians born overseas, or born to parents who have migrated from overseas, from countries that are not Christian by heritage, the greater percentage of Aussies there are who aren’t likely to identify as Christians, culturally. And this is a fantastic opportunity for churches in Australia to grapple with multi-cultural/multi-ethnic outreach.

6. We’re increasingly going to need (at least a) ‘two-speed’ approach to being the church in Australia

Multi-ethnic ministry is probably a third speed altogether — but there’s another rapidly growing divide in the Aussie population based on age and worldview.

Us churchy types need to figure out the balance between gearing ourselves towards Australia’s aging population, with its particular suppositions and ‘cultural Christian’ baggage, and younger generations who have none of the baggage, or the assumptions.

39% of people aged under 34 said they have ‘no religion’ as opposed to 31% aged over 34. Younger Aussies are less religious than their older counterparts.

These two are related.

The stats amongst young people are much more dire than the stats amongst oldies — though the ‘aging population’ conundrum means oldies are becoming increasingly common, or as the ABS puts it:

Australia’s once youthful population is ageing slowly. Our median age is now 38. It was 23 in 1911, 28 in 1966, and 37 in 2011.

As our baby-boomer generation ‘matures’, we find that one in six of us are now over 65, compared to one in seven in 2011 and only one in 25 in 1911.

We’re probably going to live longer and the birth rate is down on what it used to be, but there’s a good chance that the ‘no religion’ stat will keep accelerating amongst young people which means we need a sort of ‘two speed economy’ approach to mission in Australia.

If we want to think about what the future of the church looks like beyond that aging population we might need to start recalibrating the way we do church to post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth types (how we present the Gospel and grow people to Christian maturity) a little more urgently; while also figuring out how to reach out to the old modernist Aussies who either think they’re Christians but don’t meaningfully follow Jesus, or have decided Christianity isn’t for them.

7. If you didn’t believe Australia was already post-Christian, post-modern, and post-truth, maybe now is the time to start figuring out how to change the way we do stuff both in the public realm and in the church?

Campaigns encouraging Aussies to tick ‘Christian’ in the census to maintain Christian values, that are disconnected from campaigns to embed those values in people’s hearts are part of the problem, not the solution. Public Christianity that confuses people about what Christians believe is deleterious to the church’s mission and we need to get better at expressing what the Gospel is and why following Jesus as king leads to a better, wiser, fuller, more beautiful and eternal life in a compelling alternative community where love is a reflection of the character of God revealed at the cross of Jesus.

I’ve written some thoughts on how we might be the church for the post-truth/post-modern generation here. Our challenge is to match our rational truth with the sort of experience and community that makes it emotionally plausible.

8. Pessimism is for losers. 

On the flip side, you might not think the census data is particularly bad, or particularly accurate. Because you might think the numbers are actually much lower than it suggests and it isn’t particularly newsy. You might agree that Christianity isn’t a box ticked in a census, but membership of an alternative kingdom following King Jesus, and you might already see Australia as a massive mission field in which we’re meant to be living and proclaiming the Gospel so as to make disciples while we follow Jesus in trying to seek and save the lost.

You might not actually think all this is that bad, because you might have friendships with people who’ve ticked the “Christian” box, but don’t follow Jesus, or plenty of friends who tick the ‘no religion’ box who are comfortable with the sort of historic ‘secular’ norm in Australia (so they aren’t out to silence you, although perhaps they might think it’s time our laws stopped reflecting values they don’t share). That’s me. Despite the odd coverage from places like Buzzfeed, and the weird chest-beating from the aggressive ‘hard secularist’ types who want to use this data to silence Christians altogether.

So what then?

Well. Here’s two more thoughts.

9. Qualitative data beats quantitative every time in terms of painting a meaningful picture.

McCrindle’s Faith and Belief in Australia survey, which asks more pointed questions, is a heaps better measure than the Census, and provides more reason for optimism, and a clear picture on how churches keen to proclaim and live the Gospel in Australia might shape that proclamation in ways that produce emotional plausibility and connect with the Australian psyche.

Here’s a couple of encouraging findings from McCrindle’s summary.

A genuine faith the greatest attraction to a religion or spirituality
Observing people with genuine faith is the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality. Second is experiencing personal trauma or a significant life change. On the inverse, the top repellent to Australians investigating is public figures or celebrities who are examples of that faith. This is followed by miraculous stories of healings or supernatural occurrences.

Perceptions of Christianity
Australians most value Christian organisations for their work with those in need, specifically looking after people who are homeless, offering financial assistance/food relief programs and providing disaster relief (74%, 72% and 69% respectively).  8% of Australian adults (1.5 million) do not know any Christians, while for Generation Y this is almost one in ten. One in 29 Australians have never heard of Jesus.

10. The problem here is with the church, not the world. We don’t need no Benedict Option, but we do need ‘thick’ joyful creative communities prepared to operate at, from, and for the margins.

The days of the Aussie church (and its dominant mission field) being upwardly middle class, educated, and of European descent (ie coming out of the ‘establishment narrative’ where to be Australian is to have a Judeo-Christian heritage and approach to life) might be over. And maybe that’s a good thing.

This data could feed all sorts of narratives out there about how hostile the world we live in is to the church, but maybe this sort of data shouldn’t be a wake up call about how hostile the world is becoming, but rather, about how disengaged the church is from the world, and perhaps how much we’ve been resting on our laurels with the assumption that we live in a Christian nation.

We might be tempted to withdraw into our own little communities by this data (and the response), and to work harder on reinforcing the boundaries…Maybe, if we’re going to tick a box identifying ourselves with Christ in a secular census, we need to be on about living out Jesus’ ‘golden rule,’ his ‘greatest commandments,’ and ‘great commission’

Maybe it’ll help us be more urgently on about the Gospel and less worried about civic religion and/or our influence in society based on inflated numbers.

Maybe being a good Aussie citizen, as a Christian, is actually about first being a good citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and then participating in a rich secular, pluralist, society. Maybe our participation should happen in such a way that how our religious views shape our lives becomes obvious, and in turn shapes how people understand what being a Christian is, and where our beliefs are evident to all (and plausible to some) because how we live is so different to many of our neighbours. It should be really costly to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census; because, as Bonhoeffer put it, when Christ calls a person, he calls them to come and die…

Maybe we need to stop pretending that Christianity can possibly just be a values system that we hope other people will tick and flick so that we can maintain our slightly inaccurate belief that Australia is a ‘Christian nation’ with a ‘Christian majority,’ because those beliefs are becoming less and less plausible every census.

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.

So.

Utterly.

Without.

Imagination. 

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

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

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

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I can’t blame them.

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

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

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

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

Wisdom and the imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Benedict Option? Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see why people are confused. In the same paragraph Dreher calls us to secede and to participate in public life. And this is the tension that drives the book (and arguably the tension underpinning our life as Christians who are ‘in the world, but not of it’). The answer to this tension, and where I think at times Dreher doesn’t quite hold the tension, is that we Christians might not be ‘of’ the world; but we certainly should be for it. There’s a couple of things in this quote, and the book, that bother me in terms of his theologies of art and technology (he values ‘high’ art over pop culture, and ‘local’ low-tech forms of media over ‘high-tech’ globalised forms, which is slightly more elitist than, for example, Luther’s approach to pop culture artefacts — precisely given their formative power at a popular level; that power can definitely be used in a ‘deforming way’ — especially when uncritically adopted by the church into its practices (see James K.A Smith), but might also be part of a ‘centrifugal’ push into the world).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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