Church Du Soleil

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it to be human?

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

What’s normal anymore?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

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

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

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

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” I said.

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

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

My 2017 Summer Recommended Reading List

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

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

Have read/am reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To read/finish this summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

sam_and_ellie

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

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

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

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

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

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jeremiah

Image: Jeremiah speaking truth to power

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

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

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

We need to rediscover the prophetic voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Know God’s word (hint: it’s Jesus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kim-dong-kyu-phone

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

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

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to write to your MP and the relevant government minister about an issue (as a Christian) in 14 not-easy steps

writingtoapolitician

There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).

There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).

Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.

If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.

So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.

1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.

So be gracious and charitable.

Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.

2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.

So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.

3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).

So be wise and humble.

4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.

So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.

It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.

There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.

This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.

5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.

So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.

People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.

6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.

So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.

It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.

7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.

So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.

It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).

8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).

So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.

We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.

It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.

So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.

And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-3

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

10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.

So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.
Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”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 27:28-29

In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).

11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.

So love with actions; not just words.

There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.

When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.

Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.

If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.

Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.

It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.

James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre

 

13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.

Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.

14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.

So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship.

Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.

The suffocating sense of no safe place to ride and how to breathe again

tyler

Tyler: An exit-door procedure at 30.000 feet. Mm-hmm. The illusion of safety. You know why the put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile, you accept your fate. — Fight Club

The news this week has been awful. It’s awful every week. But this week in particular, for me, because it has reminded me that we exist with what Tyler Durden in Fight Club calls ‘the illusion of safety’… we’re never really safe; and the news this week has so totally robbed me of my sense of safety.

The illusion of safety has been torn from us; and I want an oxygen mask and the euphoric docility it promises. I want to forget the world isn’t safe and to go back to my day to day existence free from fear.

That’s seemed harder this week. First the horrible, tragic, nightmare at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and then today, this horrific, awful, heartbreaking story of a Brisbane bus driver whose life was suddenly and dramatically taken while he was sitting in his bus at the bus stop on the street of a suburb very close to mine. The thing that gets me about these stories is not just the experience of the victims and their families; but the witnesses. And in the bus story — the helpless passengers on the bus not only had to experience the trauma of witnessing the attack, but 11 were treated for smoke inhalation as a result…

I don’t really want to leave my home. My wife and daughter are travelling by bus today, it’s so easy for me to imagine them, or me, being on the bus when that senseless, deadly, act of violence took place. It’s terrifying. And that’s the point. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the passenger seats along with those who witnessed the horror; or in the queue for the ride at Dreamworld… I don’t just feel the shock of grief at the random and pointless destruction of human life; but the fear of witnessing something like that. I don’t want to be confronted with death; I want to stay safe… but more than that, as a parent I definitely don’t want my daughters or son being scarred by witnessing this stuff.

I want to keep them safe.

But I can’t.

I want to ride safely on the bus, or a theme park ride, but I can’t.

Where are the oxygen masks?

When will they drop down to numb this fear; the thing that confronts us when we face up to death and tragedy. I can only imagine the grief being experienced by the family and friends of those killed on that ride, and the bus driver… We can only imagine it, but that is not to say we don’t feel it, the sorrow, the anger, the sense that something is wrong and the world has changed forever through this loss. The imagination is powerful; its how we are able to empathise, but it’s also what makes us feel fear when the world becomes unsafe.

How do we face these realities so that the fear flees? Where do we go to re-capture the illusion of safety? Where’s our oxygen mask? Is there some way to restore the sense that the world is safe, if not make it safe?

The irony is that roller coasters are a sort of controlled environments; or they’re meant to be; a machine made to help us face our fears while being in control. When I heard the story of the tragedy at Dreamworld I had two responses; first, I remembered my one visit to Dreamworld, as a child, and how much our family loved the particular ride. Second, I remembered this obscure interview about how ride designers design rides as stories that I heard on the ABC radio, and this quote about what rides do:

“They are a choreography of movement and emotion. The best coasters know how to pace themselves and pace the rider; not only for the biggest scream, but the biggest highs and lows… Thrill rides are a safe way to do something slightly, seemingly dangerous, even though they’re not. They’re statistically very safe, but they get you close to the feeling of being out of control; the feeling of falling; the feeling of ‘oh no I’m going to die’… Coasters are ‘fear minus death equals thrill’… ” — Dave Cobb, Roller Coaster Designer on 612 ABC Brisbane in January this year.

Statistically very safe. But not totally safe. Sometimes deadly. Sometimes the ride ends in tragedy. Roller Coasters are ‘storytelling machines’ perhaps especially when the statsWhen you get told the risks involved in any medical procedure or activity it’s always ‘1 in x thousand’ and we just write that risk off, but to borrow a line from The Whitlams, if she’s one in a million, then there are five more just in New South Wales.

We live like the passenger on the plane, with the illusion of safety.

And sometimes that illusion comes crashing down.

Well, when we read the news that illusion comes crashing down.

Death sucks. And I mean that both in the ‘it’s terrible’ sense but also in the ‘it’s a black hole that swallows up things that are good’ sense too.

So what do you do when life confronts you with this news; when it feels like it is rubbing your face in it; when you open your browser to your favourite news site and are confronted with death at a theme park, or the senseless killing of a public servant in the middle of a busy suburban street?

Where do we go to feel safe? Is that even possible?

Where are our oxygen masks?

I think there are two real options. Three if you count denial; but I’m not sure empathy really allows that; the sense that it could’ve been me, or I could’ve witnessed it… if we aren’t eye witnesses any more then the media, and social media, is doing a pretty good job of making it just as though we were there; inviting us to relive the moment and take part in a digital post-mortem. There’s CCTV everywhere — and of both incidents. But there are two options. There’s the Tyler Durden option, and there’s the Jesus option.

There’s another pretty big moment in Fight Club where Tyler Durden is training; and breaking; his anarchist recruits. This speech plays over the montage.

“Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart. This is your life. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else. We are all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world. You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes that we wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car that you drive. You are not your khakis. You have to give up. You have to know that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.” — Tyler Durden.

This is Durden’s version of the oxygen mask. It’s meant to buy him an army of soldiers willing to face death in order to ‘live life to the fullest’; at least as his vision of the full life requires; the life lived free from the fear of death, and free from being defined by your possessions; free to experience unfettered pleasure in the moment before death hits.

This is the approach so many of us modern people take; we’ve cut ourselves off from a sense of meaning beyond the material, and beyond ourselves, which means the only way we can face death is pile all the pleasure we can into the moment we have.

Or as Paul puts it, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’…

That’s probably the best chapter of the Bible that points me somewhere safe; an oxygen mask if you like; when it comes to witnessing the suckiness of death and realising that we’re never really safe from its grasp, it could happen any time, even on experiences that are ‘statistically safe’… this is the Jesus option, the one where death doesn’t have the last say.

This bit of the Bible is a good one to turn to after you’ve read the news.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… — 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

It’s that he believes the truth of this message that allowed Paul to stare death in the face, and to pen these famous words that help us face our own death without the same fear.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:55

Death still hurts. It still has a massive cost for us; and especially for those most proximate to it. We’re not meant to turn a blind eye to the enormity of it, or to its wrongness; the Tyler Durden approach might feel true but it ultimately leads to us being totally disconnected from the tragedy of death in the lives of others… which is why ‘members of Project Mayhem don’t have names’… and where the Narrator rebels from Tyler’s design by insisting that Robert Paulson does have a name; he’s not quite ready as his alter-ego to buffer himself off from the reality of death. Being confronted with the reality of death doesn’t mean simply accepting it and embracing stoic fatalism, but finding ways to grieve with and love our neighbours — perhaps especially as we’re grieved by death together — because we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with death. We should lament, but we should also offer the real oxygen masks because death doesn’t have to have the final say.

That’s why Paul is motivated to share the news of life with people; because we have an answer to the scourge of death.

“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 15:58

We’re handing out real oxygen masks; and the safety offered through Jesus isn’t just an illusion. The promise of death’s defeat is caught up with the promise of life without death, and with God. This is the vision of the good life held up by the Bible and the cause we live for in response to death; Tyler had project mayhem a project designed to strip the ‘illusion of safety’ away; leaving us with chaos. We have project re-creation; the opportunity to point people to real safety.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:3-5

The prayer of Christians facing death has been the same since he left, promising to return; the words the Bible finishes with in the book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

It’s a prayer that recognises the awful suckiness of death; that it is a broken version of reality and that we are right to hate it and feel its awful weight, but that also recognises that God has an answer to death and he gives it to us through Jesus; the one who died and was raised.

Come Lord Jesus.

Not just to bring the illusion of safety; or the acceptance of our deathly fate; but to defeat death and truly make us safe from its touch. Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and John in Revelation, stake the whole of Christianity on their testimony to the truth of this message. This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you witness or read these news stories, or anything that rips the illusion of safety ripped from your grasp, the place to find it again is in the empty tomb of Jesus and the promise that it is the start of something new happening in the world. Jesus is your oxygen mask, but he doesn’t just offer the illusion of safety; it’s real. I’m betting my life on that anyway.

Labor kills the plebiscite (why this might be good news)

I love Eternity News; I think the team at Eternity do a great job of representing the views of the width of the Aussie church, of giving adequate space to complex issues, and of using their platform to tell positive stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better because Jesus has made ‘eternity’ good news rather than a soul-depressing reminder of our smallness, and bad news when it comes to God’s judgment. So I enjoy writing for them and answering questions; even if they have to edit me…

Eternity ran a piece on Labor knocking  the plebiscite on the head which includes some of the reasons I gave for this maybe not being such a bad thing. It was edited, because it had to be. But I quite liked some of the bits they cut so thought I’d post my whole response (I’m not suggesting I was misrepresented or anything silly like that). Also; while I’m billed as being a Presbyterian Minister and from Creek Road (and these things are true), don’t assume I’m speaking for either institution, like you I’m just an idealistic voter with an opinion…

I love liberal democracy; especially when governments made up of elected representatives who are elected for their character and ability to make decisions aim for more than simply holding power by looking after the majority.

I think we should pursue a more idealised version of democracy than the one we’re given and hold our leaders to this sort of standard, that we should call them to govern not just for the liberty of those who voted for them, but for other communities of people within the community who didn’t.

In a secular, pluralistic democracy like ours there are lots of views of human flourishing. As a Christian, who thinks flourishing is ultimately about the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Jesus, I have a certain sense of what the ‘good life’ looks like; but I understand that many of my neighbours hold different convictions. Democracy has to be a balancing act where those convictions are held in tension, and people are free to hold them, and work towards them.

I didn’t think the plebiscite was the best mechanism for making a decision about Same Sex Marriage because it is inconsistent with some of the values of a liberal democracy; plebiscites seek to guide decision makers based on what’s popular — they’re the ultimate opinion poll — I’d rather our politicians make decisions based on what’s right; and what maintains our ability to live well with people who disagree with us.

There are many arguments for and against same sex marriage that flow out of different understandings of human flourishing, and the decision is much more complicated than some of our political leaders and Church leaders allow.

There’s a very good case to be made for gay marriage in a secular democracy if we think of it as something akin to a matter of religious freedom for those whose equivalent of God, their object of worship, and their vision of what it means to flourish as a person, is caught up with having as much sex in the context of a loving relationship as possible.

If we want religious freedom and protection from those who think our views are wrong and have no place in public, we should be prepared to offer it to others. There are, of course, very convincing arguments for Christians to maintain God’s definition of marriage as the one flesh relationship between one man and one woman, forsaking all others, for life; personally I’d love us to be able to maintain that definition within our community and in public life, for as long as possible because I believe it is both good for people, and that it’s a picture of the relationship created by the Gospel; I simply don’t expect my neighbours to be convinced of this goodness, nor that legal definitions should reflect my view and not theirs.

One danger of moving away from the plebiscite and potentially moving to the better, more democratic, option of the vote on the floor of parliament is that we lose the discussion that would’ve accompanied it and that the majority view will simply be imposed on different minority views in a different form of populism. The language that Labor leader Bill Shorten is using around those who oppose Same Sex Marriage worries me because it seems intolerant, and it seems to beg the question somewhat; he framing it as a decision about what sort of love our society will accept when those opposed seem much more interested in talking about what marriage itself is, it’d be great for Christians to be able to have good discussions with our neighbours about how marriage is part of God’s design, and ultimately about how it reflects the love God has for his people and the oneness we experience with God when we follow Jesus. Apart from the need to have this conversation robustly, and charitably, I’d love it to happen quickly because I believe this conversation has been a massive distraction from other priorities, and that it has made it look like the good news of Jesus is not good news for our LGBTQI neighbours; there are much bigger issues we should be staring down as God’s people in Australia, and it has also kept us from the priority of confidently and winsomely offering the Gospel — the offer of resurrected life in Jesus — as the best place to understand what it means for people to flourish.

 

How Luke Cage and Daredevil are (good) images and imitators of Jesus (and why the original is still better)

“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5

Marvel’s partnership with Netflix has produced some of the best and most thought-provoking television of the last two years. When I say this what I really mean is that this partnership has continued the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in modernising the Epic genre, and that they’ve perhaps been the TV series most deliberately and overtly engaged with Christianity. What I mean is that my thinking has been provoked, because they’re exactly the sort of storytelling I’ve spent tens of thousands of words playing with over the last year… whether in the series exploring how superheroes might help re-enchant our view of the world, or my review of Daredevil Season 2.

Few cultural artefacts have excited my inner-overthinker more than the series released through this partnership: Daredevil (1 & 2), Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage. Luke Cage has been out for over a week, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for days and days now… so here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.

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Luke Cage is the story of the eponymous hero; an indestructible, hoodied, black man in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem.

Luke Cage differs from Daredevil’s Matt Murdock in certain key ways that play out in their respective Netflix storylines, but that are worth teasing out a little (mostly for funsies).

Murdock is very destructible; so destructible that his cuts and bruises reflect the struggles of his neighbourhood and are the price he pays for his heroism, while bullets bounce of Cage such that he becomes an inspiration for his neighbours in his adopted kingdom. There’s a great point in the season where the people of Harlem start wearing bullet-hole riddled hoodies as a sign of solidarity with Cage; a powerful statement in the #blacklivesmatter era.

Murdock is at home in Hell’s Kitchen, while Cage is an outsider; drawn to Harlem in part by circumstance, but increasingly both because of his mission and his love for what Harlem represents as a beacon for Black culture, and those he seeks to save.

Daredevil’s powers are the result of an accident that left him partly disabled (blind, but hyper-sensitive), Cage’s powers are the result of a scientific experiment that left him super-human.

Daredevil is masked, while Cage is open about his identity (with the exception of his hoodie, which does not so much hide him but identify him with those he protects).

Daredevil’s costume is bulletproof (because his skin isn’t), Cage’s hoodie is bullet riddled (because his skin isn’t).

Cage is black, Murdock is white. This, in itself, is the most significant feature of the series and the one that makes it the most compelling piece of media produced in an America coming face to face with race issues in a time where black men are seemingly routinely shot because of what, to an outsider, looks like deep systemic issues, but as a white Aussie I’m certainly not qualified to write about that stuff, so it’ll only come up tangentially in this post, but I’d highly recommend reading black voices on this stuff because the idea that Luke Cage is racist because its hero, and most of its characters, are black is frankly ridiculous (perhaps even more patently so given that the trajectory of this series is The Defenders where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage team up).

But, paradoxically, it’s the similarities between the heroes, not the differences, that provide some of the most interesting contrasts. Both are going up against devilish villains hell-bent on the destruction of their idealised visions of their neighbourhood homes, idyllic visions of their place, and thus the sort of heroism required to get there, that they, in a real sense, embody. Daredevil is to Hell’s Kitchen what Cage is to Harlem. Both are trying to bring light to a dark place. Perhaps most profoundly, both are deeply influenced by Christianity. Murdock is a practicing Catholic who routinely spends time in confession and who sees himself as the Good Samaritan, and sees his mission in parallel with the crucifixion of Jesus. Cage is the son of a ‘celebrity’ (at a local level) preacher from a black church in Georgia who draws on Black Liberation Theology’s favourite passage in Luke 4 when choosing his name after his resurrection.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

Daredevil paints arch-villain, and Murdock’s arch-rival, Wilson Fisk, as the embodiment of the ‘ill intent’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, while Luke Cage presents serpentine arch-villains Diamondback and Cottonmouth as personifications of the Devil (with Shades as their Screwtape-esque demon helper who ultimately seems to decide that Mariah is a better devil than both of them).

Daredevil and Luke Cage as images and imitations of Jesus

There’s an expression, the ‘Jesus Juke’ that gets used for jumping to Jesus from cultural texts where it seems tenuous, but these shows make the connection overtly. It doesn’t feel tenuous to look at these heroes and assess them against the mission and heroism of Jesus. In Cage and Murdock’s slightly different presentation of the heroic, ‘messianic,’ incarnate mission to save their people; the neighbours dwelling in the place they are called to serve; we see two elements of the real mission of the real Jesus. In Daredevil we meet the suffering servant who, in an echo of Jesus setting himself towards Jerusalem, deliberately steps in to take, and absorb, the punishment being thrown at his people. In Cage we meet the (mostly) indestructible resurrected saviour, a liberator who feels the call to free his people from the yoke of oppression, then doesn’t just absorb bullets, but turns them aside, and (mostly) crushes the head of the serpent.

Daredevil is, in a sense, the embodiment of two views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ where Jesus substitutes in to take the punishment those he saves deserve, and the exemplary view of the atonement (Christus Exemplar), where the life and death of Jesus are a moral example for his followers. Cage is almost purely a picture of the victory of Jesus; the victory he proclaims arrives with his kingdom in Luke 4 (Christus Victor).

But these heroes aren’t just Jesus figures; they’re presented as Jesus followers; imitators of the sort of Jesus they seem to follow. This is, in a sense, what separates these stories from others in the Marvel or DC universes. Daredevil’s heroic imitation of Jesus is consistent with the Catholic view of his mission and its implications for those he saves; the Catholic view of the atonement involves penal substitution, but also in the words of Pope John Paul IIacts of reparation, that continue to echo the crucifixion of Jesus: “the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified“… this is Daredevil’s understanding of his own mission; a mission deeply informed by his Catholicism. His mission to both be the good samaritan, but also to step in and take the blows aimed at the victim the good samaritan helps. His mission matures between season 1 and 2 from samaritan to martyr. He becomes one who is prepared to lay down his life for his city in order to defeat darkness. This is what motivates Daredevil to keep heading out into the bruising darkness; such that his body is broken time and time again for the sake of those he seeks to save. Being indestructible would actually be antithetical, in some sense, to his view of heroism; it would turn him into an entirely different sort of hero, one imagines, embodying an entirely different sort of Jesus.

The sort of Jesus we see in Luke Cage

The Christus Victor view of the atonement is what drives the sort of Black Liberation Theology Cage apparently adheres to; we have hints of this both in the view of Jesus he subscribes to as he adopts the name ‘Luke Cage’ and the way he conceives of his liberating mission in Harlem. His name is derived from the reference for his favourite passage, and its depiction of a cage being removed. His imperishable resurrected body provides him with the strength and ability to bring about his vision of shalom; the peace and liberation Jesus came to bring to the poor and oppressed.

Cage’s liberation theology represents a softer form of Black Liberation Theology than that advocated by the theologian who founded the movement, James Cone, though it certainly draws from it.

“The task of Black Theology then is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people – so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

Cone’s theology has been deeply influential in the Liberation Theology movement, but perhaps in a way mirrored by the writers of Luke Cage refusing to make the villains just white, or just the system, modern liberation theologians have rejected some of his more radical views of the white church and how it should be treated. It is interesting that Luke Cage faces up to ‘anti-Christ’ type figures who are also black; who ultimately side with the oppressive system out of self-interest, or simply motivated by baser desires like the desire for vengeance.

“Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is the theology of the anti-Christ.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

This makes the ‘theology’ of Cage’s friend-turned-brother-turned-nemesis, Diamondback, particularly interesting. Diamondback has a snake-like ability to twist the words of God and use them to his own ends. He is the personification of the Genesis 3 serpent (both Diamondbacks and Cottonmouths are types of snake). He is an anti-Christ in precisely the manner Cone describes, but also because he is the enemy of the Christlike figure in the narrative… And he’s the ultimate opponent of Luke Cage not just directly but in his willingness to prop up a corrupt system opposed to the oppressed people Cage has come to liberate; simply because he is hell-bent on the destruction of Cage; and the death of hope.

He’s not particularly interested in the fate of Harlem, he promises Mariah Dillard that he’ll disappear when Cage is finished, but it turns out that Dillard isn’t really interested in a renaissance for Harlem, not in any meaningful sense. She is interested in being in control of Harlem and its citizens. She wants to be its oppressor — another anti-christ — and we see this in her decision to join the existing oppressors and to arm them with Cage-destroying weaponry; carrying the aptly named ‘Judas’ bullets.

But Cage cannot be killed so easily. Cage won’t let the oppressors win. Cage is not afraid of Death, and not even a Judas can ultimately get rid of him. In Liberation Theology generally, but Cone’s Black Liberation Theology specifically, the resurrection is not just a conceptual thing but a paradigm for how to live when staring at oppression in the present; and this, perhaps, serves as something of a description for Luke Cage’s modus operandi.

“[Jesus’] resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility of freedom. For men and women who live in an oppressive society this means they do not have to behave as if death were the ultimate. God in Christ has set us free from death, and we can now live without fear of social ostracism, economic insecurity, or political tyranny.”— James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

There are no doubt some problems with Black Liberation Theology, especially as Cone conceived of it many years ago, but this is, in a sense, a description of Luke Cage. Freed from death and physical pain, after his resurrection, Luke Cage is able to tackle oppression in Harlem fearlessly. Mostly. His mission isn’t resolved after one season, nor is the job complete, but he is the liberator; and ultimately there’s little doubt that he’ll be the victor (that’s not even a spoiler).

There’s obviously a lot more going on in the series — figures like Shades and Mariah Dillard are complex personifications of different sorts of evil, temptation, and the cyclical, self-perpetuating nature of brokenness and sin. Diamondback is both Satan and Cain, and Cage both Jesus and Abel — which gets a little confusing, though it works quite nicely if you think of both Abel and Jesus as descendants of Adam who don’t act like sinful Adam, and Cage and Diamondback as brothers who both have to decide how they’re shaped by the sin of their forebear.

There’s also something interesting about the character Claire Temple, the Night Nurse, who features in all three Netflix/Marvel franchises as a willing helper of the hero who doesn’t just patch them up when they fall, but pushes them towards their divine calling. If Cage and Daredevil are different visions of Jesus, Claire Temple is their ‘paraclete,’ their Holy Spirit, who keeps them focused on the mission and picks them up when they fall, she’s also a voice who calls other characters to buy into the ‘messianic’ vision of the hero. There’s an interesting contrast that seems to suggest that Claire is more bought into Cage’s ability to save, the victor model, than the suffering servant model of heroism; not simply evident in her romantic entanglement with Cage being far deeper than her involvement with Murdock, but because where she keeps pushing Cage towards the fight, she tries to convince Murdock, at one point, to abandon it lest it cost him those he is trying to save.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…” — Claire Temple to Daredevil, Daredevil, Season 2

It’s Claire who calls our heroes to stay on mission and to keep their feet firmly planted amongst those they’ve come to save; to find the happy medium and avoid the temptation that threatens to derail their messianic calling. This is another fundamental similarity and difference between Cage and Daredevil. Cage’s temptation is always to disconnect from the people at the heart of his mission by leaving the fight, though he is indestructible, to not take up the call to heroism, so Claire calls him back to it; Daredevil’s temptation is to so embrace the fight, though he is destructible, such that he disconnects from his people who have to witness his destruction and is destroyed without truly being able to save them; Claire calls him back to these people he’s meant to be fighting for, to keep him from losing himself and becoming the darkness he fights.

Luke Cage and Daredevil live in, and fight for, the same city; coming from neighbourhoods separated physically by Central Park, and both confronted by devils and demons who they’ll continue to battle in future seasons (ultimately they’ll join forces in The Defenders); they’re both living in a world scarred by the sort of ‘heroism’ behind ‘the incident’ (the destruction of New York as the Avengers saved the planet). They’re both counter-examples to the sort of heroes who are detached from the suburban reality of life; the ‘hero from above’ — and in this there’s an implicit criticism of the type of leaders in our world who want to be the saviour without any connection to the cost of salvation; both Daredevil and Cage show that true heroism requires skin (even bulletproof) skin in the game; that it requires going head to head with darkness and seeking to bring light, and in this they’re commendable examples.

Why Jesus is still better than Daredevil and Luke Cage

I love these series; I get suckered in to both the binge watching “I must finish this series in less than a week” and the overthinking “I must write thousands of words about this” parts of the experience. I love the visions of heroism on offer here and the rich exploration of different traditions of Christianity they supply in order to help people think about living heroically in the modern world. As viewers we’re not really called to pick a favourite between Cage and Daredevil, but to appreciate both, and I think that is a valuable exercise for us Christians.

We get the best version of Jesus from these two series; these two heroes; if we combine them. 

So often our vision of the cross has been deeply framed by our own circumstances — this is true of the rampant individualism of the Protestant church (which tends to make penal substitution — the salvation of the individual — the core part of the Gospel), it’s true of the minds behind the Black Liberation Theology movement whose first hand experience of systemic oppression drives their reading of the Gospel, and it’s true of Catholicism where our morality, or Christlikeness (especially as it reflects the cross), is part of what saves us.

These two series have served us well by presenting us with multiple visions of heroism reflecting on Jesus, visions of heroism linked in the same world, ultimately featuring heroes who’re on the same team, and guided by the same voice (Temple). We’re presented with an interesting opportunity to consider that our relatively narrow and culturally shaped views of what’s happening at the Cross might indeed be too simplistic, and as a result might distort what’s actually going on.

The good news is that Jesus, the incarnate saviour, is a bit like the visions of heroism put forward by Marvel in both Daredevil and Luke Cage. The better news is that he’s a complete hero, while these visions offer different facets of heroism and show different aspects of his mission that come together to present a much more compelling picture for those of us who aren’t heroes. We are, in fact, villains by nature; people who too easily give in to temptation or seek to control our world.

In seeing both the strengths, and limitations, of these heroes built on one or two particular views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from different traditions, we’re invited to expand our picture of his heroism. Jesus is a suffering servant who took our punishment for us; the cost of sin is death and his death paid our debt and this heroism does save people. He’s also a moral exemplar both in his life and in his death and resurrection; he does call us to take up our cross and follow him. He knows the pain and suffering of the broken world and does not stand apart from it. Daredevil is like Jesus. Jesus also knows that we’re not, on our own, worthy of saving, and that we don’t take up our cross or act as ‘saviours’ on our own steam; that we’re all Fisks and Diamonbacks at heart, wanting to kill heroes who threaten to get in our way, and yet he lays down his life for us, and in this his heroism is greater than Daredevil’s, and Cage’s because he teaches us to love our enemies. This is part of the call to take up our cross, not to destroy our enemies but to lay down our lives for them…  our crosses don’t save us, or others, and Jesus isn’t killed over and over again ad nauseam; we’re not called to make acts of reparation for he has made the ultimate heroic act.

Jesus is also victor and king (Christus Rex); he did come to bring peace, and will return to bring the sort of shalom that liberation theology seeks now (we should, as people following him, stand against oppression here and now too). But to limit that peace to human fault-lines like the white/black, good/evil, oppressor/oppressed fault lines is to see the fruit and miss the tree. Yes; God is fundamentally against oppression, but it’s also true that given the opportunity all of us are fundamentally oppressors, and the real freedom and peace Jesus came to bring was to bring us freedom from the bondage of sin and peace with God. It’s that freedom and that peace that’ll ultimately stop us enslaving and objectifying our fellow humans. Yes; we are called to live life now as though we have been raised with Christ, as people of his kingdom who desire liberation for all people, but the ultimate goal of this liberation can’t simply be social, economic, or political; we should desire that they too be liberated from death, to share with Jesus in his heroic victory over the enemies of God’s people: Satan, sin, and death.

Both Daredevil and Luke Cage show valuable glimpses of what it looks like to take up a facet of the sort of heroism we see in Jesus and imitate it for the sake of those around us.

In Daredevil we’re invited to see that really loving others requires pain and sacrifice; which is the sort of love, and the example, Jesus demonstrates at the Cross. Those of us who follow Jesus see this act as both what frees us to love others without feeling like we’re paying off our sin and earning our salvation, and also shows us what that love looks like.

In Luke Cage we’re invited to see that resurrection in an indestructible body frees us from fear; which is what happens for us because of the resurrection of Jesus, and his ultimate defeat of death and the devil. Those of us who follow Jesus believe we’re, in a sense, eternally bulletproof. So we’re free to stand up and fight against oppression for the sake of our neighbours when we see it now.

This doesn’t necessarily make Jesus true. Of course. But it does, at the very least, make him a better hero (in a better story) than Daredevil or Luke Cage, and maybe that alone should be enough reason for you to check out the stories of his heroism; the Gospels.

 

“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5

 

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

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

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

The church-as-exiles movement has continued rolling along in the last year and a half, and there have been plenty of landmark cases both here in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world for us to both notice the seismic shift in the world we live in especially with regards to the place so-called Christian values have in our social norms and laws, and to figure out how we’re going to respond to those shifts. We’ve had Safe Schools, and a continued debate on same sex marriage; we’ve, increasingly, been told that religious freedom is the greatest human right since sliced bread and something to be upheld at all costs, and often found that voicing traditional Christian views — those still reflected in our laws — is a form of bigotry (all our grandparents and most of our parents, it seems, are actually bigots when assessed by today’s values).

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Christians have been standing up in the public square to be speaking in favour of a bunch of created goods like marriage and freedom without really saying much at all about the creator, or his grand story of forgiveness, redemption and victory over death in Jesus. It’s like the public square is now a bonfire where we’re burning anything ‘Christian’ that looks off-trend, and it feels like life as exiles is mostly about trying to hold on to valuable furniture. Sometimes it feels like certain streams of Christianity are figuring out what furniture to toss on the fire in order to join the fun, rather than trying to douse the flames and call people to a better party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

District X: Essenes/Qumran and the Benedict Option


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The X-Men: The Jesus option

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image Credit: Wikipedia article on Halal Snack Packs

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

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

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

Hospitality: a lost Aussie virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ — Acts 17:26-28

We are both guests and hosts. 

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

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

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

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

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

We are both guests and hosts.

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

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

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

Hospitality: A lost Christian virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you practicing and receiving this sort of hospitality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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