Evangelism as team sport (a review of Sam Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World)

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of review, and I know the author so mostly just refer to him as ‘Sam’; I’m sure this breaks all sorts of conventions, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have reviewed it (and I would’ve told him). 

Sam Chan is a sharp thinker, so when he set out to write a textbook on evangelism (literally a textbook, not metaphorically), it was always going to be a must read. Here’s the short review: if you’re interested in helping people understand Jesus get hold of this book and read it; the chapters on ‘Everyday Evangelism’, Evangelism to Postmoderns, and Gospel-Cultural Hermeneutics are particularly useful summaries of game changing ways to think about how we do the task of evangelism (which isn’t to say you should bother with the rest)

Like many people who write textbooks, Sam is an exceptional thinker — what makes this book particularly useful is that he’s also both an exceptional practitioner and an exceptional teacher. While lots of textbooks deal with abstractions and theory and even feel beyond the grasp of us mere mortals, Sam practices what he preaches — in that evangelism is ultimately about connecting with people and helping them change what they believe and how they live. The book is written in a way that manages to bridge the ‘technical world’ of the theologian with the practical world of the layperson who is keen to share their belief better with friends. There are some technical parts of the book (perhaps especially chapter 1, A Theology Of Evangelism and the last chapter on Religious Epistemology, Apologetics and Defeater Beliefs), but the technical bits are essential to the very practical and relatable technique-applying chapters. It’s packed with practical advice that’ll work for anybody interested in sharing their faith, and those of us who may be asked to speak publicly at different events. It draws strongly on his (previously reviewed) doctoral work on speech-act theory and preaching as the word of God (and the Word of God being the proclamation of the Gospel).

I want to acknowledge certain beliefs that I have up front, so that you’re aware of my biases… I think the way the church in Australia (and particularly my Reformed Evangelical scene) approach evangelism is largely fundamentally broken; not just because we are living in a ‘skeptical world’, but because our theological emphases, developed through internal conflicts with other Christians, are limiting our ability to speak the Gospel in its fullness to our Aussie neighbours in ways that resonate with their hearts; plus I use hearts because I think we’ve bought holus bolus into modernity and a propositional way of arguing from rational evidence because we think people are rational creatures who are predominantly convinced by ‘thinking things’ (the ‘brain on a stick’ model of the human discussed at length by James K.A Smith in his ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series). I think our attempts to persuade people about the truth, beauty, and goodness of Jesus are limited by our western individualism. So, as a result, people in my tradition have tended to emphasise evangelism based on reason, rationality and evidence (particularly history), on trying to establish a certain set of categories that help people ‘know’ the truth, and with a particular (almost exclusive) emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement and its individual implications as the ‘entire’ Gospel. If you ask the average Joe to summarise the Gospel I suspect you get something like ‘you are a sinner and Jesus came to save you by dying in your place’. I don’t think this is wrong, but I do think it is limited in its scope (in terms of what the Gospel is, and even what the word ‘Gospel’ meant to its first users whether Jewish or Graeco-Roman), and I think as a result it is limited in its ability to engage with actual people who aren’t fully bought in to all the categories we’ve assumed.

Our approach to evangelism is broken. Last year the Presbyterian Church of Queensland — my denomination — buried more people than it baptised; and we baptise babies; our death rate is outpacing our birth rate and the rate of non-Christians joining our churches; while we’ve grown numerically it seems to me that growth is mostly ‘transfer growth’… and we need a bit of a shake up in terms of how we evangelise.

This book is important because I think it points out several examples of where the ’emperor’ we’ve created of this particular system of thinking about the Gospel, and thus, evangelism, actually has no clothes on, or perhaps is in a state of undress where not everything that should be covered is. It invites us to think afresh about how topical presentations of the Gospel might still be the ‘word of God’ (continuing on from Sam’s speech-act treatment of preaching as the word of God); it invites us to embrace multiple ways of presenting the Gospel as good news (beyond just guilt and forgiveness, it gives us different pictures of sin to use (from the Bible) and their antidote — like ‘idolatry and true worship, ‘ or ‘brokenness and reconciliation (or restoration). It gives a bunch of different examples of proclaiming Jesus as good news and reminds us that all of these are faithful and pictured in the life of Jesus. It’s also a whip smart reading not just of Christian culture and where we might have miss-fired by buying in to the worldview we swim in, but of the culture around us and where it has changed so that these old clothes no longer cover what we need to cover.I found his embrace of some of the positive aspects of the death of modernity and swing to post-modernity — especially his wholehearted embrace of narrative in the place of dry propositions — refreshing (especially when we hear so much negativity from people looking back to the halcyon days of modernity that ends up being hopeless for us young’uns, and people like us).

I reckon one test of an evangelistic textbook is how comfortable you’d be for your non Christian mates to read it over your shoulder — how much it feels like a handbook for the Christian equivalent of ‘pick up artistry’ or a manual for manipulation; this is a book I’m quite happy to very publicly recommend and discuss because it so charitably engages with and depicts the thoughts of those who don’t yet know Jesus, and it doesn’t recommend anything underhanded or tricky; it’s, in some ways, a rebuke for Christians in that we tend to place our confidence in the wrong things (sometimes methodology, sometimes particular aspects of our theology) rather than doing the not so hard work of listening to and connecting with those people in our lives such that we understand what part of the good news of Jesus might resonate with them.

Another test for me, as a pastor, is to imagine how I might use a book in the context of church life; can I just hand this book to anybody confident they’ll find it helpful without interpretation? Could I use this as the basis for training at church for key leaders? Is there stuff I feel like I need to qualify as I hand it to someone, the ‘just skip that chapter because it’s the opposite of what we taught on Sunday’ disclaimer… I’m happy to think about how to use this book almost without reservation — in fact, my only reservations are that I’d like Sam to write whole books on some of his chapters (or just to come up and run the seminars he’s been running or his old lectures on evangelism in the flesh) because one of the weaknesses of the brevity and breadth of the text book genre is some gaps aren’t filled and you’re left to make certain connections yourself.

I want to be really clear that I heartily recommend this book; I’ll be both handing out copies to people at church and running training based on a few of the chapters (both training people to preach, and in terms of thinking about how we participate in the mission of God to make Jesus known together as a community).

What follows is a slightly longer review teasing out some of how to apply the textbook to life as an average Christian (rather than a ‘professional’), and connecting it to some broader conversations about what evangelism is and who should do it (and how we should do it).

Evangelism as team sport

Sam defines evangelism as:

“The essence of evangelism is the message that Jesus Christ is Lord. Evangelism is our human effort in proclaiming this message — which necessarily involves using our human communication, language, idioms, metaphors, stories, experiences, personality, emotions, context, culture, locatedness — and trusting and praying that God in his sovereign will, will supernaturally use our human and natural means to effect his divine purposes.

In a general sense evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to any audience of believers and nonbelievers. In a narrower sense, evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to nonbelievers. But in both senses, we proclaim the gospel with the hope that our audience responds by trusting, repenting, and following and obeying Jesus.”

Also, because to proclaim the Gospel is to preach — following Sam’s book on preaching — evangelism is to speak (or communicate) the word of God; so when we do this as his people according to what he commands, it is God speaking. I want to make the case that this means that evangelism is a speech-act not simply of an individual, but of the whole body of Christ. It’s not an individual act, though individuals might do particular tasks of evangelism, but the product of a ‘team’… and I think Sam’s book gives us certain building blocks to solve a dilemma or debate that operates around the question of who is meant to do evangelism. And the answer is ‘everybody… differently and together’… like any good team.

Sam spent some time in the US, and refers to that context throughout the book, so I’m going to use a sporting metaphor from that scene — from American Football. Teams playing ‘gridiron’ live and die by the playbook; they have to imbibe it (there were great stories about our own Jarryd Hayne trying to cram his team’s playbook into his head in his short lived career with the 49ers), but nobody more than the quarterback, the guy who does the work of calling and implementing the plays on the field. In some ways this feels like a playbook for evangelism. It feels like the sort of thing a coach works up from his experience as both player and coach, and the sort of thing that is useful for a whole team, but especially necessary for the quarterback; and then each person filling the other slots in the team needs to know the plays they’re involved in. It’s clear from different parts of the book that evangelism in a skeptical world is basically a team game, but it’s also clear that not all of us are going to have to decide between giving an expository evangelistic talk and a topical one.

There’s been a longstanding debate about whether evangelism is a thing that all Christians, as individuals are called to participate in as individuals, or whether it is a particular gift for particular individuals; Sam’s book goes some way towards providing a helpful corrective to both positions in that debate. It’s clear that not all Christian individuals are called to stand up and preach an evangelistic talk, but perhaps all of us are called to think about how we present our testimony or use our houses in ways that promote the Gospel (to borrow the title of John Dickson’s book (reviewed), that advances the idea that ‘evangelism’ itself is a technical function of particular, gifted, individuals, though we all have a role to play in ‘promoting the Gospel’). The debate is alive and well, a recent multi-hundred comment discussion in the Christian ‘deep web’ (Facebook), confirmed it… But I’ve long suspected this ‘figuring out what ‘evangelism’ is’ debate — whether it’s for some individuals or all individuals — seems to miss something fundamental about what Paul says about how gifts work; that they’re functions of the body, the church. What does seem clear is that evangelism is a necessary function of the church; a thing that all of us are invested in, and that all our lives support. If we particularise that function too much we fail to see how truly integrated any action within the context of the body of Christ, using gifts given by God for the building up of that body, is, if we generalise a function too much we end up with everybody doing the same thing, when we might actually all have slightly different and complementary roles to play. A team can’t function if everybody wants to play quarterback; but a quarterback also can’t function without the team (and isn’t actually more important than the players on the field around him). It’s perhaps unhelpful to suggest the person carrying out the function of an evangelist is more like the quarterback than a running back who receives passes and tries to get things over the line… but I had to pick a position.

Lots of Sam’s book is exceptionally useful for those with the particular gift or calling to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:5), there’s great and useful gear in there for the individual, let’s call them the quarterback in this team effort, but it isn’t just a book for these individuals, but it’s real strength is in starting to stretch our categories a bit, to understand that maybe part of us buying into a western model revolving around individual brilliance and focused on intellectual arguments or logos doesn’t actually mesh well with how humans really tick (let alone how the church is meant to understand our shared task in the world). Sam challenges several elements of our assumed anthropology in order to provide some alternative solutions for how we evangelise together; with some people playing particular roles.

First off, if we adopt an individualistic anthropology we’re likely to have certain assumptions about how individuals shift in their beliefs that particularly emphasise the individual will, and our reason. If we assume people are simply rational beings, then that will shape our content and methodology… but this picture of being human seems wrong, or as Sam puts it in his chapter on Religious Epistemology, Apologetics, and Defeater Beliefs:

“The way we choose to communicate reveals our anthropology (our understanding of what it means to be a human being). If we reduce human beings only to rational minds, then we will think that we only need to transfer ideas and cognitive information. But if we believe that human beings are holistically bodies, minds, and emotions, then we will try to communicate the gospel at the level of information (logos), body (ethos), and emotions (pathos). This is what James is getting at in his New Testament letter. He points out that it’s no good only telling someone the idea — “God loves you” — without also feeding their bodies (James 2:14-17).” — Page 244

For Sam, this has obvious implications for our emphasis on the skills needed for evangelism.

“I’m emphasising the need to include the pathos and ethos because in the Western church, we’ve traditionally encouraged smart and gifted people — doctors and lawyers — into full time paid Christian ministry. But cultural changes suggest that maybe we should also encourage emotionally smart people — those in the creative arts — into full-time paid Christian ministry. Conversely, rather than encouraging people into seminary, where we learn the cognitive aspects of Christianity, we may want to encourage some people to pursue the creative arts, where we learn to express ourselves through body and emotions.”— Page 244

Some of this gear on ethos and the focus on plausibility coming from communities of belief and practice dips back into an earlier chapter. One of the things I’d most been looking forward to in the book is the chapter everyday evangelism works, I’d seem this material presented in evangelistic training sessions Sam ran, and I’ve been encouraging people to take up his concept of ‘merging universes’ — creating overlaps where your friends are hanging out together so that you aren’t a lone wolf — the only weird Christian your non-Christian friends, family, and colleagues know — since hearing him speak on it (McCrindle’s last faith and belief in Australia survey showed most Aussies still know a few Christians, but a staggering (and growing) percentage (8%) no longer know any Christians let alone many Christians, 38% know less than 5 (NOTE: the first version of this piece wrongly suggested ‘a majority don’t know any’ — a misremembering of the data, and I should’ve checked it before publishing).

“Here is the key idea you need to grasp: people will find a story more believable if more people in their community, their trusted friends and family, also believe the story.”  — Page 43

There’s a weighty amount of sociology of knowledge stuff under the hood of his gear on Plausibility Structures — especially Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Sociology of Knowledge which makes the case that none of us arrive at positions through purely rational thought, our beliefs are made possible (plausible) because of our thought categories but also our environments (especially the people who teach us things) — we believe more than we think we do because of the people around us. Berger and Luckmann weren’t writing particularly about religious belief (or to help people ‘trick people’ into belief), but were rather giving an account of how and why people come to believe anything (and for anyone reading trying to figure out if this is a playbook for manipulation — it’s worth pondering what plausibility structures any of us are part of and how they might account for beliefs we think we’ve come up with on our own):

“The most important social condition is the availability of an effective plausibility structure, that is, a social base serving as the “laboratory” of transformation. This plausibility structure will be mediated to the individual by means of significant others, with whom he must establish strongly affective identification.” — Berger and Luckmann, Sociology of Knowledge

Or, in other words, if you want to help someone ponder their beliefs, and maybe make a shift, get your friends to become friends with each other. The thing that I reckon keeps Sam’s stuff particularly above board is the vital first step of making sure you’re getting out of your own plausibility structures and entering the world of the people around you first (‘go to their stuff first’). That being open to having your own view shifted, and showing an openness to not exist in some sort of cultic bubble is important for more than just understanding other people. Merging universes is wise advice because we are social animals, and it’s one way that evangelism is quite clearly a team thing, but it is wise not just because of plausibility increasing in a rational sense where other people believe, but belief becoming more plausible when you’re around people who do. This comes up more as Sam focuses on ethos or the place of the Christian life in evangelism throughout the book, in the chapter Evangelism to Postmoderns, in his section on authenticity (the “buzzword for postmoderns”) he says:

“Unlike moderns, the first question is not ‘is it true?’ but ‘is it real in our lives?’ Are we living consistently — or better, coherently — with our beliefs? Are we being true to ourselves? Do we walk the walk as well as we talk the talk? This should lead us to think about how we evangelise to our postmodern friends in a way that communicates authenticity.” — Page 116

Note: there’s an irony in talking about the ‘strategy’ of being authentic — it doesn’t work it if’s put on for show… he goes on:

“While the gospel is something we speak, words that communicate God’s truth, there is also a sense in which we ourselves are a component of how the message is communicated. We speak the words of truth, but we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Our message is embodied. It doesn’t come in a vacuum. It comes in the context of shared lives and trusted friendships. This is the model of evangelism that Paul himself uses with the Thessalonians. “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake (1 Thess 1:5). The Thessalonians don’t just believe the gospel to be true; they also see that it is real by Paul’s authentic living.” — Page 116

Now. I want to very gently point out the plural in that italicised bit (emphasis Sam’s), and suggest that it wasn’t just Paul’s authentic living that was convincing, but the authentic lives of the Pauline circle on mission in Thessalonica that made the Gospel plausible. Evangelism was a team game for Paul — even as he ‘did the work of an evangelist’ — and his evangelism was very much a product of his embodying the Gospel (so he appeals lots to his example and his suffering for the crucified king), and in the next chapter he says:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:8-10

The ‘we’ isn’t just a quaint referring to one’s self in a third person plural — a ‘royal we’, but Paul appealing to the lives of his team.

The real challenge from the insights throughout Sam’s book aren’t just for the individual (even if there are great tips for individuals in how to put the theory into practice), but for our Christian culture — for our communities — our churches. One of the things I’d love to have seen more of in the book is the implications beyond how we think of evangelism to how evangelism drives and shapes the way we live as the church — the body of Christ — in the world; how it impacts the typical Sunday and the typical sermon (if to evangelise is to speak the word of God — why would we want to speak anything else? Why wouldn’t Sam’s suggestions about talk structures — whether expository or topical — shape how we preach every week if one of our shared tasks is to evangelise?). There are small challenges to recalibrate this way dotted through the book… but here’s a clear call to re-think moving from the training paddock to game day in our mentality.

“Our usual approach to evangelism is to add some activity to our lives: maybe I’m going to try to tell someone about Jesus at lunch, or I’m going to join a book club. Churches do the same thing by adding an event such as an outreach night to their calendar. But we need to change our lives so that we live an evangelistic lifestyle, not a life with add-on bits of evangelism. Churches need to do the same thing.”

It’s a worthwhile challenge; and this playbook is a great asset that I’m hoping will help our church community do just this; I’m thankful for Sam and look forward to reading the ten extra books this one commits him to writing…

Try Jesus. Today (an explanation for a new website)

Over summer I read two fascinating books that got me thinking about the role of the ‘physical’ commons; public space, and what it means that public space is now ‘privatised’ in that people pay money to bombard us with messages via outdoor advertising, and screens, and ever more invasive techniques to get us to buy things or see the world a particular way. This is never more truly pronounced than in an election campaign, but it’s actually much more sinister apart from those campaigns (which claim to be about the ‘public good’ of democracy and aiming to somehow help inform our choice as we ‘shape the public life’ of our community).

One book was about how to cultivate an ethic of attention via embodied practices and deliberation — Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, the other was a manifesto for public space activism (graffiti etc) called Advertising Shits In Your Head (free ebook)In one passage, Crawford describes heading to an airport and being bombarded, from start to finish, by advertising — even on the trays you put your odds and ends on as they pass through security — everywhere is ‘noisy’, space everywhere is ‘commoditised’, except where you pay for it not to be — the lounges…

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge.”

This made me think not just about what an uncontested, non-privatised commons would look like (Crawford says public space should ultimately be as freely available as oxygen), but about how to advance what I believe is the public good of the Gospel apart from these commercial pressures (or what I would put into public space to grab the attention of a passer by, for their good).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a fascinating anarchist text that had me thinking of all sorts of ‘reclaiming the commons’ campaigns that would be, I think, basically illegal. I’ve often noticed sticker bomb campaigns on pedestrian crossing/traffic light poles in the city and wondered about a ‘sticker bomb the Gospel’ approach to getting Jesus into the public psyche, or conversation. I wondered for a while if appropriately submitting to authorities, if one believes that the commons should be free not controlled by private interests, is not to not claim a presence, but to pay the fine (or do the clean up time) for participating in a conversation aimed at reclaiming the commons. I think I’ve decided to err on the side of caution on this front… but it did get me thinking; what would I use to draw the attention of the average, distracted, passer by on the streets (or in the ‘virtual commons’ of, say, the Facebook news feed (though this one requires paying for presence, ultimately becoming part of the problem (though offsetting that by offering something that one believes is genuinely a source of ‘human flourishing’ or a social good (less than can be said for Coca Cola (and when I was at uni we were told their ‘outdoor strategy’ is to get the brand in someone’s face close to ten times a day because science showed that was an effective ‘implanting’ tipping point that would increase the chances of prompting a purchase).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a manual for ‘subvertising’, claiming “the modern subvertising movement has consumerism as its target. Many practitioners present their work as explicitly anti-capitalist and almost all object to outdoor advertising as a form of propaganda,” it quotes a guy campaigning to outlaw public advertising, Jordan Seiler, saying “Our acceptance of advertising is testament to how much advertising in general has infused itself into our lives and we consider it to be a medium that is inescapable and just inherently part of the capitalist system…” It says (and I find it hard to disagree):

“It’s not that propaganda, public relations, advertising, or the intersections of all three are inherently evil, it is rather that the system they have been so adept at promoting throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is responsible for economic crises, resource wars, widening inequality, and perhaps most alarmingly, environmental destruction on a global scale. Subvertisers can justifiably argue that propaganda is, once again, marshalling millions to their deaths.”

In short, in theological terms, public advertising is often a tool of ‘babylon’ luring us away from the flourishing life that is found in relationship with our creator, through Jesus, and towards idols that are disappointing and destructive. You don’t need that Tag Heuer watch; nor do you need to desire it.

In the political theology essay I posted yesterday I made the case that Christians should be disruptors of beastly systems — including, to some extent, the sort of ‘capitalism’ built on the idea that we should define our humanity in terms of consumption and the pursuit of happiness through products and services that we pay for and develop using technology (so that we become little cogs in an economic machine). It seems to me that advertising plays a pretty substantial part in keeping us there because it is so rarely, if ever, targeted at the public good rather than some agenda to serve a private good (even doing so by creating a perceived ‘public good’… and even public service announcement style ‘advertising’ from governments is so often coupled with the agenda of winning re-election not by leading a conversation about public good, but by jumping on board such a conversation once the political pulse has well and truly been checked). I’m also a former ‘propagandist’ (at least an ethical one, I hope, and perhaps not entirely ‘former’), and I think there are methods or techniques of ‘propaganda’ that can genuinely put to good use for the sake of the common good so long as they seek persuasion without manipulation or coercion (part of the topic I explored in my thesis about how to ethically and excellently communicate/engage in the public square with the Gospel).

So as I read these books I wondered: what would I do to ‘subvert’ the narrative of advertisers and their claiming of ‘public space’ for their private interests? If I was to invade that space in order to subvert those intentions for the good of my neighbours, what would I do? The answer, of course, is Jesus — who so utterly is at odds with the agenda of ‘Babylon’ or the self-gratifying propagandist, and who does offer, if the Gospel is true, ultimate satisfaction and the ‘abundant life’. I wondered, what would I turn into a sticker to slap up on public spaces, or use as a little ‘tear off’ poster on a community noticeboard? What would I hope might realistically evoke a sense of curiousity, and once evoked, how would I move that curiousity to action (or what marketers call ‘conversion’)? So I started trying to write a website inviting people to try Jesus, and to do it immediately. I wanted to explore the connection between Jesus and the ‘public good’ or the flourishing life, and so focus on the truth, goodness, and beauty of the life, example, and teaching of Jesus (the Gospel) and the life it produces; it’s not that I don’t want to talk about sin and judgment (those are inescapably part of that life), but I want repentance to be more about turning to Jesus than away from sin… and then I wanted the steps towards ‘trying Jesus’ to be more about experiences that give the Gospel plausibility, and more about the heart than the head (though not not about the head — given that those intuitions and emotions are also produced by the brain in response to stimulus and to some extent thought, and also the evidence for Christianity is quite compelling).

So I started a website: tryjesus.today

It’s not complete. It will hopefully evolve. I’d love it to include short video testimonies from people who’ve decided to give Jesus a try (maybe that’s you?), and I’d also love your feedback about what you reckon works, and what doesn’t… and how to do this act of ‘subvertising’ without undermining the message of the Gospel.

A political theology

A while ago I sketched out some basic elements of a political theology (at least the theology part); a way to think about how Christians should engage in politics. I’d been asked to write a paper for a committee meeting for our national denomination and those preliminary thoughts were part of the building blocks for this bigger paper. It’s long, and has footnotes, so here it is as a PDF

Here’s the summary (the conclusion actually, so you don’t have to wade through all that other stuff).

My contention is that it is the Gospel itself that provides a political theology; that our engagement with the world should be shaped by our anthropology — including an understanding of the effect of sin and the idolatrous replacement of creator with creation at the heart of worldly power — and that our political speech and action should be the cruciform proclamation of the crucified king; that we on one level we should not expect this to be persuasive, and indeed should expect a degree of ridicule or persecution, but also that in a truly secular democracy having our beliefs properly understood is our best chance to have them understood, ‘represented’ or recognised by our laws and lawmakers. Our anthropology — our understanding that all people are essentially religiously motivated, worshipping, image bearers means that this approach is actually politically legitimate in a way that transcends different governments and cultures; it is the approach we might expect Paul to adopt in the Roman Empire (as indeed he does in Acts), that the early church adopted in that same context, and that we might expect faithful witnesses and ambassadors for Christ to adopt in both western democracies and other contexts throughout the modern world.

On colourblindness, race, and imagining a reconciling church in Australia

On Saturday I was invited to speak at an event called Gracious Conversations, an initiative of Aboriginal Christian leaders Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis, and Common Grace. This is an adaptation of what I said there. I started by inviting people to use their imaginations to write down or capture in some way their vision for a reconciled Australia, and the part we Christians might play in that as individuals and, more importantly, collectively as the church. That’s a worthwhile exercise I think, to try to conjour up some vision of a different Australia to the one we have now — because no matter how good we think it is now we should all have the human faculty — the imagination — that allows us to picture something better.

I’m colour blind.

Not in some sort of trendy ‘post-race’ way — but literally… You throw some of these dots up on the screen and ask me to see the number 7… And I’m lost. I can’t even imagine it…

I am also, so far as I can tell, totally ill-equipped to wax lyrical on questions of race and the future of the Australian church; I’m very much a pilgrim on this journey and I’m thankful for wise leaders and co-walkers like Aunty Jean, but to the extent that I am in a position to share anything worthwhile to this conversation, if it is to be a ‘gracious conversation’ I shared some thoughts on my journey out of ‘colourblindness’ on questions of race… suggesting that it isn’t enough, as an individual, to claim ‘not to see colour’ in interpersonal relationships if we want to imagine a better future together…

Have you ever imagined trying to explain the colour red to someone like me? Someone who no matter how hard I strain my eyes is totally unable to see the world the way you do? Here’s how wikipedia describes ‘red’ in its entry:

“Reds range from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet and vermillion to bluish-red crimson, and vary in shade from the pale red pink to the dark red burgundy. The red sky at sunset results from Rayleigh scattering, while the red color of the Grand Canyon and other geological features is caused by hematite or red ochre, both forms of iron oxide. Iron oxide also gives the red color to the planet Mars. The red colour of blood comes from protein hemoglobin, while ripe strawberries, red apples and reddish autumn leaves are colored by anthocyanins”

Which is all nice and kinda evocative and poetic — but utterly useless if you can’t see the distinctive features of any of those reference points.

The thing is, when it comes to the colours of reality — the world as it really is — we’re all colour blind.

Meet the mantis shrimp.

“Some species have at least 16 photoreceptor types, which are divided into four classes (their spectral sensitivity is further tuned by colour filters in the retinas), 12 for colour analysis in the different wavelengths (including six which are sensitive to ultraviolet light) and four for analysing polarised light. By comparison, most humans have only four visual pigments, of which three are dedicated to see colour, and human lenses block ultraviolet light. The visual information leaving the retina seems to be processed into numerous parallel data streams leading into the brain, greatly reducing the analytical requirements at higher levels.”

These bad boys and girls see much more of the world than we do — and if we gave them human voices and the ability to describe the world they would expand our horizons a little, even if we couldn’t actually see the reality for ourselves, so long as we trusted the description of their experiences was an accurate rendition of a world beyond our grasp.

I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the we we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.

And I have to confess it wasn’t just when it comes to the issue of race in Australia that I feel like I struggled to see something important… It’s this passage from Ephesians as well. I feel like meditating on it over the last few weeks has been eye opening. It’s a prayer from the Apostle Paul as he writes to a church he loves…

Paul writes out a prayer that he prays for them — a rich prayer — there’s some great stuff here when it comes to race, where God is the god of every family… Every nation… Every race… And Paul says he kneels and prays that “out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in their inner beings…”

It’s the sort of prayer that should shape the life of the church…

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. — Ephesians 3:14-21

His prayer is that Jesus may dwell in their hearts — not a small prayer — so that they — and we as we take up this prayer — may first be rooted and established in love — that this church might have power with all of us who are the Lord’s people; power to grasp… To properly imagine… The love of Jesus.

He dwells in our hearts so that we might know how great God’s love is for us…

That’s a bit mind blowing. Right?

And this isn’t just a ‘head knowledge’ thing… Paul wants them — and us — to know the love of God and be filled with the fullness of God. These are big words for Paul; ‘fullness’ comes up a bit in his writing.

The other thing this prayer suggests — that God is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine — is that our imaginations about what is good and possible in this world are always going to be limited; God always imagines more, and in this there’s a challenge for us to be expanding our imaginations to something closer to God’s imagination.

What is it that limits our ability to imagine?

Why is there more possible? How might we expand our imaginations towards something closer to what God hopes to give us in his fullness and according to his power?

Is it possible that our dreams of a reconciled Australia and the part the church might play in it are too small?

Here’s a few principles from some white blokes that I think diagnose how, ironically, it can’t be white blokes alone who pull us out of this mess.

We can’t know what we don’t perceive

This seems so obvious that it almost doesn’t need saying — and Donald Rumsfeld famously got tripped up trying to explain this once — but a basic aspect of our creaturliness — or our limits — that we exist in a body in time and in space — is that we don’t know everything, but a corollary of this is that we don’t actually know what we don’t know, and we’re especially limited when it comes not just to things that we haven’t seen or experienced or studied yet, but in things that we can’t possibly see or experience…

And what’s extra troubling for us as social creatures is that so many groups or ‘identities’ are formed around things we cannot possibly experience for ourselves…

I can’t, without being told — or without changing the picture — access all the information in the Ishihara tests above. Many of you can.

But perhaps the only thing worse than realising your limitations is deliberately choosing to stay limited. Choosing to live as though your perception of reality is reality. Which is what most westerners have adopted as a default way of seeing and being in the world…

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote this massive book called ‘The Secular Age’ — it’s an account of how the modern western world functions — charting some of the default assumptions that guide society as we experience it… It’s not an all-encompassing theory and there are insights in it that you can take or leave, but perhaps his best thinking is around the way we see ourselves in individual terms

Taylor talks about the “buffered self” — he says the typical modern individual is, by default, ‘closed off’ from the world; we live in a bubble — we’re now suspicious of the idea that there’s a spiritual reality interacting with our experiences, but we also like to believe we aren’t shaped by causes beyond our own will or control, we’re suspicious of descriptions of the world that involve ‘systems’ at work. This translates into a bunch of practices all of which ultimately serve to limit our perspective on the world and reinforce this buffering.

The opposite to the ‘buffered’ self — closed off from the world — is the ‘porous self’ the self who realises our creaturely limitations and so is open to the idea of a spiritual reality, and open to listening to other ‘selves’ and realising that the world is bigger than we might imagine… The imagination is important for Taylor — he developed this idea of a ‘social imaginary’ — the reality around us that shapes our view of both our selves, and the world…

For Taylor the modern, let’s say typically white western  ‘social imaginary’ is what he calls ‘the immanent frame’. He makes the point that the modern, secular, world of buffered selves has evacuated God from the universe — where once people believed in something more like a cosmos where the supernatural and the natural worked in concert, we now, in part because of science and our sense that the world is predictable and machine like, don’t believe in ‘transcendent’ things but what he calls ‘immanent’ things… Basically only our experience and perception of the material world matter; and only these experiences and perceptions shape the way we imagine life as individuals and together…

This is a problem because it cripples our ability to imagine, and makes us less inclinced to listen to other voices. It keeps us in a status quo, bumping and grinding through life like cogs in a machine. This is one place where non-white western voices are important; perhaps particularly indigenous voices in our context, in my conversations with first nations people in recent years — not just Christian ones — there is certainly a different sense of the spiritual reality of life in this world, expressed in some ways through a connection with country and with stories.

Another white guy I like is the American novelist-slash-academic David Foster Wallace. He’s dead now. But he once gave this cracking speech to a bunch of university students urging them to see beyond the default… To escape this immanent frame. He wasn’t a Christian but he had this insight that everybody worships. He talked about our default desires to worship sex, money, and power — immanent or material things — and said when we worship immanent stuff — or worship ourselves — it is destructive to us and others; if we never get beyond these default we never escape a system that has been set up to keep people in the default. He started pushing against this immanent frame, urging people to see more

“The world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace

Like Taylor who says the loss of transcendence still haunts us, Wallace said this ‘default’ — and our decisions to ‘worship’ material things leaves us feeling a sense of loss, but not necessarily knowing how to scratch that itch. He describes this constant nagging… gnawing… Sense that something more is true, that we’ve “had and lost some infinite thing” and perhaps that we’re increasingly blinded to that reality.

The problem is that our default western way of seeing the world as individuals limits our imagination. It stops us truly imagining the power and scale of the systems arrayed against change; but also stops us imagining shared solutions to those systemic ‘status-quo’ problems.

C.S Lewis (a third white bloke) wrote about this tendency we have too — about what the default does for us — what the pursuit of pleasure, sex and power does for us in terms of narrowing our ability to enjoy the infinite… He says this stunts our imagination… So that we become like a kid who thinks the best thing on offer is mud pies in a slum when there’s a beach down the road…

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” — C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Somehow we have to open our eyes — and our imaginations — to see both the problem and the better way forward.

We can’t see beyond our default without expanding our horizons

For people who take Taylor’s Secular Age seriously — the idea of the buffered self and the disenchanted world — the challenge for all of us who want to upend the default system — the patriarchy; the status quo; the way sin permeates this world not just in individuals but in structures… is to see the world differently… To re-connect with other people beyond our ‘buffered’ boundaries of comfort; we’re quite happy hanging out with people who help us maintain this buffering… And we also need to re-enchant the world; rediscover the super-natural, or what Taylor refers to as the transcendent... The idea that God is present and acting in time and space…

The challenge for those of us who follow Jesus is to see living and bringing a taste of the kingdom of Jesus into this world as the path to doing this, and to figure out where we, in our creatureliness and our sin, and our privileged ‘default’ participation in these systems is limiting this change. To do this we have to get outside ourselves somehow — if ourselves are buffered — and we have to keep asking how much our own view of the world is disenchanted or ‘machine like’… We have to expand our horizons — to expand our social imaginary. This is, for example, part of why C.S Lewis in his intro to his translation of Athanasius’ On The Incarnation urged us not just to read modern books but ancient voices as well; but we don’t have to go back in time to find different perspectives.

We have to see that each of us is colour blind by default — we don’t see everything — but also to realise that colour blindness is part of the problem… Not the solution.

Part of this — like my colour blindness — is just creatureliness. We actually don’t know everything because of our particular limits as creatures — we see this in the Mantis Shrimp — who sees more of the world than we do… But we also know that we are finite and God is infinite, but part of the humility of accepting our finitude is acknowledging that other people will see and experience things that we don’t, and that their perspectives are part of accessing bigger truth about the world we live in.

We can’t ‘imagine’ what our mind can’t conceive

To imagine something is essentially to conjure up an image in our mind. The problem with our limited seeing isn’t so much that we don’t experience all there is for ourselves — we can’t experience everything, everywhere, everywhen… The problem with our limited seeing is that it places limits on our shared future because it limits our imagination. If we can’t know what we don’t know, we also can’t picture — or envision — or imagine using these concepts that are beyond our grasp.

If I can never truly see or experience red how can I appropriately paint with it — how can I imagine a world with a different use of red? A richer use of red? A red consistent with or subverting our experience of red…

You can, of course, replace red with any experience foreign to your own.

How can I imagine a world where the experience for our first nations people is vastly different to what it is now — but also consistent with the desires of our first nations people — if those experiences and desires are utterly beyond my comprehension?

How can we repaint or reimagine the world without the full array of colours — or experiences — at our disposal.

Some time ago I discovered Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories — it was life-changing for me — not just because the epilogue is a most fantastic description of Jesus and his story that makes my heart sing, but because of its explanation of the relationship between the imagination and creating new worlds.

He talks about this power beginning with our ability to see the world… To describe the world… To use our minds to see ‘Green Grass’ not just as ‘grass’ but as ‘green’ and to take that ‘green’ and do things with it…

“The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.” — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We can take green from grass, and other colours… And use them to make magic… To re-imagine or create worlds in our heads… But also to reimagine the world we see before us… We can imagine our white house painted blue, or green… And make it happen… But we can also do this on a much grander scale…For Tolkien this is part of being made in the image of the imagining God; the God who creates by speaking. By imagining something and then describing it in such a way that it happens. Tolkien is wary of our capacity to create — to use this power well — he uses the creation of fantasy to explore not just opportunities, but the dangers of the human imagination — we can use our power for evil — not escaping the default craving for gaining the things of this world at the expense of others; so we use our imagination to make weapons, or new systems, to paint others as ‘less than us’,  to create advantage for ourselves… But what’s going on as we do this — as we use our imagination to create things — is what it means for Tolkien for us to be God’s image bearers — it is for us to be ‘sub creators’ — following the example of God and ‘building worlds’…

But we can’t create — we can’t sub-create — we can’t build worlds — in stories or re-making the real one — without first being able to see and describe this world such that we can re-imagine it differently… My ability to use these powerful adjectives is limited by my vocabulary, or my conception of reality. If we want to bring changes to the world as it is, and have some idea what the real problems are and what real changes might be good… We need more words and more than just the desire to extend our limited status quo to the lives of others… Which is to say, when it comes to questions of race we can’t be colour blind in such a way that we expect the solution to be that everybody just becomes like me. Or like you.

Imagining something totally new requires expanding our vocabulary

If we’re going to imagine a new world we need words and concepts from outside our experience; words that come from new experiences but also from the otherwise inaccessible-to-us experiences of others.

I’m a bit of a coffee nerd… But not to the extent that I’ve forked out the few hundred bucks it costs for one of these… This is a scent kit. It’s designed to help you expand your scent vocabulary so that you can more accurately describe the tastes and smells of coffee — using descriptions like ‘elderflower’ that are going to be meaningless to most coffee drinkers… The idea is that we’re basically ‘scent-blind’ — and unless you have experienced and become familiar with a scent, you won’t be able to describe it… all the labels that get used for the tastes and smells of coffee when you go to your fancy roaster are meaningless unless you have some reference point — unless you have this shared vocabulary…

And maybe our exercise of re-imagining Australia is a bit like this….

Maybe what you wrote down or pictured before is limited by your experience and your sense of the world — or by the people you have spoken to so far… Colour blindness in the ‘I don’t see race…everyone is the same to me’ sense isn’t a solution, it’s a commitment to the status quo never changing — and to never hearing why it should.

It’s an excuse not to listen. An excuse to stay buffered. To deliberately limit your imagination; to not expand your experiential vocabulary and to insist that others should instead talk and see and imagine like you do.

Maybe the equivalent to the scent kit for the coffee taster is the art of gracious conversations for those of us who want to imagine a better future for our world and so work towards creating it together…

The realisation that I mostly just listened to the voices of middle aged, educated, white blokes – as useful as they might be for some stuff – was part of what prompted me not just to read wider but to seek out local voices like Aunty Jean. To start the journey of conversations with her re-imagining what life in our churches and communities might be like. But there’s another voice we should be listening to to blow our horizons out towards the infinite… The transcendent… To help us see reality as it really is…

True imagination begins with seeking the imagination of God

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

One verse I had noticed in Ephesians before and spent lots of time reflecting on is this one – but here’s something cool – those bolded words – are words that require imagination on God’s part; we are his handiwork because he imagined us in a particular way – we are created in Christ and there’s a particular image the Spirit is working on in his work to transform us, and God has even imagined the work we will do – he has pictured and prepared it in advance…

Our job is to get on board with imagining life according to God’s imagination, not our own…

There is a story in the Bible about our unfettered collective imagination that pays no heed to God’s imagination — an imagination without limits — which shows the danger of us imagining in ways that want to supplant God, in ways where we think we should be God… Where people listen to one another in an echo chamber. The story of the Tower of Babel; a pre-cursor to Babylon, the Bible’s grand image of an earthly city captivated by idols that ultimately captures Israel (whose hearts have long been captivated by ‘material’ idols before that moment); the way out of the corrupt ‘social imaginary’ we create for ourselves by failing to pay attention to God is for him to intervene and to interrupt the ‘material world’ we want to build for ourselves.

The defining pattern we have for keeping our imaginings in step with his is Christ Jesus… who we are re-created ‘in’. When Paul talks about God doing more than we imagine… it’s according to his power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20-21) as these new creations who, by the Spirit and through God answering Paul’s prayer are able to ‘grasp’ or imagine the size and scale of God’s love for us as we’re filled to the measure of the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Fullness is an interesting word in Ephesians – in chapter 1 (Ephesians 1:9-10) it gets translated as ‘fulfilment’, but it’s the same root and somehow ‘the fullness of time’ God’s ultimate plan is this unity or to steal a word from Colossians, reconciliation, of all things in heaven and earth – and it is reconciliation in Christ. The fullness word comes back in Ephesians 1:22-23 with this picture of ‘all things’ being placed under the rule of Jesus, under his feet, with him as the head of his body, the church, the ‘fullness of him who fills everything’… somehow we – the church – the body of Jesus – are where the ‘fullness‘ of God is to be found in this world… we’re a taste of God’s imagined ‘full’ future… Ambassadors of reconciliation as we’re ambassadors of Christ, but ambassadors who are meant to work in the world trying to line up our limited imaginations and ability to see and taste and touch with the infinite imagination… and how can we hope to do that without listening to him and watching him at work in Jesus, but also listening to one another – those he is at work in by his Spirit.

There’s another prayer in Ephesians. Not just the one I hadn’t really paid much attention to…

 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. — Ephesians 1:18-19

The power we have in us to reimagine and change the world – what we’re meant to be able to accomplish when the ‘eyes of our heart’ – our imaginations and desires – are enlightened is hope and this incomparably great power

That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,  far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” — Ephesians 1:19-21

It’s the power of resurrection… as we seek reconciliation in Christ we’re really carrying the miraculous power of moving people from the kingdom of sin and death and darkness and disenchantment – the status quo – into a kingdom of colour and light and life… We are resurrection people; God’s handiwork, imagining and working towards a resurrected world.

We don’t want to be colour blind…

We want to be cross eyed…

Gracious conversations centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus are the key to re-imagining Australia for the better

What might it look like if we re-imagine Australia not just listening to each other — and so enjoying the fruits of reconciliation that Jesus won for us through the cross; forged by the Spirit… But listening to God and seeing that the source of his power is the death and resurrection of Jesus — the cross — which gives us a new way to imagine solutions to the problems of this world.

It gives us a new way of seeing the world… It’s like seeing more colours… The sight that comes from the Spirit. Gracious conversations mean:

  • Acknowledging our limitations… And realising that when we have more colours in the can we can paint something even more vivid and beautiful and real…
  • Getting a bigger picture of the world as it really is…
  • Listening to others and having their perception of reality shape ours.
  • Bringing all our colours and perspectives and experience and insight to a conversation where we are seeking to be gracious to one another – acknowledging our own limits and focusing on listening rather than speaking – so that we might bring God’s grace — the ‘vivid colour’ of God’s imagined future to the world.

That’s what I think Aunty Jean means when she keeps telling me the cross of Jesus is the hope for our country – not just for first nations people, but for all of us.

That’s the vision – the imagination — I think God wants to inspire in us by his Spirit as we dwell on the mystery of Jesus and our glorious inheritance – that we taste the infinite; and have that gnawing sense we all carry satisfied in Jesus; that we have a new status quo — a new ‘social imaginary’ – a new way of seeing the world and a new understanding of our limits in Jesus.

Imagine that.

On religious freedom (my submission to the Federal Government’s Expert Panel on Religious Freedom)

In the wash up from the changes to the Marriage Act and the constant presence of ‘religious freedom’ in the debate, the Federal Government appointed a committee to investigate religious freedoms in Australia. I was part of a committee effort from our denomination which you can read here, but also chucked in my own submission online (submissions close on Wednesday). Here’s what I wrote.


To the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom,

I wear many hats. I am a husband and father. I am a pluralist. I am a secularist. I am an Australian citizen. I am a community volunteer. I am a neighbour. I am a friend. And I am a minister of religion in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. One thing remains true as I wear each of these hats — I am a follower of Jesus; a Christian; and this fundamentally informs each of these roles I undertake in our society. As I wear each of these hats — often simultaneously — my contribution to society beyond the protection of my own interests relies on certain freedoms that we take for granted in Australia; freedoms that I believe have been essential in building our nation, and freedoms that I believe are important (though not essential) for our shared future.

It seems clear to me that the definitions around many of these hats have become unclear, especially in the public conversation about religious freedoms and the role of faith in our modern democratic nation; perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in the recent debate around same sex marriage. The postal survey represented a pivotal moment in the conversation around religious freedom in Australia; a turning point, perhaps, in our secular, liberal, pluralist, democracy; wearing several of my hats it seemed to me that there is widespread confusion about the nature of our democracy and the relationship between institutional religious groups, religious individuals, our neighbours, and those engaged in political decision making. I write to tease out some of this confusion and to make a simple suggestion about the nature of religious belief in our nation, and its connection to life in the public sphere, the commons, or the private sector — that is, life outside the ‘sacred’ space of religious property and the privacy of one’s own home; it seems to me that unless all parties to the conversation about religious freedom understand the nature of religious belief — even for minority communities or individuals — this process will disenfranchise and alienate religious adherents, and perhaps lead to a more fractured society, and a public space that only appears more harmonious because people and communities are withdrawing from participation in our common life for fear of consequences of making ones ‘private beliefs’ public.

As someone committed to a pluralist, secular, Australia, I chose to abstain in the Federal Government’s postal survey. I felt like I was being asked to vote for or against the religious freedom of others and remain uneasy about the precedent of putting such freedoms to a popular vote. I took this position because as a Christian, as someone who takes the Bible’s account of human nature as authoritative, I believe that each human is not only made in the image of God, but that we are created as worshippers, that each human, whether we worship a transcendent being or not, is fundamentally religious, that we are creatures who practice our beliefs about where ultimate meaning is found — that our actions are a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and that these motivations are often religious in nature, whether explicitly religious (in terms of participation in organised institutions or codified belief systems), or mirror religious practices — like rituals, sacrifice, and the pursuit of life according to some sense of meaning or purpose.

This is not a new or unique way of contemplating human nature or religious belief, it sits within a classical stream of Christian teaching, and can be found threaded through the Old Testament, expressed in the New Testament, perhaps most clearly in the words of the Apostle Paul who suggests those humans who don’t worship the God revealed to the world in the person of Jesus have “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). I write this to explain, in part, how Christians understand secularism and pluralism. To live in a secular democracy is to live in a society where different religious views — or communities of people who worship differently — are united in some sort of secondary commitment, not united around a shared view of what is ultimate (that would be a theocracy), but agreeing to come together in disagreement on these questions to pursue common goods; agreeing to do this on the basis that no particular religious system sets the agenda or controls that which is held in common. Christians can participate in a secular democracy with great enthusiasm, using the freedom it affords to follow the example of Jesus Christ, pursuing the sacrificial love of our neighbours (even our enemies) free to proclaim our beliefs about what is true and good for humanity; the message that the God who made everything is knowable and that he is ‘reconciling all things to himself’ through Jesus (Colossians 1:20). We can do this knowing that people can and will disagree with us — that they will form their own communities and we can trust that they will also seek the good of their neighbours, and the community at large, from their particular beliefs; this is the sort of pluralism that our democracy — built on compromise between communities (religious or otherwise) — requires. As a Christian and an office holder in the institutional church I am the first to put up my hand to admit that Christians have, at times, sought to wield our influence — both historical and numerical — to limit the freedoms of others, and to pursue our own vision of the good human life through the laws of the land rather than through the appeal of our beliefs and practice to our neighbours; this failure on our part, and the attempts of Christians to limit the (essentially religious) freedom of others (in, for example, the marriage debate) may go some way towards explaining the pendulum swing against institutional religion in the public debate in Australia, but it does not necessarily justify the limitation of religious freedoms in our nation.

As a Presbyterian Minister I represent a stream of the Christian faith described as ‘protestant’ — tracing the fundamentals of our doctrine and practice back to the Protestant Reformation, a movement that celebrated its 500th anniversary last year; a movement launched by the reformer Martin Luther. The Reformation reiterated a view that religion is not simply a private matter; it is not what Australian poet Manning Clark described as ‘a shy hope in the heart’, but a fundamental conviction about truth and life in the the world that shapes action in private, at home, and at work. This conviction birthed what was labeled ‘the protestant work ethic’ — a commitment to vocation recapturing the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to a church in Colossians, outlining how Christian belief leads to Christian living. Paul said “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The Reformation turned this principle (and others — perhaps especially that because of Jesus and the role he plays in bringing direct access to God for all who believe — we don’t need ‘religious’ middle men to come between us and God, or to teach with divine authority) into a doctrine described as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Martin Luther wrote a letter to the German nobility outlining this belief and its implication that there is no essential difference between an employee of the institutional church — the clergy — and the average Christian in the community. He said:

“As St. Paul says (1 Cor. 12.), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people. Thus we are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2. 9)…”

The implications he draws from this position are that for those who hold these beliefs, every public function of a person — every hat one wears — is a God given vocation to be used in service of God and man. Every Christian is viewed as ‘priest’ — we’re all office bearers in God’s church.

“A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest, so that various kinds of work may all be united for the furtherance of body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve one another.”

This perhaps explains why so much of the conversation around changes to the Marriage Act focused on seemingly ancillary occupations like bakers and florists; for a Christian baker or Christian florist in this theological tradition (and many others), faith is not simply a private sacred matter but a position or belief that informs one’s approach to the workplace, and to life in public. Faith in Jesus — the belief that because he lived, died, was raised from the dead, and now rules from heaven as Lord and king — compels us to submit every inch of our life to him, and that in response to his great mercy to us we should love and serve others, and ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1), seeking to represent and honour him in word and deed. In the other immortal words of Luther, it is here we stand, we can do none else. Belief in Jesus can’t simply be compartmentalised as ‘private’, or put to the side and taken up again as we enter and leave our houses and church buildings.

When one couples these standard protestant positions — the “priesthood of all believers” and the “protestant work ethic” — it becomes clear why so many Christians in our community are concerned about religious freedoms that focus exclusively on private religious belief or those ‘public’ figures appointed by Christian institutions (the clergy). Another classic position in protestant (especially ‘reformed’) theology is the belief that there is no neat divide between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ — this is true, as outlined above, for the lives of adherents, but it is also true for how we view the world; public space in a secular democracy is not ‘secular’ in the sense that we believe God is absent, the apostle Paul taught that ‘in Jesus all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17), and that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (1 Corinthians 10:26, where he quotes the Old Testament (Psalm 24:1) while explaining how the Corinthians should take part in ‘contested’ public life; life shared by worshippers of other gods).

It seems clear to me, as a minister of religion, and as a citizen, that it would be harmful to the unity of our nation — built on a commitment to disagreement (rather than on shared worship of a common ‘god’), to restrict religious freedoms to religious office bearers in ‘sacred space’ — to do so would be both to misunderstand the nature of religious belief and its link to practice (at least in my own tradition, where I speak with some expertise — but also, evidentially, in others), and would lead to people holding these religious convictions to withdraw from common life in public space to enclaves and private spaces; surely the best future for our nation is one where our diversity produces richness and resilience through civil disagreement and tolerance, rather than a fragmented nation where different communities withdraw into their own bubbles such that we are able to find less and less in common; less to unite us as citizens?

I thank you for your service of our community and nation in your consideration of this complex matter; I am praying for wisdom and endurance for you all as you work your way through submissions. As you do, I urge you to consider the nature of religious belief and its relationship to public life, or ‘life in the commons’ and the implications this has for notions of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ when making recommendations about religious freedom in Australia.

In Christ,

Rev Nathan Campbell

Presbyterian Church of Australia

,

Will the real Starman please stand up…

It’s hard not to be excited about SpaceX and the launch of Falcon Heavy.

Elon Musk seems like a pretty fascinating guy — he’s stepped into the space in the popular imagination previously occupied by Steve Jobs and, like Jobs, there’s a sort of ‘religious mythos’ developing around him. He’s a certain sort of messiah; note, for example, his stepping in to save South Australia with a massive renewable energy project.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype — God even drives a Tesla (at least at Hobart’s MONA).

Perhaps my favourite part of the Falcon Heavy experiment — environmental/spacejunk concerns notwithstanding — is the launch of Starman, a new cosmic driver exploring the infinite universe in his very own Tesla car. Starman — who spent the trip into orbit beaming back images from the vast cosmos to earth. He’ll tour the galaxy perhaps for the next few million years (unless an asteroid gets him first). What a testimony to Musk’s unique genius — what a legacy — his are the hands that flung Starman into space. You could watch live views from the car on YouTube — have the far flung reaches of the galaxy (once he hits orbit he’ll be 28 million miles from earth) beamed onto your personal device.

That’s, quite literally, awesome. I’ll be checking in with Starman from time to time.

It’s clear Musk is a fan of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; there’s a nice onboard reference to the words on the screen of the Hitchhikers guide (Douglas Adams basically predicted the iPad) on the car’s dashboard navigation system. One of the reasons I love that five-book trilogy is that it gives you a picture of an infinitely large universe, and a sense of the scale of an infinite timeline, and then leaves you with absurdity as the only way to cope with this vastness and our relative insignificance. The universe is infinitely big, and we occupy a tiny speck of it. Time is infinitely long, and our existence is a flash in the pan… which means we’re all so small — so what better way to mark one’s smallness than to fling a spacecraft into space as an almost eternal testimony to your name — especially a space craft with an inherent absurdity to it. We can’t take things too seriously if this four score years and ten on this mortal coil is all we have — and, if you want to make the best of this absurdity then absolutely the most virtuous thing you can do while not taking yourself too seriously is expand our shared human horizons.

Musk, of course, doesn’t totally buy into the idea that the universe is infinitely big and time infinitely long — his metaphysics have been reasonably well documented, and to be honest, they’re an equally absurd platform from which to launch Starman — but perhaps go some way to explaining why he lives his life in the pursuit of technological advancement; he’s playing his bit in the great cosmic computer program of life. Musk buys into something like the theory put forward by the Matrix (just without the battery part). He believes the world as we know it is part of a computer program put together either by an advanced human race from the future or some other intergalactic species all together.

“So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.”

Just wrap your head around that idea for a minute. The probability that we are in the real universe, ‘base reality’, according to Musk is infintesimally small, we’re even less significant at that point than we would be if we just had to grapple with the reality of living for 100 years in a universe that is already billions of years old, while occupying a square metre of a rapidly expanding universe stretching out towards the infinite.

No wonder the guy is pouring his energy into sending an avatar into space for an eternal journey; his are the (virtual) hands that sent (virtual) man into space. If life is a computer game; he’s winning.

One of my favourite parts of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a scene with a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. You jump into a box and suddenly are confronted with your place in the universe — the grand scale of everything when compared to your nothingness — it shows you “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.”  I’ve written about this before back when philosopher Alain De Botton was suggesting the best thing to orient us for an ethical life would be to see images of space beamed back from space telescopes (to teach us how big reality is), and perhaps a temple to perspective should be built as a quasi-religious space for atheists… the thing about this Total Perspective Vortex is that it utterly destroys every human who enters it — the only way it leaves people (one person in particular) with any sense of self beyond the experience is if the machine gets rigged so that it makes you the centre of everything; the only way to survive is to essentially build a religious mythos around a person… or yourself, or to take the advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide and ‘Don’t Panic’… It’s like Musk is oscillating between the two, he’s part ‘messiah’, building a new world with (genuinely incredible) technology and a bit of imagination, and part model ‘Don’t Panicker’… sending disco balls and electric cars into space.

But why bother? If you’re just a dot not just in the universe, but a few bytes in some future computer game, why play?

If that’s all there is to life, why should any of us get out of bed? Starman is capable of giving us a pretty great view of the cosmos. But is it a real view or just a virtual one? And if we are in ‘base reality’ — exactly how much can Starman show us that helps us live lives of significance? Should we even want that?

At times it’s hard for me to rationalise my religious beliefs and to see them as any more plausible than Musk’s computer simulation theory. Musk is a genius. A world-changing mind. And he believes that, is it really more plausible to believe that there are billions of realities in computer games (not to mention base reality) — infinite realities — than it is to believe in one reality and an infinite God?

I don’t think so. And I know which vision of the truth feels more compelling.

I certainly feel as though I’m real (and imagine it’d be hard to generate that in a machine reality)… but one thing Christianity gives you that Musk doesn’t is a place in the universe and a sense of significance. It says that the ‘Starman’ is the one who flung the stars into space; creating this infinite reality in a word who can ‘fold the universe up like a blanket’ — and then it says those same hands were blasted by rudimentary metal spikes, affixed to splintery timber on a crude execution device designed to humiliate, to render one totally insignificant, and that this happened because despite being small and fleeting, human lives matter to the one who created this universe; that the seemingly infinite space-time reality runs second to the infinite divine life, and that not only was that life laid down for us in the ‘Starman’, Jesus, but in his resurrection we are invited to become eternal, because of the deep, life-giving, love of the Father.

The Bible makes these grand claims about Jesus and his relationship to the universe.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” — Hebrews 1:3

Radiance. Starlike. But also ‘sustaining all things’ — including the stars, by his word.

Musk’s Starman will be eternally sitting in space, in fact, there’s never been a time where the mannequin wasn’t ‘sitting’ — Hebrews tells us that the real Starman ‘sits in the heavens’ too…

“After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” — Hebrews 1:3

But that one day the real Starman will stand up. And then:

In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
 You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.” — Hebrews 1:10-12

Those are some hands — the hands that were nailed to wood in humiliation will ‘roll up’ the heavens — the universe — like a robe; because the Lord — Jesus — as a person of the triune God — is infinite and unchanging, from the beginning of the universe, to its end and beyond.

That’s the sort of view of the world that creates something more than absurdity — and gives us the chance to have a part in a legacy that will last a long time beyond Musk’s Starman. Every person who turns to Jesus will outlive that electric spacejunk. The picture the writer of that book ‘Hebrews’ then paints is a picture of us not just being slightly significant to this Starman, but brothers and sisters, adopted into the family to share the inheritance. This gives us something better than absurdity and makes us something more significant than bits and bytes — and true or not (and I believe it is), it is certainly a more emotionally satisfying, less destructive, picture of life and our place in space-time. Here’s the vision Hebrews gives for our place in the galaxy:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters — Hebrews 2:6-11

Don’t panic indeed.

,

A letter to my MP about Australia Day

I’ve noticed, and been grieved by, how polarising the current conversation about Australia Day is on my social media. I spent Thursday night in a prayer service hosted by Christian leaders from the indigenous community, where Aunty Jean Phillips (who I meet with regularly during the year and hold in huge esteem), urged those in attendance to write to our local MPs… then I spent my public holiday yesterday enjoying a multicultural picnic with our church family (including our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters in Christ), enjoying a swim in the pool with another bunch of families, and playing backyard cricket on the fields at the end of our street with our neighbours (followed by beer and a barbeque). So I’m conflicted. I think that 24 hours represents something of the paradox of Aussie life and January 26.

I suspect a massive part of the polarising of the Australian community around all sorts of issues — including this one — is a failure to sacrificially and actively listen to other voices and to seek compromise. So, it’s in that spirit that I wrote this letter to my local MP, and copied in the local MP for the electorate our church meets in (also the Queensland Government’s minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, the Premier and the Opposition Leader).

Here’s my letter, in case it helps others formulate or express similar thoughts.

27 January, 2018

Dear Ms Corinne McMillan MP, Member for Mansfield,
The Hon Ms Anastasia Palaszckuk MP, Premier of Queensland,
The Hon Ms Deb Frecklington MP, Opposition Leader,
The Hon Ms Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier of Queensland, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

Re: Australia Day

On Thursday the 25th of January 2018, I attended a prayer service held by leaders from the aboriginal Christian community here in Queensland — Aunty Jean Phillips and Ms Brooke Prentis. The service was held in the West End Uniting Church (in Ms Trad’s electorate). I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland with a congregation also based in West End, though I live in Upper Mount Gravatt (Mansfield), so I write to Ms McMillan as a constituent.

As I listed the relevant recipients of this letter I paused for a moment to reflect on what wonderful progress it represents for our nation, in striving for equality, especially when it comes to equality of representation in our leadership that each relevant minister, member, and leader for this correspondence is a woman. This representation is both symbolic in its importance, but substantial in reality. I am thankful for you, and for the example of public service and commitment to changing the world that each of you model for my two daughters (and also for my son). The Bible urges us to pray for those in authority and to respect you, and I recognise the sacrifice and commitment to the good of our community that each of you have made in reaching these positions and am thankful for your wisdom and example. I was struck too that both leaders of this prayer service were indigenous women speaking out for another sort of symbolic and substantial change, in the name of equality, so craved by their community. Both Brooke and Aunty Jean are examples of courageous and spirited leadership and the pursuit of the improvement of our society for the good of all for my children, but for the community at large.

I write for two reasons.

Firstly, to urge the government of Queensland to continue listening to voices from the indigenous community — especially voices as reasonable and wise as these two women. I ask you to hear their lament about the conditions facing Aboriginal Australians and to recognise that the lament around Australia Day being held on the 26th of January is about a symbolic issue, but that symbols are powerful and important and have long shaped behaviours and communities. I write because I listened to Aunty Jean’s request that we take action by contacting our political leaders. I write to encourage you to meet with Aunty Jean and other leaders from the indigenous church to consider how the church might help play its part in working towards continued reconciliation and better outcomes for indigenous Australians.

Secondly, I write to express my thanks to the staff of parliament house for apparently doing just this — listening — to the elders who joined the protest on January 26 and participated in their own symbolic gesture. When I read the story about this act in The Australian, featuring quotes from the Leader of the Opposition I was struck by two things; the Opposition Leader’s obvious concern for deeper issues of justice facing our indigenous neighbours, but the irony of her taking a symbolic act (the flag lowering) seriously enough to comment, condemning the act… if symbols do not matter then surely the lowering of the flag should pass without comment?

As I listened to these two women from the indigenous community who I respect as leaders in the Christian community, I was struck by the way they understand the link between symbols and behaviour — between our nation’s desire to celebrate our shared identity or ‘national day’ on January 26, the apparent disregard for the feelings of our indigenous neighbours, and the ongoing issues facing those neighbours. I heard Aunty Jean break down in tears about health issues, especially diabetes, in the indigenous communities, and Brooke Prentis describe the social pressures that lead indigenous children to suicide. These are the litany of issues also highlighted by the Opposition leader in The Australian article: “life threatening but preventable diseases, substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment – the real issues facing our indigenous communities,” but simply that ‘Australia Day’ is a symbolic issue does not make it less real; that would depend on exactly what it is that the continued celebration of a national day on January 26th symbolises for this part of our community who are deeply and profoundly aware of these issues. Perhaps our failure to listen on a symbolic issue reflects how seriously committed we are as a nation to these deeper issues? Perhaps if we are not willing to make small sacrifices symbolically it is fair to expect that our nation will not make the substantial sacrifices required on these large issues?

Christians profoundly believe in the power of symbols because symbols represent substance and help shape behaviour. Aunty Jean often repeats her conviction that the most important symbol for reconciliation in our country is not what happens with Australia Day, but is the cross of Jesus — arguably the most recognisable symbol in the world. The cross symbolises God’s acting in reconciliation and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus to bring both justice and peace. It is a powerful symbol of sacrifice that has served and shaped the western world for many generations, it is obviously not the government’s responsibility to take up this symbol in order to pursue reconciliation, forgiveness and justice, that is the role of the church. This is simply evidence that symbols have long mattered and have powerfully shaped our nation (the church has obviously not been blameless in indigenous issues in Australian history). The symbolism associated with celebrating our national day on a day of grief and mourning for our indigenous neighbours is significant; a sign, so to speak for how we view that grief and its legitimacy. Changing the date, or how we mark it, would also be significant, not just symbolic.

I’m thankful for the gesture of lowering the flags at Parliament House because symbols matter when they create a sense of belonging and inclusion and a platform for genuine listening and relationships. I hope that whatever happens with the marking of January 26th as a significant moment in our nation’s history that we might find shared symbols that express a desire for genuine reconciliation, and a commitment to working together on those profoundly important substantial issues, and would be happy to be part of such processes whether in my electorate of Mansfield, or within the community of West End, where our church is located.

I trust that you, as elected representatives and leaders of Queensland will act with wisdom seeking good outcomes for the people you lead and represent, and thank you for your continued service.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Feels like home? Is it Telstra or Qantas shaping your holiday season?

We finally finished Christmas celebrations yesterday; rounding out a week with an extended Campbell family get together (almost) all of us in the flesh. That’s what Christmas — this holiday season — is about… isn’t it? Connection. Family. Togetherness. My Facebook feed has certainly been full of family photos of similar gatherings.

Today our little family unit hit the cinemas to catch Paddington 2 with the kids. The movie is what it is; if your kids liked Paddington 1 they’ll like the sequel (though this one isn’t quite as scary). The Christmas holidays are prime cinema advertising season, so the big guns were out — especially two big guns of Aussie ‘connectivity’ — Qantas, our Aussie airline, and Telstra, our Aussie telecom. Qantas, whose aspirational tagline is ‘the Spirit of Australia’ and Telstra, whose ‘vision’ is “to create a brilliant connected future for everyone.”

Two cinematic ads — stories — speaking to our desires, especially our holiday desires for connection with loved ones.

Both feature family separated by distance, both seek to bridge the gap because life is about connection.

The Qantas ad featuring the song Feels Like Home offers a critique to Telstra’s magic solution to distance (I’ve written about Telstra’s ad before). It features an adult daughter (and kids) connecting to her geographically distant mum via a screen; her disembodied head on the kitchen table as candles are blown out and her present opened — a picture of distance or ‘excarnation’ — the relationship is missing something because she isn’t there in the flesh. And then. She opens the present and its tickets for the family to bridge the gap, to be present with each other. Happy holidays. They smile. They hug. They are tearfully united. Cut to the shot of the flying jet and the line ‘Our Spirit flies further’ while the song finishes with the words ‘back where I belong’ — it’s almost poetic; here is Qantas’ vision of connection and the flourishing human life. The desires of our hearts met. Our emotions satisfied. And it’s all about connection through presence.

Telstra wants us to believe that connection can be mediated by a device running some software to link us as pixels; space is no longer an obstacle if we can “be in two places at once” — the promise of technology; the promise of Telstra and the means it is relying on to deliver its vision for a flourishing ‘connected’ future society. Qantas suggests there might be something less satisfying about this vision — that real connectivity isn’t via FaceTime but is face-to-face. Embodied. Fleshy.

Telstra wants us to believe we can have presence without sacrifice — presence without having to leave where we are to achieve it. That through technology we can be two places at once. Their business model, their vision, is to essentially put Qantas out of business and replace them with black glass, cameras, and touch screens. Swipe right for connection; just without leaving your home. Bridge the gap from your pocket. Virtually.

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment — one building the framework for an ethic of attention in an age of distraction — it’s called The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I’m loving it because of my own dabbling with Iris Murdoch’s ethical ideas around ‘loving attention’ back when I was thinking about the Internet outrage machine. The problem with Telstra’s solution for connection is that what they’re offering is technology that actually feeds distraction and disconnection (there’s some stuff on social media and media ecology and how technology changes us back in my archives too). Author Matthew Crawford paints a picture of life in our distracted age, where even public space has been given over to private interests and electronic screens bombarding us with messages, he asks what the escape is, and what happens to our ability to be present or pay attention if life is mediated to us by screens. He describes the dilemma of the modern worker who spends all day reacting to electronic stimulus — to notifications and hundreds of emails — who then heads home… or goes on holidays… and this sounds eerily familiar (it sounds like my life).

“Yet this same person may find himself checking his email frequently once he gets home or while on vacation. It becomes effortful for him to be fully present while giving his children a bath or taking a meal with his spouse. Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.”

Telstra isn’t going to save us; their business model — their vision for the future (their own economic future) depends on reinforcing this behaviour, and convincing us that connectivity — that bridging the gap between us and other people just takes a screen.

Crawford suggests the Qantas ad might also be wishful thinking if we can’t disconnect ourselves from the screen long enough to pay attention, and picks the airport departure area as a prime example of our modern dilemma — even our attempts to connect are likely to be thwarted by the ‘magic’ of virtual connectivity and distraction. He talks about the way so much physical real estate at the airport is taken up by advertising, and attention grabbing  ‘content’ right up till when you sit down in the departure lounge in front of TV screens playing the news with no sound on (unless you pay to ‘escape the commons’ — the public space — to retire to the silence of the airport lounge. He paints a picture of our excarnation — our desire to move our attention away from where the ‘flesh’ is, in order to be somewhere else. Via our attention — and away from those we are embodied with.

“Of course, in my airport example, one can simply shift in one’s seat and avert one’s gaze from the screens. But the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce seem to be getting fewer and narrower. The ever more complete penetration of public spaces by attention-getting technologies exploits the orienting response in a way that preempts sociability, directing us away from one another and toward a manufactured reality, the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so… Alternatively, people in such places stare at their phones or open a novel, sometimes precisely in order to tune out the piped-in chatter. A multiverse of private experiences is accessible after all. In this battle of attentional technologies, what is lost is the kind of public space that is required for a certain kind of sociability.”

It’s scary stuff — genuinely I’m ok with the use of technology coming with some opportunity cost, but pit Telstra’s promise — its picture of connectivity — up against Qantas’, and I know which one I prefer. As I’ve read Crawford’s book I’ve started making changes — I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone, for example, to remove some interruptions (and found that liberating).

There’s something about the slightly different emotional responses evoked by these two ads that reveals something true about the world and about connection and about a ‘flourishing human life’ — I watch the Telstra ad and I feel like I’m meant to feel, they’ve pulled particular heart strings and there’s an inherent imagination and desire for ‘magic’ that it taps into. It’s better to have this sort of connection — this magic — than nothing at all, if there’s a gap that needs bridging something is better than nothing… but I watch the Qantas ad and there’s a greater longing, a deeper or truer emotion that it taps into for me. The ‘spirit’ of technology might stretch far enough to bridge a gap in a disembodied way, but Qantas is right — their ‘spirit’ does fly further. The Qantas ad makes me feel something deeper because it both reveals the limits of screen-mediated, excarnate, presence and the goodness of fleshy, embodied, incarnate, presence. We know that embodied presence is somehow realer and of more value than disembodiment. Part of being really human is being fleshy.

Being present.

Being attentive.

Being present requires paying attention — killing distractions. It requires actively resisting the claims made on our attention by our devices — our technology — our desire to be elsewhere. So that we are incarnate both in flesh and via our attention. When that happens — that’s where real connection can happen. Qantas’ vision and Telstra’s aren’t entirely compatible.

It’s the ‘holiday season’ — or Christmas season — which ultimately is the celebration of incarnation over excarnation; of Qantas style ‘bridging the gap’ over Telstra’s picture of connectivity. It’s the celebration of flesh and spirit trumping ‘spirit alone’. Christmas — the incarnation of Jesus — is God’s picture of connectivity, it’s God ‘bridging the gap’ as ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us). It brings with it an ethos of presence; a valuing of the flesh, a sense that to be fully human is to be ‘in the flesh’ — incarnate — and that real love and connection requires this. Certainly it’s better to have ‘excarnate’ connection than no connection at all; but there’s a reason Qantas tugs at our heart strings in a way that Telstra doesn’t quite… it’s the same reason the Apostle John wrote, a couple of times:

“I have many things to write you, but I would prefer not to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come and speak with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” — 2 John 1:12 (cf 3 John 1:13-14)

This is the same John who wrote the Gospel which opens with the magic of the incarnation — the magic of presence — the sense that God bridging the gap between us and him required his presence in the flesh dwelling with us — the reason that Qantas trumps Telstra.

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 1:14

This is Christmas. This is what the holiday season is all about. This is what real connection, real presence, real humanity looks like. We flourish best by connecting with the God who incarnates himself, but whose ‘spirit flies further’ even than Qantas’ — but we also flourish more in life when our patterns of relating line up with God’s; when our character is shaped by his. Because this is how we were made to be by the one who made us and made us fleshy — that’s why Qantas makes us feel things that Telstra does not — by speaking to our hearts in a way Telstra doesn’t — a more complete and joyful way… the Qantas story taps into something true about God, the world, and us.

Home isn’t just where the heart is — or Telstra could have us home-and-absent. Home is where the flesh is; and the magic of the Bible’s story is that God made his home — a ‘dwelling’ with us — in Jesus dwelling among us, then by the Spirit dwelling in us, but ultimately, for eternity, where we’ll be home with him dwelling with us. Where we’ll be in the flesh; with our desire for a flourishing life answered. Telstra operates according to its vision of the future, well… here’s John’s vision of our future hope; our future home. We’re made for this sort of connection…

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.”

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

,

Why Christians should fight the war on Christmas (but not on the side you’d expect) and embrace Christmas cliches for all they’re worth

I went to the shops again this Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas, I reckon we Christians should sign up. And it there’s not. We should start one.

Like millions of other Aussies I found myself in the ‘temple’ of Westfield to participate in the pilgrimage of ‘annual Christmas shopping’ and the liturgies of handing over my plastic membership card and saying ‘paywave please’… to then be handed my relics and with a prayer-like wish or blessing, urged to have a ‘happy Christmas’… Walking through Westfield is character building; if nothing else.

My local Westfield,  ‘Garden City,’ was awash with Christmas cheer. Not just holiday season cheer, but good old ‘Christmas’ — I even heard Chris Tomlin’s new pepped up version of Joy To The World while I was browsing the bookshop.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare Him room

The windows of the shops; and the ‘halls’ were well and truly ‘decked’ out for Christmas; Christmas wreaths marked with stars hung overhead, lit up to guide shoppers to whatever Christmas treasures or baubles they hoped would help them celebrate a merry and meaningful Christmas.

Many of the windows carried overt references to Christmas — not ‘X-mas’ and there were only a few ‘season’s greetings’ or ‘happy holidays’ to be found. There was the title of Jesus; the king; the Christ; in gilded letters or lights. Glittering. On display. Celebrated; or at least patronising our celebrations of a holiday festival that still bears his name in our calendars. It seemed to me that the war on Christmas in Australia was won, before it was even started, even if Scott Morrison got a little bit fired up at the Greens for their provocative banner this week.

But as I walked through the halls, and the shops, of Garden City — passing statues and images of happiness and a more ideal version of me; pictures and banners in windows, salespeople explaining how their items would meet my desires, or satisfy my loved ones — I saw a city that is very religious. It’s just a different type of religion — and it became clearer than ever that Christmas, as practiced in Australia, is a particularly religious holiday; but one that has been (as so many religious holidays before) annexed from an older religion and appropriated for the new. I saw the title ‘Christ’ displayed prominently, but no sign that his story was at all connected to the comings and goings of these modern worshippers. Before James K.A Smith described a trip to the “mall” as a modern temple structured ‘religiously’ and filled with modern visions of the good life and liturgical practices (which I wrote about last Christmas), the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Athens, a particularly religious city; and noticed the overt displays of religiosity — the ritual habits and practices of the people of Athens and where they looked for the fulfilment of their desires — in short, what they loved or worshipped, and he said:

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Acts 17:23

I saw plenty of inscriptions honouring the Christ; but no sense that people were particularly cognisant of the very thing they claim to be worshipping — and just how inconsistent the modern Aussie practice of Christmas is with the first one; and not just with the first one, but with the back story of the arrival of this Christ; the king.

Paul was reasonably gentle with the Athenians as he introduced this ‘unknown God’ to them; if they’d been Israelites — people familiar with God’s story, having inherited the legacy of his nation-building redemptive acts in history — he probably wouldn’t have been quite so patient. He said:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” — Acts 17:24-25

These are some incredible claims about the bigness of God; that he is so utterly transcendent that our human-made temples can’t contain him; nor anything in the universe. God is the giver. It’s worth noticing that — he gives us life, breath, and everything else. Christmas is, if nothing else, meant to remind us of this fundamental truth about God’s nature… In a few verse Paul says that we actually live, breathe, and have our being in him. Paul starts by painting the picture of God as infinite and worthy of worship, but also as generous.

If Christmas is about an act of God; it is this God, the God revealed in Christ, who it reflects. The God who though he is infinite, Paul says created us and designed the world so that humanity “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” God is not just infinite and generous but wants to be found by us. Which ultimately leads him to draw near to us.

Our temples; our Westfields; our attempts to satisfy the sort of inbuilt longing that Paul suggests might actually come from God, our attempts will fail. In approaching the ‘Unknown God’ this way, Paul seems to suggest it’s this inbuilt ‘seeking’ that leads us to build altars to ‘unknown Gods,’  to temple-building, or to religious festivals — our attempts to satiate this inbuilt craving will fail if we turn to created things to satisfy it. It’s this inbuilt seeking that has us battling traffic, struggling to find a parking spot, then wading through crowds while listening to bad music every year hoping that this one will be the Christmas that lives up to the hype. Spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, that will ultimately neither last nor satisfy.

And we fall for it. Every year.

Think of the stuff you’ve picked up for Christmas into your temple forays this year — or from the ‘virtual temple’ of online shopping — how much of your Christmas shopping could be described in the terms Paul uses to describe how we fill this existential hole… “We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” (Acts 19:29). Pandora charms anybody?

What Paul is talking about as he speaks to the Athenians is idolatry. He sees us as worshippers; that our hearts are inevitably drawn towards something or some thing, if not first drawn to the God who created us (and these things). He sees the answer to idolatry coming in that first Christmas… but it comes with a warning that we should be paying heed to each time we see the declaration that Jesus is the king — the Christ — in a shop window while we’re pursuing these baubles; these trinkets; these idols.

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. ” — Acts 19:30-31

The story of Christmas is the story of God’s judging king coming into the world; not just a story about giving and generosity but about a particular gift from God. Jesus.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king

This song has been around so long that these have become such cliched ideas, but these words should be a little ominous. This king has come to bring peace, and joy, and as a sign of God’s life-giving nature; he has come to make God known and answer this longing of our hearts. Yes. But also to judge.

These are ominous words about the omnipotent and omnipresent God making himself known, in human flesh, bridging the gap to us — ominous because they are not without cost; because this leaves us ‘without excuse’… We can’t plaster the name of Jesus around our shopping-temples and pretend not to have heard God’s story of sending a king into the world; a king who would make him known as ‘Immanuel’ or ‘God With Us’… And they should give us followers of the king a bit of pause when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas, but also, perhaps particularly, when it comes to picking a side in the war on Christmas. We Christians are a bit like Israel — we know God’s story of salvation and redemption, first for Israel and then for us in Christ. If Paul was going to speak to us Christians about the way we approach Christmas and Westfield, what would he say? Idolatry is one thing for people for whom God is unknown, it’s a totally different kettle of fish for those who are the people of the king. Idolatry is the subject of the first three of the ten commandments for God’s people in the Old Testament. The first two are obvious — they’re about worship (not putting other things, or gods, in God’s place), and not making created things into representations of God to worship those instead of God… but the third one isn’t just about saying ‘Jesus’ when you hit your thumb with your hammer or ‘Oh My God’ when you’re on reality TV (or Gogglebox)…

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” — Exodus 20:7

What could possibly be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to attach it to an idolatrous festival of greed, consumption and indulgence?

What could be more offensive to the nature of God’s generous saving act than to use it to boost the bottom line of big corporations at the expense of the minority world whose shoulders we trample down on? What could be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to use it to sell soaps and housing wares? The same Jesus who was born in squalor and shame in a stinking animal feed trough rejected by his father’s own home town who couldn’t even make a guest room available for his pregnant mother? Perhaps only politicising the name of Jesus to support worldly ‘empire building’ rather than owning the full implications of Jesus being Lord and king. You don’t have to look far abroad (cough Trump cough) to see political leaders politicising the name of Jesus to their own worldly ends… our most pernicious modern idols are that deadly cohort of sex, greed, and power… and the ‘war on Christmas’ inevitably involves people grasping for two of these three…

There’s an ‘unknown God’ element for many of the Aussies wishing one another a merry Christmas today; and an opportunity for us to say ‘hey, this holy-day we’re celebrating and that name you’re saying, let me proclaim what that’s all about to you’ — and we can do that gently and in a way that answers the deep longings of our hearts that we reach for in all sorts of rituals and cliches each Christmas. There’s a very fine line between cliche and comforting, habit forming, ritual or liturgy. A cliche was a printing tool used to quickly replicate common words or phrases in the printhouse so that characters could be stamped onto paper quickly — ritual or habit is what stamps a certain sort of character onto us. The word character actually comes from the Greek word for stamp… for cliche even. It doesn’t take much to give proper character forming meaning to the rituals we Aussies repeat each Christmas — the acts of generosity and hospitality — of gift giving; but disconnected from the original story they quickly become deforming rather than transforming — it takes connecting these rituals to the little baby in a manger (who’d grow to be a man on a cross) who the Bible says is the exact stamp/character of God’s nature — that’s the Greek behind Hebrews 1’s claim that in Jesus, at Christmas, God bridges the gap from infinite to finite to make himself known:

“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. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” — Hebrews 1:2-3

This is the Jesus of Christmas. The Christ. It’s one thing to use the opportunities afforded by idol worship to make Jesus, the Christ, known to people in a way that answers what they crave; that connect them to the infinite, life-giving God — the source of our existence and being… it’s another thing entirely for Christians to try to fight a war on Christmas to keep the name of Jesus attached to an idolatrous festival that, without Jesus, is utterly deforming people; taking them from being people made in God’s image and re-shaping them through rituals of greed and consumption to represent utterly different God’s. Using the name of Jesus to pursue ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘stone’ or things made by human hands in temples to the modern day gods of greed and self-fulfilment is an abominable misunderstanding of the original Christmas — the incarnation — the drawing near in vulnerable human flesh — of the the one who made the universe.

It is reprehensible for Christians to fight for ‘Christmas’ to be put on the lips of more Australians this year without the character of Jesus answering their desires and reworking their hearts. If there’s a war on Christmas, then I’m siding with the Greens and drawing a line through the word Christ.

I don’t want the name of Jesus attached to silver baubles and golden trinkets to pay the temple taxes and make the rich richer. Just after Paul visits Athens he heads to Ephesus where the proclamation of Jesus as he really is upends the economy — it starts to cost the silversmiths who mould idol statues — characters even — and they revolt. That’d be embracing the true meaning of Christmas — upending the status quo, trotting in to your local Westfield with wheelbarrows full of cow manure, and inviting our equivalent of poor shepherds — our society’s nomadic outcasts — to Christmas lunch.

But in the meantime… Merry Christmas. In all its fullness. I hope you have a great day celebrating life, gift-giving, and sharing time, in the flesh, with those you love. There is nothing more Christmassy than this… I hope, even, that you found some delightful expressions of creativity and beauty to give and receive as gifts.

What’s fascinating about Joy To The World is that it sees these created things — nature — combining with the heavens to celebrate the birth of Jesus; these created things are meant to point us to Jesus, and the father who sent him into the world, not away from them. Their song is a song of joy; and they repeat it as our song bounces around, echoing through our lives and shaping our loves.

And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns
That all their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

There’s so much about goodness and creativity and generosity and love and the spirit of this new (appropriated) secular festival we can and should affirm; the virtues at the heart of an Aussie Christmas are still things that repeat the sounding joy of that first Christmas even if only as an echo… just let these be a cliche in the right way…

,

Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

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

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.

,

The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

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

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

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

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

So much of it is about control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

Is this dangerous?

Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of slippery slopes, stairs, and stepping machines: how to be hopeful when the world is moving

The official ‘no’ campaign made their public presence about everything but marriage; they made it about the ‘slippery slope’ — particularly same sex parenting (robbing kids of a mum or dad), and a ‘radical gender ideology’ where ‘genderless marriage’ is the first step towards a marxist/queer agenda that is represented by Roz Ward’s Safe Schools. That is; they created a slippery slope.

The politicians responsible for orchestrating the postal survey and the proposed changes to marriage insisted this was a single issue vote, about one particular thing, the definition of marriage. Now. It’s not wrong to ask questions about trajectories and ramifications, and I do think handling it as a single issue was perhaps naive when it comes to understanding how integrated faith and practice is for religious people, but if you’re looking for the architects of the slippery slope; it’s us; if the no case is correct, there’s now a political mandate for the government to rapidly slide the whole way down the rainbow without each step being checked, weighed, and balanced.

It might feel like this is a slippery slope if we want to feign ignorance (or actually be ignorant) of the campaign for gay rights in Australia; but what if we take a longer term view of things around, for example, one of the key players in the push for same sex marriage. And what if we see this not as the start of a slope, or the edge of a precipice, but rather a next step. And what if there’s actually a legitimate case to be made that at least some of those steps where steps up.

One of the faces of the push for marriage equality was Tasmania’s Rodney Croome. He’s one of the architects of this path (whether slope or steps), and here’s my case that this isn’t a slippery slope — or if it is that it’s an incredibly slow slope with ample opportunity to change course or even stand up… Croome was an activist for gay rights in 1994 (and before that). In 1994, Croome and his partner presented themselves to the police, in Hobart, to be charged with the crime of being homosexual. Now. Maybe that was the start of an inevitable slope that leads to Safe Schools, or maybe it was just one step towards getting rid of some laws that are actually unjust restrictions of conscience that are coupled with a profound and legal right to truly discriminate against somebody for a choice about their identity and community of practice… The longer view makes something like a campaign for same sex marriage seem more like a further step in a journey than like one of those scenes in a movie where the floor drops out from under the protaganist and they endure a rapid descent (hopefully into a pile of freshly made laundry, or a rubbish bin, rather than flames or snakes).

Perhaps if we had this perspective we’d be able to better hear and understand why these LGBTIQ+ activists aren’t content with marriage equality and are moving on to the next thing on their list; the next ‘step’ towards the Australia they want to live in. Perhaps we should see more of an analogy between how they are pursuing their trajectory and the argument we’re making for religious freedom.

The Australian Presbyterian magazine ran a piece about the threats to religious freedom wrapped up in marriage equality. It included this piece. I’d love you to flip the logic and the actors around; picture Croome and his partner before they were eventually successful in decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania.

“It will intimidate religious leaders (and their insurers) with the relentless threat of anti-discrimination lawsuits; traditional moral teaching will become something to be whispered in private. There ain’t room in this village for both state-enforced homosexual orthodoxy and Christian moral orthodoxy”

Let me rewrite it the way I see it… for a bit more context, Croome’s decision to front the police was because the Federal Government brought in (in keeping with the UN) a right to sexual privacy that had not previously existed and Croome wanted to test that this law did, in fact, invalidate Tasmania’s laws (the UN had also specifically ruled against Tasmania’s laws).

“It’s hard to get insurance (or legal recognitions) for our relationship with the law actually declaring our relationship illegal; homosexual relationships are something we only whisper about in private. This village state-enforces Christian moral orthodoxy against homosexual orthodoxy.”

The incline on that slippery slope is pretty steep; so it’s been hard for the LGBTIQ+ community to climb to this point.

I’ve had some pushback in the last couple of days about my commitment to a generous pluralism; here’s a failure of pluralism right here — where it was not offered to the gay community. This is why they are marching (literally at Mardi Gras) towards a particular victorious outcome. Because we weren’t generous or pluralistic. Now that the boot is, perhaps, on the other foot, and coming down on us, we have the opportunity to take our lumps and learn our lesson.

And look, I like religious freedom, I’d like us to use our religious freedom to be religious rather than secular; and I think we get it by better explaining that there is no secular sacred divide for Christians (and we probably need to explain this to Christians as well). I think generous pluralism is actually, short of state controlled monotheism, the only system that will allow religious freedom in a properly secular democracy. It’s also the answer to the potentially new state-controlled monotheism if the doomsday prophets are right.

My favourite book I read this year was Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics, at the End of the World. They make two points that are important for this post. First, that pluralism is the hopeful and virtuous way forward, even if we fail, even if we’re on a slippery slope, or over a precipice. They reject responding to change with fear.

“The better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

… It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

Wilkinson and Joustra quote Alisdair MacIntyre (author of After Virtue) to suggest this dialogue requires “constructive disagreement” where we speak frankly and honestly (and publicly) about “the places people won’t agree, the places we might agree, and the places that will be resolutely ruled out of bounds,” and then we figure out how to negotiate that into how the law works and how public space is stewarded. They quote political scientist Daniel Philpott, who says this sort of rationale requires us to both hear and speak “full rationales — untruncated, unsanitized, unfiltered,” dialoguing towards” mutual understanding with those different views.” I’m not seeing that from either pole in the culture wars, or the fallout of the changes to the Marriage Act, we certainly, as Presbyterians, didn’t practice this seeking understanding in our contributions to the postal survey debate (or participation in the Coalition for Marriage).

Second, and most importantly for the slippery slope v steps debate… Wilkinson and Joustra argue that in the scheme of human history, and also in the divine story of cyclical judgment and restoration, or exile and return, we can be sure that no changes before the new creation are permanent and that monolithic societies are incredibly difficult to maintain (especially in the west with a bent towards individualism). Or, as they express it in a mantra throughout the book:

“Society moves in all directions. It’s not “one thing,” which is to say that it’s not just monolithic “society,” and it’s not headed purely up or down at any moment.”

We’re not on a slippery slope; or stairs; as a society we’re on a step machine… moving upwards and downwards… and perhaps in less binary directions — left and right.

So what do we do with this?

If it isn’t just a slippery slope to our doom; or the air over a precipice where we wait for God to blow us back on to solid ground…

If society is an elliptical machine that gives us reason for hope, rather than despair, so long as we as a community of people bound together by a story and a common practice (being the church) have a vision for where we’re going and how that might be pursued for not just our good but the good of our neighbours.

“In Between Babel and Beast, the theologian Peter Leithart argues that there is both good news and bad news for this new politics. First, the good news — we need not abandon the city. The public work of realizing the best of the motivating ideals of our age is work for religious people, Christians and others alike, that can bear and even has borne real fruit. The battle moves in all directions.

But the bad news: Babylon, into which we may pour our energies here, in our lifetime, will never be the New Jerusalem. We don’t build it, any more than we are the point or end of the story, the lodestar of authenticity. We can sing the Lord’s song, but we don’t build the Lord’s city.

Like Daniel, we must make compromises. That means we must temper our expectations and not become defeated when everything is not perfect, yet. But some compromises are better, and others are worse. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Our popular culture is already very busy trying to discern that. Taylor writes, “As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.”

We might look to someone like Croome as an example; patiently working towards the good and freedom of our community (and surely the removal of unjust laws have been for the good of us all) while working towards the good of his community within that community (and there’s no doubt that the change to the marriage laws and other future agenda items are seen by this community as the path towards their good).

What would it look like for us to do this as people marinated in and formed by the Gospel?

That’s what we have to figure out.

A tale of two thieves and three crosses: how we might not be in the spot we think we are when it comes to suffering like Jesus

Jesus says the world will hate us because of him (Matthew 10:22) and that when we are hated we should remember that he was hated first (John 15:18).

There’s a bit of pre-emptive back patting going on at the moment because boy, does the world seem to hate us. We must be doing something right if we’re being crucified… right? Jesus did tell us to take up our cross and follow him; so doing that should always involve crucifixion.

It doesn’t need to be said, but we ought to be careful that we understand our suffering rightly; I’m all for a bit of cruciformity (I even wrote my thesis on how our public Christianity and attempts to persuade ought to be excellently cruciform), but it’s possible to experience the pain agony of being hated and humiliated for reasons other than being faithful to Jesus.

It’s possible that in our excitement about finally being softly persecuted in the public square; of being made a spectacle of; that we’re missing that the reason this is happening is actually because we’re guilty.

I’d be more sympathetic to the idea that the current round of public crucifixions of Christians were because of the name of Jesus and an echo of the treatment of Jesus if the people doing the complaining had done any speaking about Jesus in the lead up to this treatment, not simply spoken for a traditional position in the face of an oppressed and vulnerable minority seeking to establish what they understand as a basic human right.

There were, of course, three people executed on Calvary on that first easter. And it’s easy for us Christians to slip into identifying with the one on the middle, rather than those places on the right and left. And of course, we should. We share in the death of Jesus so that we might share in his resurrection.

One criminal, of course, joined with the crowd — with the whole world — as it crucified Jesus; rejecting him. Hating him. Hating God. Hating truth. Hating the idea that life is only truly lived if it is lived submitting to his rule not our own. That real human identity depends on who or what you worship; that what you worship has consequences; that if you’re not worshipping God you’ve declared war on him… that we don’t just get to choose who to be as the “Lord’s of our tiny skull sized kingdoms” as David Foster Wallace once put it… the world hated that idea and hates it still. The world hated Jesus because he claimed that the flourishing human life was found not in morality or legalism or the laws of the land, not in marriage, or family, or career, or success… but in him, and him alone. In dying and rising with him.

More often than we’d like to admit, we’re like this first guy. We’re on our cross and angry at the world; angry at God… but our anger at the world is because we haven’t been able to use the power of the world to get what we want. These criminals were likely leaders of the same insurrection that Barabbas had been arrested for… people who wanted to overthrow the government to shape it according to their religious beliefs. So we feel a great injustice when we’re being hated because we know, deep down, our convictions are truer than the people who’ve put us there… hating Jesus because he didn’t play the power game. He could’ve overthrown Caesar with the sword, and an army of angels, if he’s really the Messiah, but here he is on a cross… what a disappointment to this thief and his political beliefs.

This criminal hurled words at Jesus; adding to insult to injury, literally. The other criminal understood something about himself and the guy being killed unjustly next to him at that moment.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” — Luke 23:39-41

It’s easy to think that we, like Jesus, are blameless when it comes to the hatred thrown at us. It’s easy to think that we’ve done nothing wrong. But in this little episode we’re probably more like this second criminal; rightly under the same sentence as the one who throws insults at Jesus. Punished justly; hated for things we’ve actually done; dependent on God’s grace and mercy.

If anybody teaches us the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ principle, it’s this second thief looking at the first. He gets it. He gets that the hatred he is experiencing is totally deserved; that he brings nothing in his hands to King Jesus, and so he turns to him and sees something in his unjust suffering that makes something click. He sees some sort of game changer for understanding life in this world against life in God’s kingdom. And he makes a shift from being justly hated, to having Jesus be hated in his place. Because it’s not just the government who weigh up and dish out hate for sin… it’s God…

It’s telling that the second thief, having come to this realisation, doesn’t get into a slanging match, or culture war, with the other criminal. He answers him gently, and with a question, don’t you fear God? He makes a declaration about who Jesus is, followed up by this act of repentance — of turning his life over to the king.

“Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:42-43

To this point in the story the crowd, the state (and its soldiers), and everybody else has been hurling insults at Jesus. Hating him. And straight after the thief getting what he deserves from the state gets much more than he deserves (in a good way) from Jesus, the land goes dark, Jesus dies, and the centurion who’d been standing there for this little exchange; a symbol of power — of the very power overseeing Jesus’ execution, of worldly authority — when he sees how Jesus faces hatred unjustly, he declares “Surely this was a righteous man.”  His testimony echoes the words of the thief… and I like to think this injustice haunted him, plagued his conscience, turned him to the guy on the centre cross. But I don’t think he lost any sleep over the just death of two rebels and the state’s hatred of their crimes.

It’s easy to think we’re suffering for being just like the guy on the middle cross. And it’s great when we do… but sometimes actually recognising that we’re justly being hated for being jerks, and pointing to that guy in the middle and saying ‘you’re innocent and king of the kingdom of heaven, help me out in my guilt’ is actually a greater testimony than claiming to be blameless. Sometimes it might even convince those powerful members of the state who make decisions and stuff.

The war didn’t begin last week; and we’re not the victims

Are we Christians that blinded by our own ‘plight’ that we are utterly unable to comprehend the actions of others?

Are we that blind to how systemic and institutional stuff works that we think our not being complicit in particular actions means that we, as individuals, bear no responsibility for how people have acted in the name of our belief or institutions in the past?

It doesn’t feel, for most of us Christians, like we’ve been oppressors or haters, so it feels unjust to us to be hated and oppressed… but while we haven’t felt that way others have felt oppressed and hated in our name — and worse, in the name of Jesus. And how we behave now can either hurt or heal. And we’re picking the ‘hurt’ option.

Are we so tone deaf that we think now is the time for us to be sounding out doomsday scenarios and trying to turn the recently liberated into the new oppressors?

How do we think those recently liberated should behave in a moment of ascendency (or liberation)? What do we think their cause should be?

I’m reading post after post, think piece after think piece, about how Christians are now the victims, when we should be, in my opinion, convincing our culture that we are not perpetrators. We’re claiming to be the victims while a government body investigates our systemic failure when it comes to abuse; when our stocks are at an all time low because this Royal Commission follows years of revelations about members of the church behaving badly with the most vulnerable people in our care.

I’m reading about how the LGBTIQ+ community hates us despite claiming “love is love” from people who don’t understand that for decades this community has felt hated by us; whether through sins of omission — not speaking up about horrid laws and a culture that permits the persecution of members of that community — or because our teaching about sexuality was used to prop those laws and culture up and to demonise these neighbours as an ‘other’ more broken than your average Aussie. I read one conservative commentator this week who continues to insist on calling homosexuals ‘sodomites’… Here’s what Ezekiel says was at the heart of Sodom’s sin

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” — Ezekiel 16:49-50

At the moment this sounds more like the perception of ‘brand Christian’ in Australia than anyone who might oppose us. The sort of Christianity that sees us playing the victim rather than caring for victims.

I read a piece that claims ‘the hate campaign begins as #lovewins’… an utterly abominable and self centred misreading of history. Hate against the LGBTIQ+ community has been happening for years; this was, for them, a campaign to eradicate hate… hate that WE HAVE PERPETRATED.

“Let to be known that on the December 7, 2017 – the day in Australian Parliamentary history when “love won” – the hate campaign truly began. Yesterday, supporters of same-sex marriage took to Twitter to celebrate by tweeting, “Eat sh-t Lyle.” A reference to Lyle Shelton, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby.”

What utter trollop. The hate has been going on for years; this date might be the moment we start to feel it institutionally (from the government and culture), whereas, in the past, these institutions were acting in our interest.

Do we not understand that the LGBTIQ+ community has legitimate claims here; that they’ve been oppressed and hated — not just by Christians, but we weren’t exactly standing against it — and that they themselves saw marriage equality as one step in a long line of steps towards de-systematising this hatred. We might agree or disagree with this step, this solution, or other steps — but I don’t think we can, in the face of the evidence, disagree with the foundational premise.

LGBTIQ+ campaigners can legitimately claim to be campaigning against systemic hate even if we don’t agree with their means. Safe Schools is an anti-bullying campaign because LGBTIQ+ kids get bullied for being different. I know. I was, by omission, part of this in my public school. Safe Schools might adopt a means to achieve this end that I don’t love — I’m not sold on the queer/marxist agenda of eradicating any difference between people being the solution to this oppression.  We spent the SSM campaign trying to make it about Safe Schools and our opposition to it. We spent the campaign APPARENTLY ADVOCATING AGAINST AN ANTI-BULLYING CAMPAIGN.

You know what that makes us look like?

BULLIES.

Bullies who are attached to an institution that has systemically ABUSED CHILDREN and COVERED UP THAT ABUSE.

Where’s our better option? Where’s an anti-bullying program from Christians that does the job better than Safe Schools? Put up or shut up.

I read a piece, celebrated by Christian conservatives on social media, that declared the ‘Rainbow-haters have declared war on no voters’...

And their fears are already being realised.

Within a day of the marriage bill being passed, an academic from the University of Technology Sydney was describing it as a “mandate to deliver… LGBTQI+-inclusive sexuality education” aka “Safe Schools” queer theory. And there was an online petition to strip tax-free charitable status from Shelton’s ACL.

As we saw overseas, LGBTQI vigilantes don’t stop when same-sex marriage becomes law. They want to hound into submission every last dissenter.

You know, ‘rainbow haters’ used to be a bit different. We’re talking about a community, who when they lived in Nazi Germany, we marked with pink triangles and exterminated… literally ‘hounded into submission’ and treated as dissenters… that’s some evocative imagery right there. We’re talking about that happening less than 70 years ago. On a whim I googled ‘set dog on gay man’ and was distressed but unsurprised to find this story about a POLICE OFFICER allegedly doing just that in England in 2016. Stories from other countries are apparently fair game in this space — we’re yet to have an Australian baker before the courts… Here in Australia we’re talking about a community who, for many years, could be murdered in Queensland and have that charge downgraded to manslaughter because of ‘gay panic’ — the idea that a gay person might be not hitting you but hitting on you was reason for self defence. We’re talking about a community who face a greater than average risk of suicide and a bunch of other mental health stuff. A community for whom an SBS feature on gay hate crimes reported:

“NSW now has a task force, Operation Parrabell, reviewing 88 deaths including 30 unsolved cases from the 1970s to the early 2000s as potential gay-hate murders, most of which weren’t treated as such at the time. Those 88 deaths are the worst of the tragedies.”

I read a piece that says this isn’t a ‘slippery slope’ but a precipice (it at least had the poetry of a CS Lewis analogy and a God who blows us back from over the edge). Look. Let’s talk about the slippery slope thing. The way the no campaign operated turned the postal survey into a postal survey on the rest of the agenda. It passed with a massive majority. The way to avoid things being a slippery slope, when people have a destination they are working towards, is to treat the pathway there as steps — and to offer a better pathway to a better destination at key junctions along the journey. Not to stand at the top and yell that it’s a long way down once you start. This has the added benefit of being more closely tied to reality where even those with a radical agenda see the process as involving steps, and same sex marriage being not the first, but part of a continuum (repealing and changing other laws that allowed violence against that community were also a step). Of course these steps build towards a destination and create a momentum that is harder to turn once you’re moving, but perhaps for the LGBTIQ+ activists it doesn’t feel like a slippery slope, but a long, uphill battle to push against the weight of systemic injustice and a culture of antipathy that has, at times, been fuelled by even the most well-meaning, loving, members of the church (not just those who proof text their hatred from Leviticus).

Let me be clear. It’s not hatred to disagree with somebody; I do believe that same sex sexual activity is sinful, much as I believe that watching porn is sinful, or sex outside of marriage is sinful, or selfish heterosexual sex in marriage is sinful.

And let me be clear. There are some people on the ‘yes’ side who hate Christians. I guess I’m just struggling to see why they don’t ALL hate Christians.

It’s Christianity that brings the ‘golden rule’ of treat others as you would have them treat you, a command to love your neighbours as you love yourself, and a crucified king to show you what sacrificial love for the ‘other’ looks like. This is the Christian ethic. The wisdom of the world is ‘do unto others’ what they have done for you; and ‘an eye for an eye’…

Let me be absolutely clear — I believe a better path for gay equality is found in Jesus. In finding your identity in him not in your sexual attraction; and letting him shape how you live. I believe the image of God, renovated in Jesus so that we live as ‘the image of Jesus’ in the world is a better source of dignity and equality. I believe we do have better and more imaginative things to offer in the realm of gay rights than legal or symbolic equality, though not lesser things. I also believe we’re not going to be heard on any of this until we deal with the baggage and the perception it has created of wielding power in our own interests for too long. We’ve been too caught up in the institutions of the state to the point that we can’t help but be accused of being complicit in injustices perpetrated by the state. We’ve also been infected by this love for power in a way that has stopped us calling sin sin, and led us to cover up oppression rather than give up power.

We’re reaping the cost, not just of the campaign, but of decades of institutional and community memory of our position on this issue.

You can doubt this reality all you want; but here’s three things to consider.

  1. The testimony of celibate (or straight married) same sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ supports this narrative.
  2. The testimonies of real people in these stories supports this narrative; and you could corroborate this by asking your LGBTQI+ friends.
  3. Perception is reality. Even if these things aren’t true; this is the landscape on which the campaign for LGBTQI+ equality is being fought and changes established.

In the eyes of the watching world we are an oppressor and we’re now behaving exactly like a bully or abuser when they get caught out — projecting. Making this all ‘their problem’. It’s awful.

STOP IT.

We were tone deaf in the marriage debate about the ‘rights’ side of the argument and the importance of equality (and symbolism for establishing that equality) which meant our symbolic olive branches never appeased (civil unions anybody?). We’re becoming even more tone deaf as we operate as sore losers when society still perceives us as the powerful (and abusive) oppressors.

What does it look like for us to repent in dust and ashes. That’s what we should be doing. Not donning the war paint.

,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Hope is found in a public faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only. There’s a problem.

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

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

Here’s the problem.

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

There’s another problem.

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

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

Is your backyard sacred space?

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

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

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

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

4. Hope is found in listening better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Hope is found in stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Hope is found in the rejection of cynicism.

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

9. Hope is found in prayer and through complexity.

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

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

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