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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

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

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

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

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” I said.

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

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

Grill a Christian: What does it mean to be ‘ruled by the flesh’?

ruledbytheflesh

 

Question: What does it mean in Romans ‘governed by flesh’?

What Paul means is basically that our natural humanity, from birth, is caught between two poles that are in conflict with themselves.

The first is that we’re made in the Image of God, and so know what we ought to do, and sometimes do it, the second is that our humanity, our ‘flesh’ has been corrupted by humanity’s rejection of God’s image and desire to craft our own images, or ourselves as images of our own God (sometimes we just want to be God).

So our two natures — or these two aspects of our nature are sort of playing out, in different proportions, in everything we do. As humans, but we’re also always progressing towards being completely consistent based on what we worship — if we become worshippers of the Living God, as we see him revealed in Jesus, Paul says we are ultimately transformed into the image of his son, if, instead of God, we do what Paul talks about in chapter 1  — worshipping created things that can’t bring life — idolatry, which leads to all sorts of bad actions (sin) — we transform into dead people. Our flesh, without God, points us towards death, because often we put ourselves in the centre and worship ourselves. You could say every person ends up with this happening, we all become shaped by the ‘image of God’ we pursue, the question is whether it’s the real God, or a god we make up.

So, whatever we are, before this transformation is complete, is a product of these aspects of our humanity. The good stuff we do is often from mixed motives, like, “maybe someone will notice what a good thing I’m doing” or “aren’t I better than that other person who couldn’t be bothered doing this” — for Paul it’s convenient to describe this as a flesh v Spirit thing, because what he looks forward to is these two parts of our nature being perfectly aligned, rather than in conflict.

The other thing in Romans is that part of the process of becoming like Jesus — our picture of the real God, is that we get a third part to our humanity, a greater part, God dwelling in us, completing us, by his Spirit. This isn’t like a magical thing you feel, it plays out in a reorienting of our lives so that we do Christlike things more over time. We see the Spirit by its fruit — the lives we live reflect the transformation brought about by whatever we’re worshipping. But as a result of the new bit of our humanity, the Holy Spirit, that happens when we follow Jesus, we re-orient our lives both back towards the image of God part that was always part of us, and now also to the image of Jesus, which has become the pattern for future us both in terms of how we live and our eternal connection to God, our ‘fleshy’ lives change too, hopefully, over time and towards eternity, our actions are less and less mixed motived and more and more an outworking of this transformation, but that never fully happens until heaven. I always feel a little bit like this sounds like science fiction, but the ultimate post death reality, if Jesus really was raised from the dead is that we are raised with new ‘flesh’ untarnished by our shared disobedience.

So governed by the flesh, to answer your question, is a description of us putting the ‘not image of God’ part of ourselves in charge at the expense of our image of God part. It’s about us choosing to live how we want while suppressing whatever quiet voice (and as you suppress it it becomes quieter) is in the back of our head saying ‘you were made for more, you were made for better than this’…

7 ways Christians lost the gay marriage battle, and how we should (not) fight the war

Warning // Long post. Even by my standards. I’d suggest skimming it and reading the bits under the titles that you think are interesting

It turns out #lovewins.

If you’re one of my friends, or someone I don’t know, who’s celebrating the changes to the laws in America, and anticipating those changes where you are — I want you to know three things right off the bat, before you set out on reading this post:

  1. God loves you. He shows that love for you in that Jesus dies for you (and for me) even though we didn’t ask him to, or want him to.
  2. I think all people everywhere are equally broken and we all experience a world that is equally broken through equal brokenness, whether this is in our sexuality, gender or anything we build our identity on. I hope this stops me sounding judgmental because it certainly removes any platform I might stand on to judge you (or others) from.
  3. I am hoping that this reflects God’s love for you (and thus, my love for you), and that it isn’t a judgmental, handwringing exercise that makes you feel misunderstood or hated. If you feel either of those things, get in touch. Let me know where I’ve gone wrong. Let’s have a coffee or a beer. I like both.

This post is something like a post-mortem examining where I think Christians got it wrong when we spoke about gay marriage (not all Christians got all these things wrong). It’s a reflection, at times, on what we could have said, should have said, or didn’t say as much as it reflects what I’ve experienced Christians saying, or said myself. Some of it, especially the transgender/intersex stuff towards the end, is new thinking for me. Some isn’t. I’d love to hear other ideas about where things went wrong.

But ultimately, whatever the outcome in the courts and parliaments of this world, I’m not all that worried. Because the hash tag gets it right.

#lovewins.

That’s the good news for Christians who’ve woken up to a sea of rainbows at every turn in the last few days. An iconic and colourful reminder of the victory over the (largely) Christian case for not changing the definition of marriage in the (formerly) Christian west.

The US Supreme Court handed down its judgment this weekend, and I maintain (despite this causing some angst amongst Christian friends previously), that Australia is certain to follow. This isn’t entirely a meek capitulation, I think the fight was lost a long time ago.

Anyway I keep reminding myself #lovewins.

There’s been a lot of handwringing from Christians on the Internet in the fallout to this momentous decision, but I just want to remind my handwringing brothers and sisters, that if you take the Bible seriously, which people against gay marriage typically claim to, then this is how the story of the world ends. #lovewins. It’s already written.

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.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children — Revelation 21:2-7

#lovewins because it won at the Cross. Life now would be a whole lot easier if we came to grips with that when coming to grapple with politics and life in general. Incidentally there’s some bad news after those verses for the people in this world who don’t think God is all that important. But I’m writing this primarily for those who claim to believe in the God of the Bible and follow his son.

Stop worrying.

#lovewins.

1. We didn’t treat people the way we’d like to be treated

You might feel like the world is against you. The world might well become against you. You might deserve this. I think we’re in for a big dose of our own medicine here, and that’s what terrifies me. Because we Christians deserve what’s coming. Do you know why people think Christians are anti-gay? Do you know why until very recently in most of these countries that are changing the definition of marriage it was illegal to be gay? These questions are more complicated than the simplistic finger pointing at the church might allow, sure, there are countries that aren’t “Christian” where people are anti-gay, and where homosexuality is still illegal, but in these western countries, the church is caught up in the answer to most of the questions that lead to members of the gay community, and their friends and supporters, having a pretty big axe to grind with Christians.

It wasn’t uncommon for churches in Australia to delight in the way the King James Version rendered statements about homosexual behaviour, and apply it to the people who engaged in such behaviour. Words like abomination. Scratch below most of the arguments mounted against gay marriage and there’s an undercurrent of judgmentalism and disgust that is reserved for the particular sin of homosexuality in a way the Bible never reserves judgmentalism or disgust for one particular sin. All sin disgusts God. Including our judgmentalism.

There’s a world of difference —a vast, chasmic, world of difference — between these three ethical golden rules. The world, in my experience, typically lives by the first. Which is why we’re in trouble. Jesus famously proclaimed the second one at the Sermon on the Mount, and, in reality, displayed the third.

Treat others the way they treat you. 

Treat others the way you would have them treat you. 

Treat others the way Jesus treated you. 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. — 1 John 3:16

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. — 1 John 4:16-17

This is where I think we’ve failed, especially in the time where we’ve felt like the big kid at primary school, able to push people around to get the best spots in the playground. Only. We’re not in primary school anymore. We’ve graduated. And we’re the impish kids in the first year of high school, hoping nobody hits us up for our lunch money or gives us a wedgie behind the classroom, or something more sinister.

What would acting out the golden rule, or the example of Jesus have looked like in the marriage equality debate?

I think it would start by imagining a time where Christians were a persecuted minority in our country, where people who didn’t believe the same things we believe about the world were doing all they could to stop us practicing the thing that is at the core of our identity. Perhaps because they believe it to be harmful to us and to others. Especially children. So harmful they wanted to prevent it on behalf of the children, but also for our own benefit. That we might be happy.

Sound familiar.

You know. Perhaps we should have said: “we can totally understand where you’re coming from wanting an intimate, committed relationship, lifelong, relationship with a person you love. That seems like a completely natural thing to want. Personally, we think marriage is something God made to show us something about him, and his love for us as we experience it in the eternal loving relationship we have with God through Jesus, so we want our marriages to reflect the world as he made it, and his promises about the world, but when it comes to your own relationships, call them whatever you choose. We respect your freedom to think that through, we’d simply ask that you offer us the same freedoms.”

Perhaps, when pushed, we might have mentioned that marriage is something that celebrates the coming together of people of two different genders — male and female — and that this coming together is the natural way that children are born, and a marriage offers a stable basis for a family unit. But we’ve pushed this to the front of our reasoning far too often (and I’ll get to this below. I promise).

You know. There’s a bit of Bible oft neglected in this vein.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. — 1 Corinthians 5:9-13

I think if we imagined ourselves in this sort of situation we might have hoped that people would be tolerant of our beliefs and acknowledge that somehow at the heart of personhood is the ability to define how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Somewhere at the heart of personhood is being able to decide the core of one’s identity. What it is we pursue as our heart’s desire. What it is, if you follow David Foster Wallace’s definition, that we worship. The Bible, I think, is pretty clear that this is what personhood involves — we either deliberately seek to carry the image of the living God, or we replace God with other gods or desires. This seems to be the choice that God sets before people from the very beginning of the Bible’s story. And yet we, in our wisdom, want to try to force people to pick God when they want to reject God. At that point, when the Church pushes to legislate against something, no matter how loving we think we’re being to people or their children, we’re robbing people of something fundamental to their personhood.

Is that how we would like to be treated?

Is it how Jesus treats people? At the Cross Jesus shows that #lovewins, but one of the ways he does that is by allowing people to be people. To pick whether or not we want to pursue life lived as God designed it, or life lived as we designed it. Even in the operations of God’s control over every event in history, even in his involvement in the decision of every person who puts their faith in Jesus, this fundamental part of our personhood is protected.

Do you think we’ve offered the gay community, and their supporters, this sort of respect? I don’t think so. I think it’s true that some people have tried to offer ‘equal rights’ in everything except the label people apply to their relationship, but labels matter. And words are flexible. And while we might follow the God who gives all words their true meaning —who spoke the world into being by true words, who speaks through words in order to be understood, and who entered the world as the “word made flesh” in Jesus— we don’t have the monopoly on words and their meanings. Especially not amongst people who have chosen to build their life around things other than this God.

We might think this is a silly choice. We might believe it’s a dangerous choice. We might even want to recommend and alternative choice, especially as we acknowledge that by rights we should be included in the number of people declared not good enough for God. But somewhere caught up in seeing a person, and treating a person, and loving a person, the way God loves people, is giving people responsibility and freedom to make a choice about their identity and personhood, mindful of the consequences — whether those consequences come here and now, or whether they’re the eternal consequences, spoken of in that same bit of Revelation, where #lovewins.

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:8

By rights, I should be in that number. Many of those words describe my thoughts, and some describe my actions.

That’s why it’s great that #lovewins.

The only reason I’m not in that number is that Jesus is none of those things. This realisation, that when we take up the challenge to treat people the way Jesus treated us, we’re taking up a new sort of identity, a new understanding of what it means to be a person, is meant to shape the way we approach the world. It’s meant to help us see the gap between our picture of reality and morality, and the way others approach morality.

This isn’t an exercise in being all high and mighty and claiming that God is on our side in a moral debate. The most we can claim is that we believe he is. It’s meant to be an exercise in humility.

There. Death. But for the grace of God. Jesus. Go I.

Too often our contributions in this debate have not been humble. We’ve simply spoken as though we’re the prophetic voice of God to our world and people are idiots if they don’t listen. We’ve given them no reason to listen because our words about love have not been backed up with actions of love.

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

You say you love gay people?

Show them. Not in an abstract way — though even that would be a start if you were doing something about the sorts of horrific rates of suicide and depression amongst young people who identify as homosexual.

Love in a concrete way. Treat them the way Jesus treated you. Stepping in. Taking a bullet for you. Taking your burden upon himself. Being a safe place. Speaking up against those voices that offer condemnation rather than love. While faithfully pointing to the truth about God and judgment. But then offering a path to mercy and forgiveness. To wholeness. To a new identity. A better, more satisfying, place to find your identity than any part of our broken human experience — be it the things we love doing, the people we love, our job, our sexuality, our gender — all these things are broken by those behaviours that lead to judgment. Jesus isn’t. His love isn’t.

Admit you’re broken. Admit your sexuality is broken. Admit you’re both a sinner and judgmental. Admit our hypocrisy. Stop treating gay people and their friends and family like the enemy in some political fight to bring down the world.

#lovewins.

This isn’t how we lost the fight. I’m still getting to that. This is more in the “what to do now” space, inasmuch as it’s in the “what Jesus told people to do and what the Bible tells us to do” space.

2. We lost when we entered the fight expecting to win, rather than seeking to love

Here’s what Jesus told us to do when things don’t go God’s way in a couple of choice bits in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the sort of people Jesus called us to be as we follow him. His where we’ve got this fight oh so wrong, simply by fighting, instead of by treating minority groups in our community the way I suspect we’re going to clamour for them to treat us in coming years (and why should they? There have been axes being sharpened on this one for a while now).

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5:5-10

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:38-45

We’ve been, I think, too strident, combative, and bombastic in our defence of marriage, and we’ve made most of our noise about marriage (a created thing) rather than about God and his kingdom.

I can’t tell if our expectation was to win this fight. That’s certainly the language that has been used in this debate by people I’ve spoken to. I can’t see what creates the expectation that we should either win, or fight, when it comes to this sort of thing outside the boundaries of our own lives and identities, and the life and identity of the church. Our job isn’t to fight and win, it’s to follow Jesus who won by losing. Our job is to faithfully be different — to love — even in the face of those who want to fight us. This is how #lovewins

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:11-16

 

3. We lost when we decided to fight for marriage, rather than speaking about marriage as an analogy for the Gospel

This has already dragged on for a while, and I’ve got a few more. God made people male and female to reflect his nature. God isn’t gendered. But marriage, in the bringing together of two persons in one flesh is a great picture of the Trinity, and the eternal loving relationship at the heart of the universe. Just as loving Trinitarian relationship gave birth to life in Genesis 1, marriage was the means, in the Genesis story, by which Adam and Eve carried on the creating of life. Marriage is about that. But because of the Gospel, marriage is about more than that.

Personhood is also about more than marriage. A person is able to be a fruitful reflection of God’s image without marriage (see Jesus, humanity of, and Paul, bachelor status in any fictional dictionary). In Genesis two people become one flesh. Two halves don’t come together as one complete thing.

Marriage (and sex) is not the ultimate human relationship (or transaction). It’s not a basis for human identity (though it changes your identity). And it can’t possibly be a fundamental human right because it takes two. Two willing parties. You’re not less human if you are unwilling to be married or cannot find someone you are willing to marry.

So many of our arguments for marriage sound like we’re worshipping marriage either as an idol, a god of our own making, or in such terms that somehow we’ve elevated this good thing God made as a thing to reveal his nature and character into this thing that completes us.

In Romans 1, Paul says the world is meant to play this role:

“since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” — Romans 1:20

And the problem with our human nature, when we’re confronted with the amazingly good thing God has made that has hallmarks of divinity stamped all over it, is that we’re so stupid we keep confusing the signature of the divine for the divine. So we get all excited about these created things and worship them instead.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” — Romans 1:25

Whoops.

See. I think those supporting gay marriage, and the rhetoric supporting the case for gay marriage does exactly this with marriage. The case for gay marriage seizes on the goodness of marriage (and marriage is good) but applies it to relationships where the God of the Bible has already been tossed out the window. Paul would say this sort of thing is a prime example of what he’s talking about.

But lest we get all finger pointy — the “Christian” case for marriage does exactly the same thing whenever it fails to see marriage as something that reveals God’s eternal power and divine nature.

You know. When we make it all about kids. And society. And wholesome family values. And Biblical morals. And history. And… Anything but God.

And the thing that makes God’s eternal power and divine nature clearest. Love. The love that wins. The love displayed at the Cross. Marriage, ultimately, is a picture of that love — in our marriages, but human marriages also give us a picture of the relationship where we can find meaningful identity and satisfaction (see Revelation 21, above).

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. — Ephesians 5:31-32 (the whole chapter builds to this point)

4. We lost when we made marriage about children, rather than about the sex that produces them

A lot of the logic supporting this point is contained above. While according to the Biblical picture of things before and after the Fall, children, ideally, are made in marriage, marriage isn’t just made for the making of children. It’s made for intimate, one flesh, love between people whose bits fit together, and the product of this fitting together is, occasionally, children. I suspect if you tried to count the number of times sexual intercourse occurs between men and women, and put it up against the number of pregnancies in this world, you’d get the sense that there’s a lot more sex in a marriage than there is the production of children. Some of this activity might be specifically attempting to produce a child, but most of it, I would think, is for the purpose of maintaining and growing a loving, intimate, relationship.

Children happen as the result of sex. But we don’t require fertility tests before marriage (and that would be truly, truly, awful if we did). Often our arguments against gay marriage failed on this basis.

The mystery and beauty of marriage is that two somehow become one. Male and female.

While sex is a part of gay relationships, and will be a part of gay marriage, the Biblical picture of marriage revolves around two different kinds of human coming together as one.

“The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” — Genesis 2:23-24

Whatever you make of how to read Genesis, it’s clear this is part of the story that Christians build their picture of marriage from, and while it talks about fathers and mothers, there’s no mention of making babies here, but there is a sense of the bringing together something that God made to be brought together.

It’s worth noting, I think, that sex is a thing created by God, and how we use it either reveals his character or ours. It reveals something about his divine nature, or about our corrupted nature. Its one of those things where how we use it (or don’t use it) shows if we’re following God’s design or our own. This is pretty powerful. But it also means that we often misplace hope for satisfaction in sex, our sexuality, and even marriage, that these things simply can’t deliver on.

People are free to take or leave this story, and this basis for understanding marriage — and increasingly people in our world are choosing to leave it — but when we made it sound like Christians think marriage is important because “children” we shot ourselves in the foot.

Marriage is certainly a great context for having kids, and kids who know their parents are committed to one another through life’s ups and downs certainly have a solid basis for flourishing. But this sort of relationship isn’t a guarantee that a kid will flourish, nor is anything other than marriage a guarantee that a kid will get a lesser deal in life. Focusing on the nuclear, biological family, as though most people experience or desire that, because this is a “human right,” or even as though this picture was particularly Biblical, always struck me as a bit self-defeating too. It felt like we were hitting struggling single parents (and even not struggling single parents) with wild swings designed to knock out the gay marriage argument. What made it even dumber, I think, is that laws surrounding adoption and surrogacy for gay couples are dealt with completely apart from marriage anyway.

This whole line of reasoning confused what marriage is in its essential form, and what marriage is capable of producing and becoming when the debate, in terms of legislation, was simply about what marriage is. I think the fight was lost because those against the change shifted the goalposts rather than adopting a robust defence of the two words that will actually be changed in the definition (at least in the Australian case).

5. We lost when we lost the fight on gender, and didn’t think hard enough about how to include the T or I parts of LGBTQI in the conversation

We live in an age that celebrates mind over matter when it comes to identity. What you think you are and feel you are, therefore you are.

Here’s Miley Cyrus:

“I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl…I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”

It seems everything is fluid. Especially for people who are privileged enough to be able to choose to be fluid, rather than for people who are locked in to a marginalised or complicated facet of the human experience.

It’s not just sexuality that gets confused when humanity turns on God, and that turn is felt in the ‘frustration’ of God’s creation. It’s gender too. And our biological sex. While part of my point here is that maleness and femaleness are, in marriage, different and distinct. That’s not true for all people — and just as the church is grappling with how to care for same sex attracted people who want to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we need to grapple with what it looks like for transgender and intersex people to follow Jesus and carry the image of God.

Before this gets too far down a rabbit hole where this needs to be acknowledged — I’m a guy (gender) in a guy’s body (sex) and I know that there’s an incredible amount of biological complexity out there that means this sort of alignment isn’t always the case. I think we need to be careful not to exclude transgender or intersex people from our definitions of humanity, or from our consideration, in clumsy conversations about marriage. This whole issue is worthy of its own post, and I’m not entirely sure of where to go with that sort of line of thinking yet. I want to be careful, because I think there’s a sense where both sex and gender can occur along a spectrum of maleness-femaleness, and it’s important to distinguish between transgender issues and intersex issues. I’m not going to say much, if anything, about the implications of a T or an I identity for marriage, but I suspect it is tied up with helping find some sort of clarity in terms of gender and sex (and sexuality) identity for those dealing with this complexity and working carefully from there.

What does fascinate me, is the kind of democratisation of the transgender experience through people who simply choose to defy categorisation, or people who want to argue that gender is meaningless both in terms of gender identity, and sexual practice. This basically confines the ‘bits’ associated with one’s sex — the matter — into a very small part of our identity. An unchosen bit of baggage. Mind has triumphed over matter at this point, and I suspect a fuller and richer account of our humanity and a more fulfilling and healthy approach to identity sees mind and matter brought together in harmony, or acknowledged tension rather than simply denial.

This concept of personal, individual, mind-driven, fluidity has pretty massive ramifications for our concepts of personhood, and I think, like any time where we put ourselves in the driver’s seat, rather than God, there are bound to be interesting consequences.

The link between gender and sex is increasingly being torn apart, and the proposed changes to the Marriage Act in Australia simply codify this shift that happened a while back without much fuss, and, I suspect, for well-intended reasons. Other people have been much better at caring for transgender and intersex people in our community than evangelical Christians (I’m sure there are liberal Christians who have put more thought into this than we have). I’m unaware of much, if any, evangelical Christian thinking that seeks to understand, love, and serve the T or I part of the LGBTQI community, I haven’t proactively looked (though I will), but I have been part of many conversations about gay marriage where these issues have not been spoken about. I’ve seen conversations on Facebook where transgender people have been dismissed as abnormal or insignificant, and I can’t imagine that this has won us friends or favour when it comes to hearing us speak about Biblical concepts of gender and how they relate to a broken and fractured world (and our own experience of gender). Which in turn means we can’t really speak to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman when we aren’t engaging with the complexity of the human experience beyond such neat categories or within these neat categories.

On the link between mind and matter and identity, there’s actually some notion of fluidity and identity driven by the mind and our hearts (thoughts/passions/feelings) that Christians, can affirm. Our minds and hearts are where the action is at in terms of defining our identity as people. They’re where the Bible suggests that battleground is in terms of us either choosing to follow Jesus as children of God, or take up with idols. We are shaped by our hearts and our minds in a way that we aren’t shaped by our bodies (which simply act out this stuff).

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” — Matthew 15:16-20

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:2

There are a couple of things I think need to be incorporated in to this part of the discussion — the idea that God is not a male who is adequately reflected by male humans, but that maleness and femaleness operate together and separately to bear the image of God, and the sense that gender increasingly becomes meaningless as we are transformed into the image of Christ, united with Christ, as the bride of Christ. This is the ultimate form of identity for the Christian (this changes the way we approach maleness and femaleness in our human relationships, but it doesn’t do away with those concepts altogether in these relationships in this world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:26-28

6. We lost when we made the argument about the next argument (the slippery slope), rather than lovingly understanding what the people in front of us desired and were asking for

I hate this version of the argument against gay marriage more than any other. Gay marriage will not open the door to people marrying their dogs. The arguments used for gay marriage might be used by polyamorists, but the people asking for gay marriage aren’t asking for polyamory and we’re failing to love them, understand them, and listen to them, if we treat their arguments as though someone else is asking for something else.

7. We lost when we didn’t fight harder for love to mean something other than sexual intimacy or total acceptance (not compassionate tolerance)

The tragedy of the #lovewins idea is that what we’re ending up with isn’t a really robust and beautifully messy picture of love. We’re ending up with fairytale love that can’t really handle any opposition.

What do people mean when they write #lovewins? What are people actually celebrating when they rainbowfy their Facebook profiles?

I haven’t read much beyond the highlights of the judgments handed down in the US, but it seems that they pay lip service to the idea of tolerance for those who disagree and then immediately label such positions as hateful or anti-love.

The Greek language has multiple words for love describing multiple kinds of love. We have one word and it’s context that determines the meaning.

Who wants to stand in the way of love?

Not me. Not anyone I know.

But who says what love is?

What I think people are saying when they say #lovewins is that one particular view of love has triumphed over all the others. And by triumphed over I think we’ll increasingly understand this to mean “totally wiped out of the public sphere” any alternative pictures of love, especially those from the pre-enlightened past.

Most of the stuff we watch and listen to about love basically says love is sexual intimacy with one person, or the thing you offer to your family. There’s erotic love and there’s filial love. There’s a fair bit of erotic love going on in the marriage debate, though it’s more about sexual commitment than simply temporary intimacy. Erotic love is the love that we write songs about and feature in movies. It’s boy meets girl love replaced with person meets person love. But this cheapens and limits our view of love such that we can’t believe in a platonic, non-sexual, relationship if there’s any physical affection displayed. So, for example, I once hugged one of my sisters and someone who didn’t know she was my sister, and knew I was married, thought there was something going on. Isn’t love richer if it means something more than sex, and something more than simply family ties or a commitment secured by contractual agreement?

Love, apparently, also means never telling someone you disagree with their choices. This is the new kind of filial love. Loyalty is built in networks where people offer this sort of love to each other, and this sort of love doesn’t cope well with disagreement or dissent. Even disagreement offered with loving intent. Tolerance now means believing everything is legitimate, rather than believing that people should be free to make choices that are wrong and be loved anyway. Our interactions with each other are cheapened by this vision of love. Isn’t love richer if it doesn’t seek to deny or iron out differences, but transcends those differences?

If the Revelation picture of the future from the start of this post and the end of the Bible, where #lovewins is true, then how do Christians love those around us? I think it’s about respectfully allowing people to make a choice (rather than trying to insist they make a particular choice), but it must also mean making some case for the Christian view of the world, and the Christian view of love, even if that case is unpopular, and is perceived as hateful.

This is where the medicine we’ve got coming to us is really going to hurt. I don’t think we’ve loved others very well. I think they’re about to treat us the way we treated them. I think as we become the minority our perceived pursuit of victory at all costs, rather than us having offered love and respect at our cost, is going to come back to bite us. Hard. And this will be an opportunity for us to show how love wins. This will be an opportunity for us not to fight more battles, but to follow the one who fought the battle for us, and who models what love looks like for us… this is how we might make God known in things he created, and is now recreating by the Spirit.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. — 1 John 4:7-14

 

Facebook is messing with your head: what to think about this as a Christian

This is part 3 in a 5 part series on what social media does to our brains – it uses Facebook as a case study, but sustained use of any communication medium will have a similar effect (though Facebook is extra specially designed to addict you).

The first post showed that the mediums we use do shape our thinking and rewire our brains. The second post was about how one might process this fact drawing on insights from media ecology and neuroscience.

In this post we’ll consider what insights might be gained here for Christians who want to use mediums like Facebook to communicate about Jesus and share their lives authentically with their friends while steering clear of the down side of having your brain changed in ways you don’t want.

This post is less about why a Christian should use Facebook (though it deals with that briefly), and isn’t so much about what steps to take to use Facebook well (which will be dealt with a little in post four) – it is more about what to think about the power our communication mediums have over us.

facebook brain

The Theological Framework

I’m speculating a little here – and it’s possible that you can’t simply equate the Biblical concept of “mind” with the neuroscientific understanding of what the mind is. But I think there are some important Biblical and theological touch points to consider when it comes to social media and our brains. Some of these are also covered in John Dyer’s excellent From the Garden to the City – Dyer approaches the question of communication technology as a Christian theologian and media ecologist. His journey through the Biblical narrative hits similar points – as does this old post.

Briefly – according to the guy who kickstarted a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff, Daniel Siegel, people’s well-being involves a combination of brain, mind, and relationships – the “mind” is the process that regulates the flow of energy and information through the brain, which is the physical “neurocircuitry,” relationships are how energy and information is shared between people via communication. When it comes to the Bible – the mind and heart are closely linked with how people think and act. I’m working on the assumption that these are roughly equivalent and related.

The God who speaks (from the ultimate hive mind)

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” – Hebrews 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made… 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…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1:1-3, 14, 18

Theological projects – like this – are best served by starting with who God is. God is the ultimate ‘hive mind’ – one God, in three persons, acting with one mind. There’s a word bandied about in theological tomes – perichoresis (wikipedia) – which describes the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. There is no act of God the Father that doesn’t  involve unity of purpose and action from God the Son and God the Holy Spirit because each person of the Trinity is so thoroughly ‘networked’ to the other. The Trinity is the ultimate social network – or perhaps, in a less theologically dangerous way – social networks are what we get when humans made in the image of God, for relationship, use our meagre, broken, selves to try to act out that relational aspect of our humanity.

It shouldn’t really surprise us, in this sense, if our attempts at forging communication networks end up with something like a hive mind. Relationships are about connection.

Here are a few paragraphs from my project – you can read the whole thing if you want to see the footnotes.

As ethos, pathos, and logos, are necessary elements of persuasive act, so the “perichoretic” contribution of Father, Word, and Spirit is necessary in divine communicative acts. There is no act of God that is not produced by the three divine persons, acting in concert, so it should be impossible to speak of any work of Father, Son, or Spirit separately, just as it is impossible to produce a spoken communicative act that doesn’t inherently contain the three persuasive proofs: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Moon (2010) suggests the Triune God is a Divine “communicative system” that employs the perfect media – the Word and Spirit, to produce communicative acts both internally (ad intra), and externally (ad extra) through “coupling with creaturely media.” Moon suggests the primary part of “the distinct form of divine operation is communication,” because divine action is consistently depicted as speech, or alongside divine speech, and God is described as “word.” The divine communication system is the “ground of communicative/meaning systems” so that human communication is “grounded in divine communication,” or, as O’Donovan describes it “from God’s true speech flows all possibility of true human speech.”…

…I suggest that divine communicative acts are persuasive acts, containing the three proofs, analogously aligned to the persons of the Trinity. Each divine communicative act involves the inextricably perichoretic contributions of each divine person, yet one might describe those acts in terms of the ethos of the father, being demonstrated in the incarnate logos, with the Spirit moving the hearts and minds of the audience as divine pathos. So, as a communicative act of God, consistent with his character, the incarnation of the logos, and his death on a cross express the ethos of God, who also works in the hearts of the recipients of his communicative act to produce appropriate emotional responses (either hardness or softness of hearts) as divine pathos. In communicating through Scripture, to and through people in particular times and places, using appropriate and common mediums and genres, and through the incarnation itself, God “aptly” accommodates himself to his audience and situation.

Basically, all our communication, true or otherwise, is a reflection or refraction of the way God communicates and uses mediums. This is especially true when one considers the incarnation of Jesus – and what that does with humanity as a medium. Which we’ll get to below. First we’ve got to look a little bit at what humanity, especially the ‘mind,’ is and to do that we’ll do a little run through the Biblical story…

A Biblical Theology of Personhood: Heart, Mind and Image

The best way to develop a theological framework for something like what it means to be a person with a changing brain, is to start with Biblical Theology – and see how the idea of personhood develops – I think there are three interesting ‘human’ threads – the heart, mind, and image – that we can pull together to help us understand what the Bible thinks about your mind being rewired into an externalised social hive like thing (I don’t want to use brain and mind completely interchangeably – a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff out there makes a slight distinction between them).

The Bible talks of personhood in a whole heap of ways – but the ones that are particularly pertinent for this little exercise are to do with the state of our hearts and minds (a sort of overlapping mishmash of desires, objects of worship, and the thinking that frames our actions), and the image we present to the world as we live out those desires.

The first thing we learn about humans is that we’re created ‘male and female, in God’s image’ – made in the image of the God who is a plural (he says “let us”), but a singular entity as people who are designed to relate to each other (Genesis 1). Humans were then given a job to do. Adam and Eve were to be God’s images – his representatives (and probably something like his ‘idols’) in his Garden Temple. There’s a really nice thread in the Bible that starts at Eden, weaves through the Temple, and ends in the New Creation – that involves a Garden, flowing water, precious stones, and God’s people. Adam is also meant to “work and take care of” the Garden – and the Hebrew words used in Genesis 1:15 are later used of the priests in the Temple. Part of his job – presumably where he is showing that he’s a chip off the old block – is speaking to name the animals, just like God spoke to make the world and create the animals. Communication is part of what it means to be made in the image of God – and being made in the image of God means we have a function that communicates something about God as people look at us. Images are mediums. People are mediums. We all carry messages about the things we live for – the image that is imprinted on our hearts as we live and relate to other people.

The things we think about and the way we think shape our lives. Contemporary neuroscience is catching up with thousands of years of Christian (and Jewish) theology. We shouldn’t be shocked – as Christians – to learn that we can alter our brains by the way we live, and alter the way we live by altering our brains. We should expect it. It’s foundational – we’ll see in the next post that many of the ways we might go about deliberately changing our brains for the better are also part and parcel of a Christian way of life.

At the heart of humanity’s rejection of God’s rule, in the events of the Fall, is the desire to be like God ourselves – not to bear God’s image, but to bear our own image, to shape our own lives. The serpent’s deception cunningly attacks the very heart of our created being.

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” – Genesis 3:5

Adam and Eve were already created to be like God, the desire the serpent awakens is the desire to set the communication agenda for one’s self.  The result is a breaking of the ability to carry God’s image – Adam’s son is made in Adam’s image (Genesis 5:3), and a darkening of the human heart so that it’s “only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. – Romans 1:28

I think Paul, in Romans 7, is talking about the frustration of being someone made in the image of God who lives with this darkened heart brought about by sin.

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” – Romans 7:21-25

Our minds – as created – long to break free of the shackles of our broken human nature. When a bunch of people whose humanity is broken like this, get together as broken humans, with darkened hearts, in social networks, using the language they were created to use as people made in God’s image – they no longer work to point people to God, like they were created to, but to their own images and interests. So we get Babel.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Genesis 11:1-7

The people who went to build this tower – using new technology they had created (bricks and mortar), and the language that united them – tried to turn themselves into gods and use their created technologies that were new and mythically permanent to try to make a name for themselves, but their plans were shattered and they were scattered.

“Rather than using their creative powers to honor God as Noah did, the people of Babel wanted to bring glory to themselves. Rather than live in dependence upon God (as Abraham will in the coming chapters), they tried to achieve complete autonomy from him… At Babel, we find humans creating a city as their anti-garden and a tower as an image to themselves.” – John Dyer, From the Garden to the City

We shouldn’t be surprised that as we interact with created things that have the potential to either serve our idols, or become idols themselves, those things rub off on us a bit.

“We are molded and formed into the image of whatever shapes us. Here wisdom warns us that not all technologies are created equal in this regard.”

“The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace.” – Tim Challies, The Next Story

The problem with being conformed into the image of something hollow and empty is that it leaves you hollow and empty, and it never quite lives up to the promise. David Foster Wallace gave a famous speech This Is Water to a bunch of college graduates. In it, though he wasn’t a Christian, Foster Wallace said:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.” – David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

The connectivity that Facebook offers – the boost to your ego that keeps you coming back – it’s the same hollow and empty shadow of Christian relationships, or the eternal self-giving relationships in the Trinity. The effect it has on your brain is a shadow of the effect that participating in those social networks has. And participating in those social networks – the church, and being connected to Jesus via the Holy Spirit – is possible because of how the Triune God employed communication mediums. It’s this social network that should reshape our brains, and help us to avoid having them reshaped by other stuff as we manage to be in the world but not of it.

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is pretty useful for thinking about how we share in a deeper social network if we follow Jesus.

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

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory,the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” – John 17:15-24

That’s a nice bookend to John’s prologue, quoted above. Jesus – God’s word made flesh – became a human. Truly human. Sharing all of humanity’s potential pitfalls and foibles. Entering a broken world, and yet he managed not to be broken by sin, while choosing to be broken for us.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15

Jesus became a communication medium, he used communication mediums, and rather than being conformed into the messy “myth” or narrative of the human condition – he transformed the narrative and rewrote the myth – so that if you want to be human like Jesus was human – through the cross and sharing in his death – you too can be transformed. This has to change the way we use communication mediums – and I’ll suggest that it does. In the next post.

The story of the Old Testament, and the promise anticipated that is fulfilled in the New, revolves around broken humanity’s inability to focus mind and heart on God, as they should.

Israel was called to be a nation of priests – a nation that represented God to their neighbours – and the tool they had for doing that was the Law. God’s word.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19:5-6

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” – Deuteronomy 4:5-6

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. – Deuteronomy 11:18

That didn’t work so well. So God had to intervene… first with a promise…

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people. – Jeremiah 31:31-33

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

And then he intervened again with the Holy Spirit – which does something profound to the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus – and works to conform them into his image.

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had – Acts 4:31-32

Paul shows how the renewing work of the Spirit as a result of Jesus’ work on the Cross, and our union with him – which brings us our justification and sanctification (makes us ok by God, and works to make us like Jesus), brings about a new humanity – a new link between heart, mind and image.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

We become part of the ultimate mind-rewiring social network . Our hearts and minds are rewired to match up with the heart and mind of God. Suddenly we’re able to communicate with God again.  This is the ultimate socially networked ‘hive mind.’ The Holy Spirit has incredible power to connect us with other people to make us more like Jesus.

Romans 12 is, I think (along with Philippians 2), an incredibly prescient passage for this whole idea that your brain is altered by the company you keep and the mediums you use to keep it. It, along with the incarnation of Jesus, provides an important framework for responding to competing influences on your head, but it also spells out what the ideal Christian social network looks like… people acting as one. Sacrificially giving of themselves for the sake of others. Just like Jesus does as, a person of the Trinity, at the cross.

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

Here’s why Christians should be a little wary of the impact Facebook can have – the world we live in isn’t neutral. It has a pattern that we are naturally conformed into – a pattern of behaving and communicating – culture – created by people whose lives are consumed by things that aren’t God. Who bear the image of things that aren’t God. People who are broken. Facebook is part of the “pattern of this world” – it promotes and rewards self-seeking behaviour. Facebook isn’t neutral because the world isn’t neutral. But that doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t use it – in fact, in the next post I’ll argue that we should, using Jesus becoming human as the framework.

As Christians – we shouldn’t be surprised that groups of people work together to rewire our brains, and that communication mediums play a part in that – but we should be careful about what the communication air we breath in our hyper-connected world is doing to us.

We should be careful about what happens when a bunch of people gather with a common language to share a platform that is designed to bring glory to people, not God. Forewarned is forearmed.

We should be excited about being part of an incredible network of relationships – joined with God, by his Spirit, as his children, being transformed into the image of Jesus, and joined with other Christians, by the Spirit, as brothers and sisters united around the ultimate act of self-sacrifice – and that excitement should be something we seek to spread to others.

Here’s Paul’s solution to avoiding being conformed to the patterns of the world – living sacrificially and chasing humility has always been counter cultural…

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” – Romans 12:3-5

Or, restated in Philippians 2…

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus – Philippians 2:1-5

Paul’s hope for the Roman church was that they’d be a social network with a hive mind… changed by God to do what people were created to do – not what the broken world made them do…

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:5-6

Interestingly – this sort of integration between mind and relationships is a pretty highly sought after type of neuroscientific “well-being” – we’re much more likely to be able to make deliberate changes to our brains if we’re part of such a network where people are committed to each other and to a set of values – in this case being sacrificially loving like Jesus. The Spirit has a big role to play in changing our thinking – because naturally we’d never focus on God – but Christianity, as described in the New Testament, works from a neuroscientific framework.

Paul was basically a neuroscientist before neuroscience existed. Probably because neuroscience is simply describing the way God created us to function, and the way we function as image bearers of whatever it is that we focus on bringing glory to with our minds, hearts and lives.

 

 

An unapologetic plug for Unapologetic

I started reading this book last night. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

I’m only two chapters in – but one of those chapters is just about the best chapter on the human condition I’ve ever read.

It is sensational. It’s brash. It’s frenetic. It’s honest. It’s compelling.

The writing moves like a bullet train, but hits like a freight train. It’s a dizzying stream of consciousness treatment of what it means to be human.

Here’s a little video Francis Spufford put together about why he wrote the book.

Atheist mega-brain Alain De Botton called it his book of 2012

“As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.”

Here’s a couple of quotes – they’re potentially offensive – which sin should be.

“If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”

 

The HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling.

 

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there – then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. I’ve found that admitting there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.

 

First you have to go through; and while you do, while you’re struggling with the first raw realisation of the degree to which you’ve f***ed (things) up, in one of the louder or quieter crises of adult life, there is no resolution to be had, no comfy scheme of order to hold on to. The essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting, and this discovery doesn’t propel you to a new understanding of things, it propels you into a state where you don’t understand anything at all. Unable to believe the comfortable things you used to believe about yourself, you entertain a sequence of changing caricatures as your self-image. By turns your reflection in the mirror of your imagination nonsensically grins, scowls, howls, yawns, gazes back inert as a lump of putty: decomposes into pixels that have forgotten the reason for their mutual attachment. Here is a description of the state from a Hebrew poem 2,600 years old: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’

 

For what do we do with the knowledge that we’ve f***ed up, that we no longer make sense to ourselves? Turn to face each other, for a start. A community of acknowledged f***-ups ought at least in theory to be kinder to one another. And there are things we can use our imperfection for, once we admit it: structures that can be built from unreliable parts and yet be reliable themselves, like the constitutional order of the American republic, or the scientific method, or the internet. But there’s a limit to what we can do for each other, a limit to how much of each other’s HPtFtU we can ever manage to bear – even just to bear to hear about – while it often feels as if there’s no limit to how far or how long the ripples of our multitudinous f***-ups can keep travelling, or how intricately they can go on colliding and encroaching and causing collateral damage in other lives. Think of the consequences of John Newton’s HPtFtU, still fresh and vigorous after two hundred years. In this case, and in plenty of others where the harm is ongoing, it wouldn’t even be right to ask for help with the aftermath of doing the harm. Should John Newton’s victims have been asked to make him feel better about what he’d done to them? I think not. We have to attend to justice as well as mercy, and we’re finite creatures, with limited powers to make good what’s been broken. With the best will in the world, we can’t always take the weight of other people’s bad stuff, we can’t often lean in and lift it off them. The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do instead, when we’ve f***ed up, when we no longer make sense to ourselves, is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other. To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one. And we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning. Hello? A little help in here, please?

This sort of anthropology – this understanding of the human condition – this experience – is not uncommon, nor is it beyond the reach of the modern atheist – this reminded me of a David Foster Wallace essay on movie director David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, which is one of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.

“I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real “moral problem” a lot of us cinéastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable.

The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today—better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is “implied by” good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.

DFW says Lynch movies work to make the viewer uncomfortable because they force the viewer to identify with people who turn out to be a mixture of light and dark. But they’re very dark. Which reveals something about us – something like the realisation Francis Spufford describes above.

“And I emphatically do not like to be made uncomfortable when I go to see a movie. I like my heroes virtuous and my victims pathetic and my villains’ villainy clearly established and primly disapproved by both plot and camera. When I go to movies that have various kinds of hideousness in them, I like to have my own fundamental difference from sadists and fascists and voyeurs and psychos and Bad People unambiguously confirmed and assured by those movies. I like to judge. I like to be allowed to root for Justice To Be Done without the slight squirmy suspicion (so prevalent and depressing in real moral life) that Justice probably wouldn’t be all that keen on certain parts of my character, either.”

I submit that we also, as an audience, really like the idea of secret and scandalous immoralities unearthed and dragged into the light and exposed. We like this stuff because secrets’ exposure in a movie creates in us impressions of epistemological privilege of “penetrating the civilised surface of everyday life to discover the strange, perverse passions beneath.” This isn’t surprising: knowledge is power, and we (I, anyway) like to feel powerful. But we also like the idea of “secrets,” “of malevolent forces at work beneath…” so much because we like to see confirmed our fervent hope that most bad and seamy stuff really is secret, “locked away” or “under the surface.” We hope fervently that this is so because we need to be able to believe that our own hideousnesses and Darknesses are secret. Otherwise we get uncomfortable. And, as part of an audience, if a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find some way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible.”

Or, Spufford might offer a third way – one might confront that darkness head on. Which is why that chapter is one of the most compelling things I’ve read on the human condition.

 

Where is Jesus in the Kermit Gosnell trial or the Boston Bombing?

On Sunday I followed up my previous talk in a miniseries called “Where is Jesus now?” with a look at how Jesus is visible in the here and now in images of him.

People. Those who have been transformed by Jesus. Into his image.

I feel like it was an adequate treatment of the question in that Jesus is visible in his church – but I feel like I pulled some punches in the answer that I gave.

It’s easy to talk about being Jesus in the small stuff. It’s easy to talk about being Jesus to other people when they’re moving house – or when you realise how broken you are, and they are… It’s easy to talk about being Jesus as something that’s a little intangible and hypothetical – it’s easy to say that people should be able to see Jesus in us. As we live transformed lives.

But it’s not so easy to see Jesus, here and now, in human tragedies.

The challenge for those who call Jesus Lord, who are being conformed to his image, and who are his image bearers – or ambassadors – is to know how to be Jesus in the awful extremities of life, not just in the every day.

Sure. Figuring out that bearing the image of Jesus means having a life shaped by the sort of sacrificial love Jesus showed at the cross will hopefully help us in big situations if we’re disciplined at living that way in the minutiae of daily life. But a big question we’ve got to answer – and account for, if we’re bearing Jesus’ image – is where is Jesus in tragedies.

Where is Jesus when bombs explode at the finish line of a popular marathon and maim hundreds?

The Westboro Baptists offer one answer.

It’s not a very good answer. There is no image of Jesus in this picture, or in these words. There is no Jesus in the words and lives of the Westboro Baptists. There’s as much Jesus in their ministry as there is in those pieces of toast that sell for thousands of dollars on eBay.

This sort of thing makes you wish that Anonymous would make good on their threats to remove the cancer that is Westboro Baptist… Even if that’s not real justice. And even if there’s a little of the hate (or at least the capacity for hate) that Westboro spew out in all of us… sometimes when we’re condemning them.

But Jesus is in the voices of people who are changed by him – who are called to be his ambassadors – joining together to call Westboro out for what they are. Spokespeople of evil. People peddling the sort of message that might have earned them the label “antichrist” from the guys who wrote the New Testament… Jesus is in the actions of the people who respond in love, rather than standing idly by – or worse – celebrating – when tragedies like this strike. Tragedies that are the result of human brokenness. Tragedies that unite us – tragedies that the world unites to condemn.

I read somewhere that the explosion left people with broken bodies and severed limbs – people who moments before had been taking part in a grand moment, sitting at the finish line of a marathon – the pinnacle of human athletic achievement. There’s something beautiful and pure about sport – it’s one of those parts of life, like music, love, and childbirth, where something magical happens. Something that puts the better aspects of our humanity to the fore… except when people cheat (or play country music).

That’s why it’s easy to spot the tragedy and injustice in this situation that has, as I write, claimed the lives of a handful of people, including a child, and seriously injured many, many others.

It’s easy to speak for Jesus in a situation where everybody is essentially saying the words, and offering the compassion, that those of us who follow Jesus want to be saying. You don’t stand out as different for wanting to see those who have been, literally, torn apart by those explosions, lovingly pieced back together – to have their lives stretch out for many years into the future with only small physical scars to show for this event.

It’s easy to be Jesus – to carry his image – when everyone agrees with what he says. When the media is trumpeting the story on front pages, and at the top of news bulletins, throughout the world.

It’s easy for those in leadership to sound like Jesus when they’re condemning evil and promising to deal with it, and deliver justice for the victims. It’s easy to be admirable and kingly – to be a voice of sacrificial authority and compassion.

But what about when the media is silent – by conspiracy, or just because an issue is deemed to be a non-issue?

Where is Jesus when tragedies are occuring in darkness – rather than in the prominence of an internationally significant sporting event?

Where is Jesus in the story of Kermit Gosnell?

Abortion is a horribly complex issue with all sorts of factors influencing a decision that often comes from a place of trauma and despair and leads to more trauma and more despair. This has never been more true than in the horrible shop of horrors case of Kermit Gosnell.

Where is Jesus in that million dollar backyard abortion clinic that ended the lives of mothers, and untold numbers of unborn babies – and worse – babies who were born. Live. During the abortion process. Only to be, literally, torn apart for the convenience of the mother and doctor. Using stationery. He’s on trial for killing seven babies and one mother – but it’s hard to tell the difference between a baby killed outside the womb at 30 weeks and a baby killed inside the womb at 30 weeks. It’s hard to tell the difference between these seven babies and the thousands of babies Gosnell has killed in completely legal (though horribly conducted) processes in his clinic. Which is why some ethicists argue that infanticide isn’t just ok, but the natural conclusion of legalising abortion. And is probably why pro-abortion reporters have a hard time demonstrating why Kermit Gosnell is a criminal anomaly rather than a participant in the status quo.

It turns out it’s much harder to be presidential when you’re talking about the potential legal murder of babies (Obama’s track record on this issue is pretty disturbing, I’m not expecting him to comment on a case that’s before the courts)… It’s much harder for the media to speak like Jesus in a story like this – as they try to balance their competing agendas. It’s harder to carry the image of Jesus into a situation like this – when people would much rather sweep the whole thing under a rug and forget it happened. It’s much harder to sound like Jesus when the mob is baying for a certain type of blood to match a certain style of lifestyle.

One of the tragedies of the abortion debate is that it’s the product of a culture that rejects the idea that some actions have consequences that we don’t want. If the debate was limited to early term abortions in the case of rape, or genuine threats to the life of the mother, there’d be a lot less heat. Even those situations aren’t black and white. But the goalposts have moved so far from those extremes to questions of convenience that we’re now in a situation where the long term mental health of the mother is said to justify the termination of a human life after the person has exited the mother’s body. It’s not about control over one’s body at that point.

Where is Jesus in infanticide? He’s in the voices of Christians who lovingly point out that we can do better – and who model a better way forward. A way that involves sacrificial love – not a voice of condemnation. A way that involves hope, not despair. A way that involves being Jesus not just to the unwanted babies – but to the mothers. To the legislators. To the doctors. We can do better. We need to do better.

It’s easy to speak for Jesus when what he’d say is obvious and requires no creativity. It’s easy to carry the image of Jesus into a situation where everybody agrees on a way forward.

It’s harder to speak for Jesus, and carry his image, when the way forward requires creativity and thinking outside the box in a completely counter-cultural way.

You can read Mike Bird’s excellent and persuasive piece on why we need to be thinking about infanticide now, not in three years, and I’d humbly submit this piece I wrote last year when those enlightened ethicists calmly essentially suggested that Kermit Gosnell’s actions be normalised as a useful companion piece.

Jesus is in those who speak out for the vulnerable. Who speak against the consensus that is driven by an ideology of “me” – an ideology that dehumanises other lives for my convenience. An ideology that knows nothing of sacrificial love – but only sacrifice of others. Of other lives. With scissors.

I’m sorry. But how did we get to this? We got here by rejecting the progress borne out of almost 2,000 years of people valuing life because Jesus valued life. Valuing life because human life is life made in the image of God with the potential to be life remade in the image of Jesus. You only get to humanism through Jesus.Humanism is that great modern “secular” doctrine which has somehow been white-anted by selfishness where “I” am valuable but fellow humans – including the unborn – are to be discarded when they become inconvenient and its within my power (or rights) to do so. Humanism is a product of Christianity. Cut out Christianity and the foundations for valuing life disappear. And we’re going to wear the cost of that.

We might see a bombing that takes the life of a handful of people – including a child – as tragic, and rightly so. It’s right for that story – that describes how human brokenness can affect something pure and exciting – to be front page news. But somehow the story of a man whose brokenness affected that other pure and exciting human event – childbirth – in bloody, heinous and unimaginably terrible ways – is only worth a mention five weeks into his trial as a result of a sustained outcry.

Somehow we need to be Jesus in situations like this.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to our legislators, and to parents – as Christians were in the pagan Roman empire where child exposure (infanticide) was a daily reality.

Here’s what Tertullian said about infanticide which was part of a Christian led revolution of the practice where Christians would take exposed children and raise them in loving environments – in a way that ultimately led to children being valued.

“But in regard to child murder, as it does not matter whether it is committed for a sacred object, or merely at one’s own self-impulse—although there is a great difference, as we have said, between parricide and homicide—I shall turn to the people generally. How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,—how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs. A maturer age has always preferred death by the sword. In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth…”

Somehow we need to find creative ways to be Jesus to the mothers faced with the horrible prospect of terminating a life because they see no other way forward.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to those who would profit from the industry this produces.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to those who are legislating on our behalf so that people see that it’s ok to make decisions out of love for other people that come at personal cost. Like Jesus did. Somehow.

Somehow we need to help people rediscover the truth that people are made in God’s image, and of value – so that they might take the step to being remade in the image of Jesus, who after surviving an attempted infanticide when he was born, sacrificed himself for others.

It’s all well and good to pay lip service to living like Jesus – and at the end of the day I feel like I did a pretty good job of doing that on Sunday. Paying lip service to the idea that we should take up our cross and follow Jesus so other people see him in us. It’s easy enough to do it when everybody is up an arms. But what about when the rubber hits the road – what about in the face of tragedies and injustices that people aren’t really interested in knowing about?

Who is the one who died so all died?

Right. I’m preaching on Sunday – the second part in a two part series called “Where is Jesus now?”… The first talk will be online some time this week. In the mean time – my answer to this question this week is that he is in the church – his body. That we bear his image. And that people should be able to find him by looking at us (and that being Christ like is particularly tied up in being cross like). I’m getting there from 2 Corinthians 5.

So here’s a question I have. And I’d like your input. So put your thinking caps on.

Here’s the passage.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creationhas come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 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. 20 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. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I’m particularly interested in the first two verses.

These appear, at face value (and as promoted by universalists) to say that Jesus’ death covers every one.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

It seems people universally accept that the one who died “for all” is Jesus, and is the same as the “he” who died for all in verse 15. I think 14 is talking about Adam, and 15 is talking about Jesus. The only good reason I can think of not to think this is that I can’t find anyone who agrees with me yet…

I’m struggling to figure out how 14 helps Paul’s argument if he isn’t really developing it, but repeating it, in verse 15. I think verse 15 is a contrast where a second person has died for all. And I think Paul is using the same comparison between Jesus and Adam that he uses in Romans (chapters 5-8), and 1 Corinthians 15. I think Paul would say that all die because Adam died. So, in fact, Adam also died for all…

Here’s a bit from Romans 5…

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”

17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”

And a bit from 1 Corinthians 15…

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

I don’t understand why this is even a question? The comparison seems pretty obvious, but I can’t find anyone who makes it (I’ve googled a bit, and used my whizz bang Bible software).

“Born this way,” sexual orientation, freedom, and “slavery to the flesh”

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea that the outcomes of my life are determined by my biology – something I have no control over – pretty repulsive. It robs me of my individuality, my identity is chosen for me… who’d want to live like that?

The whole “born this way” juggernaut has been rolling for a while now – championed, most famously, by Lady Gaga and her anthemic Born This Way…

Image Credit: Mashable

I reckon the best bit about Easter Sunday – and the resurrection – is that it kills the idea that “born this way” cuts it when it comes to deciding who we are.

The song isn’t just musically problematic – it’s also both anthropologically problematic and theologically problematic.

The anthropological problems with Born This Way

Let’s take the anthropological issues first – because their solution shows why Christianity is actually one of the most progressive accounts of what it means to be human competing in the intellectual marketplace…

In the Bridge of Gaga’s song, we’re given a comparison between race, gender, and sexuality that many of us take for granted – and each is said to be both innate (something we’re born with), and essential (something that defines part of our essence).

“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
’cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to survive.”

Doing what our genes tell us – what our birth gives us as “default” is something that we should apparently embrace without question as “the right track” which will apparently lead to our surviving (especially if we love ourselves).

That’s a level of biological fatalism that I’m uncomfortable with – and I’m the sort of Christian who takes such a high view of God that I sign up for predestination. I’ve got no qualms with agreeing that people are born with a race, a gender identity, a physical gender, and a sexual orientation, and that these are complicated, and that our society should not just accommodate people with whatever biological permutations and inklings the complex biological sequencing that makes humans humans throws up, but see people as people. Equal. Complicated. Messy. Broken. No matter what state we’re born in – choosing “straight” or “gay” or “bi” or anything as a marker of identity, on the basis of biology is, I think, a silly use of labels. Especially the “straight/not-straight” binary – if you’re going to bring a Christian account of humanity and sexuality to the table – we’re all sexually broken. Anyway, I’m drifting into theology…

When it comes to the “born this way” argument, It’s politically useful to keep trotting this line out when you’re fighting for whatever “rights” or “equality” you want to be tied up with something you’re born with. How can we argue with biology, mother nature, God, or whatever entity we choose to ascribe such a choice, and such control to… Gaga gives God the credit..

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

And we’ll get to the theology later.

But what sort of life does this leave you leading? What about one’s capacity to move beyond one’s station – what about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What if deep down I don’t want my biology.

The whole born this way thing is clearly ridiculous as soon as you throw gender into the mix. If there are two aspects of gender that are biological – anatomy (your bits), and identity (how you are wired to think of yourself) – then which bit wins out? Typically it’s thought to be your identity – because the bits can be chopped and changed. But this is pretty arbitrary… It’s even more clearly ridiculous if we start suggesting that people are born biologically wired to all sorts of behaviours that are socially unpalatable – but that’s where the Bible goes… but again, we’ll get to the theology later…

Anyway. I read this interesting article from a blog called Social (In)queery suggesting maybe, just maybe, the GLBTI community should move beyond the “born this way” trope towards something a little bit more, well, freeing. Something that gives the individual a little more liberty to move away from their unchosen biological tendencies.

“The problem with such statements is that they infuse biological accounts with an obligatory and nearly coercive force, suggesting that anyone who describes homosexual desire as a choice or social construction is playing into the hands of the enemy.”

It’s worth a read. It’s about time people started thinking this way. The idea that we’re slaves to our flesh… err… I mean our “biology” is one of the more depressing outcomes of our modern naturalistic approach to human identity – and it immediately falls foul of what Hume called the “naturalistic fallacy” – he said we can’t say that something is how it ought to be, simply because that’s how it is in its natural state.

Who wants to be stuck being allergic to peanuts if that’s biological and can be fixed. We can’t force everybody to be fixed – that’s an equally dangerous flipside. But denying individuals the opportunity to make decisions about their own lives because we decree they have no choice in the matter because of their biology… Well. That’s an awful form of slavery.

The theological problems with Born This Way

The first theological problem with Gaga’s account of humanity is the idea that because it is “natural” it is something that God says is good.

That’s certainly not true for a Christian understanding of life in the world described by the Bible.

Sure. We were made in God’s image. But that was broken pretty early on. The whole point of the narratives in the Old Testament and God’s repeated use of sexually broken characters, who couldn’t be trusted to keep their sexuality on the straight and narrow (as defined by God at creation – one man, one woman, one flesh), is that all people are broken. That even those who are meant to be most explicitly bearing the image of God can’t. Or won’t. Or don’t. The patriarchs, the priests, the kings – they all stuff up. From Abraham (who pretends his wife is his sister and gives her to Pharaoh), to David, to Solomon… the big characters in the first half of the Bible are clear examples of this.

The OT stuff is relevant because people still want to claim that Paul made up the idea that people were broken, or that God’s image was tainted by what’s called “original sin,” when he wrote Romans. But Romans is completely consistent with every other description of humanity in the Bible. Especially the image of God stuff.

The idea that we have to obey our biology – without choice but with total compliance – is something Paul would describe as slavery. Here’s what he says in Romans 6.

 

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey.

The best thing about Paul’s account of humanity is that he isn’t claiming to be anything other than a broken human himself. In fact – he claims to be just a normal bloke, a human, who experiences a struggle between two powerful internal forces – the residual bits of being a person made in the image of God, and the bits of him that want to serve his biological desires – his selfish genes – the genes that tell him that the way to be truly happy is to “love himself” because he is “born this way”… that’s slavery. Paul doesn’t want to be a slave to his nature (which he says is “sinful” – which he means leads him to do things that aren’t consistent with bearing the image of God)… but he can’t help it. Here’s what he says in Romans 7.

“I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me

Paul is saying exactly what we should all be saying – the idea that we must conform to our biology to be truly happy is a limiting prison that defines our lives, rather than frees us.

We’re faced with two choices – when it comes to our anthropology – as humans. We can conform. Or transform.

We can be slaves to our broken nature – or even just to our biology if we want to reject the idea that our nature could possibly be broken. Whichever way you cut it – this is a form of slavery. Not liberty. If who you are is determined for you, not by you, and you have no choice, that’s awful.

Or we can try to transform ourselves in a positive direction – this might mean taking the path suggested towards biology-free sexual enlightenment described in the link above, or it might mean, if we’re like Paul, looking for some sort of rescue.

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is where Christianity is truly progressive. 

If the resurrection that will be celebrated all over the world tomorrow really happened. In history. If Jesus really is “Lord” – if he calls people everywhere to turn to him for their identity – which is the scope of his claims over people, if he is God, and became man, and died and was raised… If these things are true then the implications for every aspect of our lives – not just our sexuality, not even just our biology – are huge.

And we have a choice. It’s not forced on us – this reality being forced on people would bring the same lack of liberty that being forced to conform to your biological reality would bring. But it’s a choice about who to serve, and where to draw value and fulfilment from – flesh, nature, biology… or Jesus.

Paul might step out of the frying pan of slavery into the fire – but at least he’s making a choice. He says following Jesus is just another form of slavery (to righteousness, not the flesh), but a slavery of your choosing, a voluntary slavery, is, in his mind at least, superior to a slavery you can’t choose.

The delivery Jesus offers – the transformation Paul says he offers – is a stunning account of what it means to be human. To be free from biological obligation. To be free of slavery to things beyond your control. To find your value in something outside of yourself. To find your identity based on choice, not just biological complicity. And to have the image of God not just restored in your life – but renovated. Here’s how Paul opens chapter 8…

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

He starts fleshing out the anthropological and identity implications of this freedom. It changes what it means to be human.

How we think…

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

Our future prospects…

11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Our identity – we’re not slaves, but loved children…

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

Christianity offers a more compelling and progressive vision of what it means to be human because it’s not about conforming to something you can’t choose – that was chosen by the random intersection somewhere in space and time, of two people who carry the biological data that made you, who bring all sorts of genetic baggage, and leave you as a person made in their image – forced to embrace your biology… it’s about being transformed, voluntarily, into the image of the person space and time was created to host – Jesus – and becoming a loved child of God – a God who knew you, planned you, and loved you, before your biology started kicking into gear.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Same Love: the pathos power of music, and what love truly is

Heard this?

It’ll probably hit somewhere near the top of the Hottest 100 today (UPDATE – it got number 15, but it is number 1 on the ARIA charts at the moment).

It’s pretty powerful. It’s catchy. Its mix of perspectives works as a stand alone song, and is intensified in video form, where you get the additional benefit of seeing a young man, presumably the singer’s uncle, find happiness in his gay relationship.

That’s the fundamental premise of the song. Happiness is the ultimate end, and how can we deny someone the warmth and fulfilment a relationship offers.

It’s fairly convincing. Sort of. It’s just a shame it gets so much wrong. At the very least it’s persuasive, in the technical sense, and it got me questioning why I’m more persuaded by a song like this, than by the same premise put forward in dry argument.

For those getting ready to throw stones at me for being bigoted, or a heretic, let me remind you of my position – I am willing to cede the point that so far as our legislation is concerned this is the “same love” – in that it is voluntary, between two free individuals, and because I’m not huge on letting the government dictate what morality is and isn’t, I am not opposed to changes to the marriage act that reflect the wishes of the population – we live in a democracy, after all. But I’m also not willing to budge on the theological question – God says proper sexual expression that is in line with the order he established at creation (before the fall), and is good for the flourishing of humanity, is the kind of expression found in a loving, heterosexual union, for life, where man and woman become one… though neither, as individuals, were “less than one” beforehand – and it’s absolutely ok to be single without feeling like you’re missing out on an aspect of humanity – which this Same Love thing kind of glosses over in its bid for sameness. Pushing same sex attracted people towards heterosexuality isn’t really the answer, showing all people that the ultimate form of love and identity is found in a relationship with Jesus, and the community of the church (and being a community that people want to be part of) is ultimately far more valuable for everyone.

Anyway. Back to why I felt my head moving as my heartstrings were tugged by this song…

Part of the power of music is that as a song is catchy, and as it bounces around in your head, and as the lyrics start to resonate with your experiences and observations of the world, suddenly you find yourself giving assent to whatever conclusions the songwriter offers.

Old Testament theologian Gordon Wenham has some great things to say about the power of music in shaping our ethics, perhaps especially if we sing along to something, via the power of a little speech-act connection where the words we say become the words we think, a little bit of reader-response theory being applied through something called democratisation, where use of the first person can make something feel like it’s about us, and via this reality regarding the value of some sort of performance in shaping our thinking, which he describes in a piece on the teaching value of ritual:

Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do”

Anyway, in a piece called “Reflections on Singing the Psalms,” Wenham makes the following points about how music is perfectly geared to shape our thinking on moral and ethical issues…

“But even mere recitation is a more powerful instructor than listening to stories, commands or wisdom sayings. Listening is passive, indeed the message can be ignored by the listener, but recitation and especially singing is an activity which involves the whole person and cannot be honestly undertaken without real commitment to what is being said or sung…”

Here’s a little on the power of first person – which the song Same Love uses extensively. We become part of the story and identify with the protaganist.

“Another device inviting the worshipper to identify with the sentiments of the Psalm is the use of the first person. The psalmist often speaks in the first person ‘I will bless the LORD at all times’ (34:1). Someone singing or praying this Psalm later is thus invited to do the same… This switch between first and third person encourages the user of the Psalm to identify with the viewpoint of the psalmist. But particularly the use of the first person encourages such identification: ‘The experience of the I of the psalm embodies a religious ideal, whose reality is open to the reader to experience…

And here’s a little more on why music is more powerful than other mediums.

I have already observed that the Psalms differ from other parts of the Bible in that they are meant to be recited or sung as prayers… This involvement of the worshipper in expressing assent to these sentiments makes the Psalms quite different from the other modes of teaching ethics in the OT. The OT narratives were presumably recited by storytellers within the family or in the tribes, but they rarely make explicit their judgments on the actions that are recited, so the moral of the story might have been missed and certainly did not have to be endorsed by the listeners. They could have just ignored the point, as I suspect many listening to worthy sermons often do… When you pray a Psalm, you are describing the actions you will take and what you will avoid. It is more like taking an oath or making a vow… Promises for example change the situation and impose obligations on the speaker and create expectations in the listener. A promise is an example of a speech act.”

It’s powerful stuff – and I reckon Same Love will form a pretty powerful part of the case for gay marriage in Australia, it makes me think we need to do heaps better at writing music that is artistically good for a bigger portion of the world than our congregations on a Sunday. It worked for Luther.

But as powerful as it is – it makes some pretty interesting assumptions about what Christians believe about homosexuality, and about the motives of Christians in shutting down love.

Here’s a little bit from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis themselves…

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing god, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And god loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know

Look – I’m sure reparative therapy (the cure with treatment and religion) has been harmful when people have been forced to undertake it against their wishes by bigoted parents or something… but the only real research I’ve seen that does something like a longitudinal study, by Jones and Yarhouse (it’s a fairly controversial study – as is anything Christians write on this issue), on the effectiveness and effects of such therapy found that it doesn’t actually cause harm, even if it doesn’t always work. And it doesn’t always work – contented celibacy is a statistically more probably result. I’m not sure that this is a “right wing conservative” issue either…

I’m also not sure that for a Christian the idea that something is a predisposition means that it shouldn’t be changed – or at least not acted upon. We call constantly try to challenge ourselves to leave predispositions behind. I’m lazy, I’d say all the evidence suggests this is my predisposition. That’s bad for my ability to be productive. We do this all over the aspects of our person, identity, and personality – without being accused of “playing God” – and the notion that “predisposition makes right” is patently impossible to demonstrate as soon as you throw in an example of someone who is predisposed to doing something heinous. The Christian account of human nature which sees us as simultaneously “children of God” made in his image, and broken by sin, such that the child-God relationship needs restoring through Jesus, the true child of God, means we can simultaneously say God loves all his children, while he punishes some for the broken relationship, and the broken acts that result. You don’t need to paraphrase the Bible to find this either. It’s right there. Especially in Genesis and Romans, but also in Psalms – the Bible’s biggest insight into what it means to be human but want a relationship with God.

There are some great bits about the song – it really nails why we need to be careful in how we speak of those who are homosexual in orientation, and who identify according to that orientation. There’s not much to disagree with here – except to say there’s a tragedy that you could easily replace hip-hop with “church”…

If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em
Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins
It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!
Live on and be yourself

That is a powerful reminder – even if it’s feeling the hate somewhat vicariously – that we’ve got to be sensitive and clear when we talk about issues that surround the areas people choose to identify themselves by… The song doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in letting one or two categories of humans be themselves though – Christians who want to disagree with the stance it takes, and perhaps more importantly, those who are same sex attracted who do want to make the choice, free of coercion, to not pursue a relationship with a member of the same sex. That is an ultimate act of “being yourself” – but it’s implicitly, and somewhat explicitly denigrated by this song.

The chorus, where we hear from Mary Lambert, singing in the first person, about her love, who keeps her warm, is where the real thrust of the song’s argument is – we’re talking about denying somebody this love. This happiness. How could we?

And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
I can’t change
Even if I try
Even if I wanted to
My love
My love
My love
She keeps me warm
She keeps me warm

The same sentiment is repeated in the final verse…

“Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up”

Again – he attributes opposition to gay marriage or “equal love” to “fear”… I don’t doubt that some of the negative aspects of the way  those in the GLBTI community are treated is the result of fear, but I’m not sure that’s always true.

Sometimes it’s love.

The love that counts.

Sometimes we do actually disagree with somebody, and say something is wrong, because we love them. It’s not just possible to disagree with somebody and do it with love, it’s possible to disagree with somebody out of a greater love. Sooner or later, to be really loving – we’ve got to stop saying it and keep loving people despite this disagreement. But it is never loving to stay silent.

 

Not all love is the same. That’s why there are five Greek words for love. The song ends with a few little snippets of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage about love (love is patient, love is kind), but there’s a better passage about love in the Bible – one that shows that not all love is the same, and where real love is found.

It’s from 1 John 4… and while Macklemore, Lambert, and Lewis would like you to think that because we’re all God’s children this means everything we do naturally is good – John, who wrote this following passage, also wrote that famous bit of the Bible that describes the manner of God’s love as tied up in the death and resurrection of Jesus – which had to happen precisely because everything we do is naturally bad… anyway that’s there in verse 10 of this passage too.

Here’s 1 John 4 on real love, the kind of love that makes singleness a possibility if we do community well (we need to be much, much, better at this – we need to be very noticeably different from the comments section on YouTube), and makes giving up eros or epithumia (greek words for lust and desire) worthwhile in the pursuit of the true happiness that comes from knowing God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Lance Armstrong, Me and the “perfect story” of redemption

Lance Armstrong has confessed and apologised, which, as we all know, is the first step to a public redemption. He did so with what seemed like as much genuine contrition as possible for somebody who has been pretty much tarnished as a pathological liar – it’s a classic paradox.

He did it to Oprah, who I guess is the secular religion of the public self’s closest thing to both a deity and a confessional…

I can’t help but feel like calling Lance Armstrong “Al” such is the resonance with the classic Paul Simon song – if only his drugs were administered by a roly-poly little bat faced girl…


Image Credit: BBC, Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari, Bat-faced? Maybe. He denies being the administrator of the doping campaign anyway…

The song begins at where Armstrong is now…

“The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard”

He’s also hoping the public will forget about all of this… because of our short little spans of attention… but here’s pretty much the dilemma we face…

“Who’ll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone
He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations”

Armstrong really does risk falling from being the character at the centre of a perfect story – which was part of his rationale for cheating – to being a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard of broken and forgotten men. Especially because the media does enjoy destroying idols almost as much as they enjoy building them up – that’s the celebrity news cycle.

Lance and the broken “perfect story”

Here’s a bit of the transcript

You were defiant, you called other people liars.

“I understand that. And while I lived through this process, especially the last two years, one year, six months, two, three months, I know the truth. The truth isn’t what was out there. The truth isn’t what I said, and now it’s gone – this story was so perfect for so long. And I mean that, as I try to take myself out of the situation and I look at it. You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage, you have children. I mean, it’s just this mythic perfect story, and it wasn’t true.

Was it hard to live up to that picture that was created?

“Impossible. Certainly I’m a flawed character, as I well know, and I couldn’t do that. But what we see now and what’s out there now.

But didn’t you help paint that picture?

“Of course, I did. And a lot of people did. All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. But behind that picture and behind that story is momentum. Whether it’s fans or whether it’s the media, it just gets going. And I lost myself in all of that. I’m sure there would be other people that couldn’t handle it, but I certainly couldn’t handle it, and I was used to controlling everything in my life. I controlled every outcome in my life.

Lance, and Me

I can relate to that. In a lot of ways I am like Lance Armstrong. I’m not really interested in throwing stones at him – in a way I’m guilty for the standards he set for himself. I want my sporting idols to go harder, faster, stronger, and for longer.

I think this bit, where he talks a little bit about his state of mind as he cheated, is honest, and scary – but it’s scary because I can completely relate.

Was it a big deal to you, did it feel wrong?

“No. Scary.”

It did not even feel wrong?

“No. Even scarier.”

Did you feel bad about it?

“No. The scariest.”

Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?

“At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

But you knew that you were held to a higher standard. You’re Lance Armstrong.

“I knew that, and of course hindsight is perfect. I know it a thousand times more now. I didn’t know what I had. Look at the fallout.”

What do you mean by you ‘didn’t know’? I don’t think people will understand what you’re saying. When you and I met a week ago you didn’t think it was that big? How could you not?

“I see the anger in people, betrayal, it’s all there. People who believed in me and supported me and they have every right to feel betrayed and it’s my fault and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologise to people.”

I am Lance Armstrong. I am a wretch – a wretch who wants to be the center of attention. We all are. We all want to be characters in the perfect story, but we’re all deeply flawed.

Lance and Me and the perfect story of redemption

But Lance Armstrong is wrong – he can’t earn redemption – he can’t earn anything back. And neither can we. We’re all accountable – not to the media, not to Oprah – but to the real God. The God who created us. The God who humanity turned on.

The God who authors the perfect story. The one perfect story. The only perfect story.

It’s the perfect story of redemption.

The perfect story of overcoming those flaws.

The perfect story with the perfect character at its centre.

And it’s this perfect story that, to continue the Paul Simon motif – might help Lance Armstrong see “angels in the architecture” it might see him “spinning in infinity” and all it takes – for us to see Graceland (to borrow from another song) – is to say “amen and hallelujah” – I could really spin this out a bit longer with some hackneyed line about Jesus being our bodyguard, who doesn’t always stop us getting into trouble – but gets us out of it… but the story is better than that.

I am Lance Armstrong. I am human. I know what it is to not do the things that I want to do – I have no doubt that when Lance Armstrong says he wishes with hindsight that he’d fought against the culture, rather than pretending to when Hollywood came calling (see his cameo in Dodgeball)… because to err is human… To want to do right is human. That’s what Paul expresses in Romans 7 – our natural state is to be caught up in the tension between wanting to do right, and desperately wanting to paint ourselves as perfect people by putting ourselves on a bit of a pedestal – serving our flesh…

19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

This is what it means to be human. We’re all made in God’s image – we’re all at least partly wired to do good things, which creates a tension because our very nature, tainted by the effect of sin, means that we can’t.

We can’t earn our redemption – because this is a pretty vicious cycle. And Paul sums up the good news like this, in the same chapter…

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The best part of the story, I reckon, is that we’re not just rescued – we’re perfected. By centering our story around Jesus, rather than ourselves, we start to become part of the greatest perfect story. The gospel really is the best story. It’s a redemption story.

It’s a story that unravels the human condition – the human condition that lead Lance to drugs, and leads us to all sorts of bad stuff – that all changes. And the notion of the “good life” and the “perfect story” changes too – because that tension at the heart of humanity starts to disappear. That’s where Paul goes in chapter 8…

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

In Jesus we become part of God’s purpose – and achieve something greater than the sort of unblemished humanity that was around when we were just run of the mill “children of God” when humanity was created. We’re now being “conformed” to the image of Jesus. We have a role model – one who’ll stick around. And we are being made like our role model – the perfect role model. We’re redeemed – and we’ll be perfected, or glorified… We’re not faced with the prospect of being a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard – we’re loved, in three dimensions, by the God who calls us his children.

That’s a heaps better redemption story than anything Oprah offers.

Call it sore losing… but I wish Origin was about the game not the tribal stuff

Cultural anthropologists would have a field day if Facebook walls were physical and people were looking at what happens in May/June in Australia each year with the benefit of 200 years of hindsight.

I love sport. I love league. And I enjoy watching Origin even when my team loses. Which for the last seven years has been a pretty regular phenomenon. I enjoy a bit of the tribal aspect of sport. I get it. But I wonder at what point the “otherising” that goes on alongside sporting success is healthy – both within the Christian community and as an indicator of our culture more broadly. I get that winning is fun. Nobody likes losing, and nobody likes when a team they have some affiliation with – by choice, or by birth, loses.

But it’s a game. A sport. A contest between 17 guys who have been chosen not as representatives of a state and all that it stands for, but as 17 guys who the selectors hope will beat the other 17 guys and provide a modicum of entertainment for the masses. To invest a game of football with inane tribal parochialism is to explain why the intellectual set get dismissive of sport.

If, as Tim Keller suggests, idolatry is what happens when we take good things and make them ultimate things, then for about 6 weeks of the year, football becomes an idol for the vast majority of Queenslanders. Now it may be true that New South Welshman are just as guilty of this – I don’t know, I can’t really remember the last time New South Wales won a series, and I certainly can’t remember when New South Wales won the last series while I lived there. But I think our culture is shifting in Australia to the point where to be an “other” in Queensland, even amongst Christian circles, is an interesting and character revealing experience. It’s also an interesting, and completely non-scientific, exercise to look at what my NSW friends have been talking about on Facebook in the last 48 hours, and what my Queensland friends have been posting.

It’s possible that this is something that should be reflected on with more distance from the event, and the experience, so that accusations of “sour grapes” and hypocrisy are less likely… but from where I’m sitting, reluctantly in the trenches as a New South Wales supporter not really savouring the prospect of a seventh year of defeat, and the parochial vicarious gloating that comes with it, from residents of a state with an in-built siege mentality based on some sort of inferiority complex, a state where an unpopular Premier is lauded for getting up during a natural disaster and rousing the proletariat’s collective spirit with the tearful catch-cry “we are Queenslanders,” as though the post code one lives in is somehow a determinant of character… what’s going on isn’t really healthy (nor is the length of this incredibly complex sentence). Somehow we’ve allowed where we live, and where we’re from, to become an acceptable idol, a point of difference, something that is acceptably the butt of jokes, where to replace the punchline with other differences would probably be in breach of vilification laws around the country.

I’m not really setting out to be a killjoy, nor am I particularly offended by these examples of humour… it’s funny though, every time I say, on Facebook, or in person, that I don’t really care about the result – people call that into question. Sure. I watch the game. I like it better if we win. But I don’t lose sleep over it, and I’m certainly not going to run around producing a bunch of meme styled photos when, as it is historically inevitable, New South Wales eventually wins a series. I talk about it. I post the occasional Facebook status as part of the fun, and sometimes to bait Queenslanders into doing exactly what I’m accusing them of here – buying into cheap tribal parochialism, just so that I can turn the table on them and exert some sort of enlightened cultural superiority in a post on my blog.

Being from New South Wales means transcending the silliness of the short man syndrome that is identifying primarily by the state that you come from.

In conclusion, while I think I can say, without a shadow of hypocrisy, that I don’t care about the game at least in the way that Queenslanders do, I do care about the reaction to the result, and about the bizarre situation where suddenly it’s ok to make jokes about an other on the basis of the success of the people you affiliate yourself with. I am wondering what they say about the human condition, and about our culture more broadly.

That is all.

The Amazing Joe Hockey Movement

The Amazing Joel Hockey Movement is a Christian Comedy Folk band/singer. I thought he was funny when I was in high school – I confess I haven’t listened to him much since…

The Amazing Joe Hockey Movement is the series of responses around the blogosphere to Joe Hockey’s vaguely stupid defence of the notion of Christianity in a speech to the Sydney Institute that was published in extract form in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day. It’s received a fair bit of press coverage. With speculation that he was using this speech to round out his character in order to one day make a leadership push.

The backbone of this speech is the idea that somehow the best place to learn about God is not the church – who take things all too literally – but the vibe. It’s mabo. It’s the serenity. It’s stupid.

The notion that somehow Jesus would be unhappy with the idea of people taking the Bible seriously – which he seemed to do throughout his life – is preposterous. It comes from some sort of social superiority complex that for some reason believes that we’re much more enlightened than those who came before us, and that we can stand in judgment on thousands of years of backwards thinking.

I read an annoyingly superior piece along this vein in Sam De Brito’s new “Building a Better Bloke” group blog. Apparently the idea that Jesus “wasn’t a Christian” should be profound. Newsflash. Jesus was the archetypal “people of God” – Christianity is just the way that concept has been branded since we follow him. That’s a dumb proposition, and it just gets dumber.

Apparently Jesus was not about restoring our relationship with God – you know, the “repent, the kingdom of God is near” stuff… no, he was about:

“These are the real issues Jesus was interested in: POWER, PRESTIGE and POSSESSIONS. He hits them again and again.”

I bring this up mainly because a commenter calling himself “the thinker” made this interesting point in the comments…

“In the same way it is the philosophies we as a culture evolve” – I have to pull you up on this one and refer you to scientific anthropology. This is a common mistake which we humans who accept evolution make all the time. We erroneously assume that culture within human society evolves in a forward manner, the same way as genetic evolution did.

Anthropologically, the scientific evidence is that human culture rises and falls more like a flat sine wave. When American culture crashes it can fall to the same depth as Roman culture when it crashed (or even further). There is NO cultural ’safety net’ for a modern culture which will prevent it falling past a specific level cultural level attained in the past. Also, remember that on a genetic scale we are no smarter as humans than the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Huns etc as evolution takes longer than 2,000 years to significantly improve human brain power.

I thought that was interesting.

Anyway, back to Hockey. While suggesting that Christianity should be all about style – without worrying about substance – he made this odd statement about politics.

“The trend I see in politics is one where personality is winning over the substance that should be at the heart of political life.”

Somewhat contradictory methinks.

For a more astute takedown of Hockey’s statement read this response from Phillip Jensen. Or the letters to the editor that came in in response, or Gordo’s response to those letters. Here’s a snapshot from Phillip Jensen…

But Mr Hockey’s expression of values, with or without belief in any particular god, scarcely defends faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus – the man who is God. Christianity, void of Jesus’ divinity or sin bearing crucifixion – is hardly Christianity. Such a statement is not extremist literalism. The cross, not the golden rule, is at the very centre of Christianity. All religions do not teach the same truth when the death of Jesus is central to Christianity and denied by the Koran.

He noticed that the Opera House is usually playing music inspired by faith. But his kind of faith did not and will not inspire such music. He noticed that members of religious organisations are nearly twice as likely to be community volunteers. But his faith has not and will not lead to more community volunteers. He noticed the decline in religious observance in Australia. But he fails to notice that it is those who take their scriptures seriously that are retaining adherents and growing.