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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.

 

 

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.

 

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?

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).

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.

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 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.

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 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.