Benedict Option or Golden Rule?

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


The Benedict Option? Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see why people are confused. In the same paragraph Dreher calls us to secede and to participate in public life. And this is the tension that drives the book (and arguably the tension underpinning our life as Christians who are ‘in the world, but not of it’). The answer to this tension, and where I think at times Dreher doesn’t quite hold the tension, is that we Christians might not be ‘of’ the world; but we certainly should be for it. There’s a couple of things in this quote, and the book, that bother me in terms of his theologies of art and technology (he values ‘high’ art over pop culture, and ‘local’ low-tech forms of media over ‘high-tech’ globalised forms, and that will be the subject of a future post, another future post will tackle the education stuff he talks about).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is preaching? A conversation with Sam Chan’s Preaching as the Word of God

From time to time I write about preaching. The stuff I write about preaching isn’t necessarily going to be all that interesting to you (and sometimes these posts blow out in length), but preaching is what I get paid to do, so it probably pays to think about it sometimes, and it’s nice to be able to look back on how my thinking has developed over the years.

This is a post about preaching, and more than that, it’s a review of a relatively academic book on preaching, Preaching As The Word Of God: Answering An Old Question with Speech-Act Theory by Sam Chan. This is a very important book on preaching, and if thinking academically about what preaching is, or having a thoughtful academic approach from an academic/practitioner transform your practice sounds like a good thing, then you should read the book before you read the rest of this review.

It might help to think of the question at the heart of this book as the question of whether preaching is like holding up a cricket ball to be examined and understood, or as like bowling a ball with intent. That might help when we get into what speech-act theory is all about.

A primer on how/what I thought about preaching before this book

I read lots of book reviews; and write a few. I have a personal bugbear with book reviews that assess a book through some sort of unacknowledged/unexplained bias and or system; and I have issues with book reviews that don’t seek to use the thing they’re reviewing as a conversation partner; that simply assess a book through a grid and don’t look at how the book might modify the grid, or the grid might modify the book, a good book review — a review essay — takes readers somewhere new because it’s a re-mixing of the ideas of the book through the head of the reviewer. Those are fun. That’s what this is, and it’s what I hope to do whenever I review a book, or I can’t be bothered…

Sometimes I review preaching books like The Archer and The Arrow, Hearing Her Voice, and Saving Eutychus, and I use these books as opportunities to extend the conversation (and my own thinking) about what preaching is (or at least what our churches try to do on a Sunday). I wrote my Masters thesis on persuasive communication and how to do it ethically as well; this was about more than preaching (in that it was about public Christianity), but it also provides a lot of my framework for preaching and thinking through books like this. I’ve touched on it in posts about how ethos, pathos, and logos all need to be part of our preaching, and also about how ‘word ministry’; or the proclamation of the Gospel, is not just the spoken monologue, but can include singing (including the non-verbal communication bits (our pathos and ethos) both music and movement) and other media. I say all this, and link to all these, because nothing appears in a vacuum. I’m about to engage with a new book on preaching, and it’s worth declaring what my assumptions/framework are up front. Here are some of the things I thought about preaching before reading this book, in sum.

  1. Preaching is preaching (the Greek κηρύσσω) when it is the proclamation of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus. Other forms of public speaking are not really preaching, because the preacher acts as the herald of the king. There might be other types of speaking that Christians engage in in public.
  2. Preaching is a corporate act of the gathered body of Christ (ala 1 Corinthians 12) no matter which individual speaks, all are speaking (and engaged in the act) just as when I make words with my mouth, my lungs, vocal chords (and hopefully brain) are engaged. It’s not the act of a special ‘set apart’ priestly mouthpiece from God who speaks to the people of God. It is for both believers and unbelievers because the Gospel is what both believers and unbelievers need to hear (with slightly different rhetorical ends, but it is possible for one piece of communication to say more than one thing to different people at the same time).
  3. Preaching is tied to who we are as the church — we are the body of Christ, we are the bearers of his image in the world (and image bearing is a vocation tied to representing the name and nature of God and his kingdom in his world), and we are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation between humanity and God (2 Corinthians 5).
  4. Preaching is one of the things the church does, along with the sacraments, as the essential function of the church in the world, and the church for the church. The sacraments are also essentially preaching (just with more than words, ala 1 Corinthians 11:26), and it is possible that preaching is essentially the same as the sacraments because, basically, when we gather in the name of Jesus, Jesus promises to be there.
  5. The authority behind any preached word comes from God’s word (it’s that we proclaim), it is the proper explaining of how God’s word in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus, and how Jesus being Lord shapes the way we live now as the people of his kingdom. It also comes from the role of the Church, and via the work of the Spirit. It isn’t human authority, and it isn’t in the hands of an individual, no matter how persuasive they are.
  6. Preaching involves words, but it also draws on (and draws credibility from) the life of our community-in-the-world, and the life of the speaker-in-the-community (our ethos), and our ethos is to be shaped by our message if we want to preach ethically and with integrity. You can’t have words without an ethos helping those words be interpreted and persuasive any more than you can have ‘the word of God’ without the God who speaks. Separating logos from ethos is like trying to separate the persons of the Trinity. Our message is Christ crucified for us, sinners. We preach as sinners being reshaped by the message of the Cross (a message that represents God’s power, but is weak in the eyes of the world). Part of our ethos and our pathos will involve the connection of our words to communication mediums that support the message and help produce an appropriate emotional response, not simply an appropriate rational response (and the medium is the message, so good preaching-as-communication involves thinking about what the best medium to effectively carry our message is, and what mediums (like singing) might support other mediums (like speaking) so that the body might preach Jesus together employing a range of gifts and methods).
  7. Preaching also, in order to be effective communication, involves some sort of listening to God (in his word, that we’re aiming to preach), to the people we speak to — outside the church in order to understand the barriers to the Gospel, and in the church in order to understand where the pull of ‘false gospels’ is being felt, and where people need reassurance and encouragement.

These are the basic assumptions I brought with me as I read Sam Chan’s new book on preaching

A brief overview of Preaching as the Word of God

Like me, Sam Chan thinks preaching is a really, really, big deal. This relatively recent book (based on an older dissertation) takes the reader through what the Reformers, specifically Luther and Calvin, believe about preaching, what the Bible suggests preaching is from the Old Testament to the New, and then gets super fun using speech-act theory to support his conclusion that when preaching really happens (according to a defined set of parameters), God is speaking. When we preach, according to certain criteria, God speaks. Preaching is God’s word.

I like it. I mean, I guess I’ve just outlined a framework where this idea seems relatively uncontroversial. And while there are certain bits of that framework that don’t necessarily get a run in the book, the book doesn’t contradict any of them (as far as I can tell), and I’ve been bouncing some of these ideas back and forth with Sam since finishing the book. But what I really like about the book is not so much the stuff that agrees with what I already thought… no. I like the implications of the way Sam gets there; via the Reformers, the Bible, and speech act theory, some of the stuff he suggests should change how we approach not so much the content of preaching, but the delivery, our intention, and our understanding of what is happening (and of our responsibilities as speakers and hearers). Now. The book is relatively academic, but it’s a fruitful read (and a challenge) for anyone who preaches or wants to be a preacher… since I don’t have any major disagreements with its thesis; indeed, I wholeheartedly agree… so rather than reviewing the book the ‘old fashioned’ way and telling you what it says, I’ll explore some next steps in the conversation from my own dabbling with speech-act theory in my thesis. Sam has been pretty generous as a dialogue partner online so I have some sense that he’s at least intrigued by where this stuff goes… but he’ll, like anyone, have right of reply here.

It’s worth saying that in a year where lots of people are wanting to celebrate the Reformation, preaching was a really big deal in that movement… and preaching of a particular sort. Gospel preaching. And this book is a worthwhile reminder that Gospel preaching isn’t just incidental to the life of the church; in some ways it is the life of the church. One of the things that struck me about Luther as I read his works during college, and again as I read Sam’s book, is that if anything Luther held the preached word as more important than the other sacraments (and I use those words provocatively and deliberately to suggest that Luther essentially treated the preached word as a sacrament where God is present in preaching in much the same way as he is present in the bread and wine). This book is a bracing picture of what preaching could and should be if we approached it in the Spirit of the Reformation, the Spirit of the New Testament, and, arguably, necessarily, in the Spirit of Jesus. Cause it’s ultimately the same Spirit.

What is speech-act theory?

So let’s do a bit of a breakdown of Sam’s argument here and some of its implications. First, it’s handy to get a little bit of a primer on speech-act theory. It’s a theory that when you first hear it, especially as a Christian, just seems relatively obvious. Words do stuff. Spoken words are actions that achieve results (wedding vows are a good example). Separating word and action doesn’t really work in our experience of the world (I’d argue for an Act-Speech theory too… that actions can communicate things, that we as images communicate by being and doing… but that’s far beyond the scope of this piece and you should read my thesis to get some of the thinking there). A ‘speech act’ performs something… in some sense it creates a reality, whether it’s a promise, a proclamation, an order, an invitation, a warning, a thanking, or a greeting (this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Sam does a really helpful thing of regularly summarising his argument so that you stick with it all the way through; what follows under these headings are the numbered summaries of his argument from the book, but I’ve split them into the component parts of a speech act, and then responded a little to advance the conversation (either by agreeing and considering implications, or positing some alternatives to consider).

The Locutor: who speaks on God’s behalf; or who speaks on God’s behalf?

1. God is a God who speaks his word.

2. God raises, commissions, and sends human messengers to speak on his behalf.

3. These human messengers are anointed, gifted, and empowered by the Spirit, who is the author of the word of God.

This whole speech-act thing is great, and these three points are foundational to the argument — but I want to broaden them a little bit… because where Sam goes here is basically to say that the individual preacher has this particular role in and for the church (and that the church is part of commissioning the speaker as a preacher); he suggests that preaching is an individual function, and certainly, in a descriptive account of what happens in our church services where the ‘preaching’ happens, this is true. There is a preacher, and they play this role, and hopefully they’re gifted… But here’s where I want to tweak things slightly — to suggest preaching is a corporate function of the body (working together in its various parts).

What if the ‘human messengers’ commissioned to speak on God’s behalf are coterminous with ‘the church’, that this commission is corporate, not individual; so it’s the body of Christ, which is ‘anointed, gifted and empowered by the Spirit’ and when the one speaks in our gathering, as the ‘mouthpiece’ they speak for the whole body; as part of the body, appointed by both God and the body to speak in this way; so ‘preaching’ shouldn’t just be seen as the job of the preacher, but of the body; and this is a bit of a game changer, because if we conceive of preaching in reformed terms, as Sam wants us to, we conceive of it not as a priestly act of a priest, but as a (even ‘the’) priestly act of the priesthood of all believers; which means the preacher isn’t detached from the body to speak to the body from God, but is, as part of the Body, speaking God’s word to the body and to the world the body is ‘incarnate’ in… which, in practice, means the preacher not thinking of themselves as a specially called individual — God’s gift to the church — but as the person appointed by the body to speak on its behalf and for its good. The ‘body of Christ’ is given life, and nurtured, by the word of God and this nurturing happens, in part, through preaching.

corporate model like this changes, for example, the way the preacher conceives of their task; the task becomes to listen carefully to God’s word, but also to listen carefully to the body (in order to speak corporately). This challenges an evangelical practice where preaching is essentially priestly in a pre-reformation sense; a special commission some how set apart from the life of the body, not from the life of the body. The preacher speaks the word of God, certainly, but it’s like they get amputated from the body of Jesus to do so, and then turn around and speak back to the body. In a practical sense the way this priestly thing works out is that the preacher sees their primary job as speaking for God to the body; rather than speaking God’s words as the body to the world (actively listening to other members, being supported in prayer, expertise, and the enrichment that comes from multiple perspectives from different ages, stages, and experiences of life), and also speaks God’s words to the body for its building up; its mutual edification.

Do I do my job best locked away in an office with the Bible and some commentaries open, typing into a word processor for 30 hours a week, or do I do my best listening to the wisdom of the body talking to others, with the Bible open, and thinking through how the passage best speaks to the diversity of people in the body, and to the world in a way that makes what is being said plausible and engaged, rather than detached and idiosyncratic. Let’s take Paul’s metaphor of the body seriously; and metaphorically — a metaphor is not an exaggeration of the true state of affairs, but an accessible simplification — a sign that points to a greater reality — a ‘simplification’ you use to make something more complex understandable… so when Paul speaks of the church as a body we’re not meant to think he’s over-applying the reality of our union (with Christ, by the Spirit), but pointing to a deeper mystery. And we might, to use Paul’s metaphor, understand preaching — as in the spoken word in the gathering — as the act of the body’s mouth; when my mouth speaks it is connected to my brain, powered by my lungs, informed by my eyes and ears… and representative of the rest of me (and my actions) if my words have integrity.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.…there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” — 1 Corinthians 12:17-20, 25

The Locution: if we’re going to speak the word of God, what do we say?

4. These human messengers do not invent their own message, but receive it from God’s revelation; these human messengers faithfully proclaim this received message by preaching the message without modification.

5. In a general sense, any message received from God would be the word of God. But, in a special sense, as a result of God’s progressive revelation, an important content of the word of God is the Christocentric gospel. In this special sense, the word of God is now not only the word from God, it is the word about God, namely, his Son. This message is continuous with the message of the OT prophets, which was subsequently inscripturated as OT Scripture, but it is also a climactic new message that has only now been revealed through the preaching of Jesus and the apostles, which has now been inscripturated as NT Scripture.

One way of thinking of the locution is that it’s the message; it’s what is transmitted from speaker to audience. But the thing that separates ‘locution’ from other forms of communication is that it is part of a speech-act — it is spoken not just transmitted, or read. The message in this sense starts to include the ‘medium’ which is part locution, part illocution (the next bit); and here’s where some of my thesis intersects with Sam’s work; because in some sense the act of preaching is where the communication maxim “the medium is the message” kicks in a bit (which is from media ecologist Marshall McLuhan); the way this plays out in preaching is that somehow what we locute — the Gospel — is connected to who we are (appointed speakers of the Gospel; God’s ambassadors/image bearers), and in some way the act of speaking, as a dynamic and relational act is a ‘medium’ choice that reinforces the nature of the message (and that it comes from the God who speaks). This also helps speech-act theory integrate with classical ‘oratorical’ theory — where each ‘speech act’ incorporates elements of logos, ethos, and pathos — the locution is in a sense the overlap between ethoslogos and the action of speaking (I’d argue pathos is more caught up in the illocution but not totally removed from locution because we speak words that move our emotions too, not just speak emotionally).

There’s a reason God’s message is best spoken, not just read, that preaching is a thing and we don’t just hand out Bibles. It’s because God is a dynamic and relational God, and somehow our locution and our illocution is an opportunity to model that. Here’s more from the book, and they’re important, because it’s at the heart of Sam’s thesis that preaching is speaking the words of God, that we understand what the ‘word of God’ looks like.

In one sense, Christ is the Word because he is the Word from God; he is the climactic revelation from God. As the Son sent by God, he speaks the Father’s message on the Father’s behalf; as God incarnate, his words are also God’s words. But in another sense, Christ is the Word because he himself is the message. The message from God is about Christ; the referent of the word is Christ himself—his person, work, and message. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament message of eschatological salvation; he is the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God and bring salvation and vindication for God’s faithful people.

Therefore, today, God reveals his message of the gospel to his commissioned, Spirit-anointed preachers through the reading of the word and the proclamation of the word. This word is a Christocentric word, namely, the gospel that calls all to recognize Jesus as the Christ and to live a life of trust and obedience in Christ. In turn, the Christian preacher is to proclaim this Christocentric gospel message, and in doing so, preach the word of God. This message should be consistent with the message of the gospel in Scripture; and the hearers can confirm this by examining the Scriptures.

The question to determine whether or not God’s word is being spoken at this point in a speech-act, according to Sam’s thesis is:

“Does the preacher’s locution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?”

The Illocution: If we’re speaking the word of God how do we say it?

“the illocutionary act is the performance of an act in saying something. It corresponds to the force of what has been said.”

In terms of speech-act theory the illocution is what makes the speech an action (so a ‘promise’ (‘I do‘) not just the words used in a promise (‘I do’) — it’s the difference between me reading aloud the words of an oath on a page and making an oath).

It might be helpful to think of the locution as a ‘ball’ and the ‘illocution’ as the throw. If the locution is the content of a speech act, the illocution is the act itself; the manner in which it is delivered consistent with its purpose and function. So if the ball is a cricket ball the ‘throw’ might, depending on context come from a bowler, a fielder, or a member of the crowd; each ‘ball’ is the same, but the meaning is different because of the context and understanding of the action (one is bowling, one is fielding, one is fetching).

In a speech-act, the locution is what is said; the illocution is how it is said (and what makes the ‘locution’ something more than ‘just words’). It’s partly context that determines this; including our expectations of the locutor (so, neither a fielder or a spectator ‘bowl’… but a fielder ‘becomes a bowler’ when they give their hat to the umpire and take their mark). It’s ultimately context that enacts the speaking of certain words to make them a ‘speech-act’; the words ‘I do’ become a vow in a wedding, rather than simply an expression of my opinion, or description of my actions (“do you eat chocolate?” “I do” is very different to the act of saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony but the same words). This context also includes things other than who the speaker is, who they’re speaking to (and the recognised conventions this creates), it also includes intent. So, to pick up the cricket analogy again; we know a ball is bowled in cricket when the bowler bowls to the batsman, and there are rules around what is recognised as a legitimate bowling action (behind the crease, between the popping creases, below the shoulders of the batsman), there’s also a certain force required and the intent to get the ball into play, but there’s still, in terms of how we assess the bowling, a required interaction with the batsman (this is where the next bit, perlocution, comes in). An over in cricket is not just six balls, but six balls bowled from bowler to batsman. A speech act is not just words, but words spoken in a particular context with a particular force.

It’s useful to think about illocution as the thing that makes you feel the weight of the locution so that it is an action (a bit like how ethos and pathos intersect in the old rhetorical triangle). And one act of speaking might have multiple illocutions; multiple purposes, and this depends on the contexts. A ball bowled in cricket is bowled to terrorise a batsman, to be hit by a batsman, to get a batsman out, to excite the crowd, to encourage the field, and to please the captain; the same ‘ball’ bowled can do all these things. And it’s the same with a speech-act; there can be multiple illocutions at play. And Sam argues this is true in preaching. It’s not our job simply to say ‘ball… ball… ball’… we actually want the ball to do something. Here’s Sam’s next point:

 

6. The human preacher preaches with a divinely commissioned intention, which is an expression of God’s purposes, on behalf of God; and God achieves his purposes through this human proclamation.

This is where we move from content to method; and though experience listening to some sermons that don’t nail the ‘gospel message of Scripture’ might suggest otherwise, there’s nothing particularly controversial in Sam’s thesis until this point. But this is where things get interesting. There are some popular approaches to preaching that see our job simply as describing the word of God propositionally; our job is to simply show what God’s locution is; one way this happens is in a certain sort of expository preaching.  Sam suggests this evangelical sacred cow is not all it is cracked up to be; that it may, in fact, be undermining what preaching should be. He’s quite charitable about the theory behind expository preaching, but asks a legitimate question about whether it might actually be imposing a pretty modern construct on a text that had a purpose apart from the delivery of authoritative propositions. He suggests it’s possible that our approach of turning the Bible into propositions (bits of data), or put another way, treating it as a ‘locution’ not a dynamic speech-act where illocution matters too, might rob it (and our preaching) of its speech-act nature (a way of thinking about this might be to say that when we do this the Bible, God’s ‘living and active word’ simply says something, but if the speech-act thing is captured in our reading and preaching, the Bible does something again, and the challenge of our preaching is that our spoken words don’t just say something, but also do something).

“The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasises the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself. However, this approach is not without problems… often, this approach is somewhat dependent upon a “propositional” view of revelation, for the preacher is essentially gleaning ideas, concepts, principles, and propositions from the scriptural text. But this reliance upon a “propositional” view of revelation would share some of the weaknesses of such a reductionist approach. Further, much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles. Is such preaching, then, committing the so-called “heresy of propositional paraphrase”?

Sam says expository preaching reduces the speech act to locution, so the word of God in the sermon is basically the bits where the Scripture is quoted, paraphrased, and explained, and “there is little attempt to recapture the illocutionary act of Scripture.” So sometimes, for example, when we preach a passage of narrative with the ‘three points and an application’ model, and we do this by picking out details and ‘facts’ rather than by telling the story, we rob the passage of its function (and thus, it’s meaning and purpose). He suggests, using speech-act theory and this concept of illocution, that we should not just be transmitting the locutionary content of Scripture, but that we should be seeking to preach in such a way that the purpose of a particular piece of scripture is achieved in our speaking; our illocution when we teach a passage should line up with its illocution (especially in the context of the whole Bible, so as it helps bring the Gospel to people in different contexts to produce different actions (promise, threat, etc) and these actions are shaped by the text. There’s a responsibility here not just for the ‘mouth’ of the body; the preacher; to speaking well, but for the rest of the body (and other hearers open to the premise that God might be speaking) to be playing a role “to check that the locution of the proclamation is indeed identical to that of Scripture.” Expository preaching makes this a bit easier because all the audience has to do is make sure the preacher is saying what the text says, not also doing what the text does, but the challenge of Sam’s thesis (which draws on the methods of preachers in the Bible, not just their content), is to aim not just to ‘teach’ the locution (the Gospel) but to bring it to bear. We don’t just hold up the cricket ball so all might see it’s a ball, we bowl it with the force required to achieve a purpose; God’s purpose, and just as a ball well-bowled achieves a variety of purposes depending on who you are relative to the ball (batsman, bowler, fielder or spectator), the preached word does this too, as Sam puts it:

And not only that, it must recognize that there is a variety of illocutionary acts that accompanies the single locutionary act of the gospel. In the proclamation of the apostles, the gospel message (“we preach Christ crucified”) is accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces. For example, it is a promise to those who believe, an urge to repentance to those who don’t believe, a blessing to the faithful, a curse to the unfaithful, an encouragement to those who suffer, a warning to those about to fall away, a command to persevere, an assertion of a historical fact, an explanation to those who ask, an apology against the attackers of Christianity, and so on… there is a variety of illocutionary forces at the level of a single passage of Scripture, the level of a single book and its genre, and at the level of the entire canon. Thus, it also follows that there is a variety of illocutionary forces that accompanies the single locutionary act of the preached gospel. And a holistic understanding of preaching will appreciate this. In other words, it is important to maintain the distinction between the locutionary and the illocutionary act; for although there is only one locutionary message, there can be multiple illocutionary acts that accompany it. Thus, an approach that emphasizes one particular illocutionary act, such as “teaching” or “explanation,” and equates this with “true preaching,” has unfortunately confused the distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary act, and has become reductionistic in its use of illocutionary forces.

…when the gospel was preached by Jesus and the apostles, it was accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces—promise, exhortation, encouragement, command, warning, blessing, assertion, explanation, judgment, etc. Thus, here, the preacher has a choice of a variety of illocutionary forces with which to preach the gospel; the preacher is not restricted to only one particular illocutionary force. In the same way that Jesus and the apostles used different illocutionary forces for different audiences and contexts, the contemporary preacher might also choose to use different illocutionary forces. Therefore, we cannot say that there is only one illocutionary force that is necessary for the preached gospel to be the word of God; there exists a variety of illocutionary forces that may accompany the preached gospel as the word of God.

 

So Sam’s question about whether a bit of preaching is a speech-act where God is speaking is: “Does the preacher’s illocution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?” What is the illocutionary force?”
And it’s useful to think, briefly, about how we go about doing this, how we illocute, not simply locute. How we preach the purpose of the passage not just display the passage. How we approach narrative as narrative, not simply as a text to turn into propositions (Sam follows Kevin Van Hoozer in suggesting that both genre, and the passage’s place in the ‘canonical’ context of God’s grand ‘gospel centred’ acting in the world is really important for understanding the illocutionary force of a passage). We don’t just read Old Testament law as commands for us, but as part of the canon that shows how these laws help us understand the story of Jesus, so the illocutionary force isn’t in making people feel the weight of obedience to a command from the Old Testament, but in understanding the function of these commands.
But part of capturing and expressing the force of God’s word might also include things we might describe as media, or delivery decisions (just as a bowler at the top of his run considers pace, and line, and length, and swing, and seam position): do I shout, or whisper? What tone or expression or emphasis do I use? What body language do I employ? How do I distinguish in manner between, for example, a threat and a promise? How do I shape the delivery of the message in order for it to be heard according to its purpose (this leads into the next bit, the perlocution)? It also includes questions of audience like ‘what is my relationship to these people? How will they understand the nature of these words?

I know a promise is a promise not a threat, even if the same words are used, because somehow I’m geared to feel the difference not just by the words used, but how they’re used (and who is using them).

 

The perlocution?

The perlocutionary act is the performance of an act by saying something. It corresponds to the effect of what has been said.

The question at this point is: how much responsibility should the preacher take for the response to the preached word?

Can we talk as though we are responsible for the response to the preached word, or as though the response to the preached word should be part of how we measure the efficacy of preaching? Should we, for example, determine how good a preacher is by how persuasive they are? By how many people are persuaded? Or be aiming at persuasion at all?

And if the answer to the first question is ‘none’, then how much should persuasion be a factor in our preaching (how much should we think about the result for the hearer, not simply the act of speaking (locution and illocution).

For Sam, because of a theology I share, which sees God responsible for the effect of the preached word (and the effect produced by the Spirit), the answer to the first question is that God is ultimately responsible, and the speech-act is complete, so far as the speaker is concerned, with illocution, rather than the effect. The perlocution is the responsibility of the Spirit working in the hearer. Here’s Sam’s point 7:

7. Nonetheless, because of God’s “hidden” intention, and because of the different roles of the preacher, the hearer, and the Spirit, the ultimate result of preaching among the hearers is not a criterion for determining if the word of God is preached. Thus, the status of the preached word as the word of God is independent of its results. It is precisely because the preached word is God’s word that the preacher is not responsible for the hearer’s response and the hearer is accountable to God for his or her own response.

And a couple more quotes to flesh out the summary of his position above:

“The aim of preaching, as I have argued, is to perform a speech act on behalf of God…  in order to perform a speech act on behalf of God, the preacher’s locution and illocution are to correspond with God’s locution and illocution.”

“The distinction between the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary act is crucial. The preacher is responsible for the illocutionary act, which in turn is dependent upon the locutionary act. But the preacher is not responsible for the perlocutionary act. Instead, it is the Holy Spirit and the hearer who have the dual responsibility for the perlocutionary act, that is, belief and obedience.”

He draws on Paul’s words regarding his own approach to preaching (and ministry) to conclude:

“The proclaimer cannot coerce, manipulate, or force a hearer to believe or obey. That is, although the proclaimer must ensure that the gospel is illocuted, the speaker cannot ensure that the hearer responds with faith and repentance. The hearer is responsible for his or her response, not the proclaimer. Thus, a proclaimer is to illocute “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) without resorting to “wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 2:4), that is, to coerce or manipulate. For that would be to confuse the illocutionary with the perlocutionary act.”

 

Now it would be possible to take this point of Sam’s on board and therefore not see preaching in terms of its fruit at all; or even to not aim to persuade as the human vessel of God’s speech. And exactly how this works out in the wash is one area where we hit the limits of Sam’s book (it can’t do everything), but also where my thesis picks up; I wrote mostly trying to figure out how we should be God’s communicating people in the world — how we might bear his image and so glorify him — and then approach worldly methods of communication like rhetoric, oratory, and public relations; how we might ethically engage in persuasion using some of these tools; rather than engaging in manipulation; how we might recognise the theological limits of our involvement in producing a result, not have our faithfulness measured by results, and yet still seek a result, and see results as a good thing to humanly pursue, and even to celebrate.

Here’s some stuff from my thesis:

“Most communicative acts, as actions of the sender, are produced for a purpose; this purpose may simply be to transmit the information, but usually the purpose is to produce a “perlocutionary effect” – such communication aims to bring sender and receiver to a common understanding of the information, and apply its implications. At this point communication becomes an exercise in persuasion, and while the sender cannot dictate the recipient’s response, they can “strategically” consider the desired perlocutionary effect in the communicative act. This consideration will affect the choice of content, genre, and form within certain “rules of the game,” supplying a context such that both sender and receiver are aware of the implications of the act.”

I go on to argue in this thesis that speech-acts that are open about their intent to persuade; and the ‘perlocution’ they intend to achieve are not manipulative, and are actually more ethical than communication because, in acknowledging the intent up front (or through genre/convention — and I think a ‘sermon’ carries with it a particular contextual expectation where the listener, Christian or otherwise, expects to be persuaded to act according to the word and authority of God mediated through the preaching). The key control here is that the what (the locution: in this case the Gospel) is thoroughly embedded in its connection to the who is speaking (the locutor: in this case, as above, the preacher/church/God); and for it to be ethical (for the ‘ethos’ component to work; the perlocutionary affect needs to reflect the life, or desired life, of the speaker, not just the audience).

Paul also says:

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

And this has often been used to suggest that Paul swore off persuasion the way it was practiced by first century orators; I’d counter that this is actually a rhetorical practice/strategy and ‘commending himself’ is actually a perlocutionary effect produced by his strategy (the sort of effect he relies on elsewhere when he says ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’). But. We’ve got to hold this alongside Paul’s statements about his own perlocutionary goals in his ministry (which includes his preaching); and it’s worth noting that his goals are to produce people just like him in their shared being just like Jesus — people who imitate him as they imitate Christ; but also people who by the Spirit are brought into the body of Christ-in-the-world — the church… the messengers who are commissioned to live and carry this message.

Like Sam, Paul suggests the heart of God’s locution (or his message as one speaking God’s word to the world (as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), is the Gospel. His illocution is shaped by the Gospel too, inasmuch as it includes not just shaping his illocutionary speech-acts with the Gospel (renouncing ‘powerful’ and ‘underhanded techniques), but also shaping his ‘act-speeches’ — his ethos — around the Gospel. Here’s how the Gospel shapes Paul’s locution, illocution, and understanding of perlocution in his preaching speech-acts from 2 Corinthians 4… and this does support Sam’s conclusions about who produces the perlocutionary affect:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ… 

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. — 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 10-14

But this belief that it is God who will raise us from the dead by his word, and bring ‘light to our hearts’ so we might know the power of the Gospel truly; free from blindness, does not stop Paul believing that somehow he is involved in securing a perlocutionary affect, and so aiming his communication to that end.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul spells out why he preaches the Gospel the way he does in Corinth (despite their preferences for flashy persuasive speech from people they pay to influence (orators). And having spelled out why he does not take up certain rights as a preacher, he says:

 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” — 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This becoming is to produce a perlocutionary affect — it’s to win as many as possible. It’s also a reflection of the Gospel (parallel this with Philippians 2 and Jesus ‘making himself nothing’). How he understands himself (and the church) as ‘locutors,’ his methodology, his message, the force he gives it (in 1 Cor 1-4, and 2 Cor 3-5) and his intended results, and how that shapes the other elements so that they are in harmony. We see Paul shift methods and emphasis in his locution (and illocution) throughout Acts based on who he is speaking to (so compare his preaching in Athens, before the Pharisees and Sadducees, and before Felix or Festus), though the perlocution he aims for, under God, in this shifting strategy and method seems consistent, that people might know Jesus as Lord. And this is, I think, part of why he sees himself speaking the word of God (and it’s why Sam’s book is a good one for us to grapple with).

To pick up the cricket analogy, this means that while we expect good bowling to produce wickets, and we value wickets, and bowl with the intention of taking wickets, we measure the bowling on the effort of the bowler, on the quality and consistency of the balls delivered, their integrity within the team context and that they bowl in such a way that wickets are a reasonable expectation based on past experience and a reading of the present conditions. It’s not wickets being taken that determines if a bowler is bowling for Australia, but that they are selected to represent our nation and are doing what they are appointed to as part of the team (and on our behalf).

This is a great book on preaching not just because it is carefully thought through and argued, and not simply because it brings some fruitful modern insights into language and communication to give us a sense of what is happening as we preach, but because it reminds us as hearers and speakers of God’s word that preaching is powerful, and more than this, that God is a God who speaks and life happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

10 Reasons The Plausibility Problem is the book the church needs on homosexuality

It’s a few months now since my brother-in-law Mitch and I reviewed Born This Way, a book touted as the book the church needed to help us think through ministry to same sex attracted people. It’s fair to say we disagreed with the approach the book took. Now. Months later. Here is the book we both think is the book the church needs on homosexuality. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem. And here are 10 reasons why we believe this is the case.

But first. On book reviews and conversations

Before getting into the meat of the review, I (Nathan. To be clear, when this post uses “I” it’s Nathan, when it is “we” it is us) just want to make a couple of observations about the widespread criticism our first review received from people because it didn’t treat the book on its own terms (or on the author’s terms). I’m tacking them on here because they are actually pertinent, in some way, in terms of why we think this other book is the book for our times.

Before we get too far along — the original review of Born This Way has been updated a couple of times since posting, one of the significant updates was to include a link to a review of Born This Way by Liberty Inc’s pastoral worker Allan StarrBorn This Way’s author Steve Morrison has responded to this review with a gracious counter argument

I guess the question I’m still grappling with, and I think Mitch might be too, is when a book is billed as “the book the Church needs” on an issue, just how much of that hyperbole should be allowed to go unchallenged? How much should we review a book on its own terms, and how much we should review it in terms of the way it is being used or positioned in a wider conversation. A conversation that we are passionate (and interested) participants in?

It was both the nature of Born This Way, and the nature of the feedback to our review, that made me quickly come to grips with a couple of generation gaps that I don’t think us Aussie reformed evangelicals are bridging. These are labels that apply to Matthias Media (the publisher), Steve Morrison (the author), and Mitch and I as reviewers. This is the sort of tribe we all belong to, with a few geographic and denominational quirks… my observation is that there’s a generational turning point where people either generally agreed with our review, both in its substance and style, or thought it was terribad — the main criticisms of these older types were that we did not take the book on its terms and assess it accordingly, and that we wrote such a substantial critique, posted it online, and included stuff like the promotional material around the book in our treatment of the book as though they have equal weight. On this last point, I wrote something a while back about how the media is shifting to talking about a thing as though it’s the main thing, to talking about and participating in conversation, as though that’s the main thing… all of this is to say I think there are a couple of clashing worldviews operating, even within this ‘tribe’ we all belong to, which explains many of our problems with the book. I think the reason there’s such a sharp contrast between people of profoundly different demographics is because a shift happened somewhere in the last 40 years or so (this figure bleeds out at the margins — there are older people who go one way, and younger people who go the other— because it’s an environmental thing too), and this shift has two significant factors for the conversation surrounding these books, and homosexuality more generally:

  1. People grew up, and were educated, in a society that is profoundly post-modern.
  2. People on the younger side are what media sociologist types call ‘digital natives’ — a loose demographic grouping of people who believe that media is democratised. And that eyeballs and internet attention are the metric that matters. The people who watch a video online matter as much as the people who read a book, so long as they are participating in the online conversation. The implications of this are that anyone can have a platform, a book is part of a conversation just as much as a blog post, a video, a Facebook discussion — and more people might interact with the latter than the book itself. Anyone can have an opinion — expertise is ok, but not essential, ‘truthiness’ in a sense that something resonates with our experience or feelings is more compelling than traditional ‘authority’ (the sort that might come from publishing a book).

Which dovetails nicely with the thrust of our critique of Born This Way (apart from the damage we think it does to the people it talks about). Born This Way is a thoroughly modernist book written to an increasingly post-modern world. Our review was a thoroughly post-modern review of a modernist book (we broke almost all of author John Updike’s rules for graciously critiquing a book — though I think there are some new rules for people graciously reviewing books that might fit nicely with the shift described here, and I suspect giving the author a continued voice in the conversation — should they want it — is a big part of graciousness).

Born This Way’s approach to the issue is essentially: Want to know what to think about homosexuality? Here’s what words must necessarily mean (prescriptive terminology is essential). Here’s some science facts. Here’s some Bible verses. Here’s a conclusion with some important prescriptive terminology changes. Go and do what you must do when you draw some conclusions from these propositions.

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This is the way our tribe tends to approach issues. Our authority, quite rightly, is the Bible. But the way we use it (and I think this is less definitively ‘right’) is as an atomised bunch of propositional statements (which is easier when it involves clear imperatives — rules and regulations). We’re also happy to draw conclusions from what Augustine called God’s second book — the world around us, via science — so long as the Bible guides our interpretation of said ‘book’…This is all well and good if you think faithful Christianity overlaps with a modernist view of the world. If that is you, and you want to reject the ‘evils’ of post-modernity, then Born This Way might be the book for you… except for the hurt it might cause people you love, who it talks about, but even that sort of concern is a bit post-modern. And it’s this last bit that we think makes Born This Way not just a book that the church in this age doesn’t need, but instead, a book the church should not want. Why would we want a non-pastoral book trying to speak objectively into a subjective space where people need pastoring? The Plausibility Problem takes a different tack, and one we believe is much more helpful. It is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of Born This Way, where Born This Way goes left, it goes right, at every turn. I felt like one of the criticisms of our review was that we hypothesised an alternative and impossible book in our criticism of Born This Way, and that this was unfair because such a yardstick does not/could not exist. But here it is, and given the choice between the two, in terms of meeting the needs of the church in ministering to same sex attracted people (and creating communities where same sex attracted non-Christians might give the Gospel a hearing), We’d pick the Plausibility Problem for every person, every time.

I’ve noted elsewhere recently that post-modernity is more interested in a quality, plausible, story. A story where someone can see themselves as an actor, and see the narrative fitting with their own view of the world, and their self-identity. Story trumps proposition. Luckily the Bible is, I think, better understood as one grand Christ-centered narrative of God’s relationship to his world and humanity, rather than a bunch of rules and regulations (even the rules come in the context of a story, and often as stories). So our authority actually lends itself to this approach.

 

So. What does a book for this sort of world look like? It looks like Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem: the church and same sex attractionHere are 10 reasons why this is the book the church needs in order to reach the sort of world and worldview outlined above.

1. It identifies the ‘plausibility problem’ and emphasises Jesus’ story as the solution. But this is also Ed’s story

Where Born This Way attempted to be objective and deal with the facts from science and the Bible, The Plausibility Problem takes a narrative approach from start to finish. It’s about replacing the world’s narrative about sex, identity and fulfilment, with God’s narrative. Where we suggested the Gospel was something like a tacked on extra in Born This Way, it’s the foundation of Shaw’s approach.

From the world’s perspective, Christ’s call to a wholehearted, sacrificial discipleship seems implausibly unattractive for anyone, regardless of their sexuality or particular circumstances. If we are to persevere in the life of discipleship ourselves and persuade anyone else to join us, we must somehow communicate that what is offered is not a set of rules, but a dynamic relationship with the living God. — The Plausibility Problem, Foreword.

One of the other problems we had with Born This Way was its attempt to be objective meant that the author never declared how what he was writing related to his own experience. This was deliberate, but it also created what we perceived to be significant issues with the book in terms of its pastoral application (or lack thereof), because pastoring is interpersonal, and its lack of understanding of some of the complexities of same sex attraction. Being objective about something subjective (like attraction and associated feelings and desires) doesn’t intuitively work. We’d also argue that objectivity is a sort of modernist myth, that it doesn’t actually serve anyone to remove yourself, your experience, or your agenda from what you’re saying. Shaw avoids these problems by acknowledging his bias, and his experience, straight up.

I write this book as an evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Ever since the beginning of puberty, my sexual desires have been focused on some members of my own sex. What I thought might be just a teenage phase has never gone away and I remain exclusively same-sex attracted in my mid/late thirties, despite all my best efforts and prayers to change. So the plausibility problem is my problem… I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired (and thus inerrant and authoritative) Word to the people he’s both created and redeemed. Through its pages, my loving Father God tells me everything I need to know about everything that matters to him (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And those pages very clearly say that homosexual practice is wrong in his sight – remember the proof-text parade in the previous chapter. I am absolutely convinced of this, despite my own same-sex attraction and those who now tell me God never really says that, or has recently changed his mind. But it’s not even those famous individual verses that I find most persuasive.

Quoting his friend (and fellow same sex attracted author) Wesley Hill (via Washed and Waiting), Shaw says “I abstain from homosexual behaviour because of the power of the Scriptural story.” The Plausibility Problem invites the church to become a place where people can discover the power of this story.

Shaw’s basic premise, one we agree with, is that our conventional (modernist) approach doesn’t work in a post-modern world, it leaves those of us who do believe what the ‘proof texts’ in the Bible say about sexuality with the titular plausibility problem. Our inability to produce relationships in our church communities that make living a life that is faithful to this teaching possible means people aren’t listening when we tell them to live this way. He identifies a generation gap where a new generation of people aren’t prepared simply to accept the “just say no” approach.

The evangelical church’s basic message to them: ‘Just Say No!’ just doesn’t have any real credibility any more. It embarrasses many of us to even ask them to do it. It sounds positively unhealthy. It lacks any traction in today’s world – simply producing incredulity from the majority. Melinda Selmys (a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction) communicates this well: Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that limits itself to saying ‘Thou shalt not,’ has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness.

2. It uses ‘story’ as a mode to provide an alternative and plausible counter story to the stories we’re bombarded with by our world

Sometimes it feels like the Devil has all the good stories.

We Christians have been trying to combat real stories from the gay community of love, injustice, and real emotions, with cold hard facts and rational arguments. In a post-modern world, feelings trump thinking, and stories trump facts. Shaw attempts to counter this by providing stories that demonstrate the possibility of a life shaped by the Gospel — his story, and the stories of others who also experience same sex attraction.

This mode supports his basic premise, that real stories of the plausibility of life as a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus… Being part of the Gospel story actually works. We believe it. Because we see it in Shaw. And we’re invited to imagine how this might work for others — for those in our church community, and those not yet part of our church community.

Shaw sets up the book by telling two powerful stories of Peter and Jane. Peter and Jane are Christians lured away from faithfulness to God’s story by the competing stories of our world, and invites us to see the problem this way. We’re bereft of alternative narratives and bombarding somebody feeling the lure of these stories with a bunch of science and proof texts from the Bible will only really convince one type of thinker — a modernist — and a modernist who is prepared to let their head rule their hearts, and their sex drive. A modernist who is also prepared to critically think through and ignore the counter-messages our world smashes them with. In short, we’re not sure the modernist approach works for all that many people any more, which helps answer a question about ‘what the book the church needs’ on this issue looks like…

“How can you look Peter in the eye and deny him sex forever? How can we ask Jane to turn her back on the one human relationship that has brought her joy? It just won’t seem plausible to them. It doesn’t sound that reasonable to us either. And what doesn’t help them or us much is the standard evangelical response to what they’re facing. We’ve basically adopted the slogan from the 1980s anti-drugs song: ‘Just Say No!’ That’s often all we have to say – exacerbated by the proof-text parade if anyone raises any objections… That used to convince. That used to be a plausible argument for most. To be an evangelical has always meant holding to the truth of ‘The divine inspiration of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct’. And when it comes to homosexual practice, those Scriptures are pretty clear; evangelicals like clarity, and those verses were more than enough clarity for many, for years. We all knew where we stood.”

3. It focuses on the relationship between sexuality, Jesus and identity

One of the interesting implications of approaching life in this world using a story framework is we’re invited to consider the motivations behind actions, not just the actions themselves. That’s how and why stories are compelling. This question of motives, character, or identity, also seems to be more consistent with how the Bible approaches questions of sin.

Sinful behaviour is produced by sinful hearts. The Plausibility Problem doesn’t shy away from the truth that our sexuality is broken by sin, it is especially strident in its criticism of the widespread idea, both from the wider world and the more liberal end of the church, that something being natural necessarily makes it good. In this sense it deals more helpfully with the born this way concept than Born This Way.

‘How can being gay be wrong if you were born gay?’ That’s a question I’m asked a lot. And it’s a good one: my same-sex attraction feels part of me in that sort of way. As a theory on the origins of homosexuality, being born gay works for me better than any of the others on the market today, although every same-sex attracted man or woman will, no doubt, have their own personal take on this most complex and controversial of areas… whether you agree with the ‘gay gene’ theory or not. It is certainly the one that fits best with my lived experience of same-sex attraction (if not everyone’s). It is the most powerful case for affirming homosexuality today. And, I guess, that’s why some evangelical Christians have put a huge amount of time and energy into fighting the idea that same-sex attraction is genetic or innate… I want to argue, even if the ‘gay gene’ were found tomorrow, we would still not need to worry about this particular battle being lost: a genetic basis for homosexuality would not make it right… You see, one of the central truths of the Bible is that we are all naturally sinners from birth and yet are still held responsible for our sin.

Our actions are the products of our identity, and realigning our identity to line up with God’s story is what the Gospel invites us to do. It changes the character we play. Or, in Ed’s words, the Gospel tells us who we are. The Plausibility Problem makes the sexuality question a question of identity, and asks us to consider what we’re going to put first.

What I most want to avoid is any other identity that might attempt to displace my fundamental identity as a Christian. For the thing that defines me most in life is not my sexuality but my status – in Christ – as a son of God.

This Gospel tells me that I am – in Jesus – a child of God. That is why I can call him Father. That is why I can call Jesus my brother. That is what his Spirit confirms by dwelling inside of me. That is who I am: God’s own dear son. And thinking like that is crucial to living the Christian life… When people say, ‘Relax, you were born that way.’ or ‘Quit trying to be something you’re not and just be the real you,’ they are stumbling upon something very biblical. God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the ‘you’ he’s talking about is the ‘you’ that you are by grace, not by nature.

4. It invites us to tackle this problem together, as a church (because it’s a problem we’ve created together)

One ofThe Plausibility Problem’s greatest strengths (and its most important insights) is that it invites us to move this conversation away from being an issue for a particular individual to solve, and instead, to think of it as something to work through together. Our new identity in Christ isn’t a new identity that simply applies to us as individuals, becoming a child of God brings us a host of brothers and sisters in Christ. Shaw’s diagnosis takes this issue away from the realm of the same sex attracted individual, and gives responsibility for our same sex attracted brothers and sisters to all of us.

… when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to recognize that it might be, to some extent, not just their fault, but ours too.

Shaw invites us to stop placing responsibility for change on the individual sinner, and invites us instead to be a changing community where this shift in identity is both plausible and desirable, because it’s a new identity we’re all invited to share as we leave an old story behind.

I know that too often, church meetings have encouraged me to let my sin, rather than my Saviour, define me. That I have left those meetings reminded more of my same-sex attraction than my new status in Christ. They have unintentionally encouraged me to spend too much time contemplating my love of some men rather than contemplating God’s love for me. I need to hear a more biblically balanced message. One that does not brush my continued sin under the carpet, and which must keep encouraging me to repent of it (1 John 1:8–10), but which prevents my sin from ever defining me.

If the primary identity that all our churches commended to all our church members was our shared identity in Christ, that would do more to defeat this plausibility problem that we all face than almost anything else.

5. The plausibility framework offers an alternative way forward

What can we do about it? Well, this is where this book is designed to help. Its basic premise is simple: we just have to make what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again. We need to remind ourselves, and remind Peter and Jane, that Jesus says this to us all: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

Shaw sets about doing this with practical on the ground examples of what a more plausible church community might look like. He diagnoses the problems — or missteps the church has taken—based on his own experience and the experience (and testimony) of many other same sex attracted Christians. These missteps aren’t just related to same sex attraction, they describe fundamental problems with what (and how) we normalise in our communities, and ask us to consider what happens to people who fall outside those norms.

The missteps include buying into the world’s stories that:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality
  2. A family is mum, dad and 2.4 children.
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right.
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found.
  6. Men and women are equally interchangable.
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality.
  8. Celibacy is bad for you
  9. Suffering is to be avoided

None of these missteps, or false stories, are raised without Shaw also offering solutions based on the Bible’s story, a theology of church as people being shaped together by the Gospel, the thoughtful work of others, and his own experience. The stories he tells give us lived examples of how to respond to these missteps in a way that makes life as part of the church plausible, and one way we know it is plausible is because it explains why Shaw, and others, stick with Jesus. The structures he invites us to re-build and rely on are:

… the pre-eminence of our union with Christ when it comes to forming our identity; the reality that church is our one everlasting family; the doctrine of original sin; the full authority and total goodness of God’s Word; friendships, not just sex, bringing us all the human intimacy we need; marriage being all about the union of Christ and his church; godliness being all about Christ-likeness, not who you are attracted to; the fact that singleness is truly a great gift; and the reality that following Jesus means taking up your cross and suffering like him.

6. It invites us to see singleness within the church community as a plausible alternative to marriage and sex

The call to sexual purity isn’t just a call for the same sex attracted. It’s a call for the married heterosexual. It’s a call for the unmarried heterosexual. And being a church where it’s plausible to feel fulfilled and truly human while not having sex is a massively difficult thing if all the church says is “sex is a good part of our humanity and you need to get married to do it” or buys into the idea that fulfilment comes from finding completion in another person, your “other half”… Shaw has experienced life in a church culture that does this, that buys into the idolatry of marriage and heterosexual sex. And he calls us out of it. Part of that call is the call for all of us to pursue godliness, rather than heterosexuality, which is a really important note to hit when it comes to thinking about our sexual orientation.

7. It acknowledges that the struggle is real (but worth it)

The book is breathtakingly honest. Shaw is real about his attractions, his temptations, his struggles. He confesses and he invites us to confess too because confession like this is what will make this issue real for people, and helps identify Jesus as the real way forward. The struggle is real. Suffering is real. Self-denial is costly. It would be misleading to over-simplify the cost of following Jesus in this area, but it’s refreshing to not just see the cost, but think about how we might be invited to bear the cost together with those we love who experience these sorts of moments because they’ve decided not to pursue the fulfilment of their natural desires for the sake of the Gospel.

I have what I call ‘kitchen floor moments’. I call them that because they involve me sitting on my kitchen floor. But I’m not doing something useful like scrubbing it, although it could always benefit from that. Instead I’m there crying. And the reason for my tears is the unhappiness that my experience of same-sex attraction often brings. The acute pain I sometimes feel as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.

8. It invites us to consider intimacy apart from sex

One of the best and most pastoral problems Shaw diagnoses with our implausible church communities is that we’ve bought into the worldly narrative that intimacy is sex. He mentions that this conflation of two separate concepts has killed our ability to properly be friends with people, and to properly see intimate friendship without suspicion. Boundaries are great for stopping bad sexual stuff happening, but it’s possible that we’ve over-corrected. One piece of evidence he cites on this front is the growing belief in scholarly circles that there must have been something sexual going on between David and Jonathan. He urges us to rediscover friendship and non-sexual intimacy as a way forward. One of his really helpful points, even for married couples, is that our spouses can’t possibly fulfil all the needs we have for human love or intimacy. This is part of the idolatry of marriage and the spouse – the expectation we might bring that they will fulfil some desire of our heart that they’re not equipped to fulfil which will ultimately lead to disappointment.

The world in which we live cannot cope with intimate relationships that aren’t sexual – it makes no sense, it’s just not possible. So I’ve had to pull back from deepening friendships with both men and women out of fear that they are being seen as inappropriate. None of them were – but the supposed impossibility of non-sexual intimacy meant we felt under pressure to close them down. That’s been very hard at times. But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too. Our response to the sexual revolution going on outside our doors has sadly just been to promote sexual intimacy in the context of Christian marriage. And to encourage people to keep it there by promising this will then deliver all the intimacy they’ve ever wanted.

If we’re wired for relationships, intimate loving relationships, the sort that reflects the intimate, loving, relationships of the Trinity, then for life to be plausible for single people in our churches, including the same sex attracted, we need to be much better at intimate friendships. This might mean more hugs, more deep and meaningful conversations, and more attempting to truly know someone by looking them in the eye and paying attention so that you actually understand them – with people other than your spouse.

9. It suggests same sex attraction is a part of one’s personhood that can be valued and that can help one understand God, and reminds us that all sexuality is broken

This isn’t a main point of the book, by any stretch, but in articulating a path towards faithfully finding his identity in Christ, and the love of God, Shaw has this to say as an aside.

To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference. I somehow need to embrace what the Bible teaches about the importance of sexual difference, despite the restrictions it puts on my preferred expression of it. To view sexuality as a good thing, even though God bans me from acting out my desires in a sexual relationship with another man… But then surely my sexuality can be nothing more than a negative aspect of my life – if there is no prospect of me changing enough to be able to consummate a heterosexual marriage? Not if I pay attention to these precious words of pastor John Piper: …the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people – both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).

My sexuality has allowed me to understand and appreciate the incredible power of the sexual language that God uses there and elsewhere: to communicate the passionate nature of his love for people like me! My sexuality might not lead me into a loving marriage, but it does consistently lead me into a greater appreciation of God’s love for me in Christ. That is one of many reasons why I’m profoundly grateful for it…

Most evangelicals are getting to the stage where we don’t expect ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ to produce an orientation change (while we also want to acknowledge that sexual orientation can be relatively fluid for some people). Shaw’s honest reflections about his own experience, coupled with his constant emphasis on the Gospel and his identity in Christ, should help us frame our language and expectations here too. Even if the aim is ‘celibacy’ rather than ‘heterosexuality,’ same-sex attraction might not be something to be ‘cured’ at all. Rather than asking somebody to flick some sort of switch that turns their attraction off, perhaps its more helpful to think about what it might look like for an exclusively same sex attracted person to maintain that attraction, but have it defined first by their attraction to Jesus. This is where the attempt to make attraction or orientation the same as “temptation” and thus something to be resisted, rather than re-oriented around a greater love and attraction, so misguided in Born This Way. Shaw gives a picture of the challenges presented to our same sex attracted friends when we get this wrong… the goal for Christian godliness for the same sex attracted individual is not heterosexuality, or asexuality, it is Christlikeness.

If heterosexuality is godliness, the big change that’s most been needed in my life is for me to become heterosexual. And so I’ve prayed hard and searched hard for an effective antidote to my same-sex attraction. The pursuit of holiness has nearly always equalled the pursuit of heterosexuality for me. What has so often encouraged me to give up on the Christian life has been my lack of progress in becoming heterosexual. I’ve never been sexually attracted to a woman. Yet every so often, a short period of not being sexually attracted to a man for a while has given me hope – only to have that dashed when my type of good-looking man has walked onto my TV screen or into my life. As a result, I’ve kept feeling I’m making no progress as a Christian – still struggling with the same wrong sexual desires I did back when I was sixteen. That’s when it has felt least plausible to keep going as a Christian. Feeling like you have made no steps forwards for twenty years makes you unwilling to keep going. Remembering the call to be like Jesus in everything has shown me not only the countless other ways I’m not like Jesus, but also the progress I have actually been making in becoming more like him over the last twenty years. This progress has often come in the midst of, and as a direct result of, my enduring struggle with same-sex attraction.

Shaw expresses a desire that the sort of focus we put on godliness for same sex attracted people with their sexuality be spread to other forms of sexual brokenness in the church. Getting this picture of human sexuality right helps us understand that heterosexuality does not necessarily equal godliness, and it certainly won’t in sinful people. Ever. The problem we create when we present our married heterosexuality as unfallen, or less fallen, than same sex attraction is that we isolate those around us who are not married heterosexuals.

All sexual relationships are marred (Genesis 3:7) There has been no perfect sexual relationship since then. Even the ‘perfect’ heterosexual Christian couple who keep sex for marriage have plenty to be ashamed of and embarrassed about their sexuality and their use of it. When I share those feelings of imperfection as a same-sex attracted Christian, I should not be made to feel alone.

Shaw’s plausibility cure for this is honesty. He calls us to spur one another on towards Christ-likeness with our sexuality, same sex attracted or not, and for us to be prepared to be honest (in situations of trusting relationships, but also in open, frank, honesty like the kind he presents in this book, by those who want to lead us in this area).

“… when I have to confess my sexual sins to you, don’t be afraid to confess your sexual sins to me. In that way, we can spur each other on to Christ-likeness, and on to love and good deeds through the triumphs and tragedies…

…Greater honesty about the challenges of being sexual beings has been one of the upsides of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Unlike many of the downsides, this honesty has yet to spread to the church. Some of us same-sex attracted pastors have recently taken a lead, but we have yet to be followed by the brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with internet porn, who have survived the pain of adultery or who live in sexless marriages… until some go public with their private struggles (or, at least, until we start to recognize publicly that they are issues with which many church members are grappling), the church will continue to be perceived as sexually self-righteous and sorted – rather than a place where all who are sexually broken (which is all of us!) can get the help and support we need. Many will have to struggle on alone in silence.”

10. It is pastoral.

Shaw’s use of stories, both the stories that make his own experience incredibly real and raw, and stories of how his real needs are met by Jesus, and by his church, give us concrete examples to duplicate in our own lives and as we love and care for those within our own community. This book is profoundly pastoral. It’s purpose is to help us love people in our communities, and wants people in our church communities to know the love of Jesus. Not the cold facts. It speaks into the subjective reality of the same sex attracted person, but more than that, it speaks into the subjective reality of the whole church. It invites us to think, feel and respond. It gives us patterns for that response through stories, and through the lens of the eyes and words of one for whom this advice has been effective.

I (Nathan) found the chapter on church as a family for single people particularly helpful in thinking through some of the ways my own nuclear family can start to include single friends in the rhythms of our family life. Shaw mentions the way many people within his church family provide different aspects of the family experience for him that prevent his life being one of isolation. There are people who hug him. People who eat with him regularly. People who call him to talk about life. People who arrange parties to mark milestones for him, and others who supply meals for him when he’s sick. There are people who invite him on family holidays, or to hang out and play with their kids on Sunday arvos. There are  other single people he chats with. The vision of church he describes is one where love is evident, where a sense that family could be something bigger than other narratives allow, and it’s one that seems doable, where I can pick off a couple of those roles to play for a couple of people in a way that might make the life they are called to just that little bit more plausible.

The beauty is that it’s not just the responsibility for plausibility that gets shared through these sorts of relationships, but the benefits as well.

And, crucially, this new family benefits us all – there is give and take from all of us, all of the time. It strengthens single people, but it also strengthens marriages. It allows children to grow up in an environment where there are multiple adults parenting them. It’s not perfect – there are constant ups and downs. All human relationships get messy at times, but they are a mess worth making. For when it works, it is the most wonderful of experiences for all of us. I pinch myself at times. And the plausibility of the life that I have chosen is closely tied to this experience. When church feels like a family, I can cope with not ever having my own partner and children. When it hasn’t worked is when I have struggled most. The same-sex attracted Christians I’ve met who are suffering most are those in churches that haven’t grasped this at all and that don’t even notice these individuals.

 

 

10 Reasons Born This Way is not the book the Church needs on homosexuality

“This particular challenge is unique because at the heart of it is a universal lie, that is that all people who experience same sex attraction were born that way. And so, scientists, politicians, lobby groups, right down to the person who you sit next to on the bus who says oh, I’m same sex attracted and I was born this way, everybody seems to believe the lie. And what they do, it’s not just the lie, they take the lie and they turn it into a moral imperative that is that it’s not right to tell anybody not to live that way, the way they were born to live.” — Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

UPDATE: Steve asked for this part of the promo to be deleted, and Matthias Media has edited the video.

UPDATE 6 Sept 2017: Steve asked for his response at the end of the post to be edited to what is there now; I’ve added a brief response to his edits.

bornthiswaycoverBorn This Way is a new book written by Steve Morrison, and published by Matthias Media. It attempts to help Christians grapple with one of the most pressing questions facing the Australian church: how to approach the issue of homosexuality. It asks how Christians should understand what science and the Bible have to say about same sex attraction.

A significant percentage of the book is good, and true. But it is fatally flawed.

How we talk about homosexuality and same sex attraction is a big deal. How we talk about sexuality for Christians and to those in the outside world is a big deal.

It’s not just a big deal in the public square — where the idea that someone would not pursue happiness and wholeness according to their natural sexual desires because of their religious belief is anathema.

It’s a big deal for real people trying to figure out how to reconcile their faith in Jesus and belief that the Gospel is identity-shaping good news, with their same sex attraction.

It’s a big deal for me personally because it’s a live issue in my family. My brother in law Mitch, my sister’s husband, is same sex attracted. He’s also in full time ministry, and involved in ministry to same sex attracted people with Liberty IncYou can read some of his story here (see question ‘what does the bible say about homosexuality?).

I love Mitch, I love my sister, I love their kids. There are other same sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ that I love too, but none quite so close to home as my family. It matters how people talk about this stuff because it impacts real people. I posted some tips for talking about homosexuality as Christians a while back that came from a seminar I gave at a Liberty Inc event. How people talk about this issue directly impacts people I love, so you’ll have to excuse me if it seems I’ve taken anything in this review personally, because it is personal.

I’ve invited Mitch to co-write this review. These are our words. Where we need to, we’ve distinguished between Mitch’s response, and my response.

About this Review

We’re keen to be as charitable as we possibly can as readers. We didn’t want this book to fail. We need more resources to guide thoughtful discussions on this topic, and there are thoughtful parts of this book that would be useful if they weren’t surrounded by significant problems. We’re thankful that the author, Steve Morrison, wants to encourage the church to love and reach out to homosexual people, and while there is much in this book that we believe is right and true, there are problems with this book that mean it is not a resource we can recommend, and it is not a book we can simply ignore.

Neither of us know the author personally (Nathan: I became Facebook friends with Steve in order to share this review before posting it). We are sure the book is well intentioned, and that both Matthias Media, as the publisher, and Steve Morrison, the author, had every intention to handle this topic with sensitivity, we simply think the intentions were misguided.

Steve is a human. A person. And this book represents a labour of love from him, for his readers, for the church, and for the same sex attracted people who might read the book, or be engaged in conversation by people who’ve read this book. We understand that Born This Way is well intentioned, and while we’ve responded with fairly robust criticism we’ve tried to, wherever possible, make it clear that this is a result of our response to the book and its arguments, not to Steve and his intentions.

This is a topic that is almost impossible to approach without bias if you’re directly affected, or affected via someone you love being directly affected. That’s why we’ve acknowledged our own bias up front. Sometimes this approach means we rely on assumptions that we’ve drawn as readers of the book, there are no doubt times when we’ve missed nuances in Steve’s argument or misrepresent it, but we are responding as readers who have tried to read the book carefully, these misunderstandings are, of course, something we have to take some responsibility for as readers. Sometimes our tone below might seem harsh, at times this will be a result of our own sinfulness. We’d suggest there are not many people who will approach this book with the objectivity that Steve tries to write with, and assumes from his readers, and that is actually a problem with this book as it speaks to this topic.

We’ve been urged by the publisher to review the book on its own terms, not our own. And that’s fair and gracious, so in order to do this we’ve included relatively long quotes from the book when we quote it, to provide appropriate context. In Steve’s response to an earlier form of the review (published at the bottom) he mentioned that relying on quotes from the video (featuring him) produced by the publisher to promote the book, rather than the book, would potentially misrepresent the book. We feel this represents something of the shifting landscape of book publishing in the digital world. It’s probable that more people will end up seeing the promo video than watching the book, and books are (as they always have been) part of a broader conversation on a topic, promotional videos for books also contribute to this broader conversation.

We write as people for whom this issue matters, for the reasons outlined above, and because we both want to see people — heterosexual or homosexual — come to find their satisfaction and identity in Jesus. We have no doubt that this is the hope and prayer of Matthias Media and Steve Morrison, however, we have grave concerns based on our own impressions of the book and its arguments that it will be helpful to this end.

There are things to like about this book.

Born This Way doesn’t sweep the science that suggests there might be a biological component of same sex attraction out of the way, it isn’t embarrassed by the science. This is good. It asks honest and searching questions of the science, and it turns to the Bible for answers confident that the science and the Bible will walk in lock-step on the issue. This is good too. It reads the Biblical data through a Gospel lens, which is vital.

And, it invites readers to approach the topic of same sex attraction, and those who are same sex attracted, with humility.

“Let’s love and accept each other as fellow human beings. We are all different, and we all have much to learn from one another. If we can do that, we can move beyond the idea that simply holding a different opinion means someone is irrational, crazy, and driven by fear. Instead, we can relate to each other with love and respect despite our differences. We can talk, and we can listen. And we may just be able to move forward in the search for truth.” — Page 28

Which is excellent.

But.

Here are the ten reasons Born This Way is dramatically flawed, and we do not believe it’s a book you should give to those who are thinking about same sex attraction and Christianity, especially not people who are same sex attracted.

1. Born This Way  presents the Gospel in its treatment of the Bible, but is not Gospel driven

The Gospel is part of the picture in this book, but we’re convinced the Gospel is the driving force behind any true answer to how Christians think about Homosexuality. This objection has nothing to do with the order of Morrison’s argument — that he starts by considering the science — but rather the conclusions he draws from the scientific and Biblical data. His conclusions are essentially that the science suggests most people can choose not to be same sex attracted, and that every person can choose fight same sex temptation, and avoid lust or same sex sex, while the Bible tells people that lust and sex outside of marriage are sinful so people must find forgiveness for sexual sin in Jesus and then stop sinning. The emphasis is very much on sin, and forgiveness, both of which are important. But the Gospel isn’t just the rationale for transformation, it’s the key, and it’s the reason to pursue sexual transformation rather than the satisfaction of natural desires.

It’s the Gospel that makes every one of us — heterosexual or homosexual — sexually whole.

It’s only when our hearts, and relationships, are transformed by the Gospel, and by our participation in the Kingdom of God through Jesus by his death, resurrection and the provision of the Holy Spirit that any of us can think rightly about our sexuality and our identity.

It’s only the renewed mind and transformed heart that the Gospel brings that anyone can begin to sort out how much our identity is formed by what’s natural to us, and how much it comes from above.

It’s this new mind, not understanding the science, that will convince someone to submit their sexuality to Jesus. Born This Way seems to assume that just understanding the science and the Bible will change actions. But it’s Jesus.

Finding sexual wholeness is about turning to Jesus, not simply turning away from sin. It is quite probably that Morrison feels like this is the message his book conveys, and that we are misrepresenting him at this point, but his emphasis is on turning away from sin and finding forgiveness (while trying to sin no more), rather than finding satisfaction in Jesus, and living accordingly.

2. Born This Way  presents an anemic Gospel

Born This Way makes the Gospel about having our sins — especially sexual sins — forgiven. Which of course is part of the Gospel. But it’s not the whole Gospel. It’s not all the Gospel has to say about sexuality.

The Gospel is about the Lordship of Jesus over every facet of our lives. Including our sexuality.

It’s about being part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s about the promise that the reinvention of our humanity as we’re reconnected with God and transformed into the image of Christ, in a community of people who want to love each other like Jesus loved, with the promise of a share in his inheritance for eternity, is better than anything this world has to offer. Including sex with people you’re attracted to if those people are not the person you are married to. Including sex with people the same gender as you, even if you’re attracted to them.

Being part of the Kingdom of God, as a result of the Gospel, changes our approach to sex. The Gospel isn’t just about having your sexual sins forgiven, it’s a promise that Jesus and his Kingdom is more satisfying than sex, and a better place to build your identity and understand what it means to be human than sexuality.

This is why Jesus says:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:12

This passage was curiously absent from the book.

It’s why Paul says:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. —1 Corinthians 7:8-9

Figuring out how to deal with homosexuality, especially for the same sex attracted, is not a question of science (though the science shows us the state of human nature), it’s a question of identity. The answer to finding one’s identity anywhere other than Jesus is to see that Jesus is better. The news that Jesus is better than sex, is what makes the Gospel good news for the same sex attracted (and people who are opposite sex attracted).

Our sexuality is a small illustration of the perfect and whole intimacy we’re made to enjoy as part of God’s kingdom in a marriage-like relationship to Jesus himself. Heterosexuality is not the ideal, it’s good, but it’s the bridge to what we’re ultimately made for.

3. By speaking as though all gay people are represented by a “gay lobby” hostile to Christianity, Born This Way  treats gay people as the enemy or the “other”

This book is combative. It feels like a book calling people to gird up their loins in the face of this conflict. It feels like a guide to being the Church against the world. Even in its attempts to be winsome, this book is like the Queensberry Rules for fighting against the pervasive influence of the “gay lobby” and stopping more people becoming gay.

The book tries to redefine common terms in the discussion around homosexuality to make them more objective or technical. It’s an interesting approach. We believe it fails for a number of reasons which will hopefully become apparent below. The big issue is that loving people often requires listening to and understanding them, and finding points of engagement within their own framework, not simply telling them that their chosen terms are all unhelpful and trying to wrest the control of the discussion out of their hands. The move also seems to trample over the work that groups actively engaged in ministry to people who identify as homosexual or experience same sex attraction have done in doing exactly this sort of loving engagement.

The problem with this combative approach – whether its treating the “gay lobby” as an enemy to be destroyed, or simply emphasising the distance between gay people and normal people – the sort of people you’d play cricket then talk to about “the gay issue” (page 15)  – is that it makes gay people seem less human than “normal” straight people. The book talks about those homosexuals as if they’re an entirely different category of person.

Mitch: At this point every person living with same sex attraction is ‘they.’ We’re ‘those people.’ Most gay people like to be associated with the gay lobby about as much as most Christians like to be associated with political Christian lobbying.

Gay people are not the enemy of Christianity. They are not other. They are our neighbours. Every one of us is broken by sin, biologically broken. This brokenness extends to our sexuality, even if our sexuality is “by the book” in a heterosexual marriage, but without transformed hearts, our sexuality is the expression of hearts that the Bible diagnoses as broken and selfish. Straight sex is closer to the way we were created to experience sex, but it doesn’t make anybody any closer to God.

Being attracted to someone of the same sex does not make another person the enemy. If all homosexual people were aggressively anti-Christian then this approach might have merit. But until the guy across the street from me stops making snide comments about the gay couple two doors down, gay people are in a minority that makes them vulnerable and we (as the book acknowledges) need to love homosexuals. I think we do this because they’re our neighbours, not because we’re told to love our enemies.

Morrison appears to position the gay lobby, and the society that forms around its agenda, as our enemies who are engaged in a battle for our hearts, minds, and private parts —his fear seems to be that by normalising homosexuality they will create more homosexuals (or at least more homosexual sex). It may well be the case that the gay lobby, like any group of people who want people to find their identity in anything but Jesus (the Bible calls this idolatry) is opposed to God. But they are no more opposed to God than myriad other idolatrous voices in our society that we don’t treat as enemies or “other” in this way. We love them as our neighbours and hold out the good news of the Gospel to them, while pointing out the dangers of idolatry. This book goes further. It goes to war with idols, an approach more at home with Israel in the Old Testament (within the Promised Land) than with the Church in the New Testament. When Paul encounters a city full of idols, he uses these idols to show that idolatry is hollow, especially in comparison to the living God (Acts 17).

The book expects these enemies, or others — and those tempted by their lies — to be conquered as they’re lovingly presented the objective facts of science and the Bible, and to quit homosexuality like a smoker quits smoking. These pieces of objective data are important, but they aren’t what will ultimately help win someone to Jesus.

All the implications Morrison draws in the following quotes from Born This Way are true, but they’re true whether you approach gay people (and those passionate enough to lobby on gay issues) as neighbours, not enemies.

 

“Jesus tells his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:43-44) Jesus is very clear on our response to those with whom we disagree. Sometimes a disagreement can be so strong that we are even inclined to call the other person our ‘enemy.’ But no matter what views you hold, other people are to be treated with love and respect. This means that the past decision to classify homosexual attraction as a psychological disorder was not acceptable. Future research will no doubt help us understand the psychological factors involved, but at present there is no evidence of homosexuality being related to any kind of disorder, and the Bible never places homosexuality in that category. Prejudice against those who have homosexual attractions is out—as are persecution, discrimination, mistreatment and hatred. It should go without saying, but any form of physical violence is also completely unacceptable.” — Page 25

 

“…because God welcomes the homosexual, we welcome them too. Our churches are full of people who have all kinds of sinful histories—in fact, there is no one in our churches whose history isn’t littered with sin, our churches are full of people who are tempted by the same sex, and so we welcome them into our congregations just as we welcome those who struggle with slander, pornography, greed, and any other sin. When our churches welcome visitors who struggle with sin—even practising homosexuals—that doesn’t mean we are condoning their sin. We are offering grace, mercy, truth, forgiveness and community, in the same way that we offer those gifts of the gospel to all human beings…What we must not do is say (either, explicitly or implicitly) that a person who struggles with homosexuality is not welcome in our church until they get their Iife sorted out. In the same way that you came to God with sin and struggles, so does everyone else.” — Page 124

Mitch: If you read this as a homosexual person investigating Christianity, where it talks about “the homosexual,” you’d feel like the subject of a narrated National Geographic documentary.

4. Born This Way  is “not really a pastoral book” — which is irresponsible

It’s not just gay people outside the church who cop bullets from this book’s combative approach. There’s friendly fire too. It hurts people in our churches who are same sex attracted (for reasons discussed below).

This pain, in part, is caused by the book’s bloody-minded approach to this issue. As though the science and the Bible can ever be talked about in a way that is disconnected from real people and their experience. In the book’s online promo video Morrison says:

“The book is not really a pastoral book, I haven’t principally written it for people struggling with same sex attraction, I do deal with it a bit and I know they’ll be reading the book, but really what I’ve written for is for people to understand the Bible in a world made by God, but in a world in rebellion to God.” —Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

This is one of the biggest failings in the book. It’s ignorant to think that it’s ok to write a book about an issue that has such a profound impact on people, including mental health impacts — Christian or not —without being pastoral. It’s a mistake to think that this debate, about something as subjective as a person’s experience of sexuality and where it fits in their identity, can be solved with objective, impersonal, truth.

If this issue is a big deal for real people you’d expect Christian people who want to deal lovingly with this issue to do more than just treat it with dispassionate objectivity. The decision not to write in a predominantly pastoral voice is a vexing one, especially given the marginalisation Same Sex Attracted people feel both in society and the church. And that, in my mind, is one of the biggest failings of this book. It tries to dispassionately deal with this issue without an eye on the real people affected and the harm writing this way might cause.

This, frankly, seems unloving. Sure, it’s loving to deal in facts and to present truth, but listening and understanding is also loving, and I’m just not sure this book is an exercise in demonstrating a commitment to listening to those who are same sex attracted so much as telling them how life really is.

I don’t know that it’s possible to write a Christian book that attempts to teach Christians how to navigate a complex issue dealing with sin, brokenness, and our humanity, that is not pastoral.

This decision to approach the book this way actually creates most of the subsequent problems in this list. It’s not just the content that lacks a pastoral approach. The publisher says Steve was in contact with people from ministries to same sex attracted people, including Liberty Inc, about the book. However, to our knowledge, nobody currently involved with Liberty, who are probably the leading evangelical group counselling Same Sex Attracted Christians, was aware this book was being written or released (Matthias Media did contact Liberty’s pastoral worker in Sydney UPDATE: Liberty’s pastoral worker in Sydney, Allan Starr, has now reviewed the book).

5. Born This Way  compares same sex attraction to the biological urge to smoke, and same sex sex as the equivalent to smoking

This is where the book dies. The author makes the unhelpful comparison between homosexuality and smoking (remember when the ACL made a comparison between the health impacts of smoking and the homosexual lifestyle). This comparison is loaded, it is fraught with baggage, and it is completely foreign to the experience of those living with same sex attraction. This is where it becomes exceptionally clear that this is not a pastoral book, and it’s where the book shifts to becoming an overtly unhelpful book for same sex attracted people.

“Take smoking as an example. Since smoking a cigarette is not condemned in the Bible, we cannot condemn it as being sinful—provided it’s legal, and not against your conscience. It may be unwise—even very unwise—but the action is not sinful in and of itself. Of course, therein lies a crucial difference between homosexual activity and smoking—one is explicitly prohibited by God’s word, and the other is not. But they are similar in one important way: societal expectations and pressures have changed over time (but in opposite directions).

In different parts of the world and at different times, people have faced varying temptations to smoke… When I was growing up in the 1980s, smoking was far more culturally acceptable than it is now. There were TV ads for smoking, and it was considered trendy and tough for most kids to smoke. So many young people took up smoking, to varying degrees. But if you are born in Australia today it is much less likely that you will face a strong temptation to smoke. From kindergarten onwards, impassioned health campaigners will teach you about the dangers of smoking. In 21st-century Australia, smoking has become socially far less acceptable than in years gone by.

Now take two people who have quite different genetic predispositions to want to smoke. If both were in Holland in the 1940s, they may well both have been smokers. If both grew up with me (lucky them) there is a good chance that both would have tried smoking, even if only one or two cigarettes… But if both people were growing up In Australia today, there is a strong probability that neither of them would ever smoke. The two people’s desires might still be very different from one another, but their decisions and actions would be shaped by their life situations. So while the number of people being born with a genetic tendency towards smoking shouldn’t change, proportionally, we would expect the number of people smoking over time to vary, depending on things like our society’s attitude to smoking, and the growing evidence about the harmful effects of cigarettes.

The statistics tell us exactly that. For example, in Australia in 1945, 72% of men and 26% of women smoked regularly. In 1980, 41% of men and 30% of women smoked regularly. And by 2010, that number had dropped to 22% of men and 18% of women.

So we should expect a similar type of thing to happen with homosexual activity—but in the opposite direction. The proportion of people genetically predisposed to SST should stay the same, but the actual number of people tempted to engage in (and actually engaging in) homosexual behaviour will vary. For this reason. It is very helpful to view SST not as something restricted to a finite proportion of the population, but rather as a potential temptation that all Christians should understand. —Born This Way, Pages 101-103

The argument here is that if our society buys the view of homosexual sex (not relationships, or identity) presented by the nefarious gay lobby, then more people will have gay sex. It seems to wrongly assume:

  1. That belonging to the smoking community and the gay community are qualitatively similar.
  2. That nobody experiences exclusively homosexual attraction, or at least we aren’t talking about those people any more, just people who are on the spectrum in such a way that this sort of experimenting becomes likely (and spreads further along the sliding scale of sexuality).
  3. That there are statistics showing that gay sex, or the number of people identifying as homosexual is on the increase (and that this is not simply a normalisation of the statistics as a result of reduced social stigma, where people who once might have stayed in the closet are coming out).
  4. That it’s a simple, and contagious, temptation that’s a potential temptation for all Christians.
  5. That gay people don’t smoke, so can’t recognise the difference between these two urges or temptations as they read this argument.

These false assumptions lead to false (and harmful) conclusions.

6. The smoking analogy is bad by itself, but it prevents the book from dealing with why Jesus is better than sex.

Mitch: Most Christians who deal with same sex attraction see themselves as primarily Christian, and approach their sexual orientation accordingly. But, while they make this sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel they look at their friends who get to be Christian, straight, heterosexual, fathers, husbands and boyfriends. They get all those other things that give them a clear role and place in their church and community. These are things that fill out belonging and identity. Sure, they’re not primary, but they go a long way.

Yet, SSA Christians can’t have any of those, nor any of their own version of those. In fact this book tries to even pronounce a more correct way for SSA people to label themselves. We’re allowed to be Same Sex Tempted now, but not same sex attracted. I think we’d almost prefer Paul’s ‘homosexual offenders.’

The truth is there will be a number of people who want to settle with or sleep with someone of the same-sex until they die. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s over realised eschatology to pretend it’s not the case. The real issue here isn’t the science, it’s relationship. SSA men and women want to desire people and be desired. They want rich, intimate, mutual love. They want to be proud of it. They want to feel free in it. They want it to last. Don’t you?

They want what the Trinity has. They want what the Gospel opens the door to. This is where the Gospel is good news for Same Sex Attracted people – it redefines natural longings, and redirects them to their created purpose. It offers genuine satisfaction and wholeness.

There’s just not enough of this in Born this Way, and it makes the tone of the book seem uncaring and disconnected.

7. Born This Way  is a product of crippling unexamined ‘privilege’

Nathan: I’m massively opposed to the way the spectre, or rhetorical trump card, of “privilege,” has been used recently to silence voices in conversations dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable minorities. People who aren’t directly affected by sensitive issues have contributions to make on these issues — so, for example men legitimately have much to say about the injustices identified by feminism, and need to speak into those issues. Jesus was single and spoke about sex. You don’t have to experience something first hand to have a contribution to make. But there is a gap that needs bridging from author to reader when the author isn’t standing beside the reader in their shoes.

As much as I hate the “privilege card,” I feel, reluctantly, that this book never really gets over the problem of Morrison’s apparent unacknowledged privilege. He is presented in the book as a heterosexual, married, man. It may be that he is same sex attracted as well, and choses not to acknowledge it because it would undermine the book’s objectivity (which seems very important to its argument), if this is the case it is one way the book is crippled by its objective scope. But we are working on the assumption that Morrison, because he never says otherwise, is not same sex attracted.

Morrison writes from a position where he presents himself as someone objectively tackling this issue by objectively dealing with the two important streams of revelation and authority on this issue – the Bible, and science. But this position of authority isn’t the only privilege involved. He writes as a heterosexual man who is a church leader. He doesn’t have to make drastic changes to his own life, his behaviour, or his identity, as a result of his findings. He’s essentially telling people they need to become more like him (even if he doesn’t say it this way), without really being able to understand, first hand, where they are being asked to come from.

Heterosexual people who are in positions of influence —leadership positions — in our churches have an incredible responsibility to be sensitive to the people in our care who are vulnerable because of their sexuality. In church communities where heterosexuality is often held out to be the normal, pure, sexuality, our heterosexual leaders need to be pretty careful not to speak from positions that don’t take this sort of privilege for granted.

It’s dangerous to talk as though a heterosexual marriage is the path to sexual wholeness, not the Gospel, or as though heterosexual sex, because it reflects God’s good creation in Genesis 1-2, is not broken by the events of Genesis 3.

Every person’s natural approach to sex— the approach to sex produced by our sinful nature— needs to be redeemed by Jesus.

This conversation needs heterosexual leaders speaking up on behalf of the marginalised in our churches, but we also need to listen to the experience and wisdom of our brothers and sisters who are living out faithful lives as same sex attracted Christians.

Morrison tries to do this by regularly including quotes from prominent Christians who are same sex attracted, but there are certain elements of his approach that do not seem to mesh with the lived experience of same sex attracted people, at least not the same sex attracted people I know. This is the danger that comes from writing from a position where you don’t have first hand experience of what you’re talking about, and it’s the danger of pursuing pure objectivity on a topic that is incredibly subjective for people in a way that can not be truly understood by someone who lives that experience as a first hand reality.

The responsibility for those of us who realise we’re entering a discussion from a position of privilege is humility, realising that there’s a subjective realm of information that we just don’t have access to, and that others do, and these others have something to say about how conversations like this should take place.

One application of this sort of humility is to not come in like a rude or awkward dinner guest, who tries to re-arrange the furniture. It’s not our place to enter this discussion and try to redefine terms that have been carefully chosen to describe the reality of life as a same sex attracted person. The worst of these is discussed at point 9.

8. Born This Way  tries to find objective solutions to a subjective subject.

This means it doesn’t really listen to same sex attracted people. Morrison’s unexamined privilege and his assumption that a loving tone, couple with the ‘objective’ data and some cherry-picked anecdotes can bridge the gap between his experience and the experience of others, means this book is disconnected from the real world of people for whom same sex attraction is a reality.

Morrison never acknowledges that for many same sex attracted people, even if the data suggests a biological link is only part of the picture, their experience of their sexual attraction is that it is something natural, something that they are born with, something that they do not choose. His simplistic treatment of the data is essentially to argue that since biology is only a small part of the picture the rest of somebody’s sexual orientation is the product of choice. We aren’t disagreeing with Morrison that lust and sexual activity are the products of individual choice. They are. To suggest otherwise would be to insist on a weird sort of slavery to nature, but it’s equally problematic to try to minimise the impact nature has on attraction and temptation, especially to suggest the biological influence on attraction is similar to the temptation to smoke or watch television.

Morrison’s treatment of attraction is so focused on nature that it ignores science around nurture. Even if a homosexual orientation is the product of both biology and environment, it is typically established so early for someone, or by circumstances beyond their control, that it’s too complicated to simply call it a choice. That some people choose homosexuality (as supported by anecdotal evidence) does not mean this is true for all people. The science cannot be used to argue that the desire to engage in same sex sex is similar to the biological urge to smoke or watch television.

Morrison has this binary approach to the born this way question such that the science only really matters if someone is 100% genetically born same sex attracted (and then it only really matters if the person is 100% same sex attracted and not bi-sexual.

“So is homosexuality biologically determined at birth? To date, science’s best answer is that someone who experiences SSA may well have some biological or hereditary factors that play a role in causing this attraction—but to a much smaller extent than is often claimed. While it is widely believed that sexual orientation is genetically determined—in the same way as skin colour, bone structure and eye colour—the best scientific evidence tells us that SSA is in a very different category from those types of hereditary characteristics. Genetic factors like skin colour and eye colour are 100% determined from birth. But there are many psychological or behavioural traits that are only partly determined by genetics. In those kinds of cases, a wide range of other factors will come into play to influence how a person ultimately lives or behaves. For example. one study has shown that a person has an average heritability estimate of 45% to have a predisposed inclination to want to watch television.At the most, male SSA is likely to be hereditary at a rate of 30-50%—very similar to the hereditary desire to watch television…we must understand the genetic, hereditary component of SSA very differently from the way we view an unchangeable characteristic such as skin colour. The hereditary component of SSA is more like a person’s hereditary desire to smoke, eat too much, watch certain amounts of TV, tend towards certain political views, or have a desire to attend church” —Pages 51-52

 

Nobody I know feels like TV watching, smoking, or eating, is the fundamental basis for their identity. But many people define themselves by their sexual orientation. This is one of our society’s biggest forms of idolatry — we weren’t created to find our identity or humanity in sex, but in our relationship with God. Disconnecting sexuality from identity is a potential way forward in the way Christians talk about homosexuality that doesn’t throw pastoral hand grenades at the same sex attracted.

9. This failure to listen is most evident when it tries to move the conversation from attraction to temptation

“It’s important that we distinguish carefully between three words relating to homosexuality: ‘action’. ‘lust and ‘attraction’. A homosexual action is when a person engages in sexual activity with someone of the same gender. Homosexual lust is when someone has fantasies and passions that express themselves in imagining homosexual situations. The third category is attraction. This is different from lust, and we must continue to distinguish between attraction and lust because of the question of choice.”— Born This Way, Page 35

 

But sometimes our desires or attractions draw us towards things that are wrong in themselves. Same-sex attraction is like this. It’s a disordered desire or attraction towards something that is wrong in itself, and so it should always be resisted. In this sense, it’s helpful to view a same-sex attraction as a temptation, as something that needs to be resisted lest it lead to sin. There are a number of advantages to replacing SSA with SST. The first advantage to using the language of ‘temptation’ is that it allows us to clearly say that acting on the attraction is sinful. It removes the ambiguity of ‘attraction’ or ‘gay’, and places the idea of ‘attraction’ in the category of things that a Christian needs to resist. Another advantage in calling the phenomenon ‘temptation’ is that the Christian can assert—even more strongly and confidently than the scientist, in some ways—that a person who experiences attraction to the same sex is, indeed, born with SST. The Christian doctrine of original sin says that every human being is born with “a motivationally twisted heart ” — Born This Way, Page 99

 

Same sex attracted people who follow Jesus aren’t called to stop finding people of the opposite sex attractive; to lobotomise that part of their brain. Same sex attracted people are called to find their identity in Jesus and so not to turn attraction into lust, or attraction and lust into action.

Temptation is how the gap between attraction and lust, and between attraction and lust and action, is bridged.

Attraction isn’t the same as temptation and by insisting that it is, and that it should be fought, Born This Way robs same sex attracted people of a part of their humanity in a way that we don’t do this to heterosexual people.

Have you ever heard a heterosexual Christian be told to not be attracted to someone of the opposite sex (as opposed to not lusting after them)?

Mitch: This is the single most offensive part of the argument, particularly to those who find themselves exclusively and continually attracted to the same-sex. They have all the identity and relational tools afforded to straight people taken from them. Morrison doesn’t say anything about what the Gospel does to our heterosexual attraction, except to affirm it as approved by God, so those who are opposite sex attracted are allowed to keep saying they find people attractive, and admit their attraction to people (without being told this is necessarily broken opposite sex temptation). The heterosexual person is just wired this way, and allowed to live according to their biological wiring (as though it’s untainted by sin). But the same sex attracted have to deny they experience this attraction in any form? I’m probably becoming more convinced by someone like Wes Hill who just says call yourself gay but qualify it as a witness to the gospel, so he says he’s a celibate gay Christian.

10. Because Morrison doesn’t speak from the experiential reality of same sex attraction, Born This Way  doesn’t speak of sexual attraction in a way that speaks to the experience of the same sex attracted.

Born This Way simplifies the sexuality spectrum, it treats sexual attraction like a switch, and seems to insist that people who are bi-sexual aren’t really gay and can just flick this switch.

“Science is telling us that the vast majority of people who experience attraction to the same sex also experience some level of attraction to the opposite sex. That is, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as ‘gay’ are actually bisexual. So we find the word ‘gay’ fairly useless, not to mention potentially offensive… There are simply too many categories. too many nuances, being covered by the one word. Let’s take an extreme example and an extreme analogy: how do we compare a person in an active, open, long-term cohabitating homosexual relationship to another person who is in a heterosexual marriage but who once felt a slight attraction to someone of the same sex? Do we call them both ‘gay’?”… The word ‘gay’ is used broadly to summarize any aspect of same-sex attraction, lust or action. But in a conversation where objectivity and accuracy are vital, we need to be more accurate about which aspect of the phenomenon we are talking about. People are free to identify themselves as ‘gay’ and then explain what they mean by that term, but the word is too ambiguous to be of use technically or as a label.” —Born This Way, Page 33-34

“But perhaps the biggest problem with the binary assumption that a person is born either gay or straight is bisexuality.”— Born This Way, Page 54

Morrison treats bi-sexuality as a big deal for his argument. It’s really not. I do not think the word means what he thinks it means. This is only the “biggest problem” and a “binary assumption” because Morrison has earlier redefined “gay” to not be a label that can “technically” describe the identity of a bi-sexual person.

Once he ‘establishes’ this conclusion, and the related conclusion that only one in four gay men, or one in 16 lesbian women, or about 1% of the male population are homosexual rather than bi-sexual (page 55), he reaches an interesting conclusion from this data:

“One helpful way of understanding sexual attraction is to think of it as a spectrum upon which every person appears, and when it comes to same-sex attraction, the genetic influence upon a person’s position on that spectrum is minor, at best. Put simply, if we use the terminology in the way in which it is normally used, a person is not born gay.”— Born This Way, Page 56

But what about the one percent of people who don’t experience a broad part of the sexuality spectrum? What about the one in four gay men who identify as 100% same sex attracted? Who are not, even according to his data, bi-sexual? How does this conclusion not simply further marginalise the already marginalised?

Conclusion: This is not the book the church wants, or needs, about homosexuality

While there is much to like in this book, and Morrison has set out to provide a resource that will benefit Christians confronted with a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity and the Biblical view of sex, the problems with this book, problems that will be immediately apparent to those who experience same sex attraction and anybody who understands what it is that people who identify as homosexual are seeking through their relationships, means it fails as a resource.

It is not a book we can recommend. It’s not a book that people who minister to Christians trying to figure out the implications their sexuality has for their faith can recommend.

Nathan: I’ve written about another way Christians can approach what Morrison calls the “universal lie” of “born this way” elsewhere. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born this way, all born with a sexuality that deviates from the sort of relationships God created us to enjoy. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born desiring the same love as one another, however that manifests. And it requires us to acknowledge that we are reborn, and our understanding of love transformed, through the death and resurrection of Jesus that frees us from slavery to our natural, broken, humanity.

Mitch: If people want to read just one book on this issue, and a book that pitches at about this level that is helpful then I would recommend Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry.

Steve’s Response (updated September 2017)

“Dear Nathan,
Thanks for this review. It’s really helped my sales in QLD and beyond. Can you please also review my new book “The Path of Purity”? It’s not getting great sales north of the NSW border yet…
Thanks”

 

One might assume the drop in sales for book two is because people read the first book and found this review accurately reflected its content.

Book Review: Paradoxology

I’ve spent the last year having my mind blown by four big ideas.

One. The story of the Bible, centred as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus, required an incredibly intricate amount of planning and execution, which I think is the mark of a truly sublime story.

Two. The way the Bible’s narrative becomes richer if you see the Image of God as a vocational calling to be the living God’s living ‘idols,’ such that turning to, and being shaped by, dead idols is a fatal mistake that undermines the foundation of what it means to be human, and turning back to God, via Jesus, who carries out this vocation perfectly, is where we rediscover what it means to be truly human. Like the people we were made to be. The whole Old Testament seems to explore what happens to people when they live like the God who brings life calls them to — as his representatives — or forget who they are made to be, chasing after things that are sources of death, not life.

Three. What happens to a bunch of theological questions — especially surrounding the Cross, and the questions we want to throw up as objections to God — when you grapple with the concept of infinity, and the idea that God is infinite and we are not.

And four. Just how essential paradox is to Christian theology — which is especially cool when paired with a growing sense I get when I try to understand crazily intelligent scientists (of the Quantum Physicist variety) that being comfortable with paradox is foundational to heaps of modern science.

I’ve thought about other things too. And thinking almost always blows my mind. But these are incredibly untapped wells. Thinking too much about paradoxes and infinity hurts my head, in a way that gives me hope that I’m on the right track… But I do think there’s a whole lot of meaty thinking in these two areas both for Christians and skeptics alike. When we fail to defend Christian belief without these two head-hurting ideas in the mix I think we’re selling our belief short. Think about the essential paradoxes at the heart of Christianity. The Trinity being one God in three persons. Jesus being fully human, and fully divine. The Bible being fully human, and fully inspired. God being fully in control of creation, but our experience suggesting we are fully in control of our own decisions… these go on. And on.

There are also heaps of really tough questions Christians need to, I think, be able to answer. For ourselves, even if not for others. Questions about God’s character and actions in the Old Testament and at the Cross (I tried to articulate my view on this question here), the question of why evil exists at all in a world where God is said to be infinitely good, and infinitely in control (I had a stab at saying what I think on this question here). I don’t think science is a good reason not to believe in the God of the Bible —  but I think these questions, and others like them, might be. If we can’t answer them. I can certainly understand people who choose these objections as reasons to walk away from God. Another challenge is, of course, why the church — the people of God — are so very disappointing on so many fronts, from institutionalised abuse, through to the ongoing existence of the brokenness that pervades all our relationships still existing in this community that is meant to have things more together.

Enter Krish Kandiah’s ParadoxologyHere’s a video promo.

It’s a pretty sensational book, I enjoyed its honesty and its humanity. Its willingness to ask questions. I want to say, right from the start, that I would absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend reading it, buying a few copies, and lending it to people. I’d give it to people without expecting to need to have massive conversations defending the content of the book — but there were just a couple of points at which my own personal idiosyncrasies meant I wasn’t quite satisfied with his answers. We’ll get there below.

I love the weight given to the book by Krish’s real life examples. The questions aren’t asked in isolation from real life — each chapter, each paradox, includes examples from Krish’s experience, both as a convert from a largely non-Christian family, in his own family life, and from his ministry. He seems like an absolutely stand up guy. I have no experience of this other than reading about him online, but the presentation of his life, in pixelated form, suggests he embodies the life this book calls us to live. His willingness to ask questions, and to deal openly with alternative answers to some of the paradoxes he raised, demonstrates the kind of intellectual integrity that I think is absolutely essential to any sort of ethical persuasion. I won’t deal with everything he deals with in depth — suffice it to say, the paradoxes mentioned above are all dealt with, with charity, humility, and grace. The book moves from paradoxes raised in the Old Testament to paradoxes raised in the New. There are crossovers, of course, where some paradoxes are only truly resolved by the paradox at the heart of the Bible’s story — the incarnation, where Jesus, the divine son, a person of the Trinity, becomes human. And is executed. I felt a little like this was a weakness — I had to read all the way through to that chapter to really get a satisfactory (at least for me) answer to the what Kandiah calls the Abraham Paradox and the Job Paradox. But that’s a minor quibble, when you think about it, because the Bible functioned in the same way for people who read the OT before Jesus arrived on the scene.

I highlighted 357 passages in the book. According to my Kindle stats. And I’m looking forward to revisiting them as I preach, write, and think, about some of the questions Kandiah tackles.

 

I’m never sure how useful any book is going to be in actually persuading people to shift their thinking on the question of God. There are plenty of times in Paradoxology where I felt like I was convinced, or had my beliefs reaffirmed, because I already accepted a bunch of the categories Kandiah was operating with, but I wasn’t sure how useful some of those categories would be for people who’ve thrown the theology baby out with the theistic bathwater. If, like Dawkins, a reader thinks all theological categories are hogwash until proven otherwise, this book doesn’t necessarily undo that thinking. It does present Christianity as intellectually coherent, and stimulating, and I think it does a pretty good job of removing theology from abstraction and showing how belief in God and acceptance of a bunch of Christian categories for thinking about the world does have a real pay off for how we live. I think the real benefit for de-churched readers is that Kandiah tackles many objections that people who have a familiarity with Christianity might bring to the table in a winsome no-holds-barred (or no-questions-barred) way, quite removed from a defensive group-think mindset that some might be expecting. While, for the unchurched, or those of other faiths, Kandiah frequently compares his robust Christian account of a paradox with alternative attempts to reconcile the same observations of the way the world is (and various senses of the way the world ought to be).

Again. This is one of the books I’ll be having on hand to work through with people — probably particularly Christians who are struggling with concepts of God that feel too black and white, or simple, but also with people who are prepared to give Christianity some serious thought, the kind of thought where one is prepared to entertain mystery and paradox without needing to resolve them into a neat package.

There were heaps of passages I really enjoyed in the book. Here’s a sampling — and one or two very minor quibbles.

I love this definition of faith.

“The belief that faith is by definition a blind leap into the unknown is so prevalent that often unbelieving friends will say things to me like, ‘I wish I could believe like you do, but I think too much.’ This might sound like a gracious compliment but it is actually an insult – perhaps unwitting – and might be better phrased: ‘I respect your faith, but I’m just not as gullible as you.’ They may as well have said: ‘I used to believe in the tooth fairy too.’ Many people have described faith as believing what you know isn’t true. Richard Dawkins, the vocal atheist and zoology professor, dismisses it as ‘the process of non-thinking called faith’. But the Bible refutes this. Looking more closely at Abraham’s story, there are three things that we can establish about the nature of true faith. First, faith is not a leap in the dark. The Bible’s stories, including this episode in Abraham’s life, are all intended to refute this mis-definition of faith. The Bible is full of testimonials that present reasons for trusting in God. Jesus himself described his words and his miracles as ‘evidence’ for belief. The step of faith is an informed decision. This may sound like a paradox, but it is one we live with every day. Take, for example, the mundane but potentially life-changing decision to cross a road…

…When it comes to crossing a road, we gather evidence with our eyes and ears, and when we are reasonably confident that it is safe, we step out in faith and aim for the other side of the road. Similarly, when as Christians we take a step of faith, we use judgement based on gathered evidence and previous experience, and, trusting in our convictions, we move forward. Abraham had his eyes wide open when he decided to lead his son to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. He had evidence that God would fulfil his promises. He had already experienced the miracle of God’s provision of Isaac. He had seen that God could bring dead things to life. He knew that his future was safest in God’s hands. So it was an immensely challenging, but not an intrinsically irrational, step to keep trusting God.”

His most powerful chapter — perhaps because it’s the question I personally find most vexing — was the Joshua Paradox, an exploration of the Canaanite genocide. Coupled with the Job Paradox, an exploration of the question of suffering, you’ve got two chapters which, by themselves, are a reason to buy the book. These are the questions he sets about answering:

How do we reconcile the paradox of a God who has compassion on the Jewish nation through all their failures, but then commands them to show no compassion towards other nations? How can a God of love order the annihilation of a whole people-group, the mass slaughter of men and women, old and young, and even animals too?

 

“Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time?”

 

I like his answers. But I do wonder if one aspect of the answer to the question of how we’re meant to feel in the face of the Canaanite thing is similar to how Job is told to feel, by God, in the end of the Book of Job. It’s not just, as Paradoxology suggests, that God is judge, that the people of Canaan are being judged justly, that our very existence (in the face of universal condemnation for sin) is a merciful gift from God, and that God accommodates people and achieves his purposes by using the only kind of war available at the time — though I think these are all true. There’s also the sense that we’re meant to be uncomfortable in the face of these stories. We’re meant to react as humans. To be compassionate rather than robotic in the face of pain. To empathise with those facing God’s judgment — judgment we also deserve.

Even as God continues to use war and evil to carry out his purposes— assuming that’s how the Romans 13 reality operates, where Governments are appointed by God —we’re meant to do what we’re called to do, as people who follow Jesus, love God, and love our enemies as we imitate our crucified king. We should be moved by compassion, and a sense of injustice and horror about the reality facing other humans, even if this reality is tied up with God’s judgment. I think Kandiah is right, in the video, and the conclusion of the book, to remind us that a properly robust relationship with God includes being prepared to voice our feelings, and our protest, and that this is part of not being crippled by paradox.

It’s nice that Paradoxology deals with Joshua and then Job. Because Job is kind of the human reaction to suffering on a micro-level, rather than a whole nation suffering, we get Job suffering. And asking questions. And being comforted by a bunch of ‘wise’ friends.

I love Job. It’s taken me a while to get my head around exactly what’s going on. Job’s friends spout a bunch of worldly wisdom at Job. They look like they’re doing the right thing, and what they’re saying could have come out of the pages of Wisdom Literature from around the Ancient Near East. They think they’re being Job’s friends. But they’re not. They’re saying a bunch of stupid stuff. The importance of understanding the nature of their ‘friendship’ will, hopefully, become clear in a moment.

Kandiah suggests one of the dilemmas presented and resolved in Job is the question of where God is in suffering.

“Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive”

Again. The Job Paradox is a stirring chapter. But here’s something I wondered as I re-engaged with Job, and read this chapter. What if Job’s friends acted like Jesus? What would that do to the Book of Job’s approach to the paradox of human suffering and God’s apparent absence?

Here’s how Kandiah sums up the story of Job.

“The book of Job challenges the premise of the paradox that God is either too weak to stop suffering or too mean to bother to do so. This book asserts that there are circumstances when an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering to take place. Acknowledging this point is very difficult to grasp, most of the book of Job argues the opposite case.

Job receives a seemingly endless cycle of visits and lectures delivered by his so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. They all assume more or less that ‘if you sin, you will suffer’ and equally, ‘if you suffer, you have sinned’. They spend hour after hour, page after page, repeating this line of reasoning. Sometimes it feels that Job’s counsellors might be just trying to wear him down with their many words. It makes the book difficult to read, let alone understand. Perhaps the exasperating experience of reading the book of Job is intentional, as we encounter the obtuse and yet insistent counsellors.

Maybe finding Job’s friends infuriating acts as a warning to us to avoid their mistakes. They are earnest and well-meaning, but they are almost completely wrong in what they assume about God, Job and the universe. Perhaps too we may be reminded of the need for genuine humility, the need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. If we follow this advice we will be able to avoid causing some of the pastoral and emotional damage that Job’s friends bring.”

What if Job’s friends had come to Job with wisdom beginning with the Fear of the Lord — exactly the wisdom God confronts Job with at the end of the book. The sort of wisdom that the Israelites who read the finished book of Job hopefully picked up, and carried with them, as they comforted friends and family members (and neighbours) in the midst of real suffering? Surely the real way to be a friend in suffering is not to speak empty words, but words of real comfort (or to just sit, and speak no words at all). Surely the real way — later modelled at the Cross — is to enter into, and share in, the suffering of another, in order to alleviate it.

I love the link Kandiah draws between Job and Jesus… he hints towards what I think might be a profoundly challenging answer to people asking where is God when people are suffering…

“The book of Job points us to another time when an innocent suffered because God’s honour demanded it. The paradoxes that trouble us in thinking about God’s character coalesce around what we as Christians believe to be the most important events of human history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross we see the perfectly innocent and blameless Jesus suffering due to no fault of his own. What Job was asked to do involuntarily, Jesus volunteered for. Satan was not allowed to touch Job’s life – Jesus gave up his life.

Ultimately, God has not been passive about the evil in the world: he has actively submitted himself to suffer on our behalf. As we shall see in the paradox of the cross, it is because of Jesus’ death that the sin and suffering of the world will be finally resolved. This has two important implications, which help us with the paradox of pain. First, when we suffer we are not further away from but rather drawn closer to the one who suffered for us. Second, when we reach out to relieve the suffering of others we are most like God, because God did everything that was necessary to deal with the evil and suffering in our world.”

If the church is the body of Christ, if we’re united to Christ, if we’re being conformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, then surely part of the answer to the question “where is God in suffering” in our world, is that God is there wherever the Church is seeking to provide comfort in a wise way. God is not absent unless we choose to make him absent, by absenting ourselves. I think God can certainly be present without his church, but our responsibility is to really love our neighbours, like Jesus did, not like Job’s friends did. This was one of the points at which it might have been structurally helpful for Paradoxology to have front-ended the Jesus Paradox. The fullest account of all the other paradoxes is shaped at the foot of the Cross.

It’s a great book. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your friends.

Here are some other bits that I loved.

“…It is only because of our limited time-bound vantage-point that God appears to be unpredictable, when in fact his actions are entirely consistent with his character. We only see a glimpse of what God is doing. Our lives are like a screen-grab from a movie. We can only comprehend a tiny fragment of the total picture, so it is hard for us to understand what God is doing. Imagine that you had never seen the classic Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo, and you were given a single frame of the film and asked to guess the storyline. In this single image is a tiny orange clown fish talking to a huge shark. You can marvel at the colours, at the amazing graphic skill the digital artists have achieved, and the strange posture of a hunter communicating with his prey. But you couldn’t know whether this is the end of the film or the beginning. You couldn’t tell whether the shark is about to eat the clown fish, or if the clown fish has managed to talk down his aggressor. There is certainly no way of telling that the shark is a jolly aspiring vegetarian who is deeply moved by the clown fish’s story of loss and determination. One picture cannot possibly give enough background information to guess what happens next. Compared to the eternal purposes of God, even a decade of our lives is like that freeze frame in a movie. Of course, God can zoom in and know every miniscule detail of our daily lives, but we are incapable of zooming out to see our lives with the advantage of distance, bigger context or retrospect.

So what should we do when God’s actions (or his inaction) seem unpredictable or irrational? God’s response to Habakkuk is to tell him to … wait for it … yes, to wait for it…

Waiting is difficult, though, because we like to feel we are doing something. But the waiting that God asks for is not tedious passivity – he encourages us to wait actively, giving ourselves to God’s purposes in the world. Waiting involves continually living by the values of the coming kingdom, knowing that one day they will be vindicated by God himself. Waiting is also difficult for us because the more we have to do it, the more we are inclined to give up hope. But waiting can be a powerful testimony of our true allegiance.”

And, on the Cross…

“Imagine watching the ultimate heist movie with, of course, a priceless diamond arriving at a museum. The alarms are set to cover every inch of the display hall, and weight sensors are sensitive to the nearest gram. Extremely careful planning is necessary by the prospective thieves so that at the decisive moment an unnoticed switch or substitution can occur. The diamond has to be replaced by something that is exactly its weight, or all the alarms will sound and the caper is over. This image gives us an inkling of what was going on when Jesus died on the cross. This particular substitution had been planned in minute detail since before the beginning of time itself, and signposted throughout the Jewish Scriptures. You can see those signposts from the moment that sin entered the world. God had promised that if humanity sinned, death would result, but in the Garden of Eden the first thing to die after the fall were not sinful human beings but animals, sacrificed to provide fallen people with the clothes they needed to cover over a nakedness that was no longer appropriate in a world contaminated by sin…

God was building up to the exact moment that his Son Jesus was born in Israel, at a time when the country was under Roman occupation. The death of Jesus involved the ultimate substitution. Jesus’ death did not just satisfy but fulfilled the sacrifice system set up in the Old Testament.

The cross of Jesus is the place where all of God’s plans come together. X marks the spot: this place, this time is where God is resolving the great paradox of history. God uses the tiny details of history to solve the riddle of the universe, demonstrate his perfect love and redeem his broken world.”

 

7 tips from David Foster Wallace (and others) on writing well

I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way —  a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.

I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…

“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”

And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”

I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).

BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?

DFW:  Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”

Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.

1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”

 

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”

Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.   One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.

The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

Because writing is about a relationship —  a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.

Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.

2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself

“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.

This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen —  DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…

“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.

What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…

“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”

This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.

DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere —  don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.

“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”

 

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.

Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.

Here’s Cicero.

“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” —  Cicero

Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.

4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice. 

“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”

5. Write slow so you think carefully

I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.

But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.

BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?

DFW:  Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.

BAG:   You write everything in longhand?

DFW:  Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.

Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.

“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”

 

“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”

Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.

I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity —  it faded as he found his identity elsewhere —  in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross —  offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).

6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).

BAG:   When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?

DFW:  I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need.   My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that.   My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.   If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?

7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.

“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”

He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.

Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.

I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.

One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.

My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.

And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.

BAG:   Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?

DFW:  Well, for a couple of reasons.   One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do.   Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age

This is the book I would write about how we think about media as Christians if I was going to write a book about how we think about and use media as Christians.

It is exceptional, and if you have any respect for how I’ve approached this sort of topic on this blog over the past however many years I’ve been banging on about this stuff – you should stop reading this review and buy the book, its title, in full, is: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.

I’m glad Andy Byers has written it for me, and for others. I will be effusive in my praise of this book (though I think there are definitely stones left unturned should I ever actually want to write a book). I will praise it to the hills because I believe it is essential reading for Christians who want to take the Gospel into new mediums using new technologies with a strong theological foundation.

It is methodologically sensible, theologically invigorating, and practically stimulating. It is the best book on thinking about the intersection of theology and media studies that I have read, and I have read all the others. Well. Maybe not all the others. But lots.

Like any book – this one should be assessed on its own terms. So Byers says:

“The conviction underlying this book is that Christian scripture is not only the best source for understanding Jesus but also the best source for understanding Google.”

And later…

“This book is a hermeneutical project in the church’s wider efforts of trying to understand the technological mediascape of the twenty-first century. The purpose is not to offer a how-to guidebook to help churches incorporate communications technology into their worship and witness. I am hoping to provide something more foundational. The point is to make some headway in constructing a theological frame of reference for understanding and appropriating media in the digital age and in the ages to come.”

His argument is:

“First: if God himself creates and employs media, then there must be a theological logic that can guide how we produce and use media and communications technology today. Here is the second claim: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God—TheoMedia, the communicative and revelatory means God employs to share himself and to influence humankind as his image bearers.”

His treatment of the unfolding Biblical saga is exceptional, and the touch points he selects and unpacks in this story are spectacular. His definition of media is broad – anything that is a “means to communicate” – and that is how I think it should be. Just about every ‘thing’ can function as media. His definition of TheoMedia is equally broad.

“… although there is such a thing as “new media,” the actual concept of media is as old as the hills. This is true literally, because the hills themselves are a form of media. God’s media. Or, we could say, “TheoMedia.” Media production began with God. The aesthetic media of God’s creation was produced by another form of divine media. The slope of the valleys and the rise of hills beneath glorious sky blue all came about through the medium of holy speech. Divine words addressed the primordial cosmic blankness, and ever since “let there be…” sounded in the dark, creation has served as a means of divine revelation and divine self-communication.”

I’m increasingly convinced that something akin to media studies is vital for good exegesis – knowing how a type of text functioned in its context is as important for interpretation as figuring out how the content of the text would have been understood in its context – indeed, you can’t do one without the other. I love how Byer’s approach to the question of media is driven by Biblical Theology – by unpacking how the media of God develops over the trajectories of the Biblical story.

“So to retrain what we think about “media,” we are going to make a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the entire biblical saga, tracing the narrative plotlines of the epic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-Creation to show that the idea of media is a central theme of the church’s most sacred text.”

His understanding of this story is Christ centred, so his conclusions are also Christological, which, again, I think makes this book a must read.

The Good

I’m especially thrilled at his anthropology – his understanding of the role communication plays in what it means to be human. It’s all about humans being made in the image of God. More than any other work in this area, Byers gets that bearing an image involves communication (I’m pretty passionate about this).

“The most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of divine image bearing. Though the rest of creation reflects divine glory and beauty, Adam and Eve were endowed with an even more intrinsic capacity for conveying God’s character and intentions in the world.”

Byer’s description of how sin smashed this function, and how it is ultimately dealt with, and restored for us, in and through Jesus, is great. It is the theological basis for our participation in media use.

“Originally destined as the bearers of God’s image in the world, humanity—both Gentile and Jewish—had become shaped by the world’s unwholesome images and untruthful words. The once uninterrupted interaction with God was now clouded; the transmission was lost in the distracting white noise of worldly media. Such a disastrous media situation required a media “eucatastrophe,” to borrow a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. That media “eucatastrophe” (an event of catastrophically good proportions) finally took place. It was the Incarnation. The TheoMedium of God’s Word became flesh. The public announcement of what Jesus has done on our behalf as the God who took on flesh is called “gospel.” It is a media term. In the genre of a eucatastrophic newsflash, the TheoMedium of the gospel is the breaking news that our King has arrived and conquered, that the mediated distance between humanity and God is to be bridged through the work of the Incarnate Christ, a new Mediator who has come from offstage as abruptly as that serpent of old. And this Mediator is hailed as the untainted “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)… In the wake of bloodied cross and vacated tomb, a new TheoMedium was formed. Indwelled by the Spirit, that society we call “church” was created as a new TheoMedium in the world in the sense that we as the church are now being restored as bearers of God’s image.”

Byer’s is sensitive to the function of images in the Ancient Near East – a big part of my Masters Thesis, so very exciting for me. In the Ancient Near East kings held on to political power by building images of themselves as gods, fusing the royal with the divine – such imagery (which was later applied to coins and all sorts of multi-media) functioned as a powerful communication tool. Images of God-Kings communicated just by being. So did idols in a temple – which were ‘activated’ by a mouth washing ceremony by a river in a temple so that they would ‘speak for’ the god (just like Adam in Eden in Genesis 2 if you buy the theory that Eden is a proto-temple).

These images communicated something – by being representatives of the god-king. Byers shares this quote:

“Social space—the areas in which life was lived—for pagans was thus in a sense alive with images, mythologized. The statues in the temples and around the cities, the reliefs on the altars, the busts and statuettes of the home, etc. all, with varying degrees of intensity to be sure, figured the divine or, better for ancient polytheism, the divinities. The notion of a secular, separate realm devoid of religious penetration is of course a modern invention (if not itself a fiction). For ancient pagans, space was religious.” — KAVIN ROWE

But these images of god-kings and gods didn’t speak – nor did the gods behind the purely religious images. Image bearers of the God who does speak also speak, but we also communicate by being representatives of God, scattered around his world. Byers notes – from Israel’s history – that the media we soak ourselves in will end up shaping us.

“Choosing God’s words crafts us into a certain type of person. Choosing idolatry turns us into a vastly different sort of person. Media preferences alter who we are. Moses finds this painful story of the stone words and the metal calf to be gravely instructive for the Israelites who are about to make their fateful river crossing. They are a people shaped by certain media that cannot abide certain other types of media. The program of Canaan’s media displacement must therefore begin immediately. Hence the charge to physically mark their entry into Canaan with those plastered rocks. Think of the contrast in media form and content that will instantly take place once God’s people set foot onto their new land. Rather than images carefully crafted through metallurgy and woodworking, Israel will pile up twelve rocks and cover them with script. Stone words.”

We communicate by doing – but as people made in the image of the God who speaks, we represent him best when we bear his image (in what we do) and we use words. We need words to truly bear God’s image. Because God speaks. That’s what gives words priority. But words can never be separated from how they are delivered. This slight distinction plays out in Byer’s application – which seeks to resolve what I think should be a dichotomous tension – suggesting that TheoMedia makes words a priority. This is probably the only weakness I see in TheoMedia, and one of the coolest things about the Christian bookosphere overlapping with the Christian blogosphere is that we’ve been able to chat about my questions over email. I love that. It makes reading books so much more relationally connected.

Byer urges Christians to learn from the way God dealt with an increasingly complex media landscape for Israel – who were confronted by images (idols and temples) wherever they looked as they left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land. So he sees the shema as profoundly important. The idea that in a media saturated world we should spend our time soaking ourselves in God’s media, in order to approach other media from a more healthy perspective.

Here’s what he says about the shema…

“The words of God were to saturate the daily grind of the Israelite family. They were to feature orally in conversations in the fields and in the home. Bound to the hand, stuck between the eyes, and emblazoned on the entranceways of the home, the TheoMedia of God’s words were also to occupy the visual space of God’s people. In a world rife with unauthorized media sources, the Israelites were commanded to esteem their God as their primary media source, holding fast to the TheoMedia of divine words, embracing a life saturated by holy speech.”

And later…

“The greatest commandment in scripture—the highest demand on our lives—encourages a set of media practices by which our lives are saturated with verbal TheoMedia. The Shema should be recognized as a central text as the church negotiates twenty-first-century media. It is a passage that reminds Christians in the digital age and every age that we are called to media saturation, but the media that are to so thoroughly permeate every dimension of our lives are the media of God.”

Byers argues that we should prioritise ‘word’ media over all other forms – in part on the basis of the Shema, but because he’s serious about Biblical Theology this is a thread he carries through into the New Testament (more below).

“If oral and textual TheoMedia are indeed prioritized, then it is incumbent on us to retain and strengthen the skills of hearing and reading. If the burden of the previous chapters on the sights and sounds of God was to argue that TheoMedia are various and multisensory, the burden of this chapter and the next is to show that they are subordinate to logocentric media, that is, the word-oriented media of prophetic discourse and holy text.”

But first – my slight critique.

Words never occur in a vacuum – they always come with the context provided by the speaker – even in creation itself, when God spoke into the void (arguably, literally, a vacuum) – it was who was speaking that made stuff happen.

Byers is well aware of the trouble with dichotomies – he spends significant time showing that there’s often a false dichotomy presented between the idea that Scripture functions propositionally vis a vis narratively, when it should be both, held in tension.

When it comes to the verbal v visual dichotomy he acknowledges the multimedia nature of God, so he’s already pretty nuanced in his approach to the dichotomy, I just don’t think he should resolve it.

“We have seen that God is a multimedia God and that his words are also multimedia in nature. Like fire in the prophet’s bones, they are hard to contain, bursting the limits of our dichotomies and bursting the limits of every media format that would communicate them. Verbal TheoMedia cannot be safely locked within ink or confined within chiseled inscriptions. They are living words, words that can be seen as well as heard, tasted as well as touched.”

The big problem I have with his treatment of the Old Testament – and it’s only minor – is that I don’t think you can actually separate the words of the Shema from the visual communication effect that the Shema being carried out was intended to have on both people in Israel, and the nations. You can’t split cause and effect in this way by placing the emphasis on cause – because the effect is necessary, and part of the intended function of the law.

I like what Wenham says about the performance aspect of the entirety of Torah:

But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”

If Wenham’s correct – part of the power of the Shema was in the doing, and part was in the watching – more than in the hearing (even if doing involved speaking the words). My argument is these things are so interconnected it is silly to try to prioritise one aspect of the communicative act above another aspect of the same part, and in this case, the communicative act is “image bearing for the God who speaks”… Anyway. This is a minor criticism and has only relatively small real world applications (except that it doesn’t undermine the humanity or worth of people who can’t use words as well as others).

The Gold

Byers presents his argument in a theologically rich and thoroughly engaged way… I love the way he speaks about the Incarnation. God entering the stage, tearing the sky apart…

“And now we come to the point in the Bible’s salvation-history when the sky gets ripped apart. The Bible opens with what appears to be a calm, peaceful scene: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Gospel of Mark opens in similar fashion. The Spirit is portrayed as a dove hovering above the waters of the River Jordan. This violent puncturing of the sky is a decisive moment in the biblical plot of redemption for Mark. It is the moment when it becomes clear that our God will tolerate no longer the divine-human alienation, when he will content himself no more with the mediation of prior centuries: “In Mark, then, God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.” It is not just the sky that gets torn in Mark. The verb schizō reappears at the end of the Gospel, forming what biblical scholars call an inclusio, the dual use of a word or theme that encloses or bookends a larger body of text to serve as an interpretive frame. Mark is to be read within the frame of divine-human boundaries being torn and ripped apart: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38).”

So good.

I love his use of John the Baptist as a model for using mediums that are wired to try to turn you into the centre of attention.

…Jesus called him the greatest man born of a woman (Luke 7:28; Matt 11:11). It makes good sense to give a little attention to the man Jesus himself called the greatest. But what we find when we look to John is that the all-consuming vocation of the greatest man born of woman was to point to someone greater, and then fade away: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There was absolutely no self-orientation to John’s celebrity status in the fourth Gospel (or in the other Gospels, for that matter): “In order that he may not be in any sense the object of his own preaching and action, he disowns every kind of movement towards himself.”

What a guide to participating in the online world. But Byer’s conviction (and mine) is that it’s Jesus who is the best model for participating in media.

“In all his flesh and blood reality, we could say that Jesus is the “Multimedium of God.” We could also understand Jesus—speaking, touching, imaging, embodying—as the most significant and the most multisensory TheoMedium of all… Just as the medium and message of the gospel informs our media practices, so also does the Incarnation of Christ.”

He suggests one of the implications of the incarnation is that we value presence over mediated absence, which is a handy tip, but he also suggests we should be seeking to take that presence wherever we can, wherever it’s needed…

“We should honour Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.”

The climax of the incarnation – the cross – is equally important in framing how we participate in media.

“The cross of Christ opposes self-orientation in any and every setting, online or offline. The motivations behind my status updates are often suspect. My heart vainly flutters a bit when there is a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog. At times I resonate a bit too happily with that exclamation mark when Twitter informs me, “You were mentioned in a Tweet!” The point here is that Christ’s call to selflessness, visually depicted in the cross, extends to any and all realms, even the new realm of the Internet. We need to carry the determinative force of the optical medium of the cross symbol into that realm and comport our media practices accordingly”

This is another point where I feel like TheoMedia may have been strengthened slightly, if the emphasis wasn’t placed on word ministry quite so much, but included the possibility that visual image bearing was a factor in the acting out of the written word (beyond the sacraments). It’s a quibble, but here’s a worked example…

“I am suggesting that the church understand media through the person of Jesus and through the ancient media practices his saving work encourages. Our verbal interactions are to be informed by the verbal proclamation of the gospel. And if we are going to inhabit a visual culture, then we should draw on the visual media legacies of the cross. Some sort of cross-visuality is affirmed when Paul writes to the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). Now, the Galatians were not present at Golgotha on that fateful day. But Paul’s prior preaching ministry had presented such a “vivid, verbal portrait of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion” that the scene could be understood as having occurred “before your eyes.””

I don’t think Paul just uses vivid spoken words for this – but his scars and suffering too… I think there’s a link between 2 Corinthians 4, (and Paul’s list of suffering for others in 11), and Galatians 6.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-11

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6:14-17

This potentially expands his conclusion – but only slightly, because his conclusion is tops (I’m running out of superlatives and trying not to sound like an Apple product launch).

“We ourselves are TheoMedia. The church comprises fractured image bearers who are being restored to the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God. By the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, every Christian is now a communicative means by whom God communicates within the church and reveals himself to the world.”

The control he suggests, for not being overwhelmed by the communication mediums of the world, and competing messages, is to soak yourself in TheoMedia… which, usefully, combats the “myths” packaged up in the mediums we use (as we’ll see when I finally write part four of my unfinished series on Facebook/social media and your brain).

“When it comes to spiritual gifts, the source of communication is God himself. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we are giving God our attention and asking how he wants to influence our thoughts and alter our actions. There is this simple little policy I try to abide by after I wake up to face a new day. Before opening a screen, my plan is to open my Bible; and before listening to any voice online or on TV, I want to listen out for God’s voice through prayer… As the page has turned to this concluding chapter, my hope is that we are now dripping wet with biblical ink. In order to understand media in the digital age, we have plunged into the sacred texts of the church with the hope of having our perspectives reoriented around biblical wisdom. Reading scripture trains us for certain “habits of thought—habitual ways of viewing or making sense of the world.” This immersing of ourselves in the Bible’s theological vision cultivates “cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts.”

I don’t want to turn you off buying the book by giving away the ending – because 90% of the joy is in the journey to get there… but Byer’s conclusion is so sensible and theologically coherent that it seems obvious.

“We need to be drawing on cultural studies, research data, personal experiences, and practical wisdom for faithful living in the digital age; but not without our sacred “script” as a foundational resource. Here is the second overarching thesis: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God…we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best.”

He provides a summary of the argument of the book in eight thesis, and this is where the spoilers stop. Buy it. Read it. Give it to anybody who wants to use new mediums thoughtfully to communicate the Gospel. Get this book out there.

Tweet, oh people of God. Blog, text, and type status updates. But linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, and return. Hear the gospel. Look to the cross. Feel the embrace of brothers and sisters. Smell the aroma of bread broken and taste the sweet wetness of wine outpoured. Preach and baptize. Exercise spiritual gifts and practice spiritual disciplines that poise our senses before the media of God. – Andy Byers, TheoMedia

 

Book Review: Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography

I love Manchester United. I have always admired Alex Ferguson. Even when he appeared to be a dolt.

So I bought his autobiography on release day – it promised to be tell-all, revealing, and controversial. The greatest controversy isn’t what Fergie had to say about people like Mark Bosnich. It is just how inane the prose in this book is. It was clearly rushed to print. It is repetitive. Self-indulgent. And in need of a good edit. Some random examples of just how stilted and language-defying the writing is are included below for your education.

Do not buy this book if you don’t like knowing how sausages are made.

On giving criticism

“Faced with the need to confront a player who had performed below our expectation, I might have said: ‘That was rubbish, that.’ But then I would follow it up with, ‘For a player of your ability.’ That was for picking them back up from the initial blow. Criticise but balance it out with encouragement. ‘Why are you doing that? You’re better than that.’”

An “amusing” anecdote

I was coming out of the Grand National meeting with Cathy in April 2013 and two Liverpool fans came up alongside to say, ‘Hey Fergie, we’ll hammer you next season.’ They were good lads. ‘Well, you’ll need to buy nine players,’ I said. They looked crestfallen. ‘Nine?’ One said: ‘Wait till I tell the boys in the pub that.’ I think he must have been an Everton fan. ‘I don’t think we need nine,’ said the other as he traipsed away. I nearly shouted, ‘Well, seven, then.’ Everyone was laughing.

An unapologetic plug for Unapologetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

 

 

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

 

 

 

 

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

 

 

 

 

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

 

 

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.

Book Review: Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross

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Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross

Cruciform = cross shaped.

This book is very good. Very, very good. Sometimes Gorman pushes things a little bit further than I would to make his point, sometimes his application of his ideas goes in interesting directions, sometimes his interpretations of passages don’t land where I’d go (and where other much smarter people than me go), and sometimes his tangents and arguments are a little coloured by his understanding of what hobby horses cruciformity rides – but it’s truly fantastic. One of the best books I’ve read while at college…

Want proof. Compare, side by side, the overture to Jesus’ work on the cross in Philippians 2:6-8, with how Paul describes his ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:19, and throughout the chapter. Amazing. I’d never noticed this before – maybe you have.

Here are some of the big ideas he riffs off for a few hundred pages of gold…

“The son’s act on the cross was an act of family resemblance, of conformity to God. God, therefore is a God of self-sacrificing self-giving love, whose power and wisdom are found in the weakness and folly of the cross. ”

“If on the cross Christ conforms to God, then God conforms to the cross. The cross is the interpretive or hermeneutical lens through which God is to be seen; it is the means of grace by which God is known.”

“As a colony of cruciformity, the church first tells its story to itself in liturgy and prophetic edification, so that it can live the story of cruciform faith, love, hope and power within itself. It is then equipped to tell and live the story – the gospel message – in the world, summoning people to faith by the power of the Spirit, and living by love and hope even in the face of opposition from enemies of the cross.”

“Paul’s communities become living commentaries on their master story… For Paul, the most faithful interpretation of the Messiah’s story is not a letter or an argument but a living body, one whose life unfolds step by step in ways analogous to Messiah Jesus. Such a body will bear – literally, or metaphorically, or both – “the marks of Jesus” branded on its body (Gal 6:17)”

A book (review) you should read

I’m not in the habit of reading books on church and ministry and stuff. I mean, I’m not an addict. I read maybe 6 a year. So take this recommendation with a grain of salt – this is the best book on ministry I’ve ever read. Other than the Bible.

The link is to a review I wrote of Creatures of the Word, a new book by a bunch of American guys, for the Bible Society.

It’s currently only $3.49 on kindle.
 

Book Review: Saving Eutychus

Disclaimer/Disclosure statement: The authors of this book are people I know well. One is the principal of the college I study at, Queensland Theological College. The second, if the review process could be any more daunting and personal – is my father. The advice in his chapters is advice I’ve grown up hearing, and seeing applied – though I haven’t been a member of a church that Dad has preached at for 8 years. I received early chapters of this book to proof read, and I didn’t do a very good job of that. I read them. But they seemed fine to me. The book also contains the following paragraph…

Phil and Louise are the parents of four adult children— Nathan, Jo, Maddie and Susie—and they are now learning the art of grandparenting (even though they insist they’re much too young). Nathan’s popular blog www.st-eutychus.com inspired the title of this book.

Which is nice – because as Gary was keen to point out – I don’t really own the copyright on Eutychus…

You can, in the absence of the book actually being released, check out some sample chapters and stuff on savingeutychus.com.


 

The Review

The disclosure should make it obvious that I’m going to have a hard time being objective here – I’m also going to have a hard time coming at this book as though half the chapters are at all novel. This isn’t new to me. It’s bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been taught to preach from my first talk, to a youth group, when I was 16. In many senses it’s how I was taught to write. It’s also how I’ve been taught to preach at college. I think it’s a good model. It meshes with what I know about communication from my profession.

One of the first things you notice about this book, appropriately, is the number of, and caliber of, the guys endorsing the book.

I could tell you this will revolutionise your preaching – but really I have no idea what it looks like to not have some of these tips running through my head, so instead, I’ll focus on some of the bits that I really liked, and let you read it and make up your mind for yourselves when it comes out.

There’s a nice humility underpinning the approach of this book – from confessions about being naturally boring, to constant reminders that preaching isn’t about us. In fact, the very message of the book takes most of the emphasis on the preacher out of the mix, except for this fundamental responsibility at the heart of the book…

“Gary and I are not approaching this book as experts on preaching that keeps people awake. But we are convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than our listeners’.”…

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved. If we have done our job, we will stand up on Sunday ready to deliver a sermon on a Bible passage that we have wrestled with and that the Holy Spirit has begun to apply to our own hearts and lives.

Preaching is God’s work, and any authority the preacher wields comes from the text of the Bible. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how charismatic our personalities are, no matter how engaging and witty we can be as we speak – preaching is ultimately reveals God, points people to Jesus, and relies on the Spirit to be hammered home.

Gary’s answer to this dilemma is prayer.

“Gradually, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that God uses weak and sinful people, and that he uses them only by grace. Yes, we may sow, plant and water—but only God gives growth. That’s true in your local church and mine. It’s also true of every podcast and ebook and conference address under the sun. God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray— we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.”

One of the nice things about the book is how honest both authors are about their own struggles in preaching – and their own lives in pastoral ministry that is preaching driven. There are excerpts from real, recent, sermons, to support some of the practical tips, and plenty of rubber hitting road anecdotes to illustrate how each chapter might be applied.

The chapters are relatively evenly split – Gary does the “theology” stuff, Dad does the practical, but the dichotomy isn’t carried out cleanly the whole way through – both are free to enter the other’s turf, so Dad is “theological” when it comes to how you think of the big idea, and Gary is practical when it comes to how you make real changes in the light of some theological insights.

Dad’s bits are shaped by years of trying to communicate better, driven by a gospel motivated (and personality motivated) perfectionism that I’ve inherited in certain areas – his chapters are the result of constantly assessing what you’re doing and questioning why you do it that way, and how you can make it work better, and be less painful, for your listener. Gary’s bits, are, as you’d expect if you know him, thoroughly Trinitarian, almost devotional (in a refreshing way and substantial way), reference Jonathan Edwards a few times, and are laced with really nice insights that’ll challenge the way you think about church – not just preaching, in a section on encouraging your whole church to pray for preaching he drops this Hanselesque breadcrumb:

“The growth of home groups is, I think, a really good thing, but it doesn’t come without a cost. In my experience, the cost is that the ‘prayer’ part of the home group is always weaker than the study part. The net result is that we pray more for my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbour’s friend’s daughter than we do for the proclamation of the message of Jesus. (And it’s not that my Aunt Nelly’s next- door neighbour’s friend’s daughter doesn’t need prayer—I’m arguing for both/and rather than either/or.) So, again, it’s just worth checking—is there a dedicated time during the week when people gather specifically to pray for our core business?”

I’ve been part of bible studies at five churches now, and I’m thankful for the way each have taught me to read the Bible and apply it to my life, but this rings a bit true – normally it’s the newest Christians who are the most passionate prayers when it comes to the core business of spreading the gospel.

Gary spends some time on the dangers of manipulation, and while it’s a really valuable reminder – I’m left wondering where “persuading” – openly, rather than underhandedly (manipulation) fits, but no matter how the cake is baked – the conclusion is worth eating…

“The key to preaching, then, is to make the message of the text obvious. Help people to see it and feel it. Help people to understand the text. Paul is talking about what I would call ‘expository preaching’, in which the message of the text is the message of the sermon.”

But this is a great way of making sure the authority of a sermon is resting in the right place – God’s revealed word.

One of my favourite bits of preaching advice from Gary is this, as a rookie preacher it has been really helpful for me thinking through what I think the “big idea” of a bit of the Bible is and how I might frame it appropriately.

“Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon.”

I could go through this book and keep cherry picking out the bits I like, but that might mean you won’t buy the book, and while my inheritance isn’t riding on it, you know, there’s enough self-interest there on my part to want you to buy it, as well as the belief that the book is really helpful – because it’s hard not to be if you think this is the goal of preaching:

This approach ensures that your preaching will be both predictable and unpredictable. It will be predictable in the same way that the Bible is predictable. At the core of our preaching will be the same message—what God has already done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

His chapter that covers doing this well from the Old Testament has been helpful for me, in lecture and chapel sermon form, and it’s nice to have it fleshed out more than I might have managed in blog post form in the past. The chapter includes a really helpful discussion of Biblical Theology and “trajectories” that link the Old Testament to Jesus, to the New Testament, to us…

The book’s format is helpful – chapters contain nice chunks of supporting material, be it passages from the Bible, passages from sermons, anecdotes, or helpful theological and pastoral reflections, and they’re rounded out with nice practical tips, lists, and summaries to help you remember and apply. The conversational tone between Gary and Dad within the chapters (they share a pulpit at Mitchelton and have had a chance to see each other in action for the last year) means the switch between voices is natural rather than jarring, they play nicely off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s interesting for me how many of Dad’s tips are very similar to how good corporate communication happens – it needs to be clear, as geared to your medium, as concise as possible, repeat your key messages, be based on some sort of authority (data in my case, the text when it comes to preaching), and for people to listen it needs to be about people.

“Take a look at the front page of a newspaper sometime. Are interest rates rising? Then you’re almost sure to see a photograph of an affected family. Graphs and statistics can come later. The journalist’s rule is this: if there are no people, there’s no story. So populate your preaching with real people. Use people-based illustrations and people-based application. Where you can, talk about real people and real situations, instead of just talking about abstract ideas. Typically, I’ll scour the newspaper, internet news sources and TV for fresh material. Incredibly, there always seems to be something useful. Of course, if the story involves a member of your congregation then you’ll need to ask permission first.”

This paragraph from Dad comes with a very important caveat in the footnotes:

“In fact, even if it’s about one of your kids make sure you ask permission first! Being a pastor’s kid carries enough baggage without growing up in church where everyone can recite the ‘cute stories’ of your childhood.”

I’ve found this has been incredibly true in the age of the Internet and a “digital shadow” – when my mother-in-law googled me when I started dating Robyn, she found a bit of one of Dad’s sermons that opened “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes”…

The book covers stuff like pulling a text apart, spoken delivery, receiving critique, putting a talk together – which includes something like a Director’s Cut/commentary version of the sermon manuscript from one of Dad’s recent sermons on Acts. And then, to finish off nicely, there’s a sample critique from Dad, and from Gary on a each other’s real sermons.

I really liked this book, I obviously heartily endorse it, and you should buy at least three. As I was reading it I was pretty thankful – thankful that I’ve been shaped the way I have by a father who wants people to know the ultimate father, shaped to love the gospel of Jesus, and want people to hear it unhindered, and hopefully shaped to be self-aware of my myriad faults and my constant desire to make preaching all about me. This book is a useful reminder for me in that ongoing challenge. And it makes me thankful that in the last few years I’ve been taught at a college by guys of Gary’s caliber (and the caliber of the other members of faculty). I have much to be thankful for, especially the gospel, and the privilege of being a fellow worker in the ministry of the gospel, as a preacher with training wheels on. There’s that old saying about new generations standing on the shoulders and I’ve never felt that more tangibly than when I read a book that spells out so clearly what I’ve been blessed to assume as natural by guys I know. But as impressive as I think those guys are, and as thankful as I am for both of them, it’s the gospel that’s really impressive and powerful to change hearts, not them, not me – but the God who revealed himself in Jesus and his word, who changes us by his Spirit.

Book Review: Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication

Church Communication is something I’m pretty keen on. So a book on Church Communication, with contributors from churches all around the world, is something I’m also pretty keen on.

Enter Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication a nice little primer on church communications in the digital age.

outspoken

What I liked about this book is how digestible the chunks are. Each chapter is an idea. A page or two – basically a blog post. From a different person. Each chapter ends with contact details for that person. It’s very conversational. It’s a nice format – and this is, increasingly, the way this sort of “how to” book is going to work, I think.

I loved that each contributor is passionate about seeing the church communicate its message well, and in a way that removes barriers for people while finding new opportunities. There’s much to like here. And not much to dislike. You should get a copy.

Some chapters resonated more with me than others, each is the product of a time, place, and culture, a little bit removed from the here and now. But it’s possible to mind that gap and get something from just about everybody who contributed.

Here are some of my favourite tips, tidbits, and communication tricks from the book.

“The early church didn’t have the modern technologies we have today. There were no billboards or direct mail campaigns to announce Jesus was coming. The disciples didn’t tweet or blog the Sermon on the Mount or other messages Jesus gave during his ministry. The one thing the early church did have, however, was captivating stories worth telling.” – Introduction, Tim Schraeder

This para is a nice summary of what my Masters project is going to cover next year.

“Church historians have noted that with every major cultural revolution that has taken place in modern times, there’s been an accompanying movement of God’s Spirit as the church has found new ways to reach more people. Our message has never changed but the way we communicate it has found new forms and new mediums throughout the generations.”

Those who caught my “multimedia is word ministry” post a while back will understand why I appreciated this

“Every time you communicate anything in any medium as a church, it is preaching. I’m not suggesting you start tweeting, “God reads knee-mail,” from your church’s account. What I am suggesting is that no matter what you’re saying, it is a sermon being preached.” – Media is Preaching, Jeremy Sexton

This collection of four tips for communication from a chapter by Curtis Simmons called A Failure to Communicate is timeless (the first three are the same sort of tips Cicero might give):

1. What The first step is to fully understand what you are being asked to communicate. Find out the story that is driving the communication. For example, don’t simply announce that Vacation Bible School is next month and assume everyone understands the benefits. Instead, explain the positive impact that it will have on the lives of the children and volunteers. Include testimonials from those involved in prior years.

2. Who Next, consider the audience. Tailor your message to the specific audience that truly needs to hear it. If your church is conducting a class specifically for new parents, then customize the message so it speaks directly to their needs.

3. How When developing your message keep it simple. Don’t use the cryptic language only some Christians may understand. Explain in simple, every day terms how one can come to know and trust in Jesus rather than inviting them to be “washed in the sanctifying blood of the Lamb.” Your message should also be crystal clear. Reduce the effort to get involved with an event or ministry to no more than three or four easy to under- stand steps and direct them to the first step.

4. Where Now that you know the story you need to determine which channels should be used to best reach your intended audience. In some instances an email to a small group is sufficient. In other instances, you may need to spread the word on your website, Twitter, Facebook and in the worship announcements.

There are a couple of really important points in there – I think – the first is to make all your communication about people – both in who communicates it, the content of the communication (stories), and the benefits you spruik (the “what’s in it for your audience” factor), and the second is the emphasis on multichannel communication. There’s a solid theory that suggests a message needs to be heard somewhere between 6-10 times (which means it probably needs to be said more than that) to be communicated effectively.

Simmons has a helpful warning emphasising the corollary of that – everybody else is trying to communicate to the same people multiple times.

“Keep in mind that the members of your congregation are bombarded with hundreds of messages each day. Don’t add to the noise by communicating every idea, event or program to everyone.”

This means being careful and creative with how we get messages to the ears or eyes of our hearers.

Another really helpful point, which I think leads back to ethos being more important than well put together pathos or logos (another part of my project), comes in a chapter by Phil Bowdle called Authenticity > Excellence. He says:

“There’s a word that has generated lots of momentum in the church world in recent years. It’s a word that gets thrown around frequently in conferences, workshops, staff teams and blogs. We’ve become obsessed with it. The word? Excellence.

Excellence has become a mantra behind much of the work we do. We’ve attempted to prove wrong the world’s assumption that if it’s Christian, it’s sub-par. Excellence is a value that has often been overlooked in the church, and it’s as important as ever to keep it at the core of everything we do.

In an effort to demand excellence in all that we do, a more important principle has been overlooked. That principle is authenticity.

I’ll be the first to put my hand up to say that I’ve bought into the excellence idea – because I don’t think being excellent in how we do things stands apart from being real and excellent in who we are – I actually think excellence and authenticity are incredibly related – so long as excellence is aspirational, and room is given for the humanity of the communicator and their audience.

Bowdle makes an interesting point, depending on how you measure excellence, that authentic communication produces better outcomes.

“Interestingly, we generated a much higher response out of the secondary communication strategies we implemented. Things like webcam videos, simple blog posts and in-service testimonies seemed to be more effective than the polished video and print pieces. The difference? The more the authenticity of the person, message or story shined, the more effective the result.”

I would’ve thought that rather than authenticity being better than excellence, authenticity=excellence.

I’d say, given that I have a bent towards judging communication by its character, and its fruits (and hey, so does Cicero), that authentic communication is the most excellent kind – especially if it’s driven by love (ala Paul in 1 Cor 12:31-13:1 – which seems to be one of his fundamental principles for church communication).

If you’ve come across marketing doyen Seth Godin, you’ll recognise the notion of “tribes” – if not, the idea is that the most successful to build something to the point of being successful is to build a tribe. His definition of a tribe: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” essentially describes a church. Whether the leader is Jesus or the senior pastor (or both), is a question of one’s ecclesiology. Anyway. Jon Dale applies this model to church communication to suggest we should be working harder at equipping the members of our tribe to talk to other people – which is, I think, the essential secret to doing social media well as a church. He says:

“There are four types of tribal communication:
1. Leader to tribe member.
2. Tribe member to leader.
3. Tribe member to tribe member.
4. Tribe member to outsider.

We spend most of our energy in the church (and business) world on #1. Think about it. We get up on stage on Sunday and do #1. We send out eblasts and do #1. We write books and do #1. Then we upgrade to the latest craze and do a podcast (more of #1). And for kicks we send out a survey and think we’re doing #2 well. But the reality is that #3 and #4 are what change the world.”

Another idea that resonated with me came from Danielle Hartland in Fresh and Light, which basically called for your organisational infrastructure and pathways should be seen, and experienced – rather than heard. And when you’re talking about these important things you should talk about them as they relate to Jesus and in a human way.

“No one is motivated when they feel like a tiny cog in a big machine. Instead of telling people how they fit in your church’s grand plan, tell them how/why things will help them connect to and grow in Jesus.”

This leads nicely back to the importance of the story – and Matt Knisely’s Your Church, the Storyteller, is, I think, the most important chapter for communicating with the post-modern, and post-post-modern world.

“One of the most powerful tools any church has to reach people is a first-person story of a changed life.”

And the best part is, no matter what size church you have, telling stories doesn’t require expensive equipment or complicated multimedia. You really need just one thing: People whose lives are being changed by the gospel message. Ask them for their stories. Ask in emails. Ask them to write their stories down. Ask them in person. Then, tell those stories. Video them if you want. Print them (with permission).

There are a few good practical chapters in the mix, none more important than the chapters on church websites. These make the point that the church website is, if not just for outsiders, the primary tool outsiders are using to investigate you. I’ve argued that the result of this is that your website should be geared to the outsider.

These contributors agree – Jeremy Scheller writes Your Website Needs to Be a Billboard, and suggests the following principles (I’ve summarised them):

1. Keep it simple.
2. Say something about you.
3. Get to the point.
4. Point people to take action.

Paul Steinbrueck in Your Website: your first, and only, impression, says 80% of people who are looking for a church start on the web. And they start with google. So search engine optimisation is really important, as is what people see if they arrive.

He gives seven tips with these points in mind. (Again, I’ve summarised them, buy the book).

1. Optimize your website for search engines.
2. Give your website a nice design.
3. Prominently feature a “New Visitor” section.
4. Include a welcome message.
5. Include pictures or video services.
6. Answer all the questions you would want answered before you visit a church.
7. Publish stories.

The last, and perhaps most important point comes from Scott McClellan – who, in a chapter called Never Trust a Skinny Chef urges people involved in communication to put themselves in the shoes, seat, or ears, of their audience – to make sure it’s hitting the target.

“Read your writing. Watch your films. Listen to your sermons. Browse your website. Navigate the church building using your signage. Subscribe to your email newsletter.”

This is a really useful book, and one I’m sure I’ll be coming back to, both in its initial form – and by continuing the conversation, where necessary, with its contributors. Most of whom are on Twitter.