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“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

bornthiswaycoverBorn This Way is a new book written by Steve Morrison, and published by Matthias Media attempting 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).

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

“Thanks for taking the time to read the book and to write giving me the chance to respond. Thanks for pointing out when you’re quoting a promotional video interview that I did for the book and when you’re quoting the book itself. The book was thousands of hours of work by myself and others around the world. Nearly every sentence was re-written in some form to tighten the nuance of the book. Both I and the publisher knew this book needed extra care because of the criticism it would face so we not only spent an extra year working on it but it’s one of the reasons we kept it short. That said, of course the book will be imperfect and unsatisfying to some, and could always be done differently or improved. So please be careful when critiquing the book because of the video interview. When I saw the interview (I didn’t get a chance to edit it) I did wish that I’d phrased things more carefully. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s really fair to use the video as a basis to critique the book give that I’m not answering or clarifying anything in the book. I would prefer you critique the book as a standalone resource. As we work together in our various situations as servants for God’s Kingdom and the glory of Christ your critique on the book is most welcome.”

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.”

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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.

Timothy Kurek is a braver man than I. If spending a year living “Biblically” by obeying every command of the Bible sounds hardcore – imagine spending a year out of the closet as a gay man, when you’re straight. Lying to your friends and family, leaving your old life behind, and immersing yourself in the gay community.

That’s what Tim Kurek did. He wrote about it in a book called The Cross in the Closet.

Cross in the Closet

His paradigm is that Jesus “became something he wasn’t” in the “ultimate act of empathy” – this is incarnational mission on steroids. Only there’s not a huge amount of mission going on, rather, a lot of soul-searching, and an interesting insight into conservative American Christianity, and what it’s like to be part of a gay sub-culture in the Bible Belt.

I’m increasingly passionate about the need for Christians to do much better when it comes to talking about, and to, those who are same sex attracted, and those who are actively homosexual. This means thinking carefully about how we approach the pastoral issue, the political sphere, but most importantly – how we articulate the gospel to our homosexual friends, family, and neighbours, and how we love and care for them in all these areas.

This book was helpful in capturing something of the emotional fragility of those people Tim interacted with. Tim clearly loves people, and especially broken and fragile people who have been hurt by their interactions with others. Others who haven’t loved them like they are called to, as followers of Jesus. But it ultimately, I feel, misrepresented what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means to love people.

It’s a powerful book. It’s moving. Especially when Tim shares a story of his own past as a homophobic bully, who contributed, in a small part to the misery of a homosexual co-worker he hated. It’s an immersive work, a great piece of gonzo journalism, It’s not an experiment I can see being repeated any time soon, so there’s a certain kudos that comes just from denying yourself for your mission that comes with this.

What struck me as I read this book was that while Tim Kurek is an incredibly brave man, I think the experiment would have been more worthwhile if he was a little more emotionally mature, though, paradoxically, a more mature person probably wouldn’t have thought the experiment was a good idea. He’s open, reflective, and honest about his struggles throughout the experiment. It’s raw. But it’s ultimately largely unhelpful.

While he empathises with those he is championing, and tries to present them positively and as a diverse community that can’t be understood monolithically, and makes some attempts to empathise with the tradition he left behind, he tars all “conservative Christians” with the Pharisee brush, and fails to consider any responses to the homosexual issue along the total acceptance/total rejection spectrum. He attempts to empathise with the Phelps family from Westboro Baptist, but can’t truly begin to fathom, past describing through the eyes of another person, how a person who believes in sin, judgment and Hell, while believing homosexuality is sinful, can truly love a homosexual person without fully accepting them, their orientation, their practice, and their homosexual identity.

This whole “issue” of homosexuality is only polarizing because conservative religion dictates the standards of religious people. It controls their motives and their reactions. It especially controls their politics. I hope to see the day when my conservative Christian brothers and sisters realize that separation is not the way of Jesus.

Conservative Christianity teaches us to love everyone; however, that love can take many different forms. It seems to stem from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” biblical perspective, which imposes only two rather limited options: Insist others conform to your spiritual world view, or ignore those who don’t. A friend of mine calls it the “brother’s keeper” method.

He then tosses out the ability for anybody to be right about the Bible.

“I think about those trapped in the closet who see only two options: stay miserable in life or seek peace in the hereafter. And I wonder what Jesus would do. Would he go door to door campaigning for Proposition 8, or would he rebuke the Pharisees who dole out condemnation like a commodity, for missing the point? I think he would do the latter. But do I think that only because I have lost my focus on what my former pastor used to call the “panoramic landscape of the gospel”? My Pharisee said as much. But it just doesn’t make sense. Life is too short to live out two-thousand-year-old prejudices from Leviticus, Greece, or Rome. Either way, I am starting to believe that people have the right to believe as they wish. My finger pointing has to stop, and thanks to Revive, I am starting to see why.”

This is what happens when you put experience in the driver’s seat when it comes to interpretation.

His emotional immaturity comes through in the assessment criteria he applies to the reaction he receives from friends and family. His brother and sister-in-law accept his announcement almost without blinking, but a schism develops when they find out mid way through the experiment that he is lying to them. His mum hugs him. Plenty of his friends turn their backs on him. His pastor tells him he needs to repent, but that he’s welcome at church like any sinner – and he does it by email, sent from his blackberry. Tim is adamant that the pastor should have called him – and he should have. People from his old life largely ignore his birthday. He feels isolated. Cut off. He was hard done by. He was wronged.

But the experiment would’ve been more genuine, I think, if he’d tried to maintain these relationships rather than expecting everybody else to come after him. It’s easy to criticise without having lived the experience, but love and relationships go two ways. And the picture Tim paints of his gay friends who have been hurt by their parents is that in the main they are still keen for old relationships to continue, even if the people they love aren’t. They’re making an effort – Tim didn’t (or certainly didn’t give any evidence of trying). Not with his church friends, anyway who he condemns for abandoning him.

In the eight days I have been out, that fear has permeated every social sphere I have been part of. I have been rebuked in the name of Jesus, lost four friends who refuse to be close to an “unrepentant homosexual,” and I have even been told that Jesus does not love me…

My phone no longer rings with calls and texts like it did only a short week ago. I have been waiting, preparing myself for numerous conversations about my revelation, but so far most friends seem to desire only distance. It is that distance, I think, that has pushed so many people over the edge, the excommunication from believers, friends, and loved ones that disagree and disengage. My news spread like a plague, but I was the only real casualty…

There is a fine line between tolerance and rejection. Waking up to that fact has cost me dearly. In the past three weeks, I’ve received emails and text messages from people whom I always believed loved and valued me. But now I know the truth. Instead of speaking with me in a personal way to understand my decision, many of these people took the easy path of judgment, and they did so using the impersonal and soulless tools of social networks and email to do the dirty work.

Besides, the Christian friends and community I spent years building seem to have forgotten about me. So many people have disappeared from my life that it is almost as though they never existed. Fair-weather friends? No, just people firmly stuck in their bubbles, I think. On the other hand, the people I am meeting now seem to accept me more than anyone ever has. Perhaps that is because the gay men I spend so much time with don’t judge me by my piety but let my actions speak for themselves. If I make them laugh, they like me for my sense of humor. If I am kind, they like that I am sensitive. Those are earned actions. It is nice not to be judged for my gauged ears, or for the fact that I didn’t read as much of the Bible as a fellow parishioner. It is nice not to be judged by how well I can present a righteous façade.

Here’s a passage from when he eventually goes back to his old church, and sees a friend in the car park:

“An old friend sees me standing by my car and runs over to greet me. The smile on his face is enormous, and it warms my heart. “Tim Kurek! How are you doing?” He ignores my outstretched hand and pulls me into a hug. “I’ve missed you, brother. How are you?” “I’m doing well. How are you?” I say, somewhat shocked by his genuine greeting. “I’m doing great. I’ve missed you, man.” He’s always been a good guy, my friend, and standing with him makes me realize how much I have missed him, too. It feels odd, though…wrong, somehow. How can I miss someone who hasn’t tried to reach out to me? How can I feel a connection to someone who thinks of me as an abomination?”

He’s right. Cutting people off because you don’t like a decision they’ve made is stupid – if they’re no longer claiming to be part of your church community. If someone says “I’m gay, I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore” and you cease contact with them – you’re a jerk. That’s a big secret to reveal and it comes at a cost. But the church has to be really careful about how it deals with sexual immorality within its walls, and within the community – Paul’s pretty clear on that (1 Cor 5). He’s also pretty clear that being a Christian transforms our sexuality – be it gay or straight – that it involves a leaving behind of the old, and a realignment of our identity in Jesus (1 Cor 6:9-11).

If you’re in Tim’s shoes though, or the shoes he’s trying to walk in, I’m not sure you can complain about being cut off if you’ve essentially cut yourself off first, and make no apparent effort to continue relationships. Tim’s gay friend Will, who he grew up with, and pursued/persecuted at the request of Will’s mum when Will came out, is more understanding about his mum cutting him off than Tim is…

“I just try to put myself in her shoes. If I believed what my mother believes, and I had a son come out as gay, I would be mortified because that would mean my blood, my offspring that I love unconditionally, was going to Hell. Now think about Hell from a conservative Christian’s perspective. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to steer your child away from that path? It is simple enough for me. Her belief separates us, but her motivation helps me understand and accept her, even though it hurts me.” Will steps away for a second and makes a drink for another customer.”

His model of incarnational ministry is a bit skewiff, because while Jesus certainly became human, and lovingly lived amongst sinners – he didn’t become a sinner until the cross – and even then the sinner he became was vicarious (2 Cor 5), and doesn’t push us to joining sinners in their sin, but towards a share of God’s righteousness:

20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Jesus identified with sinners. Yes. And Tim summarises it like this:

I have been taught that I need to be Jesus to the people I meet, that I need to live the love and the faith and the commitment of my God, so that others can see Him, too. If it is true that we can be Jesus to each other, then I will never see Jesus the same way again. Tonight… Well, tonight, I saw Jesus in drag, and now I feel incapable of hate.

Being Jesus, for Tim, means not “shoving theology down people’s throats”… when he’s thinking about how he suddenly finds himself not liking the church very much he says this:

Can I truly claim Jesus and be at odds with his children? Are they even his children? I remember the scripture that says “by your fruit you shall know them.” Yes. They are his children, as much as I am his child. Salvation is not a country club, and we do not have the right to deny anyone admittance. People and their relationships to God are their own concern, and no good can come from my shoving my theology down someone else’s throat.

Shoving “my theology down someone else’s throat” is bad. The very notion of “my theology” is bad. But that’s not the same as telling people the great and freeing news of the gospel of Jesus who sets people free from oppression, particularly the oppression of sin. One of the classic texts used in the relationship between Jesus and an “incarnational” approach to evangelism is Luke 4:18-19.

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

I’d argue that you can’t just proclaim by being, though loving and empathy are part of our proclamation. This is, I think, The Cross in The Closet’s biggest failing. 

Tim is clearly angry at the institutional church. He says, after he returns to his church during the experiment:

“It’ll probably be a long time before I’m comfortable at any church again. I will always do my best to follow God with my life, but being part of a brick and mortar church doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

The book paints his progression from “conservative Christian” to “liberal” – in his own words. His contempt for his former self – who he depicts throughout the book as a pharisaical interlocutor – and his former way of thinking, and love for his new found ability to love people for who they are, means he throws a lot of baby out with the bathwater.

He preempts criticism by both adopting the spiritual high ground, through an account of a moving spiritual event where a gay community group sang praise songs along with “Jesus in drag,” and through the recording of a prayer that a gay man prayed when he re-outed himself as a straight man. He also swears off labelling people, saying people should just be seen as people – while depicting himself, and by extension, anybody who articulates the thoughts the Pharisee version of him was thinking, as Pharisees.

Here’s a couple of passages on the power of labels.

Being a second-class citizen feels like being a tenth-class citizen. If I really were gay, I feel like my life would become such an issue for people that I would be constantly exhausted. Gays and lesbians are looked at as different, perverse, and the label alone seems to illicit an association with the lowest dregs of society, morally speaking. No one wants to be thought of that way! Is it really so unrealistic to let people’s actions speak for them rather than the stigmatized label?

“That was the first time since coming out that I heard that word and understood what it actually meant. It means that you are a lesser, a second-class citizen, and an anathema. It means that your life is relegated to a single word, and the details of that life don’t matter. It means that your thoughts, experiences, loves, and struggles should be painted over because you aren’t an equal, that yours isn’t as valuable as other lives. It meant you are hated. Even though I am not actually gay, I felt that hate, and it still disrupted something sacred in me. Faggot denotes rejection and epitomizes unwelcome, and it was a vile epiphany that I came to. Without knowing anything about us, the man walking the pugs told all of us that we were not worthy to be in community with him.”

Here’s how he poisons the well as the experiment ends – so that nobody can possibly impeach his testimony, with the prayer his gay friend Ben prays when he has revealed that he’s been straight all along.

“Ben begins to cry. Tears roll down his cheeks like shiny beads, and his lips quiver. He breathes heavily, but still says nothing. And then, as if in a dream, Ben lightly touches my lips with his hand and begins to pray:

“Lord, be with your servant, Tim. Inspire the words that come out of his mouth as he shares the reality of this news with the masses, and as he shares your love and your grace with the masses.”

He slides his hand to my eyes. “Lord, protect his eyes and what he sees. Help him not to see any hatred, but only love, as he sets out on this journey of grace.”

His hand once again moves, to my ears. “Lord, block his ears from hearing the hateful words directed at him from people in the religious community and from this one. Protect his ears from the words of hate that they’ll inevitably speak.”

His hand moves to my heart. “Lord, thank you for this heart! Thank you for the sacrifices he has made. Lord, bless this beautiful heart with every power you possess. Help him never to change, Lord, to be jaded, to be hurt. I love you, Lord, and Tim loves you. Thank you for letting us love each other. Amen.”

Clearly it’s a moving experience for him. Clearly Ben appreciates what he’s done. And by reporting this third party endorsement of his words, from within the gay community, he can now argue from his own experiences that his position is the most authentic position on the gay issue, perhaps with the exception of the gay Christians he lionises throughout the book. And that’s all very post-modern. But am I speaking hatred by disagreeing with the direction Tim took with his experiment? I hope not. It’s such a binary way of viewing the world. I disagree with him – but I don’t hate him. To frame criticism as hate, and to do it before you’ve even faced the criticism, to delegitimise criticism, is a clever rhetorical move, but ultimately pretty empty.

Perhaps my biggest concern, pastorally at least, is that he tosses any same sex attracted Christian who resists identifying with their sexual orientation under the bus. Not because he takes the “born this way” argument, but because he rejects the view of original sin he was brought up with and over-emphasises the importance of being made in the image of God – or at least, his view of the imago dei has no account for the impact of the fall.

“I am sure of my God, who I believe more than ever sent his Son for me, and I am sure of the reconciliation he offers, whether that be between families split apart over divisive issues, or members of opposing political parties. I am sure of the beauty that all mankind has inherited—a beauty that can never be stripped away by bad words or deeds, or even other humans”

Kurek hates on, dismisses, or jokes about, reparative therapy a few times, and perpetuates the myth that attempting to realign your sexual orientation is harmful.

If my mom tried to shove ex-gay literature at me, I’d probably throw it right back at her. Reparative therapy, they call it. They should call it “repression therapy.”

The only thing close to a longitudinal study on the impact of reparative therapy, by Jones and Yarhouse, concluded that it isn’t always effective, but it’s not really harmful.

It’s horrible that coming out, for some people, results in being disowned and ostracised by their family, friends, and ministers – rather than producing loving concern. But Kurek seems to judge people on their inability to show an empathy, or even sympathy, for others that he isn’t prepared to genuinely extend to people who are struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation with their identity. It’d also be tempting to suggest that he gets a bit of Stockholm Syndrome during the experiment – but I think he actually genuinely loves, and is loved by, the people he lives with for his year. And that’s great. If only it translated to being prepared to love people despite their sin, while still acknowledging sin, and trying to move the locus of human identity to a right relationship with the God who created us all.

I think he’s ultimately right about labels – labels are powerful. They carry stigma. And it’s bad to label people according to their sexuality. It’s bad to let your sexual orientation define who you are. But there are labels that it’s important to own, as a Christian. Adopted. A new creation. A child of God. A follower of Jesus. And adopting all those labels has a powerful effect on your life, and it changes your identity. And it changes your approach to sex and sexuality. I just don’t think Tim quite got there…

But I’m thankful for his experiment, wrong-headed and relationally damaging though I think it was (I think the experiential gains from deceiving his family were minimal, and contributed nothing to the book – especially because they essentially whole-heartedly continued loving him, even though it was hard for his mum). I’m thankful because it did open my eyes to some unthinking prejudices of my own, to times when I might be insensitive to the people around me, to the importance of personal contact rather than hiding behind a keyboard when it comes to dealing with difficult issues, and to the need to keep the love of Jesus for all people at the front of my thinking. And I’m hopeful that as Tim, freed from the shackles of the hatred that constrained him and his understanding of Christianity in the past, will keep looking to the Bible to find out who Jesus is, not just to human expressions of spirituality, I’m hopeful that his experiences will shape him, and others, so that the cross of Christ continues to shape our identity, not whatever closets we feel the need to hide in.

I read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible last year. I think I meant to review it. But I forgot. Now, Rachel Held Evans, a Christian blogger, has set the blogosphere atwitter with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” The two are essentially related.

A Year of Living Biblically

Here’s the YouTube trailer…

And a TED talk author AJ Jacobs gave on the experience.

Despite a bunch of hermeneutical problems – I really enjoyed his book – it was well written, honest, and good humoured. It wasn’t a great picture of what Christianity is – which is particularly fair enough, given that Jacobs is a secular Jew. You can’t necessarily expect him to have a good grasp of a hermeneutic that incorporates the New Testament.

He had this idea that taking the Bible “literally” and taking it to its logical conclusion meant “taking the Bible literally, without picking and choosing”… he was inspired by his “crazy ex-uncle,” Gil.

He started out by writing down every single law that he could find in a couple of readings of the Bible, then set out to apply them as literally as possible. Though he gave himself some wiggle room right from the start:

“I will try to find the original intent of the Biblical rule or teaching, and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative – and I’m going to say the eunuch one [Matt 19:12] is – then I won’t obey it literally.”

He gave eight months to the Old Testament, and four to the new – which is generous, because as a Jew he could’ve been consistent and just stuck with the Old.

He says in the TED video that he was amazed by how his behaviour changed his thoughts – rather than his mind changing his behaviour. Which is an interesting insight.

It’s a pretty interesting read, it’s thought provoking, it’s full of great stories that will become good sermon illustrations of his meetings with various people, including a group who are dedicated to breeding unblemished red cows for the purpose of sacrifice once the temple is restored in Jerusalem.

He asked some really honest questions of the Bible, and was honest about how it impacted, and didn’t impact, his life. He ended the year as a “reverent agnostic” who thinks that there’s something important about sacred stuff.

One of his big take home lessons was “though shalt not take the Bible literally,” which is interesting. But very few Christians do what he suggests is the “literal” reading of the Bible. Because the Old Testament is changed by the New Testament. It’s a fun game – but Christians should know better. Shouldn’t they?

Now, I’m not going to suggest that all Christians read the Old Testament well – there are plenty of people who draw weird allegorical interpretations from the Old Testament, or who don’t mind the gap, and take the promises of prosperity that are time and place bound – to Israel, in the land, and apply them to life now. That’s a real problem in many circles that take the Bible seriously. As is reading any Biblical text – from the Old or New Testament – “literally” – taking text at face value without considering context, genre, and what the original meaning might have been.

So there’s a legitimacy to critiquing that approach to reading the Bible – and I think that’s where I’m prepared to cut Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood some slack that others aren’t.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

She isn’t doing the hermeneutical work (hermeneutics = principles of interpretation) that she should, as a Christian, be doing – but precisely in not doing it, she’s making a point about some other approaches to the Biblical text. She’s made some people, like Kathy Keller, a little bit upset in doing so. On one level, Keller has missed the point. But on another, she’s right – Held Evans has been on the media circuit promoting this book, using an almost identical rationale to Jacobs, who’s a Jew. Held Evans is a Christian.

We should, I think, expect Christians to have a better grasp of the Bible, and speak from that point of view, most times, lest they undermine the most consistent way to read it – which is as a grand, unfolding, narrative of God’s plan for salvation in Jesus – that’s why we keep the Old Testament, without jettisoning the superseded laws.

This exercise would be problematic if Held Evans is making an in-house point, that is being lost in media coverage of her book. The reception has certainly focused on the controversy and reaction to her book – here are two examples from an American Newspaper I’ve never heard of, and Slate who focus on some controversy surrounding Held Evans using the word vagina in the book – which means some Christian book stores won’t sell it. But most people seem to be getting the joke. Most secular media outlets understand that she’s not applying a hermeneutic she agrees with. The Huffington Post ran these pieces that recognised Held Evan’s point (and this one). It seems most of the in-house furore is from people who don’t get that Held Evans “literal approach” is ironic, or don’t think she should be being ironic. Which is a shame. But there are plenty of readers who won’t get the irony either. This review seems to suggest that because not all evangelicals read the Bible like Held Evans is demonstrating, her being ironic is not enlightened, but adds fuel to the fire.

Evans writes,

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives. (294)

And yet, amazingly, scripture is clear enough to Evans that she can determine it has been misread and misapplied by the evangelicals who advocate for a biblical view of manhood and womanhood.

That review, like Keller’s, provides a pretty stellar overview of a consistent way to read the Bible and create a category of Biblical womanhood, but the fact that pages like this one, about Proverbs 31 “Christian mom/entrepreneurs,” and that some of the books featured in this post, exist is a testimony to part of the problem Held Evans seems to be engaging with.

Keller calls Held Evans out for “picking and choosing” – an echo of one of Jacobs’ conclusions to his experiment – that one needs to “pick and choose” if they’re going to live Biblically in modern life.

Here’s what Keller says:

Yet you, who surely know this as well as anyone, proclaimed at the start of your book: “From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there [will be] no picking and choosing” (xvii, emphasis mine). To insist that it would be “picking and choosing” to preclude the Levitical code from your practice of biblical womanhood is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive.

In making the decision to ignore the tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came, you have led your readers not into a better understanding of biblical interpretation, but into a worse one. Christians don’t arbitrarily ignore the Levitical code—they see it as wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. In him, we are now clean before God. I doubt if you had given birth during this year you would have made a sin offering after your period of uncleanness (Lev. 12:6-7). I doubt this because you know that in Jesus the sacrifices, as well as the clean laws, are fulfilled and therefore obsolete.

She’s right. Christians shouldn’t “pick and choose” – we should read the Bible through the lens of Jesus – but that doesn’t always happen. And I suspect that’s the point Held Evans, if not Jacobs, is making. Jacobs isn’t ignorant of other hermeneutics either – he spends time with Christians of different denominational ilks in his experiment. He hangs out with snake handlers – and acknowledges that most Christians are able to distinguish a disputed verse in Mark as being descriptive, rather than prescriptive, so that we don’t go picking up poisonous snakes every Sunday morning…

Keller makes the point in her review that there are times that Held Evans isn’t as generous to the writers of the Bible as Jacobs was – there are a couple of points where she misattributes views that Paul is quoting to Paul himself, or applies something in a humourous and literal way when it’s clearly figurative. But again, I’m willing to cut Held Evans some slack, because if, at the heart of her premise, is the idea that other people pick and choose how they read the Bible, then she’s right – and her point is well made. Bad readings of the Bible that are inconsistent, and bring bizarre modern hermeneutical gymnastics to the table, produce bad results.

I’m with Keller though – I think the best results, and the best hermeneutical method, involves thinking about how a passage relates to the Lordship of Jesus, and passages should be interpreted as products of their time, place, purpose, and genre – before making any jumps to the present.

Here’s how Keller rounds out her review…

“Rachel, I can and do agree with much of what you say in your book regarding the ways in which either poor biblical interpretation or patriarchal customs have sinfully oppressed women. I would join you in exposing churches, books, teachers, and leaders who have imposed a human agenda on the Bible. However, you have become what you claim to despise; you have imposed your own agenda on Scripture in order to advance your own goals. In doing so, you have further muddied the waters of biblical interpretation instead of bringing any clarity to the task.”

The question is, is this judgment warranted. Does A Year of Biblical Womanhood muddy the waters?

Most Christian readers I know won’t find her titular definition of “Biblical Womanhood” particularly resonates with their experience. Robyn just told me if I told her to call me master she’d laugh, and if I was serious she doesn’t know what she’d do. We’ve been married five years, and the issue has never come up before. But it’s not really written for me. It’s written for people across a much broader spectrum of Christianity than Held Evan’s fellow evangelicals, perhaps even feminist non-Christians.

Much like Jacobs’ work, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is an enjoyable read – it’s funny. It’s occasionally poignant. Whether Held Evans is sitting on a roof, in contrition, trying to cook like Martha Stewart, or calling her husband “master” – there’s something to savour, and get annoyed by, and be challenged by, in every chapter. It’s frustrating. It’ll no doubt mislead some people. But it makes a serious point about wrong ways to read the Bible. And for all the frustations I felt at Held Evans misrepresenting the “evangelical” line that I’m familiar with – she grounded her accusations in reality, she talks about a group dedicated to the Biblical concept of patriarchy, and some “biblical polygamists.” Her criticisms might be of extreme groups, taking extreme positions – but they’re not so absurd that they don’t exist.

Like Jacobs, Held Evans doesn’t give a great answer for how to read the Bible, running the we have to “pick and choose” line – but it goes closer. Here’s what she says:

“Philosopher Peter Rollins has said, “By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it.”

Like Keller, I think this is fairly weak. I think we can approach scripture with an essentially “scientific objectivity” through historio-critical hermeneutics that have been demonstrably popular, at the very least, since Calvin, Luther, and Erasmus (basically since humanism), and with various figures throughout church history before that, with varying degrees of consistency. The criticism that we each bring an agenda to the text doesn’t warrant coming up with a blanket interpretive rule that we have to shoe-horn every text into, it means being careful to treat every text on merit, using a consistent method. But more than that – I think “love” is objective too – not a subjective thing that requires creativity. The Bible reveals God’s love to us in Jesus, from start to finish. We interpret a passage with justice when we realise that the Old Testament laws, and prophets, are fulfilled in Jesus – even if it’s true that the Old Testament laws should originally have been interpreted through the lens of “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbour as yourself” – and a Christian ethic should do the same – if Biblical interpretation isn’t dealing with the question of how Jesus changes things – it’s not truly “Biblical” – that’s the criteria by which most readings fail.

The real strength of her critique is in the power of the negative:

“Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.”

She’s right. Most of us selectively read the Bible. Most of the time. We all have a tendency to want God on our side – supporting our football team, cause, or institution – and I’d argue that there’s an objectively right answer in most of these cases, but a lack of wisdom, ability to make complex decisions with omnipotent clarity, and the effect of sin means we’re all equally unlikely to land on it.

Her methodology is very similar to Jacobs’, only less charitable.

“This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.”

For me, one of the interesting parts of the book is the way the online conversation on her blog, about the process of writing the book, becomes part of the book itself. There’s something meta about that that I appreciate, the commentary becomes the content. The conversation is about the conversation.

By this point I’d been reminded about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on their roofs, and that rooftops in the ancient Near East would have been flat and habitable anyway, but I was determined to engage in some kind of public display of contrition for my verbal misdeeds… I spent an hour and twenty-nine minutes on the safest corner of our roof, reading over my list of transgressions, practicing a bit of centering prayer, and watching a small herd of cats mill about the neighborhood.

My biggest frustration with Held Evans’ exegesis of narrative came in her discussion of polygamy – where she makes the blanket claim that the Bible assumes, rather than condemning, polygamy. I don’t think that’s a particularly sensitive reading of any of the New Testament passages about marriage that either assume a marriage is between a man and a woman (so Jesus in Matthew, Paul in Corinthians), and the qualifications of an elder state that the leaders of churches are to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy, Titus). But the biggest grievance here is that it’s a poor reading of the Old Testament narrative – especially as she holds Solomon up as a Biblical hero – when his propensity for marriage was what caused the end of Israel and the spiralling into exile…

I’m as complementarian as they come – I’m ok with gender forming a different flavour of identity for men and women, and want to affirm, lovingly, and with equal value when it comes to personhood, the distinction between genders. My reading of the Bible resonates with Keller’s, and Flashing (who wrote the second review I linked to), rather than Held Evan’s slightly more post-modern approach to the text, and I’m pretty convinced we’ve got it right – but that’s not a reason not to criticise readings that we all think are wrong – readings that don’t pay attention to the context – which we’re all trying to do, just with different results, and thus, different conclusions. So I’d recommend the book – it’s funny, it’s interesting, it makes some strong points against those it critiques – but I’d not recommend the conclusion – which replaces Jesus as the hermeneutical key with “love,” when surely it’s the love of Jesus that gives all people the most hope, and a life lived following King Jesus is surely the most biblical type of life.

Parenting is fun. We love it. Getting advice about parenting, well, that’s a mixed bag. Some is helpful. Some is odd. Most is well intentioned. Some is revenge for the years of pain I’ve inflicted on other people’s kids.

Anyway.

Here’s my number one piece of parenting advice. Buy your child this kid’s Bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. For less than $12, excluding postage, you pretty much can’t go wrong. It’s brilliant. We’re on the third lap. It is well written, it is theologically astute. You’ll probably learn something about how to make Biblical concepts clear enough for kids.

It’s a sensational example of why a Christ centred Biblical Theology brings the whole Bible together.

I am looking forward to Soph being old enough for me to complement it with pictures from the Brick Bible. I have the Old Testament already. And you can find the kids talks I did once with pictures from the online version of Judges in my Bible Stories for Boys tag.

I’ve found John Dickson tremendously helpful at just about every stage of my Christian life – even when he edited a magazine called Zed magazine that I remember reading as a kid. His books are helpful. His take on public Christianity is pretty paradigmatic for me, and his apparent commitment to excellence – particularly as manifested in his approach to scholarship, and the resources he produces – is something I aspire to.

This comes as a sort of disclaimer to be read to account for my bias in this treatment of his exceptionally useful book – The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips.

This isn’t a new book, it has been around for a while, but we’re doing a series at church this term on connecting with people, where the book is suggested as a good way for understanding what evangelism looks like as a church family – it takes the pressure off a little bit, by lowering the bar – and treating evangelism not just as God’s work – which is a robustly reformed understanding of the task, but as the church’s work. A team effort.

My experience while reading this book was quite bizarre – almost an out of body experience. It was like I was reading my own thoughts written to me. This was scary, and somewhat reassuring. Though I hadn’t read the book until a month ago, this is largely the framework I use when I’m thinking about church, mission, and our role as individuals within those contexts.

My take on his foundational premise – that our lives, our whole lives, essentially function as a declaration of who we are, so we should think about that and live intentionally in a way that our lives are consistent with the gospel, in a way that promotes it – means I think it’s an incredibly useful resource, especially as it applies this concept to real life, it’s not abstract, and its incredibly well argued, with occasional references to the author’s PhD thesis, which I read a lot of for an essay once, and found equally helpful.

Here’s a lynchpin sort of paragraph…

“But perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others toward him. These include prayer, godly behaviour, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.”

But wait. You say, observant reader that you are – this sounds exactly like that Sir Francis of Assisi misquote (h/t Gary Ware) that you don’t like: “always preach the gospel, when necessary use words” – you’ve said before that words are necessary. Thankfully, I’ve also said that I think a whole bunch of other stuff that communicates the truth of the gospel, deliberately, and alongside the use of words, also counts as word ministry (how we live/act, how we sing, multimedia, though I remain unconvinced about gospel mime).

I think words are necessary for word ministry, and for mission, but they aren’t the only part of our testimony. I think this book seeks to avoid people saying “words alone” – because our testimony will be much richer if we’re living them out, together, and letting people who are gifted in particular areas carry the load in those areas.

I like this quote from Augustine on the place of good works.

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.”

Dickson is not denying that the gospel is words – he simply says we promote the gospel with more than words. Importantly he says this:

“Does this mean that people can start believing in Christ without hearing the gospel at all? No. As the apostle Paul makes clear, “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). First Peter 3:1 shows us that the gospel’s role in conversion is more complex than we sometimes realise. It is not enough simply to affirm that people are won to faith only through the hearing of the gospel. Let me explain. Leaving aside the important theological observation that all conversion is ultimately the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, let me try and account for conversion from the human side of the equation, which is what Paul and Peter are talking about in the above texts. Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.”

I could wax lyrical about this book and its benefits for a couple of thousand words – or you could just buy it and read it.

I’ll start with what I thought was a question I would have liked a bit more time spent on, or where I think something could be added – the first is his definition of the gospel…

“The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity… Any account of the Christian gospel that does not narrate the basic content of the books we rightly call the Gospels does not deserve to be called a “gospel outline”. It might be a true and accurate statement of biblical truths—and, for that reason, valuable and useful for our hearers—but it is not the gospel that Jesus said must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).”

I largely agree. I think the best three word reduction of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord” – if it was six words it would be “the resurrection shows Jesus is Lord” – but reductions suffer because they are simplifications… I’d want to suggest that while this is an incredibly useful description of the Gospel, it kind of cuts loose the Old Testament, especially creation and fall – which, though I have hesitations about the predominant usage of 2 Ways to Live (seriously, how many other conversations do people walk up to somebody, and unless they’re a professional cartoonist, or playing pictionary, say “can I draw you a picture”), though I have hesitations about this use – starting the gospel account from creation and fall is, I think, an essential part of the gospel narrative, I think John’s gospel, in the prologue, agrees with me, as does Matthew with his fronting of the genealogy – so this insight isn’t precluded by the summary above. I just think making it explicit is useful.

God’s role in creation, as the sole author of creation, is the foundation of his commitment to the act of promoting the gospel, so it’s not absent from his thinking. He says:

“There may be different ways of expressing it but I think I would have to answer this question with the simple statement: there is one God. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible makes the resounding, unapologetic declaration that there is just one Creator and Lord of the world. It begins in the Bible’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To ancient readers, this was not simply a sensible way to start a holy book. It was a huge swipe at the entire religious outlook of the time. The opening lines of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, to give just one example from the period, list no fewer than nine separate gods, each with its own part to play in the events leading up to creation. Saying that “God created the heavens and the earth” was tantamount to saying that no other deity was involved in the universe… If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord.”

Tying the motivation for preaching to the Lordship of Jesus, rather than to fear of judgment or as some sort of good work, is incredibly freeing – from guilt, and from any sense of obligation, outside of the joyful gratitude that being one of the people of the true Lord of the universe brings. This is very helpful. He says:

“We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.”

To which I say: “Amen”…

I think this paradigm really helpfully anchors the good that we do – promoting the Lordship of Jesus should be behind our care for the environment, and our love of other people – we do these things because both creation and people are good objects to love, but we ultimately do them because we live for the Lord Jesus, not ourselves – and the act declares something about that Lordship. It’s a complex relationship. I think “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“Good deeds must never be thought of as a missionary tactic, a means of getting people onside before hitting them with the gospel (“throwing cakes to children”, as Emperor Julian would say). They are the essential fruit of the gospel. Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord. God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel. Although we must not find ourselves “doing good” simply as a gospel ploy, there can be no question that Jesus expected unbelievers to observe our acts of love (for the world and for one another29) and through them to be convinced to worship the source of all love: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).”

He also says:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives—including our social lives—can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbours.”

Being already convinced of the place of mission in the Old Testament – or the place it should have occupied in Israel’s approach to the nations – I found his stuff on Israel’s role as proclaimers of this truth convincing and helpful. Sadly, there was nothing that specifically supports my theory that the wisdom literature was a model of evangelism through participation in an international wisdom dialogue, as far as I know I’m still essentially alone there… but his understanding of how Israel was to promote the good news of God in their words, their life, their worship, and their distinctiveness from the nations is useful, and surely forms some of the working in developing a Biblical Theology of mission.

The sections relating to what it meant for Israel to evangelise by being Israel is, alone, worth the price of the book. This is one of the money paragraphs:

“Worship by the Book, Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church writes: Israel was called to make God known to unbelieving nations (Ps 105:1) by singing his praises (Ps 105:2). The temple was to be the center of a “world-winning worship.” The people of God not only worship before the Lord but also before the nations (cf. Isa 2:1-4; 56:6-8; Ps 47:1; 100:1-5; 102:18; 117). God is to be praised before all nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song. This pattern does not essentially change in the New Testament, where Peter tells a Gentile church to “declare the praises” of him who called us out of darkness. The term cannot merely refer to preaching but must also refer to gathered worship…

Passages like these illustrate just how natural it was for biblical writers to see corporate praise as public proclamation, as a type of evangelism. This doesn’t mean that all gospel proclamation is “praise” but it does mean that all true praise has the potential to be gospel proclamation, for in it we recount the wonders of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and return.”

I love it. If you read this post – that won’t come as a surprise.

This leads to a particular approach to how church is conducted – it’s not about being seeker sensitive, but about being clear about who we are praising, about why, and concerned about how we conduct our gatherings – concerned for their quality.

“There are all sorts of reasons some of our churches have visitors – location, architecture, demographics and so on-but, in my experience, the most significant factor is the quality of the church service. By “quality” I do not mean the professionalism of the leader or the standard of technology and music. I mean the degree to which the congregation revels in its experience of praising God and encouraging one another…

I want to stress in the strongest terms that visitor-focused services are not an evangelistic necessity. Normal church meetings conducted exceptionally well will not only inspire the regulars; they will draw in visitors and, through the powerful vehicle of our corporate praise, promote the gospel to them.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this book, in terms of its reception, and the bit that I took the most convincing on, is the question of the semantic range of the word “evangelist,” and specifically whether or not everybody has a responsibility to speak the gospel, not just promote it. Dickson’s take is interesting. I feel like he’s onto something. Especially because I’m pretty committed to the idea that the body is made up of different people with different gifts – but I feel like in the absence of other people gifted in evangelism, or in smaller manifestations of the body – people have to be evangelists, I don’t think this is something that Dickson would deny… but I can’t put words into his mouth, here’s what he says:

“We are involved in God’s mission, and so we must allow his Word to shape our part in it. The slogan “Every Christian an evangelist” has a noble purpose, but it is not a biblical way of speaking. For Christians in general—as opposed to evangelists in particular—telling the gospel to others (evangelism) could be described as the icing on the cake of mission.”

His argument essentially seems to be some people are icing specialists (evangelists), some people are cake makers (promoters of the gospel), and that it’s fine to just make cake because that’s where the substance is, and its the harder bit. I guess I’d want to say that everybody should be able to make the icing, and evangelists have to be pretty good at making cake too. Again. I don’t think he disagrees. His tips for picking those people who are especially called, or gifted, as evangelists are valuable – but I do think that each one of the characteristics (keenness to share the gospel, relate well to non-believers, Christian maturity, and clarity on what the gospel is – including speaking intelligibly) is something that all Christians should aspire to.

One other very minor criticism is only really relevant if you’re convinced that Bruce Winter is right about what Paul is doing at the Areopagus, in Acts 17, if his exercise is an exercise in wisely assessing the situation, and meeting a social convention for his audience, which expected to be introduced to “foreign gods,” while presenting the gospel, then I’d say Paul’s speech there isn’t an anomaly, but rather, an essential demonstration of his approach to gospel preaching. I’d argue that rather than simply being an apologetic to their concerns, it is a presentation of the gospel that adheres to how they expect to hear about new gods. But that’s not a point that in any sense undermines this fantastic book.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me – personally – coming from a guy whose excellence I admire, as someone who is too often tempted to think that my own pursuit of excellence in evangelism will be what produces fruit, came in this paragraph…

“A few years after these strange days, I asked Glenda [the lady who led him, and many of his friends from school, to Jesus] what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine. The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.”

This is really powerful stuff for anybody who thinks too highly of their own God given skills, and ability to think. I thoroughly recommend this book that you’ve hopefully all read already.