Tag Archives: charles taylor

Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.

Your body as a temple: an essay on Charles Taylor and Tinder (and other ways technology “excarnates” our human experience)

I dipped my toes back into the world of study this year with a masters subject on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age taught by Rory Shiner and Stephen McAlpine. My first essay was on how Taylor’s work shapes a modern approach to sexuality and gender. It’s not the style of writing typical in these here parts, but it was interesting to explore how Taylor’s work and subsequent shifts in technology present challenges to Christianity (and humanity in general) and the markers’ comments implied that I should put it up here, so you can read it as a PDF.

Here’s the abstract.


In A Secular Age, Philosopher Charles Taylor describes a set of conditions for modern life that one sees at play in contemporary approaches to human identity, gender, and sexuality. The conditions he identifies are the result of ‘subtraction story’ that leads to a disenchanted, immanent, universe, that gives rise to a ‘buffered self,’ producing an individualism where people are freed from a transcendent ordering of the cosmos to pursue their desired authentic ‘identity’ through personal choice. Taylor suggests our buffered selves are left seeking ‘fullness’ in this immanent frame, while haunted by what has been subtracted. One way he describes the experience of this haunting is as a ‘frisson’ — a ‘skin orgasm.’

This paper argues that in the technological age of Grindr, Tinder and pornography; things are worse than A Secular Age suggests; that technology amplifies the immanent reality of the ‘buffered self’ and leaves individuals using their bodies to pursue an ‘authentic’ self that cannot satisfy; where sexual ‘frisson’ is increasingly disconnected from ‘fullness’ or any sense of the transcendent.

This essay argues that a Christian response to the contemporary debate around sexuality and gender informed by Taylor’s is to seek to re-enchant our bodies by creating a new social imaginary, by living and telling an enchanted, subversive, counter-narrative that orients us as embodied characters within the divinely ordered cosmos, where our lives — and sex itself — have a sacramental quality and a transcendent telos. In this story, our bodies are temples where the transcendent and immanent come together as we, in communion, ‘image’ Christ, telling and living his story.

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How the future of religion in Australia might require a truly multi-ethnic, post-western, community (and how we might get that from migration and why that makes the Australian Christian Lobby’s how to vote card even worse than you thought)

Here are eleven things that are interesting and more connected than you might think that have happened in the last few months.

  1. A radicalised white man from Australia, with European heritage, walked into a mosque in Christchurch during prayer time and shot 51 people dead (the death toll rose 6 days ago).
  2. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, an atheist (who grew up Mormon) in an expression of solidarity with the Muslim community wore a hijab and called for a united vision of what it means to be human and thus, a citizen of New Zealand, built around unity and compassion.
  3. Polynesian Rugby Union player Israel Folau instagrammed a meme that says “Hell awaits homosexuals (and several other categories of sinner lifted from the New Testament). Several Polynesian Rugby Union players find themselves embroiled in the controversy for liking Folau’s Instagram post. “Tongan Thor” a fellow Wallaby, makes a statement that the ARU might as well sack all Polynesian players who share Folau’s views.
  4. The Australian Rugby Union, in partnership with major sponsor, Qantas, who embody a certain sort of corporate social activism (the sort where you throw your weight around on social issues locally, to turn a dollar, but also partner with nationalised airlines from around the world from regimes that kill homosexuals, also to turn a dollar), threatened to sack Folau, and are now most of the way through their internal proceedings to achieve that outcome. They say the tweet goes against their inclusion policy (which includes sexuality, ethnic background, and religion), and that he should thus be excluded. The NRL and its managing figures pre-emptively expressed the view that Folau would also not be re-welcomed, or included, should he cross codes again. A few people make the observation that religion and ethnicity are deeply intertwined in the Polynesian experience and identity (including me, Stephen McAlpine, and a gay polynesian journalist), some of us asking questions about the legitimacy of corporate, white, upper class people ruling on the validity of opinions expressed from an identity outside their experience, in the name of “inclusion.” Anthony Mundine condemns the treatment of Folau as racist.
  5. Journalists reporting on the Folau story consistently ‘mediate’ it to the wider populace reinforcing the narrative of the harm Folau’s posts do to the gay community, but making fundamental errors about Folau’s religious commitment, some including photos of Folau in front of a Mormon temple as though that is still his religion, others unable to reconcile his actions in support of gay inclusion on the football field with his theological beliefs, others calling protestant church services ‘mass’, all while arguing that this is a critical moment in the conversation about religious freedom in the post-Christian west, specifically in Australia.
  6. Bombings in Sri Lanka target worshippers in church for Easter services, those condemning the attacks, from the ‘post-religious’ west (specifically from America) call the victims gathered in church ‘Easter Worshippers’ rather than Christians, leading to several conspiracy theories about sinister motives.
  7. New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Mormon, Jacinda Ardern, condemned Folau, another former Mormon, who is married to a New Zealand representative netball player.
  8. Former Wallabies coach, turned media personality, Alan Jones, and a bunch of other media commentators, have made this case a religious freedom and freedom of speech case.
  9. Former Wallabies player (under Jones), turned media personality and proud/belligerent atheist, Peter Fitzsimmons has been prosecuting the case against Folau on the basis that his tweets “vilify” the gay community and that the spectre of hell and judgment from religious players (in the junior ranks) contribute to the suicide rate amongst gay teenagers. He writes an article scoffing at religious freedom arguments, and projecting his particular views about the substance and meaning of Folau’s religious beliefs (specifically his position on Hell) into the situation; other journalists and media opinion shapers (not always journalists) express bewilderment that Folau would say such obviously hurtful things.
  10. Former Wallabies captain, Nick Farr Jones, also a Christian, meets with Israel Folau to encourage him to apologise, and comes away supporting Folau’s character and intent. Suggesting he is not homophobic and has been misunderstood by the public at large, and by the administrators at the ARU.
  11. The Australian Christian Lobby produce an election checklist for the upcoming Federal Election in Australia that essentially endorses the Australian Conservatives and One Nation on the basis of a five issue platform, and justify the elevation of One Nation on the basis of the access they give to Christian voices into the political process.

Before I try to weave a thread or two between these events, it’s clear that life in the modern west is still complicated, and despite aggressive secularisation theories, religion is still part of the fabric of life — public life even — in the west. It’s clear that modern life is super complex, and the intersection and overlap between different systems of religious belief and the modern western world is a pretty difficult thing to get your head around. It’s also clear that the western, post-Christian, world simply does not understand the nature of the religious belief it finds itself removed from. The reason people (like Jacinda Ardern, or Peter Fitzsimmons — though I’m less sure of his background) move from some sort of religious conviction or upbringing, to non-religious convictions, does not always seem to include a robust understanding of what is left behind not just from particular religious belief or expression, but from the view of the world that comes with the belief of God or gods. The modern, secular, post-religious, west — and by that I mean the section of the world deeply influenced by the European experience — including Canada, the United States, and Australia (and who knows if European includes England anymore, but for now they’re in that label) — no longer has the categories embedded in our “social imaginary” (as Charles Taylor calls it) or shared architecture for understanding religious beliefs and conversations. By this I mean that conversations that happen amongst people who do not share basic foundational views of the world (religious or non-religious) no longer have the shared scaffolding embedded in those conversations as the framework we use to give words meaning and significance. When a religious footballer tweets about hell, and its significance, a post-religious or non-religious journalist, opinion columnist, or ‘mediator of the public square’ is not equipped to substantially understand what is meant; but neither is a member of the gay community (or any other community targeted by such a post). This is as true of Alan Jones and his making this issue about “freedom of speech” as it is Peter Fitzsimmons and his making the issue about vilification of vulnerable people in gay community.

There’s a fascinating sub-thread around the different way the post-Christian world understands ‘our’ western religious heritage, Christianity (or assume we do), such that it gets misrepresented and treated as a ‘thin’ conviction where you just tick a box in the census and get on with life, and you might be an ‘Easter worshipper’ and how our mediating institutions (the media and politicians, especially post-religious politicians) engage with the non-western, Muslim, experience (fascinating too, that Anthony Mundine, an indigenous Aussie convert to Islam, defies the easy categorisation our media is comfortable with, so that his comments about race can be more readily dismissed as conspiracy). I’ve noted elsewhere that it was interesting seeing how this idea that religion is like a bit of clothing, bling, or flair, that you add to your expression, or performance, of your self, might play out with politicians wearing religious garb in ‘solidarity’ — while, actually, the deep and thick religious convictions of Muslims is actually more directly related to the experience of the deep and thick religious convictions of Christians. A ‘religious’ view of the world — one where the world is not a ‘closed system’ of material reality, but where there’s a spiritual reality or an ‘enchanted’ overlay on our everyday lives — is one we share in common, and one still commonly shared outside the western world; it’s the majority view of the world presently, and historically, and so the onus should actually lie on those in the west who want to exclude religious convictions about spiritual matters from public conversations because of their material effects, but somehow, at least in the west, this has flipped around so that religious people have to justify our place at the table in public conversations, and then the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-secular’ views in the conversation. This is a game we’ve now played for so long as Christians in the secular west that we’ve mostly forgotten alternatives and our titular ‘Christian Lobby’ have so thoroughly adopted the rules of the game that they create ‘political tools’ during election season that are meant to pry open the doors to the table not to make religious arguments about a wide range of policies, but to preserve our space in the world.

How we understand the cause of ‘secularisation’ in the western world, or why we’re ‘post Christian’ (or post-religious) will shape how we understand what is happening in every one of those threads. There are two thinkers I think give us pretty good grounds for understanding the landscape here. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I’ve often quoted here, and C.S Lewis. Lewis’ academic magnum opus was a book called The Discarded Image, it’s an account of how the religious backcloth of the medieval world — where all art and stories and life itself were ‘shot through’ with supernatural significance — has been abandoned in favour of a more mechanical, finite, view of reality. In his first lecture at Cambridge University, Lewis accounted for the decline of religious belief in the modern west as, in part, a turn to a more mechanical experience of life. I’ll quote him at length, because I think it’s great.

I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

Lastly, I play my trump card. Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”
“But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.”

This maps neatly, with a few interesting insights, onto Taylor’s secularisation theory. In a short, Taylor describes the move towards secularisation as we experience it in the west as not just being about the rise of science, or modernity, but also the subtraction of a sense of a God who provides a cosmic ordering; we’ve turned from an ‘enchanted’ or religious view of reality — a backdrop where talking about angels and hell makes sense, and operates with certain shared understandings about reality, to a disenchanted world, where belief is contested but the default is a closed version of what he calls the ‘immanent frame’ — a view of the world that excludes God or gods from the picture, and so makes conversations about hell purely about how we treat one another here and now (and so the conversation in the secular media is, understandably, just about the impact of Folau’s words and his ‘villification’ of a vulnerable community; we don’t have to parse out what belief that a certain sort of behaviour leads to Hell if we don’t believe in Hell). Taylor also says it isn’t just ‘science’ that has done away with religion, and that, in part, the impulse comes from our visions of ‘fullness’ or the good life shifting away from God or from being characters in an ‘enchanted cosmos’… part of the deconversion stories of Ardern, and the aggressive atheism of Fitzsimmons, isn’t just ‘science disproves God’ but ‘the full human life doesn’t lie with an ancient conception of God.’

If Lewis and Taylor are right the West operates with this belief about progress, that it involves leaving Christianity behind, that it’s driven by a machine like, or ‘disenchanted’ view of reality, but this is supported by technological advances and the way they fuel a ‘progress’ narrative that celebrates the new and denigrates the old.

Cory Bernadi from the Australian Conservatives, the party most heartily endorsed by the ACL, has been beating the anti-immigration drum for a while, and while it’s not specifically targeted racially in the words in this particular article, check out the images that support those words.

“The Conservative Party has long called for a halving of Australia’s immigration rate along with a radical reform of all of the visa, immigration and welfare rorts that allow hundreds of thousands more people into the country every year, initially on visas for education and employment.”

There’s also a strange sort of dog-whistling thing going on in Bernadi’s ‘condemnation’ of Fraser Anning’s maiden speech. At this link there are significant chunks of search-engine recognisable quotes from Anning’s speech followed by a non-search engine recognisable video file where Bernadi specifically rejects the White Australia policy. But who can forget Pauline Hanson’s famous 2017 remarks about Islam. Here’s a reminder:

“Let me put it in this analogy – we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it, Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” — Pauline Hanson, One Nation

And remember. These are the parties the Australian Christian Lobby are suggesting we vote for to uphold freedom of speech and to make sure we Christians don’t further lose political influence or a place in society, or even so that our beliefs and convictions about the world are both free to be expressed and more likely to be understood. Make of that what you will, except, recognise that the way we white western people might come at these remarks, in a climate where a white, western person spouting a sort of European ideology, shot people he differed from dead in a place of prayer (and more recently, a member of a Reformed church in the United States opened fire in a synagogue). We’ve got to realise that the ‘disenchanting’ of language includes the de-spiritualising of the significance of words like ‘hell’; it flattens reality so that all battles for truth and supremacy are fought in real time and real space, not just left in the hands of something more cosmic (which isn’t to say that an enchanted view of the world doesn’t produce ‘holy war’ — see the Crusades — but that unholy war is equally terrible and a path to piece might be recognising the potential to sit at a common ‘civic’ table while maintaining our own religious ones in our more sacred spaces).

Here’s my controversial thesis — despite the western world having Christian heritage, such that many of the things we know and love in the west are directly the result of Christianity being practised as a thick religious conviction against a shared consensus that there’s a spiritual dimension to reality, part of dismissing that reality as we turned to a harder secularism in the west means no longer understanding the convictions that drive religious people; no longer recognising the links between belief and action, and severing ourselves, as a society, from the roots that have produced and sustained life. Those roots are pre-western, not western. Those roots are from first century Jerusalem (having come from the ‘BC’ era in a particular part of the non-western world. The way we Christians see the world has much more in common with our Muslim neighbours than our post-Christian, hard-secular neighbours who are now trying to set the rules by which we all live together — including people who live together in religious disagreement. If we want Christianity to truly have a place at the table in the public square we don’t need a whiter, more European, Australia — we need a more multicultural, non-western, religious, table. We need the ‘Asian century’; we need ‘more migration’ from outside of secular Europe, and we need to keep confronting the reality that we aren’t citizens of a western country that gets everything right in pursuit of liberation and progress — fuelled by the infallible churches of capitalism and liberal democracy and the ex cathedra announcements of their popes and mediators (a priestly media), otherwise the deck is stacked, and will become increasingly stacked, against an enchanted view of the world, where one can talk about hell or judgment or spirituality without only being heard on the basis those words might have on other people in the ‘here and now’. The advice to vote for parties who are specifically arrayed against that vision of our nation won’t improve Christianity’s foothold in the west, but destroy it. Bring on non-western immigration — Christian, or otherwise — that’s our best chance at re-enchanting Australia’s vision of the world, and bringing a legitimate pluralism to our public conversations; we won’t get it while post-Christian ‘liberated’ progressive thinkers from the white establishment are setting the rules (or lobbying for them to change). Churches, then, have to get serious about training and platforming non-white, European, leaders who think in non-white, European ways about the world, and how to engage with the political process and public life.

There’s no going back to a purely European, western, ‘Christendom’ (and nor should we want that, probably). There’s very little chance of re-enchanting the western world from within; what it might take is the western world hearing voices from “without” — or bringing those voices and views in and hearing, clearly, about the convictions that drive and shape the majority world towards a different vision of progress. We might colonise other countries with democracy and capitalism, and modernity, but if it comes with the necessity of ‘disenchantment’ — of seeing this world as all there is — then I’m not sure how successful that will be, but we’ll also, essentially, be reprising the role of Satan in the garden, telling people who experience life in a world where God or gods exist as divine beings that they, and they alone, are divine — and all they should be concerned about is what can be grasped here and now.

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Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

,

Hunting paradise in a haunted wild western world (or playing Red Dead Redemption 2, listening to Mumford and Sons, and watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

But what if I need you in my darkest hour?
What if it turns out there is no other?
We had it all
If this is our time now
We wanna see a sign, oh
We would see a sign

So give us a sign
I need some guiding light
Children of darkness, oh — ’42’, Mumford and Sons

I heard someone recently say that the history of art in the west can be described as a thousand years of religious art and then stripes — the idea being that once the transcendent or sacred disappears from our cultural narrative we’re left with trying to make meaning from the very mundane. It’s an interesting thesis, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny, at least not when it comes to art that is worth one’s time and attention (whether high or pop culture). While stripes abound as a certain sort of artistic response to a reality that is flattened and turned in on itself, modern art is more complicated, more haunted, and less monolithic than such a reduction allows — and good modern art confronts this haunting sense front on, and asks us to consider what we might have lost in our culture that means we produce less overtly religious art.

I heard this idea while my imagination was consumed by the wild west, at least as modern secular artists render the wild west in order to tell stories. I’d watched the Coen brothers’ new Netflix special The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was playing Rockstar Games’ western epic (in every sense of the word) Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve also had Mumford and Sons’ Delta on high rotation since its release — and all three of these cultural texts, these works of reasonably good popular art, push back against the idea that modern art is hollowed because it is no longer hallowed… in this movie, this video game, and this album, all of which, to some extent, explore the wild untamed land of life and death with or without God, there’s a truth that modern art that is worth our attention is not hollow, but rather, haunted.

Two of these texts deliberately and directly interact with an older piece of art, from the ‘religious’ era — John Milton’s Paradise Lost, asking questions about where paradise might be found in this new, wild, western world. The other, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs confronts us with the truth that humans destroy paradise by nature, because facing death without hope destroys us all.

One popular version of the theory of secular, modern life, the ‘stripes’ theory of art, is that religious themes don’t make sense, and that they’re not worthy of being celebrated artistically — there’s certainly lots of ‘art’ and lots of stories that are ‘stripey’ in this sense, but that’s not the ‘secular age’ theory put forward by philosopher Charles Taylor, or unpacked by James K.A Smith in his commentary on A Secular Age titled How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith’s analysis of Taylor’s work was bouncing around my head as I watched, played, and listened to these texts. Here’s Smith:

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.”

Mumford and Sons have always been overtly secular in this sense — the haunted sense — frontman Marcus Mumford’s parents are pastors, and right from their debut album Sigh No More there’ve been religious undertones to their lyrics. The lyrics of their songs are often ambiguous such that Mumford could be singing to a woman he loves, or to God. In this sense the band’s back catalogue, and this current album, function like a welcome reversal of contemporary Christian music, which seems to take the lyrical sensibility of modern songs celebrating sexual love only to replace the ‘you’ — the human other — with ‘God’ (as lampooned by South Park). So much Christian art is, thus, haunted — or colonised — by a modernist ‘stripey’ aesthetic. It adopts the content and form of this ‘secular’ immanent art, rather than pushing us towards the transcendent.

Mumford and Sons’ religious oeuvre continues in Delta where themes of darkness and light play out against the backdrop of songs about finding love and satisfaction through being a ‘beloved’ ‘forever’, while also navigating ‘the wild’ as mortals. In Guiding Light, Mumford expresses a certain sort of monotheistic faith in this awe inspiring one who’ll ‘always be my only guiding light’…

Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind’
Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light  — ‘Guiding Light’, Mumford and Sons

It’s not smooth sailing and light. There are some pretty dark places the album’s “I”— and I say this because it’s not just Mumford, the band write together, and we as listeners who participate in the album by listening are caught up in the story — explores through the musical journey. It’s a journey from the ‘wild’ that “puts the fear of God in me” (The Wild), through a crippling ‘fear of what’s to come’ that is replaced by ‘hope once more’ when the “silhouette” of this loved other, who had been obscured by “blinding light” is “branded on his mind” so as to shine brighter on his “wondering eyes” (October Skies, I’d love it if that was ‘wandering eyes’ but the online lyrics sites are divided) … through to the ‘Delta‘, where the river meets the sea.

The album gets more overtly religious — whether or not its God or a lover in view — when Mumford quotes Song of Songs chapter 2:1 to describe his beloved, in this ‘cursed world,’ as his ‘rose of Sharon’.

And I will surround you
With a love too deep for words
Hold you from the world and its curse
So long as I have breath in my lungs
Long as there’s a song to be sung
I will be yours and you will be mine
Ever our lives entwined
My rose of Sharon
My rose of Sharon
With a love too deep for words
I’m yours forever — ‘Rose of Sharon’, Mumford and Sons

Song of Songs is, if nothing else, an exploration of the place that sexual love occupies in a cursed, fallen, world; a world where we’re inclined to scratch an itch in our hearts with as much sex and love as possible — where it appears the itch is actually caused by our haunting sense of ‘paradise lost’. Song of Songs grapples with the ‘cursed world,’ and uses Edenic imagery — pictures of paradise — to describe sexual love. Asking if it rediscovering human passion is the way back to Eden; the way to recover ‘Paradise Lost.’ The Song invites us to ponder whether the two lovers are a new Adam and Eve; restorers of our fortunes. Ultimately it asks if sex can save us if we don’t first returning to God (such that our approach to romantic love is re-ordered by his love for us). It’s this question, more than any other that subtly haunts Delta. The catch is, that the Song, with its connection to Solomon in the Bible’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Solomon’s loves — his pursuit of sex — don’t restore Eden, but repeat the Fall, carrying God’s people into exile. We’re left waiting for one greater than Solomon to restore us to paradise and re-order our loves.

And lest you think I’m making this undertone, this subtle note, up — Mumford and Sons then quote Milton’s Paradise Lost to make the subtle overt. In Picture You, possibly my favourite track on the album, there’s a darker note underpinning what until this point has sounded like a satisfying and deep love — a relationship that fills this void.

If I could tell you “no”
I thought it best you didn’t know
Don’t see it coming
The darkness visible
But when its eyes fix mine
The silver in its stone
I feel it rising, oh
The gathering storm

And when I feel a darkness is a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to fight it
It’s a heartbeat away
And now
You don’t know me like this
It’s a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to hide it
It’s a heartbeat away

And I picture you
Soaked in light
I picture you
And in you I had no doubt
When the chaos calls me out
And it feels like there is nothing I can do
I picture you — ‘Picture You,’ Mumford and Sons

Light and love is the answer to chaos and darkness. But here, more than ever, the question is — is Mumford singing to his beloved woman, and can she save him — or to God? And who can save him from this darkness? Truly?

What was a foreshadowing, or passing reference to Paradise Lost in the phrase ‘Darkness Visible’ — Milton’s description of Satan’s experience of Hell in Book 1 of his famous poem, is unpacked in the next track as this section of the poem is performed as a haunting spoken word.

“Nine times the space that measures day and night
Rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end still urges
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible” — ‘Darkness Visible,’ Mumford and Sons

If this is the future — if death, and ‘darkness visible’ await — is sexual love worth it? Is replacing God with the best of human love a wise gamble? Can it provide the meaning and satisfaction required for a flourishing life? And even if it can, is it worth it? While the album asks plenty of big questions, it’s interesting that the quote stops there… here’s the next little bit, about what that ‘darkness visible’ does.

Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the center thrice to th’utmost pole. — John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s a high stakes game — this pursuit of life without God, because if God is light and life and love, then the reality of being ‘as far removed from God and the light of heaven as from the center thrice to the utmost pole’ is about being removed from all that this album finds worth celebrating in a temporary reality. Which is where the album now turns, unpacking more of this existential crisis, and the question of where (or whether) paradise — or the good life — can be found in this world. It gives no easy answers, from If I Say I Love You and the lyrics “If you were given one more chance, would you bring me back to life? Bring me back into the light?” to Wild Heart and the line “mortal once again,” questions of life and light and meaning and love are threaded through this album — right up to the final two songs Forever and Delta. Forever is fascinating in that the tension seems to have resolved itself — or at least the choice has apparently been made, though doubt remains — and the answer to this ‘doubt’ is apparently to focus on the here and now so that these days ‘turn to gold’, and yet, the chorus is “love with your eyes, love with your mind, love with you – dare I say — forever.” If these days are all there is, this idea of forever is a nonsense. A platitude. And yet it feels like there’s a resolution to avoid the bigger questions about the way faith, or piety, might reshape our lives and priority — to choose to ‘not be saved’ in order to live quite happily… ‘forever’…

And I’ve known pious women
Who have lead such secret lives
Shameless in the dark, so shameful in the light
And you may not be pious and I may not be saved
But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed — Forever, Mumford and Sons

In Smith’s, or Taylor’s, terms, this seems a resolution to say ‘secular’ — to remain haunted and simply make the best of it, rather than jumping to nothingness or to resolute faith. It’s like the “I” of this album resolves to not resolve anything, but to live in the here and now with these questions still pressing against reality. At this point the album feels lots like the book of Ecclesiastes — a companion piece in the Bible to the Song of Songs, that asks questions about the good life and what that might look like without God (“under the sun”) or with God. But Delta, like Ecclesiastes, has something like an epilogue. A final note exploring just how meaningless that previous resolution to pursue the good life without God, haunted by the absence of that which addresses the ‘eternity written on our hearts’ looks. In an interview I read, Marcus Mumford says he agonises over and overthinks every word he uses, the track ’42’ is the 42nd original song the band has released, it’s also a play on Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDelta, the final track of the album is also the title track — the delta is the place where ‘the river meets the sea,’ a movement from the safety of a river to the wilds of the ocean, it’s also, they say the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and an appropriate title for their fourth album — but there’s another thing the Greek letter signifies. Change. And one wonders if the placing of the song as the last of the album represents something of a denouement after the stormy, doubt-filled, journey through darkness and towards light, maybe ‘Forever’ isn’t the landing place of the album’s “I” — maybe this life isn’t all there is. Maybe the comfort of the Thames and the Liffey rivers — or the arms of one’s lover — aren’t the place to find ultimate meaning and security… the album ends with a staring out into the unknown, a search for a new way, and an acknowledgment that ‘what’s behind I can clearly see, but beyond that’s beyond me’. Delta is, to the album, what the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes concludes with the wise teacher having searched for meaning ‘under the sun’, but with death looming large, it concludes an exploration of the pursuit of paradise, or the good life, apart from the creator with a call to ‘remember the creator’ in order to enjoy the good life.

 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,

    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.

    “Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

A better translation for ‘meaningless’ is ‘breath’ — the idea that this is life, and its good things, are fleeting and temporary and gone in a moment, when we long for ‘forever’. Delta the album, thanks to Delta, the song, asks the questions Ecclesiastes asks about the meaning of pleasure — including love and sex — if this is all there is, when it’s all just ‘dust to dust’. Maybe that sort of life — the ‘dust to dust’ life of Ecclesiastes without the epilogue is meaningless, maybe there is more, and the haunted nature of reality pushes us somewhere beyond ourselves.

“When it’s all just dust to dust
And it’s how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me
When it’s all just dust to dust
And how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me

Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good
Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good” — Delta, Mumford and Sons

Looking for the paradise and love lost in Eden in the arms of a woman, rather than God, is a folly as old as Solomon’s… and one that leads to death, rather than away from it. Something Delta acknowledges as a problem not yet overcome — and not overcome by a ‘love that just makes me feel good.’ The whole album, from the opening song, through to the conclusion asks the question: do you want to be a child of darkness, or light. It posits love — love that is not self-interested, and love directed to some other — as the way out of darkness, but the question is whether it escapes the haunted ‘immanent frame’ to be connected to something transcendent — to the creator of light and light and love.

This question of life in the wild, life in the cursed world, life and love in the face of death, and where a long-lost paradise can be found also occupies Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs too — which is what made Delta such an apt soundtrack for the former, the latter had its own soundtrack of sorts, opening with gunslinging troubadour Buster Scruggs aka ‘The Misanthrope’.

The Coen Brothers’ western anthology is a collection of six short stories seemingly linked by nothing but the bleak message that death comes to us all. This means that comedy can only be black — funny tragedies — because our laughter is always in the face of the harsh reality of death… unless there’s some glimmer of hope — a place where poker is played fair in the “place up ahead”… Which is an idea that at least the concluding song from the first story, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ explores…

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
I’m glory bound
No more jingle jangle
I lay my guns down
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings —When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The last story is even bleaker — a carriage full of western citizens travel with a dead body on the roof of a stage coach — death looming large over all of them — and this little song  The Unfortunate Lad:

Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
And give to each of them, bunches of roses
That they may not smell me as they go along — The Unfortunate Lad, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Death hovers over us, and we’re left finding ways to pretend it doesn’t. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t let us do that; not for a second. It scoffs at the idea, because death is omnipresent in the movie’s six stories. Its characters, the ones who bring and taste death, are almost exclusively “children of darkness” — and even those who aren’t, those who bring some light, end up dead, and this often at the hands of embodied darkness, never quite as starkly depicted as the black clad gunslinger who takes down Buster Scruggs in the first act.

There’s one exception, perhaps — the old prospector played by Tom Waits, whose story All Gold Canyon takes place in something very much like a wild western Eden. A paradise. His story is rudely interrupted by violence — but this violence does not have the final say. And yet, paradise in Buster Scruggs is only restored to the canyon, that pocket of Eden, when all its human inhabitants depart. The thing about good art created in this haunted bubble is that it’s not so much ‘religious art then stripes’, it’s more like Tasmania’s MONA, it ends up just being art that has to grapple with the good life in the face of death and then the haunting ‘maybe’… maybe there’s more… the hope of the first ballad does seem to give way to the darkness of The Mortal Remains (which, when you squint at it, bears a testimony to a certain outlook in its title, only those who are still alive remain.

Buster Scruggs was a particularly interesting experience for me because its stories were played out against almost identical backdrop to Red Dead Redemption 2, with a startlingly similar aesthetic. Asking similar questions (depending on how much you played the protaganist, Arthur Morgan, in parallel with ‘The Misanthrope’)… Video games are an immersive form of storytelling, and the world building in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just incredible. The game takes place in a vast, carefully rendered ‘wild west’ as carefully crafted as the shots in Buster Scruggs, and if you’re going to explore that sort of virtual world on the back of a virtual horse I can highly recommend Delta as a soundtrack. The story is a prequel to the first instalment of the game (the second if you count a much earlier game in the same world); it’d be almost impossible for a game set in this period to be true to its setting without some nod to religion and the part it played in the fabric of American life; but this isn’t just a story set in the wild west — it’s a commentary on what has gone wrong with the western dream; our grand story of bravely inventing and taming wild frontiers, and the hopes that we could overcome some the ‘cursed world’ — nature and our human hearts — through adventure and technology. Like Buster Scruggs, and Delta, it tackles the reality of death and love and life in a haunted world where belief in God is simply one option amongst many that might deliver the ‘good life’. Like Delta the story is cleverly laced with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost — the levels often have religious names, including ‘Paradise Mercifully Departed’ and references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

The leader of your gang — the man you’re hunting down in the original (albeit as John Marston), is idealist and visionary Dutch Van Der Lynde. His ideal of a wild, untamed, west where there’s ‘no king, so everybody does what is right in their own eyes’ is falling to pieces, and as it becomes increasingly improbable, his fervent, fanatical, behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. While riding towards one of the new cities in the brave new world of progress, Dutch says to Arthur:

“For a long time, I truly believed a paradise lay somewhere in the west for us but I just… don’t know any more.” — Dutch Van Der Lynde, Red Dead Redemption 2

Dutch is looking for paradise — and he’s certainly not finding it in the modern vision of civilisation. Here’s a dialogue with the carefully named ‘Agent Milton’:

Dutch: “This place ain’t no such thing as civilised. It’s man so in love with greed he has forgotten himself and found only appetites.”

Agent Milton: “And as a consequence that lets you take what you please, kill whom you please, and hang the rest of us? Who made you the messiah to these lost souls you’ve led so horribly astray”

Dutch: “I’m nothing but a seeker, Mister Milton…”

Dutch is willing to do whatever he can to keep the west wild in order to find a paradise untainted by greed and the appetites it creates in us for whatever it is we lust after. The problem is Dutch’s own heart is every bit as corrupt; every bit as fixated on his own vision of paradise. If you’ve played the first game to its end, you’ll know there’s no redemption for Dutch — the question is whether those ‘lost souls’ he led could find redemption for themselves. While you control Arthur Morgan, and then John Marston, in this story it’s not just their stories you encounter — and its not just their worlds haunted by these questions of ultimate meaning in the face of death. A friend described this game as “the most profoundly Christ-haunted videogame ever made,” and if you’re looking for the Jesus shaped hole in the world you’ll find it in the questions it asks about meaning, sin, redemption, and repentance.

Dutch’s favourite in-game author (such is the world building) is a character named Evelyn Miller. He makes a cameo in the main storyline, his books are available to read in the outlaw camp, and he’s a substantial character in the playable epilogue where, upon meeting him atop a mountain, he declares that ‘this is God’ — that the splendid beauty of creation is part of the divine, and the hope of humanity; there are echoes of the Coens’ All Gold Canyon here; but these ideas were also developed in the books that shaped Dutch’s eschatology — ‘An American Eden’ and ‘An American Inferno’. These are quite profound little reads offering a diagnosis of the western disease, if not a genuine solution.

“…The delusions that we can compete with God. That our built environments can transcend his. That our factories and the squalid conditions that arise in the towns in which they are built will somehow allow us to be happy. We are fools, for fools cannot see their idiocy…

… By attempting to transform it into a poor impersonation of Europe, we are as Adam, eating once more of the apple, only this time knowing full well of the consequences. To free the American soul, this new world soul, we must free the American spirit from the prison in which we have placed it, we must seek our solace, our comfort, our very heaven in the perfection and splendour of this place.” — An American Eden

You can subsequently pick up An American Inferno lying around the Outlaw camp (and if the first owed something to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the second is a nod to Dante), which describes a trip to New York, the “grand human inferno, the fiery and mediocre hell that is Manhattan.” If we are pinning our hopes of restoration, or a return to Eden, on human ingenuity and city building, Red Dead Redemption 2 wants us to think twice, even if we think a third and fourth time about the alternatives as well…

“A place that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that when left to his own devices, when removing God entirely from his creation, man will induce not heaven, but hell. The gilded inferno. The marbled purgatory. This American churning sea of desire, the place where see we man for what he truly is, and recoil in horror. He is the destroyer of all. Of nature, of course, of his brothers, seemingly as sport, and finally of himself.

Men are fixated on greed, on desire, and on the acquisition not of experiences or pleasures but on the ability to acquire. People are fixated on wealth. Man is reduced to the desire for desire. Wanting is all that matters. No loving, not being, not having, but wanting. We are killers for desire. Even sport would be preferable. This is the grand sickness, the eternal sickness of this land – it is, man unleashed. Man unleashed and turned into, he knows what not?”

… I came to appreciate a hideous truth; the system that allows poverty and degradation such as i saw is wrong, and the impacts of the degradation on humanity are profound, but far worse is the impact of wealth upon those who possess it, who are possessed by it… Manhattan at once depraves the poor and dehumanizes the rich. Its purpose is unhappiness. The nurturing and blooming of suffering. — An American Inferno, in-game book in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Paradise lost, indeed… and a diagnosis of the sort of western disease that produces a President known for building ‘gilded’ towers in the inferno. When you cross paths once more with Miller in the epilogue he has been cast out from civilisation, rejected by the church and his family as a heretic, to live out his days in a cabin seeking hope for humanity. Miller ultimately feels defeated, he can’t escape that haunted sense of having had and lost some infinite thing (thanks David Foster Wallace). In his final manuscript, he writes:

“I am almost entirely consumed by my doubts, yet there is within me still a tiny spark that tells me it is possible, this land makes possible, the chance of absolution. Absolution from the European hell of thought and back to the Eden in which man can live as a sentient, yes, but above all as sensate. As a creature of God, alive in his world.

This world. Pure. Not clouded by idiocy. Not imagining himself as God as so many of us are forced to do, but happy as a child of God. But still my thoughts come upon me like wolves. My needs swamp me. My desires overwhelm me. It is not mortality I now fear but its opposite. That idiots part of me that attempts to convince me I am above mortal concerns. The foolish part of man that tells him he is immortal. That tells him, that whispers like the serpent, that seduces like the apple, that charms like Eve, that tells him he is God. I am not God. In this truth, I will find my absolution.”

This vision can’t animate anybody beyond Dutch (or Dutch himself), progress is inexorable, the landscape of the wild — like the Gold Canyon — will ultimately fall foul to human greed. Paradise is lost. The untainted ‘wild’ is destined to be replaced by our ‘infernal’ cities, hell on earth constructed as monuments to our greed; modern towers of Babel. Paradise is lost, if paradise is a beautiful unspoilt wilderness…

Depending on the choices you make in the game — whether to embrace a life of crime, bringing death and destruction in pursuit of a quick buck, or a life of seeking righteousness, your character, Arthur, is offered different advice on his path to redemption. A chance to trade his spurs for wings, perhaps.

In the penultimate moment in the story Arthur has the chance to give a last confession of sorts, either to the gang’s erstwhile, though ultimately redeemed confessor, Reverend Swanson, or to a nun you may help on your journey.

Reverend Swanson is an interesting character — your first interaction is rescuing him from a drunken binge, and if you find his Bible in camp and open it up, you see that it, like him, has been hollowed out to accommodate his addictions (in the form of drug paraphernalia). But if it’s him who hears this confession of yours, it’s as he boards a train, departing to a new life you can later read about in the in-game newspaper. He ends up in the belly of the inferno; the ordained minister of the ‘First Congregational Church of New York’, where he “delivered an impassioned and heartfelt sermon about acknowledging sin and seeking redemption. He spoke about his own break from faith, a dark period when he could no attend church, falling into sin, depravity, and wanton gluttony.” Swanson finds some sort of redemption in the belly of the beast.

If you’re met by the nun you’ve helped earlier, the dialogue includes her responding to Arthur’s confession that he’s “lived a bad life” by saying “we all sin…” she says “Life is full of pain but there is also love and beauty,” and then she offers this path to redemption.

Sister: “Be grateful that for the first time you see your life clearly… perhaps you could help somebody. Helping makes you really happy.

Arthur: But. I still don’t believe in nothing.

Sister: Often neither do I. But then, I meet someone like you and everything makes sense.

Arthur: You’re too smart for me sister. I guess I, I’m afraid.

Sister: There is nothing to be afraid of Mr Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.”

Arthur is haunted, belief in something beyond death terrifies him. He’s asking how to live in the face of death, and gets this “moral therapeutic deism” so often served up by the modern west — the idea that redemption, the return to paradise, would be found by people resisting the temptation towards greed and its appetites, to instead act in love… that we’re to grapple with the mix of beauty and pain by maximising love, and that this will restore us. But I’m not sure the story, Christ-haunted as it is, lets us just sit with that. To truly redeem, or help, those around him, Arthur can’t just ‘help,’ he has to sacrifice. His redemption is bound up in the end of his story.

It’s not just the name of the agent chasing down Dutch to protect a state-sanctioned vision of paradise or civilisation that tips the hat to Paradise Lost, and that alone might just be a coincidence… but later in the story, when John Marston is travelling incognito he gives his name as “John…er… Jim Milton.”  He’s the last hope Red Dead Redemption 2 puts forward. In the unholy inner sanctum of the gang — Arthur, Dutch, Hosea, Micah, and John — he’s the only one who ‘makes it’ (according to Arthur). His new life was won through Arthur’s sacrifice (though those who’ve played Red Dead Redemption 1 know this hope is temporary). It seems that, almost despite himself, he too has been caught up by Evelyn Miller’s visions of a new, natural, Eden — paradise rediscovered by pursuing goodness and beauty of this world. Here’s a conversation he has with his son about his new life — on the land, farming — his sense of paradise.

John Marston: Pretty countryside ain’t it…
Jack: I guess?
John: The grass and the light. There’s a lot of ugly in this world, but there sure as hell is a lot of beauty.
Jack: Yes.
John: You’ll see it better when you get older. It’s tough at your age. Just, land and light. But to me  it’s, it’s, life. I can’t explain it.”

His assumed name isn’t the only connection to John Milton. Jack is obsessed with heroic tales from King Arthur’s court. Milton contemplated penning an epic Arthurian tale, before writing Paradise Lost, which contains references to the legendary British king who ruled his own, briefly realised, paradise from Camelot. Milton was a fierce political voice, an English republican, whose works also included titles like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,‘ which argued for the freedom and dignity of all humans — that “All men naturally were born free.” This text was hugely influential in the founding of the American political vision, and these ideas seem to permeate the political outlook of Evelyn Miller and Dutch Van Der Lynde when it comes to ‘progress’ under those ruled by desires and passions rather than God. Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the fall — Adam’s ‘original lapse’ in the following quote, damaged true freedom — he sees freedom and paradise being closely linked in both his theology and politics. The damage was done by a departure from reason and the raising up of passions, or inordinate desires — appetites — in the place of reason.

Since thy original lapse, true Liberty
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart Passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.” — Paradise Lost

He saw the resulting loss of freedom corresponding with a rise in tyranny and violence.

Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyranny must be,
Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

A world of death. A world of greed, and human appetites bringing hell on earth. Paradise so lost that there’s no man-made path back. Not love, not proper passionate enjoyment of the things of this world, not a commitment to nature — none of these things will restore the good life, though we might taste it temporarily. Fleetingly. As breath…

What do these stories have in common? A western aesthetic? A sense that the answer to our modern ills might be found in the untainted wilds, away from human greed and consumption? In sacrificial love? A use of the western genre and the frontier, foundational, moments in American (and so western) cultural narratives to critique the modern account of flourishing human life? A playing off of ‘light’ against ‘darkness’ as metaphors for life and death? A haunting sense of loss of something eternal in the face of the death and destruction we bring as we fixate on amassing temporary things to satiate our appetites (that might actually be eternal or infinite longings)… And in two out of three, quotes or allusions to Paradise Lost, and the Bible.

Paradise Lost wasn’t Milton’s only religious poem… It had a sequel. One that specifically dealt with the question of how to rediscover paradise — one that answers the fears of ‘darkness visible’ and our mortality with a commensurate hope of paradise restored, and being returned to the presence of “light from above, from the fountain of light” and life — the presence of God — Paradise Regained. A new Eden being ‘raised in the vast wilderness’. The path to this satisfaction — this restoration, this paradise, was not our getting life right. It was not our redemption or repentance; it was through the obedience of a new Adam. Jesus.

The problem with Christ-haunted art — even if it is more interesting than stripes — is that it might point you towards Jesus, but it doesn’t throw you into his story. Milton sees this paradise regained in Jesus forgoing the worldly temptations that capture our hearts and pull us from God; though this happens ultimately at the Cross, he builds his poetic account of the restoration of all things in Jesus going head to head with Satan at his temptation; where Jesus, in the wilderness — the wild west — is offered all the good things of this world to turn his back on God, and he refuses. Thwarting the plans of Satan. Resisting the lure of those dark voices. Keeping his eyes fixed on the light.

Not all modern art is stripes — but perhaps all great art is religious in some sense. Great art gets us confronting darkness. It asks questions about what haunts our collective imaginations. These texts — an album, a film, and a video game — do that… but it’d be nice to have some great art that throws us into the light and gives us some answers every once in a while though too.

I who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d 
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden rais’d in the wast Wilderness. — Paradise Regained, Book I

Disruptive Witness: a review

Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).

His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.

Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):

“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”

Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.

The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:

“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”

Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).

“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”

He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.

“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”

As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five things:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.

Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.

Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.

Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.

And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”

Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.

“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”

On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.

“Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”

This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.  

A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.

“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”

Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:

“I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.”

Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).

“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”

Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.

“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”

My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.

There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).

That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.

“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”

This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.

The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.

“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”

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Broadchurch and the secular age: the limited value of Christianity without Christ

Broadchurch is the sort of show best watched in small doses — it doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the human condition, and where seasons one and two were about a couple of seedy blokes who’d killed minors, season three was about toxic masculinity and there were only two blokes who emerged relatively unscathed — DI Alec Hardy (the lead), and the village vicar, Reverend Paul Coates.

The final series focuses on a serial rapist, and zeroes in on ‘rape culture,’ and its relationship to porn and the systemic objectification of women (right from the teenage years). It’s hard viewing because just about every male is a suspect (and rightly so, in terms of how they’re characterised), and every woman is either a potential victim of sexual assault, or victimised by the toxic masculinity of the small town’s culture. It’s challenging viewing as a bloke — but with news linking the Toronto incident this week with a ‘toxic’ movement of ‘involuntarily celibate’ (incel) men who believe they’re entitled to female affection (and sex), it’s worth grappling with some of the darker, causative, factors underpinning this cultural moment and what it means to be a man, or a woman, in a world where there’s an ever present threat of rape, and a growing saturated environment where blokes (and increasingly, women) are marinating their imaginations in pornography.

Though the village Rev is depicted sympathetically — and almost positively — throughout the series, I find his character fascinating, and his story arc a depressingly real picture of how the world sees the church, and where the church is failing the world.

There’s a scene early on in series three between the local newspaper editor, Maggie, who’s facing a ‘corporate rationalisation’ of her newspaper, and the Rev, where he reveals his despair at the lack of impact he’s having on the town.

Maggie: Just be glad you’ve got a job for life. People will always need a bit of God.

Paul: I wish you were right. On Sundays now, the church is emptier than before Danny was killed [season 1]. You don’t come. Beth and Mark don’t come, Ellie and half the people that were affected by what happened here. People look to God when they want something and then Well, now they’ve just deserted him.

Maggie: No, Paul, no. People love you. You pulled so many of us through these past few years.

Paul: Exactly. I’m the priest that people look to when they’re hurting and then desert when everything’s OK. I’ve got more to offer than that.

The reverend is having an identity crisis; he’s not ‘reaching people’ or helping people — and he’s less interested in people finding God than in people seeing him as a bit of a hero in a time of crisis. While he’s not ‘toxic’ in the ‘rape culture’ sense of toxic masculinity, this insecurity — when he has much more to offer — is another form of broken masculinity. He wants to be the white knight, to save the town and be there for its victims — for him to be there, not for Jesus to be present in any meaningful way. He wants to be the model man, rather than point people to the model man; Jesus. More of this is revealed in his dialogue with Beth Latimer, the mother of Danny (the boy killed in season 1), who has become a crisis counsellor for a sexual assault support service, and is helping season 3’s victim — Trish.

Beth: I spoke to Trish Winterman, – about you going to speak to her.

Paul: Great, thanks.

Beth: She didn’t want that.

Paul: Oh. Right. OK.

Beth: She’s not religious and didn’t know how much help it would be.

Paul: But you did say it didn’t have to be about that? It’s support.

Beth: I did, I really talked to her about it. She’s not up for seeing you. I’m sorry.

Paul: Right.

Beth: You say that like I’ve let you down.

Paul: No. Not at all. I am so admiring of you. It’s brilliant, the way you’ve turned all of this into a way to help people. People really respond to you.(Sighs) If I’m really honest with you, I’m a bit envious.

If he can’t help people with generic, non-religious, support — then what can he do? Envy the mum of a dead boy because she is able to help people? It’s like he can’t imagine a contribution he might make to the town, or the writers can’t… somewhere between this moment and the end of the series, the Rev decides to call it quits — to leave town.

Paul: How did you know I’d be here this early?

Maggie: Last service in a few hours. I thought, if I was you, I’d be wallowing.

Paul: Hm.

Maggie: Have you got your sermon worked out?

Paul: To all seven who’ll be there.

Maggie: I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.

Paul: (Snorts) No. No. It’s time. To everything a season.

And here’s what we see of his ‘stellar’ last sermon…

There’s a line from Hebrews echoing through my head.
Let us all consider how we may spur one another on, toward love and good deeds.
Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.
But encouraging one another.
Now, I hope that even without me here, you will go on encouraging one another.
All any of us really want are love and good deeds.

It’s a hit with Alec, who picks at the barely closed wound…

Alec: If I’d known you were that good, I might have come more often.

Paul: Oh, thanks very much.

There’s something sympathetic in the way the writers of Broadchurch realise this character; as though this is the ‘ideal’ modern churchman, He was essential in the earlier seasons, offering real comfort to the Latimer family in their grief, but also offering prayerful support to the murderer in prison. He helped Mark (Danny’s dad) not pursue vengeance — a decision still haunting Mark in season 3, but one he remains proud of… but there is no place, no future, for the Reverend, or his church, in this town… and yet, there seems to be something like the passing of judgment on him (and the church) in the way his story arc finishes and how useless he ends up being in the face of systemic toxicity.  When it boils down to it, it’s pretty clear the citizens of Broadchurch (the town) are an irreligious bunch, barely interested in his counsel, and certainly not interested in his religious belief… except maybe if it boils down to ‘love and good deeds’ — they can stomach that, and there’s a reluctant sense that he might have something, a nagging sense that maybe he does offer some sort of traditional wisdom (bereft of any super natural substance, ground he has already ceded).

“We have moved from a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of or “beyond” human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by others which place it (in a wide range of different ways) “within” human life.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

The town, and its reverend, are a living, breathing, example of Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ thesis; and the ‘good’ reverend in his existential crisis is the archetypal image of Taylor’s ‘buffered self’ dealing with the ‘malaise of immanence’ while trying to pursue an authentic sense of self… and that’s no place for a churchman to be… if that’s all we’ve got to offer then we may as well shut up shop and leave town. Taylor describes a world where religious belief is less possible, and where the default way of seeing and being in the world is to not register anything ‘supernatural’; to be concerned with ‘immanent’ things (the things around us) not ‘transcendent’ things (the ‘divine’/supernatural things beyond us), he says this leaves us bereft and cut off from bigger things (and from community built around something beyond us). He suggests this creates a dilemma — we’ve lost something (for good or for ill) with a move to seeing the world in material terms, and we’re left searching for a replacement; he sees “a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world” where instead of rich and supernaturally meaningful we have “a sense of it as flat, empty” and instead of purpose coming from God or ‘the gods’ we’re left with “a multiform search for something within, or beyond” the world and our lives that “could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.”

If that’s the world of most people then what’s the point of church? What place can it occupy in the village? And what’s the point of being a churchman?

This is Reverend Paul Coates’ dilemma. He’s living and breathing in the secular world and trying to authentically take part in that world, rather than challenging the ‘haunting’ Taylor sees as left behind when we encase ourselves in this way of seeing ‘reality’. Taylor says this view of the world creates that ‘malaise,’ but also this pursuit of authenticity on these terms. Again, terrible circumstances for a member of the clergy. Taylor says the pursuit of ‘authentic’ fulfilment, flourishing, or ‘fullness’ on these terms look like a life where:

“we strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practising a vocation which we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

He says this can only work if our daily practices keep our haunting sense of loss at bay, and that they provide a sense of growing fullness — a movement towards something substantial. This is exactly the Rev’s dilemma — he’s lost his sense that he is contributing to human welfare, and so his job is no longer ‘fulfilling’ or inching him towards ‘fulness’ — instead, he feels empty. Haunted perhaps, though he doesn’t realise it.

And I’d like to make the case that this is precisely how a clergyman who has taken his path should feel… that his job, instead, is to point his town to a different picture of fulness and flourishing — and that he has failed the job (and the town), rather than the job failing him.

There’s more to Christianity (and to Hebrews 10, the part of the Bible his last sermon comes from) than ‘meeting together’ and ‘love and good deeds’. I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Broadchurch were being advised by some clergy cut from the same cloth as this character; but the verses immediately around this final sermon are the core truth claims of Christianity that might present a sort of ‘truth beyond ourselves’ that challenges the issues underpinning toxic masculinity and without these claims Christianity is useless, toothless, and should be run out of town. Here’s what Hebrews 10 says is the reason to meet together and encourage each other towards love and good deeds.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. — Hebrews 10:20-23

The church meets together to hold on to the truth that we have been restored to living God’s way by Jesus, there’s a ‘new and living way opened for us’ to be in relationship with God, washed pure… we meet together to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess’ — resurrection from death and total liberation from our own toxic humanity and a world messed up by our shared toxic humanity. Our ‘love and good deeds’ aren’t just random, amorphous, acts of ‘good will’ or ‘neighbourliness’, they’re a response to the hope that we have that Jesus will return to right wrongs and judge evil.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. — Hebrews 10:24-27

A Christianity with nothing to say about Jesus and life in him, and in the hope of his return, is a Christianity with nothing to say in the face of sin — no hope to offer victims, no condemnation and mercy to offer perpetrators, and no new way of life to offer to anybody. A Christianity with no hope, or no ‘day approaching’ is a Christianity with nothing to live for — a dead, truncated, Christianity.

A truncated Christianity is no Christianity at all; and rightly has no place in the village.

Taylor says that one of the problems created by the flattening of reality, for everybody, is that when we pursue fulness in ‘this worldly terms’, when we adopt the ‘secular age’ and its modernist, materialist, ‘immanent’, vision, we end up where the wise writer of Ecclesiastes ended up — with a sense that everything is meaningless. This is, along with the utter sinfulness of the human heart, is the root problem in Broadchurch, and what it depicts so effectively. Even in the ‘best communal moments’ in the series — a walk where the female residents unite to ‘light the night’, and the Rev’s farewell service, there’s an emptiness to what is on offer in the face of the dark reality they’re standing against.

“Running through all these attacks [on the modernist rejection of spiritual realities] is the spectre of meaninglessness; that as a result of the denial of transcendence, of heroism, of deep feeling, we are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot inspire commitment, offers nothing really worth while, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to. Human happiness can only inspire us when we have to fight against the forces which are destroying it; but once realised, it will inspire nothing but ennui, a cosmic yawn.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Broadchurch needs Jesus; any ‘church’ has to be built on something beyond itself… on him, and the hope that he will return.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.” — Hebrews 10:36-37

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.

Jordan Peterson and the mythical search for redeemed masculinity

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos is going gangbusters in Australia; and he’s speaking to a sold-out auditorium here in Brisbane tomorrow evening, so I’ve been ploughing through his work (including the book) and trying to figure out what makes him resonate so strongly with Aussie blokes (perhaps especially with Christians). This is the first of (at least two) posts interacting with Peterson’s book.

One thing I’ve appreciated about Peterson is that because he’s into Jungian psychology he stresses the importance of story, and particularly because he’s a champion of the west (and western individualism) the particular formative importance of the Christian story; or at least his version of the Christian story as the ultimate human archetypal narrative that teaches us most of what we need to know to live a good (western individualistic) life. He’s been particularly popular among western blokes and his no-nonsense appeal to take responsibility stands in a certain sort of tradition of addressing wisdom to blokes — one we find in the Bible; only, there are some problems with the scope of his ‘wisdom’ (and where it begins) that mean there’s a strong possibility his advice will end up being bad for anybody other than the ‘strong’ — who end up being those the western world privileges — which, already, by most measures of ‘success’ or ‘goodness’ are people just like him (and me), the very people lapping up his vision for the good life, the ‘winners’ in the western world. White blokes. Particularly educated and able white blokes. I’ll dig into this in the subsequent post on his treatment of order and chaos as masculine and feminine, but it’s worth reading this review from Megan Powell Du Toit to hear how he is heard by wise women.

There’s something to him and his serious engagement with the story of the Bible that makes you wonder if maybe we’re witnessing a long and public conversion; perhaps if YouTube had been around while C.S Lewis was writing and publishing in the lead-up to his conversion it might have felt the same. What is particularly interesting is what Peterson does with Christianity — with the story of the Bible.

Peterson and the mythic redemption of masculinity

Part of Peterson’s appeal is that he offers some pushback to a (secular) movement in the west that is aiming to level the playing field for non-white-men, that some blokes feel dehumanised or demonised by; part of his pushback is the idea that the good things about the west are a product of its Christian heritage, that not all white men are terrible, and in many ways the way the story of Christianity changed the way the white blokes from the pre-western world slowly started to include others in their thinking about how the world should be won (we’ve got to remember that Julius Caesar was an ‘archetypal’ white bloke, and the world would look very different now if it was shaped more profoundly by Caesar than by Jesus (who was a bloke, but not white)).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a bloke; with being white; or with being born into privilege historically, globally, and economically. The question is what to do with privilege or power… and here’s where Peterson dallies with some dangerous ideas, and where his incomplete picture of the Bible might cause us to come unstuck.

It’s also worth remembering that while there’s a bunch of white blokes — perhaps especially in America, and perhaps those whose imaginations were most captured by the Trump campaign — who feel like victims in a bold new world. These blokes also often sense that the main people causing their victimhood — the oppressors — are the ‘left’, those seeking systemic change to elevate women, people of colour, and other minorities to the positions in society often held by white blokes in a way that sometimes feels demonising in the rhetoric around the role white blokes have played in shaping this world; and sometimes, frankly, is demonising… And, amidst this remembering, it’s perhaps worth reminding these white blokes (and all of us) that it’s not really the left taking away jobs and keeping the white man feeling down, and angry, it’s the powerful and the wealthy who sit atop what Peterson would call a dominance hierarchy. You want to talk about job losses for the working class? Talk about the people behind the tech companies that are innovating and automatic manual labour; talk about the people taking the lion’s share of company profits through bonuses and off the back of the work of others… talk about these eight blokes whose combined wealth is greater than the combined wealth of 50% of the planet. That’s obscene; and how can it not be oppressive?

To the extent that Peterson does offer a solution for men emasculated by a culture of dominance — by dominance hierarchies that we, as individuals rather than a class, are not on top of —  is to invite the individual to redefine the parameters they measure success by; and to take responsibility for their own lives — to commit to making the world more like heaven than hell — which isn’t, in itself, terrible advice.

His antidote to the chaotic dissolution of community life is for individuals to take responsibility for themselves; which seems counter-intuitive, but is advice I’ve found a particular balancing corrective to my growing frustration with our whole-scale adoption of western individualism in the church, as Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, Christianity is a collection of furious opposites; a robust Christianity “got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”; paradox is at the heart of wise negotiation of the world we live in, and it is certainly true that we are both individually responsible creatures, and social creatures who are embedded in identity-defining communities built on shared stories (be it the family, the tribe, the nation, the workplace, the church, etc). Peterson is big on the power of stories, but he emphasises the idea that to be fully realised as a person, one must embrace the ‘heroic path’. There’s a strong hint of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey under the hood here — Campbell was an expert on ‘myths’ and the way we organise our lives, and sense of the good life, through stories rather than facts; and especially through archetypal heroes, or ‘super men’.

“How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.” — Page XXXIII (prologue)

This message — and some of Peterson’s schtick — has resonated particularly with men. And you can see why a bit; but it is a message of only limited use. The “burden of being” is the fundamental reality of suffering; it was this reality, Peterson said, that caused him to leave the faith of his childhood (though it seems he has returned to the mythic stories of his childhood to continue making sense of the world).

But I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial; with time, I came to understand, through the great George Orwell, that much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor. Besides, the socialists were more intrinsically capitalist than the capitalists. They believed just as strongly in money. They just thought that if different people had the money, the problems plaguing humanity would vanish. This is simply untrue. There are many problems that money does not solve, and others that it makes worse. Rich people still divorce each other, and alienate themselves from their children, and suffer from existential angst, and develop cancer and dementia, and die alone and unloved. Recovering addicts cursed with money blow it all in a frenzy of snorting and drunkenness. And boredom weighs heavily on people who have nothing to do. — Page 196

Peterson is a moral philosopher for the secular age, in Charles Taylor’s use of the term; though haunted by the possibility that there might be something to all the Christian stuff he find so compelling, he starts with the assumption that it is a human response (as sophisticated as it might be) presenting human truth (because he would say the Bible is definitely a true account of our humanity) to human problems. There is no external agency promoting evil; evil dwells in all of us — the serpent in Genesis is a manifestation of the human psyche, it represents the hostility of the world we live in (serpents being the ancient archetypal enemies of evolving humanity) but the real serpent for us to conquer is within us; the real hell is a hell where we inflict that evil on others, and heaven is a world where people imitate the archetypal life of Jesus. In short; Peterson wants Christianity to be true, but for him it’s truth without transcendence about a self caught up in internal (and eternally) conflict with itself. His work on the burden of being is an extended treatment of the idea expressed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

This is chaos. This is what must be mastered. This is the issue he tackles. While he might doubt God, he is sure of one thing… the reality of suffering and the particular capacity for evil lurking in every human heart and emerging at various points in history, and the lives of individuals.

What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. — Page 197

Peterson’s view of the human condition is — in Taylor’s diagnosis — ‘buffered’ — there is no cosmic problem external to ourselves; so we can save ourselves. Evil is not ‘out there’ but in here.  The problem with the world is, as Chesterton put it, the individual. It’s you. It’s me. Or, as he says when unpacking the Bible’s account of evil as an archetypal story, from Genesis 3… there’s no external, supernatural force, no Satan; the serpent is, for him, a projection from within the self (echoed by many selves).

And even if we had defeated all the snakes that beset us from without, reptilian and human alike, we would still not have been safe. Nor are we now. We have seen the enemy, after all, and he is us. The snake inhabits each of our souls. This is the reason, as far as I can tell, for the strange Christian insistence, made most explicit by John Milton, that the snake in the Garden of Eden was also Satan, the Spirit of Evil itself. The importance of this symbolic identification—its staggering brilliance—can hardly be overstated. It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream-like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal…— Page 46

A quibbling detail — that the serpent is Satan was made pretty explicit in John’s apocalypse, the book of the Bible we call Revelation; and one that suggests that actually, behind all human evil there is a puppeteer — a serpent; tempting and pulling us towards evil. John invites us to see reality as something more like a cosmic, supernatural, battle ground than our secular age ‘buffered selves’ can envisage… You can’t simply hold on to the words of the Bible as secular myth. It evades such neat categorisation. Yes, there is darkness in every human heart, but to view the human heart as ‘buffered’ — to see us simply as individuals locked in a battle with the self, rather than as people picking sides in a cosmic battle between good and evil misses the mythic heart of the Bible’s claims about the world and us. The mythos of the Bible; it’s organising principle, is that Jesus came to triumph over the darkness of sin, death, and Satan.

But if the problem is just us, if the world is closed to the supernatural, and the natural is all there is, these stories might work the way Peterson suggests, and, in a limited sense, we can start fixing and redeeming the world bit by bit, life by life, as we set our gaze just a little bit higher. His 12 Rules are aimed at addressing this problem. They’re derived from a particular moral outlook, a particular picture of how the individual might bring order out of the chaos in the individual heart; there’s a reason his book is categorised as ‘self-help’, because it is that in the most fundamental and literal sense of the genre. His solution is help yourself.

The problem is, if we individualise and internalise the problem of the burden of being, and if the Bible is the sort of source of truth Peterson insists, and if we individualise the solution to that problem, then we doom ourselves. We can’t help ourselves escape from ourselves. Even if we know what good looks like; our hearts are shot through with evil. The Biblical account of human behaviour Peterson loves so much goes a bit further than Solzhenitsyn in its diagnosis of the heart:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5

For Peterson the cross is an archetype of the sort of life that might produce this change… it’s strangely, for him, the ultimate natural heroic story. It gives us a pattern for making atonement for ourselves and the evil within; for a wise life; for fighting back against chaos and darkness. Peterson calls people to take up their cross to make atonement for your own contribution to the problems of the world. He wants Jesus to be our archetype for the good human life; not our saviour or the one who makes atonement for us. He offers a certain sort of salvation by works… but a salvation not so much looking to an afterlife; but designed to bring ‘heaven on earth’.

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language). To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country, and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore the widows and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order. — Page 27

Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M… That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden. — Page 64

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world…

Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. — Page 198

This is Peterson’s picture of how to be a man. A human. But is it possible? Does it change anything substantial about the world we live in where very strong men rule by dominating and perpetrating evil? What change would it bring to any of those eight men and how they use or view their wealth and their work (which they’d all describe as bringing a certain sort of order)? Does it actually work to deal with the darkness in our hearts this way?

Can Peterson’s mythic Jesus save us from ourselves?

Peterson champions individual responsibility in the face of suffering, and something very much like Nietsche’s will to power and he really, really, tries to understand the cross of Jesus and its place in the ‘archetypal story’ of the ‘archetypal’ hero of the west; the one man, or character, who truly carried the burden of the being. I want to be as positive and charitable to him though, because I think he’s genuinely searching for a way of life in this world that makes the best sense; of the data, and of how we’re wired (and the stories — myths — we tell generation after generation to encode a certain sort of participation in the world). He quotes Romans ‘you’ve fallen short of the glory of God’, but misses the mark on the solution Romans offers for this… The problem is, without supernatural intervention, or something shining light into our hearts of darkness, we can’t make the changes Peterson calls us to. Sure, our hearts still know what light looks like, but the Bible says we’re slaves to darkness, not just capable of it. In Romans 7, the apostle Paul describes the human life – the human heart — the life following Adam and Eve — in ways Solzhenitsyn and Peterson might recognise from their experiences of reality, but is more pessimistic about our ability to make atonement for ourselves.

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” —Romans 7:18-21

What liberates his heart is not self-help; not an axiomatic pursuit of heaven on earth, but God’s intervention, by the Spirit, delivered as a result of turning to Jesus and sharing in his death and resurrection.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!… through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh — Romans 7:24-25, 8:2-3

When he wrote to the Corinthians, Paul does talk about imitating Jesus, especially the death of Jesus, both in his first letter where he tells the Corinthians to ‘imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and in his second letter where he says:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 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... Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. — 2 Corinthians 4:8-11, 16-18

This is Paul bearing the ‘weight of being’ — suffering, taking up his cross, not just to improve life in some temporary sense, but because our lives have eternal significance. You can’t extract a temporally significant ‘mythos’ from Paul’s writings without making him a crazy man.

His life — suffering as he carries his cross — is built on the hope not just of some sort of ‘heaven on earth’ — but because any taste of heaven on earth is a picture of the real and supernatural future won by Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, Paul says we should eat, drink, and be merry (1 Corinthians 15:32)— there’s no point not inflicting suffering on others if there is no supernatural judgment for that evil. And any decision to suffer, to ‘bear the weight of being’ by imitating Jesus is only really possible and meaningful if Jesus’ victory over death and satan is for reals.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:56-58

John, who also wrote Revelation with its cosmic picture of reality, talks about the atonement of Jesus, and the example of Jesus (a big theme in his writing) this way:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us… 

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

We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:9-12, 17-19

For John, and for Paul, the writers of chunks of the Biblical text that Jordan Peterson appreciates so much — the imitation of Jesus actually has to be based on the real victory of Jesus over the burden of being — the defeat of evil, Satan, and death. But John and Paul both offer a picture of masculinity redeemed by the example of Jesus — a life of sacrificial love; bearing one’s cross to improve the lot of others and to fight against Satan by imitating Jesus… it’s just there’s something more on offer than a good or meaningful life now.

In Peterson’s mythic take on the Bible and its account for life in this world, we’re either archetypally on team Satan, or team Jesus; there’s no middle ground. The heroic life is the life imitating Jesus; and making atonement by sorting ourselves out. As we live we’re either bringing heaven or hell.  The Bible’s mythic idea that helps us understand the stories we participate in as people is also that you’re either team Serpent or team Jesus But fundamental to any victorious or heroic life in the Bible — and the reason to take up one’s cross — is that Jesus destroyed the serpent so we don’t have to, and our nature is liberated by participating in the life of God as his Spirit dwells in us — because we have been atoned, or literally ‘made at-one’ with God such that our lives reflect the lives we were made to live in the world; to be able to begin putting the world right our hearts must first be changed from above. There’s nothing more mythic in the Bible than the vision of life in this world offered by John in the book of Revelation; there be dragons.

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. — Revelation 20:1-3

The same bit of John’s ‘apocalypse’ — literally his revelation about how the world really is — tells the story of the end for Satan, and those humans who follow his archetypal way of life (and so become beastly rather than human).

“They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown.” — Revelation 20:9-10

We don’t defeat evil; God does. To try to extract some mythic ideals from the Bible that somehow we must take responsibility for our own redemption, atonement, and restoration, apart from divine intervention just doesn’t work; you can’t secularise the message of the Bible without turning it into superstitious nonsense.

A buffered — but haunted — view of the Bible or an ‘enchanted’ true myth?

Peterson treats the Bible seriously as a human text; a naturally emergent document that offers, in his mind, the best account of life in this world. As we read Peterson’s often brilliant engagement with the feelings and desires under the surface of the Biblical text — and he’s a keen observer of the human condition — it pays to remember he says, of the story:

“The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature.” — Page 163

But what if is more than just a human product?

What if there’s more to the world than just natural accounts for the nature of being?

It seems the jury might actually still be out on this question for Peterson, and we might be getting, in 12 Rules something more like provisional findings on the basis of how he currently understands the richness of the text. He is truly blown away by the richness of the Biblical story; it’s wonderful to see him treat the Bible with seriousness and a certain sort of respect; though it’s ultimately a respect for a sophisticated human reflection on human nature (though haunted by the idea there might be something more to it). In this video he says some pretty profound things about the nature of the Bible.

“I’m going to walk you through the series of stories that make up this library of books known as the Bible. Because it presents a theory of redemption that in a sense is emergent. It’s a consequence of this insanely complicated cross-generational meditation on the nature of being. It’s not designed by any one person. It’s designed by processes we don’t really understand. Because we don’t know how books are written over thousands of years, or what forces cause them to be compiled in a certain way, or what narrative direction they tend to take… now one of the things that is strange about the Bible, given it is a collection of books, is that it actually has a narrative structure. It has a story. And that story has been cobbled together. It’s like it has emerged out of the depths. It’s not a top down story, it’s a bottom up story. And I suppose that’s why many of the world’s major religions regard the Bible as a book that was revealed, rather than one that was written. It’s a perfectly reasonable set of presuppositions that it’s revealed; because it’s not the consequence of any one author. It’s not written according to a plan, or not a plan that we can understand, but nonetheless it has a structure. It also has a strange structure in that it is full of stories that nobody can forget, but also that nobody can understand, and the combination of incomprehensible and unforgettable is a very strange combination, and of course that combination is basically mythological.”

There is a sense, I suspect, that he might be haunted by the hope that the story of the Bible is as C.S Lewis described it ‘true myth’. In Lewis’ essay Myth Became Fact, he makes an interesting observation that I think explains why Peterson resonates so deeply with so many Christians; it’s because he appreciates the mythic quality of Christian belief, he sees it as ‘mythically’ true. Peterson is just the latest in the tradition of Lewis’ friend Corineus, addressed in this essay, who believe (like Nietzsche):

“historic Christianity is something so barbarous that no modern man can really believe it: the moderns who claim to do so are in fact believing a modern system of thought which retains the vocabulary of Christianity and exploits the emotions inherited from it while quietly dropping its essential doctrines.”

He wants to keep the mythic power of Christian archetypes, without the substance. Lewis, is seems, was also a fan of Jung, for what it’s worth. Lewis points out that by keeping the myths of Christianity and ‘aiming up’, Peterson is asking people to take the hard road, one that goes against much of our nature:

“Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology.” To be sure: far easier. Life would be far easier for the mother of an invalid child if she put it into an institution and adopted someone else’s healthy baby instead. Life would be far easier to many a man if he abandoned the woman he has actually fallen in love with and married someone else because she is more suitable.

For Lewis it was the mythic quality of Christianity that gave it its appeal and its power. He’d, I suspect, be optimistic about the trajectory Peterson is on in wanting to affirm the mythic value of Christianity:

“Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern… It is the myth that gives life.”

Part of the appeal of Peterson, and his helpfulness (where it can be found) is that he is someone who truly believes that the mythic aspects of Christianity are truth (even if they are purely human creations). Lewis said:

A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.

And this, I think, explains the phenomenon that for me, at least, Peterson (who sees a unifying narrative of redemption in the Bible centred on the cross) is a much more compelling (and useful) reader and commentator on Genesis than people who want to make Genesis do science.

But he’s missing something vital.

The key for Lewis, as it was for Chesterton, is embracing truths that appear to be furious opposites — embracing the truth that Christianity is both myth and fact. For Christianity to work mythically to offer redemption it has to be true. For it to give us a pattern of life not just for masculinity but our humanity, a pattern that would change and challenge even the wealthiest, most dominant, man (and the patriarchy) in such a way that it could truly bring a taste of heaven on earth, Jesus has to not simply be an archetype, but a real figure; a case where the supernatural world broke in to the natural, to deal with a real cosmic enemy and to substantially change our hearts, bringing light into darkness. Which is exactly how C.S Lewis came to understand the story — from a deep appreciation of myth, and here’s hoping this happens to Peterson and his fans too.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

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

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

I’m colour blind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the mantis shrimp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a bit mind blowing. Right?

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

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

What is it that limits our ability to imagine?

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

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

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

We can’t know what we don’t perceive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining something totally new requires expanding our vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True imagination begins with seeking the imagination of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t want to be colour blind…

We want to be cross eyed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

,

Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

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Living Faithfully in the ‘sexular age’ (a talk/panel thing)

A couple of months ago the Presbyterian Church of Queensland met for its AGM, we call it ‘Assembly’, and our committee (The Gospel in Society Today) presented a forum on how the leaders of our churches might process the rapid upheaval in our world around the areas of sex, gender, sexuality and marriage.

I ripped off Stephen McAlpine’s ‘A Sexular Age‘ pun on Charles Taylor’s work to provide what I believe is a framework that is both Biblical and ‘real’ to describe the age we live in and what’s going on in conversations around these topics. We filmed the thing. Here it is. I don’t always blow my own trumpet, but if you want a tight summary of the thinking behind all the stuff I’ve written about sexuality and marriage here on this site, it’s probably 30 minutes of me talking that is almost worth watching… the panel discussion is better because there are more voices and people’s actual questions.

We also launched a website for the committee which you should check out (which has a mailing list you should subscribe to).

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Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’

“The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.” — Kevin Vanhoozer, In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship

I’ve spent the last few days feeling like most of us Christians in Australia need a bit of a wake up call.

And not because the world is going to turn against us because of what we think and believe and teach… but because we need to wake up to ourselves… to think — to rethink— or re-imagine even — how it is we live in the world as Christians.

I’ve been confronted recently about the stark reality of death, and the incredible and real hope the Gospel offers in the face of death; and how the cross and resurrection offer us some really amazing models for engaging with the problems we face in our world when people do stupid and evil stuff to each other.

But…

Day after day, week after week, I read think-pieces on Christian blogs, statuses posted on social media, and books, even books, about how the world is falling apart.

How Christians have it tougher in the west then ever before. How people now hate us just for thinking what we’ve always thought.

The Margaret Court saga is the latest in a long line of this… and if you’re part of my weird corner of the Aussie church there’s now a fight about whether some people at a conference said Christian women should exist to make men shine, should view being CEO of a company as an opportunity to be a ‘helper’ to men, or should not cut their hair short, and should avoid tattoos or something.

What are we doing? Why do we keep treading such obscure well trodden unimaginative paths that make the Gospel less and less appealing to our neighbours. Can’t we when faced with interesting dilemmas choose to be interesting and category confounding while still being faithful?

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.

So.

Utterly.

Without.

Imagination. 

We’re sleepwalking our way through a changing environment and wondering why we keep bumping into things.

Seriously. There might be new problems; or at least new manifestations of old problems… but we’re not offering many new solutions. We’re retreating to the same black and white ‘factual’ answers to a bunch of complicated questions where people are feeling the implausibility of the way we live out those facts and so rejecting the answers that got us into a mess; and we’re wondering why it’s not working.

We’re wondering why even our growing churches are barely keeping pace with population growth (which means we’re shrinking in real terms).

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

They so lack imagination that we wonder why the church in Australia is stuck in a rut. We can’t imagine why it is.

But there are a bunch of people clamouring to describe what is; to explain why things are so bad, but offering very little in terms of imaginative or new solutions to the problem except perhaps to bunker down and hope for revival.

There are a bunch of voices attempting to out doom-say one another about the future of the church here in Australia, predicting greater difference between us and our neighbours if we maintain the status quo… and maybe they’re right. But maybe instead of considering how to maintain the status quo in the face of opposition we might rethink the thing. Some of those doomsday prophets have had to re-think their narrative a little in the face of the latest McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia (it turns out the aggressive ‘secular left’ commentariat might be out of touch with what most Aussies think about religion and Jesus). Here’s a few interesting snapshot findings from the report:

“Australians vary in their current attitudes towards Christianity. When asked whether they themselves say that they are a ‘Christian’, almost two in five (38%) ‘consider themselves a Christian’ (compared to 45% who identify with Christianity as a religion). A further 24% are ‘warm’ towards Christianity with 12% neutral towards it. The remaining 26% of Australians are ‘cool’ (negative) towards Christianity.”

“Perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. Perceptions of church abuse are the greatest negative influence (73% say this is massive/significant), followed by religious wars (65%). Two thirds (65%) say they are negatively influenced by hypocrisy.”

I don’t blame those who are ‘cool’ towards Christianity in Australia who are negatively influenced by our actions and behaviour (and I’d say even our thinking). Not just when it comes to abuse and wars… but when it comes to our utter failure to live out a plausibly better alternative to the visions of the good life offered by our world. I’m a Christian; a pastor; and half the time I don’t even feel like the Gospel is ‘good news’ as lived out by our churches… Certainly not if you’re something other than male, middle class, english-speaking, at least second generation Australian, educated, and heterosexual. Ironically, I wonder what percentage of the 26% of Aussies who are cool towards Christianity also fall in those categories… it also turns out that of the 38% of all people surveyed who define themselves of Christians only 7% of all people surveyed (18% of self-identifying Christians) are active practicers/’extremely involved’…

And I can’t blame them.

Because we’re terrible. And boring. We lack imagination so we’re unable to put together any particularly coherent and persuasive case even to those who call themselves Christians about why they should be involved in church life… let alone for those people who describe themselves as warm to Christianity who aren’t Christians, the 12% who are neutral or the 26% who are ‘cool’…

Here’s my doomsday prophet statement. I’ll put on my funky wizard’s hat:

The problem for the church in Aussie society isn’t with the society. It’s with the church. 

We have so utterly failed to understand the people around us and why they don’t like us that it’s left us fearful, or worse, unimaginative. We trot out the same lines in response to new challenges and wonder why they’ve lost their edge; and we never really ask if the lines we’re trotting out are actually coherently Christian (or Biblical), or if the way we’ve implemented our theology (our traditions) might need reforming.

Wisdom and the imagination

Maybe we should rethink what wisdom actually is. That it’s about navigating between two seemingly contradictory poles rather than picking one and beating people with it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that wisdom requires imagination. Not a rule book. And we’re failing society at large (and ourselves) because we keep assuming wisdom is about having the right facts or knowledge; rather than about using our Spirit-shaped imagination to chart shrewd paths through difficult extremes.

That’s why Proverbs — a book of Biblical wisdom — can contradict itself within two sentences.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

Here’s two places where, in the New Testament, we’re called to be wise in the way we engage with the world.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:5-6

Now. These two use different words for wisdom (the word the NIV translates as ‘shrewd’ in Matthew 10 is φρόνιμος (phronimos) which means practically wise), but both attach wisdom to action rather than to knowledge; we’re to ‘be as shrewd as’ and ‘wise in the way you act’ — this isn’t about head knowledge but about the charting of a path in life, in Matthew it’s to live amongst hostile wolves, and in Colossians, where Paul has just mentioned his chains, it’s to live amongst hostile wolves who are ‘outsiders’ but in the hope they ask questions that we can then answer with the Gospel… he’s just said: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:3).

A way this wisdom thing seems to play out in Jesus’ life is in those moments where the wolves are out to get him; to trap him between two undesirable positions, when, say, the Pharisees ask him a question about tax and the scope of Caesar’s power where they’re trying to trap him and he confounds them by picking a grander third way between those two poles. He re-imagines their question and uses it to show where they’ve got humanity and power all wrong…

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”

This is wolf like. What Jesus does in response is shrewd.

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. — Matthew 22

The implication here is that God’s image is on something other than these metal disks. It’s a bold gambit. It’s imaginative. It helps us re-imagine and re-image our humanity; and it avoids the obvious trap; Jesus would’ve been in trouble with the Pharisees and Israel if he’d claimed Caesar was the supreme power in the world, but he’d have been in trouble with Rome if he’d denied Caesar’s authority.

What a shame we appear to have lost the ability to imagine our own way through similar dilemmas and similar tests in the face of similarly powerful empires. Our answer now seems to be to just slam Caesar and those out there in the world who aren’t like us, and in doing so, to slam the door on Gospel opportunities.

I’m pretty sure our lack of ‘practical wisdom’ or shrewdness — our inability to imagine new ways — is limiting our ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ to people. And it is driving me mad. The way this manifests itself is that as soon as someone offers an alternative way they’re treated with the suspicion of liberalism or heresy, and interpreted in really binary labels; we can’t think outside the boxes that we’ve made for themselves.

Please. Can we start using our imaginations in the pursuit of wisdom… rather than simply doggedly repeating the same old mantras that got us here?

Here’s the thing; according to McCrindle’s research it’s not taxes and what we give to Caesar that’s the prime trap or ‘belief blocker’ for the church in Australia — for those Aussie Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as the word of God. It’s homosexuality. And again; this is an area where we rely on pat answers, ‘facts’, ‘proof-texts’, odd traditions and a total lack of imagination; both in the church and in our interface with the world at large. In a weird confluence; perhaps providentially… this is the issue that many doomsayers in the church are seeing as a sort of watershed, a sign that the culture has finally turned on us (perhaps, instead, this is just the only bit of the culture we’re prepared to offer some sort of resistance to, because for so long it’s been an area where we thought our norms were in the ascendency… we’ve ceded so much ground on stuff like economics and work (greed) and other types of idolatry so that we don’t look any different to our neighbours on that stuff). Here’s a quote from one famous piece of doomsaying, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (see my (mostly positive) review here):

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”

I liked The Benedict Option because while it used metaphors consistent with doomsday prepping and heading to the hills; it did outline a positive and imaginative way of being the church in the world. It stumbled onto a some great solutions for the real problem facing us as the church despite perhaps over-reaching in its diagnosis of the problems (though writer Rod Dreher is as much writing to wake the church up to who we should be as he is to diagnose the problems outside us and what they might do to us).

But what if to read the situation this way as a ‘Christian conservatives’ v ‘cultural left’ ‘culture war’ is to be impaled on the horn of a particularly nasty dilemma; to choose between, if you’ll excuse the clumsy labelling of Christian conservatives as Pharisees, Caesar and the Pharisees. What if there are a bunch of alternative ways we might imagine to engage with people who disagree with us on this issue while maintaining our own faithfulness? What if Margaret Court had considered options other than boycotting Qantas? This sort of ‘third way’ is what I was outlining a bit in a recent post; but now we’ve got some interesting data from McCrindle to throw into the mix.

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

“The biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity is the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% say this completely blocks their interest). This is followed by, ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%).” — McCrindle, Faith and Belief In Australia

Where I think we’ve failed here is that we’ve assumed faithfulness to Jesus means opposing same sex marriage for non-Christians in a secular nation. Because the Bible doesn’t recognise same sex marriage as marriage we should not allow anybody to; and, charitably, because same sex marriage will be bad for participants and families because it is outside God’s design, the loving thing to do is to oppose it. I understand this logic; I just think it lacks imagination and is ultimately a net loss when it comes to love and wisdom (in part because it becomes a significant blocker for people who as a result misunderstand how we feel about same sex attracted people and so stops them considering Jesus). If you stop someone considering Jesus because of a stance you take, you’re a bit like the crowd in the Zaccheus story in Luke 19; a barrier to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. You’re not loving. You’re hating. There are better ways to be clear about what the Bible says about sex than just to adopt a black and white opposition to same sex marriage.

Here’s a question. What would happen if we engineered everything we did and said around homosexuality around two scenarios (that might seem implausible to many of us).

  1. A gay or lesbian couple curious about Christianity who married overseas, have kids, and want to explore the Gospel.
  2. A same sex attracted Christian committed to Biblical teaching about sex who is pursuing a life of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.

What if it was our prayerful hope that our churches would be full of people like the people in this scenario, and church life revolved around figuring out how to work out what it means for us broken people to follow Jesus together. With my doomsday hat on again — and backed by the stats — our current unimaginative approach to this complicated question is keeping these scenarios from playing out.

The lens these scenarios would have us bring to questions about same sex marriage outside the church is totally different to the lens it seems our Christian political organisations and institutions want to bring to the political question. I can not imagine many of my gay friends and neighbours wanting to explore the truth claims of Christianity when we take their current hopes, dreams, and understanding of what a fulfilling life looks like, and spit on it without considering that our thinking about sexuality might be at all shaped by our prior decision to believe there’s a God, who reveals himself in the Bible and in Jesus, who has a design for our present and future, and who we love above all other loves.

Let’s assume that deciding how to approach your sexuality and your desires is a decision you make (what you do with them not who you are attracted to) that is either pleasing or displeasing to this God… and that our sexuality is something that God’s law/outline for what a flourishing human life looks like teaches us about. How do we approach questions of homosexuality for those who do not love God when the Bible itself says:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. — Romans 8:7-9

What do we hope to achieve by taking God’s law (natural law, or revealed law) and arguing that it should be the law of the land? Where do our expectations for this come from?

Why have we just categorically assumed that marriage as defined by God (in the Bible, and as seen in human history in most cultures) is what marriage should be for a bunch of people who reject God, and see nature as a thing to be conquered by human will, freedom, and ingenuity? Our failure to imagine how to run a ‘shrewd,’ wise, loving and compelling line on this issue begins with an utter failure to apprehend the playing field (and this too, is a failure of the imagination. We’ve assumed a status quo that is no longer there, and then imagined the status quo is worse than it actually is, because we haven’t really understood why and how the playing field has changed and how we might actually be better equipped to play on it than we imagine).

What if people just want to hear that we also have a vision of the good human life, and that rather than beginning with loving another person intimately, and expressing that love in sex, marriage, and belonging to a family, we believe it starts with loving God intimately, and through that being part of his family in a way that changes how we view sex, love, and marriage. We understand that our views of marriage require a particular view of God, and for those who don’t share that view they’ll seem archaic and weird. But that’s ok. We’re happy to be weird, because we believe we’re right and nature and human history seem to support this conclusion but we recognise that people should be free to make their own decisions about God. I don’t know anybody at this point who would call me a bigot for holding these views (I’ve not yet been called one), but I also think it’s both Biblical and compelling. So long as we really believe and live as though God is more important to us than sex and marriage.

Let’s for a moment, consider marriage as an institution that is shaped by religious beliefs — not just a ‘natural’ order thing — we know this is a thing because the Catholics view marriage as a sacrament where Protestants don’t, because Mormons in some parts of the world allow polygamy as a result of their beliefs, and so too do some Muslims (so do the Old Testament patriarchs, so it’s not totally clear even in the Bible that marriage as monogamy is a natural rather than revealed thing)… Let’s for a moment draw an analogy with another religious practice prior to coming to love Jesus above all else; halal food. Do we expect a Muslim we hope to introduce to Jesus to stop eating halal food; perhaps even to eat bacon; before they become a Christian?

It seems an odd hill to die on, and like an impediment to Gospel ministry if the political changes happen (and it seems like they will); and even the most nuanced opponents to same sex marriage within the church get tarred with the same brush as the more extreme fringes because we’re not particularly good at explaining why Christian beliefs should shape secular legislation (let alone simply be accommodated by secular legislation).

Our responses to proposed changes to the Marriage Act have also been utterly without imagination; we’ve been worried about protecting Christian bakers and florists rather than thinking about how Christian bakers and florists might engage with the gay community who come knocking. Maybe instead of refusing to serve our gay neighbours because we hold to a different definition of marriage; we should refuse to profit from a changed institution and so offer our services for free.

Maybe we should pursue a generous pluralism; allowing other people to re-shape a secular/common understanding of marriage while still recognising our own religious distinctives, rather than seeking to defend the status quo for as long as possible.

Maybe we should, as much as possible, seek to create opportunities to have conversations with our gay neighbours from a position of love for them, and belief that Jesus is actually fundamentally better than sex or romantic love and could be more compelling than sex should a gay family come through our doors, and leave that for us to figure out with our neighbours in the context of a loving Christian community rather than relying on public statements that are interpreted as hateful or that close down doors and opportunities.

Maybe the voices we should be listening to at times like this are the voices of the faithful brothers and sisters living out the Gospel calling when it comes to their sexuality; about their experience of their desires, about what they find compelling about Jesus, and about what helps life in the church, following Jesus, be a plausibly better alternative than embracing an alternative ‘gospel’… Here’s an interesting piece in Eternity from this week, from David Bennett, a same sex attracted, celibate, Christian. Here’s a bit from him:

“The pressure that has been put on the Christian Church by the gay lobby only makes things worse for LGBTQI Christians like myself who are trying to bring a subtler, but far more profound change in the Church. You heap pressure on faithful Christians like me, most of whom hide themselves away. But we are part of you – we are just as ‘gay’ but we don’t have gay relationships.

We are defined by our relationship with Christ; we have had lives that are just as hard and if not harder as a minority within a minority. We are not trying to change the Church’s theology, but agree with it. Marriage between a man and a woman is scriptural and God’s design and a picture of the gospel. But we are trying to change a deeper ethic, bringing a revival to the Church’s worship life, which has for too long enshrined the idols of romanticised notions of love, money and middle-class life, which denies many from the gospel whether refugees, the poor, people of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, and LGBTQI people.”

Let’s re-imagine and hope for something better with David. A church where his sort of faith is more celebrated and more plausible… but this isn’t going to happen if we just accept the status quo.

How do we do create a new ‘social imaginary’? 10 helpful starting points

Maybe the doom and gloom scenario from doomsayers like Dreher and the Christian blogosphere is not totally accurate.

Maybe what we’ve seen is just a small development in the secular ‘social imaginary’ — the phrase philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe how we imagine the world we live in; the kind of structures that shape the way we understand life in the world. Maybe once the world’s social imaginary, when it came to sex and homosexuality, looked very much like ours; our vision of the ‘sexual person’ and how that part of us fit into the order of things was uncontested. We didn’t have to worry about being out of touch with reality because our cultural reality shared much of the same cultural furniture; and there hasn’t been this wholesale and sudden rejection of the Christian social imaginary, but rather this last piece of the furniture was chucked to the curb; and it was our favourite chair. Maybe if we want to respond coherently we should be thinking about what a ‘social imaginary’ is comprised of, how to spot what’s going on in the world, and how to build an alternative reality that can exist alongside the dominant one as a plausible, though weird, and reasonably welcome alternative. At the moment we seem to want to insist that everybody should imagine the world the way we do; with God present and revealing the image of the flourishing human. And, just to be clear, the imagination does not just mean ‘fantasy land’ but how we see the world as it is, and where we turn to plot what it could be.

This could be the first time I’ve positively linked to Desiring God; but this Kevin Vanhoozer talk/essay on the imagination and its place in the Christian life is good and important.

“We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake…

Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.”

These are ten basic tips to be less boring and more imaginative. They’re a bit abstract, and I’ll unpack them over time… but feel free to explore what this might look like by asking questions.

  1. Tell better stories.
  2. Build better (and bigger) institutions (communities with a purpose — churches and groups/organisations on a ‘mission’ to do or create stuff) that hold the Gospel and ‘action’ (eg social justice or ‘deeds’) closer together.
  3. Be a more compelling alternative to the world (be saboteurs).
  4. Prepare to significantly change the way we live together so we look and feel different to our neighbours.
  5. Read more ancient (less panicked) voices.
  6. Use these ancient voices to question modern ‘orthodoxy’.
  7. Imagine better answers to complex questions.
  8. Listen more (especially to the voices of people grappling with the application of our doctrines).
  9. Be comfortable with mystery not just black/white ‘pat’ answers.
  10. Get the relationship between belief, behaviour and belonging the right way around (maybe it’s actually belong, behave, believe).
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Why (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…

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

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

utopia-banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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