Tag Archives: GK Chesterton

Christmas presents and paradoxes

By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.

Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).


Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.

The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.

This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.


Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.

The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.

Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.

“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”

But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.

On paradoxes and pendulums: From sacrifice to sacrifice and resurrection

I just read a piece on the Gospel Coalition Australia by Wei Han Kuan called From Sacrifice to Fulfillmentessentially a call for our understanding of ministry to be much more shaped by the Cross than the current trend in global Christianity (which, in sum, is a ‘best life now’ approach to Christianity rather than a ‘when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die’ Christianity). He opens with the question:

“What will it take? To reach all the nations for Christ?”

I love the idea that ministry needs to be cross-shaped. I wrote a thesis on exactly this. The article makes lots of fine points, but I fear its guilty of the same charge it levels at the breed of Christianity it has in the cross-hairs. Like much reactive Christianity out there, it over-corrects a bad thing by killing a paradox. By swinging a pendulum further than the Bible would allow, and perhaps, further than effective proclamation of the Gospel allows. It uses this idea of a ‘main frame of reference’ and a ‘subtle shift’ to push for one side of a paradox to have priority over the other.

“I’m not saying the books today are all bad, or even that those ones are all bad. But notice the way in which the frame of reference has shifted. From sacrifice and suffering as an inevitable part of the Christian life that must be embraced to fulfilment and even strategy–that which is most strategic for me and my ministry–as the main frame of reference. It’s a subtle shift and one that moves us a step further away from the pattern we see in Scripture.”

Why can’t our ‘main frame of reference’ be complicated enough to embrace paradox? I suspect that would allow us a more robust Christianity and a better way of correcting the problems at either pendulum extreme. This GK Chesterton quote from Orthodoxy shows what a better response to the question of the Christian life in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus will look like.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Cross shaped. Absolutely. But the reason we suffer is that we believe we are raised with Christ. And when I have an opportunity to show what a flourishing or abundant life that reflects what God’s goodness to the world, and his ultimate plan for the world might look like, it’s also my job to live life in a way that testifies to this. Isn’t it? Aren’t we able to conceive of a sort of approach to life that simultaneously testifies to both the life we now share through Jesus, and the means by which we were invited to share in it? Can’t we be ‘positive on both points’ of the paradox? Must we keep writing correctives that throw out both sides, or priorities one side, rather than simply calling for paradoxical balance or tension? We do the same thing with the deeds v words debate, and just about every other paradoxical element of our faith has at one point been resolved in a manner which created some manner of heresy or hollowness.

There is no Cross-shaped message without the resurrection. And the central thesis of this piece, which I’ll reduce to ‘preach and live the Cross’ kind of misses the point that Jesus also did say:

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” — John 10

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

And Paul picks this up, I think, in Romans 6. This isn’t to say suffering is not part of the Christian life, but its a part held alongside a sort of resurrected flourishing. A flourishing that Romans 8 picks up too…

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. — Romans 6

This all has implications for life now. Life that goes beyond simply taking up our cross — but must necessarily involve that too (and I’d say, ultimately it involves this for the sake of loving others. That’s what leads us to suffer. Willingly). The ‘resurrected’ life involves the incredible new humanity we now experience because God dwells in us by his Spirit, and transforms us into the image of Christ (not Adam). We’re part of something new. The Gospel is good news for our humanity, and our testimony is an expression of this new humanity as well as a constant pointing to where this new life, eternal life, is found.

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

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” — Romans 8

Picking either ‘death/suffering’ or ‘resurrection/glory’ as our thematic approach to Christianity robs the Gospel of its richness. It leaves us anemic. It leaves our Gospel roughly 100% incomplete. Just as Jesus is 100% divine, and 100% human. The Gospel is 100% the suffering and death of Jesus, and it is 100% the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. And we share in that Gospel fully.  

“Could it be that our drift to the narrative of fulfilment and strategy is running counter to our commanding officer’s vision of a spiritual army at war, with faithful soldiers ready to fight, suffer, be wounded, and even to die? Could it be that too much talk of strategic ministry and mission, and of fulfilment in the Christian life, is working actively against God’s purposes to use suffering to achieve his Gospel ends? Consider the suffering of Christ!” — Wei Han Kuan

Suffering alone is not a strategy. Embracing paradox is. As confusing and mysterious as that will necessarily be.

The Gospel isn’t just a path to a way out of this life via suffering, it’s a path to a good and flourishing life — the life God made us for. Life as God’s children again. Equipped and empowered by the Spirit to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, fixed on his victory, and fixed on the future — so that we will be prepared to suffer anything for the sake of making God’s goodness, and this new life, known for others. Even for our enemies. Even for those who would crucify us for holding this hope — for living this hope. The problem the article is identifying, I think, is an eschatological problem and a problem of expectations. The ‘best life now’ stream of Christianity brings too much of God’s future into the present, but the danger is that in rejecting this brand of Christianity we leave too much of the future in the future, and neuter our message which is ‘good news’ — and its good news in more than just a sense that Jesus died for us. It’s good news, also, because he was raised for us. And we share in his resurrection. Our lives, and our teaching, and our approach to ministry, is meant to be shaped by where we think life (and the world) is heading. An under-realised eschatology is just as damaging and wrong, and limiting, as an over-realised eschatology. Wei Han Kuan is right, absolutely right, to nail the problem with much popular Christian literature — probably even the most prevalent form of Protestant Christian belief — but just because it’s a big and popular problem isn’t an excuse to swing the pendulum to the other extreme. It won’t provide the answer to his opening question.  

“What will it take? To reach all the nations for Christ?”

It’s getting a full and robust Christianity that appreciates, and celebrates the mystery at the heart of all our paradoxes that has a hope of being compelling to those around us. It’ll take us living out the richness of a life of  robustly held paradox, not trying to flatten it every time someone else fails to hold twin truths in balance. This means living out the truths of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Putting to death our old selves, and putting on the new self. Because we really believe the old us died with Jesus, and the new us is raised with him and developed in us by God’s Spirit, as God works in us to ultimately present us completely transformed and glorified in the image of Christ. This is what bringing our future best life into the ‘now’ looks like. Our best life now is a life that is a taste of what is to come, as well as a taste, for others, of what secured this life for us. This is what a good, flourishing life, an abundant life, a life patterned on God’s design looks like.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

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, since you have taken off your old selfwith its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

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. — Colossians 3

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Snippet // GK Chesterton on belief via a system of truths

A while back I posted something about how my approach to deciding what is ‘true’ or what I believe is based not so much on skepticism, but on my ability to integrate a new piece of information into the system of truths I already believe (or my ability to adapt the system around new information). I’ve increasingly realised that this systematic approach to truth makes it a little harder to speak about why I believe what I believe in a sort of succinct way to people who don’t believe things I believe, be they foundational (like that Jesus existed, claimed to be divine, and his death and resurrection are a form of proof for this claim), or secondary sorts of things that flow out of those core beliefs.

I think GK Chesterton articulates the challenge this presents pretty nicely in Orthodoxy

“When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab…”

And a bonus. Which I love. On the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith, and how this is something good and not something to be resolved. He talks, first, about the humility the Gospel requires when it comes to an acknowledgment of our utter sinfulness, and the ‘pride’ required for Christians when it comes to saying that we are living, breathing, rulers of God who rule the world on his behalf.

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism — the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them….

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”

And finally, on just how difficult “Orthodoxy” actually is.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.