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).