14 Propositions and 3 stories on being the church in post-Christian/post-modern/post-truth Australia

Somewhere in the notes on my phone I’ve started jotting down the different labels people are applying to modern life; post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth…

Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, where it means:

“‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

I’m not an expert on anything much (just making coffee and how to write obscenely long blog posts really)… so I assume when I write stuff people will take or leave it based on its usefulness or truthiness or whatevs. This is something of a caveat or a disclaimer on this post; an acknowledgment that these aren’t definitive things for me inasmuch as they’re the building blocks of how I’m approaching life in the church in however you’d describe modern Aussie life… the nature of time moving forward and different cultural and intellectual epochs being left in the past is that we’re always ‘post-‘ something; at the moment it’s hard not to feel like we’re post-everything; when I talk to different people both in and outside the church there’s a sense that life is changing pretty fast and there’s a temptation to either try to change the church (and what it looks like or does) just as fast to keep up, or to not change how we do things at all. I suspect both these options are wrong and right (at the same time); that we need to change pretty rapidly, but that the change shouldn’t be ‘innovative’ purely for innovation’s sake where we copy the culture only with a bit of Jesus tacked on… it should almost be a rediscovery of who we’re meant to be.

I’ve written a little bit about different approaches to our post-central position in culture (as the ‘church’) and an idea being developed and put forward in the US called The Benedict Option first considering the church as something like the mutants in the world of the X-Men, then considering the post-everything culture as a sort of zombie apocalypse where we’re wanting to survive and thrive; which is a return to a sort of monastic approach to life in the world; not total withdrawal, but a sort of firming up of community boundaries so that mission seems to involve people coming in to our community more than it involves us living as people sent into the world to be a faithful presence… I’m not sure this is the answer to our post-whatever milieu, or what life as exiles should look like (which I think isn’t just the paradigm for life-post-Christendom but for life-post-cross), but part of what I’m trying to sketch out as I write, for myself perhaps more than for others, is a framework for thinking about the life of the church — the body of Christ — in this world; my assumption is that the church should be proclaiming and living the good news of the kingdom of God and its king, Jesus, and that this is fundamentally counter-cultural, it is its own post-everything community, this shouldn’t feel like a call to a new ‘reformation’ in the Aussie ‘evangelical’ scene, though in some ways it is.

There’s not a heap of ‘new’ stuff in this post; what I’ve been aiming to do with this little corner of the Internet for a while is articulate how I’m approaching life and church as much for my sake as for anyone else’s, as a way of tweaking and working out my paradigm. That means there’s a fair bit of repetition, but it also means the archives here chart the development of my thought, which I find personally useful… if this stuff is useful for others along the way, then that’s a bonus.

So here, to perhaps clarify about 50,000 words of previous posts on this blog, are 14 propositions and 3 stories on what I think church can and should be in a post-everything world. It’s long. I’m assuming you’ll skim read if you bother, but part of this is to have a comprehensive one stop shop that spells out my approach to being the church in the post-truth age. I don’t think these are new ideas, though they might be old ideas applied to new threats and opportunities. The stories aren’t meant to be heroic, they are, however, reflections on where I’ve felt like things have ‘clicked’ for our church in the last few years. There are lots of stories, good and bad, from three years of church stuff, these are the ones that fuel the ‘propositions’…

Story 1.

For the last three years (it’s our anniversary in a couple of weeks), I’ve been the campus pastor of Creek Road South Bank. One of my greatest privileges in that time has been baptising 16 Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ. Before I baptise anyone it’s part of my job to hear the story of how they came to follow Jesus (and to ask questions to make sure to the best of my understanding I’m pouring water on Christians). These 16 people share a few things in common: they’re all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia having fled Iran with a particular suspicion about Islam because of the Iranian regime, they’re all able to overcome the language barrier enough to answer my questions about the Trinity (which is a thing I probe because it’s a big difference between Christianity’s view of God and Islam’s), they understand the Trinity, they get the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus for their standing before God, and they’ve universally told me that the reason they began investigating Christianity, and stuck with it, is the love they received from Christians from when they arrived in Australian detention, to when they’ve been resettled in the community, to when they’ve met Christians in church. I can’t take any credit for anything except that I ask questions and do the water bit; but I’m so deeply encouraged, every time, not just by the ‘homecoming’ involved for these brothers and sisters, but by their simple testimony that it’s loving, gospel-shaped, community that makes the Gospel seem worthy of investigation.

Proposition 1: Media matters: You are the social media for whatever you worship

We’re made in the image of God and part of that is that we’re designed to worship and so represent God in his world as his living, breathing, imagining, creating, life-giving people; we replace God with dead idols that take our breath away and we end up adopting new ways of dying based on what it is we worship (most people are poly-theists when it comes to idols, worshipping from a sort of smorgasbord of ‘gods’ like family, money, career, sex, power, popularity so we all look a little different).

Proposition 2: Our ‘media habits’ matter: our worship involves our habits (our repeated actions), which feed and shape our loves and our thinking.

There’s an aspect of ‘post-truth’ stuff that we need to recognise is a misfiring of some fundamental parts of our humanity; we’re made to love and feel our way around the place — but we are, as Augustine might put it, disordered lovers; our media habits — what we fill our time, our attention, our imaginations with and do with our bodies shape us. We live in a world that’ll be increasingly shaped by content-on-demand TV which we binge watch on our couches while eating convenience food (where we’re totally disconnected from the process of the food getting to us), by pornography, by addiction to black glass screens that bombard us with content and fill our attention from the moment we wake; by buying ourselves (fleeting) happiness, and shaped by the equally idolatrous over-correction — those who see the problems with this way of life and so live sort of monastically ‘disconnected’ lives focusing on the pursuit of the perfect meaningful romantic/sexual relationship, ‘slow-food’ that you grow and hunt yourself that you prepare following the recipe of a celebrity chef, or buy from a fancy locavore restaurant, with lots of silence and mediation thrown in for self-mastery’s sake. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between Biggest Loser and MasterChef.

Proposition 3: We live, worship, and image bear both as individuals and corporately/culturally/in community

Bearing the image of the God who is a community (the Trinity) is not something we can do alone even if we try, and it was never a thing we were meant to try; we’re relational/social animals. That’s why God says ‘let us make mankind in our image’ and then makes us male and female… We’re defined as much by relationships with others as by whatever ‘image’ we try to craft alone; and even as we craft an image for ourselves and so worship in particular ways, that’s inevitably a thing we do in community with others that is shaped by the culture we define ourselves through or against. ‘Cultures’ are the product of a sort of coherent mass of ideas and artefacts that tell some sort of story about life and shape the way members of a culture ‘worship’.

Proposition 4: All ‘media artefacts’ have some sort of ‘story’ or value proposition and collections of these artefacts make ‘cultures’

In the past idols had ‘statues’ to represent them; now idolatry seems to happen more through a collection of ‘widgets’ or artefacts that stories or the sort of things we use in stories, that equip people to pursue their worship. I like Andy Crouch’s insight that cultures are a collection of ‘artefacts’ with some sort of coherent story.

Just like God’s ‘art’ — creation itself (and us) — is made with the purpose of representing true things about him… Art, whether written, performed, or fashioned isn’t neutral, it’s made with purpose and represents ‘true’ things about us. The technology (whether hardware or software) and ‘media’ we create are types of artefacts,’ they aren’t neutral. We can always take and repurpose things to use for good, Godly, purposes, just as we took God’s world and used it for our bad purposes; but we need to be aware of what’s under the hood.

So, for example, ‘slow food’ might actually be a better way to articulate true things about God’s world than fast food (just as specialty coffee is better than instant coffee), but we need to make that decision with imagination, discernment and clarity (and applying the same to other ‘artefacts’ in order to be creating an alternative ‘culture’. We need to find a way to ‘plunder Egypt’ for golden ‘artefacts’ that are good and true and beautiful that become part of our ‘culture,’ but we also need to beware the human tendency to use Egyptian gold for golden calves (we take the good stuff God made and use it for our own idolatry). We also need to figure out how to make stuff with gold — our own artefacts — in ways that line up with God’s purposes for creation. Christians could be making things that are good, and true, and beautiful both on a local (neighbourhood) type scale, and on a ‘global’ scale, for the good of everyone not just for our own Christian marketplace.

Most people in our culture don’t think of themselves as worshippers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not. They don’t think of themselves as being searchers for ‘truth’ or meaning (like the people of Athens) and part of our culture-making probably has to be question-provoking; it might have to carry a degree of oddness or mystery that makes people ponder why we’re so different (but in a way that is compelling because it is linked to helping people rediscover the created purpose of our humanity. We also can’t take for granted that people will have any of the conceptual building blocks of the Christian story where that might have once been the case.

Proposition 5. Our aim isn’t to smash idols with sledgehammers (except in our own lives perhaps) but to hollow them of meaning and value, and to show how the inclinations of our hearts that produce them are better satisfied in a better story, with a better God.

In Deuteronomy Israel are told that upon entering the promised land they should totally destroy the idols of the nations; lest their hearts be captured by them. That’s a guide to life in God’s kingdom in Israel; there’s a particular socio-political reality underpinning that approach to idols. In the New Testament Paul tells us to keep ourselves from idols; basically to smash them within the boundaries of the church. He takes a very different approach to the idols of his culture. In 1 Corinthians he tells the church to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols in the presence of non-Christian friends or family who are hosting dinners until the host makes such eating a specific kind of participation in idol worship; until they make a big deal about the sacrifice in a way that makes eating some sort of participation in worship that confuses the people you’re trying to invite to an alternative type of worship. In Athens, Paul walks the streets of the idolatry capital of the world without a sledgehammer; and when he gets the opportunity to speak he doesn’t tell the Athenians to knock down their idols, he understands the human impulses that have led them to worship the wrong thing; to imagine different gods as the solution to their desires, and he attempts to redirect those impulses to the true God in a way that shows their idols as foolish distractions; he does this by quoting the poets and philosophers of the time, he shares as as many assumptions, as much empathy, or as much humanity, as he can with those he is preaching to, without joining their worship. The effect of this is to, much as the Old Testament prophets did when writing about ‘breathless’ idols, hollow them of any legitimate value or meaning, by pointing to the truly valuable God, the one ‘in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being’… his preaching of the more valuable God has a profound impact on people in this ancient world. When he gets to Ephesus a couple of chapters later, the same preaching causes a bunch of people to switch to worshipping the Christian God, and so to burn incredibly valuable (idolatrous) magic books. The impact on the idol-making market — because of the way the Gospel hollowed out the value of the idols of the time — is so great that the local idol making cartel starts a riot to push Paul out of town.

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:23-27

This is what we should be aiming for; to acknowledge our desire for life, meaning, joy, comfort, and significant relationships and to rob the idols of the present of their value because they don’t provide actual answers. Not with a sledgehammer, but by offering something better. One of our age’s own poets, David Foster Wallace, in the speech This Is Water (which I quote all the time (because it’s the equivalent of Paul quoting the non-Christian philosophers at the Areopagus cause they were so close to getting God right) points out that our culture has its own ‘cartel’ of idol makers; the powerful and influential systems and leaders who get more wealth and power so long as we all mindlessly participate in the default worship of our culture; which he calls ‘the worship of self’ — and which he suggests manifests itself in the worship of sex, money, and power. This is our Athens:

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Our job is to afflict those who have become comfortable via these defaults, and to comfort those afflicted and oppressed by these defaults, but to do it not by taking a sledgehammer to the sort of idol-perpetuating cultures (like capitalism and power-politics) but by offering a better way; a way that shows that the promises of ‘gods’ other than the one we see nailed to a cross, have no ‘divine majesty’ but are hollow and life-taking.

Proposition 6: The ‘post-truth’ world should rightly refocus us on ethos (and even pathos) as part of Gospel proclamation; it’s what gives our message integrity, credibility, and appeal

One of our misfires in the ‘truth’ world has been to assume that truth is found in the realm of ideas and words; that it’s a thing you predominantly think and that our heads lead to change; that we’re sanctified via education alone. We’re not just logical brains, or computers (I’ve heard some interesting stuff from brain scientists about how unhelpful it is to treat the brain as a ‘fascinating computer’ and I think we’ve made this mistake in our approach to church; trying to get the programming right). We love and feel and experience truth. Ancient communications theorists were all over this — logos (words/logic) alone is a terrible and unpersuasive ‘proof’… when we add the stuff about us being visible media into the mix (and think about how God communicates via visible media from the creation of the world, to laws that produce rituals and story-telling celebration, onwards to the word being made flesh in Jesus), it’s hard to get to a position we’re our words aren’t being given their weight and meaning by our actions and character. Words are always necessary; not just because we do think logically, but because words are also part of the way we calibrate our hearts. Words are something fundamental to our humanity; something we share with God that animals don’t (unless we teach them to parrot us), but we need to think more about the sorts of words, and about how words that have integrity have integrity because they line up with actions. Tying the above propositions together; this ethos is a thing we share across the church community, not just an individual thing.

Proposition 7: The church is the plausibility structure for the Gospel

Because persuasion happens via ethos as much as the logos that shapes it, and because that’s corporate, and because worshippers represent the God they worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that communities built around gods make those gods plausible. This is true of the shopping centre, where the story of happiness via consumption is told/pursued by all the people shopping together (or together alone) and shopping in ways that follow ‘trends’ (which often feature cultural artefacts that everyone wants to buy and own and attach to their ‘image’). The church community is where the Gospel is displayed as it is lived and articulated.When we forgive each other for wrongs and hurts we inflict on one another by bearing the cost of wrongdoing on ourselves we show the truth and goodness of the forgiveness Jesus pours out on us in his death.When we respond to messy sin with grace, rather than disgrace or shame the person (in a way that is utterly counter-cultural in our new shame culture) we make the Gospel more believable for us, and them.

When we have permission to be broken and vulnerable but are treated as though we have inherent dignity and value in the life of the community we make the claim that we are loved by God and being transformed into the image of Jesus feel true.

When we love each other the way Jesus loved us and commanded us to love — for the sake of the other, not our own sake — that makes the love God displays for us in Gospel believable for us and for others.

This isn’t revolutionary thinking either; it’s there in the words of Jesus when he says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…” (John 13:35, which is basically the idea that underpins the whole of 1 John where the possibility of continued belief in Jesus, and loving like Jesus are linked inextricably). Discipleship is about formation; we’re all disciples of whatever god we worship, shaped by those who are more ‘mature’ worshippers because it comes via imitation not simply education; for Christians it comes via imitation of Jesus (to love as he loved, which is also what he commands us to do in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another…”).

Proposition 8: For the Gospel to be proclaimed/plausible/lived 24/7 (not just on Sundays) we need to think of the church (community of believers) and its worship (corporate activity of sacrifice/service of God) as being a 24/7 thing not a two hours on Sundays thing.

We humans are worshippers 24/7. We’re always giving ourselves to our gods and getting shaped by them in return. Worship delivers transformation (and often disappointment, or in the words of David Foster Wallace, worshipping idols ‘eats us alive’…). To make the Gospel plausible in post-everything Australia we need to be quite deliberately combating other types of worship in how we live 24/7; a get together on Sundays for an hour or two won’t cut it because it won’t display our ethos (the Gospel enacted in the love of Jesus) for long enough to be plausible for us, let alone for others. This will mean deliberately building different rhythms into the lives of Christians to the rhythms we adopt without realising as we live and breathe in idolatrous post-everything air.

Proposition 9: In this model of corporate proclamation (ethos and logos) by the church all the time, the priesthood of all believers really matters; which requires an upping of the levels of commitment of ‘unpaid’ church members and lowering the commitment of paid staff.

If corporate ethos really matters; and the church community speaks, lives and breathes the story of the Gospel to ourselves, and the world, then it’s hard to outsource the ‘ministry’ of church to a handful of paid professionals. That’s been an unfortunate part of seeing church as predominantly a Sunday thing; ‘serving’ at church becomes less important than ‘being served’ or ‘consuming’ a ‘worship event.’ And all of that is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There’s certainly a case to be made for paid church workers (quite explicitly in the Bible) and I definitely think I offer some value for money to anyone considering reading this point and not giving at church anymore… there’s also a case to be made for a significant portion of a church’s budget being used to free people up from secular work to pursue a gospel calling. We’re all, as Christians, called to Gospel ministry (which means service), and this will take different shapes based on our gifts, circumstances, and maturity. What this ‘call’ looks like will be different for everyone, and it’s important that we don’t enforce some sort of secular/sacred divide here; a Gospel ethos underpins the work of the cobbler as much as it underpins the work of the preacher.

Work matters; but seeing your work (including what you choose to do) and how you do it as part of your ministry (not just your colleagues as people to bombard with Gospel ‘logos’) is part of making work truly matter.

Part of ensuring that church/worship of God/being the body of Christ is the most fundamental part of setting the agenda of your life might involve you having that agenda less set by work (and the imperatives of our modern idols of career, money, comfort and power); this might mean resting, recreating, and relating more with the people in your life, of changing career, or going part time and figuring out how your gifts might be more directly used for the Gospel.

Story 2.

In the first couple of weeks of meeting in the Queensland Theatre; one of the brilliant theatre company staff who was tasked with helping us out happened to mention that their ‘charity partner of choice’ was a local social justice group called Micah Projects who run an apartment building around the corner from us which provides permanent supported housing for formerly homeless and low income people. It turns out Micah was founded as the social justice arm of the local Catholic church, but it has sort of taken on a life of its own since then. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity for us to join something already happening in our area and to practice the sort of cross-shaped ‘ethos’ the Gospel creates in us. So I volunteered. I’ve been volunteering for almost three years now, and have been part of a cool project (including the launch of a social enterprise cafe). But I’ve mostly spent time hanging out with Micah Projects’ passionate and capable team. A lady in our community got a bit excited about Micah, and she volunteered too. She volunteered for a project face-to-face with residents of this apartment building and set about faithfully and enthusiastically loving people. Others from church started attending a community meal. This lady is so warm and genuine in her love for others; a love that crosses barriers, that soon a resident of this apartment building, a lovely older lady (perhaps more enthusiastic about life than even our volunteer) started coming to church. She’s not originally from Australia, has no other family here, and now, in her emails and in conversations with people from outside our church calls us her ‘Aussie family’…

Proposition 10: As an alternative ‘community’ with an alternative king and alternative ethics (ethos), the church is profoundly ‘political’ (and both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ at the same time).

The church can’t simply attempt to be an arm of the secular state; wielding worldly power as though we’re not profoundly different to our neighbours. We follow king Jesus and are ‘citizens of heaven’ who ‘live as foreigners and exiles’ in this world; but nor can we pretend the Gospel is apolitical; that following Jesus has no bearing on how we live in God’s world amongst people now. The word ‘politics’ originally meant: “of, for, or relating to citizens” and we have some very big ideas about what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom; to follow Jesus, to obey his commands, to: ‘‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

The Gospel gives us a new vision of ‘the ethical’ and ‘good’ human life; which in the context of relationships/community gives us a new ‘politics’ — the word Gospel is, in itself, a political statement that Jesus is king (that’s what a ‘gospel’ was in Rome). Being part of God’s kingdom, the church, brings a whole new way of doing politics that come from our understanding of what the good life for a citizen looks like; the sort of life we aim to live as we follow our king, but also the sort of life we hope might appeal to others and commend the Gospel to them (not the sort of life we want to coerce people into living without a regime change in their heart). 

Our understanding of what it means to be human means we see humans as made in God’s image; so that there are certain inherently good and natural things that we commonly hold together (a sort of divinely inspired moral compass), so we’ll naturally want to conserve those things in a shared approach to life together as citizens; but we also see humans transforming themselves into the image of destructive idols via corporate/cultural replacement of God with created things, and we see that as profoundly damaging to our humanity (and to others) (Romans 1). We’ll see most cultures/institutions as being produced by image bearers who are also idolaters and so on a sort of spectrum towards deathliness depending on how much they’ve been given over (together) by God to the consequences of rejecting him (Romans 1) — people who know what they should do, but often don’t do it (Romans 7), so we’ll naturally want to call for a sort of progress away from that broken humanity towards the example of humanity we see in Jesus. We’ll call for this without expecting people who don’t follow Jesus to adopt that ‘progress’ for themselves, and we’ll call for it loudest by living it as people/citizens being transformed by God’s Spirit (Romans 8).

This means there might be things Christians can achieve for the love of God and neighbour through involvement in conservative or progressive human political institutions as an outworking of our alternative politics; it might also mean not being part of those systems; it definitely means our first allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom, and it means having our ‘politics’ first shaped by this citizenship.

Proposition 11: Part of the nature of the Gospel’s ‘ethos‘, the nature of our politics, and how we see the value of people and the use of power, pushes us towards the marginalised in our community not towards occupying or cosying up to ‘powerful’ worldly leaders (and for those of us in positions of power and influence should shape us to use that in particular, sacrificial, ways on behalf of the vulnerable).

The way Jesus uses power is the anti-thesis to the way the Serpent, Satan, uses power and following Jesus brings with it a new way of approaching power that isn’t the grasping, self-interested approach introduced by the Serpent in Genesis 3. The way of the Serpent is the way of the ‘beastly’ Roman empire (see Revelation); it’s the way that culminates in humanity driving big metal spikes through the hands of God With Us (Jesus), and killing him on the best weapon of utter humiliation-via-powerlessness that humanity could devise. The cross worked by robbing someone of their dignity and their ability to inspire (both in terms of breathing or leading). That’s why Rome used it to punish treason and insurrection; it was meant to give Caesar more power by robbing power from pretenders. The serpent makes powerful people into crucifiers; Jesus makes people cruciform (cross shaped). This orients those who follow Jesus to a particular understanding of how sinful people (and cultures) will wield power for their own self-interest, and attunes us to the sort of cost that inflicts on the people who powerful people use to their own ends; it means that we use our own ‘human power’ as a gift from God to be poured out for the sake of others; whether we occupy an ‘office’ that brings a degree of authority, or we’re just human, there’s an orientation towards the poor, the enslaved, the widowed, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the abused, and the victim. Most people are ‘marginalised’ in some way by the use of power, because ultimately power used to our own selfish ends is power being used by ‘that great serpent’ whose reign is destroyed by the reign of Jesus (again, see Revelation).Part of the ethos that comes with serving the king who lays down his power for the sake of others to make a ‘home’ for the marginalised and re-affirm their dignity will involve us pursuing justice and mercy and love for the marginalised in our world; not in a way that tosses out the truth that we’re all ‘marginalised,’ excluded, and exiled, from God by our sin (a trap the ‘social gospel’/liberation movement fell into), or that sees this as the only marginalisation that matters (the trap the more fundamentalist ‘preach heaven to the dying world’ movement falls into) or that our homecoming to God involves being ‘exiles’ from the world of human/serpentish power (a trap a sort of ‘reconstructionist’ approach to government falls into sometimes), but in a way that sees how we live and love being part of how we proclaim and live the truth of the Lordship of Jesus over all things.

Proposition 12: We are ‘narrative animals’ and it’s stories that underpin our worship

As people we occupy space and move through time; the thing that separates ‘narrative’ from other forms is that events that happen in space, over time are understood/told that way. That’s how a story and a statue convey meaning differently. It’s also the difference between a computer and a person. When I turn on a computer it has no deep knowledge of the idea that it has been turned off for days, weeks, months or years, or that it is in a different place (even when software options recognise those things for us as users, they’re not ‘meaningful’ for the computer itself). We’re ‘narrative animals’; the post-truth thing where ’emotion,’ intuition, and our ‘personal narrative’ trumps facts is, in part, a corrective against a view of people that treated us more like computers who just had to be programmed right in order to perform right.

Plausibility in a post-truth world means treating people ‘narrative animals’ who organise our passing through time and space by telling stories that help us understand, love, feel, and intuit our way around the world; and telling a better/more-compelling story that brings a vision of what life should look like; it’s these stories and this vision that will shape our habits and loves, and so shape us.

These stories use words, but they’re also lived. Part of the task of the church community is to be a story-telling community in word and action; a community that lives and breathes the story of the coming of the kingdom of God and the death of sin and death in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Stories go hand in hand with ‘history’ — the collection of stories over time that give an account of who we are. There’s a movement called the “Big History Project” which aims to equip people to live more scientifically in a post-truth world by starting ‘history’ teaching with the big bang and giving people a sense of the tiny amount of space and time we occupy; we’ve got a better big history, that also begins with creation, but centres on the God who spoke the universe into being showing his incredible love for us and making us eternal. We should tell that story (like Paul does in Athens in Acts 17) as a way to move people from worshipping idols to worshipping the true God; because he’s actually a better God with a better story to be part of. This has to shape the way talk about the Bible (as a story not a weird collection of rules and facts, which is actually truer about how the Bible seems to understand itself — and how the apostles preach the Old Testament in Acts).

Proposition 13: Because we’re worshipping ‘narrative’ creatures who understand our world and are formed through ‘story’ and action (ethos) in community, not simply detached ‘facts’ (logos) Christian formation happens through the hands and the heart (our loves) as well; so we can’t just ‘educate brains’ to make disciples.

This is just Augustine and James K.A Smith and the implications of the stuff above. We become what we worship; and worship is about much more than simply knowing. I know I should eat healthier and that will re-shape me; but until I love the idea of a healthy me more than sugar and junk food and habitually say no, the knowing does nothing, and I know sugar is bad for me the less I eat it… If it doesn’t work in dieting (or any realm of human behaviour built on producing a changed image) why do we think formation happens purely by education? The implications for this are massive in terms of investment of time and energy in the rhythms of church life (the sermon can’t possibly be enough), but also changes the things we say when we preach and where we pitch stuff. The caveat is that of course the head is important; it’d be a weird sort of irony to write this much and not acknowledge that.

Proposition 14: Propositions are dead.

Propositions are a reasonable way to do logic, and they were perhaps okish in a pre-post-truth context (particularly in a modernist context). They’re a reasonable way to argue. I’m not so sure that many people have been argued into the kingdom of God (though I’m sure some arguments have been part of getting people to consider Jesus)… I’m fairly sure arguments/debates/logic won’t do much if the post-truth thing is the spirit of the age we live in. It’s still important to have some sense of the logic of belief in Jesus, but that won’t be the thing that gets someone to check out, or believe, the Gospel at a gut, or heart, level.

Propositions are actually a terrible way to do anything that looks like ‘change’ in the scheme of things whether that’s in the life of individual Christians, or in how we do church. And as much as a very long post on a blog might seem like a lot of energy to invest in a thing that doesn’t work, I’m much more interested in investing my energy into demonstration of this stuff in the context of the church community I’m part of, and through telling stories. There’s, of course, an irony in all this, but these propositions have largely been derived from how I understand the story of the Bible works, and from my observations of stories of God at work in the lives of real people in our church, lives that reflect this grand story…

Story 3.

In the beginning, God made a good world — an ordered and beautiful world where every created thing had a built-in purpose. It’s purpose was to reflect his goodness, his character, and his love. It was a gift for his children; his image-bearers. He made us to represent him, to rule with him, to spread and create things that would reflect his goodness throughout the world. He made us with another job in mind — as men and women — he made us to take part in the cosmic battle to defeat evil. Evil personified in the Serpent. Satan. He gave humanity what was required to defeat him; simply the opportunity to choose good, not evil, when the serpent came knocking. That would’ve been his end. Perhaps the serpent might have struck out and killed humans, but God has always been the life-giver who is capable of resurrection, and the gift of immortality via the ‘tree of life’ is part of his expression of love for his children. Who knows? The serpent struck with his words, not his teeth, he invited us humans to replace God with a false picture of God… first by suggesting that God wasn’t a generous life-giver who gave people everything they need, and more, and then by inviting them to decide what ‘image’ of God, what likeness, they would present in the world God made. Stuff God. Do your own thing. Worship some other picture of wholeness and goodness and pursue that. Only, none of these give life, or breath, or being; instead, they take life and breath. And that’s what humans choose, by default, to be our own gods, to worship false gods, to pursue satisfaction in using the things God made to our own ends. And it’s not just not-satisfying (it always leaves us wanting more), it’s also deadly. These things don’t give life.  

The story of humanity from that point is the disappointing story of hearts too easily lured away from God towards death, but God constantly pulling people from the smelting fire, re-forging them, breathing new life and purpose into them, offering life again… only for those same ‘new image bearers’ to head towards the exile door, away from him, away from life.

The Old Testament is a story of failed kings, failed states, and exile; of God’s images being captured and corrupted by foreign ideas — as idol statues often were in other military conflicts of the time — and so losing their created purpose. Of hearts turned towards wrong pictures of God, of imaginations misfiring. This is not just Israel’s story; it’s the story of humanity. It’s what we do. We’re haunted by having known the infinite, life giving God, and having lost that knowledge, collectively and culturally, by replacing him with things he made. It’s also the story of God’s faithful commitment to his original plans; the defeat of the serpent and the creation of a people who join him in spreading good, and true, and beautiful things — in spreading life itself — around the cosmos. Using our desires and imaginations; our creativity; to make things that are life-giving, not death-bringing. 

The story happens all over again with Jesus. When the author of life writes the word of life into the story of the world as a character. Jesus, both God and man, a new Adam, one who will end the serpent. The serpent-killing lamb ‘slain from the creation of the world’… the one who says no to the Serpent because he knows the goodness of God. The one who defeats evil not with the might of a sword, but with the obedience of the cross… that moment in history, at the centre of the story, where he both reveals God’s character and takes on the sin, and guilt, and shame, of those who write their own godless stories. Where a good king steps in to end our exile from God and to restore images captured by foreign enemies. Where the infinite becomes finite — to the point of spending three days dead — to give infinite life to us. This life is re-breathed into his people as the Holy Spirit; a divine spark setting fire to our hearts and minds, re-shaping us into what we were made to be; not just images of the infinite, invisible God, but of Jesus. Our king. Jesus invites you to rediscover the satisfaction of becoming who humans were always made to be. He invites you to be a character in the story that brings life, rather than write your own stories that bring death; to make things (family, friends, art, work) that are good and true and beautiful reflections of God’s goodness and character — the goodness and character we ultimately see revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — with others who are being re-shaped, re-forged, by that same Spirit. This creative community is a life-giving community, a community that lives out this new story and points people to the hero, while relying on God to give us life and breath and everything, and seeking to love our neighbours the way he loved us.

This is the true story we get to tell, and the story we get to live, as God’s people living in a world pulled in all sorts of directions by different types of worship. ‘Facts’ without this story are empty, that’s why the ‘post-truth’ thing isn’t ultimately a terrible thing for Christians, but perhaps it should be a ‘game-changer’ in that it should pull us back to a way of loving people and sharing the Gospel that we should never have walked away from (and in many cases, haven’t walked away from).

The Worship Wars (5): Fighting to win in a worshipping community

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves… Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the Story that is carried in those practices. — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

worship-wars

It has been a while since the last official post in this series, but there have been two more recent posts that really should make this a seven part series (it’s just that in part 4 I promised one more to tie things up; turns out I was wrong, and this is now the penultimate post because I split it in two).

So here’s a quick re-cap with tl:dr; summaries of each post so far.

  1. Part one argued that the fundamental truth about our humanity is that ‘you are what you worship’ and so suggested that the real worship wars aren’t so much about what style of music or liturgy your church employs on a Sunday, but about the war for our hearts, desires, and imaginations that goes on 24/7. Real worship happens as the habitual/liturgical living out of a story that shapes us by capturing our love so that we sacrifice.
  2. Part two argued that the fights about music in church got one thing right; how we worship really matters. It suggests that one implication of the battle for our worship between God and our idolatrous hearts is that gathering as the church on a Sunday is important, but won’t be enough to win the war.
  3. Part three explored this ‘worship as habits living out a story of the flourishing life’ (thanks James K.A Smith, Augustine, and the Bible) and the power of idolatrous worship by considering pornography use as a form of defective and deadly worship that conscripts the hands, hearts, and imagination such that a person (and culture) is shaped by this ‘shared’ worship.
  4. Part four started to chart a way forward in the worship wars; which involved: a) seeing ourselves as living in a world where lots of things vie for our worship because the evil one loves us to worship idols, b) knowing our enemies, c) seeing that winning the war requires real worship of the real God, d) seeing that attack is the best form of defence; that we beat idols via ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ and donning the ‘armour of God’ (Ephesians 6) not just by guarding our hearts.
  5. As a bonus I considered how my weight loss program was a form of idolatrous worship built on these building blocks, and examined some unexpected consequences of adopting new habits.
  6. Then how going to Westfield to do my Christmas shopping was joining a bunch of worshippers in a modern temple.

It’ll be clear to anyone who reads the snippets of different books quoted in these posts that much of what I’ve written is simply articulating the framework James K.A Smith has been developing in his books Imagining The Kingdom, Desiring The Kingdom, and You Are What You Love. Smith loves Augustine and David Foster Wallace too, so I’ve very much enjoyed these works from the series because they are, in many ways, articulating a framework I’m deeply convinced of too… I’ve also just finished reading the most excellent and provocative Liturgy Of The Ordinary: Sacred Practices In Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Wells, which is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series. These books are a great resource when it comes to seeing the problem posed by our heart’s desire to be pointed at something (or claimed by something), but I’m not entirely convinced their answers (in sum: a return to ancient, tried and true ‘liturgy’) are for everybody. Smith’s emphasis is largely placed on Sunday-as-worship (and especially the liturgical shaping of a worship experience around word and sacrament), Wells expands Smith’s insight to consider how the shape of a classic liturgical service might be reflected in the shape of the everyday. I’m unpersuaded by this, at least so far as what worship that keeps my own heart pointed and ordered by the Gospel might look like, though I should say I’m thoroughly persuaded of their critique of a tendency for churches to respond to the way things outside the church are capturing our hearts by making church feel more like a cafe or the shopping centre… I also totally share their conception about what the ends, or telos, of worship and ‘church’ are, and how worship relates to the God we meet in the Gospel… I love this selection of quotes from You Are What You Love:

The practices of the church are also a spiritual workout, inviting us into routines that train our heart muscles, our fundamental desires that govern how we move and act in the world…

Our sanctification—the process of becoming holy and Christlike—is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do (no longer reading Wendell Berry in Costco, essentially), it means changing what I want. And that requires submitting ourselves to disciplines and regimens that reach down into our deepest habits. The Spirit of God meets us in that space—in that gap—not with lightning bolts of magic but with the concrete practices of the body of Christ that conscript our bodily habits.

Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story. Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.

The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship. If we want to be a people oriented by a biblical worldview and guided by biblical wisdom, one of the best spiritual investments we can make is to mine the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught.

While worship is entirely embodied, it is not only material; and though worship is wholly natural, it is never only natural. Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God.

Those of us who inhabit postmodernity have so much to learn from ancient Christians… the rituals and liturgies of their surrounding culture were much more overt—for example, their civic political spaces were unabashedly temples, whereas ours traffic under euphemisms (stadiums, capitols, universities)—early Christians were more intentional about and conscious of the practices they adopted for worship. The heart and soul of their liturgical life hearkened back to Israel, but they didn’t simply “Jesufy” the synagogue. There was faithful innovation as the disciples sought to discern the rhythms and practices that would constitute the community of Christ. This included responding specifically to Jesus’s commands (giving us baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example), but it also included careful selection, reappropriation, and reorientation of formative cultural practices into the repertoire of kingdom-indexed liturgy. Thus, over time, the body of Christ continued to discern the scripts that should characterize a worshiping community centered on the ascended Christ who prayed for kingdom come.

To be conformed to the image of his Son is not only to think God’s thoughts after him but to desire what God desires. That requires the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination, which happens when God’s Word becomes the orienting center of our social imaginary, shaping our very perception of things before we even think about them. So, like the secular liturgies of the mall or the stadium or the frat house, Christian liturgies can’t just target the intellect: they also work on the body, conscripting our desires through the senses.

All these are fantastic; but where he goes (and where Wells goes with him) will not, I suspect, work for us all; though I’d suggest they (and the others they draw on through church history and in the Bible) do provide the scaffolding for us.

Forming (or de-forming) worship in a gods-saturated age

Like Athens when Paul visited, gods are on every corner in our so-called ‘secular’ age; and this ‘habit-shaping,’ ‘ritual,’ worship takes many forms

Smith has quite a bit to say about how important the forms of our worship are, within the life of the church, not simply the content (which is pretty much taking Marshall McLuhan’s insights that ‘the medium is the message’ and applying them to the life of the church…here’s his critique of churches that have tended to simply imitate the ‘forms’ found in rival ‘worship’ (like the gym, or the shopping centre) by creating church services that are ‘hip’, consumer-driven things where worship is ‘expressive’ rather than enacted, habitual, ritual with a vision of the image of the ‘good life’ (Jesus), and a ‘narrative’ (the Gospel)  shaping these habitually repeated actions (so that the form is important).

With the best of intentions, this “expressive” paradigm is then allied to a questionable distinction between the form of worship and the content of the gospel. The concrete shape and practices of Christian worship, passed down through the centuries, are considered merely optional forms—or even whited sepulchers of dead ritual—that can and should be discarded in order to communicate the gospel “message” in ways that are contemporary, attractive, and relevant. In our desire to embed the gospel content in forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar.

“Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall. The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life…

So when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world. The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter “Jesus” in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”

Then he talks specifically about how these ‘forms’ work in the context of Christian worship, of the sort he believes offers a genuine solution…

“By the “form” of worship I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.”

Here’s one little bit of pushback on this stuff on ‘forms’ before we move on; as I was bombarded with preachy emails from The Commando during my 12 week fitness challenge, I couldn’t help but feel that he’d actually flogged his approach from the church, and there might be times when we’re actually just taking our forms back, as well as times when we might ‘plunder gold from Egypt’; if we pay attention to the ‘forms’ that form people it’s not totally beyond a robust doctrine of creation to spoil Egypt to preach Christ (that’s totally Augustinian, too, in On Christian Teaching). A ‘true form’ can be used by those peddling falsehood to achieve deformation; and we need to be careful that those ‘forms of historic worship’ weren’t simply the ‘mall’ of their day (so, for example, the Roman household, or association, or the ‘sacred’ practices designed by the culture of the church through the ages.

I’m with Smith on forms being as important as content; especially because I think there’s two more elements at play in how we do church/worship together (and how church works) that fit with this Augustinian paradigm (or indeed, with us being made as people who bear the image of whatever we worship, and people who are made to relate to others in cultures built around common objects of worship):

  1. The church and its worship is the plausibility structure for the Gospel; and the way we love and worship reflecting the Gospel helps us to believe, and non-believers to come to belief when they see us worship (see 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 John).
  2. Any persuasion to change is driven more by what we do (ethos) and imitation than by what we say; the quickest way to undermine what we say is to do differently.

The form of our community and its life and love together expressed in our shared practices has to line up with the message we preach about a crucified and resurrected Lord who loves us by laying down his life in our place to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with God. Our worship is our ‘shared practice’ of living out this message, and following the example of Jesus, of whom Marshall McLuhan said:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same”

The shape of our worship matters, and I’m not so sure its enough simply for our worship to be reflecting on the Gospel story via historic liturgies, but also participating in re-telling the Gospel story via deliberate acts of sacrificial love that consciously reflect the message we believe and so shape us. That’s fundamentally what the sacraments do, of course. I’m sure that these ancient forms of worship that Smith is speaking about, and the applications of the elements of a liturgical service to daily life Wells puts forward do that; but they don’t exclusively do that (ie there are other ways to skin this cat), and I’d argue there’s a slightly more ancient form. I suspect the apostle Paul and the early church knew a thing or two about idolatry and worship and what it does to us, it’s pretty rudimentary Judaism and he was not a rudimentary Jew…

Forming practices that go beyond Sundays

In You Are What You Love Smith writes about what it looks like for a family to take the liturgical calendar and incorporate it into the rhythms of family life, and to build new ‘rhythms’ that spring from this shape, and that’s nice and has some appeal to me as I think about what sort of rhythms family life should take in the Campbell family, and what forms I want forming my kids (and us as a family). Both Smith and Wells see worship and liturgy going beyond Sunday, but because of their emphasis on capital-L Liturgy they put huge significance on Sundays-as-worship. Sundays most definitely are worship; and an especially important part of worship because they incorporate the gathered body of believers-in-community; and let’s not understate this as an important distinctive that comes with the Gospel. Lots of idolatrous worship is individualistic and so consumer-driven that you end up consuming others as objects, not sacrificing for them. Christian worship is distinctively corporate, and other-serving. This is why Sundays are important; but it’s also why the Sunday-experience of life together is limiting. I don’t think our consumer driven approach to worship as Christians is limited to the way Sundays happen; I think the way we think of ‘church’ as ‘event’ or even ‘church’ as ‘where I go to be fed/worship God’ rather than thinking of ‘church’ as synonymous with ‘people of God’ is just as damaging. There’s a danger some who might be more inclined towards Liturgy and tradition might bring the wrong expectations to those ancient forms; just as there’s a danger that this same attitude might lead some to create new forms. Here’s where I think the Bible pushes back at this… this is a contender for most quoted verse on my blog I reckon…

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Notice Paul doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters… view of God’s mercy… holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Worship is something we do, but it’s not just a thing we direct vertically; towards God; worship has a dimension that includes what we do with our bodies in this world and somehow doing what Paul goes on to talk about in the rest of chapter 12 (which is directed to other people) is proper worship of God.

Also, notice he doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— on Sundays — this is your true and proper worship.

This worship is an attitude; a deliberate, formative, direction of our bodies that is caught up with not being conformed (or deformed) by the world (powerful when read in the context of Romans 1), which is somehow caught up with the transforming and renewing of our minds.

Also notice what he’s actually saying is:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer youses bodies together as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

This is something the ‘brothers and sisters’ he writes to are to do together. Worship is caught up in the life of the church being lived as a living sacrifice. And he gets quite specific… Here’s a list of practices that have the capacity to be rituals just as powerful as capital-L liturgy if they’re caught up in living out our ‘view of God’s mercy’…

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:3-16

What if we took this; not just the liturgical calendar (which might help us to view God’s mercy); and made it the blueprint of ‘church’ and of ‘worship’ that went a long way beyond Sundays.

Sounds nice; doesn’t it? What if our ‘worship’ was built on providing a community where the church could bless one another (and the world) by sacrificially offering our ‘gifts’; this list can’t just cover Sundays; it’s about what life together looks like. Shared life. Sharing the ups and downs of life.

Ideal even?

But perhaps it sounds too idealistic in our busy modern life. Perhaps though our busyness it actually a ritual, a liturgy, or a habit that reflects our worship of some other gods — career, success, money, our identity being caught up in our ‘job’…

Here’s the thing this is actually what the early church did. This is the ‘tradition’ of the church as it is established:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” — Acts 2:42-47

This is the sort of community life that made the Gospel plausible in the first century that attracted and cultivated disciples…

This is the Romans 12 ‘worshipping community’…

This is the ‘ethos’ that reflects the Gospel, and these are the habits of life together that reinforces the Gospel message that has just been preached in Acts 2… and

We’re not really told much about their Liturgy; but we can imagine their ‘liturgy’ from these verses; we know the sacraments were part of the life of the church from Acts and the other NT letters, but they seem to be incorporated into meals and the life of the ‘family’… not just on Sundays, but meeting together ‘every day’…

This is how to win a worship war; this is what helped the early church flourish in a world soaked with idols vying for their hearts; not least of which was the Roman Emperor via the Imperial Cult. This is the sort of thick community that was both present in the world such that they ‘enjoyed the favour of all of the people’ but also capable of keeping the church standing in the face of persecution from the empire; in fact, a little later, when the empire is just figuring out how to get Christians to recant and worship the emperor, in the governor Pliny’s correspondence with the emperor Trajan, this is how the official records describe the practices of the church:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”

This ‘fixed day’ was Sunday; we know from Justyn Martyr, who wrote a substantial amount about how Sunday gatherings worked in 150AD, that Sundays were important and had a ‘Liturgy’ from pretty early on; but somehow this Liturgy was not a replacement of the Acts 2 liturgy, but part of the rhythms of church life. Sundays seem to be an expression of the community of worshippers that exists throughout the week.

“…the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” — Justin Martyr, First Apology

This approach to life; and Sunday; which is very much God-centred, and so, other-centred, is what worship looks like; worship isn’t just a me-and-God thing, but an us-and-God thing, and that’s a powerful antidote to the worship of the fitness program or the shopping centre (and why, for example, the Get Commando Fit program works so hard at building an online community of people who are ‘in the program’ with you).

The practices that are going to fight the counter-forming practices of the idols of our world; our technology (be it social media or pornography), our relationships, our diets, our exercise program… all these come with an embedded vision of the ‘image of the life we want’… living together ‘in view of God’s mercy’ won’t always feel totally different, because it will still involve sacrifice, and a relationship via ‘habitual action’ with the things of our world (people, food, exercise, and sex are all good things God made)… but it has to be consciously shaped by a different story in the context of a living, breathing, community shaped by the Gospel story, united in Christ, given the Spirit, and working out what it looks like to pray, learn, suffer, struggle, rejoice, mourn, serve, give, eat, sin, and forgive together. I want to build the rhythms of life in our family around the activities listed in Romans 12 (and in Acts 2, and in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 6…); but I also want them to shape how I approach being part of the family of God, so that catching up for a coffee or sharing a meal is both a habit, and an opportunity to relate in the sort of way Paul describes here; to share life-in-Christ. I want this sort of generous service of others to shape the way I encourage people in our church community to spend their time (and energy, and money).

Worship can’t be a thing we do alone; it works best in relationships where we’re conscious that this is the human task; that discipleship starts with these ancient practices that reflect our shared story. It’s these practices throughout the week, not just the ‘Liturgy’ of traditional churches as practiced on Sundays, that will form us, and our loves, in a way that destroys the idols that would take our hearts captive. In the final, or ultimate, post I’ll consider what place the big-L Liturgy Smith and Wells advocate can have in this worship war.

 

14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 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. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…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.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

 

The worship wars (3): porn as deadly (idol) worship

“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

worship-wars
Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).

What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?

What are we teaching our children?

No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.

This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…

Consider how far our society has progressed, such that the only service for children who perpetrate sexual assault on other children is oversubscribed; the expert in this story says two causes for this prevalence are the sexual abuse of children (who become perpetrators) and the availability of internet pornography.

Consider that the Washington Post published a piece recently that called pornography a “public health crisis” which pointed out that:

“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.

In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”

Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.

Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:

Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:

“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”

The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.

Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.

In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.

Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.

It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…

“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?

The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.

We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.

Pornography is worship.

Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.

It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.

The war for your worship  involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three

So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).

Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.

Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.

This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:

Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.

“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high.  This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith

When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.

In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25

The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32

How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?

Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)

1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)

The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”

The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.

Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”

If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.

It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…

2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)

David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.

This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.

Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.

But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves 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. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.

While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’, if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…

Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator

Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.

Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.

3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)

Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.

You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.

This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.

But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.

We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.

Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.

Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.

Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.

The real worship wars (1): You are what you worship

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” —David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Image Credit: davidhardie.com

Here’s a confession. It irks me when people call music ‘worship’ or music leaders ‘worship pastors’; not because music is not worship but because worship is so much more, and our terminology matters (so does music). What irks me more, even than this, is that we’ve spent so much time in the ‘worship wars’ fighting about whether to pursue contemporary or traditional styles of worship that we’ve missed the real worship war.

If you google the phrase ‘worship wars’ you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff about music in church, and different styles of church service. There were some shots fired in the worship wars by the Gospel Coalition recently (it’s so unlike them to be combative), which, because I’m irked by the terminology slippage of the word worship, irked me enough to get me to kickstart this series that has been in my head for some time.

Worship is more than music. It’s even more than the liturgy involved in your Sunday ‘worship service’ (including the sacraments). Worship is bigger than Sunday, and until we see that, we’re going to lose the worship wars to the real opponents. Idols and Satan.

There is a real battle going on when it comes to our worship, but the question isn’t so much about music on a Sunday or the aesthetics and regularity of the sacraments (though aesthetics matter too).

I’m going to spend a couple of posts on what I think the real worship war looks like, and where our attention should be focused in what is a real battle for the lives of people in our churches and our world.

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

Everybody worships. We are born worshippers, and as secular novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace puts it in the most excellent This Is Water, the only choice we really get as humans is the choice of what to worship; that defines everything else about us.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

What if this is the worship war that matters, not a choice of style of worship — or music — within the church, but the competition for your heart and your service?

Only, what if it’s not a choice? What if what we worship is determined for us by our participation in this great worship war, where different objects of worship are competing for our love and our attention? What if those default patterns aren’t just products of our decision to worship, but form it? What if we worship from the hands (the habits), to the heart (the desires), to the head (the imagination), rather than from the rational mind down? What if it’s harder than DFW thought?

What worship is

So if worship isn’t music or the Sunday service — but rather, those are aspects of our worship — what is it?

I’m going to make the case that worship is the whole-hearted, whole-handed, and whole-headed, attempt to reflect on, and so reflect, the image of our god(s) as we bow to and serve them with our whole being. When it comes to the God of the Bible, and our worship of him, our worship is what leads us to glorify him as we bear his image in his world. The New Testament uses two Greek words for worship: proskuneo and latreuo; roughly translated as ‘bow down’ and ‘serve’. The Old Testament pairs these (in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint) in Exodus 20:4-5, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

We’re consciously worshipping creatures; we pick a god and that choice shapes us. That’s part of what separates us from the animals (although they too declare the glory of God, with the rest of the heavens); we’re made to be oriented to God, via worship, and part of the sinful human condition is that we orient ourselves to all sorts of other stuff instead. The image we bear in this world reflects the God we worship, and so, we become what we worship with our hearts, hands, and minds.

We’re made to bear God’s image, and so his first commandment to Israel is about worshipping him — not the stuff or animals he made. We’re made to bear God’s image, and yet we keep exchanging God for other images; and that’s deadly. Paul describes the human condition — our defective worship — in Romans 1 (and I’m suggesting ‘glorified him as God’ is synonymous with worship).

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

Do you think Paul, here, is talking about people singing songs about rabbits? Or sex? Or some other created thing? Or about people going bird watching on a Sunday?

Now. He might well be talking about these activities as forms of worship but the sort of worship he’s talking about is actually the orientation of our desires, and imaginations such that our habits and lives reflect the object of our love. A nature-worshipper might well sing about the beauty of creation and go bird-watching on a Sunday, and that might refresh them, but they keep finding ways to practice their love for nature all week ’round; cause that’s what worship is. A sex-worshipper will sing songs about sex, but will also consume magazine articles about sex, pursue sex, and ultimately, desire as much sex, and as many orgasms, as possible in their finite life on this mortal coil. Worship can’t just be about the songs we sing — or Sunday morning — its about the desires of our hearts, and the practices of our hands that cultivate those desires and inform our thinking as we live lives that express our fanatical service to these gods. In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, two characters, Marathe and Steeply discuss this aspect of our humanity — our fundamental need to worship, and the reality that we do so without choosing consciously if we don’t consciously choose…

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple… Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith…”

“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you… You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self… choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice… This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance?” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

You are what you worship

We all grow attached to things — become fanatical worshippers of some god; and this happens whether we’re conscious of it or not as we are lured into worship by different visions of the good human life; different stories we’d like to see ourselves living in. As a result of our hearts and imaginations being conscripted, we start practicing new liturgies — new habits — which reinforce this conscription. That’s the pattern of the rest of Romans 1; defective worship leads to defective lives (and defective lives lead to defective worship).

Idolatry — the worship of other gods, or the making of gods out of good things God made — has transforming power with damaging consequences. The Old Testament is full of warnings about these consequences but the concept of becoming what you worship is never far from the surface of these consequences; worship dumb, dead, stuff and instead of being the living people of the living God you’ll be dumb, dead, stuff. Or as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 115:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.

 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

The thing that’s truly beautiful (and truly tragic) about David Foster Wallace’s insight into worship is that he highlights how even as our idol worship delivers it doesn’t ever satisfy. Worship sex, pursue orgasm after orgasm, and your god will give you what you want (Romans 1 promises that too); but you’ll spiral into awful objectification or addiction (the next post in this series will consider pornography as a form of worship). That’s true of almost all our idols; as we attain the thing we desire we find it doesn’t scratch the itch we thought it would, or that we become so detached from flourishing patterns of humanity and relationships that we are utterly destroyed. We become what we worship, or, as DFW puts it:

If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He also observes the spiralling effect that comes with worship of things that aren’t God (and so aren’t really able to satisfy what he calls the ‘gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’). This dovetails with the Psalmist’s observation that we become what we behold; what we worship. The Bible differs on its assessment of the morality of these default behaviours; it’s not just that this sort of worship of something other than God is sinful, it’s the heart of all our sinful acts.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And 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, This Is Water

At the end of This Is Water, a truly profound assessment of the human condition, Wallace asks the students he’s speaking to to consider their habits, to consider living a life that runs counter to this default. He does this, in part, by challenging the narrative behind these defaults by urging us to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of those around us

The really important kind of freedom involves 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. That is real freedom. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This is liturgy — or worship — of a particular kind, but he’s really just urging people to switch idols, moving from a selfish worship of self, to a self-emptying worship of other people. His narrative here is a form of humanism (unless you take his advice to worship some spiritual thing). It won’t answer the gnawing sense he identifies, and it won’t achieve the aim he suggests (eerily, given his end), that it might.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He’s right though. The worship wars are a matter of life and death. What you choose to worship will give you life, or take your life. To win the worship wars — where the real enemy is actually death — we need to take up a better story one that captures our desires and imaginations, and adopt habits consistent with that story; lest our loves lead us to death. That seems to be Paul’s agenda in much of his writing in the New Testament, where he speaks specifically of worship (in a way both similar to DFW, but grounded in a different story), and of a story that changes the orientation of our hearts, minds, and habits.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  — Romans 12:1-2

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… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

Paul’s approach to worship differs from DFW’s because his story connects us to something transcendent; something beyond ourselves; something above, something infinite. It’s built from a better story — the story of the transcendent God who both calls us to worship him alone, and makes himself knowable in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in Jesus’ divinity; and who provides the model of the ultimate worshipper in Jesus’ humanity.

The worship wars are a competition for our loves, a conflict based on what story we live — and thus a conflict that shapes our destiny; the end of our story. Will we live, and live in the light of eternity, like Paul, or live, and face death with the gnawing, nagging, sense of having lost eternity, like DFW, or simply choose the default rat race setting of life for ourselves, and so destroy those around us for the sake of our very temporary happiness, while being shaped and destroyed by whatever it is we’ve chosen to worship.

We’ll see next post that the worship wars are not so much about the songs we sing in church, or the sacraments, or even church on a Sunday, but about much more. The stakes are much higher than a Sunday runsheet, or who gets in the band.

What do you love? What are you prepared to die for? Will it give you life? This is where the real action is in the worship wars;

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Educating loves: A morning in Brisbane with James KA Smith

There aren’t many writers whose works I’ve devoured with the enthusiasm with which I’ve devoured James K.A. Smith’s work in the last few years. He has a way of both articulating and stretching the way I think, and his theological framework has rich potential in ways he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet in his writing. I’m finding it incredibly useful not just in thinking about how we evangelise and disciple, but how I deal with people pastorally. So I’m thankful for him, and I was thrilled to interview him recently for the Bible Society’s Eternity newspaper, and then to meet him in Brisbane yesterday as he spoke at a symposium at the Christian Heritage College; as a pastor I was a little out of place in a conference full of education practitioners, but I very much enjoyed the conference.

While I’m not an ‘educator’, I’m passionate about education  — Christians need to figure out how to live well, and speak well, in the world; and I’m increasingly on board with Christian education, despite being pretty happy with my public school/secular university educations. This is all to say I think this matters. We’ve got to teach our kids to engage well with the world for its sake, not keep them in a bubble for their own (here’s the transcript of a talk I gave on why and how we should approach getting educated). And I don’t think reformed evangelicals like me have done a great job of doing this — the schools my denomination is involved, around the country, with charge such high fees that they can’t possibly be achieving this end for anyone but the very wealthy.

Smith’s talk, summarised below, won’t be new to those who’ve read his books or watched other talks on YouTube, but it’s always nice to hear someone in the flesh, and, when meeting them, to find out they’re both humble and willing to speak to people who approach them (even it it’s for weird ‘selfie’ requests).

Any bits of this summary that don’t make sense are a failure of my fingers to keep pace, and lots of this is as close as possible to direct quotes, while other bits are summaries.

Higher Education: What’s love got to do with it? Longings, desires and human flourishing. 

Smith’s ‘axiom’: Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.

This is not what universities were meant for. It’s not why they started. And we’re free to challenge this model. This model has been ratified by government bureaucracies as ‘the way a university should be’…

The university had a very different beginning, and a very different anthropology. It assumed a very different model of what learners were. The Desire for God and the Love of Learning a good book — a history of the pre-modern foundations of the university. Takes the history of Jesuit influences on education in Paris, and shows that it was meant to be an incubator for hearts and minds to learn to love the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. To make people lovers of God who become image bearers in and for the world around them.

If we’re going to push back against the paradigms of the university because we have history on our side. There is an older version of the university we’re trying to recover.

A more biblical anthropology

Instead of imagining that humans are a static brain on the stick waiting for an information dump.

Let’s imagine that there’s a dynamic orienting of ourselves to some other thing — we’re always aimed at something, we’re always clawing our way towards some ends, some goal, some ultimate vision of the good life. There’s an existential dynamism about us. To be human is to be ‘after’ something. This is a very ancient picture of the human person. Certainly Aristotelian. Every human being is oriented towards a telos. Oriented to an ultimate end.

Augustine captures this as well. The ancient Greek heritage is seized upon by the church. The ‘centrality of the heart’ as the fulcrum of this drive towards something else.

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Augustine, Confessions

Augustine makes a normative ‘design’ claim — we are made ‘for’ something. Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

The seat for this is not just the intellect. He doesn’t say ‘our minds are puzzled until they know you’ — it’s about the heart. Throughout his corpus Augustine emphasizes the ‘seat’ of the heart, because formation is not just a question of knowledge, but of love. The most holistic form of education will help us love what we’re made to love. The centre of the human person is the heart.

Desire = love

Love, learning, longing, craving: are synonyms.

We need to get over the distinction between eros and agape.

The problem isn’t desire per say, but the direction of it. Agape might be best understood as rightly directed eros. Christian agape is the right orientation of our ‘erotic’ centre, which is actually made for God.

This restlessness — every human creature is created as a lover. With this engine of desire that drives us towards something ultimate. But that’s no guarantee that they find their end in the one that has made them. The effect of the fall; of sin; brokenness, is not that we turn off love, but that we start loving the wrong things in the wrong way. We take created things and vault them up as if they were the creator. We absolutise them and seize upon them as if they were something ultimate. Idolatry. The dynamics of idolatry are not primarily intellectual; they are erotic. We desire the wrong things in the wrong way. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. If you love them in a way ordered by your love for the creator, that’s ‘rightly ordered love’…

How do I learn to love?

If I am what I love, and if you are what you love, then the crucial question is how does my heart get aimed? How does this orientation happen?

We’ve not always had the best resources at our disposal in the protestant tradition. You learn to love by practice. Your ultimate longings are not just the outcome of ideas and beliefs deposited in your mind. They are more like habits that you acquire through being immersed in rituals and routines that train your loves at an unconscious level.

Your loves are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’ — there’s a problem with this expression that we have a narrow view of what teaching is.

What would teaching look like if we did it like this?

The indexing of our desires towards something ultimate is not just about what you know or believe, it’s a disposition that arrives from the rituals and practices that you are immersed in. They find your way to your heart through your body. You are conscripted into ways of life that come from your practices.

We’re taught to love in all sorts of places that are not schools. This kind of learning of a passion — this acquisition of a heart’s disposition happens in a holistic experience where we are immersed in a story of what the good life looks like; of what flourishing looks like.

All kinds of institutions and practices are ‘pedagogies of desire’ that are training us to love something that is not ultimate. These things get hold of us in tactile, visceral, experiences that conscript our hearts without us realising.

The competition for Christian education is not public education, it’s less the other sorts of institutions, it’s an array of cultural institutions and practices that we didn’t even realize are pedagogies of desire that are teaching them to long for pedagogies of desire. Secular liturgies.

Every time Smith’s kids ask to go to the mall they ask to go to the temple. Which means his ideas, in some small way, are sinking in for his kids… The mall is one of the most religious sites in the city. It wants you to love something ultimate. The mall pictures for you a vision of the good life that captures your imagination and your longings; you don’t even realise you’ve been conscripted to the vision of the good life based on ‘stuff’; the gospel of consumerism. Nobody thinks their way into consumerism, there’s no good argument for it. You are conscripted into it. The mall has a model of outreach called ‘marketing’ — marketing knows that you’re lovers and desirers. Marketing doesn’t give you information. It’s hard to watch an ad about a product and acquire information about it; what happens is you see a product embedded in a story. This story pictures for you a vision of the good life, and you start, over time, to picture yourself in that life. You don’t even realise you’re learning to love something else. The repetition, the immersion, conscripts you into a rival gospel. If I ask you — there’s a disconnect between what we know and what we love — if I ask you “what do you love” — you’ll give me the right answer: “I love God”… there can be a gap between what we know we believe because we underestimate the impact our desires have, and our conscription to other desires, that get in the way.

What we’re really talking about is rehabituation. Love as we’re describing it here isn’t an emotion, or a feeling, it’s a habit.

We use the word ‘habit’ in a way that is different to the philosophers, and how it has been used historically; the habit is actually the internal disposition/the inclination to some end, we acquire through different rhythms and routines. Putting the left sock on first every time is a practice, a ritual, they inscribe in you a habitual disposition; you become the kind of person whose default leans in that direction. To have a habit is to be so disposed towards doing something that you do it without even thinking about it.

Your loves, your most fundamental inclinations of your heart, aren’t just trickled down, but are caught bottom up from something that inscribes in you a disposition. Secular liturgies teach us to love certain goods; Christian education should be about a rehabituation of the heart. You can’t think your way to new habits. If I’ve acquired disoriented habits of love and longing because they were caught through the practices I’ve been involved in, I can’t think my way out; I have to practice them. This lecture won’t give you new habits, a book won’t give you a new habit; the best that might happen is an idea might become the catalyst to a commitment to a new habituation that will move you towards a love of God.

If your fundamental loves are shaped by the practices you are immersed in; we need to realize you can be being habituated without realising it. Realising that the world is not a neutral place can be the beginning of the rehabituation. You can be acquiring dispositions without recognizing it. How does this affect those who teach? What are the ways we pick up habits that shape us as we teach.

We are creatures of habit, who are made to love, and our loves are shaped and acquired through the rhythms and practices we are immersed in; none of this is a surprise to God. What does God do? He’s an incarnating God who meets us where we are and comes to us not just with a message, or the information that we need, we see that the Gospel is an invitation for us to find ourselves anew in a community, which is the body of Christ, an invitation to be welcomed into a reforming body; a reforming community of practice, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new rituals by which we might habituate ourselves into a new way of living in the world.

If we have a negative take on rituals and liturgies; the devil gets all the good ones. Cultures are more than happy to offer us rituals. You can’t undo the deformative power of cultural practices by giving people new ideas. It won’t work. We’re desirers, not just thinking things. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is that we thought the way to fight the fire of cultural deformation was through intellectual formation. What you need is Christ-oriented, spirited, reformation. Fighting fire with fire. Inviting people into communities of practice and liturgies that are reforming our hearts. It has to be an invitation for the whole person to learn to love again; it has to meet us as whole creatures.

Worldview? Smith has two cheers for the concept of world view…

The goal of a gospel centered approach to education isn’t just a narrow focus on soul rescue, or a particular understanding of ministry; God’s concern is as wide as the world itself. There is no learning that isn’t animated by some confession, outlook, or perspective on things. A Christian education brings the Gospel to bear on all of creation; there is no education that isn’t confessional. I’m all for that.

My only pushback on worldview paradigms; it tends to do all this in an intellectualist way; equipping people with a view, and ideas, to see the world so they can act in it in a particular way. It has tended to miss all of the dynamics of habituation, deformation and reformation of habit. We need more than ‘worldview’ — with all of that right emphasis in place, we need to see that a holistic, radical, Christian education will also take into consideration the heart. Reformation is a shift in our centre of gravity.

Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — Mark Noll — what happened in that movement was that nothing pushed back on the basic Germanic model of education. It basically said Christians can play that game too. We did. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc. A bunch of scholars showed we could play that game, but this isn’t entirely the game we should want to play, even if we value research.

A shift in the centre of gravity that expands from informational perspectives so that the scope of our concern includes the gut.

We’re remembering something about the university that the university forgot in modernity.

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” — Iraneus.

Packer once co-authored a book Christianity: The True Humanism. The power of the Gospel is that we learn how to be human again. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human. A Christian education should be a way to realise human flourishing. In our age the opportunity may be that Christian colleges and universities are the last outpost to remind us how to be human.

The practices of worship have a missional power about them. It’s important that we frame them so they don’t become superstitious. If these practices are animated by the Spirit there can be certain virtue in going through the emotions.

The kind of liturgies; there’s always going to be something about words. Posture, bodily posture, captures and teaches us something. Practices can have a dynamic that we don’t realise.

Q&A

If we know all this, in Christian schools, how do we not ‘indoctrinate’ so that we engage with the free will of the person?

We need to be honest and up front about why we do what we do, and what we’re inviting people into. The freedom moment is in choosing to come here, where you’ll be committing yourself to these practices… there’s a lot of room to work out ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief’…

Practice hospitality. Really, really, important. What does it look like for us to welcome other faiths into what is an unapologetically Christian project?

Indoctrination is a particularly ‘intellectual’ project. It’s a risk of every mode of education. That sort of institution is less inclined to be upfront and honest about what you’re being inducted into.

How do we physically shape our learning institutions to enable the sort of ‘learning’ in community that you spoke about?

Architecture: the material environments of where we learn will foster the way we see the world, the way we do community, etc. Thinking about how the material conditions of a space foster community would be one thing. Micro-rituals have macro significance. The university might have a thousand different routines that collectively constitute an ethos. It has to be a concert between all the teaching and cultural spaces; they have to be animated by the same story so people don’t feel like they’re inhabiting different worlds as they move around, but nor should things just ‘repeat’ — there’s no ‘extra curricular’ there’s just ‘co curricular’… nothing in here is meant to undercut curriculum. All the gears of an institution, ideally, move in concert with each other.

This is not Presbyterian: A response to ‘Step Right Up’ an article in the Australian Presbyterian Magazine

An article has been published in my denomination’s national publication (Australian Presbyterian) that I feel compelled to strongly, and publicly, disagree with. This is still, I think, my biggest platform. A dilemma I face is that by publishing here more people might feel drawn to read the original piece which is, frankly, destructive and dangerous. If this article, Jared Hood’s Step Right Up, represented anything like an official position in the denomination (and it is presented, unchallenged, without counterpoint as all op-eds are), then I would expect my wife and daughters to leave the Presbyterian Church, following, or followed by, every single man and woman in our congregation, every infertile couple, every same sex attracted person. In a church congregation of around 120 people, we’d have very few left, if everyone who cares about ministering to and with people in these categories left too our church would be empty. There would be nobody.

This article, which I will quote below, is not Presbyterian in an official sense. It’s an extreme position held by a legitimate Presbyterian academic who teaches in one of our colleges – but it is not the party line. It is, in my opinion, outrageous. Articles in this publication have become more outrageous over recent times as we ratchet up the culture wars and our rhetoric becomes simultaneously more fearful and more stridently combative in the face of the demise of Christendom (as though this is a recent thing). The strategy the magazine appears to have adopted in response, via this article, is “breed more”… because apparently that’s God’s answer. The problem is that this magazine seems to speak on behalf of the denomination I belong to. I can’t claim to offer the exclusively true Presbyterian position, but I think I can suggest that this is not a representative view, and if it is, then I’ll hand in my membership.

When we talk about ‘purpose’ which this article does, especially when we conflate ‘purpose’ with ‘ends’ we’re talking in the realm of what Aristotle and others call the ‘telos’ — this article has a problematic view of what marriage is for (kids), what life is for (marriage) and what Christians are for (ruling). It misses how Jesus is a game-changer.

This piece has a wonky view of the telos of marriage

“What is marriage about in Scripture? Chiefly two things. First it is about the physical relationship between a man and a woman. Genesis comes straight to it: “one flesh”. The main meaning is as obvious as Shakespear’s crude “beast with two backs”… Second, “one flesh” is at the core of marriage, but it is not the core… The singular fundamental purpose of marriage is this: to have children.” — Jared Hood

It’s a big jump to go from ‘marriage involves sex’ which is true, and ‘sex leads to children’ which is true but only sometimes, to the ‘singular fundamental purpose of marriage’ is to have children. Children are a good fruit of marriage. But our bodies are often so messed up by the brokenness and frustration of the world that having children itself is not guaranteed in marriage, and plenty of people get married after child bearing age (we’ll talk about how limited a view of humanity in general is on display here below). Marriage is about two different people becoming one — this is how we bear God’s image in marriage. Producing new life via giving birth is another part of us reflecting who God is, and we don’t want to understate that case, but this is a pretty utilitarian view of marriage that assess marriage’s purpose entirely on the ends it might lead to. Faithfulness through the trial of not producing offspring — for married people, or single people — is something God appears to approve of and bless throughout the Biblical story (but fruitfulness in terms of ‘seed’ or offspring’ is definitely something people desire.

But the telos of Christian marriage is not children. It’s Christlikeness. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This character that grows in us as relate to our spouses is the same character God grows in those who are unable to get married, unmarried, or divorced in all their relationships. Transmitting this fruit — the fruit of the Spirit — to other people either in real Great Commission terms via the Gospel, or as we raise children in Christian community (with Christian community) is what fruitfulness looks like. Children brought up in the knowledge of the Gospel might be a product of Christian marriage, but they are not its ends. Christlikeness is the end goal in every relationship for every Christian. More fruit of the Spirit produced by more lives being restored to Christ is what ‘offspring’ looks like. Everything Paul says about Christian marriage in Ephesians 5 (and about all other relationships) comes through the interpretive grid of Ephesians 5:1-2 (and Paul’s picture of maturity/fruitfulness in Ephesians 4).

Follow God’s example,therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” — Ephesians 5:1-2

This is at the heart of what it means to bear God’s image again as we’re transformed into the image of Christ. To imitate him. And then to make disciples. That’s the goal of the Great Commission, which includes Christian parenting as we disciple our children.  Paul talks a whole lot about marriage in Ephesians 5. He says nothing about children but a lot about marriage reflecting who God is, and reflecting unity.

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. — Ephesians 5:29-33

The end goal of marriage is unity that reflects the Gospel. Which isn’t that different to our end goal as humans. And our highest calling.

This piece has a wonky view of our ‘telos’ as humans

Hood jumps straight from fruitfulness to procreation. A legitimate step in the Old Testament when God’s people were breeding themselves into existence. Hood holds the Great Commission and what he calls Christ’s “first great commission” as separate, not as related.  This piece confuses ends, means, and purpose of marriage – it takes the fruit and obscures the trees.

Hood argues that having children is the very purpose of our existence — not just of marriage — and because of this marriage is part of the purpose of our humanity. The goal of our humanity is, then, much like the goal posited by evolution; the survival of the (Christian) species. And we achieve this by giving birth to lots of ‘Godly seed’…What damaging piffle. His view of humanity rules out such luminaries as Jesus and Paul.

“Marriage exists for this. Male and female exist for this (Gen 1:27). In the next age, maleness, femaleness, and marriage, won’t matter (Mt 22:30). In this age, God says “procreate”, and therefore there is “one-flesh” marriage”… If you’re male or female today , be intentional about both marriage and children… Women of the church need to step up. If God has called you to be a wife and mother —99% of women — don’t stoop to only being a CEO. You can be celibate for the Kingdom, but not for your career. Make career decisions that fit with motherhood, not vice versa. Motherhood is the goal – “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). A Christian woman fulfils God’s plan and lives out her salvation by being a mother.” — Jared Hood

This is perhaps the most damaging argument I’ve ever read under the label Presbyterian. It is pastorally deadly. It is practically impossible. It is unloving and dangerous. It is folly dressed up as wisdom. It needs to be challenged at every turn.

Male and female exist to procreate? Male and female exist to reflect the image of God. Childbearing may or may not be part of this. Male and female exist to bear the image of God together, and as individuals. Whatever our calling. Do we really believe 1 Corinthians 7? That, according to Paul, singleness can be desirable and good? What damaging and terrible advice given in the guise of rigourous theological thought and exegesis. This isn’t just about countering a worldly idolatry of career, which infects our culture, this is poison. This is pastoral poison for every infertile man or woman who knows of their condition before marriage, it is poison for the couples working through fertility issues, it is poison for long term singles who have remained pure and faithful, pursuing chastity and thus childlessness above all other options, I have no idea where he pulled the 99% figure from, perhaps from the days when marriages were arranged in order to secure dowries and land deals. It is horrific. A car crash. And must be called out for what it is.

The goal of Christian living — male or female — is Christlikeness. Christlikeness is how we now bear God’s image, which flows through to how we understand fruitfulness and why the ‘first commission’ leads into the Great Commission rather than being separate. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness. Or as childless Paul puts it…

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:29-30

What’s interesting is that Romans 8 is much more Presbyterian (or Presbyterianism is much more, officially, closely aligned with Romans 8). Our purpose, ultimately, is to be glorifiers, as God transforms us to reflect who he is, by his Spirit, as his children. Or as the official Presbyterian catechism — a summary of our beliefs — puts it, in question and answer form:

What is the chief end of mankind?
A. Mankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

This leads to fruitfulness, and this too is us bearing God’s image.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. — Galatians 5:22-24

Hood doesn’t even  offer  a terribly compelling reading of Genesis apart from our telos as we see it in Jesus, he says (or sees) nothing of how fruitfulness might be tied to being a community of people who represent God. People are two whole ‘ones’, not two halves, before they become one. People must be able to bear God’s image and work towards collective human fruitfulness before marriage, Abel, a childless bloke, somehow found favour in God’s eyes in Genesis 4 via his display of sacrificial love for God.

The goal of marriage is Christlikeness. The goal of singleness is Christlikeness. The goal of personhood is Christlikeness. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness.

This piece has a wonky view of masculinity and femininity

This piece assumes some pretty damaging social norms about what men and women should be doing in order to grow up being ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ — it totally fails to grapple with all our norms being essentially constructed, the Biblical manhood he pines for looks nothing like the manhood of the Ancient Near East, and everything like the manhood of the pre-enlightenment west. Our assumptions about gender are almost always constructed from a particular human culture, and you’re probably in trouble if you’re trying to construct them from the Ancient Near East anyway, unless you want to somehow argue that you should force a daughter to marry her rapist, which made a little more cultural sense in a time where marriage was necessary for financial sustainability and rape essentially ruled out marriage. The Gospel, more than anything else, has shaped the way gender works for goodness and equality rather than curse and brokenness. There’s a reason we don’t let the ministers of our churches act like King David, discarding one wife, while murdering someone else to take his…

“Women spend 13 or more years in education learning to be CEOs and Senior Counsels, not learning to be mums. Men learn to remain boys into their late 20s, with Playstations, picture story books (sorry, “graphic novels”) and the juvenility of internet pornography… Education is great, but don’t use it to delay growing up. University is not compulsory, or even Years 11 and 12. Aim for marriage. To get the woman you’ve chosen to love down the aisle you’re going to need a life-plan to support her and your children… Women need mothercraft skills — there’s a conference topic or two. Mothers need playgroups. Can older women help (Titus 2:3)? Men need a church culture that says the time for onesies and superhero T-shirts is over.” — Jared Hood

I read this last bit to a young bloke at church who is delaying his education to take a gap year — serving our youth. He was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I’m sorry, but this is such a terrible view of art and gaming, and education that will leave people ill-equipped to even come close to engaging in the Great Commission with people who enjoy these pastimes. Probably the only thing I thought was agreeable in the whole piece was his labelling pornography as juvenile.

Honestly. I have two daughters and a son. I want singleness to be a plausible calling for them if that’s what following Jesus calls them to do. I don’t want them marrying deadbeats. I don’t want them marrying for the sake of marriage because someone tells them it’s God’s plan for their life. I don’t want them marrying non-Christians (because, for any non-Christian readers, the love of Jesus is the example I wish to be at the heart of her marriage, and what I hope we manage to pass on as parents). I want them to stay faithful and believe that Christlikeness is their goal, and is more rewarding and important than sex and procreation. I want them to be able to be happily single if need be, and to be trained and equipped to make a significant difference in the world. CEO or otherwise. I also want them to be able to engage with art and culture with discernment rather than fear, and to be able to use the universal human longings and desires that art — including graphic novels, games, and superhero stories — express to do that.

 

 This piece has a wonky view of the world and how God works in it

“We don’t know what Australia will decide in the promised plebiscite. We do know this: Christendom is dead. We mourn its demise. The darkness is well advanced… In the days after the US Supreme Court decision [about Same Sex Marriage], I was heard to joke: “At least we can outbreed them.” I wasn’t really joking. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, sees a society fit for judgment and she does something about it. She gives her son to the Lord, to be the leader that Israel needed, to be a Nazirite like powerful Samson (1:11). On more levels than one, “children” is the response to same sex marriage. The Christian strategy is family. ” — Jared Hood

What the?

No wait.

What the?

As though we can control how our kids turn out (though Hood makes some suggestions about how to do that…

“When enrolling children in school, don’t ask the principal, “how many of your students go on to university?” Ask “how many students survive your school with their faith intact?” and “how many thrive at your school in the fear and admonition of the Lord?” — Jared Hood

It feels like, from start to finish, this is Hood’s aim, to respond to the shifting of society by positing this strategy. Outbreed ’em. As though this is how God works. As though it is his means for bringing change in the world. Procreate.

Here’s how God brings change to the world — a theme and method so sorely lacking in Hood’s graceless and destructive piece. This is also the path to the sort of righteousness Hood seems to crave… and this is what I’ll be teaching my kids is the path to real humanity, their purpose, the thing they’re to pass on in this world, in all their relationships, if they want to bring change.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” — Romans 1:16-17

The darkness is winning. Is it? Was Christendom which was heavy on morality light on Jesus really all its cracked up to be? Is the answer to have lots of kids, or to start living like kids. God’s kids? Imitating our big brother?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness,righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. — Ephesians 4:8-11

Public Christianity and bearing the image of God: some confessions and a response to the response to Q&A’s Christian episode

Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.

Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.

Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.

Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).

I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.

We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.

It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.

trump

So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.

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 3:17

I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.

I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms.  The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…

“… you have taken off your old self with 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 3:10-14

Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.

Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?

Did they say “X”? 

Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…

And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20

This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.

This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.

A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.

Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.

In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.

Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.

If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…

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 5:14-20

This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.

Love thy neighbour

Love your neighbour as yourself — Jesus

We live on the greatest street in Brisbane. At least I believe we do. Here’s how you can challenge us for the title, and why you should.

streetscape
Life on our street is great. Geography is part of this, of course, our quiet suburban street has handy access to the one of Brisbane’s main arterial roads, is close to a major shopping centre, and is a dead end backing onto a large sporting field. But the thing that makes this street great is community.

It’s our neighbours.

We didn’t build this community, we joined it, we were welcomed into it, and we know we belong in it. We’re not the newest people in the street anymore, and we’ve been able to be part of inviting others into this community, but it’s been a valuable time for us to think about what it means to be good neighbours. And this is important. It’s important because community is good for people; and isolation is bad.

Neighbouring is fundamental to who we are; in our national psyche “everybody needs good neighbours,” and in our family’s Christian framework, we believe we’re called above just about everything else to love our neighbours — and that’s, of course, a call to love any fellow human, our ‘global neighbours’ but it most definitely includes the people we live in closest proximity to; those in our streets, apartment blocks, or whatever other form of geographic proximity to people you experience.

We’ve lived in quite a few houses as a couple now, and both lived in plenty of houses before that, and our experience of neighbours has been mixed. We’ve lived in a townhouse complex where we barely said hi to the other residents, we’ve lived next to friends we loved dearly before moving in, we’ve lived next to people who became friends who we shared meals with, and in a cul-de-sac where people, including us, would appear and disappear through remotely opened garage doors and never even make eye contact. I think for various reasons, including a growing individualism, and a materialism where ‘every man’s home is his castle,’ where toys and man caves, and their female and family equivalents, exist to keep people satisfied behind the threshold of the front door. We’ve, at least in my observations of city life, lost the art of hospitality. But that’s not true on our street.

We have regular get-togethers: spontaneous weekend barbeques, afternoon beers, street parties for Australia Day, October Fest, and Christmas (especially for the turning on of the street’s Christmas light displays), cooking competitions — like our recent chicken wing off. We have an Easter Egg hunt. We held a street garage sale. We help out with odd jobs — renovations, furniture moving, concrete slab pouring, chasing runaway dogs, and electrical work (well, that’s the friendly neighbourhood sparky, great guy, I’m more than happy to recommend his services to you). Beer and coffee seem to be pretty much on tap. Our kids play together, we babysit for each other, some people holiday together, there’s a street Facebook group which people treat like our own Uber service, and notice board. We bake for each other. We create pot-luck banquets from our combined leftovers. We pet-sit. People exercise together. We philosophise. We share our stories. We listen. We laugh. The dads plot and scheme together and cook up amazing ideas like a trailer mounted cool room that holds 12 kegs, with three of them on tap… That’s not all of it, and I’m not responsible for any of this (except the coffee).

I love being out on the street with my neighbours. I often peer out the windows hoping to see someone else outside. We’re friends. Genuinely. People are choosing to renovate rather than sell up and move somewhere nicer. This stuff amazes me. We talk often about how amazing this community is, and how organic it seems. We’ve talked about amping things up with more incidental stuff (and some dreams of a street brewery), some of us have spoken about trying to develop a culture of shifting life to the front yard — a concept described in this book Playborhood — that I think is fascinating. We make space for the introverts too. People come and go, dipping in and out as required, others stay and stay, a couple of Saturday nights ago I found myself dragging my laptop out onto the street at 11pm to work on a talk for church (not for the next day), because I’d planned to do that from 6pm, and didn’t want to leave the fun.

Not everyone in our street is part of this ‘community’. We invite everyone to major events — like Australia Day and Octoberfest. We try to talk to anyone whose passage up the street is obstructed by our afternoon beers. Some people choose not to take part, some are more involved than others. Most of the long term people on the street, especially the families, are part of what goes on. It’s welcoming, it’s open, it took us a while to realise this, and we don’t have the same history as others do with each other — but genuine, deep, friendships take time to build, but that process can be accelerated with social lubricants like beer, coffee, and generosity. Which my neighbours offer by the bucket.

I’m not saying this stuff to brag about what we’ve done, or how good we’ve got it. Though I’m constantly excited. I didn’t build this. I’m saying this because I think our Aussie culture sorely needs this. Your street needs this. You need it. It’s good for you, and for your neighbours.

I’m learning what it means to be a good neighbour from some of the best. And it seems easy. It seems to be something you could do too. But I suspect it seems easy because a culture has been built here for a long time, from some pretty strong convictions that everybody does need good neighbours. It’s actually not easy, until it is. It’s a bit counter-cultural. It takes intentional breaking down of barriers.

But here’s what I believe. Not just because I’m a Christian, and it fits, but because I think good neighbours — good communities — are absolutely essential for human flourishing. And we’re losing this part of our shared life — and you can do something about it.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Community is a fundamental human need. It’s not really optional, as much as some of us might think we can get by without it. Neighbours, the TV show, is right. Everybody needs good neighbours. There’s plenty of good academic data out there connecting wellbeing to belonging and community. And there’s plenty of social science and science stuff out there to suggest that community or tribal instincts are historically important for adaptation and survival, and this isn’t just about breeding.

If we’re to take the Christian account of our humanity seriously — we also see that we’re social animals. We’re made to be part of a community. This will feel different for different people — introversion and extroversion mean community has different costs and benefits, but no man or woman is made to be an island, even if sometimes we wish our ‘castles’ had a moat to cut us off from the rest of the world. The first two chapters of the Bible are, in part, about establishing this truth — that we are relational beings, that we’re made in the image of the God who is a community — Father, Son, and Spirit, and that our bearing of this image is a function of our community, or relationships, so that we need more than just ourselves — we need ‘male and female,’ and in the Genesis 2 version of the creation of humanity, we’re told community — relationships — are necessary for human flourishing, for things to be the ‘good’ that has been God’s aim in creating the world.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” — Genesis 1:26

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18

The Bible’s picture of paradise, of ‘the good life’ is people living in community with one another, and with God. The flipside in the Bible’s story, essentially the story of paradise lost (and ultimately found again) is that we’re told our experience of relationships, or community, won’t always be great. We’re still made in God’s image, but our decision not to align our lives with his plans for the world comes at the cost of our relationships. We’re self-interested before we’re other-interested, and often our interest in others is framed in terms of what we can get more than what we can give. Which is interesting when it comes to Jesus’ description of the greatest commandments, these are a recipe for re-finding ‘paradise’ — for life being ‘good’ again.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  — Matthew 22:37-39

This command, along with Jesus’ version of the ‘golden rule’, which tells us to do good to others, not just avoid doing bad (like other versions of the golden rule from other wise people), has been pretty influential in the cultures — western culture — built around Christian thinking. But it’s not just a “Christian” thing, nor is good neighbouring. It’s fundamentally part of our wiring, and happens wherever humanity happens; just with our inherent selfishness also part of the mix.

For Christians, good neighbouring isn’t a means to some other end — its not a sales strategy for Christianity (though if you’re a good neighbour, people might listen to you or ask you questions from genuine interest), it is what we’re told to do. We have a particular motivation to be good neighbours because it’s what Jesus told us to do.

When good neighbouring happens, for any of us, it’s a taste of paradise. When community happens, when it really happens, when it is built on neighbouring, on others-centred love, it produces really great stuff. It’s a picture of humanity as it was made to be. A taste of paradise. One of the best fruits of Christianity’s undeniable influence in western society is these words of Jesus do occupy a space somewhere close to the heart of our western identity; even if we want to reject all the mysterious spiritual stuff.

How to love your neighbours (like ours love us)

I’ve done my best to ask around about how this happened. The history, or story, of our street. I largely put it down to one guy, at least so the story goes. A natural born community builder who bought into the street a long time ago; when his house was ‘the party house’ — and it was a party house which drew some other people who moved into, or lived on, the street into its orbit. The geography stuff is a factor, the dead end makes it easier to congregate on the street, or in the park, but really it was one guy who was intentional about being open to new relationships, because as I talk to him, he is utterly committed to community, and the way he builds it is through profound generosity. This generosity is infectious, and it may well be that there’s a statistical anomaly that means I live around some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but I think its also just this expectation that gets built over time that generosity to those you live in community with produces benefit, not cost.

People seem to think our street sounds good and desirable. When I tell them what’s going on, or post photos online, people say things like ‘you’re lucky to have that’ — I don’t think it’s luck. I think we’re lucky to have landed here, sure, but it’s the product of a few people taking the time and expending the effort to deliberately build a thing that expresses something deeply true and good about our humanity. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the result of love, and a desire for real community.

So here’s some tips I’ve gleaned from learning this story and watching our little community operate.

  1. Be intentional 
    This doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t accidentally love your neighbours, you do it by deciding that’s a thing you want to do, and prioritise. You do it by meeting people, learning names, going out of your way to contribute to the lives of those around you at every opportunity. You do it by creating opportunities. By doing things on your street, in your home, and inviting your neighbours to be part of it.
  2. Communicate
    Community requires communication. Part of this is just smiling, waving, and speaking to each other in passing. It requires trying to get to know your neighbours. Knowing people’s names is only half the battle. If you’re going to do a chicken wing cook off it’s not just a matter of cooking some wings and hoping the smell will draw a crowd. A Facebook group might be a little intense — but its probably worthwhile grabbing phone numbers for people on your street, or in your complex, for neighbourhood watch or runaway dog purposes, maybe you could put together a directory, with people’s names — and that’ll help you remember who’s who, and give you a good reason to meet new people on the street as they arrive. Don’t spam these lists or try to sell stuff to your neighbours in some crass way. Love is not a means to some other agenda, it’s an end in itself. But these sorts of contact lists might be a great tool for creating the sort of events that will build your community. Like a chicken wing cook off.
  3. Be welcoming
    There’ll always be people on your street who you get on with more naturally than others. But if you just pick a few friends and shut everyone else out, you’re not building a community, you’re building a commune. One of the nicest things about our community is how inclusive it is. We’re a pretty diverse bunch when it comes to age, stage, politics, religion, and vocation — sure, we also have much in common in terms of ethnicity and a few other things — but everybody gets invited to things, and everybody is welcome. There seems to be a commitment to putting up with one another through some things that in another street could lead to a blood feud. We’ve had a few pet related mishaps, and I’m constantly amazed that people put up with our barking dog and my bad jokes.
  4. Be generous
    I tell lots of people that I don’t think I’ve had to buy a beer since we moved in. I think that’s probably true. And it’s not just beer — I mentioned some stuff above, but we’ve been given clothes, toys, a spit roast thing (that I’m going to convert into a coffee roaster), a home-welded chicken coop far beyond my capabilities, plenty of time in the form of dog-sitting… and some other incredibly generous acts of service from different people. We’ve found various ways to give back, but we still feel like our neighbours have been more generous to us than we have to them, and so, we’re always keen to be generous to the street whenever, and however, we can. I get the sense this is true for most of us. Someone has to start this cycle though, in order to create a culture, and that might simply look like doing some baking, or cooking some meals, or pitching in with some odd jobs as you notice them when you’re hanging out in your front yard.Generosity includes hospitality. You can’t expect all neighbouring to happen on the street. That can get uncomfortable after a while (though most of us have readily accessible picnic chairs). We’ve got to the point on our street where our kids will, upon invitation, quite confidently wander around our neighbours houses and yards. And we’re pretty happy for our neighbours to drop in or come round too — like for Family Feud viewing parties. For us to do this sort of thing requires us to be comfortable with the fact that the stage of life we’re in means our house will never actually feel tidy, and we’ve just got to roll with that.
  5. Shift to the front yard
    This is a big one from Playborhood. And it’s counter-cultural. All our fun stuff is still in our backyard. Our trampoline (built at night with the help of our neighbours), our veggie patch, our swingset and sand pit. And my beloved hammock. In this we’re not alone, Aussies have become back yard types. Secluded. Fenced in. Enjoying the serenity and privacy of our own little kingdoms. The back yard is important for our family’s sanity, but most of our incidental ‘street time’ comes from keeping an ear out for activity while we’re inside, or from deliberate loitering, and playing with our dog, in the front yard. The park and the quiet street make this easier. Most of our neighbours kids are older than ours, and are often out riding, or playing, or making home movies; and ours are always keen to join their big friends.
  6. Create traditions
    This one is the most fun. We’re gradually building an events calendar that features regular signature events, with incidentals like birthdays and spontaneity padding things out. These things get a life of their own the more fun people have with them. One of the guys bought a bunch of steins for Octoberfest that he gave to each of us. There’s a perpetual Golden Drumstick at stake in the wing off. The Christmas Lights get bigger and brighter each year. Our kids almost drowned under the sea of Easter Chocolate. These things add a richness, and we’re often talking about the next one and planning how we might improve it (which gives us plenty to talk about — and relationships start out with those awkward conversations about the weather, then move through talking about shared interests, before you get to the deeper level of trust and understanding). These traditions shape the life of the community, and help us figure out what we value, and they’re fun.
  7. Have low expectations
    This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. What we enjoy on our street is the fruit of relationships that extend back many years before we arrived. But I don’t just mean have low expectations about how quickly this will happen so that you seek to make incremental steps towards community, I mean have low expectations of each other. This is counter-cultural stuff. People are busy. People are suspicious of strangers, and about people who are over-enthusiastic about things that look intense… but community is good for us. That’s my belief, and experience. Not every street has someone like our pioneering neighbour who build community naturally, or other people moving in with the same values. You might have to be that person. Don’t expect people to sign up, expect that you’ll have to model stuff, take the first step, and carry the cost (at least initially) of growing a community.

Do you have good neighbours? What are your tips? Chances are my actual neighbours will see this, because we’re Facebook friends. They’ve probably got some ideas too (and I trust that I haven’t given away any trade secrets)…

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And 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. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

What would Jesus snapchat? 10 tips for using social media (other than Facebook) as a Christian

Would Jesus use social media?

If he did, what would he post?

If we’re followers of Jesus how should we think about social media? How do we keep tabs on how teenagers are using stuff like Instagram, Snapchat when we can’t even figure Facebook out?

These are, of course, the questions of our age.

I’m going to answer them a little here by making a certain assumption, that I’ll put up front. I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere (including how people who are leaders in churches might help the people they lead think about this stuff). I’m going to assume that we, people, as God’s image bearers, are God’s social media. That God’s people have a track record, beginning in the Old Testament, of using communication mediums to tell people about God, while avoiding the dangers that come from deadly communication mediums (like idol statues). We’re naive when we assume mediums don’t matter, but we’re over-correcting when we assume mediums that can become dangerous shouldn’t be used. Creation itself was meant to reveal God’s divine character and invisible qualities, the fact that we turn God’s creation into images of things he made, and worship those images, isn’t a problem with creation as a communication medium, but with us (see Romans 1:19-25).

There’s been plenty in the news the last few weeks about how people are using Instagram — from models swearing off social media, specifically the ‘crafting’ of an image that isn’t real on social media, to models swearing at their social media followers for not doling out enough likes on their posts.

“I have created an image of myself that I think others feel is unattainable, others look at as a role model, others look at as some type of ‘perfect human’.” — Essena O’Neill

If you believe what teenagers tell you about social media, Instagram is where the action is. It’s where people are crafting an image of themselves for others to see, and where people are finding images to follow — to worship — and to be shaped by. Snapchat, another image based service, is equally interesting, and equally ignored by Christians who talk about this stuff.

“Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don’t care if they see me at a party having fun… If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.” — Andrew Watts, A Teenager’s View on Social Media

One of the interesting things about Instagram and Snapchat, apart from their use of images, is that they don’t rely on the same algorithmic sorting of information that Facebook and Google use. They provide a stream of content unfiltered by an algorithm; except of course for the photos, which are ‘filtered’ first in terms of what images are shared and not shared, and ‘filtered’ in the sense of being made to look good via tweaking, often tweaking via the application of a pre-designed filter which applies an algorithm of effects to a photo. This content comes from people who people have chosen to follow, or, in the case of Instagram, content sorted via hashtags or location from newest to oldest.

Perhaps this shift to these new platforms, by our younger generations, is built on a cynicism about algorithms, and the desire to really be in control of one’s media experience.

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, describing the Facebook newsfeed philosophy

I think this, in itself, is interesting because it means the reason we’re not confronted with pictures we don’t want to see — or the reason we’re confronted with pictures that cause us outrage — is not down to an algorithm that controls what you see, but is down to your choice in who to follow.

Anyway. Here are ten tips I’m giving to a bunch of teenagers for how to use image-driven social media — mostly not thinking about Facebook — as Christians.

1. Remember that you are God’s Social Media

We were made in God’s image to represent him in his world. That’s what images of God in the ancient world did. We, from the beginning, were meant to be God’s media. That was true for Adam, true for Israel, and is true for us in Christ. God should be made known through us, and through our connection with him and with others. We’re his representatives in his world, re-created in Christ to re-represent him.

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:3

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:18

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

— 2 CORINTHIANS 5:17

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 5:20

2. Don’t worship, or become an image of, anything else.

Our human tendency is to make ourselves images of anything but God. Our first inclination is to want to be images of ourselves, rather than dependant on God. To be the pattern for life. That’s basically what Essena admitted above in the words “I have created an image of myself”… in replacing God, we actually end up worshipping ourselves, or some dead thing — an idol — and we become what we worship, and we become disconnected from the one who gave us a pattern for life.

All the stuff we know about media and the brain confirms what the Bible says about idolatry. Our brains are shaped by the things we consume, including the mediums we use to consume things. There’s a saying that’s popular in a particular branch of media studies that looks at the effects of different communication mediums being introduced into society: “We shape our tools, and then, they shape us.” Add this to the line that sums up much of what we know about how our brains take shape “neurons that fire together, wire together” and we find that it’s not just the things we present in our media, but the mediums themselves, that shape us. It’s true that we become what we worship — the objects we fix our sight, imagination, and desires on.

… Idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see… Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

— PSALM 115:4-5, 8

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

— ROMANS 12:2

3. Share Jesus.

If we are communication mediums for whatever we worship, then the way we use mediums will reflect who we are, and communicate what it is we worship. If someone looked at your social media accounts, who would they say you worship? Our job isn’t to try to make images of God, or of things we worship, but to point people to God via our lives, and via what God has made (and how we use it). God’s handiwork  — the stuff he makes, including the people he remakes in Christ — should point people to him, which for us means our ‘good works’ that he has prepared for us to do, as a subset of his creative acts, should show who we are “in Christ Jesus.”

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

— ROMANS 1:20

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

— EPHESIANS 2:10

4. You must decrease. He must increase

Our human tendency is to want to be at the centre. It’s the experience of being creatures whose lives are projections of our own subjectivity — our thoughts, our imagination, our desires, are projected through our actions. The Gospel calls us to re-centre ourselves, and our lives, and our thoughts about others to make Jesus the subject, and the centre of reality, and to point people to him, not ourselves. I like the way John the Baptist describes this experience as he is confronted with the truth about who Jesus is.

He must become greater; I must become less

— JOHN 3:30

This runs counter to the way people in our world use social media to project either ourselves as the ultimate subject of reality, or to present our idols as the subject of our lives and worship.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others

— PHILIPPIANS 2:3-4

In a practical sense, this changes the sort of stuff we tend to want to share/project into the world so that we’re not crafting an image of ourselves, but seeking to serve others (which will always, in some sense, involve sharing something of yourself). This Venn Diagram from Wait But Why’s post on 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook pretty much nails it. Instagram and Snapchat work a little differently to Facebook, but the question is who are your photos pointing to? You? Or Jesus? Who are they serving? You and the image you craft as you ‘worship’? Or Jesus, and others?

5. Don’t Fight.

Nothing looks worse on social media than you arguing with, and grumbling about, other Christians. We’re actually called to be God’s image bearing ‘social media’ together, in and through our relationships with each other as we, together, find our identity in Christ. And arguing and grumbling undermines and so destroys this ‘image’… When we want to fight, Paul’s answer is to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” whose approach to status and power is described in Philippians 2, where Paul follows this instruction, and his description of Jesus’ example, with:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

— PHILIPPIANS 2:14-16

We’ll stand out on social media as ‘shining stars’ if we make social media a place where we’re not living for our own name, or glory, but for the sake of others — and where we demonstrate this by not fighting or grumbling.

6. Online is great. Offline is greater.

Heaps of people, mostly old people, are super-negative about social media because it’s disembodied. You’re talking at people through a screen. You stare at screens rather than ‘doing life’ in a very present sense. The place you are physically put is definitely part of reality when you are a finite creature, but we’re called to hold our physical reality in balance with the eternal spiritual reality we’ve become part of. As a Christian, you’re connected to the people in your immediate vicinity, but, paradoxically, you’re also connected with God, by the Holy Spirit, and ‘in Christ’ — and through this connection you’re, in a real sense, connected to every other Christian who has ever lived, and who currently lives. Virtual connections are a pointer to this reality, and a great substitute for the physical presence we will enjoy for eternity. If this is a little too abstract — virtual, online, connections are also a way to overcome some of the limits of being finite, in order to have real and significant relationships. They’re a brilliant new way to make space and time less of an impediment for relationships with people, they become dangerous if they stop us ever being really present with the people in our lives, or if we never anticipate coming face to face with those we ‘commune’ or ‘communicate’ with via these channels.

In the old days, like the Bible days, people wrote letters to overcome the limits space and time place on our communication with others. John wrote letters like this — and they’re obviously valuable because they’re in the Bible and have continued circulating for almost 2,000 years since. He saw the value of letters, but placed a greater relational value on presence, and his letters anticipated this presence.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 JOHN 1:12

What are some ways we can use social media to anticipate or invite face to face contact, even if they’re global relationships? One way is to look forward to, or anticipate, a shared eternity through a shared connection with Jesus.

7. God’s Word is the best media.

Everything God made is, in a sense, media. In that it reveals something about him to us. It helps bridge the divide between creator and creature, or writer and audience. God is most clearly revealed in Jesus, who is most clearly revealed, for us, in the Bible, which is all about him.

Whatever media practices, or social media practices, we cultivate will be best, or at least will relate best to our created purpose, if we start with media practices centred on God’s media. Not our own. And these practices are, at least significantly, to occur within our ‘social network’ as God’s people — we’re not called to plug in the headphones and focus on God as individuals as though we’re an island.

Check this out. This is a fairly famous passage from Colossians. It definitely already has a corporate sense in that the ‘dwelling among you richly’ all relies on things we do together. But our tendency is to think this is speaking particularly to us as individuals. That it’s a set of instructions for personal godliness.

“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 3:16-17

But this is a problem, at least a little, because we don’t use youse. Everything about these verses is corporate. Let’s play it again, while breaking all sorts of rules — well, one — about english.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among YOUSE richly as YOUSE 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 YOUSE do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We need to focus on the message of Christ, via multimedia practices, in relationship. God’s media is media we’re to use socially. And this should both come before we pick up ‘social media’ from the world, and it might inform how we use social media. Not in that it will make us boring regurgitators of random Bible verses, but because this message of Christ should soak everything we do and say as Christians.

How can social media help you, and your ‘network’ have the message of Christ dwell among you richly?

8. Prayer is the best social networking

Prayer is how we express that we have become part of the ultimate social network — that we have, in a profound way, been united with the God who made the universe. That we have been brought into the eternal, self-giving, community of the Trinity, and invited to communicate with God, our Father, in a way that is enabled by Son and Spirit. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is an incredibly profound demonstration of prayer, and explanation of the privilege we now have as pray-ers.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

— JOHN 17:20-21

We are members of this incredible social network, and with that, comes the privilege of communicating in this network — but also the responsibility to pray for those in every other one of our networks. There is not a person you are connected with on social media who you are not instructed to pray for. We’re called to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), for our fellow Christians (which Paul models in Ephesians 1:15-18, and then instructs us to do in Ephesians 6:18-20).

How might social media help you to pray for the people in your life?

9. Use your new imagination to share Jesus on new mediums

There are plenty of pitfalls with adopting new mediums without thinking. But we’ve been adopted into a new ‘network’ in a way that gives us great freedom to act as people with renewed minds, who are being transformed by God’s media. We are creatures of imagination, and we’re invited to use these in creating and participating in media, as God’s media. Giving people a bunch of rules and regulations for how to be ‘good’ social media users is a guaranteed way to make people un-imaginative and inauthentic on social media. It’s a pitfall most social media experts fall into. The formula for success is to be generous, interesting and authentic. So. How might we use snapchat or instagram? Be creative. Tell stories. Throw attention onto others. Celebrate.

I had a great coffee with my mate Dave Miers this week and picked his brain about how he — very intentionally — uses check-ins and hashtags to share bits of what he believes with strangers on Instagram. He’s even had someone come to his church because they started following him on Instagram because he uses relevant local hashtags, and tags photos in excellent local places, while sharing snippets of what he’s thinking or reading in God’s word, or in books he’s reading in those cafes.

10. Tell real(ly thankful) stories

This follows the above. People love stories. We are creatures who live by stories as we create stories. Social media thrives on stories. Most people craft stories that are boring and self-seeking, or tap into some story that we want to imagine ourselves living. I love stuff like the 365 Grateful project that encourages people to cultivate gratitude.

And I reckon gratitude is fantastic. But I think we, as Christians, are called to appropriately direct our gratitude beyond the great people in our lives, and past the ‘universe’ which conspires to give us great experiences — and we’re called to cultivate thankfulness to the God who makes excellent media, who has re-created us to be actors in his story. That’s how we give God’s world its purpose back — how we stop falling into the trap of living for ourselves, or making the mistake of worshipping God’s great media instead of God as the imaginative creator of great media.

For 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.

— 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5

We cultivate thankfulness in the same way that people are trying to practice gratitude. By expressing it. In real ways. By being thankful for the big things, and small things, God has made. And by using social media to do that — to be thankful for what God has given us, in this world and in Jesus, and by being thankful for the people he has given us as part of our networks. That’s a natural way to soak your life in the message of Christ, and to be God’s workmanship, rather than building your own image via the things you share online.

SNIPPET // Athanasius on the Incarnation

In case you’re wondering what the deal with these ‘snippet’ posts is. I use this site, at least in part, to store/collect interesting ideas, quotes, etc. But the things have to be suitably useful that I think other people might enjoy them too. I’m currently putting together some material for church for a series we’re going to do on the Image of God next year. So I dipped into Athanasius’ On The Incarnation of the Word, and I like all of this for different reasons. Partly because it gives us a sense of just how small the God people believe we believe in has become — most people writing popular atheism stuff are not tilting at the God Athanasius talks about here, but instead, a God who exists within nature whose supernatural intervention should be observable. This is a modern category.

This is the entire first chapter of Athanasius’ masterpiece. It’s worth stewing over a bit, I reckon. I don’t necessarily think everything Athanasius writes is 100% correct, but it is early Christian thought, and it is stimulating. I’ve bolded some bits that I found particularly fun to chew over…

Creation and the Fall

(1) In our former book we dealt fully enough with a few of the chief points about the heathen worship of idols, and how those false fears originally arose. We also, by God’s grace, briefly indicated that the Word of the Father is Himself divine, that all things that are owe their being to His will and power, and that it is through Him that the Father gives order to creation, by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being. Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth. For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
(2) In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.

Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.

Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female . . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being.” How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?

(3) Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd, “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.” Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.” For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.” “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.
(4) You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, “I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.”
(5) This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.” When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment. Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness. Even crimes contrary to nature were not unknown, but as the martyr-apostle of Christ says: “Their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature; and the men also, leaving the natural use of the woman, flamed out in lust towards each other, perpetrating shameless acts with their own sex, and receiving in their own persons the due recompense of their pervertedness.”

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 2 — The mission to re-image-ine the world

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

lookingup
Image Credit: Marvel.com

Before I explore a little more on the nature of the heroes of our modern myths — especially the characters from Marvel and DC’s universes, and the question of how, or what, sort of ‘worlds’ we might find in art, stories, and our imaginations, in order to re-enchant the one we live in, I thought I’d lay out a little more of what I’m thinking behind this series of posts, and describe the dilemma a little more concretely.

Is imagination dead — or did we make that up?

In the last post I quoted C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image — in which he explores the movement from a medieval view of the world that was entirely ‘enchanted’ and mystical outside of the realm of fiction. He speaks, in this passage, of the way even the commonplace, the natural, was a means by which people imagined something beyond themselves, and of the damage done to our means of seeing when we only really see things for what they are, and for our own sake.

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

In this sort of world, art and story help make these symbols sing. Stories operated as a bridge between the earthly reality and heaven. They help draw out this sense of meaning and enchantment.

The death of this way of seeing the world — and stories — in both the world, and the church, presents an interesting challenge for Christians. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church to:

“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. “

Paul wants us to see the unseeable with our hearts and minds. He wants us to imagine.

How do we do this without a bridge? How do we do this in a world that tells us both that this is nonsense, that ‘things above’ are nonsense, and so seeing anything but the world as it is, is a waste of time — thus devaluing both stories, and a sort of meaning through enchantment. How do we re-build this bridge and make this sort of setting of heart and mind possible for ourselves, and invite others to join us? That’s the challenge at the heart of this little series, even if it might at times seem to mostly be about superheroes.

This sort of approach to finding meaning in the world wasn’t a medieval invention, this was how most people everywhere saw the world right up until the enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age (a transition C.S Lewis, and others, pinpoint as involving a movement from seeing the world as a creation to seeing the world as ‘nature’. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are a couple of secular philosophers who make similar observations about the ‘disenchanted’ world to C.S Lewis (and James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor), while suggesting to think secular thinking necessarily ‘disenchants’ is to buy into a hollow form of secularism.Dreyfus and Kelly think there’s much to learn and admire from ancient thinkers that keeps us from nihilism, or an empty and hollow experience of the world. They wrote a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in which they chart this movement towards disenchantment.

“The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit? To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance…” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly describe the way that stories like the Odyssey and The Oresteia functioned in Ancient Greece to shape the way people saw and participated in the world such that stories function to help define art as: any workmanship created to focus our attention on meaning or enchantment in the world.

The Oresteia manifested and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidigger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art. The Greek Temple is his primary example of artwork working.
Like the temple, the Odyssey was a work of art for the Homeric Greeks. It was the sacred work, in other words, that manifested and focused the practices paradigmatic for the Homeric world. The Odyssey disclosed the existential space in which shining heroes like Odysseus and Achilles and shining examples of the erotic like Helen, as well as bad guys like the suitors, made sense as possible ways of life. When sung about, these figures gave direction and meaning to the lives of the ordinary Greeks in Homer’s world… The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them… they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world. — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

The death of ‘enchantment’ could easily have become — and perhaps in some senses has become — the death of the imagination. If everything that happens is reduced to the ‘natural’ — to chains of cause and effect — we lose a sense of mystery or ‘enchantment’ when amazing things happen because we approach these amazing things trying to figure out what lever has been pulled to produce that particular result. When we have an explanation we potentially simultaneously lose a sense of enchantment, wonder, gratitude, and potentially imagination — All Things Shining doesn’t argue that this is necessary, just that it is possible and logical, and does happen.

There are alternative expressions of the imagination if imagination is what we use to construct meaning in our world, and look for the means by which we might create, or re-create, things that transform our world for the better. But our modern dilemma is we don’t see the world the way people in the past saw it, we’ve moved from seeing it as a cosmos, or creation, pointing to something greater than itself, to being a universe guided by ‘nature.’James K.A. Smith describes this challenge:

“The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

He expands on this dilemma a bit later…

“In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being… the shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

And again…

“It’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning — a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

“…we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed… Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” — the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space… One can understand the trajectory that leads from this cosmic imaginary to materialism; if the immanent is going to be self-sufficient, as it were, then the material has to be all there is.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The search for meaning beyond the transcendent or ‘super-natural’ will still involve imagination— All Things Shining is a perfect example of such a quest for meaning (so too, Douglas Adams and the answers he gives for this quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but this move — as those examples demonstrate —  has an impact on the stories we tell ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves, and, as a result it changes the images we present as ourselves.

The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important… The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Imagination still operates, even if it operates with a different sense of wonder. We all become mini-Archimedes, our imagination is limited by the cause-effect nexus. Real change to the world as we experience it is simply a matter of finding the way to bring about that change in a material sense — a natural sense. We start seeing the world as a machine — subject to natural, physical, laws, and ourselves as machinists, inventors, or mechanics. The world can be moved and tweaked, and re-cast. So long as we find the right way to shift the gears. We are in control.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

And yet, in the face of the ‘infinite, cavernous, anonymous space’ we are very small. Very, very, small. And so too are the changes we can hope to make on the world. So too, becomes our sense of what we know and understand about the way the world works. Because we are oh so very finite. A fleeting breath in the scheme of eternal space and time. Even though we’re so minute, we still — by nature — are beings that crave meaning, a sense of a bigger picture, and we’re people who want to interpret information using some sort of system. This realisation that we are finite, and the belief that the material world is all there is, does not necessarily kill our ability to experience wonder at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the world — but these are things that must be incorporated, via imagination, into a “way of constructing meaning.” A belief that there is ‘no meaning’ is actually an imaginative construction, not in the sense that it is made up, but in the sense that it is the thing we tell ourselves about meaning in this world. But how do we choose this system? How is this imagination shaped? It is shaped, in part, by the way we see the world — but it also shapes the way we see the world. Could it be that it actually comes down to the question of what way of seeing the world is the ‘shiniest’…

Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart suggests all of us intuitively construct and ‘imagine’ meaning on the basis of a system we think is the most beautiful (according to whatever aesthetic we adopt – be that a sort of Occham’s Razoresque elegant simplicity, the beauty of the explanatory power of the scientific method, or a more mysterious or ‘enchanted’ approach to the world that includes a transcendent creator standing behind, or guaranteeing, existence). Or, as he says it:

“If one adopts the position of a certain account of how being, knowledge, and language are related, that is one’s position – ultimately because one finds the particular depiction of the world it affords especially compelling, even inevitable, for reasons that are finally aesthetic.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Our imagination is a way of assessing truth claims about the world through a sort of aesthetic lens. Enchanted world or not, there is some part of our thought process by which we assess, participate in, and finally, shape the world.

Dreyfus & Kelly, Smith, Taylor, and Hart would all seem to agree on this point: we underplay the role that imagination plays when it comes to living in, and understanding, the world to our detriment. Imagination is, in some way, what anchors us, but also what propels us. If we want to restore something mysterious and ‘other’ about the world we need to see it with a renewed imagination — this will require, I think, four things from us:

  1. A re-image-ination of ourselves,
  2. this, in turn, will require that we learn from art depicting a new sort of hero who is both grounded in reality, and who seeks to transform it,
  3. the ability to create and appreciate other-worldy stories which help us see our own world (and forests) in a re-enchanted way, and,
  4. if we really do see the world as a ‘machine’ a deus in machina (God entering the ‘machine’, as opposed to the deus ex machina — God from the machine) which completely changes the nature of the field we’re playing on. An unexpected entry in the story which ultimately saves us from ourselves, and pulls us into a new way of seeing and imagining.

I’ll suggest in the next few posts that the comic book universes of Marvel and DC both provide something akin to each of these (though in a deus ex machina way, not a deus in machina way), so too do the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis’ faery stories. They certainly provide a model that provides for what I think is an interesting conversation partner in this meandering effort. Even if I’m only writing to myself by now…

An invitation to image-ination

Imagination is on display right from the first moments of the Christian story.

When God says “Let there be light” this is an act of imagination that produces an act of creativity. The world itself is an expression of God’s imagination, and, rightly understood plays a role as one of Heidigger’s ‘works of art’, remember, that quote from All Things Shining: “Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to.” There’s a really compelling theory from Biblical Scholar John Walton that encourages us to read Genesis 1-2 as God setting up his cosmic temple, an ‘artwork’ that points us to him, and gives us a place in which to truly know God, and through that, to truly know ourselves, and truly fulfil our function as his divine image bearers.

The world of the Bible is a world ‘shot through’ with meaning. An enchanted world in which, when we rightly understand the world, we encounter the transcendent and experience it as natural. A natural world that in its natural state — before we trash it and ourselves — was meant to point us to the character and nature of God.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” — Romans 1:20

Here’s a thing. In Ephesians, Paul uses these same Greek words ποίημα and κτίζω to talk about humanity. Our job, as God’s creations — his artwork — his images in his cosmic temple — is to focus people on the life we were created to live, and the imagination we were created to see and transform the world with.

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

 

What seeing the world this way requires is imagination. But imagination isn’t just the thing that leads us to see the world as ‘enchanted,’ or to create enchanted worlds in our stories and art — imagination is required to see the world we live in as it is, and as it could be, and to work towards transforming it. Imagination is the thing that underpins creativity  — in a sense its also the thing underpinning God’s creativity in creating the world when he speaks, a thing that he has pictured is created, and he can declare it good and fit for a purpose according to his imagined design. In creation, God is able to turn his imagination into actuality.

 

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Part of this likeness is expressed in creating via imagination just as God did in creating the world. In Genesis 2, Adam demonstrates his God-given imagination by co-creating with God, he invents names for the animals God made in Genesis 1, ruling over them and bearing God’s image through an act of imagination.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” — Genesis 2:19-20

As Genesis plays out, into a line of genealogies, one of the thing the narrator notes is that people make art — or use their imaginations — as they spread throughout the world.

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” — Genesis 4:21-22

The problem is we stuffed up this job. Our imaginations failed us. Instead of imaginatively acting as representatives of the living God, we imagined dead things were god. We imagined God did not exist. We stuffed the world. We stuffed our heads. We lost our ability to imagine properly.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:21-23

This exchange had a cost. For us and for the world. Part of the cost is our inability to imagine — or to see the world clearly — to see it as shot through with meaning. To have any sense of the transcendent. We’re left with little old immanent us, in our little, contracted, immanent world, living little immanent lives when we were made for the infinite, we were made to make beauty, and life, and carry the image of the one who made us into his world, not trash it and trash the world.

A re-invitation to image-ination

The implications of this failure to imagine — or to image-ine — have an impact on the planet. And, subsequently, on our ability to know God’s nature from creation, because creation no longer reveals who he is. It reveals how we’ve damaged it.

The Gospel — where we meet Jesus — is an invitation back to seeing the world with imaginative eyes, and seeing our role in the world and the way we might be part of its transformation so that it does what it was made to do through our co-creating. Through our imagination. Especially through our imaginative and deliberate carrying of God’s image.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  — Romans 8:19-21, 29

God’s children — his image bearing imaginators — arrive on the scene again through Christ. The one who truly acts in an imaginative way to spread God’s presence through the world, by living out a more beautiful story, and inviting us to be a part of it. Over the next few posts in this series I’ll continue unpacking the idea that our story is better and more enchanted than worldly alternatives — our story of the transcendent becoming immanent — is more compelling than any other. And part of re-enchanting the world is really believing this to be true.

If the world has become machine-like for some, any ‘gods from the machine’ (deus ex machina) that provide happy endings in our stories come from below, not from above. They’re products of an immanent world. Our God comes into the machine and re-enchants it. It’s no longer good enough to experience the natural as black and white. It is re-cast in vivid colour. It is a pointer to the sort of God who acts to shape a good world, gives it to us, sees us trash it, and then acts to re-shape and re-claim and re-imagine and re-enchant it by sacrificing himself. Stepping into the story and laying down his life. Just when it looks like those in favour of the ‘immanent frame’ have won out — as a person of the Triune-God-in-the-flesh is nailed to a very physical cross — the transcendent triumphs.

The Christian story is a story of people being rescued from themselves, and from the consequences of our actions by God coming into the machine — a Deus In Machina (but we’ll get to that in a subsequent episode).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:14-20

This is Paul’s version of this story. An invitation to imagine again. To see the world as enchanted and held together by God again. To see it — and ourselves — as shining art, not created by our flawed hands, but by God’s perfect hands marred by nails and blood, that lights the way for people to live better, fuller, more wondrous lives, and to be invited to start re-imagining and re-creating again. Our calling, in the light of this story, is to imitate its hero (and we’ll get to this next episode). But in short, Paul’s words towards before this passage, and then at the end of Colossians are a pretty good place to start when it comes to figuring out what an ‘enchanting’ life looks like.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. — Colossians 1:9-12

… you have taken off your old self with 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 3:9-14

Our job is to offer a better story. To tell this better story. To help people see the world anew, and aright (and we’ll get to this, too, in a subsequent episode. Nothing like a cliffhanger).

Our job is to re-cast the world such that our story is more satisfying and compelling than alternatives. To re-enchant the machine, by using the complex beauty of the machine and its intended use to point to the inventor. We do this by living the story, and believing it to be beautiful and enchanting.

Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Though he’s talking more about how Christians should frame their attempts to persuade others of the truth of Christianiy — which necessarily involves a movement from a dis-enchanted world, to an enchanted one, Hart essentially thinks that the thing required to break people out of the immanent frame is not more, or mere, rationality. It’s a more beautiful truth. Whatever is most beautiful — the best story — that makes sense of the most data, that is what people should believe.

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity – and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty… Christian thought has no stake in the “pure” rationality to which dialectic seems to appeal – the Christian ratio, its Logos, is a crucified Jew – and cannot choose but be “rhetorical” in form; but it must then be possible to conceive of a rhetoric that is peace, and a truth that is beauty.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

This, I think, is what this description of what it looks like for our self to be renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator — to re-imagine, and re-image, the world by telling a beautiful and enchanting story that helps people see with the world with both their eyes and hearts.

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 3:15-17

Is X sinful? Some thoughts on why the answer to this question is almost always yes (and what to do about it)

Is it possible that Christians spend far too much time trying to decide whether a particular action or thought is sinful, and not enough time thinking about what sin really is, or what goodness really looks like as an alternative? We’re worried about our hands and eyes, where perhaps we should be more worried about our hearts. Is it possible that we’re obsessively worried about sin, when perhaps we should be excited and thankful that despite our inability not to sin, God forgives us and changes our hearts through Jesus, and invites us to follow his example. Is it possible this worry comes through in the way we present the ‘good’ news of the Gospel?

isxsinful

Sin and defining ‘good’

In the beginning, God looked at the stuff he made in this universe and declared it ‘good’ — but what does ‘good’ mean?

I’ve always injected a bunch of my own understandings of the word ‘good’ into the first chapter of the Bible, which typically revolve around my fairly modern assumption that goodness is a sort of material quality, perhaps even an aesthetic quality. God made a good world like IKEA does not make a good table. God made a good world like an artisan specialty coffee roaster makes a good flat white. It’s good because of what it is, and how I experience it.

But what if ‘good’ means something other than that the universe was, as declared by God, materially excellent? John Walton is a guy whose looked at what the ancient world understood the existence of a thing (the nature of ‘being’ — the fancy word is ‘ontology’). He suggests that if you were trying to define something in the ancient world, the world in which Genesis was composed, you would define a thing in terms of its function, and a declaration by someone who made something that this thing was ‘good’ would be caught up with it being able to perform a function. When God declares the world he makes ‘good’ he is declaring it good for the purpose for which he made it. Walton thinks that Genesis invites us to understand the world being created as God’s cosmic temple, with Eden functioning as the sanctuary in the Temple, and us humans functioning as God’s living images in that temple. The creation of the Temple later in the Old Testament has huge echoes of this creation week, this isn’t a controversial proposal, but it does significantly alter the way we have to read the early chapters of the Bible. Walton’s proposal is one I spent a fair bit of time interacting with in my thesis, and one that I am convinced by (and convinced has massive implications for what it means to function as God’s image bearers, or what being made in God’s image actually means). It’s interesting because our first response as modern readers is to, like I always have, read Genesis as answering ‘material’ questions about the universe, when in fact we should be answering ‘functional’ questions about the universe if we want to treat the text as a product of its world, answering questions its earliest readers were asking (as well as answering questions we should be asking).

When we’re repeatedly told that “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1 we’re being told that the world God makes is meeting the function he has designed for it. When God makes us humans he gives us a vocation — described in Genesis 1 — which outlines the function of humanity (our function is also caught up in the word used for image, and how that word was understood, and in the description of how he forms and places Adam in Genesis 2). We have a good job to do, ruling God’s good world, according to its inbuilt purposes, for and like God. Presumably being fruitful and multiplying, and extending God’s presence as his image bearers also meant extending the garden sanctuary across the whole world. What’s important here is that the nature of what it means to be human — at least in the Genesis 1 sense — involves a created function or purpose. Our own goodness is a product of whether or not we achieve that purpose.

If you had to answer the question “what is sin?” from the first two chapters of the Bible it would be a failure to be ‘good’ in the sense of failing in this divinely appointed vocation. A failure to bear God’s image and represent him. In Genesis 2 we see Adam bearing God’s image by naming the animals (just as God has named the things that he made). All is good in the world. Except that Adam is alone.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

This aloneness doesn’t fit with the Genesis 1 picture of ‘goodness’ — or the function God envisages for humanity. In Genesis 1 God describes humanity’s image bearing capacity, our ability to represent the loving triune God, and ability to be fruitful and multiply caught up in us being made male and female. Not alone. So this ‘not goodness’ is fixed in Genesis 2 when Eve is introduced. Eve is also introduced in the narrative because none of the animals is suitable for the function God’s purposes require. The declaration ‘not good’ is a declaration that God’s created purpose is not being met. So God fixes things.

Proposition 1: God defines what ‘good’ is.

Then we break them. If part of God’s purposes for the world was to defeat evil — especially evil as it is embodied in Genesis 3 by the serpent — by creating and spreading his temple and presence in the world through his image bearing people then things seem to go very wrong in terms of God’s purposes in Genesis 3. Genesis 3 is where we get our first picture of sin. Our first sense of how to answer the question ‘is X sinful’ — but Genesis 3 also massively changes the playing field for answering that question because it massively changes us. Presumably prior to Genesis 3 everything about who we are as people is aligned with God’s function — our hearts, our desires, our thoughts, our actions — after this point, it seems none of those things line up with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying God’s presence as we live out his purposes. At least according to the way the story of the Bible works, from this point on, we all live out our own purposes. Our hearts and desires become evil, oriented to ourselves and to things other than God.

So if ‘goodness’ is about God’s purposes being met by the things he has made, and ‘not goodness’ is a frustration of those purposes, then what is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3? I think there are actually a bunch of things they do wrong in Genesis 3, but the fundamental ‘wrongness’ is actually a failure to live as image bearers of God when push comes to shove. When the serpent enters the scene what he tempts them with, and what they display, is a life where its their own purposes that define ‘good’… and this, is sin.

Proposition 2. God defines what good is, sin is when we come up with our own definition of good, apart from God.

The classic answer to the question of ‘sin’ in Genesis 3 is to identify the specific act of transgression. Adam and Eve disobey God’s clear instruction and eat the bad fruit. And that’s certainly a sin. But sin is more than simply a disobedient act. I think we get into massive problems as the church — and massively confuse people about what sin is — if we run around looking for equivalent acts of transgression, rather than talking about the hearts that produce those transgressions. Here’s something interesting in Genesis 3.

Notice here, in the same words we’ve read already in the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s now Eve deciding what “good” is, and its the opposite of what God tells Adam to do in order to be meet his purposes.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Adam and Eve desired what the Serpent promised — that they would be like God (a thing they already had). I reckon they’ve failed to ‘guard and keep’ the garden, the literal instructions God gives Adam in Genesis 2:15, simply by letting the Serpent in. I think they’ve given the Serpent’s lies more weight than God’s truths, and before they eat the fruit — which is where most people think they sin — they’ve already replaced God with themselves and are living and making decisions according to their own purposes. This becomes evident in their actions, which are the fruit of their hearts. But its their hearts that are oriented away from God and his purposes first. And any action from a heart like this is an action of a person not living according to God’s purpose for humanity.

According to the rest of the story in the Bible, the result of this Genesis 3 failure is that we’re now genetically predisposed to be just like Adam and Eve. To not live like God, but to live for ourselves. Their mistake repeats in every human life, but now its because we’re born inheriting this pattern of life, and born outside the sanctuary of Eden, not image bearers formed in the garden-temple, but people with hearts ready to reflect whatever it is in God’s world that we want to replace God with. The image we’re made to carry, and God’s purposes for humanity, aren’t totally wiped out by our autonomy, that’d give us too much power. His common grace, and his love for people, means that there’s something written into our DNA that means we live and breath and love and do things that seem good, even though our motives always have something of our own interest or desire to autonomously define ‘good’ involved.

Proposition 3. Hearts that define their own ‘good’ define their own gods (and are defined by those gods).

Sin is any product of a disordered heart — a heart that sets its own agenda and produces actions according to that agenda — even if the things we do appear to be obedient to God’s purposes, even if we look like we’re living, breathing, images of the living, breathing, God, if our hearts are pointed towards our own ends as we do those acts, are those actions not infused with and given life by our disordered hearts? In the Old Testament these disordered hearts lead us to produce idols in Isaiah this is literal… and its a parody of Genesis 2 which leads to dead images (and ultimately dead people). Images and idols are conceptually linked through the Old Testament, because when God made us we were meant to be his living images that represented him in his temple — which is exactly what other religions did with their dead idols.

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.

The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.

They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”— Isaiah 44:9, 13, 18, 20

The “they” here is a little ambiguous, and speaks both about the idol and the idol-maker. Psalm 115 makes this connection explicit.

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. — Psalm 115:4-5, 8

In Ezekiel we’re told idols aren’t just physical things a person carves, but the product of hearts turned away from God.

“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” — Ezekiel 14:7-8

In Romans 1, Paul talks about the human condition in this way too, suggesting that our hearts are darkened because we turned away from God and worshipped the things he made instead.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

In Paul’s logic in Romans all the things we might use to classify different Xs as ‘sin’ — the moral categories we might use to assess our actions— are said to flow from this fundamental cause. Us exchanging God for stuff God made.

Proposition 4. Hearts that are turned away from God are hearts that are darkened and turned towards death.

All our hearts do this. It’s why God promises to step in and replace hearts shaped by stone idols with living hearts shaped by his Spirit. Interestingly, the sort of process  described here (washing, restoring, and a sort of ‘re-breathing’ ritual) is what countries in the Ancient Near East did if their idols were taken during conquest by another nation to re-establish them in their temples. This is a promise to restore God’s people to their created purpose.

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27

Focusing on symptoms rather than the disease

Just to be clear, I think the answer to the question “is X sinful” is always yes, in this world.

So long as our hearts are still tainted by sin.

Some acts that are clearly disobedient to God and his revealed standards are more clearly sinful than others, but any failure to live as image bearers of God, any failure to appropriately imitate God are failures to live up to the purpose we were made for, and that failure is caught up in the idea of autonomy, or living as though we’ve replaced God, where we live as though we get to make declarations about what the ‘good’ for a thing God has made is (including defining what we think is good, according to our own desires). These failures which definitely include those moments of direct disobedience to specific commands, but will also include disobedience to general catch-all commands like ‘be perfect,’ ‘be holy,’ and ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ In Genesis 3, immediately after they’re caught, but before they receive God’s response  — the curse — the way Adam and Eve speak about their bad decision, and each other, shows that their hearts have already changed. They are acting out of self-interest, and not according to God’s purposes. They’ve defined their own good, and their judging each other accordingly.

Proposition 5. From this point on our hearts are a mixed bag. Humanity is still made in the image of God, but we keep remaking ourselves in our own image, and conforming ourselves into the image of our other gods.

A good summary of the Old Testament’s view of humanity (a fancy word here is anthropology) is that we’re a complicated mix of people made by God to do one thing, and we know what that thing looks like, but our hearts have been so frustrated by evil so that we do another. God is patient and good though, and merciful, so he keeps providing guidelines to help people try not to be evil (this just keeps looking like a to do list though). It’s unhelpful, then, to say that sin is simply not obeying the list of rules in the Old Testament law, as though its all about a moral code, when the defining principle for God’s people, following in the footsteps Adam and Eve should have walked in is to “be holy because I am holy”…

I think we get sin massively and unhelpfully wrong when we try to write a list of actions that are, or aren’t, sinful. Our actions indicate our hearts, and whose image we’re bearing, but its this question of whether or not our lives are aligned with God’s purposes that actually determines whether or not we’re sinning.

If all this is right, there are interesting implications in this for how we answer this question, especially in how we deal with the difference between experiencing the results of a broken and cursed world, and deliberate decisions to express our autonomy through actions that have no redeeming features. I can see how this could be heard as being massively pastorally unhelpful when people ask the question “is X a sin?” with an agenda or with a lack of self-insight (such that asking the question is sinful). Often this question has been used to demonise, rather than humanise, another person (and often the people answering the question have not been particularly ‘human’ in their responses). A couple of examples are when people ask “is same sex attraction a sin” or “is anxiety a sin”… it is massively unhelpful to say “yes” to these questions without the massive caveats that “all human sexuality as we experience it from autonomous broken hearts is sinful” and “all views of life in the world from autonomous hearts are sinful”… but I think its safe to say that the diagnosis of the human condition in the Old Testament is pretty consistently a diagnosis that our hearts are fundamentally oriented away from God’s purposes, and that orients us as people away from God’s function.

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

Proposition 6. Sin is: taking a good thing (including people and abstract things like love) that God has given a good function and created to serve a good purpose and using it for some purpose other than the purpose God created for us, in line with our own hearts.

I’ll get to this below, but I think the human reality everywhere, in every heart, this side of the new creation God promises at the end of the Bible, is that every thing we do will involve some bit of our self-seeking, sinful hearts as a motivating factor.

Proposition 7. This is a universal problem and a description of the human condition for all people.

It becomes less and less a motivating factor as we’re conformed into the image of Jesus, but it’ll still be there. Everything we do on our own steam is sin. This is true for things we do for ourselves, and things we do for others. It’s true for things we do by ourselves, and things we do with others. Our collective actions will be a mix of the goodness God made in us raging war with the self-seeking (or not-God seeking) desires of our hearts.

Proposition 8. Because this is a universal problem, and we are affected, we can’t perform heart surgery on ourselves, neither can other sinners. 

 What wretches this means we are. Who can save us?

How Jesus both cures our sinful hearts, and shows us what healthy hearts looks like

Proposition 9. The answer to Paul’s question posed above — who can save us? — is Jesus.

I think, according to the above framework and the way Paul’s use of Adam seems consistent with it in Romans, that Paul’s description of human thought and life in Romans 7 is about the dilemma we experience as people made in God’s image who are infected with sin — and his cry for help is the cry of the human heart to be restored.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. — Romans 7:22-23

Paul wants out of this way of life.

Which happens when Jesus makes it possible for us to be children of God again through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), as we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

One of the fundamental promises of the Old Testament is that God will intervene with the human condition to give us ‘new hearts’ — reoriented hearts — hearts not shaped by the ‘stone’ dead idols we worship, but by the living God (cf Psalm 115, Ezekiel 36:26), hearts that allow us to obey God — or meet his purposes again (cf Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31).

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26

Proposition 10. Jesus came to fix our hearts because our hearts are the heart of our problem, and make what we do sinful.

Proposition 11. The way Jesus talks about the problem of sin shows that it is a problem of the heart not properly loving God, not a question of a list of rights and wrongs, or Xs that are sinful, or not sinful.

Some people who operate with the assumption that sin is specific transgressions against a particular rule have a hard time accommodating Jesus’ ‘new ethic’ in the Sermon on the Mount. For these people, suddenly thought crime is a thing. But what if Jesus isn’t bringing a new ethic to the world, what if he’s showing people that they’ve got the old ethic wrong, that the way to understand the Old Testament law was that sinless humanity required imitation of God, and what if this is why the Old Testament had a ritual of atonement built into the law, because imitating God and fulfilling God’s purpose for the law is impossible for sinful us. So the rich young ruler who says “I’ve kept all the laws” might be right, but this doesn’t make him sinless? What if Jesus as God’s real image bearer, the one who sees God truly, does fulfil the law in terms of its purpose by ‘being perfect’…

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:8, 17, 48

What if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that X is always sinful, but its the wrong question? What if Jesus isn’t worried about answering the question “is X sinful” at all, but about offering the transformed heart promised by the Old Testament so that “is X sinful” is the wrong question? What if the other bit where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets is related to this idea of fulfilment, and Jesus is the one who perfectly loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and loves his neighbours as himself?

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:37-40

Just remember, the point is not that any individual action is not sinful, but that every action from a heart that doesn’t truly imitate God is sinful. The point of the picture of humanity in the Old Testament is that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. Even in their best moments. Even the best of people. And this is the ‘greatest commandment’ which helps us understand the purpose of all the other commandments, and the law, and the prophets, and so, the purpose of our humanity. This is what living life in God’s image looks like, and its what Jesus does — and in doing so, what he secures for us in him through his death and resurrection (as well as making payment for our failure as a substitutionary sacrifice. We still need atonement, just like people in the Old Testament. Because there’s a gap between how we live and how we were made to live that is expressed in our every action.

Here’s a cool thing. I’ve been grappling with this sin question for a while and wondering how what I think fits with this emphasis on the heart fits with a verse like:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew records this bit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where it fits with this idea that we are imperfect from the inside out, it comes right after Jesus says:

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The heart, mind, eyes and hands are all connected in this picture of what being a person looks like. Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, Mark puts this bit in some of the things Jesus teaches on his way to Jerusalem. He says:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” — Mark 9:43-47

The word behind ’cause to stumble’ in the NIV which is often translated as ’cause to sin’ (see ESV etc) is the Greek word which transliterates as scandalise (σκανδαλίζῃ), it means what we think it means in English, carrying a sense of causing offence. One thing to remember is that the Bible describes sin using a bunch of different words, and we lazily translate them all as ‘sin.’ These passages might seem to support the idea that sin is simply a wrong action (or thought) and leave us legitimately trying to solve for X. So that we know what to chop our hands off for, and pluck our eyes out for… except… in both Matthew and Mark Jesus lays the blame for sin somewhere else. Both Matthew and Mark record this as Jesus answering the Pharisees questions, and correcting their understanding of, the point of the law… The Pharisees are playing the “is X sinful?” game and coming up with some incredibly stupid things to ask the question about, leading them to add stuff to what God has commanded that leaves them imitating man, not God.

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15:6-20

Mark doesn’t do much more with this, he too records Jesus quoting Isaiah, and then saying:

 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” — Mark 7:14-23

We don’t need to chop off our hands, or gouge out our eyes. These don’t actually cause us to sin at all, they are instruments controlled by our hearts. Defiled hearts cause scandalous hands. We need to chop out our hearts. Or rather, we need Jesus to do that for us.

Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and their approach to the law — predicated on deciding that X is sinful, but missing the point of the law — is that their hearts are hard. That’s why he says Moses wrote the law (he’s specifically answering a question from the Pharisees about why the law allows divorce) in Mark 10, and again shows they’re missing the point when they essentially ask “is X sinful” (where X=divorce) and Jesus’ answer is essentially that they should be looking internally for sin…

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. — Mark 10:5

Matthew says plenty about the heart too — and the link between who we are as people, and what we do being a reflection of who we are (though also being that which indicates who we are).

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” — Matthew 12:33-37

What we do comes from who we are — if we’re what Paul calls “in Adam” or reflecting the image of Adam, this means we’re a mix of autonomous God-replacing desires and people who bear the image of God, if we’re in Christ it means we’re a mix of this and the Holy Spirit, which is conforming us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that will ultimately be completed in the new creation.

Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees and their approach to their God-ordained purpose in Matthew, but he makes it clear that he is the way back to a new heart he quotes Isaiah and puts himself in the picture as the solution to the problem with our humanity:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ —Matthew 13:15, which is a slight adaptation of Isaiah 6:9-10 that presents Jesus as the answer to the question “how long O Lord?”

Proposition 12: Jesus came to heal calloused, idolatrous, sinful hearts, and to offer a way for people to be ‘good’ living images of God again, representing him in his world.

A healthy approach: getting the balance right between disease treatment and health

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation…  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:13-15, 19-20

There’s a bit of a conversation happening online in Aussie circles at the moment about whether we adequately present the Gospel when we emphasise penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross — that’s the thing Colossians 1 describes above, where Jesus swaps his perfection for our imperfection at the Cross, making atonement for us. The Cross certainly does this. But it does a little more than this, and simply treating the Cross as an antidote for sin leaves us emphasising sin as our problem, and may leave us asking the question “is X sinful” as we live in response to the Cross. But what if the Cross isn’t just about a substitution? One other stream of thought is that the Cross is also our example — often this is held up against substitutionary atonement, almost as an alternative Gospel. But what if we’re actually meant to hold them together, and what if our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is caught up in our obsession with the wrong thing? Not sinning, rather than imitating God. They’re linked. Obviously. Because God doesn’t sin, but sin is also, if the above is correct, the result of not imitating God.

If sin is a heart disease, our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is like fighting heart disease by emphasising the need for a heart transplant. But when you get a heart transplant you also need to know how to live. You need to know the pattern of life that comes from a healthy heart, and keeps it healthy. We can’t hold our need for atonement apart from what the ‘good’ life is meant to look like. Our version of Christianity sometimes feels more like “don’t be sick” than “this is what it looks like to be well” — and I think that’s because we tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement, rather than holding it alongside the example of Jesus (what, in latin, gets called Christus Exemplar). Sometimes the thing we emphasise when we talk about the good news of the Gospel as substitutionary atonement is the Gospel’s implications for us (typically as individuals) rather than the Gospel being centred on Christ. It is good news about him, first, isn’t it?

Proposition 13. The Cross is where Jesus gives us new hearts to re-shape us and recommission us into God’s (and his) image bearers again while taking the punishment for our darkened hearts, and where he shows us what it looks like to live ‘good’ lives as image bearers. 

The story of Jesus’ life and his mission for hearts and minds as recorded in Matthew and Mark culminates in the ultimate expression of humanity defining its own good, of humanity rejecting God’s vision of ‘the good’ and what his plans for the world look like. The story of Jesus is not a different story to the story of Genesis 1-3. Jesus is the real image bearer, and we see Adam and Eve’s behaviour fulfilled at the Cross, where humanity collectively (but especially Israel and Rome) rejects Jesus, God’s king. God’s image bearer. We kill God’s divine son. This is Adam and Eve’s autonomous redefining of the good writ large.

Proposition 14. The Cross is sin in its purest form. This is the desire of our hearts being expressed — life without God. But it’s also God’s heart being expressed in its purest form, and his ‘good’ victory being won. It’s where the good purpose of the world is revealed.

The Cross is why Jesus came. It’s, at least according to John (see below), and Peter, the moment the world was made for. And it’s where God’s offer of healing and a new heart is made reality, the Spirit arrives in people’s hearts because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Cross is Jesus imitating God. God’s character is defined by this act of self-giving love for one’s enemies. This voluntary sacrifice —the giving up of everything — is Jesus showing what it looks like to love God, and his neighbours — with all his heart. Perfectly imitating God and fulfilling the law. It’s also where Jesus defeats evil, and through the resurrection and its promise, Jesus re-kindles the hope and promise that God’s kingdom will spread all over the earth.

The Cross is humanity being evil, and Jesus being good, simultaneously. It is victory. It is where God defeats evil. And its an incredible picture of God’s temple harking back to creation as his image bearer dwelling in his world to give life. It’s the moment the world was heading towards, and the moment the serpent is defeated. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve fail. John describes this aspect of God’s plan as Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and in the picture John paints of the significance of the Cross he sees this being the decisive moment that guarantees that the serpent, the Devil, loses and God wins (see Revelation 20).

I wonder if the question “is X sinful,” while well-intentioned, misses the point that in this life our hearts are still tainted by sin, and still a work in progress. We’re fairly constantly called to flee particular sorts of sin in the New Testament, but every one of the sins we’re called to flee is linked to idolatry, which is linked to the orientation of the heart. The sins we’re called to flee are products of our poisonous hearts, and really fleeing this behaviour actually requires us to live life — to act — out of the new part of our heart, not simply to stop doing that other stuff. Christians are post-operative heart transplant recipients. The permanent internal change has taken place but still working their way through our bodies and our lives. I wonder if we’re better off asking questions about what the fruits of our new nature look like — the part of our humanity that is now the product of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Christ.

Paul describes this new aspect of our humanity in 2 Corinthians 3. The internal work of the Spirit on our hearts is different and better than the Old Testament law, because human readers of the Old Testament law miss the point of the law without the Spirit, because our nature — our hearts— get in the way.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

… Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:2-18

We’re no longer simply a bifurcated mix of image of God and sinful heart — we’re people whose hearts are being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus. To fixate on the broken bit of our humanity misses the sense that we’re also called to imitate Jesus as he imitates God, not just by not doing bad things, but also by doing good things. This, I think, is the right way to think about the social implications of the Gospel (for this to make sense, read Stephen McAlpine’s excellent review of a book by a guy named Tim Foster who suggests the key to reaching urban Australians is to move away from substitutionary atonement and towards what he describes as a telic Gospel (it’s also worth reading Tim Foster’s reflections on some of the reviews of his book, especially this one). This series of posts essentially asks what the Gospel is, and how we should preach it in our context. I know some people (like Richard Dawkins) say substitutionary atonement is an ugly doctrine, but I think our problem is that its an incomplete Gospel. It’s not ugly. It’s too individual in its emphasis, and to focused on the disease and not enough on the cure and the new life the cure brings. The life we’re inviting others to find, the life God created them for. We get Jesus’ perfect life in exchange for our diseased one, and we’re invited to join him in living it. Forever. That process starts now. We’re reconnecting with God’s vision of what ‘good’ is. This is an invitation to have a ‘good’ life.

I think, given the above, I want to go back to Martin Luther, who was big on a Christian anthropology being simul justus et peccator (which in English means simultaneously justified and sinful). I think our anthropology is threefold, and we’re calling people in our world to rediscover God’s purpose for the bit of them that still reflects his image, by connecting themselves to Jesus. In a letter to a preacher friend Luther suggested preachers need to express their real humanity in their preaching. Including their sin (rather than obsessing over is X sinful, perhaps).

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

I’d want to add, as Paul and John do, that justice does reside here a little, in the form of the love of the justified. In us. As we imitate Christ. Especially the Cross. Through his death and resurrection, and the heart-changing gift of the Spirit, Jesus frees us to bear God’s image again as we bear his image. As we imitate him.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2

Or, as John puts it in 1 John 3… What “not sinning” as God’s children looks like is loving like Jesus loved…

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. — 1 John 3:2-11, 16-24

A matter of life and breath

“Ok. Let’s start CPR”

Breath.

We take it for granted right up until the moment that it is gone.

I’m in hospital this week, celebrating the incredible miracle of new life. New breath. For the third time I was there. Physically. Emotionally. Present. There. In the room. Waiting. Watching. Listening.  There, as a mouth opened, and filled a set of lungs with oxygen for the first time.

breath

Breathe little girl.

Thankfully, our little one, has not required CPR. But in a hospital there are many who do. In hospital, life and death exist as the start or end point of different journeys. Hospitals beat airports when it comes to the scale of human emotions. When I walk the corridors I remember the training I was given for news reading — bizarrely — whether its bad news or good, people like the comforting empathy of a warm smile. The smile conveys a subliminal wink and a nod, from a third party, to the idea that life will go on, that everything will pan out. Even if its patently obvious that it won’t. Even if it’s clear that everything has, or will, change. I walk around the hospital with my empathetic newsreader smile plastered on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Just in case. But I listen as I walk. Because the hospital experience, tied up as it is with life and death, is something that feels almost sacred.

“OK, let’s start CPR.”

Life is incredible, and, linked as it is to breathing, breath is incredible. The capacity for the very atmosphere that surrounds us to sustain life is remarkable. Yet like good typography, breath often goes unnoticed. We take it for granted.

I notice it when I’m short of it — in the throes of exercise, or on a cold winter’s night as my mild asthma starts constricting my chest — but other than that its simply automatic. I find myself thinking about breathing if I’m trying to exercise some control over something that I feel like I ought to be more invested in, when I feel the need to still my heart and my thoughts, or when I want to sneak out of a sleeping child’s room unnoticed.

But breath is a miracle.

Breathe little girl.

Nothing reminds you of that faster than a hospital. Where breath is there one moment, and gone the next. Or, more happily, where a breath is taken for the first time.

My newest progeny, Elise, is three days old now. She is alive. She is healthy. She breaths. She is a wonder to me. A beautiful marvel (just like Sophia and Xavier before her).  I’ve spent three days reflecting on that moment where her mouth and lungs opened to receive breath, autonomously, for the first time. It’s true, of course, that Elise has been living on vicariously delivered oxygen for many months now. But this was life without breath. Another miracle.

Breathe little girl. 

It’s interesting how much you pay attention to the breath of another. One that you love. Whether its the breathing of a loved one, a spouse or significant other, when you’re in close proximity, or the breath of a child whose life you suddenly feel (and are) responsible for. There’s some sort of nerve-jangling response hardwired into a parent that comes as an automatic response to every cough, whimper, or choking sound. Nothing gets you breathing faster than hearing something abnormal in the breathing of your child. And yet I have no idea how many times I’ve inhaled or exhaled while writing this sentence. Have you counted your breaths while reading this? Of course not. Though maybe you will. And every breath counts.

Our breaths are numbered — whether by an all knowing divine being, or simply by the period of time we’re alive, and the number of times we inhale and exhale before expiring — we only breath a certain, finite, number of times in this world.

As I write these words I’m sitting next to my wife, Robyn, watching Elise sleep and listening to her breath. Listening for abnormalities. Sure. But listening and celebrating the marvel that is human life.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.

Breathing is so fundamental to our human experience.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

These words are a terrifying reminder that one day breathing will cease. For me. For you. That breath will leave your body for one last time, leaving it, if you can believe what you see in the movies, 21 grams lighter. But dead. Lifeless. 21 grams might not be the weight of the soul, that’s a weird sort of dualism that leaves body and soul more separate than I believe they are. But, if that movie (21 Grams) is right, it is the material difference between a dead person and a live person.

Whatever you believe the soul is, that which vivifies a bunch of cells, it departs with your last breath.

Death sucks. It’s like a black hole that sucks the life and oxygen out of what would otherwise be a pretty spectacular universe.

“Ok, Let’s start CPR”

I heard these words as I walked the corridors of the hospital, on my way from my living, breathing, miracle to the cafeteria which serves up a bunch of salty deep-fried rubbish, and sugar — delicious though it all is — that will inevitably lead to a few fewer breaths for me if I keep indulging in them.

As I left the maternity ward I was aware of a piercing, repeating, alarm, and a bit of motion around the doors of a room at the end of the corridor in the ward I walk through to get to the cafeteria. I heard those words.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

They’re stuck in my head. A twin memory, juxtaposed to that precious moment from the birth suite. Clanging. Jangling. Butting up against the reality of new life. Intruding on a celebration.

I purchased my wedges and waited as the hot oil turned them golden brown. I walked back past the room. It was still. Empty. Without breath. I don’t know what happened to the resident, whether they were rushed away for treatment, or how that story ends. But I do know it’s a stark reminder that all is not right in this world.

Those breaths my daughter took as she entered the world, the breaths she takes now as I sit beside her, will one day cease. As will mine. My wife’s. My other children. Breath is fleeting. Life is fleeting.

Breathe little girl. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, let’s, for the sake of argument, call him Solomon, reflected on the existential dilemma that this dependence on breath places us in, against the backdrop of just how temporary our breathing is in the grand scheme of things.

Breath. Over and over again he repeats the word ‘hebel’ — a word our translations render as “meaningless,” but a word that means breath. Fleeting. Inhale/exhale. You breathe in. You breathe out. And it’s all over.

“Breath! Breath!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly breath!
    Everything is breath.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-6

This leads to a pretty depressing place.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is breath, a chasing after the wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:17

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is breath. —Ecclesiastes 3:19

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Breathe little girl. 

Why?

Why is it that breath does not last? That life does not last?

This miracle of new life, and new breath, that I witnessed for the third time this week, why isn’t it an eternal miracle?

Why does life end?

If Solomon had been able to answer these questions adequately, then perhaps Ecclesiastes would be a little less morose. He does turn, in the face of futility, to the only one it makes sense to turn to. The one who gives life.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”…

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.

“Breath! Breath!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is breath!”…

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. — Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8, 13

Solomon’s dad, David, was also confronted by this same existential crisis, the question of what life means in the face of the stark reality of death.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
   let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
 Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.” — Psalm 39:4-8

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expire. And yet, David speaks of hope and salvation… The Psalms, not all of them are written by David, end up a little more hopeful, relying on God’s life-giving character as part of the answer to death.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
 When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
 When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works.” — Psalm 104:27-31

God gives life. God takes it away.

We humans can prolong life by artificially breathing into someone’s lungs.

“Ok, let’s start CPR”

Sometimes by moments, sometimes by years. But never eternally. We just don’t have enough breath, or life, to give. CPR, at its most basic, is the giving of some of the oxygen allocated to yourself, in terms of the finite number of times you’ll breathe in your lifetime, to someone else. It’s incredible. The transfer of life giving breath from one person to another.

But CPR is a temporary fix. It’ll always be followed by death. This, in part, is because we’ve all only got a finite amount of oxygen to spare. CPR is a dying person giving another dying person a bit of their life. Real life needs living breath, the sort that Psalm speaks of, the sort that creates and renews, when God sends his Spirit — breath that comes from the infinite life giver. It’s God and his glory, and his breath-created works that will endure forever. This sort of breath seems the only answer in the face of death, which only entered the world because we rejected God.

This is not how it was supposed to be. The link between life and breath is no accident. For those who take what the Bible says about life and breath and death seriously, our breathing was not meant to cease. We were made to live. We were made to live in such a way that our very life — the essence of our existence — reflected the greatness and glory and existence of the one who breathed life into us. Whatever points Genesis is making about the origins and function of human life, one thing is clear — breath is what separates us from dust. From dead matter. Breath is why we matter, it’s what gives life in this world — first to the animals (Genesis 1:30), then to humanity.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” — Genesis 2:7

This breath is what gives us the capacity to live out our function as living images of the living God. Not simply images fashioned from clay, or precious metals. And, Christians believe the living God continues to fashion every human life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! — Psalm 139:13-17

The other gods of the Ancient Near East had their dead statues. Idol statues that were formed and fashioned by craftsmen, then ceremonially “quickened” in a mouth opening ceremony so they could act for the god they represented— despite this ceremony they remained still, mute, and dead. Breathless.

Idols don’t speak. In part because they don’t breath (have you ever tried breathing without speaking?). And they don’t breath because they don’t live. They don’t help us answer the existential dilemma we’re confronted with at the sound of inspiring or expiring (and just how cool is it that these words are related to breath entering and leaving the lungs?). The consistent testimony of the inspired writers of the Old Testament is that Idols do not speak, or breath, so they cannot inspire… they leave us bereft and helpless in the face of the fleeting nature of life. That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes finally turned to his Creator.

I look but there is no one—
    no one among the gods to give counsel,
    no one to give answer when I ask them.
See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.— Isaiah 41:28-29

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Replacing the living God with other stuff is what started the long, slow, march towards death for all people. And eventually we’ll become just like the dead, dusty, stuff we replaced him with.

“OK, let’s start CPR”

Death sucks because in suffocating us of life and breath, it robs us of something that is intrinsic to our humanity and its essence. It consumes the life that was given us in order that the one who gives life might be seen.

Even if we do all in our power to be shaped by other gods, idols that we live for and reflect instead, until breath is taken away, until death happens, we still, in our living, breathing, existence point to the existence of the life-giver. The breath-giver.

The gods of the nations around Israel were represented by dead images, fashioned from dirt. But not the God of the Bible. The living God. The God who could not, and would not, be represented by dead statues. Statues with no breath in them. The living God needed living representatives.

Idols are dead. And dumb. As we follow them, or simply turn away from the life-giving God, that becomes our destiny. Dumb death. This future is all we can inflict on others on our own steam (or breath). This is why CPR is only a temporary fix. We are expirers by our nature, not inspirers.

The living God, on the other hand, speaks and gives life. Rather than death.

Where people make images of dead gods, the living God gives life to living images.

Humans.

That we die is an affront to what we were created for. God is a living, breathing, God — who gives and sustains life through breath, and ends life by taking that breath away (Numbers 16:22, 27:6, Job 12:10, 27:3, 33:4). As long as we live and breathe, by God’s design and as his gift, we still actively bear his image. Whether we like it or not…

If it were his intention
    and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
    and mankind would return to the dust. — Job 34:14-15

God takes life, because God gives life.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

God gives life to all people. In this sense, all living, breathing, speaking people, whether they remain turned away from God and towards things that kill or not, continue to represent something true about God. But temporary life isn’t really a complete testimony to the eternal life of the life giver, given eternal life is. Psalm 104 delights in the idea that the glory of God will endure forever as God rejoices in his works. Adam and his descendants don’t truly carry out the role of image bearer.

Jesus does.

The humanity Jesus reveals in his perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection, is a truer humanity than our natural, death-riddled, humanity. The humanity offered to us in Jesus, the new life, and new birth, offered to those who turn to him and receive God’s Spirit, is a fuller picture of God, and the answer to the crisis of existence that confronts us in the face of death. It solves the shortness of our life, by offering eternal life. A share in the true essence of God’s life. In the Old Testament story, turning away from God and towards idols leaves people metaphorically (or perhaps metaphysically) with stone hearts, and as dry bones. God’s promise to his people is that he will re-enter the scene to renew and recreate life (which echoes the hope of Psalm 104).

“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” — Ezekiel 37:4-6

This is divine CPR. CPR that works because the infinite one, with lungs of infinite capacity, who breaths life, not death, is the one administrating the life-giving intervention.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as God breathes his Spirit back into us we start reconnecting with the divine, inspiring, purpose of human life, powered by God’s breath. We become his workmanship again. Consider Ephesians 2, the whole chapter, or even the whole letter, is gold, of course… but these bits:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. — Ephesians 2: 4-5, 10, 18, 22

We become work that will endure eternally. Inspired, rather than expiring. The effort put into knitting us together in the womb meets its divinely inspired purpose. Breath and life intertwine as we become God’s image bearers again. Presenting a living image, and pattern, we see perfected and demonstrated in Christ (see Colossians 1:15-21). The weird thing about the pattern of Jesus life, the way he demonstrates that he is God’s craftsmanship (and the way I think Paul follows his example, cf 2 Corinthians 3-4), is that it’s caught up in being prepared to stop breathing for the sake of others. It’s about being prepared to lay down life now, confident that the one who gives life will take it up again (John 10:14-18). It’s on the Cross where the pattern for life-giving humanity that reflects the life-giver is laid out for all to see. On the Cross the one who connects us with the life-giving God shows exactly what it looks like to truly trust and obey God. He demonstrates what it looks like to simultaneously and perfectly love God, and love your neighbours, and your enemies. At the Cross Jesus defeats death, and he does that by putting his breath, and life, in its place. In the hands of God. Showing us what it is to trust God in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of a short existence.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

Through Jesus, God’s life giving breath — his Spirit — comes to dwell in us, not us alone, but us his people — giving us life again. God’s life. Eternal life. The promise of the Old Testament prophets and the hope of the Psalms (even the hope of Solomon), meet their fulfilment.

Paul, who wrote that stuff from Ephesians, ties up all this stuff— idols, images, and God’s relationship to life and death, and breath in Jesus — as he speaks to the leading thinkers of Athens, in Acts 17. These thinkers are those who spend their time grasping and grappling with the existential question death presents to us. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Paul turns to the Creator of life to find a way to answer this question without being all-consumed by existential angst.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Breathe. 

Life is found in and through the one who the creator, the living, breathing, God raised from the dead. Jesus.

My prayer for my kids, for Elise, for Xavi, for Soph (and for all those I love), is that they might know that they are fearfully and wonderfully crafted by God, as his workmanship, that they might stay connected to his purpose for them through Jesus, and grow to love God, and live by his breath. Not our on their own steam. Because this is what lasts. And as a dad, it’s the only thing that gives me hope knowing that one day the lives I hold in my hands, and in my heart, will end.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.