Archives For Jesus

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

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.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

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

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“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.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

Here’s a thing I wrote about SportsBet’s inflatable Jesus ad.

I’m no fan of the insidious relationship between betting agencies and sports coverage, and I know this stunt was designed to get people talking about the company, but I think there’s an opportunity here for Christians to take part in a conversation without our feathers getting all puffed up and ruffled. Amongst other things I say:

“If there’s one thing that is beautiful about SportsBet’s campaign – it’s that our confidence in Jesus, our king, is based on his ascension through the clouds. Christians believe Jesus died, that he was raised, and he ascended into heaven as King. And he’s coming back – bringing eternal life to those who keep the faith. That’s why we think he’s worth betting our lives on. Here’s how Luke puts it in Acts 1.

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

There’s been plenty of hot air about this campaign floating around (boom boom tish). Our knee jerk reaction, as Christians, to this sort of insult is often to be defensive or to lash out indignantly as though we’re entitled to some sort of privileged position (or even respect). I think in all our contributions to public discussions (like the #keepthefaith chatter) we should be reflecting on both Jesus’ example – he voluntarily went to the Cross deliberately being insulted and humiliated along the way, and his words, particularly these ones from Luke 6…

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

For another nice non hand-wringing post see CafeDave’s piece.

There’s another Bible conspiracy theory doing the rounds. Each of these is more inane than the last. And each gets media attention from the tabloids. First there was the claim, from a guy named Reza Aslan, that Jesus was a zealot. A political revolutionary. A rebel. Now we have the apparently completely antithetical claim – that Jesus was a pawn of the Roman empire. An invention. Designed to bring the Jews into line and have them adopt pacifism.

Here is this new theory in a nutshell.

‘Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century.

‘When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare.

‘They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

‘That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented.

‘Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to “give onto Caesar” and pay their taxes to Rome.’

Both claims are odd.

Stupid in fact.

Both claims seem to miss some pretty key elements of the very counter-culture, extremely non-populist, basis of the Christian message, while also relying on the New Testament texts as valid historical documents from which to draw evidence to support their crazy hypothese.

Here’s the thing. According to the New Testament – Jesus died. At the hands of both the Roman Empire, and the Jewish establishment.

He can’t be a pawn for the Roman Empire because the movement claimed another king existed – a king who shared all the titles Caesar had bestowed upon himself. A king who called himself the saviour of the world. A king proclaimed through a gospel – a word used to described the announcement of new emperors. What self-seeking Roman emperor would hatch a plan like this? None. It’s stupid. They were about centralising power, as much as possible, in the hands of the Caesar. Having other kings running around wasn’t good for business.

Jesus saying “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” isn’t even pro-imperial. It’s ambivalent to the empire. He’s making a much bigger claim. Coins might have Caesar’s image on them. People are made in God’s image. Jesus is laying claims to something much bigger than one’s money – he wants their fealty. Their loyalty. Their lives.

In some sense Jesus was a revolutionary – he did come to change the social order – but not in the “rebel without a cause” way Reza Aslan suggests he did. He came to change people’s priorities – Away from Self. Away from success. Away from family. Away from empire. Four pillars of Roman society… So in Matthew 10…

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

He equally can’t be a tool to unite the Jews in a pacifistic movement – because his first spokespeople condemned the Jewish establishment for killing him, and Jesus spent significant time attacking the Jewish establishment as an expert in the Old Testament – the chances of Rome having the sort of sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament required to construct a significantly complex Messianic claim are fairly slim. And the prospect of the masters of propaganda – and that’s what Imperial Rome was, and needed to be for this new thesis to survive – failing to put forward a compelling messianic figure, and coming up with a messiah that most Jews rejected – is risible.

It’s stupid.

But the stupidest bit is the idea that one would select a crucified king as remotely compelling – either that a Roman would come up with the idea, or that a Jew would buy it.

“Lets crucify this king. That’ll work”

Martyrdom wasn’t a particularly effective tool in Rome – so, for example, Cicero was martyred for his opposition to the Empire. And the Empire moved on. Unworried. Execution was meant to kill seditious claims. It usually did. The chances of it starting them are incredibly remote.

And there’s textual evidence from the time to support just how dumb this idea is… Cicero himself said, of crucifixion:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul, one of the Christian story’s first storytellers – who’d have to be bought in on the conspiracy (and would have the requisite knowledge of Judaism, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s part of the theory… the old “Paul invented Christianity” trick) – was aware that crucifixion was an impossible sell to a first century audience – Jew or Greek. If you wanted a messiah claim to stick, this isn’t how you do it…

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

The problem with seeing Paul as the source of this myth is that he completely distanced himself from the Jewish establishment, and Judaism. Read Acts. The Jews are consistently trying to kill him – and he runs from them, into the Roman court system. As a prisoner. He is beaten. He suffers. He eventually dies. Like Cicero. Like Jesus. He’d have to have been pretty bought in to this mission to subjugate his own people, and he doesn’t leave his Judaism behind easily. He was on a skyrocketing career trajectory before he joined team Jesus.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

Anyway. A crucified messiah just didn’t wash with the Old Testament expectations. It ran counter to them. To be crucified was to be cursed. Which is part of the whole “Jesus taking our curse upon himself” thing that completely defied messianic categories in the first century. Here’s Deuteronomy 21…

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole,you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

That’s precisely what Paul says in Galatians 3…

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

This wasn’t especially convincing to the Jews of his day. They tried to kill Paul too.

And if Crucifixion was stupid and laughable – the claim of a resurrection after that was even further beyond the pale. And yet that is the central claim of Christianity – taught long before Paul came on the scene – such that he can cite it as a creed when he’s writing one of his earlier letters…

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James,then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

He also seems to keep relying on witnesses. People who aren’t him. If you’re going to use parts of his letters to support your theory, you need to consider the whole. These 500 witnesses who his first readers can speak to – that’s an incredibly large conspiracy theory.

Look. It’s a nice modern sociology theory – because it will sell well. But it doesn’t work in practice. It misses the point of the texts it uses as evidence. It requires on completely deconstructing them – using post-modern literary theory on pre-modern texts. The author was very much alive in these texts – and the idea of writing with a clear communicative purpose was also very much alive.

These claims should be dead. They are woeful scholarship. And covering them with so much attention – even if half the story debunks them – is woeful journalism. This isn’t “objective” reporting of a serious story. This is a stupid story.

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

Continue Reading…

Kevin Rudd’s assault on the New Testament and “biblicism” continues.

“In my response to ahh that fella last night, when people start hurling Biblical quotes at me, I know a bit about my New Testament as well. And as I said last night if you’re going to be serious Biblicist about these questions, we’d still be supporting slavery in the New Testament, and by the way, to all of you who are women, it says in the New Testament, according to St Paul, that wives should be submissive to their husbands, so just bear that in mind because it’s in the Bible. If we in fact, took that seriously, then do you know what? We may as well repeal also the Sex Discrimination act, because that creates a different set of circumstances. Let’s get real about this. The core principles are those I outlined last night, and what happens with any civilised country over time is that they apply those to different sets of circumstances.”

He just doesn’t get it.

We aren’t called to change the Bible to meet our times to love people better. The Bible changes us to meet our times so that we love people better.

He misses the point – the social structures in the Bible aren’t for every person – they are for every person who would follow Jesus in a path of voluntary sacrifice. Those who would follow Jesus and die to self. Those who are serious about taking up their cross.

The Bible calls those who would follow Jesus to submit their sexuality to his Lordship.

The Bible calls those who would follow Jesus to demonstrate submission, as a picture of the incarnation, within their marriages. This isn’t about womens’ rights.

The Bible calls those who were slaves to model the gospel in their situation, again, as a picture of the sacrifice involved in the gospel.

It doesn’t affirm slavery. It doesn’t trump the rights of women. It doesn’t restrict the sexual expression of those outside the church. It holds out an ideal for Christians to adopt.

That’s why the Bible doesn’t work as a legislative text book in Australia. But if Rudd wants to seriously tackle the question of gay marriage as a theologian, his answer is better grounded in providing individual freedoms – especially in the long term for churches – to form their own opinions and act in good conscience on these questions.

His answer is not found in adapting the meaning of the Bible to meet his own political agenda.

In 2006 the shadow minister for Foreign Affairs, who would soon become opposition leader suggested the following relationship between God and politics:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan.”

This was Kevin Rudd. Sadly, his shambolic coercion of the New Testament in the last couple of days is one of the worst examples of co-opting God for an agenda that I think I have seen from an Australian politician in a major party.

Rudd claims to “know his New Testament pretty well”… but he disagrees with the vast majority of church going people in Australia and sits with the liberal interpretive fringes, significantly undermining any divine voice that may be present in the text.

But ultimately it’s not his confusion about the function of the New Testament that bothers me – it’s his vision of what the Bible does for the individual that continues to blow me away. If all the Bible does is liberate us from present oppression – if it does nothing but establish a trajectory from which we tackle the injustice of our time – then where is the cost of the Gospel for those who would take up their cross and follow a crucified king?

Rudd loves Bonhoeffer. Or so he claims. Bonhoeffer was great on political ethics – and through his writing, he still is. But he’s only great on political ethics because he understood the Gospel.

Here’s a quote from The Cost of Discipleship.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

So long as Rudd emphasises abstract love and a trajectory of social change while ignoring the heart of the Gospel, his claims to “know his New Testament” demonstrate a clear lack of understanding of what the New Testament is about.

His approach, through his own interpretive lens, without sensitivity to the meaning or purpose of a text, is essentially the same as the fundamentalists he is shouting down.

Did you catch last night’s Q&A? The Fairfax press is hailing KRudd’s exchange with New Hope Brisbane pastor Matt Prater as the “answer of the century.”

Kevin Rudd has lurched right on Asylum Seekers, and lurched left on marriage, and in the process has alienated those Christians – and I’d put myself in this category – who want to take the words of Jesus seriously when it comes to issues of justice for the oppressed, and the nature of the church/state relationship. Personally, I believe that marriage as God created it, is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, but I don’t believe my views should be enshrined in the legislation of a secular state where all minorities need to be protected and catered for equally.

While this election is something like a battle of the evil of two lessers – Rudd’s constant movements of his moral compass with the political ebb and flow on moral issues has me despairing for the nature of leadership in opinion poll driven politics – and despairing for the impact his soap box theologising has on how people understand what the Bible is about and what Christianity is. This is the big concern for me coming out of last night. Rudd just doesn’t seem to get the gospel.

He tried to explain his asylum seeker backflip in the earlier minutes of Q&A last night – but I missed that. I tuned in about 15 minutes after the show started. But it was when a pastor from Brisbane stood up and asked him a question about his flip-flopping on marriage equality that Rudd problematically made the shift from politician to theologian.

Slamming the pastor in the process.

It’s odd that you can get so much mileage from lambasting a position you held publicly until just three months ago – when KRudd made his move on marriage equality based on his theology (I’d say illegitimately) – rather than his political philosophy (which I’d say would be legitimate).

Here’s the video of the exchange.

Here’s the question Rudd faced. From the Q&A transcript.

“MATT PRATER: Hi, Prime Minister. I’m a pastor of a local church and work for a national Christian radio network. Most of the listeners and callers we have had in our radio station have been saying they won’t be voting for you because they’re disillusioned because you seem to keep chopping and changing your beliefs just to get a popular vote with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?”

I’m sad he didn’t say “like marriage and asylum seekers”… but the question is what it is.

The video makes for awkward viewing – and I’m not particularly interested in the marriage debate. As outlined above. So lets focus on the claims Rudd makes about the Bible. Because that, ultimately, is where he’s winning praise outside of the church.

The ‘abnormality’ of homosexuality

“Number one, I do not believe people, when they are born, choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other. It is – it is how people are built and, therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is just wrong. I don’t get that. I think that is just a completely ill-founded view. Secondly, if you accept that it is natural and normal for someone to be gay because that’s the way they are, then it follows from that that I don’t think it is right to say that if these two folk here, who are in love with each other and are of the same gender, should be denied the opportunity for legal recognition of the duration of their relationship by having marriage equality. If you accept that – if your starting point is that homosexuality is abnormal – I don’t know if that’s your view.”

Choosing the terminology one employs in a debate and forcing the person you’re talking to to adopt that terminology and all its baggage is a really horrible way to conduct a civil conversation. By framing the question the way he did, Kevin Rudd skewed the theological playing field. The normality or otherwise of a sexual orientation is irrelevant. We are all sexually broken because our sinful natures – which mean we sin naturally – taint every aspect of our being. That’s a pretty foundational tenant of the Protestant stream of Christianity. The relationship between being made in God’s image and being sinful is something Paul grapples with in Romans. It’s properly basic Christianity.

Here’s what Paul says in Romans 7, from verse 18.

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

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 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. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is the first point at which KRudd’s position poses a significant threat to the Gospel. If there is no dilemma – if what is natural is good, if what is natural is created and “what ought to be” – then there is no human dilemma. If sin is not natural then there is no need for humans to be rescued by God. There is no need for God to send Jesus into the world. There is no need for Jesus to go to the cross to deliver us and to redeem our nature. There is no need for the Holy Spirit to work in us, as Paul says it does in Romans 8:29, to conform us into the image of God’s son. Which leads neatly into the next problem with KRudd’s understanding of the Gospel.

Slavery, Born this way, and transformation

Here’s the follow up from Matt Prater.

“Jesus said a man shall leave his father and mother and be married and that’s the Biblical definition. I just believe in what the Bible says and I’m just curious for you, Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?”

Here’s the next significant issue from Rudd’s answer.

“Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”

Ignoring the false link Rudd then draws with Slavery in America – let’s have a look at what else St Paul actually says about slavery. In 1 Corinthians 7. From verse 21

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.”

Rudd doesn’t seem to grasp his hero Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christian life…

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

If slavery is a “natural condition” as Rudd says the Bible says it is – then there should be no escape. And yet, here Paul calls those who are slaves to take their freedom if available.

The ability to change your state from bondage – your natural state or in this case literally being a slave – is a huge part of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel. Why should our sexuality be removed from this equation?

Here’s what Paul says about the outworking of our broken nature and the pursuit of freedom just a little bit earlier in that same letter to the Corinthians.

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.

This seems, from Paul’s logic earlier in Corinthians, and elsewhere (like in Romans), to involve a natural state – especially because of how he describes the transformation happening…

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

This is the problem with the born this way argument. It makes people slaves to their nature – unable to exercise freedom to self-determine one’s identity – sexual or otherwise. It’s a horrible position to take. It pigeon holes people based on factors they can’t choose. The question often asked here is “what sort of God would create people who do the wrong thing by nature?” – but a question on the flip side that is rarely asked is “What sort of God would make people a slave to their biology or environment with no potential for growth or transformation?”

The answer, from Paul, is that the sort of God who does exist is a God who not only makes transformation possible – he equips broken people with the capacity to be transformed through his intervention in the world in the person of Jesus. Who offers transformation. That’s a pretty key idea in the New Testament – in fact I would say it is the BIG IDEA of the New Testament (and the whole Bible). This is the third problem with Rudd’s answer last night. The biggest problem.

The big idea of the New Testament is not about our love for others, it is about God’s love for us in Jesus.

“What is the fundamental principle of the New Testament? It is one of universal love. Loving your fellow man. And if we get obsessed with a particular definition of that through a form of sexuality, then I think we are missing the centrality of what the gospel, whether you call it a social gospel, a personal gospel or a spiritual gospel, is all about.”

The centrality of the Gospel – the word means “good news” and in the Graeco-Roman setting meant the good news about the arrival of a king – is the arrival of God’s promised king. Jesus. Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel – not “universal love” or “loving your fellow man” – these are outworkings of the character of God who reveals himself in Christ. These are the way we respond to being loved by God so much that he became human and died our death to offer us new life. This is how we respond once our nature is transformed. It is not something we are naturally capable of. It is not something that makes people “Christian.” It is not the Gospel. There is no social Gospel without the person of Jesus. There is no personal Gospel without the person of Jesus. There is no Spiritual Gospel without the person of Jesus.

The gospel is about Jesus.

It is clear Rudd doesn’t get this.

He should stop talking as a theologian and work at speaking as a politician.

I’ve been trying not to go nuts posting stuff from my project. But here’s a cool contrast between Paul and Cicero that I think explains their differences when it comes to oratory.

Cicero on execution using a cross, Pro C. Rabirio Perduellionis Reo:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul on the message of the cross, First Letter to the Corinthians:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

One of Cicero’s modern biographers, James May, said Cicero – who was martyred for his love for Republican, rather than Imperial, Rome – presented himself as.

“the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic.”

Here’s an example from on of his famous final speeches, the Orationes Philippicae:

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce. For if twenty years ago in this very temple I said that death could not be too early for a consular, how much more truly will I now say, for an old man!”

I reckon 2 Corinthians 4 is Paul’s handbook to Christian persuasion…

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sakeFor God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from Godand not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

 

Bono on Jesus

Somewhere in my archives you’ll find my (negative) opinion on any music U2 has released in the last, say, 20 years. But while there is some theological nitpicking I might do when it comes to this interview in this new biography as conversation of the U2 frontman, Bono, there’s a lot to love about his understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith. So kudos to him.

Michka: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Michka: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Michka: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff.

Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Michka: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Michka: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you?

There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.

That’s the point. It should keep us humbled . It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Michka: That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?

Bono: No, it’s not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.”

And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You’re a bit eccentric. We’ve had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don’t mention the “M” word! Because, you know, we’re gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah.

At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson.

This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched…

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.

Jesus.

Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.

Regards,

Nathan

It feels like a long time since I’ve written about gay marriage. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about Kevin Rudd. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about the ACL. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about anything much. But here goes…

The “Current” Background

The gay marriage debate is firing up again because the Australian Greens are going to introduce a bill to parliament. The bill is, at this point, destined to fail, because while the Labor party has given its members a conscience vote, the opposition is keeping their members in lock-step with their pre-election commitments on marriage. Kevin Rudd, a Christian politician, has decided to vote in favour of an amendment to the marriage act. The Australian Christian Lobby has said something dumb and inflammatory in response.

The Background on K-Rudd

Kevin Rudd is Australia’s former Prime Minister. He was knifed and unceremoniously dumped from the job by his deputy and a bunch of “faceless men”… Though he sits on the political left he’s been something of a darling to the Christian Right, because he is a politician who takes his faith seriously. Read his Bonhoeffer Essay published in Australia’s high brow “intellectual” mag, The Monthly in October 2006. Before he was Prime Minister.

I’m not a huge fan of Rudd’s. He often seems robotic and calculated. But I respect him – his approach to political campaigning was positive and refreshing, and he is a man of principle – sticking to his word in a recent leadership coup even though it cost him hugely. But I do like the thoughtfulness he applies to the question of the relationship between church and state. This is from the Bonhoeffer essay linked above:

“For its first three centuries, Christianity had represented an active counterculture, but what was to be Christianity’s message in a new age in which the church had become culturally dominant? This became the continuing challenge of Christianity in the Christian West for the subsequent 1500 years.

Over the last 200 years, however, we have seen an entirely different debate arise, as Christianity has sought to come to terms with a rising and increasingly rampant secularism. The impact of independent scientific enquiry, the increasing impact of secular humanism itself, combined with the pervasive influence of modernism and postmodernism, have had the cumulative effect of undermining the influence of the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches across the West.

Where this will lead, as Christianity enters its third millennium, remains to be seen. But there are signs of Christianity seeing itself, and being seen by others, as a counterculture operating within what some have called a post-Christian world. In some respects, therefore, Christianity, at least within the West, may be returning to the minority position it occupied in the earliest centuries of its existence. But whether or not we conclude that Christianity holds a minority or a majority position within Western societies, that still leaves unanswered the question of how any informed individual Christian (or Christians combined in the form of an organised church) should relate to the state.”

Here’s Rudd’s conclusion for how Christians should engage in the political process:

“I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the ’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.”

He says, a bit later:

“The function of the church in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates.”

He identifies five approaches that Christians take to politics.

1. Vote for me because I’m a Christian.

“This is the model that is most repugnant. It is the model which says that, simply on the basis of my external profession of the Christian faith, those of similar persuasion should vote for me.”

2. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and tick the right boxes on your sexual morality tests.

These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.

3. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and I’m into family values.

4. Combine all of these, but then respond negatively when someone suggests there might be a political position to be taken on economic policy, not just moral policy.

5. Believe the gospel is both a political and social gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state’s power. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells humankind that they must be born again is the same Gospel which says that at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation to social action. Does this mean that the fundamental ethical principles provide us with an automatic mathematical formula for determining every item of social, economic, environmental, national-security and international-relations policy before government? Of course not. What it means is that these matters should be debated by Christians within an informed Christian ethical framework.

K-Rudd and I share a vehement rejection of approaches 1-4. We both think there’s a roll for Christians to play in advocating for the voiceless, not lobbying for our own special interests. There’s a pretty obvious dig at the approach the Australian Christian Lobby (not to be confused with the Australian Cat Ladies) takes to politics in this article.

But fundamentally, though I will agree with our former Prime Minister on the wide ranging implications for the gospel on how we conceive of politics, ethics, and society, I don’t think he’s really grasped the magnitude of how the Gospel’s content –  the crucified Lord who calls us to take up our cross, follow him, and die to self – the qualities he so admires in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the gospel at a social and political level – applies to the moral and sexual sphere of the Christian life. Jesus is Lord over sexual morality, just as he is Lord over workplace relations policy.

Which leads me to the current situation…

Kevin Rudd’s changing opinion on Gay Marriage

Kevin Rudd has applied this rubric for the relationship between church and state to the question of gay marriage, and arrived at this conclusion (posted on his blog overnight):

I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage. I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage. I also believe that this change should legally exempt religious institutions from any requirement to change their historic position and practice that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. For me, this change in position has come about as a result of a lot of reflection, over a long period of time, including conversations with good people grappling with deep questions of life, sexuality and faith.

I’ve suggested in the past that this is, I think, the way forward in a secular democracy (short of the government simply legislating civil unions for everybody). I’m sure there are good natural arguments (ie non-Christian arguments) against gay marriage. I’m not sure those arguments are “marriage is for making children”… That would seem to rule out a greater purpose for marriage for people who know they are infertile, or people who are elderly. Which will, no doubt, bring me to the ACL. Shortly.

Lets parse the problems with Rudd’s statement from the Christian side of the ledger – rather than the political side. He’s making a potentially correct political decision, given the system he operates in, from incorrect theology. Incorrect theology that is there in the Bonhoeffer thing. If Jesus can’t make claims over our sexuality – our “natural” state – then he’s no Lord at all. He calls us to come and die in every area of our life. Including our natural, hard-wired, sexual urges.

Here’s Rudd’s narrative.

“One Saturday morning in Canberra, some weeks ago, a former political staffer asked to have a coffee. This bloke, who shall remain nameless, is one of those rare finds among political staffers who combines intelligence, integrity, a prodigious work ethic, and, importantly, an unfailing sense of humour in the various positions he has worked in around Parliament House. Necessary in contemporary politics, otherwise you simply go stark raving mad.

And like myself, this bloke is a bit of a god-botherer (aka Christian). Although a little unlike myself, he is more of a capital G God-Botherer. In fact, he’s long been active in his local Pentecostal Church.

Over coffee, and after the mandatory depressing discussion about the state of politics, he tells me that he’s gay, he’s told his pastor (who he says is pretty cool with it all, although the same cannot be said of the rest of the church leadership team) and he then tells me that one day he’d like to get married to another bloke. And by the way, “had my views on same sex marriage changed?”.”

So, to recap, for those who skip over quotes, a staffer Rudd respects, a Christian, is gay and wants to marry a man. So Rudd has had a rethink on his opposition to gay marriage.

Very few things surprise me in life and politics anymore. But I must confess the Pentecostal staffer guy threw me a bit. And so the re-think began, once again taking me back to first principles. First, given that I profess to be a Christian (albeit not a particularly virtuous one) and given that this belief informs a number of my basic views; and given that I am given a conscience vote on these issues; then what constitutes for me a credible Christian view of same sex marriage, and is such a view amenable to change? Second, irrespective of what that view might be, do such views have a proper place in a secular state, in a secular definition of marriage, or in a country where the census tells us that while 70% of the population profess a religious belief, some 70% of marriages no longer occur in religious institutions, Christian or otherwise.

These are the two questions.

He starts to move the goalposts a little on the “Christian view” thing by playing the “literalist” card. Now. I’m a Biblical Literalist. I do not think it means what Rudd think it means, or what many extreme Biblical Literalists think it means. I think Biblical literalism means reading a text in its context, trying to understand what the author literally meant, and in part that comes from understanding what the original audience would understand something to literally mean.

“In fact if we were today to adhere to a literalist rendition of the Christian scriptures, the 21st century would be a deeply troubling place, and the list of legitimized social oppressions would be disturbingly long.”

This is a purely speculative begged question – and it ignores the contribution to the 21st century made by Bonhoeffer’s contribution to the 20th century. He also throws Wilberforce under a bus. It’ll surprise Wilberforce to one day learn that people considered he was ignoring the plain meaning of the Bible when he opposed slavery.

Here’s Rudd’s guide to reading the Bible.

The Bible also teaches us that people should be stoned to death for adultery (which would lead to a veritable boom in the quarrying industry were that still the practice today). The same for homosexuals. And the biblical conditions for divorce are so strict that a woman could be beaten within an inch of her life and still not be allowed to legally separate.

The point is that nobody in the mainstream Christian Church today would argue any of these propositions. A hundred years ago, that was not necessarily the case. In other words, the definition of Christian ethics is subject to change, based on analysis of the historical context into which the biblical writers were speaking at the time, and separating historical context from timeless moral principles, such as the injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Nobody in the mainstream church has argued for stoning adulterers, with any credibility, since Jesus stopped the angry mob stoning an adulteress, or since Jesus met a divorced, adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well. The very model of the oppressed whom Bonhoeffer says we should be looking out for – and Jesus claims to be the promised king of the Old Testament and doesn’t stone her. Clearly the plain reading of the Old Testament, so far as Jesus was concerned – and he’s better positioned to read it than we are, as a Jew, and as God.

Christian ethics aren’t subject to change. Christian ethics are the ethics of the cross. It’s not just “love your neighbour” – Christian ethics are a call to deny yourself and to love your enemy.

Rudd presents such an anaemic view of Christian ethics here that it’s not surprising his conclusion is theologically incoherent.

The call for all people who follow Jesus is that we die to self, die to our desire to base our identity on our sexual orientation – gay, straight, bi, or otherwise – there is no unbroken sexual orientation – and if we do want to pursue sexual intimacy, regardless of orientation, Jesus affirms the traditional view of marriage.

Here’s a thing Jesus says when he also shows that K-Rudd is wrong about divorce.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Some people won’t have sex because being part of the Kingdom of God calls them to that. We’re really bad at acknowledging that category, culturally, and in our church.  I suspect singleness would be much easier if we were better at looking out for those who are single. So that it’s not a cross they bear alone.

Anyway.

It’s hard not to read this following bit in the light of his conversation with his friend – and suspect that it underpins his theological move.

“Which brings us back to same sex marriage. I for one have never accepted the argument from some Christians that homosexuality is an abnormality. People do not choose to be gay. The near universal findings of biological and psychological research for most of the post war period is that irrespective of race, religion or culture, a certain proportion of the community is born gay, whether they like it or not. Given this relatively uncontested scientific fact, then the following question that arises is should our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay be fully embraced as full members of our wider society? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, given that the suppression of a person’s sexuality inevitably creates far greater social and behavioural abnormalities, as opposed to its free and lawful expression. “

Rudd’s statement would be heaps better if he just said: “We are a secular democracy, and people in our secular democracy desire something, and the only good reason not to appears to come from a religious understanding of the thing.” By trying to play theologian he has left himself a little open to criticism.

The Bible says that humanity is born sinful. That we’re born with a natural propensity to sin. It shouldn’t be a huge jump for Christian theology to acknowledge that homosexuality is natural – it’s only a problem if we think our nature is a pristine, untainted, God honouring canvas. The image we bear of God in Genesis 1 is broken in Genesis 3.

Jesus is the image of God (Colossians 1:15), and calls people to come and die. Like he did. But if you’re not coming and dying then I am not so sure you can be called not to base your identity on anything you want – including your sexuality. Including defining your relationships using the word “marriage.” That’s why Rudd should have left the theology alone and just gone with the politics. He’s better at that.

Rudd moves from the theological point to the argument from nature about children needing a mother and father. I believe that in the ideal circumstances this is true (though I’m sympathetic to the idea that an emotionally healthy child needs much more than just a mother and a father – who love them sacrificially, they need a “village”). But I also, like Rudd, believe that we’re a long way from the ideal.

“Which brings us to what for some time has been the sole remaining obstacle in my mind on same sex marriage – namely any unforeseen consequences for children who would be brought up by parents in a same sex married relationship, as against those brought up by parents in married or de-facto heterosexual relationships, by single parents, or by adoptive or foster parents, or other legally recognised parent or guardian relationships. The care, nurture and protection of children in loving relationships must be our fundamental concern. And this question cannot be clinically detached from questions of marriage – same sex or opposite sex. The truth is that in modern Australia approximately 43 per cent of marriages end in divorce, 27 per cent of Australian children are raised in one parent, blended or step-family situations, and in 2011-12 nearly 50,000 cases of child abuse were substantiated by the authorities of more than 250,000 notifications registered. In other words, we have a few problems out there.

That does not mean, by some automatic corollary, that children raised in same sex relationships are destined to experience some sort of nirvana by comparison. But scientific surveys offer important indications. One of the most comprehensive surveys of children raised in same sex relationships is the US National Longitudinal Survey conducted since 1986 – 1992 (and still ongoing) on adolescents raised by same sex partners. This survey, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics in 2010, concluded that there were no Child Behaviour Checklist differences for these kids as against the rest of the country”

These longitudinal studies are interesting. I do wonder what the results would look like if you reverse engineered the ideal parenting situation from the outcome of parenting. If you asked a bunch of successful and emotionally healthy adults about their background – if you didn’t take a broad cross section to measure against the average, but selected some sort of high achievement criterion. Maybe that study is out there somewhere. But anyway, Rudd makes the point that the horse has already bolted on this front…

“Either as a result of previous opposite-sex relationships, or through existing state and territory laws making assisted reproduction, surrogacy, adoption and fostering legally possible for same sex couples or individuals in the majority of Australian states and territories. Furthermore, Commonwealth legislation has already recognised the legal rights of children being brought up in such relationships under the terms of Australian family law.”

One thing I do appreciate is the tone Rudd has brought to the debate – he acknowledges that this is his opinion, and that people, like Julia Gillard, will use their own consciences and reasons to develop their own convictions. This is what life in a democracy is about.

So good on him for that.

Which brings me to the ACL.

The ACL is apparently indignant that a back bench MP would dare exercise his right to conscience. They’ve taken a leaf from the Greens, their political nemesis, in comparing this policy decision to the stolen generation.

Here’s Christine Milne’s impassioned statement about a recent asylum seeker decision.

“In 10, 15, 20 years when there is a national apology to the children detained indefinitely in detention for the sole, supposed crime of seeking a better life in our country because they are running away for persecution with their families, not one of you will be able to stand up and say “Oh we didn’t, oh, it was the culture of the period.”

That’s a nice piece of rhetoric – but it’ll only take so long before this becomes the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s Law. The ACL is working on it…

Here’s the title of their Media Release.

Rudd’s change on marriage sets up a new stolen generation

Really?

Do go on.

The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another.

Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.

“What Kevin Rudd has failed to consider is that marriage is a compound right to form a family. Marriage is not just an affectionate relationship between two people regardless of gender.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. I’m just not sure it’s a particularly Christian argument. It’s a politically conservative argument based on concepts of personhood that admittedly come from the Christian tradition. But it doesn’t seem particularly informed by the person of Jesus. The Jews could own this position.

This is a nice call to take the question of the raising of children away from selfishness:

“What Mr Rudd has not considered is whether or not it is right for children to be taken through technology from their biological parent so that ‘married’ same-sex couples can fulfil their desires.”

This objection is just weird. I would hope that given the sexual health issues in the homosexual community we would want some sort of education to happen to prevent these issues (oh wait, the ACL has form in this area on sexual health billboards, and with those smoking claims).

Mr Shelton said Mr Rudd had also ignored the fact that this inevitably means parents will have their children taught the mechanics of homosexual sex in school sex education classes, something that would surely follow the redefinition of marriage.

Here’s a little case of adopting the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mantra while trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Read the heading of this media release again, and then read this rebuke…

“The so-called ‘marriage equality’ debate has been conducted by slogans without proper consideration of the consequences. Kevin Rudd is the latest to fall victim to shallow thinking on this issue,” Mr Shelton said.

The ACL is disappointed in Rudd – not primarily because his theological account of sexuality misrepresents the Gospel. But because. Umm. Marriage.

“Mr Rudd’s announcement that he supports same sex marriage will be a huge disappointment for Christians and leaves their hopes for the preservation of marriage clearly with the Coalition and Christian-based minor parties.

Oh. And because it’s bad politics because it doesn’t protect the bigger minority from the smaller…

“No government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going twenty per cent of the population in order to allow the point two per cent who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage,” he said.

And now Christians won’t vote for him. Because the ACL speaks for Christians.

“Mr Rudd seems intent on burning bridges not only with colleagues, but with a constituency which had long given him the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Shelton said.

Something is either true and demands our support, or not. The truth doesn’t change with popular opinion, to which he is now saying he seems to be responding.”

“If this is an attempt to wedge Julia Gillard, it will cost Mr Rudd the last of his following in the Christian Constituency,” Mr Shelton said.

And finally. When it comes to the question of the theological stuff, where you might expect something related to the gospel, we get another statement that the Australian Sharia Law Lobby would be happy to sign up to if we changed “Christian teaching” to “God’s Law”.

His views on homosexuality and changing the definition of marriage are not in line with orthodox Christian teaching.

“All major Australian church denominations officially oppose same sex marriage and over 50 of Australia’s most prominent church and denominational leaders signed a statement against it in August 2011.”

The ACL is playing the game that K-Rudd pointed out is a problematic game for Christians in his Monthly article. Jesus calls us to come and die. He calls us to die to our sexual desires in order to submit to his Lordship. That’s where Kevin goes wrong. The ACL goes wrong not because they think Jesus is only interested in our sexuality – they’re trying to speak out for children too. Clearly. Or they wouldn’t use such dumb headings. They go wrong when they try to make Jesus the Lord of petty politics. On the one hand the ACL’s Lyle Shelton says “things are either true or they aren’t” and on the other he argues against certain courses of action because the political numbers are bad. Their whole model is broken.

Christians don’t take up our cross by railing against the political empire from a position of power – for starters, the political empire put Jesus to death. Or by playing the political game as though might makes right. There’s not much of a theology of the cross being displayed in the ACL’s statement.

K-Rudd should have left the theology and focused on the politics. The ACL should have left out the politics and focused on the theology (Jesus). Church and state should listen to each other. Especially when everyone is claiming they’re trying to follow Jesus. If you want to do politics like Jesus you’ve got to do politics shaped by the cross. If you want to speak theology about politics you’ve got to show how your theology relates to the cross. If you want to speak as Christians about politics why would you not speak of politics in the light of the cross?

Jesus’ pitch is the same for everybody. It’s not just about the poor, or about social justice – we’re all oppressed. We’re all broken. We all need intervention.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matt 16).

Here’s a paragraph from a book I’m reading about the power of images in the Roman empire. People were pretty much using images of themselves doing cool stuff (cooler than their neighbours) to establish their own brand. Their own significance. Their own place in the great pecking order of life.

The disintegration of Roman society created individual rivalries and insecurity that led to exaggerated forms of self-promotion even among people who had nothing to gain by it. What began as a traditional agonistic spirit among the aristocracy denigrated into frantic displays of wealth and success. But the scope of opportunity for such display was often still rather limited. P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 15

Sounds a lot like now. Except we have Facebook.

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 4.04.16 PM
Image: A screenshot from Facebook’s “Timeline” page

Using Facebook to glorify something other than yourself and your curated life is pretty hard. Even the links we share about stuff that we’re passionate about tends to be stuff that tries to make us look good. Check out this TechCrunch article that may as well be titled the hypocrisy of our use of the Internet, but is actually titled “Sex is more popular than Jesus on Google” (for some depressing confirmation – try going to google and watching the autocomplete results for “I’m 10 and” and then adding a number until you get to your 50s, 60s, or 70s…).

The TechCrunch article features this series of snippets from a presentation the guy who made buzzfeed (Jonah Peretti) gave at a conference today.

When you look at google searches, he says perhaps unsurprisingly, “sex is more popular than Jesus on google.” Compare the search terms “diet pills” and “Arab spring,” diet pills win. Obviously, this isn’t what Larry and Sergey had in mind when they started Google.

We use Google to search for secret things, to investigate what other people are saying about our deepest darkest secrets, interests and curiosities. Google Image search is filled with pictures of pets doing hilarious things, while Google search serves up results on the great ocean of porn out there on the Web.

Facebook, on the other hand, is a projection of our social relationships and behavior. Together, they generally represent and are a metaphor for the two ways we use the Internet. On Facebook, the same person who is looking at stories involving nude pics, is also looking at and sharing inspiring stories about victims overcoming disabilities and so on, along with politically-motivated stories.

My goal for the next little while is to practice something like the 80/20 rule – where 80 percent of the stuff I post isn’t about me and how great my coffee life is – but about how thankful I am for Jesus, and how thankful I am for other people. And the other 20 percent of stuff is authentically me – not the curated me. I’ll try to be interesting, and not just reflect on my toast (unless it’s a really cool instagram shot of my toast. No wait. That’s doing it again).

It’s looking increasingly likely that our family will experience a brief period of homelessness after this Sunday. We’ve known about our impending exit from our current address for a couple of frustrating months, and a couple of housing options for us have either fallen over at the last hurdle, or been rabbit holes of non-feasibility. So we’ve spent the last two weeks frantically searching for rentals that are suitable for our soon to be numerically growing family.

Here are ten things this experience has taught me. So far.

1. We have too much stuff. I have no idea how we accumulated so much gear, but trying to pack it all up is driving me nuts. Why do we have so many unused platters that we were given as wedding presents, and two sets of cutlery still boxed? There’s not even any sentimentality attached to this stuff. It just is. It exists. It occupies space. It is a non-liquid asset that is almost impossible to turn into something that looks like its value.

2. Getting rid of stuff is only slightly easier than moving it. The garage sale fiasco taught me this, and again, the sort of return on investment you get for selling stuff second hand makes it hard to justify parting with anything that has even a modicum of utility.

3. Real Estate Agents are not really interested in the renter. We’re at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to their customer base (sellers, buyers, owners, renters).

4. Renting sucks. $400+ a week to rent a house that essentially has no kitchen is ridiculous. The uncertainty of life in a place that isn’t your own is starting to drive me nuts. We were verbally offered a year extension on this place with no rent increase, then a offered a modified (written) year with a $15/week increase, then a six month increase – before we managed to get our paperwork in. It’d be nice not to have to worry about other people’s whims.

5. Moving sucks. We don’t even particularly like this house – we love our neighbours. But the time sink involved in searching for a house, inspecting houses, applying for houses, organising to move your stuff, packing, and unpacking, is an awful experience with no real redeeming features.

6. It’s not really possible to do anything else well during the “moving” period. I’m meant to be preaching the next two Sundays. I’m not in the headspace to produce anything beyond the obvious.

7. Uncertainty is awful. We’ve spent the last five days (including the long weekend – so I don’t blame them) waiting for real estate agents to call us back on a couple of applications. It’d be easier knowing for sure that we don’t have a house after Sunday. The anxiety of phone calls (or emails) not coming is worse than having a clear problem that needs solving.

8. Good friends and family are a blessing. While this week is rapidly driving us insane, it’d be much worse without the help of friends and family who have come round to help us pack, move furniture, or just to hang out at our garage sale. I don’t know how people live without the sort of community being united in Jesus provides.

9. Tough and stressful stuff gets in the way of the big picture. It’s easy to get so down about this (hopefully) temporary hiccup in the life of our family that we forget to be thankful for what we’ve got – a marriage based on love and promises made to stick through this sort of misadventure, a wonderful daughter who brings us joy even as we clean, a church family who offer tangible and intangible support, and friends to temporarily live with if all else fails.

10. There’s no place like home. For those of us who trust Jesus, the comfort and security of the houses we turn into homes is a taste of what’s to come. Eternal security in the house Jesus is preparing for us. Security and comfort now is shadow of a future reality. I wish I could keep this in perspective.

Here’s what Jesus says in John 14… It’s good advice for the present, and for keeping focused on what’s important.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come backand take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

I love Rugby League. I love the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles. Say what you will – but League is faster, more exhilarating, and more straightforward than the boot-strapped game of chess and stoppages that is Rugby Union.

I love league. I hate the gambling industry. It’s an awful, poisonous industry that wrecks lives – financially and spiritually. I want to make a distinction here between small stakes poker, a casual bet on the outcome of a grudge match between two friends, raffles, Melbourne Cup sweeps at lunch, and perhaps even gambling as a form of entertainment, free of greed (if that’s possible), and the industry that has set itself up on the back of our love for a punt that makes huge profits by destroying lives. I do some of those things from time to time, but mostly avoid them as a wisdom issue, rather than a moral issue. But the gambling industry thrives on creating addicts and sustaining their addictions. It takes money from people and offers nothing tangible in return. It’s a parasite.

I’m not suggesting the individuals who get lured in and caught up in the web of the gambling industry are devoid of responsibility in their decision to gamble – but if gambling stops them meeting their other responsibilities – like feeding their families, then the gambling industry, the sporting industry, and the viewing audience, have the responsibility to stop enabling that sort of destruction. Responsible gambling is an oxymoron. The nature of a gamble is that it involves risk. The nature of an industry that generates that sort of profits by taking other people’s money, and giving them nothing in return (except a cheap, momentary, thrill) is “irresponsible,” not “responsible.

What makes me saddest is that the gambling industry is all about greed – and greed is an example of the rejection of God that the Bible calls idolatry.

So now I have a dilemma. Because the game I love is in bed with this industry that I hate.

Tom Waterhouse is a bookmaker who has signed a multi-million dollar deal with the NRL and Channel 9 to be a broadcast partner of the National Rugby League. That’s $50 million, and $15 million, that Waterhouse’s company has ripped out of the pockets of Australians – a fraction of their profits, and presumably a fraction of the money they stand to make from the arrangement.

Somehow this deal earned him a seat at the table when it came to 9’s coverage – he became a commentator, and his contribution was helping gamblers understand the various implications of Friday night’s game between the Brisbane Broncos and the mighty Sea Eagles (who won, in a thrilling second half comeback).

I didn’t catch the Tom Waterhouse Show on Friday night because I was at the game. Live. With my daughter.

It was her first game of football – and I’m very much looking forward to indoctrinating teaching her about the game, and how to appreciate it (even if Robyn wants her to love that other code).

Sadly, I won’t be able to do that using Channel 9’s coverage. There’s a bigger question about whether or not I’ll be able to teach her about any professional sport if the continued enmeshment of sport and gambling goes unchecked, that’s a deeper issue that needs a resolution, but the “in your face” nature of the coverage is an immediate concern.

The gambling industry preys on broken people and guarantees ongoing failure. Jesus offers restoration to broken people and a secure future.

I’m not into censoring too much when it comes to parenting – I’m happy to sit down with my daughter – and her yet to be born sibling(s) – and talk about what we watch together. I’ll do that with all sorts of cultural texts, because I want my kids to learn about the world we live in, and to be able to critically engage with the arts.

That’s something I’m really looking forward to – I want my kids to be able to parse cultural texts for meaning, and I want them to be able to use culture to reach people with the gospel.

Sadly, thanks to Channel 9’s decision to get in bed with an industry that destroys lives without remorse, their coverage of the Rugby League will now be one of those things I keep away from my kids until they’re in their teens. And by then it might be too late. By then they’ll probably love Rugby Union or some other inferior product.

I can appreciate that some parents prefer to keep harmful ideas away from their children. But that’s not my style. Obviously there are certain things that I want to introduce them to at certain points of maturity – and I think the secular classification board does a pretty good job at picking what is appropriate for different ages, and we’ll probably err on the side of caution.

But that’s not really what’s behind my thinking.

I’m not shielding my kids from gambling – I hope they’ll be sensible enough to understand how to approach concepts like “responsibility” and “greed”… But I don’t think I can be a responsible participant in society if I teach my kids that it’s ok to benefit from exploiting others.

I don’t mind talking to my kids about gambling, money and greed from the moment they’re born – I don’t even mind the casual bet with a couple of mates about the outcome of football games – but I refuse to take part, as a viewer, in enabling the destruction of lives. And I don’t want to model any sort of support for this selling out of others for my own entertainment or financial gain to my kids. Turning 9’s coverage off is one of the ways I’m going to make a stand.

Gambling is poisonous. It trashes lives. It tears families apart. Plenty of people have pointed out that the head of 9’s commentary team is a recovering gambling addict, and the face of the NRL – one of the game’s most scintillating players, has just checked in to a facility to deal with his gambling addiction which has left his life, and his family’s life, in tatters.

This decision by Channel 9 to throw people under the bus for the sake of their crumbling bottom line is a horribly tangible example of how broken our world is. They’ve taken a great thing – sport – a gift from God. And trashed it. And used it to trash lives. For their own gain.

I love sport because it teaches us good things about life. Individual sport teaches us about pursuing goals, working hard, and the value of discipline. Team sport teaches us about teamwork, selflessness, the value of a common cause, and camaraderie.

There’s a reason Paul uses sporting language to describe life following Jesus.

Here’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 9…

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Sport is good – Paul says physical exercise is of some value – but what really counts in life is your spiritual health (1 Timothy 4:8). The real tragedy of Channel 9’s awful decision to enable problem gambling is that they’re taking something good, and not only not keeping it in perspective with eternal, spiritual matters – but they’re using it to destroy lives both physically (as families fall into poverty) and spiritually, as people get trapped in a cycle of greed that leaves them rejecting the God who made us, and sport – to serve the pursuit of money through a system that is rigged against them, and only works if people lose more than they win.

Greed is a horrible thing – not just because it involves trashing other people for your own gain, and ultimately trashing yourself in the relentless pursuit of more, but because it involves putting the pursuit of wealth in the place God should occupy. Paul calls this idolatry (in Ephesians 5:5).

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Jesus puts it a little more clearly – using slightly less theologically loaded language in Matthew chapter 6.

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

He says this off the back of saying that storing up wealth now – pursuing wealth – is stupid because it’s not going to last. And that’s the real stupidity at the heart of gambling – it’s about taking huge risks for long odds on short term rewards. Even if you win now – the one certainty is that when you die, your winnings aren’t going with you.

Gambling is hopeless. It comes out of brokenness and leads to more brokenness.

Without Jesus, not gambling is a good idea for your personal finances – but it ultimately leaves us less poor,  still broken, and still losing at the end, when we die.

Jesus gives hope. And his life offers a real solution to brokenness. And a safe investment.

From Matthew 6 again…

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I love this Colin Buchanan song about the real hope Jesus offers (on Spotify) (or YouTube).

“I bet all I have on Jesus
I will throw myself on him
The one who died a real death for real sin
I bet all I have on Jesus
Throughout eternity
I will marvel at the real hope my Saviour won for me”

I hate the gambling industry. I hate that it preys on the weak and vulnerable with almost Darwinian antipathy leaving the weak weaker, and the poor poorer, and I hate that its insidious poison can turn functional and successful people into train wrecks who wreak havoc on the lives of those who love them. So there’s no way I’ll be able to watch Channel 9 destroy lives each week.

Here’s an ad from GetUp exposing some of the rhetoric the pro-gambling types use to justify the destruction of lives for financial gain after the NRL sided with the pokie industry when the Australian Government wanted to do something to make gambling more difficult.

Until Channel 9 extracts itself from this situation where its participating in the destruction of Australian families, undermining everything that’s great about sport, I’ll be listening on the radio or signing up for Foxtel. It’d be nice if the NRL stood up too and separated itself from the poison that threatens so many of those involved in the game – and the people who watch it and look up to its stars – rather than buying into the same greed that fuels that brokenness and perpetuating the problem.

I feel dumber for writing anything about this 15 minute journalistic monstrosity from A Current Affair last night. But on the same night John Dickson was presenting Christianity in a positive light on Q&A, the knives were out for Christians, and churches, but mostly Hillsong, on Australia’s least reputable tabloid television show.

The Chaser team has done a pretty good job at showing why A Current Affair isn’t really worth watching or engaging with over the years. But I’m a sucker for things that make me angry. So I’ll bite.

There was not one redeeming feature about this feature. The reporting was bad. The production was bad. The story was bad. The subject was bad. The Hillsong they presented in the story through a montage of sermon footage, interview footage, and interviews with parishioners was bad, the overt campaigning for a particular political objective without really featuring any view to the contrary was bad, and the logic behind that campaign was bad, and the Jesus presented in the story was bad.

It was bad. The worst bit of the bad bunch, I reckon, was the complete lack of anybody from the church – congregation members or staff – talking about the significance of Jesus beyond the (presumably material) “blessing” being a follower of Jesus brings, and the “Jesus said feed my sheep” stuff from the soup kitchen minister was almost equally bad.

That a story on national television can feature the line:

“There’s money to be made from Jesus. Lots of it.”

Makes me a bit sick.

Lets break this story and its problems down three ways – the problem with the story, the problem with Hillsong, and the problem with the alternative vision offered by Bill Crews and his Loaves and Fishes restaurant.

The problems with the story

I’m further and further away from being able to call myself a journalist every day – it’s a long time since I finished my degree, and a long time since I did anything that looked like journalism – if you can count the hours of unpaid work I did in newsrooms as journalism. It’s not so long since I last did paid PR work, which I guess is a bit like journalism. That was Friday. Of last week. I guess I’m saying you should take what I say here with a grain of salt – because I have a professional interest in journalists not being objective. When I do PR, I want them telling my story, and not focusing too hard on alternative views.

Or do I?

Not really. I want journalists to be telling truth. So I want to be telling them the truth. And telling the “other side” the truth. And letting people decide what the truth is.

Fundamentally, and this gets me in trouble all the time because I’m rubbish at keeping secrets – I believe that there’s a certain type of information that wants to be free. It’s not always my job to tell information – and I’ll largely respect that – but I‘ll almost always encourage the person who shares an unknown truth with me that the best way to either rob that truth of its negative power, or maximise its positive impact, is to get it out there.

I had a theory, back when I was writing about things that people were a bit more interested in, or things that were a bit more controversial, that it actually served my case to let my “opponents” see my hand, but to play it relatively forcefully. There was a group that formed in opposition to something my organisation was lobbying for, and for one reason or another, I gave them a bunch of stats from a report we had been basing our work on that hadn’t been publicly released – because if the numbers didn’t add up, we wanted to know about it. We didn’t want to be pushing for something that wasn’t really a good idea. We had nothing to hide.

Anyway… this is a pretty long preamble to suggest that the people driving the agenda driving this story – be it the journalist, his sources, his interviewees, or whatever lobby groups are pushing this legislation that’ll remove the tax protection from religious organisations, aren’t doing their cause any favours by being so sloppy with the truth. Be it by picking Hillsong as representative of the church in Australia (it’s an outlier when it comes to church size, operating budget, and reach), or by picking sources who obviously have an axe to grind but aren’t really all that qualified to be making the statements they’re making, or by not presenting valid alternative views, or by so obviously editorialising when it comes to the pejorative adjectives used and the cliched graphics and sinister music employed to make a point.

We’d be better off, I think, sitting down with the numbers, hearing from Hillsong about how they use the money, hearing from sociologists or legislators, about the contribution, or lack of contribution that churches make to public life and what justification they might have for providing financial benefits and protection for churches…

Objectivity isn’t necessarily about balancing two competing accounts of truth, you’ve got to give the right amount of weight to the right perspectives – a vox pop interview with a few joe averages off the street isn’t a more credible voice than someone who has devoted their life to studying something, that’s Australian egalitarianism/tall-poppy syndrome gone mad… objectivity is created by collecting data, then asking, and answering, the big questions about the data fairly, carefully and professionally.

This story was not objective. It was a pretty awful piece of propaganda.

Here, I think, is the central thesis of the story, as a direct quote… from the journalist, Ben McCormack.

“Hillsong takes advantage of an antiquated piece of legislation which says that if you’re a religion it’s the same thing as a charity so you don’t have to pay any tax.”

The bolded bits indicate where the lack of objectivity hits. The italicised bit is where I think the whole exercise falls down a bit – the real question he should be asking is whether all the aspects of Hillsong’s business model meet the religious element of that law.

Now. He’s in a bit of trouble here, I think, when it comes to trying to overturn this “antiquated piece of legislation” in the ordinary business of a Christian church – which one might define as preaching the gospel, and encouraging Christian living by pointing people to the example Jesus sets on the cross.

From what I can gather, there’s actually not yet any definition of charity legislated in Australia (it seems there’ll be one from July 2013), there’s some case law though, this a bit of a court judgment cited in an appropriately titled Commonwealth Charities Definition Inquiry:

“There is no intrinsic legal definition of a charity. As a matter of technique, Courts can only describe the attributes of charities. And the essential attribute required is that a charitable activity must seek the public weal; or, to put it another way, a charity is not concerned with the conferment of private advantage.”

Say what you want about Hillsong – and we’ll get there – but Christianity, in its essential form, is not interested in conferring private advantage, it’s about encouraging people to give up material advantage to take up a cross, and follow Jesus. Sure – like Brian Houston says in a clip from the sermon – we hope for heaven in the future, and that’s an advantage… but it’s hard to argue that it’s a private advantage.

He’s in more trouble because that’s not entirely the truth – religions aren’t protected because they’re charities, religions are protected because they’re religious groups. Here’s some more from the Charities Definition Inquiry (chapter 30) about what the present, and future situation here looks like:

“Since the Commonwealth enacted the first comprehensive income tax statute in 1915, an income tax exemption has been available to a distinct grouping of entities known collectively as `religious, scientific, charitable or public educational institutions’…

Its [a religious institution’s] objects and activities need to reflect its character as a body instituted for the promotion of some religious object, and the beliefs and practices of the members must constitute a religion.

Charities falling under the head of `the advancement of religion’ would also meet the requirements for a religious institution. (In Chapter 16 the Committee recommends that the `advancement of religion’ should continue to be a charitable purpose.)”

Whoops. Seems the facts aren’t quite what the story suggested. It took me a couple of minutes with google to find that out.

You could ask if Hillsong’s music and publishing arms are promotions of a religious object, and you’d probably find that since, well, the Bible, and perhaps the book of Psalms, that music and publishing are pretty essential to promoting Christian beliefs.

Adam Shand their “expert” (as in, that’s what they called him, I’m not passing judgment on his expertise) on this tax exemption front, had this to say:

“Every year more than $30 billion leaks out of the tax system to these not for profits, at this time when we’re in these deficit budgets and we’re seeing hospitals, roads, schools, their budgets being cut, this is money that could go towards that, and I don’t think it would harm Hillsong or any of these other churches to pay their fare whack, like anybody else does.”

This quote annoys me on a bunch of levels. It draws a bunch of disparate and largely unrelated strands together, and assumes the church is a drain on, rather than a contributor, to society in terms of the services it provides.

Hillsong makes a huge percentage of its revenue from after tax donations that don’t benefit the people making them in any way. They’re not tax deductible. People are directing the money they’ve already paid tax on to a cause they care about, and it’d be just as easy to support that cause “off the books” – they could give Hillsong $28 million worth of tinned soup if they thought that was the best way to see their religious cause – the mission of Jesus – advanced.

Huge sums aside, if Hillsong is a not-for-profit, and it is legitimately engaged in a Government approved activity, where presumably they see some benefit flowing through to society, the tax revenue isn’t “leaking out” – it’s not even tax revenue.

I had some other issues with the story.

The “tax free” refrain, coupled with a red rubber stamp, was, frankly, cheap and pointless.

The “why are these guys tax free if they’re not doing charitable work?” question wasn’t answered, or even asked, presumably the government has access to the same stats as some ridiculously bad television tabloid journalist.

Tax Free

 

My other issue was that for large chunks of the story it wasn’t clear why the people being interviewed were being interviewed.

I’d hope that most people can’t be bothered watching this sort of trash for more than 5 minutes, but investigative journalist Adam Shand, who time and time again was the man the not-very-investigative journalist Ben McCormack turned to for expert opinion wasn’t actually introduced or given a title until 7 minutes and 40 seconds in. The other source, Anti-Hillsong campaigner Tanya Levin was briefly introduced about four minutes in. These two appeared on the screen time and time again, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to provide a superscript with their names and titles on it – but this wasn’t done. We really had no idea how credible they were as sources. Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation wasn’t introduced until almost the end of the story, he was clearly clerical, and critical, and wholesome, charitable, and good – but this was, in my opinion, a poorly produced and presented story based on shoddy reporting and horrible research.

Which is why it was on A Current Affair. I guess.

What’s the Problem with Hillsong

I’m fairly convinced that the legal processes that are in place are appropriate, and that Hillsong, as a big and wealthy church is well and truly on their radar, and I don’t think Brian Houston had any reason to lie when he wrote this response to similar media interest in 2010, and I think this media release is a largely helpful response to the story.

“It is a fundamental right of every person to support organisations of their choice and many who are a part of our church community – just like other Christians – freely choose to give of their time, resources and finances to ensure that the church is able to fulfil its mission of bringing hope to the world through Jesus Christ.”…

We have always recognised the need to be accountable and transparent and produce an annual report that is available publicly. The figures given by ACA were taken from publicly available ASIC records which we lodge annually and were presented in isolation simply to suit the program’s agenda; however the facts are very different. We operate an open book policy whereby congregation members are welcome to make an appointment to inspect the audited financial results of the church.

It wouldn’t surprise me if ACA didn’t contacted Brian Houston for comment, this is the sort of story you react to immediately, rather than waiting to respond on your website…

My problem with Hillsong is that despite making moves away from the prosperity doctrine being their core thing in recent songs and stuff – I’m willing to cede that to them – when members of their congregation are interviewed about life as part of the church you get stuff like:

“I’ve seen much much more blessing than I could ever have if I didn’t give that 10% of my income to God.”

And it’s unfortunate that there seems (and again, it’s quite possible that the picture of the service you get in the story isn’t accurate) to be such an emphasis on money in their services – there certainly wasn’t a shortage of money material for the story to draw on.

It’s a massively unhelpful thing for the rest of us that the biggest church in Australia seems to be on about money, prosperity, and blessing, as much as they’re on about Jesus. Even if that perception isn’t reality – some deliberate work on overturning that perception is required.

I’m not really interested in questioning this stuff though, I am interested, like Hillsong, in the “bringing hope to the world in Jesus” thing (as a non-pentecostal, I think they, like most pentecostals ‘over-realise their eschatology’ which means they bring to many promises about the future for Christians into the present, and ‘under-realise the place of suffering’).

What irks me is that the alternative proffered to Hillsong’s flashing lights and rock show is the ascetic “give everything to the poor” approach to ministry advocated by Bill Crews.

It’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – but the next bit of that instruction, the “follow me” was really where it was at for that guy. The problem with Crews, and it taps into the problem with the story itself, is the idea that the gospel itself doesn’t help people. My guess is that the parishioners interviewed in the story understood that this is how their money helps people.

Knowing Jesus helps people. So when Bill Crews sets up a dichotomy between “helping the poor” and other activities of the church, he’s ignoring the huge imperative for the Australian church to work with the spiritually bankrupt.

“If it doesn’t go to help the poor the amount of money that goes in should be taxed… it’s a business just like anything else.”

I’m with Bill that we’re meant to be like Jesus. I’m with Bill that what Jesus says about money should frame how we think about money. I’m with Bill that the way Jesus thought of his responsibility to the poor should influence how we help the poor (I think Hillsong is with me, and Bill, at this point)… I just don’t want to limit the way Jesus wanted the poor to be cared for to literally feeding them – that has to be part of the mix, but it can’t possibly be all of the mix.

Here’s how Jesus talks about his ministry to the poor in Luke 4.

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

The good news was that he had arrived as king. That he died, was buried, and was raised – and that this confirmed that he was king, and gives us victory over death… and the promise of life with him, in the new creation, where there is no poverty, sadness, or oppression – nobody taking advantage of people, imprisoning them, or being generally nasty. And sure. We’ve got to let that future reality shape how we live in the present… but we’re ultimately going to be shaped by the cross. Sacrificial love for others, at any cost, so that they might be set free to.

Bill is loving people in a radical way. A necessary way – but so are those who preach the gospel (especially when they also love people in a radical way). The “feed my sheep” line that Bill uses  in the interview is what Jesus says to Peter when he’s reinstating him after he denied him before he was killed in John 21, I’m struggling to figure out how it applies to a soup kitchen without first applying to teaching people the good news.

Ben McCormack was unhelpful again when he said “Brian Houston does a lot of talking, while Bill Crews does a lot of doing” – they’re equally essential parts of being a religious organisation, especially a Christian church, and doing what the government expects us to do when they give us tax free status.

A way forward

Briefly, now, because this post is already too long. If transparency isn’t the answer – and it doesn’t appear to have protected Hillsong from stupid journalism, and if stupid journalism undermines our ability to be on about the gospel clearly… then at some point it’s going to be easier for us to talk about Jesus unhindered if we don’t just pay tax, but campaign for the laws to be changed, not in our favour, but against our financial interests.

That might be the price we have to pay so that we can be seen to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.

Dear Christian with a microphone,

I know. It’s tempting. Very tempting.

Everybody is looking for someone who has something to say. An expert. And it’s tempting to get on your soapbox when bad stuff happens and talk about how it’s judgment for sin, not an example of the cost of sin.

But the two are different.

Even if there’s a correlation between sin and judgment, where the negative consequences of sin (given that sin falls outside of the design for human flourishing so naturally has bad results) are an immediate form of judgment for sin, I’m not sure you can jump from the individual to the corporate – from the judgment the individual experiences after their sin to bad things happening, where people are hurt and some sort of nefarious or malicious intent on God’s part. There’s something very Old Testament about the idea that a nation’s fortunes are tied to their obedience to God’s law – but America isn’t Israel. Nor is Australia.

This is the God who hates sin and injustice so much that he sent his son to experience injustice and start the process of dealing with sin. At the cross. This was still evil, though good happened as a result.

You might want to link sin and judgment and death. And where better than when they’re all happening at once. You might want to point out that the world is broken. But I’m not sure that putting forward a solution, or a proposed cause, other than that all people everywhere have turned away from God and do bad things to each other as a result, is particularly sensitive.

Now is not the time to push your particular special interest. Especially if it looks like point scoring. Even if it’s right. Now is not the time to point score. But to comfort. To love. To empathise. To condemn. To support. To offer hope.

I know there’s a robust theology of God’s sovereignty behind your statements. I know people would be better off if they followed Jesus (that’s pretty much how I responded yesterday).

Sometimes it’s not obvious who to blame – so you might be thinking that a tragedy presents an opportunity to further your only tangentially related cause (or, more cynically, sometimes the people who give you lots of money might be looking for alternative scapegoats). But the blame game is the wrong game.

This is a horrible political road to travel – and it’s worse if you’re trying to play the political game as a Christian.

If that’s you, you’re not going to get people to follow Jesus by cashing in on events like this for your political cause – it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to ban video games (as the ACL did with the Norway shootings), or, as is the case with Mike Huckabee, trying to (re)introduce school prayer. Or, more charitably, to restore or salvage some sort of public role for Christianity in a post-Christian world.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools… Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?

“Maybe we ought to let [God] in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.” – Mike Huckabee

You may have a point. The world might be a better place if people were more like Jesus. That’s pretty much what I said yesterday. But that’s not going to happen if you systematise Christianity. If you legislate it. If you make it compulsory. And it’s certainly not going to happen if you try to make some political mileage towards that goal off the back of a tragedy.

Changes of action follow changes of the head, and the heart.

The head and the heart are only followed by the hands if you’re some sort of totalitarian control freak dictator looking to the kind of emotional response that produces Stockholm Syndrome, or Pavlovian responses to bad experiences.

That is not how the Holy Spirit works, which is essential to the process of making people more like Jesus.

Your theology is wandering off into dangerous territory if you think the answer to bad stuff is to set about systemically introducing Christianity, not having Christianity, through the church, systemically working to making things better by loving and protecting people through the political process. The two are different.

It doesn’t matter if you think that there’s a particularly heinous amount of immorality going down in the world right now (see this 2009 example from Danny Naliah, and just about anything Westboro Baptist say) – that’s a judgment call that requires you to ignore 2,000+ years of post-Jesus human history, and focus on a particularly narrow definition, or manifestation, of sin…

The correct response is not “we” or “they” deserved this, or in any way earned this, as a result of God’s judgment. You might make that theological case in general – the Bible is pretty clear that sin and death aren’t part of how God made the world, and one leads to the other, for all people. But you can’t take that to the specific – and link particular, disconnected, sins, to particular deaths, and you probably shouldn’t be making that case at this time. It looks cheap and unloving. Even if you’re trying to be loving.

It’s not particularly loving to victims of sin and tragedy, and their families, to be trying to score from their misfortune – no matter how well intentioned you are. Or how right your cause may be.

If you do. If you give in to that temptation and jump on that soapbox, you are an idiot who is damaging the gospel and making people think less of Jesus.

UPDATE – Huckabee has clarified his statement a little.

“A specific act of violence is rarely the result of a specific single act of a culture that prompts it. In other words, I would never say that simply taking prayer and Bible reading from our institutions or silencing Christmas carols is the direct cause of a mass murder. That would be ludicrous and simplistic. But the cause and effect we see in the dramatic changes of what our children are capable of is a part of a cultural shift from a God-centered culture to a self-centered culture.”

Christ and Pop Culture has a great post offering a balanced critique of Huckabee’s statement, which links to this Rachel Held Evans post that I liked.