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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
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. 2 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? 3 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. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 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.
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).
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 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
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.
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.
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 the “expert” 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
So there’s this movie called Zeitgeist. It’s popular on YouTube. It’s old. It questions the originality of the claims Christianity makes about Jesus.
It’s not very good history.
It resurfaced recently as a silly cartoon infographic circulating on Facebook and elsewhere.
If the claims in this infographic were accurate it’d be a great reason to rethink following Jesus.
But they’re not. I did a little reading when this popped up on a friend’s wall. Here’s what I found…
It’s a shame hardly any of the statements about Horus are even remotely close to being true, and most of them are based on some non-scholarly comparative religion by a guy named Gerard Massey that has even been debunked by skeptics – there aren’t any references to Egyptian papyrii, hieroglyphics, or recordings of the Horus legend, of which there are actually many competing accounts, that back up the claims made, and the comparisons on the basis of what is generally agreed about Horus stories are so vague that they’d apply to anybody people want to worship as a god…
Ignoring the odd origin stories of Horus (there are many, some involve Osiris being raised, others involve Isis conceiving Horus from the dismembered body parts of her husband, which I’d argue makes the virgin birth claim untenable, also the idea that Iris was still a virgin after a significant time period of being married to Osiris before his death is frankly, quite quaint…), there are other obvious problems.
Also, Christmas was a deliberate takeover of pagan festivals, it wasn’t until about 300AD that anybody seriously suggested Jesus was born then, and it’s not a particularly serious suggestion given the complete lack of evidence.
If these very simple claims are very easy to debunk, and they appear to be – though admittedly there’s a lot of competing claims about Horus that have been compiled as though there’s only one Horus narrative, and there’s a few merges going on between Horus and his father Osiris. The best one being the resurrection one – which confuses Horus with his father Osiris. Who wasn’t crucified, but nailed into a coffin…
If this is the kind of thing that passes for educated atheist interactions with Christian beliefs then it makes me sad.
There’s no doubt that both Christianity and prior to that, Judaism emerged within, and mostly against, other cultures with competing religious views and accounts for the creation of the world, and their particular culture’s special place within it. There’s also no doubt that Christianity deliberately responds to alternative claims using familiar terminology, so, for example, just about all the titles used for Jesus were actually used for the worshipped Roman Emperors – because Christians were making a deliberate comparison between Jesus and Caesar.
Most Ancient Near Eastern religions involve Gods and their offspring – none push quite the same human/divine paradigm that Jesus is claimed to have pushed (fully God+fully man), and none of them hang quite so much on the full humanity, with divine parenthood, of the saviour figure.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the real God would present himself in a manner expected by the people of the day, especially if it’s a manner described years before in the Old Testament.
Here’s a nice little bit of extended scholarly debunking of Zeitgeist from CPX.
This has been bouncing around in my brain all evening.
Partly because of the title, I’m no longer surprised when they say dumb and harmful stuff. But especially because of this line: “They don’t, they don’t speak for us”…
Here’s why they don’t speak for Christians. Christians who want to speak for Christians, and for God, have some parameters for their message that come from the Bible.
2 Corinthians 5:20
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
“14 How then will they call on him [Jesus] in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation
Luke 4:18-19 (about Jesus)
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Oh yeah, and that has something to do with how Christians should think about themselves… (John 20:21)
“21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.“
There’s a lot of stuff there, and a lot that I didn’t copy and paste, about talking about Jesus, and sharing the gospel – which is talking about Jesus. Not a whole lot there about railing against people you don’t like and calling them bullies.
I was talking to a friend this week about a statement his church might put out on gay marriage and he said “have you seen any good press releases on this issue” and I said “no”… which isn’t entirely true, I could probably find one or two. So I wrote one (P.S – to that friend, I’ve tweaked this a bit since).
It’s a bit wordy, and I’d want to edit some bits out depending on context, but it does, I think, incorporate our “key messages”…
CHURCH NAME seeks way forward in Same Sex Marriage Debate
CHURCH/DENOMINATION NAME apologises to LOCATION’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex community for any hurt caused to them in the name of Jesus when homosexuality has been singled out as a special sin. We recognise that this apology is particularly necessary given the heat involved in the current debate surrounding the redefinition of marriage.
As a church community we are interested in people of all sexual orientations, and from all backgrounds, meeting Jesus, and having a long term relationship with the God who created the universe, we believe all human relationships come second to this one relationship.
CHURCH NAME, Spokesperson name, said that while it will inevitably cause tension for people, CHURCH NAME must continue to define homosexuality as contrary to God’s design, as the Bible is clear on the matter, but admits the church has done a bad job whenever homosexuality has been singled out for special treatment.
“As a church community we have to recognise that whenever the Bible discusses homosexuality as contrary to God’s created order, it does so in long lists of sins too often given a free pass by Christians speaking out in the same sex marriage debate.”
“As a society we need to work hard at fostering debate which is inclusive and loving, where loving disagreement is not just tolerated but encouraged. It’s unfortunate that standing up for the current definition of marriage is inevitably framed as standing against those who seek changes to the definition. We are not seeking to question the personhood, or limit the freedoms, of the GLBTI community so much as seeking to uphold an institution that we believe was created by God.”
“Perhaps, as a society, we should be taking stock of the heavy emphasis we put on sexual expression as a fundamental human right in the first place, this seems to inherently discriminate against those who are asexual in orientation, or the unhappily single. We believe that sexuality is important, but that it cannot function as the basis of one’s identity.”
“We believe, as Christian churches have for almost 2,000 years, that Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the son of God, was crucified by the Roman Empire, and was raised three days later. We believe that this historical event verified his claims.”
“From the beginning of Christianity this event has been called the gospel, which means good news, because it has implications for every human, it makes a relationship with God possible because the fundamental truth of human nature is that we cannot avoid doing those things that the Bible calls sin, that is stuff that isn’t in line with what the God who made all things would have us do.”
“We’re not arguing that homosexual orientation is a choice, simply that what is natural to us can still be wrong. All of us are naturally wired to do these things. And the Bible says Jesus undoes that wiring. Not in a way that means we don’t do the wrong thing, but in a way that frees us from defining ourselves by those things.”
“We believe, as churches have since the canon was established by councils 1,700 years ago, that the Bible is the word of God, containing the collation of documents necessary to guide us, but ultimately to tell, and foretell, the story of Jesus as the central event in history. Our calendar years still recognise Jesus arrival as a turning point.”
“Jesus taught that marriage, from the beginning of humanity, was instituted by God as between one man and one woman. While we acknowledge that there are many cultures that have made modifications to this design, or that have no ties to the Judea-Christian tradition, we believe that this design is self evident from the anatomical sexual compatibility of men and women.”
“Because we believe that Jesus, as God’s son, and God himself, speaks as the creator of humanity, and we believe the Bible is God’s word, we must continue to oppose the redefinition of marriage, and to continue to define homosexuality as part of the brokenness of our human nature.”
“This is not a decision we take lightly because we recognise that some people in our community are hurt by disagreement, but it’s a decision we must take in order to continue to offer the hope that Jesus offers to all people.”
“While we believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and have no wish to legislate our belief system for everybody, we recognise that all people in a democracy have a right to participate in policy debate. We continue to oppose a redefinition of the marriage act on the basis that we believe that defining marriage as a lifelong commitment made between a man and a woman is the best way to enable human flourishing. We believe that this is the type of family structure that God intended, though we understand that families are complex and all families need love, support and care, which we humbly offer in our church community.”
“We are always happy to have conversations with people who disagree with us, and will continue to offer love, support, and prayer to those people, and anyone struggling with any sin, or people who want to understand who Jesus is.”
For more information contact SPOKESPERSON on PHONE NUMBER
What do you reckon? Is it missing anything vital? What would you cut, or add?
This post isn’t meant to be adversarial. And I really haven’t thought all that deeply about the issue (unless you count the time it took me to write this). One of my Facebook friends just asked if I was going to write something about this story about some Christian faith healer types, which was on the front page of Queensland’s Sunday paper, the Sunday Mail, last weekend. And my initial reaction was: “no way,” then I thought: “why not?” It’s not often one gets to use two colons in a sentence, so that’s justification enough. But this is an interesting example of some positive, or not quite negative, media coverage of a group of Christians in the media, so it probably gets as close to fitting the bill in these parts as anything else.
Sooner or later, if you sit in a pretty narrow segment of the Christian world, someone is going to get a guernsey in the media, as a Christian, who spouts some stuff you don’t agree with, stuff that makes you cringe a little… It happened to protestants everywhere when Cardinal George Pell announced that atheists get into heaven. But when you’re a reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian, you’re sitting in a pretty narrow branch of Australian Christian thought. While 740,000 people identified as Presbyterian in the 2001 census, the 2001 National Church Life Survey suggests (based on their own extrapolation of their data) that there are about 35,000 people in Presbyterian churches on any given Sunday (I know the data is ten years old, but it’s probably actually on the optimistic side to suggest that the number hasn’t changed too much since then). That means you’re four times more likely to own a copy of One Direction’s album, Up All Night, in Australia, than have a similar set of beliefs about Christianity to me. Now there are other comparisons I could make between my understanding of Christian theology with other denominations which might make the stats more favourable. But lets face it. Christianity in Australia is a broad church. And being a pentecostal is not something that stops you loving the Lord Jesus.
That’s a rather long preamble which should help me make this point in a way that is hopefully gracious. I’m not a pentecostal, and I believe my pentecostal brothers and sisters get many things wrong. I wouldn’t be picking this fight, and it’s not a fight, were this story not on the front page of the paper, and then on the television. I realise that my views on faith healings are, in the scheme of Australian (not to mention global) Christianity, at the very least a matter of debate, and perhaps more accurately, they’re idiosyncratic. My views, thanks to my rational, Western, sceptical epistemological framework (a fancy way for describing how I think I know stuff), and my “excluded middle” (seriously, click that link – it’s a thought provoking piece from Tamie), doesn’t leave a lot of room for “miracles” as it is, but when coupled with my theological assumptions about what the Holy Spirit actually does, and what purpose miracles serve in the Bible, and how God works through people who are medically trained (lets call this a case of natural revelation meets God’s providence), I approach claims of supernatural healings with about the same level of enthusiasm as my atheist friends. Which means I do one of those involuntary shivers when I read a story headlined “Teen God squad Culture Shifters’ miracle cure claims” in the local paper. The story is relatively tame and contains a bit of “he says/she says” “objectivity”… and this telling quote which really nails the heart of the problem that healing ministries create for the rest of us:
“Flinders University Department of Theology professor Andrew Dutney said youth could be more attracted to flamboyant religious styles than to mainline churches.
“There are issues of course … for example, if a person is drawn to this group with a promise of healing and then they are not healed,” Professor Dutney said.
“There can be situations where people blame the person themselves for not being healed and say: ‘You don’t have enough faith’ and ‘You have some secret sin’ and that can be extremely damaging.’”
These concerns raised in the paper by a learned professor, coupled with the relatively infamous “why won’t God heal amputees” meme, and the problematic prosperity theology that underpins the idea that every illness is a miracle waiting to happen (rather than a sign that the world is broken as a result of sin, and that sufferings are a part of life in this world), leave me a bit concerned when it comes to my “Jesus should be at the centre of our engagement with the world” trope. I don’t doubt that God can heal people, or that he responds to prayer, I just doubt “healing on demand” with a measurement of success metric that would be the envy of any public health department in the world. The more Christians present healing as an expectation now, in this world, the more the distinction between now, and the new creation is blurred, the greater the disjunct becomes between expectation and reality, which makes the amputee question more rhetorically powerful than it ought to be. The real answer to that question is “why should God heal amputees” – and a robust account of the effect of the fall on our experience of the world.
A word on Pentecostals
Pentecostals simultaneously represent the best and worst of Christian culture. In my humble opinion (but lets face it, posting my opinion on a blog and assuming you’re still reading, 800 words on, is indicative of a problematic definition of humble).
This realisation probably struck me most (recently) when I watched a group of hip young things, who I can only assume were Pentecostal because of how amazingly happy and cool they looked, pray together on a Toowoomba street during Easterfest last weekend. I wasn’t at Easterfest. I was at a cafe. The whole contemporary Christian music scene is something I’ve got (I suspect well documented in the archives of this blog) big problems with. These guys were so fired up for Jesus. It was great seeing them hunker down in the middle of a busy street (admittedly a street mostly filled with Christians) to pray for each other. I wish my cloistered, fuddy-duddy reformed friends would do more stuff like that. Genuine, authentic, spontaneous expressions of joy, hope and faith aren’t really something we do well. The action was inspiring. But sadly, the words were inane. I listened to these prayers babbling on with pop-psychology/spiritual babble about the Spirit anointing these people to do such odd and mundane things. I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t have an interest in the mundane, or that we shouldn’t pray about them (again, read Tamie’s excluded middle post), but rather that we shouldn’t hyper-spiritualise them, and we should potentially understand the Spirit’s primary role, in the life of the believer, has less to do with triviality, and more to do with seeing God glorified, and Christ proclaimed, through us.
The great promise of the reformed charismatic movement is the fusing of the joyful enthusiasm of these pentecostal types with a more robust, and dare I say “intellectually sound” (without sounding patronising) understanding of the work of the Spirit, and the purpose of the Christian life. I’ll still probably never be a charismatic, I’m much too narrow minded for that, but at least I’ll be able to sit on the sidelines and sneer less when my Christian brothers open their mouths.
I’ve got to say, I watched 20 minutes of random clips from Culture Shifters, as well as a couple of “healing” videos, and I was much more impressed with the stuff they do in their gatherings than with the healings. These healings could easily be explained, by the skeptical, as preying on the gullibility of the naive and employing some charm and powers of suggestion. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening – just that if I wanted to provide a non-supernatural (or natural) explanation for what’s going on in those videos, that’s where I’d turn. On the other hand, the Culture Shifters’ gatherings seemed focused on, and faithful to the gospel (though I did flick through a couple of testimonies and sermons without listening to the whole lot), and they were if not all about Jesus, they were at least in the ballpark of making Jesus the big deal, which is hard to do in any personal testimony, and encouraging when it comes to the sermons.
On the Spirit and healing and stuff
My biggest problem with this story in particular, and faith healing in general, is (as with Christian engagement with politics) that Jesus gets pushed to the sidelines as an afterthought. Both in the stories themselves, and in the actions. Now. I’m sure the Culture Shifters guys are excited about Jesus and passionate about sharing the gospel. And no doubt the reporter spent ample time hearing about how these guys are living out their faith in king Jesus, who has the power not just to heal the sick, but to forgive sins. But that’s not in this story, nor is it likely to be the take home message for your average Aussie non-Christian. I don’t want to set up binaries (though the world would be much easier if I had that power) – but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if these young, keen, fresh faced and friendly Christians were walking the aisles of our major shopping centres and talking to people about Jesus, rather than doing the Christian equivalent of a parlour trick (they would no doubt say they are doing both). Assuming it gets an equal reception, the gospel has a much better success rate than a healing, with a better long term prognosis. And as much as we’d like to read ourselves into the gospel narratives as Jesus, or even the disciples, we’re really neither. We’re the people who have the benefits of their sacrifice, their ministry, and 2,000 years of ministry from subsequent faithful brothers and sisters. The idea that we’re to run around healing people at the drop of a prayer is pretty hard to justify, and any passage that is even partly suggestive that this might be something we should pray for or attempt is pretty strongly linked to the proclamation of the gospel as the end to which our activities should be directed. This is true both for Jesus’ ministry, that of the disciples, and the version of the great commission in the disputed ending of Mark…
“15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
And the question to ask those people is why they aren’t handling snakes or drinking poison. And also, why these verses seem to summarise the events in Acts so perfectly – even up to Paul being bitten by a snake.
So my problem, in summary, is this. The Spirit works to unite us to Christ, to sanctify us through repentance and regeneration, to equip us with gifts for the service of the body, and to strengthen us as we proclaim the gospel. Ultimately the Spirit points people to Jesus – making us more like Jesus, helping us encourage our brothers and sisters to be more like Jesus, and helping other people meet Jesus. Sure. Sometimes that may involve a miraculous healing. But miracles are the exception rather than the norm, and suffering, not prosperity and health, is the norm for Christians. The world is broken, temporary fixes are temporary, and if you want to heal people it probably makes more sense to become a doctor, and do that faithfully and in the service of God. So I think it’s actually unhelpful to the cause of the gospel, not just to the Presbyterian understanding of the gospel, to be making waves for “healing people” if you’re not talking about the real work of healing that Jesus accomplished on the cross and getting media attention and claiming a 90% success rate. Especially when you’re promising an outcome that has no Biblical mandate – sickness and disease are the reality this side of the new creation, and it’s a category error to suggest that our job is to make the new creation happen now. It’s great to want to shift the culture now, to change the world. But that isn’t done just by miraculously healing broken hands, it’s done by introducing broken people to Jesus.
That is all.
UPDATE: The guys behind Culture Shift, or rather, the couple behind Culture Shift, has posted a video responding to the media furore surrounding their healing ministry. I find these two pretty compelling. I want to like them. But I also think this video pretty much sums up in words what I’ve tried to express above. There’s something about the emphasis on transformation being about happiness from about the three minute thirty mark that doesn’t quite mesh up with my understanding of the gospel.
Here’s what Grant, the guy in the video says…
“God’s not just healing people of sickness. He’s healing people of broken hearts. He’s healing people from depression. Really this story is about hundreds of young Australians who had lost hope in life but found the love of God and are now transformed and some of the happiest people on earth.”
Now, I don’t disagree with the sentiment, or with these things, but the work of Jesus isn’t front and centre, nor is the heart of our problem. Sin. And how Jesus deals with that. This could easily be the slogan from a self help program.
I do like that they urge people to go to the doctor and not stop taking their medication. There’s lots to like about these guys and enthusiasm they’re bringing to life and to serving Jesus, but like I said before this update, the gospel is about more than healing sickness, broken hearts, and depression – it’s first and foremost about fixing the brokenness that is a result of our rejection of God.
Did you hear the one about the Cardinal and the Evolutionary biologist? Or at least watch Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, George Pell, take on Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s flagship “new media” panel program Q&A, on Monday night in an Easter extravaganza?
You can watch it in full here…
It was a train wreck. Talking too much about where Pell went wrong wouldn’t be conducive to keeping my promise not to debate atheists online, at least atheists I don’t know personally. But Pell was awful. In my humble opinion. The only saving grace of the night was that Dawkins wasn’t much better, and my conversations with non-Christian friends afterwards, both on Facebook and in the real world, confirm that his brand of intolerant fundamentalism is every bit as on the nose as Christianity.
Despite giving up visiting atheist blogs and forums to engage in what I would like to call “winsome trolling” – where you keep a conversation going, but as pleasantly as possible, as “tolerant” as possible, as genuinely inquisitive as possible, and as focused on Jesus as possible – I have some experience arguing with people who adhere closely to Mr Dawkins views, with a more than liberal smattering of those advocated by the late Mr Hitchens, and messers Dennett and Harris. By my calculation I’ve spend hundreds of hours engaged in such debates, either at the keyboard, posting here, speaking to others in person, or ruminating about the conversation I’m currently engaged in while I go about my daily business. I’m a fairly experienced amateur. But I’m an amateur no less. Pell. Arguably. Is a professional. At least that’s why he was presented to us on Monday night. And yet. Almost immediately. He became tangled in several follies of, well, any form of argument/debate, let alone an argument or debate that is televised to a national audience.
In some moments he was sneering, in others pompous, in others snide, in others confused, in others doddery, in others he danced around a question without going near providing an answer, and every five minutes he trotted out a reference to Hitler. In short he was neither convincing or winsome. His theology was jelly-nailed-to-mast stuff. One minute he said he hoped hell existed because Hitler’s evil required it, on the other hand he said he hoped nobody was there, then he said that atheists would end up in heaven if they did good – thus defeating himself. Why would one sign up for a life of self denial if the outcome is unchanged. Pell said himself (and I agree) that an atheist can do good. What he didn’t say was that any “good” act is the result of humanity being created in the image of God, and that none of it has any merit so far as our relationship with God is concerned (the former is consistent with a Catholic understanding of human nature, the latter is pretty much the root cause of the Reformation and non-Catholic Christianity).
I wasn’t expecting to agree with much of what Pell said theologically – but I was hoping that as a guy wearing our colours, and claiming to own Christ, he’d at the very least be loving and winsome, and treat his opponent with respect. Instead, he spend time strawmanning Dawkins, engaging in logical fallacies, playing the man not the argument, misunderstanding the science he was claiming to promote, and generally not talking about Jesus – except after he’d confused everybody by talking about ancient Greek metaphysics (particularly Platonism), while trying to explain what goes on with the wafers when Catholics take communion (transubstantiation).
At one point, when Tony Jones asked him where he’d draw a line on what is “myth” and what is “truth” in the Bible, or rather historical truth, citing the example of God writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, Pell flat out denied that the Bible says God wrote the commandments down.
“TONY JONES: So are you talking about a kind of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?
GEORGE PELL: Well, Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.
TONY JONES: But it isn’t a literal truth. You shouldn’t see it in any way as being an historical or literal truth?
GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly not a scientific truth and it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.
TONY JONES: Just quickly, because the Old Testament in particular is full of these kind of stories, I mean is there a point where you distinguish between metaphor and reality? For example, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed directly by God on a mountain?
GEORGE PELL: I’m not sure that the Old Testament says that God inscribed the Ten Commandments but leaving that aside it’s difficult to know how exactly that worked but Moses was a great man. There was a great encounter with the divine. Actually, with Moses we get the key that enables us to come together with the Greeks with reason because Moses said who will I tell the Egyptians and he tell that my name is “I am who I am”.”
Perhaps he’s not familiar with chapters 31-34 of Exodus…
Exodus 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God…
32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”
The other thing he kept doing, that really irked me, was presenting the Catholic theological position as the “Christian” position, rather than the position of his own tradition.
MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?
TONY JONES: George Pell, we’ll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?
GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.
Sadly that is not the “Christian” point of view, but a disputed point where Catholics and Protestants disagree.
It was. In short. A train wreck.
Here are some of my favourite tweets from/in response to the night that pretty much sum up what I’m thinking…
A scientific knowledge of the world no sooner dispenses with God than a mechanic’s knowledge of theCommodore explains away Holden.
Jesus got 8 mentions in the program, by name, he was obliquely referred to in a couple of Pell’s quotes. One was from a questioner, one was from Tony Jones, three were from Dawkins.
Here’s the best description of the gospel from the night.
“…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity, which is that Jesus is the son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus…”
And it’s from Richard Dawkins. Who is dismissing it. Dawkins is clearer on the gospel he’s rejecting than Pell is on the gospel he’s promoting.
Two mentions were in a segment where Pell suggested that the Jews were culturally inferior to the other civilisations of their time.
“TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?
GEORGE PELL: Exactly.
TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?
GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.”
Pell finally got on message at the last gasp, in his best answer of the night, answering the last question which essentially suggested a modified Pascal’s Wager, where people should become Christians because life is better for Christians, particularly health wise. Pell thought that was a bad idea.
GEORGE PELL: So am I. It’s a question of truth. Christians don’t present God as, like Santa Claus, something that a myth that’s useful for children and believing in God and being a Christian cuts both ways. More people were killed for their Christian belief in the last century than any other century, probably than all the other centuries combined. They died on principle to be faithful to Jesus so we might get some benefits. You know we mightn’t get ulcers, we might live a bit longer, that might have much more to do with our heredity but we follow Christ because we believe it’s the truth. I think it does bring a peace of mind. It does help us but sometimes it gets us into my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn’t have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.
The one thing the transcript doesn’t capture is tone. Pell was snarling. Sarcastic. Snide. He didn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap shot. Dawkins wasn’t any better. But the tone of this discussion was what really disappointed me. I am overjoyed that we live in a country where the national broadcaster hosts discussions like this, without any fear of repercussions or persecution from the government, or any fear of censorship. But surely Christian spokespeople should be using these opportunities to talk about Jesus, not get cheap laughs and applause from a crowd for mocking their opponents.
So that was Q&A’s Easter special. It made me angry. Why couldn’t someone like Peter Jensen have been invited onto the panel instead. He’s so much more winsome, and able to stay on message about what Christianity is really about (hint – Jesus). Check out the raw footage from this interview he did with SBS.
In my time as a PR hack for a regional lobby group one of the golden rules I learned for lobbying via the media (or for trying to change opinion via the media) is to stay on message. Over and over again. Make sure you get your point across. Make sure the questions you get asked become opportunities to give the answers you want to give. Done well, this is brilliant. A good message (or platform) is important.
We all hate the way modern politicians seem to simply repackage the same sound bite over and over again in broadcast interviews. When they do it, and get caught out, they look dumb. But most of the time they don’t get caught out. Because journalists, in reality, are after an eight second sound bite. And you’re much better off making sure that eight seconds is going to cover the message you want them to cover, not the message they want to cover. Being mindlessly on message is better than talking about things without being on message.
The best way to be on message is to know how your message, or more correctly, your platform, relates to the issue at hand. For a politician that doesn’t mean banging on about “creating jobs” or “stopping boats” it means giving reasons that the policy decision has been reached in a way that is attractive to a voter. A good way to do this is to involve real people. People like stories about people. But integrating one’s party platform with one’s media statement in a way that is catchy and repeatable is one step towards using the media effectively.
It can be hard being on message in the middle of a broadcast interview, and especially hard if it’s in the form of a debate, which has been the case in many of Wendy Francis’ recent TV appearances. But it is incredibly easy to be on message in a media release, and if a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message. Let me repeat that in bold.
If a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message.
Unless you have some sort of key performance indicator that involves distributing a certain number of releases per month, or some sort of contractual obligation, you should only put out releases that have a point. If you do have such KPIs or obligations you should seriously consider changing them. Nothing is more damaging than a brand than irrelevant and confusing messaging. Because when you have something valuable to say you’re either less credible, or a story will make reference to your previous position on an unrelated issue, or people just won’t listen to you because you’ve become the proverbial boy crying wolf.
Which brings me to the Australian Christian Lobby. And my big problem with how they do PR and how they’re almost never “on message”. Well, they’re not on “gospel” message anyway. A simple yardstick for being on message for a Christian Lobby would be talking about Jesus, wouldn’t it? Given that Jesus puts the Christ in Christian and is the leader of our political party, and that all our interactions with culture should be framed by the relationship we have with him by grace, and his Lordship over the world… I’d say Jesus is pretty foundational to Christian belief, and thus, Christian lobbying.
But not according to the Australian Christian Lobby. Now. A lot of the releases they put out in the Month of May are about good stuff. Serious issues. Issues where a Christian voice is valuable and necessary. And they get copious media coverage. They are nominally the spokespeople for the Christian cause in Australia. They keep getting wheeled out in front of cameras and recorders and notepads. And they keep straying off message. It’s foundational stuff.
Here’s a wordle of their media releases from May. I’ve removed the names of spokespeople quoted because they were a dominant feature.*
Now. You may think it’s unfair to take a sample of media releases about issues where they are on message about a response to an issue which may over cloud mentions of Jesus, word cloud wise. Which would be fair enough. But none of these releases actually mentioned Jesus. There is no flavouring of the gospel involved. Defenders of the ACL in recent days have mentioned that we’re called to be salt and light. Fair enough. But this isn’t even salty stuff. And, lest you think that just picking the word “Jesus” isn’t fair, I conducted the same exercise with the words gospel, God, and Bible. And got no results. Search results on their website reveal that most mentions of Jesus come in mentions of the Jesus: All About Life campaign, which they support.
A media messaging strategy for a Christian organisation of any flavour, but particularly a public voice of Christianity claiming to speak for all of us (they’re not called the Politically conservative Christians from Australia Lobby are they…), should fundamentally involve the issue that Christians of all flavours agree on. The Lordship of Jesus. Further, they should be motivated to see other people acknowledge that Lordship. While addressing injustice is a fundamental Christian activity, doing it in a manner so removed from our motivation is an off message distraction. This is why I think Christians who are interested in moral issues should form some sort of family/morality lobby (maybe stop the charade that Family First is a political party and turn them into a lobby group) and the Christian Lobby should get on with being a Christian voice (a role they try to claim for themselves on their about us page without actually mentioning Jesus, or the gospel, again). They claim a Christian “worldview” and yet don’t articulate it. A Christian worldview must start at the foot of the cross and work outwards, not start with morality and work inwards. The cross makes morality make sense.
Here’s what I think a Christian media strategy should look like, from 1 Peter 3:
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
At the moment the ACL is failing on most counts, but still copping the slander. Why not do the first bit well, at least then you’re being slandered for a reason. And you’re not distracting people from the work of the gospel.
Deviations from the message of Jesus are a distraction from the gospel. But the message of Jesus has relevance to all areas and issues of society. The ACL, at this stage, aren’t doing a great job of integrating these two concepts.
What would Jesus have you do? He’d have you build the world’s biggest Jesus statue. That’s what.
Workers in Poland finished erecting the world’s tallest statue of Jesus over the weekend, a 170-foot (52-meter) giant that towers over the countryside near Swiebodzin.
“This is the culmination of my life’s work as a priest. I felt inspired to fulfill Jesus’ will, and today I give thanks to him for allowing me to fulfill his will,” Father Zawadzki said after the head was attached by a 700-ton crane, according to a report from the Warsaw Business Journal.
Here are the Beatitudes in Gangsta if you be in’trested. Aii.
Blessed iz da poor in spirit, fo’ theirs iz da kingdom o’ heaven.
Blessed iz those who mourn, fo’ dey will be comforted.
Blessed iz da meek, fo’ dey will inherit da earth.
Blessed iz those who hunger an’ thirst fo’ righteousness, fo’ dey will be filled.
Blessed iz da merciful, fo’ dey will be shown mercy.
Blessed iz da pure in heart, fo’ dey will see God.
Blessed iz da peacemakers, fo’ dey will be called chil’ns o’ God.
Blessed iz those who iz persecuted cuz o’ righteousness, fo’ theirs iz da kingdom o’ heaven. you know das right!
Apparently there’s been a bit of chatter on the interwebs (see Al, and Mikey) about how appropriate it is for Christians to be “cool”… I’m breaking a cardinal rule of cool here by talking about what cool is, and isn’t. But this sort of quote is just a little bit stupid.
“Likely, right now someone in your church is reading Blue Like Jazz or some similar book. It will resonate with them in style and content—it is cool and Christian. And it is extremely unhelpful. The only antidote seems to be twofold. The first is to reintroduce young Christians to the biblical Jesus: the person who died an agonizing death for their sins, who will tread the winepress of the wrath of God, and who listens to their prayers. The second is to begin the battle against the cool. The godly must begin to prove in the pulpit, in writing, and in their lives that Christianity is the deadly enemy of the cool.”
Now, I don’t know what planet this guy is from. I could understand if he was directing these remarks at the kind of people who think it necessary to install dirt bike jumps in church auditoriums to weakly make a point in a sermon. But that isn’t the definition of “cool” he went with.
” And the cool is the Western postmodern entertainment driven culture that has tutored our children and ourselves for the last fifty years.”
He must be really old and lame. But that’s not what “cool” is. That’s an old man’s definition of cool. That’s the definition someone comes up with looking into an idea or concept that they are not part of. Nothing says uncool like trying to define cool. Unless you want to compare it to being forty+ and having a Twilight tattoo.
Maybe my reaction against this is because I have been brainwashed by my postmodern entertainment driven culture. Cultural texts like:
Cool is almost completely subjective. It moves and changes with whatever group of people you move and change with, including within Christian subculture. It’s an ambiguous word (check out how much trouble the dictionary has defining it), and I think it could readily be applied to the life and ministry of Jesus. Even King Missile thought he was way cool… Here are some of the lyrics from a song called Jesus Was Way Cool:
“He would tell these stories and people would listen.
He was really cool.
If you were blind or lame,
You just went up to Jesus
And he would put his hands on you and you would be healed.
That’s so cool.
He could have played guitar better than Hendrix.
He could have told the future.
He could have baked the most delicious cake in the world.
He could have scored more goals than Wayne Gretsky.
He could have danced better than Barishnikof.
Jesus could have been funnier than any comedian you can think of.
Jesus told people to eat his body and drink his blood.
That’s so cool.
Jesus was so cool.
But then some people got jealous of how cool he was,
So they killed him.
But then he rose from the dead!
He rose from the dead,
Danced around and went up to heaven.
I mean, that’s so cool.
Jesus was so cool.
No wonder there are so many Christians.”
But lets face it – definitions of cool are pretty arbitrary unless they come from The Rock.
Jesus was pretty good at that. Our job as Christians though is to be like him (which hopefully becomes more and more a case of “being ourselves”). I just don’t see how “cool” and “Christian” don’t mesh up – unless you understand “cool” as “conforms to social norms” rather than as “refuses to be influenced by social norms” (which I guess applies to those people who think Justin Bieber or any character from Twilight defines “cool”). The only thing this post proves is that trying to define cool in order to criticise it is just not cool.
This was the last session and concluded with a nice little summary of how these thoughts can be used in meeting culture with the gospel.
Self-rule and self-mastery
If we are to exercise dominion over creation then that should start with the creature closest to us – ourselves. This is one of the things that distinguishes us from the animals. Animals don’t exercise self-control. We can train them, but they are driven by instinct. We are humans who are less than human because we do not exercise dominion over ourselves.
Esau, the hairy baby, is portrayed as a beastly human – a hunter who is at home in the wild. Jacob is more “ideal” – but he has to cover himself in goat skin, like an animal, in order to trick Isaac.
Esau lives on instinct, like an animal. He sells his birthright to satisfy his hunger. He’s not exercising self control.
This opens up some interesting angles on our culture – we define what it is to be human in degrading, instinctive, animalistic terms – “if it feels good do it” is the modus operandi of animals. Does our advertising sell the human experience or a sub-human experience?
Christian ethics – like abstinence before marriage – is decried as unhuman. It’s a case of exercising self-control.
We need a rich and diverse presentation of the gospel to reach our culture – because not every angle will hit every person.
The good news of the gospel is our hyper-restoration. We’re not just restored to Adam’s status but beyond. We go past the pristine. There’s a way out of our beastialised humanity. There’s a way for us to exercise dominion over creation, and ourselves. The gospel reconceives what it means to be human. The question “What does it mean to be human?” is a great way to address our culture with the gospel.
The good news of the gospel is not just about Christ – but about Christ and his Spirit. We’re often Christocentric in a way that forgets the Spirit. It can seem like evangelicals are a bit embarrassed by Jesus’ humanity – we like to focus on his divinity. Our definition of true and normal humanity is skewed – we talk about our reality, normal humanity, as though our fallen selves are the norm. Perhaps Jesus’ humanity is the norm – and is in line with our created identity (ie that which we were created to be prior to the fall). Jesus is the true bearer of the divine image. The true human (in his sinlessness). It’s not super humanity but true humanity. It’s where we’ll be in our resurrected state. Sin is the aberration. We say “to err is human” but that’s really a definition of what it means to be fallen humans.
Jesus may, in fact, be no more than humanity as it’s meant to be. The resurrected Jesus is as humanity was always meant to be.
The writer of Hebrews reads Psalm 8 as a prophecy about the Messiah. “We see him for a little while made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour.”
True humanity submits to God’s authority – which is what Jesus did, in the extreme, at the cross.
The writer of Hebrews doesn’t limit this picture of glorified humanity to Jesus alone – but puts it as the destination for humanity through Jesus – the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection is to bring many sons to glory. Jesus suffered, died, and rose again so that we might become like him as “sons of God” – not in a vague liberal sense that we’re all sons of god, but to be what Adam was supposed to be.
The doctrine of glorification (eg Romans 8) – we need to think about this doctrine as a now but not yet doctrine – yes, it’s our condition in the age to come, but the power that will transform us (the Holy Spirit) is already at work in us. Mostly it’s not yet. But that power of transforming us into glorified people is already at work in us. The Spirit’s work in us is to make us human in a way that God’s breath into Adam made him human. We’re being made a new people, now glorious.
When we are speaking about what it means to live as true humans Jesus should be our starting point because he is the “true human.”
Living as true humans has to mean living in Christ. Once you come at it this way, Christian ethics are simply to live humanly (rather than animalistically).
If we are to understand our fallen humanity as “beastly” where we live without self-control and on instinct. Peter uses the analogy of “brute beasts” when describing those who blaspheme – “creatures of instinct born only to be destroyed”…
Our tendency is to live by instinct. We should, instead, be living via the fruit of the Spirit, a redefinition of what it means to be human (Galatians 5), where self-control gets a Guernsey. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 9, with an athletic comparison, also uses self-discipline as a key for life as a Spirit empowered human. The new human is united to Christ and empowered by the Spirit and so is beginning to exercise the dominion that Adam was meant to exercised over creation.
Self-control is about every area of our lives – not just about sex. It’s about our tempers, about controlling our tongues, about controlling our diets, it’s about controlling our passions. This is counter-intuitive in our culture, which regards self-control as an unnecessary prohibition. Our world looks at self-control and calls it a vice (cf Romans 1).
When we look at the fruit of the spirit we should think “this is what it means to be human, no more and no less.”
Fresh angles on evangelism.
We live in a world where everybody is questing to be truly human.
Every religion and ideology, every political vision, is built on the question of what it means to be truly human.
Our political debate is just an expression of what it means to be truly human. The health care debate in the US is also underpinned by what it means to be truly human. The debate about gay rights, our popular culture (eg Twilight), just about every expression in our world is undergirded by this question of what it means to be truly human. We say that the definition of true humanity focuses on the question of Jesus Christ – who shows us what it means to be God, and also what it means to be truly man.
We say “consider Jesus” the one true human, defining humanity by any other starting point is defective. We, as Christians, should be modeling what it means to be human. We are the ones living the truly alternate lifestyle. Our task is to live humanly and model what it means to be truly human.
We are united to Jesus and have begun the process of becoming truly human. We don’t get up and pronounce that we’ve got something that others don’t – but we do model this fuller picture of humanity. As we become more “godlike,” as the Spirit transforms us, we become more human, and then we become advertisements for the gospel.
Our gospel message is redefining and modeling humanity in a way that is hopefully attractive to the people around us.
Deuteronomy – when Israel keeps the law the nations go “oh what a wise God you have…”
Australia is ahead of the US in terms of being a “post-Christian” society – the US is moving that way and grappling with the question of what that will look like.
Eutychus was a young man who fell to his death because the Apostle Paul preached for too long (Acts 20). He's now the patron saint of non-boring Internet.
Nathan is a Christian. A husband. A father. A student. A writer. A PR Consultant. A coffee drinker. A fan of staccato lists in profiles.
He is currently a student minister at Creek Road Presbyterian Church, Carina (South Brisbane) and the opinions expressed on this page are his own and not representative of Creek Road, or the denomination.
Some of his PR/web marketing clients include: