Tag Archives: on message for Jesus

Healings, Pentecostals, and Jesus in the public sphere

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.


Image Credit: The Courier Mail

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.

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Easter, Q&A, Dawkins, and Jesus

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.

Here’s a little bit from the transcript:

“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…

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.

That’s heaps better than the turkeys who used their Easter media opportunities to slam the banks (though they may deserve it), and even those who try to turn the attention onto the upper middle class (which was social justice champion Father Bob Macguire’s approach). I was pretty thrilled that the ministers asked to comment on the meaning of Good Friday in the Townsville Bulletin all talked about Jesus (with varying degrees of clarity and plain english).

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A compendium of St. Eutychus posts on Christians engaging in the Public Sphere

When I choose to tackle some Christians who I think are doing it wrong when it comes to speaking out as Christians in the public sphere people often ask me good questions. They usually start with “did you think about X?” My answer is usually “I was responding to a particular issue, but I have posted about X before.” Other people say nice things about how it would be useful to have all my posts on this issue collected somewhere (thanks mum).

So here’s my attempt to do that. A mega list, though probably not an exhaustive list, of my posts about PR, social issues, and political lobbying.

When things go wrong:

Doing it right

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Being on message for Jesus: What is good PR?

The result of good PR isn’t always a good story (though sometimes it is). That’s one of the foundational points of Public Relations that I probably haven’t made clearly enough in my posts on PR for Jesus. There’s that stupid maxim that “all publicity is good publicity”… if that was the case then more companies would be out committing crimes for the benefit the media coverage brings.

In the comments of my “being on message or Jesus” post – Daniel made the following point regarding Peter Costello’s warning about the idol of positive media coverage:

“His warning to “beware the false idol of positive media coverage” seems at odds with some of what you seem to be saying about public relations.”

It’s not. But this is mostly because I probably haven’t been clear about what the goal of PR is, in terms of media coverage. Positive media coverage is up to the whim of journalists and editors, and largely shaped by the expectations of the readers/viewers of the particular outlet. It’s pretty unlikely, in Australia, for Christians talking about the gospel to be handed positive media coverage on a platter. We get it pretty easily if we criticise the establishment or say something a bit controversial, but that’s not really what I’ve been talking about.

Most situations where prominent Christians are being interviewed in the media are situations where the media is expecting a particular response from a Christian voice on moral issues, or on controversial issues, in which case it would be easy to bang on about morality (ala the ACL), it’s hard to bang on about the gospel – and the gospel is our key message.

One of the other comments on the previous post, from Aaran, said:

“I think there is a fine line between taking the opportunity to talk about Jesus and sounding like a politician on QandA.”

This might be true, and nobody likes those sound bite fests where people fail to engage in an issue because they keep repeating the same mantra like eight second summary of their key message. But at least they’re on message, and you know what the politicians on Q&A stand for – (“not the other guys)… because they’re on message. Good PR finds a balance. Good PR engages with an issue so that you get invited back to talk on another issue. But good PR means gaining a good airing for your message, not necessarily gaining a good story.

So while I’m pretty blithely dismissive of the apparently axiomatic “all publicity is good publicity”… there’s something in it. All publicity that presents and engages with your key message is good publicity. That’s a better summary. If we’re selling a message, which we are as Christians, then we should celebrate when that message gets out with clarity. Our job is to be messengers, to faithfully point people towards the Lord Jesus. That’s not the job of a journalist. We want to make sure that while the journalist does their job putting together a story, we’re doing our job – getting out our message. This means understanding the medium/media a little too – being on message in an interview for the TV news means finding an 8 second summary statement, you’re not going to get much more of an opportunity than that, being on message on Q&A means finding a way to tie the topic to the gospel, to show how the Lord Jesus leads us to a particular response to an issue. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the news story is negative, or if the other panelists shout you down – we’re in the marketplace of ideas, and while it’d be nice to convince the journalist and the panelists, our target audience is really the viewers.

So, back when I was a PR man, we used to measure our media coverage using a bit of a matrix. This was how we decided what dollar value to put on media coverage. Media coverage as editorial is inherently more persuasive than media coverage where you’ve paid for advertising. It’s somebody else blowing your trumpet v you blowing your trumpet. So we started by multiplying the rack rate advertising value by three. This is a pretty arbitrary number, and it’s a pretty arbitrary process. Next we look at the story to see if it featured our key messages, then to see if it featured a “call to action” (similar to the key message but usually, in tourism, details on how to book a holiday etc), then we assessed whether it was a positive story or a negative story. Each of these factors had a multiplier effect on the initial value, of a similar scale. We saw a bad story with a call to action as just as valuable as a good story with our key messages and no call to action (and any combination of the options). But if a story you’ve been involved in doesn’t present your key message/aptly represent your views – then that’s bad PR. That’s where you fail. And that’s where Christians fail if they fail to mention Jesus.