Tag Archives: Paul

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

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

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.

SNIPPET // Cicero on crucifixion, floggings, and Roman citizenship

From Against Verres, 2.5.165-168, via Perseus

“Why, that he had only cried out that he was a Roman citizen because he was seeking some respite, but that he was a spy. My witnesses are unimpeachable. For what else does Caius Numitorius say? what else do Marcus and Publius Cottius say, most noble men of the district of Tauromenium? what else does Marcus Lucceius say, who had a great business as a money-changer at Rhegium? what else do all the others ray? For as yet witnesses have only been produced by me of this class, not men who say that they were acquainted with Gavius, but men who say that they saw him at the time that he was being dragged to the cross, while crying out that he was a Roman citizen. And you, O Verres, say the same thing. You confess that he did cry out that he was a Roman citizen; but that the name of citizenship did not avail with you even as much as to cause the least hesitation in your mind, or even any brief respite from a most cruel and ignominious punishment.”

This is the point I press, this is what I dwell upon, O judges; with this single fact I am content. I give up, I am indifferent to all the rest. By his own confession he must be entangled and destroyed. You did not know who he was; you suspected that he was a spy. I do not ask you what were your grounds for that suspicion, I impeach you by your own words. He said that he was a Roman citizen. If you, O Verres, being taken among the Persians or in the remotest parts of India, were being led to execution, what else would you cry out but that you were a Roman citizen? And if that name of your city, honoured and renowned as it is among all men, would have availed you, a stranger among strangers, among barbarians, among men placed in the most remote and distant corners of the earth, ought not he, whoever he was, whom you were hurrying to the cross, who was a stranger to you, to have been able, when he said that he was a Roman citizen, to obtain from you, the praetor, if not an escape, at least a respite from death by his mention of and claims to citizenship?

Men of no importance, born in an obscure rank, go to sea; they go to places which they have never seen before; where they can neither be known to the men among whom they have arrived, nor always find people to vouch for them. But still, owing to this confidence in the mere fact of their citizenship, they think that they shall be safe, not only among our own magistrates, who are restrained by fear of the laws and of public opinion, nor among our fellow citizens only, who are limited with them by community of language, of rights, and of many other things; but wherever they come they think that this will be a protection to them.

Take away this hope, take away this protection from Roman citizens, establish the fact that there is no assistance to be found in the words “I am a Roman citizen;” that a praetor, or any other officer, may with impunity order any punishment he pleases to be inflicted on a man who says that he is a Roman citizen, though no one knows that it is not true; and at one blow, by admitting that defence; you cut off from the Roman citizens all the provinces, all the kingdoms, all free cities, and indeed the whole world, which has hitherto been open most especially to our countrymen.

Here’s another interesting bit from very soon after this, in the speech.

You were not, I say, an enemy to the individual, but to the common cause of liberty. For what was your object in ordering the Mamertines, when, according to their regular custom and usage, they had erected the cross behind the city in the Pompeian road, to place it where it looked towards the strait; and in adding, what you can by no means deny, what you said openly in the hearing of every one, that you chose that place in order that the man who said that he was a Roman citizen, might be able from his cross to behold Italy and to look towards his own home? And accordingly, O judges, that cross, for the first time since the foundation of Messana, was erected in that place. A spot commanding a view of Italy was picked out by that man, for the express purpose that the wretched man who was dying in agony and torture might see that the rights of liberty and of slavery were only separated by a very narrow strait, and that Italy might behold her son murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.

It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it. Yet with all this that man was not content. “Let him behold his country,” said he; “let him die within sight of laws and liberty.” It was not Gavius, it was not one individual, I know not whom,—it was not one Roman citizen,—it was the common cause of freedom and citizenship that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross. But now consider the audacity of the man. Do not you think that he was indignant that be could not erect that cross for Roman citizens in the forum, in the comitium, in the very rostra? For the place in his province which was the most like those places in celebrity, and the nearest to them in point of distance, he did select. He chose that monument of his wickedness and audacity to be in the sight of Italy, in the very vestibule of Sicily, within sight of all passers-by as they sailed to and fro.

This little court proceeding helps me get my head around how Romans used crucifixion, and how people understood Jesus’ crucifixion, and it also helps me read this exchange between Paul and Jerusalem’s Roman Commander in a new light…

Acts 22

As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.”

Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.

Book Review: Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross

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Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross

Cruciform = cross shaped.

This book is very good. Very, very good. Sometimes Gorman pushes things a little bit further than I would to make his point, sometimes his application of his ideas goes in interesting directions, sometimes his interpretations of passages don’t land where I’d go (and where other much smarter people than me go), and sometimes his tangents and arguments are a little coloured by his understanding of what hobby horses cruciformity rides – but it’s truly fantastic. One of the best books I’ve read while at college…

Want proof. Compare, side by side, the overture to Jesus’ work on the cross in Philippians 2:6-8, with how Paul describes his ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:19, and throughout the chapter. Amazing. I’d never noticed this before – maybe you have.

Here are some of the big ideas he riffs off for a few hundred pages of gold…

“The son’s act on the cross was an act of family resemblance, of conformity to God. God, therefore is a God of self-sacrificing self-giving love, whose power and wisdom are found in the weakness and folly of the cross. ”

“If on the cross Christ conforms to God, then God conforms to the cross. The cross is the interpretive or hermeneutical lens through which God is to be seen; it is the means of grace by which God is known.”

“As a colony of cruciformity, the church first tells its story to itself in liturgy and prophetic edification, so that it can live the story of cruciform faith, love, hope and power within itself. It is then equipped to tell and live the story – the gospel message – in the world, summoning people to faith by the power of the Spirit, and living by love and hope even in the face of opposition from enemies of the cross.”

“Paul’s communities become living commentaries on their master story… For Paul, the most faithful interpretation of the Messiah’s story is not a letter or an argument but a living body, one whose life unfolds step by step in ways analogous to Messiah Jesus. Such a body will bear – literally, or metaphorically, or both – “the marks of Jesus” branded on its body (Gal 6:17)”

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On Paul and Cicero

You may have noticed things are a little quieter than normal here… there are various reasons for that. The big one is that we’re in the throes of moving house (we have to find a new rental before next weekend). Robyn and I are both also working on our Masters projects. Which are pretty time consuming.

I’m not sure how much the Internet wants to read my thoughts as they develop (I’m pretty excited – but I realise pouring over classical texts looking for relatively obscure parallels to bundle together isn’t everybody’s cup of tea). So I’ll try to keep project related posts to a minimum…

But here are some cool bits about the connection between Paul and Cicero that I’m trying to establish… from James May’s “Cicero and His Life” in Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric.

For the record – my thinking is that Paul borrowed from Cicero in his critique of the sort of oratory that was popular in Corinth – particularly in heavily emphasising ethos to the point of embodying his message.

There are a few connections between Paul and Cicero – Paul was a Roman citizen from Tarsus – one of the big three cities for a rhetorical education. Cicero was governor of Tarsus for a year (well – Cilicia, the province that Tarsus is the capital city of), around the time that he wrote a couple of his more famous rhetorical handbooks. I read one tangent in one article somewhere that suggested Paul’s grand daddy may even have received his Roman citizenship for helping Cicero in a military campaign. Here are some details about Cicero in Tarsus…

But in March of 51 B.C., much to his dismay, he was sent as proconsul to the large province of Cilicia in Asia Minor. Upon his arrival, he found matters, both civil and military, in much disarray. He set about restoring order, fixing reasonable interest rates, and fighting extortion. Faced with the threat of a possible invasion by the Parthians, he shored up his military forces and undertook a small campaign against the hill-tribes of Mt. Amanus. After a siege of 46 days, he captured the stronghold, and was granted a supplicatio (a public thanksgiving) by the Senate. Although he long cherished hopes for a triumph, these were never realized.

There are some cool connections with how Paul describes his approach to public speaking and some stuff Cicero commends (eg a weak entry when your topic is substantial and overwhelming), but none more than the idea that to be truly persuasive a speaker should not just believe in their cause, but embody it.

Both men – Cicero, and Paul – were essentially speaking against the Roman empire and the sweeping, blasphemous claims of the emperors who believed they were gods on earth. So there’s a connection there too. Both were martyred for their opposition to the empire.

Both arguably made ethos a much more substantial aspect of persuasion than it had been, or than it was considered by opponents who would do and say anything for status. Here’s a quote from Cicero on ethos and persuasion (De oratore 2.182)…

“Well then, the character, the customs, the deeds, and the life, both of those who do the pleading and of those on whose behalf they plead, make a very important contribution to winning a case. These should be approved of, and the corresponding elements in the opponents should meet with disapproval, and the minds of the audience should, as much as possible, be won over to feel goodwill toward the orator as well as toward his client. Now people’s minds are won over by a man’s prestige, his accomplishments, and the reputation he has acquired by his way of life. “

Here’s a bit from May on how Cicero embodied his position – even to the point of suffering…

“In stark contrast stands the character of Cicero the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic. Nearly twenty years after his consulship, Cicero finds himself once again leading the Senate and the state in the midst of an internal crisis. Two decades earlier, he had fashioned himself as the imperator togatus (the civilian commander ), the pacis alumnus (the nursling of peace), who would go to any length—including voluntary exile—to save the state without recourse to arms. Now, on the contrary, he presents himself as the princeps sumendorum sagorum, ‘the leader in the putting on of military cloaks,”

For Cicero the pursuit of the Republic meant fashioning, and refashioning the understanding of his character as he rose through the ranks – always making sure his life matched his message as a visual.

Paul takes this principle, and adapts it to the unchanging message of sacrifice and the deliberate giving up of status for others that is part of speaking about the crucified King.

Here’s some key bits from 2 Corinthians, where I reckon Paul hammers this cross-shaped ethos thing.

Chapter 4

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

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

Chapter 5

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Chapter 11

“Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiledand have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 

Cicero was an impressive guy. He wanted people to follow him – imitate him – and be equally impressive. He was an incredible communicator. Paul was, in my mind, more impressive (while, paradoxically, being deliberately unimpressive) – and he called people to follow a more impressive guy. Jesus. His communication, from a PR point of view, has been much more impressive than Cicero’s. Cicero’s campaign basically died with him – Paul’s has lasted two thousand years, and essentially changed the Roman Empire for the better.

Developing an appropriate cultural hermeneutic for the New Testament

This observation may seem a little random, coming as it does, in a stream of posts about the Old Testament.

But I’ve been thinking about my New Testament essay, which I handed in a couple of weeks ago – that addresses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and the prohibitions it places on Gentile Christians.

Acts 15 starts with a question of salvific significance – do Gentile Christians need to be circumcised in order to be saved?

1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

And ends with these four prohibitions that are passed on to Gentile churches and Christians around the world. In between, Peter points out that salvation for the Jew and Gentile is found in Jesus – which I think settles the question of salvation, and then he moves on to addressing the question of how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can live together.

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

My dear brother Kutz reckons the prohibitions are also salvific in focus – ie the Gentiles have to follow them in order to be saved. I don’t know… I reckon the issue of table fellowship Paul discusses in Galatians 2 might also be underpinning the concerns of the council… There’s also the question about what verse 21 contributes to the prohibitions.

Anyway, what this question really brought to the fore for me is an unhelpful dichotomy I think modern scholarship places on the text. Most people have tried to understand these prohibitions by suggesting that they are either fully in response to Jewish concerns (ie the Old Testament laws regarding Gentiles (from Leviticus 17-18 in particular), or the Noahic Covenant (which are pre-Jew/Gentile) , or the Old Testament laws that come with a warning that transgression will lead to being cut off from the people), or that they are responses to Graeco-Roman culture – that the prohibitions are directly related to the practices in Idol temples (Ben Witherington III). The problem is that none of these options are perfect fits – and scholars always seem to try to shoehorn the passage into their preferred reading. Very few have suggested that it might in fact be the shortest possible way or representing all of these concerns. A dichotomy has been created where perhaps it is unnecessary. People want the context of the New Testament to be either really Jewish, or really Roman – when I reckon it should be understood as both (it’s a bit of a simplification, everybody recognises (well almost everybody) that it’s both, it’s just a question of degree). We find both represented ideally in Paul, whose background must have some bearing on how we interpret his writings. He’s a very Jewish Jew, who happens to have a very Roman background too (coming from Tarsus), or at the very least Roman citizenship. In Paul we see a possible  Graeco-Roman philosophical education (judged on references to his hometown, and his familiarity with Platonism, Stoicism and Epicurianism demonstrated in his Areopagus address and epistles) matched with education in the Jewish law. Which makes him a perfect person to address both concerns. It’s a case of “both and” not “either or” – which is why I went for a bit of an “everybody is right” approach to the question of the origins of the Acts 15 prohibitions. And I like it.

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New Testament 102: Paul and Parousia

Paul doesn’t just spend a lot of time in 1 and 2 Thessalonians talking about his parousia but also about the parousia, the second coming of Christ. There was certainly an element of eschatological hope underpinning the gospel the Thessalonians are said to have accepted – but Paul’s main concern seems to be putting those expectations in their right place.

Ben Witherington III (or BW3 as Tamie called him in the comments the other day) suggests the word parousia often had royal significance, he notes that Christ’s parousia is mentioned six times in the letters to the Thessalonians – he suggests Paul is co-opting the imperial terminology here and applying it to Christ.

Paul’s view of Christ’s parousia involves him descending from heaven and the dead rising – it is eschatological. BW3, and BW1 (Bruce Winter) both think that the talk about the second coming is to help comfort the bereaved. Bruce argues that food shortages and earthquakes had been taking a toll, and that this had caused a heightened eschatological anxiety. BW3 says the hope of heaven, and the second coming, was part of that healing process. Especially in 1 Thessalonians 4-5. Which he says (I should mention this is in his socio-rhetorical commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians) in verses 14-16 are about reassuring the Thessalonians that their dead loved ones will take part in the parousia event.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 makes the Imperial context clear – if the son of lawlessness is understood to represent the Roman Imperial Cult, and the Emperors who turn themselves into gods. It also draws a direct contrast between Jesus’ parousia, and that of the emperor.

Dunn says that Thessalonians is dominated by the parousia like no other Pauline writings – and suggests that 1&2 Thessalonians are amongst his earliest letters (implicitly suggesting that Paul got over this phase), he also (like BW3) points out that the parousia will bring relief from the Thessalonian’s present sufferings (at the hands of lawless men). Paul was concerned that they know the day of the Lord had not arrived already, which some had suggested, but that they’d know it if they saw it. He says that it’s clear Paul was addressing a particular concern of the Thessalonians here that didn’t come up elsewhere. Paul was not surprised, as the Thessalonians were, that some of them had died. And the dead were to share in the benefits of the kingdom too.

Here are some related paragraphs regarding the Imperial Cult in Thessalonica from the same extended edition of an essay that I used for the Galatians post (read: this is the stuff that got deleted from the final version so I’m just happy to be using it). He says that it is particularly in cases where Paul speaks eschatologically that imperial terminology crops up.


Harrison (2002) suggests Thessalonica was enraptured with the ‘imperial gospel’, whose ‘eschatology’ proclaimed that Augustus had arrived as the ultimate Saviour, and that Paul writes to radically subvert this idea.[1] He suggests use of κυριο without deference to Rome was inconceivable.[2]

Numismatic and epigraphic evidence support the notion of a flourishing imperial cult in the city.[3] Its citizens are zealous for the emperor. The accusation brought against Jason and his fellow Christians in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-7) is that they preach a different emperor. Judge (1971) suggests this charge arises from an oath of fealty the Thessalonians swore to the emperor as part of their cultic practices.[4] Donfried (1997) suggests Christians in Thessalonica had been martyred at the time of Paul’s epistle, for breaking this oath.[5]

Paul believes the Thessalonians to have given up on idol worship (1 Thess 1:9), which included the deified Caesars.[6] Donfried suggests the calling of the Christians into God’s own kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12), and παρουσία, απάντηση (1 Thess. 4.15-17) has imperial undertones,[7] Harrison agrees, drawing on the use of the Latin equivalent of παρουσια on imperial coinage to support this view,[8] Oakes suggests the use of παρουσια, in this case, has no imperial significance, [9] but agrees with both that the use of the shorthand form of an imperial slogan (1 Thess. 5.3), was deliberate. [10]


[1] Oakes, P, p 306, Harrison, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ JSNT 25 1, 2002, pp 71-96, Harrison suggests 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 is a deliberate and provocative reimagining of Augustan eschatology, post death Augustus is believed to rule the world from heaven via his star sign, maintaining the political status quo. Paul’s contrast of a king who will return from death is couched in imperial terminology and could not fail to be understood that way.

[2] Harrison, J.R, p 78

[3] Harrison, J.R, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ p 81, “The obverse of a series of Thessalonian coins show the laureate head of Caesar and carry the legend ΘΕΟΣ. The reverse displays the bare head of Octavian either with the legend ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΩΝ or ΘΕ|ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ”

[4] Judge, E.A, ‘The Decrees of Caesar at Thessalonica,’ The First Christians in the Roman World: Augustan and New Testament Essays, ed. Harrison, J.R, (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck), pp 456-462, orig 1971, the oath (CIL II172) the people of Antium swore to Caligula thirteen years before Thessalonians was written reads: “On my conscience, I shall be an enemy of those persons whom I know to be enemies of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, and if anyone imperils or shall imperil him or his safety by arms or by civil war I shall not cease to hunt him down by land and by sea, until he pays the penalty to Caesar in full I shall not hold myself or my children dearer than his safety and I shall consider as my enemies those persons who are hostile to him If consciously I swear falsely or am proved false may Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the deified Augustus and all the other immortal gods punish me and my children with loss of country, safety, and all my fortune.

[5] Donfried, K.P, ‘The Imperial Cults and Political Conflict in 1 Thessalonians,’ Paul and Empire, ed Horsley, R.A, pp 221-223

[6] Oakes, P, p 309

[7] Donfried, K.P, ‘The Imperial Cults and Political Conflict in 1 Thessalonians,’ Paul and Empire, pp 215-216

[8] Harrison, J.R, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ JSNT 25 1, 2002, pp 71-96, p 81, 83

[9] Oakes, P, p 315, though it was common terminology that described an arriving political leader

[10] Oakes, P, p 318, Harrison, p 86-87

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New Testament 102: Did Paul have a body image problem

One of the questions from the past exams for this subject was about Paul’s focus on his parousia, now that’s a word that means “bodily presence” and is most often associated with the second coming. But in this case that’s not what it’s all about…

Bruce argues in The Entries and Ethics of Orators and Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12) (PDF) that Paul was perhaps worried that the Thessalonians were drawing parallels between himself and the famous orators, or sophists, of his day, a position he argues that he consciously did not choose in Corinth because the Corinthians were rhetorical fanboys who wanted the apostles to be like the famous orators so that they could copy them and join the club, not like little old Paul who instead of coming to town like a flashy orator knowing everything and delivering extemporary speeches by request, came to town “knowing nothing but Christ crucified.”

The coming or ‘entry’ of an orator to a city could be something of an event in the early empire. For example, Dio Chrysostom records the enthusiastic welcome he received and the attention accorded to him when he visited:

the great cities of the empire—escorted with much enthusiasm (ζηλος) and honour (φιλοτιμία) the recipients being grateful for my presence and begging me to address them and advise them, and flocking about my doors from early dawn.

Bright young up and comers would offer themselves (or be offered by well connected, and well heeled parents) as apprentice sophists (or orators) to these visiting speakers, who would earn a living as teachers of philosophy and public speakers. There were plenty of places to speak on such occasions – theatres, odeions, and bouleterions, as well as public halls and temples were all known to hold such oratory spectacles.


The view from the poor man’s seats in the Odeion of Ephesus

They could attract upwards of one thousand people to hear their opening speech, though if you were rubbish you were said to have only attracted 17.

The speaker, upon entering a town would give the following speeches:

  1. The Dialexis: An introductry speech, warm, flattering, disarming, given sitting down, and the curtain raiser to the main event. only it was the main attraction giving the speech, not an underpaid underling. The Dialexis also served as an opportunity to talk up one’s own renown, in order to whet the crowd’s appetite for the main event.
  2. The Enconium: Probably like the second warm up guy you don’t see on television shows with a studio audience, or the guy who gets cheap pops from a crowd by saying “you’re the best town I’ve ever been in…”
  3. The Topic and the Speech: At this point the audience could call for a speech on whatever they wanted, and the sophist would demonstrate his ability by pulling something together on the spot – kind of like our good improv comics. There were occasionally Dorothy Dixers, where an audience member had been selected to ask for a preferred topic, and while the orator was expected to speak on the spot, he could also elect to come back a day later, fully prepared. Plagiarism was a no no. The speech had to be original, and audiences were pretty cluey and had often heard or read many of the great speeches given elsewhere.

The Rewards: A skilled operator earned the opportunity to teach the children of the rich, to continue making public declamations for a period, or he might be appointed to represent somebody in court. Occasionally, if they were really spectacular, they’d be granted citizenship and appointed as a politician, ambassador or lobbyist. Failing to impress the crowds with the three sequential speeches meant moving on to a new town.

Orators were a pretty corrupt bunch, in it for fame, fortune, and praise. Dio Chrysostom calls the professional orator: “gorgeous peacocks lifted aloft on the wings of the glory and their disciples.” They also had a reputation for deceiving themselves, and others.

Paul on his own “Entry”

One of the cool things in Greece was being able to read the words εχοδος and εισοδος on street signs. They mean exit (like the book of Exodus) and entry respectively. Or literally (kind of) out way and in way. There’s a little Greek primer for you ahead of next week (when I move on to studying Greek).

Bruce argues that some people have been talking up Paul’s entry:

8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God

Bruce points out that Paul’s hearers are reporting on the nature of his arrival, and on the effect this had on the hearers. He then goes on to repeat his message:

“They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

And provides a quick evaluation of the mission (chapter 2):

1 You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. 2 We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.

Paul’s measure of success runs counter to that of his sophist contemporaries, he’s not interested in crowds or fame or fortune – but rather in lives turned to God. Paul provides an account of his methods contrary to the methods of the sophists:

3 For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead, we were like young children among you.

Paul’s approach, as described here, could hardly be confused with that of the sophist. And it seems he deliberately intended to present his parousia as anti-sophistic.

“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”

Unlike the sophists the Thessalonian culture was used to – Paul was not about personal gain, and he sought to demonstrate that in his physical presence, and time spent with the Thessalonians. His contrast was not with other apostles who may have come in seeking to be financially recompensed for their time, but rather a stark contrast with the trumped up peacocks of his day.

Some words from Bruce:

The εἰσοδος is then a quasi-technical term for Paul in that it refers not only to his actual coming, but also to his professional conduct as a gospel messenger who lives amongst those who accepted his message as the λόγος of God. It is also clear that he describes his entry in an antithetical way. The force of his feelings can be more clearly appreciated from the way the passage is structured with its particles. Succinct negatives precede his positive self-description.

Bruce suggests 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 supports that view:

“Firstly, he emphasizes to the community that ‘and I coming to you, brethren, did not come preaching the mystery or testimony of God with superiority of rhetoric or wisdom… The reason given was that the topic had already been determined by the preacher—Jesus and his crucifixion (2:1).

Such a message required no rhetorical presentation lest, as Paul had previously explained, the cross of the Messiah be emptied of its saving power by means of oratory.

Secondly, he further reflects on the relationship of rhetoric to his presentation. ‘And I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling’—hardly the υπόκρισις recommended by Philodemus in his lengthy discussion in his treatise on the rhetoric of ‘bodily presence’ with gestures and voice. Further, his ‘rhetoric’ and preaching were not undertaken with persuasive rhetorical techniques. On the contrary, his message (λόγος) and preaching (κήρυγμα) were not in the persuasiveness of wisdom. He did not engage in the ‘demonstration’ (αποδείξις) of ‘proofs’ (κήρυγμα) used by the orators in the ‘art of persuasion’ but by that of the Spirit and of power. The purpose of so doing was spelt out by Paul—so that the Christian’s ‘faith’ or ‘proof’ (πίστις) would not rest in the wisdom of men i.e. the orators but in the power of God.”

So, all in all, Bruce persuasively suggests that Paul was deliberately anti-sophistic in his approach to teaching the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. But why?

Interestingly, Paul was writing to the Thessalonians from Corinth, where he was obviously experiencing much the same problems. Perhaps:

He now wished to explain the entry and professional conduct of himself in Thessalonica in terms that would have explicated his enigmatic anti-sophistic stance.

Or, maybe he wanted to avoid going through the same painful experience in Thessalonica that he had been through in Corinth.

Bruce suggests that defining the relationship was important:

Paul had no desire for his relationship to be hindered by the powerful, secular perception of a disciple to his orator or sophist. His second entry to Thessalonica or that of any other Christian teacher must not be identified or compared with orators because of the deleterious effects it would have on relationships and the integrity of the teaching ministry within the Christian community.

Here are some of the other options people had put forward with regards to the issue Paul is writing against in 1 Thessalonians 2:

It is suggested in the light of the above evidence cited from non-biblical sources and the discussion of their resonances with 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 that there is no need to posit a Pauline ‘defence’ against an attack by Jewish, Gnostic or Gentile Christian teachers as the reason for him writing it. It also rules out the need to cast around Paul in this passage the cloak of the ideal philosopher, whether it be in the Cynic or any other philosophical traditions. Why would Paul wish to identify himself with the philosophers? He believes he has adopted God’s attitude towards the wise, including the philosopher, as he formulated his gospel strategy…

Some have even suggested that Paul was feeling depressed:

“But while scholars debated the exact identity of Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica, they did agree that the charges implied in 1 Thess. 2.1-12 were actual accusations brought against Paul. Thus in the late 1960s Walter Schmithals could say with justification, ‘On this point the exegetes from the time of the Fathers down to the last century have never been in doubt There were, however, two notable exceptions to the widespread consensus about the apologetic character of 2.1-12. The first was Ernst von Dobschutz, who already at the turn of the century anticipated our modem tendency to look for psychological explanations to understand Paul. Von Dobschiitz argued that the defensive character of 2.1-12 arose out of a deep depression on Paul’s part because of the apostle’s great concern that the new Thessalonian converts had negative feelings” Weima, “An Apology for the Apologetic Function of 1 Thessalonians 2.1-12,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, April 1999

Weima’s take on the apostolic parousia of the next slab of Thessalonians is worth reading:

“The recognition of 2.17-3.10 as an ‘apostolic parousia’ also suggests that Paul is indeed concerned in this letter with defending himself. This epistolary convention was first identified and defined by Robert Funk, who observed that Paul frequently attempts to make his presence (hence the term ‘parousia’) felt among his readers in a more authoritative way by three means: by referring either to the writing of the letter itself, to the sending of his emissary, or to his own future visit…”

“The function of the apostolic parousia of I Thessalonians, however, is slightly different than elsewhere in Paul’s letters. For in 2.17-3.10 Paul makes his parousia or ‘presence’ more powerfully felt among the Thessalonians not so much to exert his apostolic authority as to reassure them of his continued love and care for them .2′ The need for Paul to reassure the Thessalonians of this fact was due to his sudden separation from them (2.17-20) and the subsequent persecution (3.1-5) that they had to endure-events that apparently left Paul feeling vulnerable to criticism for his failure thus far to return to them. The apostolic parousia thus serves as an effective literary device by which Paul emphasizes his ‘presence’ among the believers in Thessalonica in such a way that his readers are reassured of his ongoing love for them and any lingering uncertainty over his inability to return is removed. There appears to exist, therefore, a parallel between the function of the apostolic parousia of 2.17-3.10 and the function of the autobiographical section of 2.1-12-a parallel that strengthens the claimed apologetic function of this latter passage.”

A guy named Barclay talks about mirror reading and the parameters for using the “mirror reading” technique:

“Barclay offers the following observations with respect to a responsible use of mirror reading: ‘If a scholar proposes a reconstruction that arises out of the text itself, and if that reconstruction then helps to make sense of difficult statements in the text, we need not reject it on the grounds that “it is just a theory”. On the other hand, the more an interpretation depends on inferences as opposed to explicit propositions in the text, the less persuasive it is. And if some of the inferences are themselves built on inferences, the greater the scholar’s burden to come up with probative data. Moreover, if a historical reconstruction disturbs rather than reinforces the apparent meaning of a passage, a skeptical response is both natural and justified. In other words, theories that ask us to overhaul a generally accepted interpretation may be regarded as less probable than proposals that illumine, nuance, and sustain an exegesis that has stood the test of time.”

Weima discusses the approach some scholars have taken to identifying the opponents Paul is writing against in the passage – and deals at length with “mirror reading” trying to infer from Paul’s arguments what the criticisms he wrote against were… Bruce’s hypothesis sees to be a pretty reasonable explanation of what was in the mirror. Other people have suggested identifying the opponents is an impossible task.

I like Bruce’s conclusion:

Paul as a preacher had reflected not only on the use of classical rhetoric for the presentation of his message and rejected it. He also resolved in his own mind that it was highly inappropriate for the messenger of the gospel to adopt the εἰσοδος conventions and ethics which governed the first century orators and sophists on their initial visit to a city and their long term relationships with its citizens.

So cop that Augustine, you can take your Cicero and stick him somewhere else… The Bruce has spoken.

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New Testament 102: Seeking the Welfare of the City in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Bruce’s teaching on this matter has been pretty influential – here’s a photo of two of his students seeking the welfare of the ancient city of Corinth.

As mentioned in the previous post, the issue of public benefaction presents an interesting dilemma for interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4 – which prima facie (at first glance, just a little phrase I picked up in my three years as a law student) suggests Christians should live quite lives…

Bruce’s contention is that the rhetorical purpose of 1 Thessalonians is to break down harmful social structures the church have inherited from Roman culture, or in this case, a particular harmful social structure – the patron client relationship.

A secular patron who converts to Christianity must go from being a patron seeking honour from his clients, to a private benefactor, bestowing generosity on those around him without the honour his previous status brought. Bruce contends that Paul’s sharp use of his own example in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 came as a result of the Thessalonians’ collective inability to do this. Christians, so far as Paul was concerned, were to be benefactors (whether public or private) of those around them.

“7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

And this, in verse 12:

12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

Some scholars have speculated that the situation underpinning these non-working eaters was a drought and work shortage – Bruce suggests this would make Paul a little unsympathetic to their plight. Others suggest that converts had taken the example of the Cynics and quite their jobs, taking to the streets. Others suggest it was an aversion to manual labor that prevented the Thessalonians getting in and working.

Underpinning the issue in 1 & 2 Thessalonians (especially 2) is the fact that some Christians are providing food for those who aren’t working for it – there’s some sort of patron-client thing going on. And Paul has a problem with this. But some have identified a problem with suggesting there’s a problem with the patron-client relationship being the model – because patrons only formed relationships with people of the same social status with less wealth, this objection comes from the characterisation of the early church as lower class only… So the idea that they’re clients suggests that they have some status.

Clients had all sorts of social obligations to their patron, and by keeping them they were able to receive the generosity of the patron, it was a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship though, because the patron’s social status was based on the size of his clientele. It’s possible that a bloke named Aristarchus who gets two mentions in Acts as a member of the church was a wealthy guy (there is an Aristarchus from Thessalonica at the same time who was a local pollie). Someone of that standing would have had the means to be both a civic and a private benefactor. Jason, Paul’s host in Thessalonica also appears to have been a wealthy man. And women could be benefactors too.

A patron who converted would have had to maintain their non-Christian client base. And Christian patrons with Christian clients would have resulted in an unhealthy power dynamic cutting both ways (the patron would have to honour their client’s requests, while the client would be the patron’s subordinate). Not an easy situation to be in, so Paul was keen for them to avoid those relationships all together.

Many have taken the 1 Thessalonians 4:11 verse mentioned in the previous post to entail keeping out of public life, to turn to a life of political quietism. The term was used to describe a person who gave up public duties in order to rest – but the alternative Paul puts forward is not to rest, but rather to stop being a busy body and to get back to working with one’s hands. Bruce thinks the starkest contrast possible to the life of the quiet worker who fed themselves by their labours was the client. Clients were political activists for their patrons – like a crowd in South Park chanting “rabble, rabble, rabble” their job was to make noise on their patron’s behalf. There are shades of Plato’s Republic in this command not to be a busybody, Plato says to “do one’s business and not to be a busybody is just.” Paul’s use of the term “busybody” most likely describes clients doing their patron’s work in the public square, and not looking to their own affairs.

Paul wanted Christians to live lives admired by all, “commanding the respect of outsiders” (1 Thes 4:12), and the life of the client impressed nobody but his patron – groups of clients would even get into fisticuffs with clients of their patron’s rival.

Paul’s exhortation towards quietism is not a general command – but a specific one to the “some” who do not work, “such” as they are to do their own work and eat their own bread.

Paul wants the Thessalonians to follow his paradosis his example amongst them, in word and deed. Commanding people to stay away from (and not feed) the idle man was the manner Paul used to break the link between patron and client within the church – but Christians weren’t just to work for their food, they were to do good too (2 Thes 3:13). They were to be a benefit for their city – Bruce argues that Paul’s objections to the patron-client relationship aren’t about upsetting the civic apple cart, but rather are about encouraging the Christians to make positive contributions to the city, rather than being a drain on resources. Christians were to be benefactors to the truly needy, not to those who were able to work, but wouldn’t.

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New Testament 102: Putting the Tarsus back into Paul

Doing some further reading on Paul and his interaction with Greek philosophy I came across this paragraph that Strabo, a Greek philosopher, wrote about Paul’s home town of Tarsus.

This is the kind of place Paul grew up in (which explains his conversance with Greek philosophy)

The people at Tarsus have devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to the whole roud of education in general, that they have surpassed Athens, Alexandria, or any other place that can be named where there have been schools and lectures of philosophers.

But it is so different from other cities that there the men who are fond of learning, are all natives, and foreigners are not inclined to sojourn there; neither do these natives stay there, but they complete their education abroad; and when they have completed it they are pleased to live abroad, and but few go back home. But the opposite is the case with the other cities which I have just mentioned except Alexandria; for many resort to them and pass time there with pleasure, but you would not see many of the natives either resorting to places outside their country through love of learning or eager about pursuing learning at home. With the Alexandrians, however, both things take place, for they admit many foreigners and also send not a few of their own citizens abroad.

Further, the city of Tarsus has all kinds of schools of rhetoric; and in general it not only has a flourishing population but also is most powerful, thus keeping up the reputation of the mother-city.

I thought that was interesting anyway.

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New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (part two)

So Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is an opportunity to introduce a new Gdo to Athens. The God. And it’s not an opportunity he lets slip. He grasps wit with both hands and uses it as a chance to preach the gospel, and in doing so he demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with the philosophy and practices of those he engages with. Bruce says he did this because he had found common ground between inconsistencies in Stoic and Epicurean thought and practice, and similarities between their doctrines and the Old Testament.

“He [Paul] was not borrowing his theology from the philosophical schools for pragmatic purposes.”

Bruce sees his speech before the Areopagus (as do I, as a pretty masterful piece of apologetics, for an article to that effect rather than my notes on his lecture on apologetics see Introducing Athens to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17? (PDF), J.D Charles agrees in this article Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (PDF)). Other scholars think it’s an apologetic model Paul tried and gave up, feeling a bit disillusioned (this view was made popular by a guy named Ramsay in St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895)), or that Paul was actually on criminal trial to determine if his teaching was subversive (see this Google Books reference from Stanley Porter). I think Bruce’s reading actually makes the most sense, only Porter’s criminal trial theory explains the presence in the narrative of Acts, the idea that Paul gave up this sort of apologetic falls over a bit when you observe Paul’s continued engagement with Greek philosophy (see his quote from Epimendes in Acts 17:28 and his other Cretans quote in Titus and the Epimenedes Paradox), and Roman law and culture in his subsequent trials. Plus the narrative of Acts 17 reports converts (so it’s hardly a failure). Some suggest Paul’s resolving to know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2) was Paul’s general approach to apologetics and not one particular to Corinth in the light of their issues with idolising gospel preachers as though they were first century orators.

Paul’s Apologetic Method (and the introduction of new Gods)

Paul opens with observations about the culture, and at the same time, points out that the God he is talking about is not a new God, but an Old God…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Then he addresses specific questions the Areopagus sought to answer regarding new gods

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

He begins to look at what divine honours might be appropriate or required for such a God (what do you give the God who has everything?).

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Then he demonstrates his familiarity with their culture and thinking

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

This verse actually contains a quote from Epimendes and another from a Aratus, a Stoic philosopher.

Then he again turns to the question of temples and statues

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

And finally, he turns back to the question of what God requires from converts and the proof of God’s epiphany (in this case Jesus and the Resurrection, the gospel he had been preaching)

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Bruce suggests Paul makes five affirmations about the knowable God – that he made the world, determined the boundaries of the nations, that he can be sought through general revelation, that idols don’t represent him since we are his offspring, and that all people are called to turn to him or face judgment.

The Stoics, in De Natura Deorum had a sequence to be met in the presentation of new gods: first: prove God exists, second: explain their nature, third: show that the world is governed by them, fourth: show that they care for mankind.

Bruce says:

“The summary in Acts 17 assumes their belief in God‘s existences and His role as the creator of the world who is Lord of heaven and earth, (v. 24a). It affirms He gives life and all things to all his creation, (v. 25b). His providential care is intrinsically bound up with the needs of all mankind, (v. 26). Paul developed his theme on the nature of the known God thus.”

Paul also tackles issues of divine providence, from Bruce:

…in the Athenian speech there are important resonances with the Stoic view of providence. This may well have been Paul‘s most important bridge with that segment of his audience. Balbus sets out what he sees as the Stoic thesis that the world is ruled by divine providence…of the gods‘, only familiarity blinds us to nature‘s marvels.‘ For him providential government of the world can be inferred firstly, from divine wisdom and power,  secondly, from the nature of the world, thirdly from a detailed review of the wonders of nature,  and fourthly from the care of man.

Also, Bruce points out that Paul’s use of the singular “God” rather than “gods” was right down the alley of the Stoics and Epicureans – and elements of his speech to the Areopagus directly attack their understanding of theology.

The Stoics and Epicureans would have had no difficulty with the use of the singular ‘god’, for in one sentence they used the singular and plural interchangeably. For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of ‘worshippers of god’ as those who ‘have acquaintance with the rites of the gods’ and who know ‘how to serve the gods’.

Much of Paul’s argument also plays on tensions between Stoic and Epicurean thought, in the same way that his argument before the Pharisees and the Sadducees played on tensions between those two groups.

Epicureans believed that God was living, immortal, and blessed – terminology Paul often uses to describe God in his letters. The Epicureans would have found common ground on that point, and further on the point that God could be discovered (and that an unknown God could be made known) because they believed God was knowable and clear to all. They also, importantly, dismissed the idea of God(s) living in temples – they didn’t like anything that looked like superstition, and both agreed that God had no need for human resources.

But the notion of an afterlife was completely foreign to Epicurus (the founder of the Epicureans) who said:

“Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling and that which has no feelings is nothing to us”

Which is probably why the crowd reacted like they did when Paul mentioned the resurrection (in much the same way that the Sadducees reacted in his audience with the Jews).

Bruce thinks Paul was actually calling the Stoics and Epicureans out on social compromise on their philosophies – and offering a better way.

“The Stoic self-contradiction, as Plutarch pointed out, was that they  attend the mysteries in the temples, go up to the Acropolis, do reverence to statues, and place wreaths upon the shrines, though these were the works of builders and mechanics”

Epicurus himself had believed that popular piety was not correct—‘For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions,‘

Some final thoughts from Bruce:

“Stoicism and Epicureanism in the imperial period had to endorse religious pluralism if they were to maintain their following, given participation in the imperial cult as one of the ways of affirming their loyalty to the empire.”

“No dialogue can be called  Christian‘ that does not possess the five elements expressed in Acts 17. So Paul‘s sermon in Athens was highly pleasing to Almighty God and these essential elements are to be repeated if we are to win the hearts and the minds of our contemporaries who need to believe the gospel.”

J.D Charles agrees (though he spends his time pondering the philosophical nature of Athens):

“Summing up Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Athens, we may note that the Apostle was knowledgeable, dialectical, well-read, relevant, and rhetorically skillful. What particularly strikes the reader is his ability to accommodate himself to the knowledge-base of most Athenians. Viewing Paul’s encounter with Athenian culture as such, we may conclude that his ministry was not a “failure.” Nor is it necessary to assume that his not-too-distant reflections about the power of the cross, recorded in 1 Corinthians 1–2, were penned with a wrong apologetic model (i.e., Athens) in mind.
To the contrary, a more accurate assessment of Paul’s ministry in Athens may be summed up by his own testimony to the Corinthians: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more. To the Jews I became a Jew … ; to those without the law, I became like those without the law … I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:19–22).”

My Big Fat Greek Adventure: Post Three

The morning of day two was more time spent on site at the archeological dig in Ancient Corinth. We walked through the museum where there are plenty of statues of emperors both deified and “living.” Plus statues of soldiers and other trinkets uncovered on site.

The museum gestapo wander round the halls enforcing their two photographic rules – no flash, and no posing.

After wandering the museum we wandered the site. Standing on site gives a phenomenal picture of the intersection of religion, law, and commerce in the city, and the way this intertwining would have presented major problems for Christian converts.

Here’s a model of the city from the Orthodox conference centre.

Roman culture was status heavy – life was all about how important you were, and becoming more important. So the radical realignment of identity that comes through being sanctified in Christ and being statusless would have felt like having the marble roads pulled from under your feet.

Statues and buildings were public relations propaganda. Which I’m finding particularly interesting. The placing of buildings, the statues therein, and even the material they were constructed from said something about the people who frequented them and served to build that status.

This inscription, in a footpath, is possibly linked to Erastus, the treasurer of Corinth, mentioned in Romans 16. Bruce says that Paul’s commands to do good in Romans 13 specifically referred to individuals acting in whatever capacity they had to serve the city. He says this looked like making a financial benefaction for a project, or running for office. People who ran for office had to promise benefactions, and this footpath inscription says that it was produced under the Aedileship of Erastus.

At some point in the process we climbed the massive hill that sits behind Ancient Corinth, it’s called the Acrocorinth, which means the Corinth hill. There is an old school castle on top. It was almost cooler than checking out anything to do with Paul. Almost.

More photos are in my Picasa album, photos of the people I’m on the trip with are available on Facebook if you’re my friend.

My Big Fat Greek Adventure: Day Two

We hit Ancient Corinth on day two in Greece – our visit to the site was sponsored by the Bishop of Corinth. His minion who wore black, carried worry beads and looked like a gangster watched our trek around the site, before we made our way to a newly minted “St Paul Centre” for an absolutely opulent (and free) lunch put on by the Bishop.

The site itself is amazing. There’s a museum filled with relics that have been uncovered in the dig. The chief archeologist gave us a run down of the landscape. The city of Corinth sits under a pretty impenetrable fort (more on that later) atop the Acrocorinth, it has a steady supply of water, is resource rich, and sits beside the Corinthian isthmus, a vital trade link between two major oceans.

The city was pulled apart by the Romans, who later rebuilt over the top of the Greek foundations in the late BCs. The dig has uncovered much of Roman Corinth, and gone deeper into Greek Corinth. One of the best bits from the head digger was a look at a little secret passage that they found in an underground Greek temple (no longer underground).

On the Roman Corinth front, the city puts the New Testament into real perspective – which I guess is the point of the visit. Standing in the centre of the city square you’re struck by the intersection of commerce, justice and religion. Roman business and Roman Law were inextricably religious. And the construction of the city and placement of idol statues (especially of deified emperors) hammered that home. The temple of Apollos is pretty impressive (some of its pillars still stand) but the imperial temple dominated the landscape, and could be spotted from just about anywhere in the city.


The imperial temple – the pillars have been slightly rebuilt, though much shorter than they would originally have been.


The temple of Apollos

The coolest bit of the trip (Bible wise), was standing in front of the Bema, or justice seat, where Paul appeared before Gallio in Acts 18.

12 But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before (AC)the judgment seat,

13 saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”

14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you;

15 but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters.”

16 And he drove them away from the judgment seat.

This is one of the only geographic points we have for Paul’s visit – so as we stood here and looked around, not only could we imagine the streets alive and an impending riot being quelled by Gallio’s prudent judgment, but we were standing somewhere where Paul himself stood, and where an event of some significance in the New Testament occurred. Gallio’s judgment, and reputation as a juror, meant Christianity was suddenly a legal religion in the empire.

There have been a couple more “aha” moments that will doubtless be the subject of subsequent posts. Stay tuned for our visit to a real castle. It was incredible.

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Liveblog: Ben Witherington III on Acts

Ben Witherington III, blogger, biblical scholar and widely published New Testament author, is guest lecturing at QTC today on the book of Acts.

I’ll be updating it as the three hours of lectures go on – check back in this arvo for the final version. What follows are bits and pieces from his lectures:

One of the things I would want to stress to you is that what we’re dealing with in Acts is a form of ancient historiography. Luke is writing in the traditions of Hellenistic and Jewish history writing that had their own conventions which are not identical with the conventions of modern historiography.

One of the great problems with interpretation of the text is anachronism – reading our concerns, our modern concerns, back into the text. Acts is one of the main areas where this happens.

For example: Acts 2 is about a miracle. The miracle of speaking in tongues. But it’s ultimately about empowering the church for mission, not about a particular kind of post-conversion spiritual experience that we will all receive.

All of us are guilty of anachronism – we all read the Book of Acts with modern eyes.

Hermeneutically speaking we need to have some rules about how we read Acts.

  1. If we find a repeated pattern we can assume this is normative.
  2. If we find a special event not repeated it might be an unusual historical occurrence and not a principle on which we should hang out shingle.
  3. Does the author of Acts affirm the pattern? Positive repeated patterns are a good interpretive rubric (the telling of Saul’s conversion as a very important event is told three times – clearly it’s important). Does the author of Acts condemn the pattern. Some texts are “go and do likewise” others are “go and do otherwise.”
  4. We can’t just deduce doctrines from the reporting of history unless we have other methodologies – Acts reports what happens, not always what ought to have happened.

Chapter 6 begins “so the word of God spread…” one of the things about the structure of the book is what we have in the book of Acts is an arrangment of panels of material with little linking summary statements – like this one in Acts. Acts is not presented in strict chronological order – there’s a broadly chronological order, but sometimes Luke wants to give background flashbacks to help follow through a theme in the narrative. There’s finess in what Luke is doing. He is operating like Roman historians who tell the chronological sequential narratives about different regions in different literary units. We have some of that in the book of Acts.

Luke is wanting to talk about the geographical spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. This is historiography, not biography. It’s not just about Peter or Paul – in fact, after Acts 15 we don’t hear about Peter again. It’s not a biography of Paul and it ends on an unfinished note. There’s no story about the death, or martyrdom, of Paul. This is not bios but a historical monograph.

Luke isn’t interested in the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of the Holy Spirit – how the work of the gospel is fulfilled throughout the world.

There’s lots we’d like to know that Luke is not telling us. Don’t eisegete. We need to be comfortable with the limitations of the text. We can’t bring our own interests into the text. We have to let Luke be Luke. Ancient historiographers were not as hung up about chronology as we are. They didn’t measure time like we do. They were less concerned about precise chronology and happier with general accounts, we can’t impose our precision on their accounts. Ultimately the text as received is what God has decided to give us. It’s important that we leave dogma at the door.

The phrase “The Word of God” refers to the oral proclamation – not some document, in a culture where less than 20% of people could read the primary method of receiving the good news was through oral proclamation of the good news. That’s what the phrase must mean throughout the book of Acts (not the Hebrew bible, not any written documents).

We live in a culture of texts as “literate” people. They weren’t. Most ancient people preferred the oral word to the written word. Consulting with living voices and eyewitnesses was culturally preferential to reading written accounts. Written documents had very limited functions in antiquity. They were not for everybody.

This is a massive work by ancient standards – Luke contains the limit in letter count that you could get on one piece of papyrus. Luke was pushing the envelope in terms of content, Acts makes use of the space on a papyrus in a similar way. Ben thinks Theophilus was Luke’s patron. A real person, not a general title for “lovers of God”…

On the Stoning of Stephen…

Stephen is a Greek speaking Jew, speaking in the synagogue of the freedmen. Stephen is meant to be a deacon, looking after the practical needs of the church, and here he is preaching.

There are a lot of parallels between how Luke tells the story of the death of Jesus and how he tells the story of the death of Stephen. In essence Stephen models Christ’s death. Luke is using a historiographical tool to use history to teach morality. He’s encouraging Christians to follow the model of Isaiah’s suffering servant – and providing a biblical framework for Christian martyrdom – “father forgive them”…

The “Acts of the Apostles” is a misnomer – it’s not anthropological or biographical but theological – and this informs its approach to history. We hardly see any of the apostles except for Peter and Paul.

Luke sees himself as writing in the tradition of Jewish historiographers – like the Maccabees and OT writers.

There’s false witness in both accounts, born out in the Sanhedrin. Jesus should have been stoned (if not for the passover festival). Because there were probably 400,000 people in the city at the time the Jews wanted to make sure that it was the Romans who killed Jesus so that no Jews could say that the problem was of Jewish origin. In the case of Stephen it’s the Jews who carry out the killing. Romans reserved the right of capital punishment in their own hands. The Jews had no legal right to engage in vigilante justice. Their only recourse to capital punishment (legally) was the violation of the Holy of Holies in the temple.

The Romans would never execute a Jew on the charge of Jewish blasphemy. Jesus was executed on a charge of treason, claiming to be a king. Stephen was stoned for blasphemy.

The account of the stoning of Stephen is the longest narrative in Acts and contains the longest speech – it was obviously important to Luke. Luke is dealing with an explanation of how Christianity and Judaism have split. He’s explaining the origins of this split. The ending of the life of a pious Jew, Stephen, and the emergence of Saul/Paul as a force for the gentile mission is a pivotal moment in this movement.

One of the repeated themes of Acts is “father forgive them because they are ignorant”… this comes up in Peter’s sermon “you crucified Jesus because you were ignorant”… Luke doesn’t want to write off Jews, he wants to show that they are not forsaken but that they are in a position where they have rejected Jesus.

In the speech of Stephen we see a retelling of sacred history – from Abraham on, recounting the sad story of the unfaithfulness of the Jews to the work, word, and messengers of God. It’s a repeated pattern in Israelite history, all the way down to Jesus. The Sanhedrin aren’t thrilled with this reinterpretation of their history – in their mind they are good evangelical, bible believing, Jews. This was the ultimate insult. And it resulted in the death of Stephen.

The end of Stephen’s speech is not recorded – the speech (like many times in Acts, eg Paul in Athens) goes on until it is interrupted – and at that point the speech cuts off and is replaced by narrative. This is what happens here. Stephen is in full swing, condemning the Sanhedrin – who become teeth gnashingly furious. It’s when Stephen calls Jesus the “Son of Man” (the only use of the title in Acts) that they rush him and kill him (which is where he cries out “do not hold this sin against them”).

Paul’s “persecution of the church unto death” is the sin he constantly dwells on when describing his pre-Christian life. In Philippians he calls himself “blameless under the law” – nobody could accuse Saul/Paul of being a lawbreaker. But he kept the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law. He makes this point and then acknowledges that he is the “least of the apostles because he persecuted the church unto death.”

This is how Luke introduces the story of Saul/Paul.

On Paul
Iconography – icons were not intended to be photos but representations of the character of the person. Big heads were not symbols of knowing lots, but of being wise. Descriptions in ancient texts functioned in the same way – they’re not so much about what the people looked like (which was not an issue for ancient writers) but descriptions linked with character.

Who is Paul: he’s responsible for over a third of the New Testament.

Paul the teacher (Acts 11:26)
Paul the prophet (Acts 13:9-11)
Paul the apostle (Acts 14:4, 14, Galatians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 8:23)

Ben reiterates that “The Acts of the Apostles” is a silly name for the book that Luke would have been bemused by. The inspired part of Acts begins with verse one, not with the late addition of the title.

On Barnabas (Paul’s missionary buddy)

Originally Joseph, Barnabas, the name, means “son of prayer” or “son of encouragement”… he’s a Levite convert from Cyprus, part of the 70 select disciples of Jesus, he sold his land to help the poor, held to have been stoned in 60AD.

On Paul again
If we met Paul today, quite a lot of us would probably find him difficult to get on with.

Paul’s Roman citizenship is a trump card that he trots out to save his life. He doesn’t mention, directly, in his letters that he was a citizen. It’s Luke who mentions that.

Paul was probably amazingly fit – his missionary journeys required long treks through harsh terrain. Some of the geography he had to cross in short periods of time were pretty incredibly hostile. To walk from Perga to Pisidian Antioch (like Paul did) requires 600 miles of walking over some pretty massive hills.

When you start seeing the proportions of what’s going on you see that being called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” is like being told you’re the apostle to the whole world except Israel.

On Paul’s Conversion
There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts (ch 9, 22, 26) – they are widely separate. The first is in the third person, told about Paul. The second and third are in the first person. Paul himself is reporting the story. In both cases he tells the story in a rhetorically effective way depending on his audience. Paul is speaking to the crowd in the temple precinct (ch 22) and King Agrippa and Roman officials (ch 26).

The first account is Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion. Luke wasn’t there. So where did he get it from? Luke 1:1-4 – he consulted with the eyewitnesses. In this case he must have received it from Paul, his companion from the second and third missionary journeys recorded in Acts.

Acts 9 is straightforward narrative. One of the things Ben wants to dispel is that Paul’s name doesn’t occur as a result of the conversion but when he runs into Sergius Paulus (who has an inscription in Galatia) that he changes his name.

The Greek form of the name Saul, σαυλος meant “to walk like a prostitute” in Greek. Which isn’t likely to work in the work of his missionary context. παυλος in Greek just meant “a short person.” The name change comes because of his missionary work in the gentile world, not because of his conversion. That’s a myth.

Luke, in composing Acts, knows, when he writes what he writes, that he doesn’t have to tell the story on the first go – because he’s going to come around to it again later in the piece. The provision of more detail is a rhetorically effective account – not a contradiction. It’s an elaboration to keep the narrative retelling fresh on the second and third iterations. The mechanism of the encounter – the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul – is the same in each account. Verbatim.

Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus makes it clear that when you persecute the church you are persecuting Jesus, and that his salvation was not through keeping the law – but through grace.

What is the change that happens in Paul’s life? What is the process that we’re talking about? Does he go from being a Jew to being a Gentile? No. Does he go from a person who believes in the Hebrew scriptures to one who doesn’t? No. What happens is that he goes from being an opponent to a proponent of Jesus as a messianic fulfillment. This is not a new religion. But the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations. We can not forget that we have been grafted in to Israel through the work of faithful Jewish missionaries.

Paul doesn’t ever call us Christians – but talks about us being “in Christ” – has that ever struck you as odd as a description of the people of God? This is not a mere metaphor. We are being told that Christ is present everywhere at once. He is the atmosphere in which we live. When Paul wanted to describe who we are, he said we are “Jew and Gentile” in Christ. In Romans 9-11 he goes on a rampage rebuking the Christians for thinking they had supplanted the Jews.

He says: “I would be willing to be cut off from Christ permanently if my people could be reconciled and brought back in” – which one of you would willingly give up your salvation to save others…

and then (paraphrasing)…

“You Gentiles are the wild olive branches that have been grafted in” so you have no basis for being arrogant.

The truth then, and the truth now, is that many Jews don’t believe in Jesus because of the church. Not because of Jesus.

This conversion story has a call that comes with a commission. Paul was not just called to be a follower of Jesus but commissioned to be part of the ministry of the body of Christ. This is true for everybody. Paul and Peter’s missions were not geographically exclusive. It wasn’t a turf war. Paul, Peter, and Apollos were all part of the same team ministering in the same cities.

There’s not always a crisis point that leads to conversion. Sometimes it’s a process that takes time. Your conversion does not need to replicate what happened to Saul. It’s like labour – some are short, some are long, some are painful – in the end a new creature is born. There are a variety of patterns of conversion in Acts. It’s a mistake to schematise what our God personalises.

The eyes have it: sight as the thorn in Paul’s flesh

Galatians (Paul’s earliest work) 4:12-15: “I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. 13As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. 14Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

What is this about? Ben thinks Paul had ongoing eye problems. When you have a vision you’re supposed to report what you saw, and Paul, on the Damascus “heard” the Lord Jesus. “See with what large letters I write my name” why did Paul write in large letters and need a scribe? What was the stake in his flesh? A physical problem that was chronic but did not effect his ministry. In the ancient world the eyes were seen as the windows to the soul – bad eyes meant a bad soul. Ancient peoples didn’t believe that the eyes were a receptacle of light but the things through which the soul projected…

Paul says, when I came to you you did not condemn me, and did not spit (which was the appropriate cultural response to the “evil eye”… the Galatians didn’t judge Paul on that basis.

Why did Paul need a personal physician on his missionary journeys? Because he had a condition that was not fatal but needed treatment all the time.

Why did the Corinthians say his letters were powerful but his presence weak? He had an ethos problem – his eyes. They weren’t impressed with his appearance. But his words were powerful.

The Roman soldier who was first up the wall was given incredible honour – when Paul escapes persecution via the basket lowered down a wall he claims to have been “first down the wall” an inverted version of Roman honour.

The early letters of Paul are not the early thoughts of Paul – they’re letters from the experienced Paul. Years after his conversion. It seems that Paul laboured in the vineyard for many years before seeing any results.

Ben draws a parallel between Jacob and his post wrestle itch (from Genesis) and the purpose it served as a reminder – and Paul’s continued malady. This doesn’t mesh with prosperity/health gospels – and many prominent and influential Christian ministers and thinkers have died of diseases or suffered chronic ill health. We can’t link prosperity and faith.

Closing points (of sorts)

Luke’s lithmus test for salvation is the Spirit – there is no Christian without the Holy Spirit – we can only tell if someone has the Spirit or not by their words and conduct. Water baptism does not save (or do anything).

Tongues (angelic language) are a legitimate and biblical gift (not found in Acts 2 – but mentioned later).

The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict, convince, convert. It will always point people towards Jesus.

Our gifts are for the benefits of others. The fruit of the Spirit is for the nourishing of the body. There is one fruit of the Spirit – not many. In the Greek. These fruits are meant to be present in all Christians. The fruit of the spirit is about character renovation, the gifts are about ministry. There’s not a necessary link between gifts and maturity. Gifts should be exercised by the mature. If you can’t speak the truth in love you need to stop speaking it. Your character is more important than your gifting. Christianity is more often caught than taught.

“The most important ministry you can have is not the songs (etc) that come from your mouth but the fruits that come from your life.”

The Spirit in the Book of Acts, above all other things, is the spirit of mission and evangelism. All the other achievements of the Spirit (eg healing) are peripheral to that mission.

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Bruce Winter’s tips for apologetics

We’re doing a bit of a mini-subject on apologetics this semester as part of a weekly “preparations for ministry” session.

Yesterday’s session featured Bruce Winter sharing some insights on the important discipline of apologetics garnered from his extensive studies on Paul and his culture, and from his experience as an apologist in Singapore and while working as an academic in England (Cambridge).

Here are my notes:

Every Christian is required to be ready to give a reason to the hope that lies within them.

It’s interesting that the word there – apologia – goes beyond the idea of giving some answer. Stoic philosophers used apologia to argue their case while interacting in a substantial way with the mindset of the people they’re addressing.

How are we going to engage in apologia with people in the 21st century? Two Ways To Live isn’t going to work for everybody. We see from the way that Paul tackles apologetics that he engages the culture around him.

We need to engage the audience and move around their world – Paul’s letter to the Romans is a great apologia that removes objections to the gospel – objections that come from the mindset of people living in first century Rome.

Paul argues that we need to pull down every argument against God both within and outside the church – he talks about demolishing the stronghold of people’s ideas contrary to God, he distinguishes between the argument and the person. Paul demolishes and reconstructs these arguments “captive to Christ.

Acts 17 is a good example, and a good paradigm, of Paul connecting with the audience and their expectations and producing converts. This is the parliament of Athens.

Five things to learn from Paul to connect and engage with people’s world. This message needs to engage the thought world of the people around it.

  1. We have to connect our message with the audience we’re speaking to – Paul connects – he makes the connections the audience required (in introducing a new God to the council – eg the building of a temple, holy days/sacrifices), he also uses their culture (eg the statue of the unknown god) to engage.
  2. We have to structure our message in a way that provides a hearing for the gospel – The framework we present the gospel in changes based on the audience – talking to sciency people requires a different presentation to talking to people from different religious backgrounds. The main aim is that people hear the gospel connected to their world.
  3. Know how to connect the message, and know what it needs to correct – Paul knows that people need the gospel, but he also knows what the objections to it are, and he addresses them with the correction of the gospel.
  4. Converse with their world – it’s remarkable when you read historical sources talking about the nature of God and compare it to the way Paul quotes their arguments and poets/philosophers in his apologia. He understands their world, their language, and their issues. Paul is even able to point out inconsistencies in their current thinking and actions (they talk about the nature of Gods not living in temples made by man, but visit temples – Paul points out they aren’t living up to their basic beliefs and teachings.) He’s read the literature. He knows their teaching. He is well able to bring them to that point through the quotations of their poets.
  5. He confronts his audience – Paul doesn’t steer clear of the topic of God’s judgment and the predicament that places his audience in. God’s judgment coupled with God’s amnesty (he calls on all people, everywhere, to repent). Paul doesn’t compromise. He’s not prepared to negotiate on the fixed points that his audience was bound to be opposed to. It’s a different worldview.  Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 converts people from those opposing points of view and philosophy.

Some questions to ask regarding our approach:

  • How are we going to talk to different audiences?
  • How do we talk to those dealing with the certain uncertainty of death?
  • How do we connect with their views and preconceptions about Christianity and the world?
  • How can we talk to them about their world?
  • How do we talk to affluent people who think they have everything? Their question is different – “what’s missing?” – “what is it?” How do we raise the issue of the gospel in a way that articulates this need in a way they might never have considered?

A question to prompt thought in others is: If you had your life over again how would you do things differently? Everybody is fundamentally aware that they do the wrong thing at least occasionally.

We’re not dealing with blanks slates but people who have spent their lives deliberately ignoring (and justifying ignoring) general revelation. Romans 2 suggests that it’s our conscience that judges us as we face God at judgment day – so the question “how can God…” is irrelevant.