Archives For Romans

This is part 4 in a 5 part series on what social media does to our brains. It uses Facebook as a case study – but it’s not just about Facebook. In fact, it’s just as likely to apply to people who use smartphones… A study from the University of Winnipeg found:

“The values and traits most closely associated with texting frequency are surprisingly consistent with Carr’s conjecture that new information and social media technologies may be displacing and discouraging reflective thought.”

Part 1 established that there is good reason to believe that the communication mediums we use change the way we communicate and relate (media ecology), and thus change the way we think, in turn rewiring our brains (neuroscience and neuroplasticity), and that there is good evidence that this is consistent with a Christian view of the world. Part 2 considered how we might approach this emerging consensus about the impact of social media from the perspectives of media ecology and neuroscience. Part 3 considered how this fits in with a Christian view of the world – in these posts the conclusion was the same – mediums aren’t neutral, they contain powerful “myths” that conform their users to a particular way of operating and thus thinking – but forewarned is forearmed. If we bring our own deliberate framework to the party we’ll probably be able to avoid the power of these myths…

Christians have extra motivation to do this – we have a social network that is conforming us into a different image. We are participants in the body of believers, the church. United with Christ, by the Spirit, as God’s children. Being conformed into the image of Jesus – while avoiding competing patterns.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this worldbut be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

The insights from media ecology and modern neuroscience aren’t teaching us anything that Christian theology didn’t already know – we are shaped by what we think about, and by how we receive and process information. If we’re going to avoid being manipulated by the media we use, and the myths they carry, we need to think hard and deliberately about how to avoid the patterns they try to imprint on our thinking – and the changes they make to our brains. There’s nothing wrong with your brain changing – that’s natural. But being in control and having your mind “renewed” is the goal.

This post, with some practical steps, will be particularly focused on a Christian approach, but hopefully the principles will be able to be extrapolated (because they’ll also draw from media ecology and neuroscience).

 

facebook brain

As I was reading stuff for this post, and as I was writing it,  I read a stunning book on approaching communication mediums as a Christian. I’ve read a bunch of these – and this is absolutely the best out there. This post took so long to write that the book got its own separate review – if you want to read a whole book, rather than an 8,000 word blog post, please check out Andy Byers’ TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital AgeYou won’t be disappointed.

1. Bring your own ‘myth-busting’ narrative (and deliberately be multi-medium)

To recap previous posts – the reason mediums aren’t neutral tools, the reason they can subtly change how we think and act as we use them, is that communication mediums come pre-loaded with myths that shape how we use them, and this shapes our thinking, which rewires our heads.

Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

“When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others—algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google or other search engines, we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script. When we choose from a list of categories to describe ourselves or our relationships on Facebook, we’re following a script. These scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, as they were in the Taylorist factories, but they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment. As the computer programmer Thomas Lord has argued, software can end up turning the most intimate and personal of human activities into mindless “rituals” whose steps are “encoded in the logic of web pages.”  – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

“First, like the telephone, the function of social media is to connect physically distant people. But any time people are connected through a medium, that connection happens within the rules of the medium. Our question then should not be “Is it real?” because connecting online is just as “real” as talking on the phone or sending a letter. The better question is, what are the rules of the medium and what are the underlying messages and patterns that emerge from those rules? – John Dyer, From the Garden To The City

Dyer has this to say about Facebook’s mythic messages and their impact on our thinking…

“Blogger and web developer Leisa Reichelt uses the term “ambient intimacy” to describe this background connection. She writes, “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. In order to achieve ambient intimacy, friends need to continually post things about themselves—what they are thinking, feeling, and doing—for their friends to read about. To maintain this pattern, we have to regularly think about what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing and then decide which of those things to communicate. In other words, when we do community online we have to think about ourselves much more than when we do community offline… This feedback loop of thinking about oneself is why many people conclude that the Internet makes us narcissistic… As far back as Cain’s city, we’ve said that our flesh will do whatever it can to make technology an idol of distraction. In the online world, the great danger is that we are constructing an idol of ourselves and becoming distracted with our own beauty… We are continually tempted to construct a Tower of Babel unto ourselves rather than work together on being the people of God, conformed into the image of his Son… Those born into Internet culture and those who feel comfortable in it will need to spend more time challenging it in order to avoid subtly giving in to its negative tendencies.”

These tendencies come in the embedded values, myths, or narratives surrounding and promulgating a platform, so, for example, Facebook’s is that by using Facebook you are more connected to your friends and the world.

As Christians, we already have a paradigm shaping narrative, the Gospel, a story that not only transforms our minds – but transforms our approach to media. What does this mean when it comes to Facebook? It means, firstly, that we’ll be suspicious of the narrative Facebook brings, but our use of Facebook will also be governed by priorities about our thinking, relationships and use of time that come from our understanding of who we are in Christ, where we’re heading, how we’re meant to live, and who it is that shapes our lives. Peter may as well have been writing about Facebook when he wrote these words…

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.  As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:13-16

And this actually works. Having a controlling narrative robs little narratives of their power. Here’s how Andy Byers sums up some pretty similar advice in his most excellent TheoMedia, he also appreciates the opportunity social media presents for Christians to live like Jesus – to be “incarnate,” to carry our message to mediums that lower the barrier between medium and messenger (which is one of the features of profile-driven social media platforms, we naturally become part of the medium), but more on that later…

“Social media companies are providing us with a platform. It is not their job to police poor grammar or correct bad theology promulgated through their channels. As media platforms, Twitter, Tumblr, Blogger, and WordPress offer remarkable opportunities for conducting God’s mediated voice into the cybersphere. I just think it is important for us to recognize that behind the graphics on the screen are corporations with budget goals, profit plans, marketing strategies, and other business-oriented agendas. These are not necessarily corrupting influences. But they are there, barely perceptible in those imperatives (“just write”) and questions (“what’s happening, Andy?”). Responsible use of media technology means we that rely on more authoritative voices to govern our online activity than those coming from executives poised in their corporate suites. As Christians, we take our theological and technological cues from elsewhere… ”

… as media and religion specialist Heidi Campbell points out, there is the assumption in the extreme, distilled version of this more cautious perspective that media technology use will always shroud and distort human culture, so that we are left only with the ability to respond to its power or educate ourselves against its control. This approach often allows only for acceptance or rejection of technology in light of religious values. It does not leave room for considering how religious values may lead to more nuanced responses to technology or the creative innovation of aspects of technology so they are more congruent with core beliefs…

Heidi Campbell has proposed a more nuanced approach for understanding religion and media: “the religious-social shaping of technology.” She has found in her extensive observations that although communication technologies have the capacity to influence their users, religious groups often resist those influences and bring their theological traditions to bear on how they use them. In other words, although religious folks may indeed be shaped by the technologies they employ, at the same time they exert their own influences on media, incorporating communications technology within their existing conceptual grids and forcing some degree of theological compliance. As John Dyer succinctly puts it, “Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values.” – Andy Byers, TheoMedia

I’m going to go a step further than simply suggesting that we use each technology, separately, within our existing value system, and suggest that using multiple platforms, deliberately (ie with thought and thinking about how to use them differently), dilutes the pull of particular narratives and the power of different platforms to completely shape your thinking. This deliberate mastery over multiple platforms will stop single platforms mastering you, and hijacking your head. It’ll help you notice the distinctives of different platforms, which is a shortcut to spotting a “myth”…

Choosing your narrative, and using tools and mediums according to your existing values, is the best way to control the “shaping” that is happening.

Dyer, who wrote From the Garden to the City has a useful five-pronged approach to ‘mythbusting':

1. Valuation: “We must begin by continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian values and identity. From that perspective we can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of technology and determine what values will emerge from the tendencies of use built into its design.”

2. Experimentation: “Thinking about technology is helpful, but it’s difficult to discover the tendencies and value systems built into a technology without actually using it”

3. Limitation: “Once we understand the patterns of usage of a technology, the next step is to see what happens when we put boundaries on it. If we become convinced that spending too much time on social media sites invites narcissism and that reading online limits deep thinking, then a disciplined set of limits is necessary.”

4. Togetherness: “The previous three steps—valuation, experimentation, and limitation—will be rendered mostly useless if we practice them in isolation apart from the context of Christian fellowship.”

5. Cultivation: “we must be careful not to enter into a kind of inactive stasis where we talk about technology but fail to support those who are actually doing technology in service of what God has asked of his image bearers: to cultivate and keep his creation and to make disciples of all nations. In recent years, Christian communities have been rediscovering the importance of cultivating and nurturing artists, and I think the time has come for us to begin doing the same with those working in technology. We already spend time and resources developing and encouraging business people and politicians, yet it is the technologists—the men and women creating the next generation of tools—who are often implicitly making important decisions about health care, energy, Internet regulation, privacy, weapons availability, biomedical advances, and so on.” 

2. Keep your head and hands ‘active’ inside and outside of social media

Most of the people who are worried about what the internet is doing to our head – those like Nicholas Carr – are quite fond of the effect books have on the head, Christians, who are people of the book (or at least people of words, people shaped by a story, if we don’t want to get to medium bound) should also probably into books – or at the very least reading long, coherent, literature presented in a logically linear form. Here’s a little ode to the book (and its effect on the brain) from Carr’s The Shallows. 

“Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness… Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.”

“In one fascinating study, conducted Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” The brain regions that are activated often “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.” Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, “is by no means a passive exercise.” The reader becomes the book. The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

This ‘incarnate’ relationship between book and reader – at least in the mind – is pretty interesting territory to explore, theologically, but for the purpose of the current exercise we’ll simply note that books seem to do desirable things to our head, and If it’s true that the “reader becomes the book” then books are arguably every bit as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than social media in terms of warping your mind… Reading books from one author, or on one topic, will skew your head and your thinking, potentially to a greater extent, than simply relying on one social media platform. The same advice “forwarned is forearmed” applies here as it does for social media – we should be aware of what is going on for our brains, and trying to exercise and stimulate them in multiple ways, not getting them addicted to a particular fix. So reading widely is probably important for a well rounded mind.

By the by, I love this advice and concept…

“Read at Whim. I learned this principle from the essayist and poet Randall Jarrell, who once met a scholar, a learned man and a critic, who commented that he read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim every year. Jarrell’s response: The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!” - Alan Jacobs, The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction

For every person who loves a good book – there are those, like Plato (see previous post), and Schopenhauer, who were worried about what books do to free thought and one’s ability to think outside the box, or books…

“The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for yourself and that produced by Facebook is incredibly great… For social media forcibly imposes on the mind thoughts that are as foreign to its mood as the signet is to the wax upon which it impresses its seal. The mind is totally subjected to an external compulsion to think this or that for which it has no inclination and is not in the mood… The result is that much web browsing robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to log on to Facebook every time you have a free moment.”  (NOTE: The Facebooks, social media, and web browsing in this quote originally referring to the reading of books), – Freney, citing A Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

Be it Facebook, or books, there is something to be said, given our developing knowledge of neuroplasticity, for the concern that too much of a thing will shape your head into the image of the thing. But Carr actually thinks (and I’m with him on this bit), that reading well might spur us on to think better.

The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work… After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

I’d suggest – and I think Carr agrees, though he sort of beats around the bush a little – that taking various streams of data from multiple mediums and platforms – and integrating them, produces a more balanced brain and better thinking too.

Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. Experienced Net users, by contrast, display extensive activity across all those brain regions when they scan and search Web pages. The good news here is that Web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp. Searching and browsing seem to “exercise” the brain in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles… – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

There is an odd tendency (well, not really, it’s completely understandably given the vested interests) for writers of books to romanticise the reading of books as some sort of panacea for the changing brain. I don’t want to do that. Books, journal articles, long form essays… they’re all part of a healthy and varied diet of media. But I think the real key to having your brain is in charge isn’t so much in consuming the thoughts of others, without thought, it’s in thinking for yourself. In that sense I reckon the slightly paranoid (and reworked) Schopenhauer quote above is onto something. When we read something that someone else has written – that they have put a piece of themselves into, and when we make that connection where we put a piece of ourselves into their thoughts and let them occupy our heads, a sort of overlapping incarnation, we begin to think other people’s thoughts and have our heads shaped by their view of the world – now that’s fine if you want to think like your favourite author, but it’s a little bit scary. Just a little. And it’s enough to encourage me to make sure I read widely, but also to try to proactively think independently, and, perhaps, write my own thoughts down. Or type them. Creating your own words, deliberately, and putting them in mediums you choose, mindful of the myths involved in the platforms themselves, is probably the best way to stay in the driver’s seat when it comes to your brain that I can think of. It’s active rather than passive. And, in a post I wrote about TED a while back I discussed how I think it actually sort of works to help you integrate and process stuff. This effect is no doubt amplified if you do have an organising myth, or paradigm shaping narrative that helps you understand the world.

There’s a real circularity here where the media we consume is pretty important in terms of how we choose and identify a paradigmatic narrative that shapes our approach to life and helps us systematise and understand information, but the story also shapes that communication mediums we use and the information we encounter. This is particularly true for Christians, and I think it’s part of the reason the Bible simultaneously offers such effective advice (content) and is so effective at shaping our thinking (form/medium), by encouraging Christians to set their minds on a particular path via a regular dose of ‘TheoMedia’ the Biblical authors are deliberately shaping their readers’ thinking, and providing the thoughts.

It’s interesting how in both these passages – from Colossians and Philippians – which seem so apt to this sort of neuroscience meets media ecology exercise – link a healthy Christian mind to the concept of ‘peace’ in our hearts and minds…

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory…

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him – Colossians 3:1-4, 15-17

It’s also interesting how many hot-button neuroplasticity related activities Paul nails in this passage in Philippians 4. Prayer, thankfulness, mindfulness, focused thinking, and acting out one’s beliefs, are all incredibly powerful tools for shaping the mind. It’s possible that the “do not be anxious about anything” is followed by a neuroplastically sound approach to not being anxious. That actually works…

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

3. Be actively “Incarnate” on social media in order to lovingly accommodate – but don’t be a passive part of the machine

The last two points serve as something of a defence against letting Facebook take control of your head – but what if you want to take control of Facebook, using your head? I think there’s something to be said for modelling how we communicate to the world around us on how God chose to communicate and reveal himself to us, and I think there are two nice theological words that help.

Because God is infinite and completely without limit it would blow our little, tiny, finite minds to even begin to comprehend just a tiny bit of that vast gap between us without his help. There is now way we can really understand God as he really is without him revealing himself to us. We’d make up pictures of God (and people have, for as long as people have been around), but these pictures would all look kind of stupid compared to the real thing. God has to reveal himself in order to be made known – and in order to bridge the finite/infinite divide he has to accommodate himself to us. He’s the one in the position of dominance. He’s the one who needs to make the first move. And it’s like that with us – Paul says first, we only know stuff we know about God because God has revealed himself to us by the Holy Spirit, and second, people without the Spirit think we’re talking a load of rubbish…

“What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” – 1 Cor 2:12-14

Then in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 he talks about people who don’t know God having veils that stop them seeing God – they can’t see God without an act of accommodation. And we are the accommodaters. It is our job to try to take steps towards other people in our communication, to help them see things from our perspective by first understanding theirs. To speak the language of the people we love so that they’ll understand us, in the mediums they use.

The second part of God’s communication methodology is the incarnation – where his word, Jesus, became flesh. He didn’t become flesh and speak a crazy language that nobody around him could understand. He became flesh and spoke Aramaic, which was much more appropriate in first century Judea than it is in 21st century Australia. But that was God’s communication method from the very beginning – the Bible is a collection of literature produced in genres that were appropriate to carry particular truths about God to particular people, but also serve to communicate about God in a timeless way. The Bible is an incarnate text, produced by real people, for a God who uses incarnation as a communication methodology and expects us to do likewise…

Facebook is an opportunity for us to accommodate our message about Jesus in an incarnate way – especially if mediums change our head so that we become like the medium, this is the very essence of what incarnation is. It’s what I think Paul is thinking about when he writes:

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” – 1 Cor 9:22

This point isn’t necessarily going to protect our heads from outside influences like the first two points – in fact, it may involve you deliberately being reshaped by the medium (in this case, Facebook) in order to reach others. This becoming an “incarnate” representative of Jesus should guide our use of mediums and keep us connected to the master narrative of our lives, and to the ultimate social network – our union with Christ, and our participation in his body, the church. I wrote some stuff about using Facebook as a Christian a long time ago (in Internet years), and there’s not a lot I’d change – except that I’m much more cautious about wholeheartedly (or wholeheadedly) recommending jumping in without the caveats laid out above.

I do like this quote from TheoMedia on the way the Gospel story pushes us, as participants, to engage with the people of our generation using the communication and cognitive tools they’re engaging with…

Discerning what characterizes the socially constructed worlds people around us inhabit places us in a better position to address the generation God calls us to serve. Doing so, however, necessitates that we conceptualize and articulate Christian beliefs—the gospel—in a manner that contemporary people can understand. That is, we must express the gospel through the “language” of the culture—through the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms—by means of which people today discover meaning, construct the world they inhabit, and form personal identity. — Grenz & Franke, quoted in TheoMedia

The first sentence is a little difficult to parse – but what he’s saying is we have to think a little bit, and basically understand the myths – the stories that shape people’s lives – in order to speak to them. And this, increasingly, means doing some basic myth-busting media studies. So the exercise in the first point above isn’t completely self-indulgent and pointless after all.

Being incarnate always comes at a cost. It always involves becoming something that you weren’t before. Sometimes the cost might be a cost you pay because you want to embrace a change whole-heartedly (or whole-headedly), other times it might be a sacrifice. Sometimes you become incarnate in something without realising – and Facebook is particularly insidious when it comes to a passive form of being incarnate, it gets its energy from your narcissism. A bit like the robots in the matrix. If you’re not paying attention, Facebook consumes your time and resources, it keeps your eyeballs fixed to a screen, by getting you addicted to the chemicals that are released when other people pay attention to you. It turns you into a more self-seeking person. If you become incarnate on Facebook without thinking, it comes at a substantial cost. To become incarnate without paying that particular cost, where you are simply viewed as a human brain and set of relationship connections to be harvested by a giant advertising corporation, you need to be aware of what Facebook is trying to do, and you need to subvert it (which we’ll get to below). It may be that subverting this is to become thoughtfully incarnate and know that you’re paying a price in your interactions by deliberately looking for ways to pay the price.

It may be that being incarnate in this medium isn’t for you – perhaps the temptation to conform to Facebook’s world of narcissism and the endless siren call encouraging you to smash your time and energy against the pointless rocks of Farmville (or whatever the kids and empty-nest mothers are playing these days) is irresistible and you’re going to wreck your life – or at least your head. At this point it’s worth keeping those words from Romans 12 bouncing around in your head like a mantra.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this worldbut be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

There’s a very close relationship between incarnation and idolatry – between being a person who is made in the image of the God who made them (and Jesus who remakes them), and being a person who carries the image of whatever idol they are consumed by. It’s human to reflect and promote the image of something – even if, and often, that something is you and your own glory. It’s all about the heart – and the mind. Whatever you are fixated on when you’re participating in a medium is shaping how you use it, and shaping you through your use of it.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts... And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, 18

 

By the by, this is why I get so excited about the implications of the image of God for communicating in our modern multimedia world - a world where images are everywhere and trying to sell something, trying to display what it is that makes our hearts sing, is a world not too far removed from the world where Genesis landed on the scene as a text, a world full of images-as-persuasion. A world where the image you projected told everybody who you were.

If you can’t log off a medium, if you’ve become so caught up in it that you can’t walk away without believing that you are doing significant damage to yourself as a person – then it has become an idol, and you’ve become a slave. Mediums with strong myths can do that. Marshall McLuhan, the Media Ecologist, loved to quote Psalm 115 when talking about the potential for mediums to unhelpfully become extensions of our humanity…

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

They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

4. Be the “Cruciform” Medium – communicate sacrificially, and through sacrifice

The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his e-mails on his BlackBerry—or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google’s search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium. When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us… The interactivity of the Net amplifies this effect as well. Because we’re often using our computers in a social context, to converse with friends or colleagues, to create “profiles” of ourselves, to broadcast our thoughts through blog posts or Facebook updates, our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk. The resulting self-consciousness—even, at times, fear—magnifies the intensity of our involvement with the medium. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

I think the key to subverting the power of the medium of Facebook – but this is true for every other platform I can think of – is having a narrative that shapes your life that is built around an incredible act of subversion. A narrative that is built not on building yourself up, but on dying to self out of love for others. When it comes to using the incarnation as a model for thinking about participation in a social network like Facebook, what can be a better control of how we ‘incarnate’ ourselves than the climax of God’s own incarnation in our world, in Jesus. The cross.

Most properly Christian engagement with the world is an act of subversion. Because it will be shaped by the ultimate act of subversion. Shaped by the cross (paradoxically, if these acts are consistent with the character of God, as it was revealed at the cross, it’s not subversion at all, but consistent with the approach to life humans should have had from the very beginning).

Just as Jesus subverted the most powerful propaganda medium, and the most powerful myths, of the Roman empire – by turning the crucifix from a symbol of humiliating domination into a symbol of liberating hope, rather than imperial power – we are, as we take up our crosses to follow Jesus, called to subvert the values of systems and platforms that want to glorify ourselves or our idols.

But the subversion thing probably needs some fleshing out. When it comes to the me-soaked world of social media which is about your profile. Your status. Your likes… the challenge is to make Facebook simultaneously authentically you (which is a little subversive), and not about you at all… channeling John the Baptist…

“He must become greater; I must become less.” – John The Baptist, John 3:30

This is hard on Facebook, it is hard beyond Facebook – it’s, as David Ould and I discussed recently, equally challenging for bloggers – one way I tackle this one, personally, is almost never ever checking my stats – and feeling dirty and craven when I do, I want so much for blogging to not be about me, while realising, paradoxically, that the very nature of a blog is that it is.

This means, when it comes to Facebook, for the Christian, it’s not about us. We can’t play Facebook’s me game. It’s not just about making it about Jesus so that you drive your non-Christian friends nuts – I’ve had to pull myself up on this front a little lately. We have to make Facebook about actively and sacrificially loving others, in a way that is real and unexpected – not just by hitting like on their status or telling someone they look nice in a photo. Being sacrificial and incarnate on Facebook might actually mean doing something loving in the real world. The medium you use to communicate says something about the level of sacrifice you’re willing to make in the act of communication. Part of both accommodation and incarnation involves taking costly steps to close a gap between communicator and recipient – be it on God’s part, or ours as we communicate about God. Being subversive communicators, more broadly, might mean adopting a more sacrificial medium than expected. Or approaching a medium in a more sacrificial way than intended. As a little bit of proof that mediums matter, check out this quote from one of John’s letters, and then these thoughts on it from John Dyer.

“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” – 2 John 1:12

 

“The great temptation of the digital generation is to inadvertently disagree with John and assume that online presence offers the same kind of “complete joy” as offline presence. Our problem is not that technologically mediated relationships are unreal, nor is the problem that all online communication is self-focused and narcissistic. Rather, the danger is that just like the abundance of food causes us to mistake sweet food for nourishing food, and just like the abundance of information can drown out deep thinking, the abundance of virtual connection can drown out the kind of life-giving, table-oriented life that Jesus cultivated among his disciples. Social media follows the device paradigm in that it masks the long, sometimes arduous process of friendship and makes it available at the press of a button – John Dyer, From the Garden to The City

Relying on Facebook to sustain your friendships cheapens your friendships, just as relying on Facebook for communication cheapens your communication. If you communicate using other mediums, there’s the added bonus that Facebook isn’t rewiring your brain all on its lonesome.  

Being incarnate, and being properly subversive, means knowing something about the system you are infiltrating. Jesus didn’t come to first century Israel speaking English. That would’ve been stupid. And he wasn’t crucified by accident. Becoming incarnate requires some deliberate attention to detail, an understanding of the world or platform you are operating in. You’ve got to know the language of the people in order to converse – and you probably need to have some idea about how the systems and algorithms and business imperatives underlying these platforms shape what they present to the average user. So, for example, Being incarnate on social media doesn’t mean being a Super-Christian who nobody wants to hear from (like John Piper on Twitter or Mark Driscoll on Facebook) – in fact, as someone who knows a little bit of how Facebook works – that’s a shortcut to only having your posts seen by other super-Christians who already think exactly like you do. Facebook thrives on giving people exactly the information they want. And people aren’t necessarily on Facebook jonesing to be smacked in the face with a bit of Jesus. Facebook will, by the magic of its algorithm, filter your posts out for those who aren’t already into Jesus, and show your posts to the choir. Which might well be edifying… but it’s not effective.

This all sounds completely irrelevant to the task at hand – protecting your mind from the clutches of Facebook – but being subversive is a surefire way to not have your mind controlled by the system. Just watch the Matrix. Think of yourself as Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and the gang – and Facebook as the brain sucking machine driven empire and you won’t be far wrong… But those guys wouldn’t have got far, certainly not past the first movie, without knowing how the machines they were fighting against worked, or without actively fighting against them…

I really like this stuff Paul says in 2 Corinthians about his approach to sacrificial communication – the methodology we choose says something about the message we speak.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and 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. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 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. 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

And I like Paul’s reflections on how the incarnation of Jesus – and the cross – shape the way we treat one another in our social networks, and the way we think. This is the purple passage, I think, for approaching Facebook through the lens of the cross. How much better would relationships on Facebook be – and our heads be as a result – if this was our approach…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:1-8

I was going to write a fifth point – about making sure you’re participating in the ultimate social network – a relationship with God, and with his people, through prayer, real world relationships in church communities, and by consuming TheoMedia – but this ultimately would just be a rehash of the first four points – it’s only as someone decides they want to participate in that social network that they become suspicious of the myths peddled by all the other social networks, it’s only by consuming TheoMedia that the narrative of the Gospel starts to not only shape our thinking (points 1 and 2), but also how we use other mediums (points 3 and 4) (note – by TheoMedia I’m referring to the concept described in the book of that name, but this includes reading the Bible, appreciating how God speaks through his world, spending time reflecting on who God is by singing, reading, mediating on the Bible, praying, reading theological books, reading blogs, following interesting Christians on Facebook or Twitter, and generally being stimulated to think about God).

Image is everything

Here’s some stuff I’m thinking about for my project (in the absence of any ability to think about or process anything that falls outside of this sphere at present project tidbits are going to have to do for content in these parts)…

The basic premise at the heart of my project is that from the opening pages of the Bible, God’s people have been “plundering the Gold of the Egyptians” to explain God to God’s world.

That’s a famous quote from Augustine, he uses it to talk about learning to preach from orators.

The Ancient Near Eastern background to the Genesis account is pretty well known – the Biblical account seems to be setting the record straight about a few things when it comes to the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of nature. Whether this was just meant to stop Israel running off to foreign gods, or was a global account is an interesting question… but there’s some stuff that comes to life (even more) when you read the Bible against its cultural backdrop.

Here are the verses I’m particularly interested in, from Genesis 1.

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

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

There’s all sorts of theological implications from man being made in the image of God, the fancy Latin is imago dei. People have had all sorts of ideas about what the relationship between man and God is. From walking on two legs to being moral beings. People have all sorts of ideas about what happened to this image a couple of chapters later – when Adam and Eve turn their backs on God. Is the image broken? Fragmented? Wiped out? Unchanged?

I’m suggesting that at least part of the image of God relates to communication. Our ability to communicate – perhaps, but mostly our function. God created man to represent him – and by the time people are first reading Genesis, a long time after the fact, when Moses or a final editor handed over the finished first edition of the Pentateuch, representing God meant representing God to other people. Even if it didn’t for people 1 and 2 (“male and female he created them”).

Incidentally – I think there’s a big clue this image function was broken at the fall – though not wiped out – and I think there’s more to it than communication, I think Romans 7 suggests that part of being made in God’s image is having some idea what God wants, and our broken, sinful, nature means we don’t do what we want to do. Romans is part of the reason I think there’s some residual image – but the reason I think it’s broken is where Genesis goes in chapter 5.

“When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”

Adam’s image. That is. Not God’s. This image thing is partly related to family lines. The image is carried (we’ll get there with Romans 8 too).

Anyway. Here’s the cool bit (one of them).

One of the fun things people have noticed about the relationship between Genesis and other creation accounts from the Ancient Near East is that the creation of the world is almost always told in relationship to the creation of a temple. These temples have gardens, sanctuaries, flowing water, fruit… and priests – all sorts of language that Genesis 2 picks up. The Temple reflects the cosmos.

These temples had images in them. Images of the gods of the other nations. Images that were seen as living, breathing, manifestations of these gods who needed feeding. Images made from dirt. Images brought to life with a ritual involving “mouth washing” and “mouth opening”… The word used for “image” in Genesis 1 is the Hebrew version of the word for idol – that’s what it is used for in the rest of the Old Testament.

Kings were also “images of god” – as, occasionally, were priests. And sometimes there were idols made of kings who stood in front of their gods. There’s a strong sense in Genesis 1, and 2, that part of being the image of God is ruling as God’s representative – so the command that follows the statement:

so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground

It’s interesting that for the earlier part of Genesis 1, God has named all the things he has made – but he doesn’t name the animals. Adam does, in chapter 2. There are heaps of scholars who think chapters 1 and 2, because they’re different, come from different traditions in Israel and have been lumped together. Those scholars are running after a naked emperor, telling him how nice his clothes are.

Even the dominion thing has communication implications, with chapter 2 taken into account – because as God exercised authority by speaking things into creation, and naming them – man names the animals.

But lets get back to the idol bit… These dirt idols started manifesting the gods they represented in ANE theology when mean played around with their mouths. The Genesis creation account flips it. Man doesn’t make God and get him going by washing his mouth – God makes man, and gets man going by breathing into him (his nose – but presumably God uses his mouth).

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

Yeah. Cop that idol worshippers! We’ll come back to the “breath of life” bit soon…

So man is like a walking, talking, image of God. Placed in the garden-temple. With king-priest functions. You could, I think, make the case from this alone that part of being the image of God – representing God – is communicating about God.

Images are incredibly powerful forms of communication now – and were in the Ancient Near East. Images, in a largely illiterate time, were the vehicle for propaganda – especially cult images. Where a nation’s legitimacy largely depended on the legitimacy of their gods.

Ezekiel basically picks up this image theme and runs with it in the exile – there’s heaps of idol creation language going on, and this bit in chapter 37 is pretty cool with huge echoes of Eden, and huge promises for what’s to come.

He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to lifeI will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”…

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

The same mouth washing/opening deal happened whenever an idol was captured by an enemy and restored – and there’s a pretty good case to be made that Ezekiel is promising that for Israel when they return they will be image again – filled with God’s breath/Spirit (Ezekiel makes that more specific), in God’s temple/sanctuary. Alive again. Check out Ezekiel 28 for some more cool Eden language that makes these connections even more explicitly (but more specifically). Oh yeah. I forgot. Check out Ezekiel 36.

24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws

32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!

33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt.34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’

Cool. Hey. It gets a bit cooler.

The whole “image as propaganda” thing kept going beyond the Ancient Near East (there’s also a good case to be made that Isaiah was familiar with some of the Assyrian royal propaganda – the picture he paints of foreign kings is often verbatim what the Assyrians claim about themselves. Rome took the Assyrian copybook and ran plays from it, and developed their own, becoming masters of sophisticated imperial imagery.

Especially the use of coins. Coins were a huge aspect of Roman propaganda. Carrying images of the emperor. Which is interesting in itself – but adds some extra coolness to this passage where Jesus is asked about taxes…

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

At the very least this suggests there’s some New Testament cognisance happening when it comes to what images mean and how coins are functioning… but what if Jesus is making a huge claim about “what is God’s” – Caesar’s image might be on coins. But God’s image is on people.

Especially people who follow Jesus. And receive the Spirit. People who follow Jesus, who Paul says:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross…

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your mindsbecause of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

Paul’s approach to following Jesus, the image of God, is to suffer for the sake of the church, and to participate in God’s mission of communication, so that Christ will be in people, that they may be “mature” in him. He takes up his cross.

Remember how Adam’s image thing was partly to do with sonship. Here’s some stuff from the start of Colossians 1. Compare verse 9 with verse 28

9 …We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.

These people with the Spirit, who have been united with Jesus, have become people who, as Christ’s body, inherit the kingdom from God. Proclaiming Jesus is, it seems, the key to helping people receive the Spirit, and start bearing this image.

Here’s some final bits from Romans 8 (easily my favourite chapter in the Bible)…

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

There are some nice Ezekiel allusions there…

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

And this, friends, is why I’ve appreciated almost four years of enjoying the Bible, and why I’m excited about my project.

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea that the outcomes of my life are determined by my biology – something I have no control over – pretty repulsive. It robs me of my individuality, my identity is chosen for me… who’d want to live like that?

The whole “born this way” juggernaut has been rolling for a while now – championed, most famously, by Lady Gaga and her anthemic Born This Way…

Image Credit: Mashable

I reckon the best bit about Easter Sunday – and the resurrection – is that it kills the idea that “born this way” cuts it when it comes to deciding who we are.

The song isn’t just musically problematic – it’s also both anthropologically problematic and theologically problematic.

The anthropological problems with Born This Way

Let’s take the anthropological issues first – because their solution shows why Christianity is actually one of the most progressive accounts of what it means to be human competing in the intellectual marketplace…

In the Bridge of Gaga’s song, we’re given a comparison between race, gender, and sexuality that many of us take for granted – and each is said to be both innate (something we’re born with), and essential (something that defines part of our essence).

“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
’cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to survive.”

Doing what our genes tell us – what our birth gives us as “default” is something that we should apparently embrace without question as “the right track” which will apparently lead to our surviving (especially if we love ourselves).

That’s a level of biological fatalism that I’m uncomfortable with – and I’m the sort of Christian who takes such a high view of God that I sign up for predestination. I’ve got no qualms with agreeing that people are born with a race, a gender identity, a physical gender, and a sexual orientation, and that these are complicated, and that our society should not just accommodate people with whatever biological permutations and inklings the complex biological sequencing that makes humans humans throws up, but see people as people. Equal. Complicated. Messy. Broken. No matter what state we’re born in – choosing “straight” or “gay” or “bi” or anything as a marker of identity, on the basis of biology is, I think, a silly use of labels. Especially the “straight/not-straight” binary – if you’re going to bring a Christian account of humanity and sexuality to the table – we’re all sexually broken. Anyway, I’m drifting into theology…

When it comes to the “born this way” argument, It’s politically useful to keep trotting this line out when you’re fighting for whatever “rights” or “equality” you want to be tied up with something you’re born with. How can we argue with biology, mother nature, God, or whatever entity we choose to ascribe such a choice, and such control to… Gaga gives God the credit..

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

And we’ll get to the theology later.

But what sort of life does this leave you leading? What about one’s capacity to move beyond one’s station – what about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What if deep down I don’t want my biology.

The whole born this way thing is clearly ridiculous as soon as you throw gender into the mix. If there are two aspects of gender that are biological – anatomy (your bits), and identity (how you are wired to think of yourself) – then which bit wins out? Typically it’s thought to be your identity – because the bits can be chopped and changed. But this is pretty arbitrary… It’s even more clearly ridiculous if we start suggesting that people are born biologically wired to all sorts of behaviours that are socially unpalatable – but that’s where the Bible goes… but again, we’ll get to the theology later…

Anyway. I read this interesting article from a blog called Social (In)queery suggesting maybe, just maybe, the GLBTI community should move beyond the “born this way” trope towards something a little bit more, well, freeing. Something that gives the individual a little more liberty to move away from their unchosen biological tendencies.

“The problem with such statements is that they infuse biological accounts with an obligatory and nearly coercive force, suggesting that anyone who describes homosexual desire as a choice or social construction is playing into the hands of the enemy.”

It’s worth a read. It’s about time people started thinking this way. The idea that we’re slaves to our flesh… err… I mean our “biology” is one of the more depressing outcomes of our modern naturalistic approach to human identity – and it immediately falls foul of what Hume called the “naturalistic fallacy” – he said we can’t say that something is how it ought to be, simply because that’s how it is in its natural state.

Who wants to be stuck being allergic to peanuts if that’s biological and can be fixed. We can’t force everybody to be fixed – that’s an equally dangerous flipside. But denying individuals the opportunity to make decisions about their own lives because we decree they have no choice in the matter because of their biology… Well. That’s an awful form of slavery.

The theological problems with Born This Way

The first theological problem with Gaga’s account of humanity is the idea that because it is “natural” it is something that God says is good.

That’s certainly not true for a Christian understanding of life in the world described by the Bible.

Sure. We were made in God’s image. But that was broken pretty early on. The whole point of the narratives in the Old Testament and God’s repeated use of sexually broken characters, who couldn’t be trusted to keep their sexuality on the straight and narrow (as defined by God at creation – one man, one woman, one flesh), is that all people are broken. That even those who are meant to be most explicitly bearing the image of God can’t. Or won’t. Or don’t. The patriarchs, the priests, the kings – they all stuff up. From Abraham (who pretends his wife is his sister and gives her to Pharaoh), to David, to Solomon… the big characters in the first half of the Bible are clear examples of this.

The OT stuff is relevant because people still want to claim that Paul made up the idea that people were broken, or that God’s image was tainted by what’s called “original sin,” when he wrote Romans. But Romans is completely consistent with every other description of humanity in the Bible. Especially the image of God stuff.

The idea that we have to obey our biology – without choice but with total compliance – is something Paul would describe as slavery. Here’s what he says in Romans 6.

 

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey.

The best thing about Paul’s account of humanity is that he isn’t claiming to be anything other than a broken human himself. In fact – he claims to be just a normal bloke, a human, who experiences a struggle between two powerful internal forces – the residual bits of being a person made in the image of God, and the bits of him that want to serve his biological desires – his selfish genes – the genes that tell him that the way to be truly happy is to “love himself” because he is “born this way”… that’s slavery. Paul doesn’t want to be a slave to his nature (which he says is “sinful” – which he means leads him to do things that aren’t consistent with bearing the image of God)… but he can’t help it. Here’s what he says in Romans 7.

“I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

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

Paul is saying exactly what we should all be saying – the idea that we must conform to our biology to be truly happy is a limiting prison that defines our lives, rather than frees us.

We’re faced with two choices – when it comes to our anthropology – as humans. We can conform. Or transform.

We can be slaves to our broken nature – or even just to our biology if we want to reject the idea that our nature could possibly be broken. Whichever way you cut it – this is a form of slavery. Not liberty. If who you are is determined for you, not by you, and you have no choice, that’s awful.

Or we can try to transform ourselves in a positive direction – this might mean taking the path suggested towards biology-free sexual enlightenment described in the link above, or it might mean, if we’re like Paul, looking for some sort of rescue.

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is where Christianity is truly progressive. 

If the resurrection that will be celebrated all over the world tomorrow really happened. In history. If Jesus really is “Lord” – if he calls people everywhere to turn to him for their identity – which is the scope of his claims over people, if he is God, and became man, and died and was raised… If these things are true then the implications for every aspect of our lives – not just our sexuality, not even just our biology – are huge.

And we have a choice. It’s not forced on us – this reality being forced on people would bring the same lack of liberty that being forced to conform to your biological reality would bring. But it’s a choice about who to serve, and where to draw value and fulfilment from – flesh, nature, biology… or Jesus.

Paul might step out of the frying pan of slavery into the fire – but at least he’s making a choice. He says following Jesus is just another form of slavery (to righteousness, not the flesh), but a slavery of your choosing, a voluntary slavery, is, in his mind at least, superior to a slavery you can’t choose.

The delivery Jesus offers – the transformation Paul says he offers – is a stunning account of what it means to be human. To be free from biological obligation. To be free of slavery to things beyond your control. To find your value in something outside of yourself. To find your identity based on choice, not just biological complicity. And to have the image of God not just restored in your life – but renovated. Here’s how Paul opens chapter 8…

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

He starts fleshing out the anthropological and identity implications of this freedom. It changes what it means to be human.

How we think…

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

Our future prospects…

11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Our identity – we’re not slaves, but loved children…

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

Christianity offers a more compelling and progressive vision of what it means to be human because it’s not about conforming to something you can’t choose – that was chosen by the random intersection somewhere in space and time, of two people who carry the biological data that made you, who bring all sorts of genetic baggage, and leave you as a person made in their image – forced to embrace your biology… it’s about being transformed, voluntarily, into the image of the person space and time was created to host – Jesus – and becoming a loved child of God – a God who knew you, planned you, and loved you, before your biology started kicking into gear.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

I’ve been thinking a little more about one of the points I was chewing over as I wrote yesterday’s thing about church for atheists – just how De Botton’s proposed London temple seems geared to produce some sort of nihilistically driven depression because it makes it clear that people are oh so insignificant in the scheme of the universe.

you are here
Image: Total perspective (arrow not to scale).

It’s a horrible narrative to find yourself part of… unless you’re prepared to buy into the idea that you’re totally at the heart of the universe. Which is, of course, what happened with Zaphod Beeblebrox when he confronted the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy story The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Total Perspective Vortex is a torture chamber that leaves most people in a nihilistic malaise, broken by the realisation of their own abject insignificance. It does this pretty much by presenting the same truth that De Botton proposes to celebrate…

“When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.””

That sort of perspective hurts…

“At that moment another dismal scream rent the air and Zaphod shuddered.

“What can do that to a guy?” he breathed.

“The Universe,” said Gargravarr simply, “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.”

In the book, the guy who built it did so because his wife nagged him…

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

The vortex is a little chamber, with a single door, that contains the whole universe…

“At the far side of it stood a single upright steel box, just large enough for a man to stand in.
It was that simple. It connected to a small pile of components and instruments via a single thick wire.
“Is that it?” said Zaphod in surprise.
“That is it.”
Didn’t look too bad, thought Zaphod.
“And I get in there do I?” said Zaphod.
“You get in there,” said Gargravarr, “and I’m afraid you must do it now.”
“OK, OK,” said Zaphod.
He opened the door of the box and stepped in.
Inside the box he waited.
After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.”

Zaphod survives, without spoiling the story, because he enters it in a fake universe where he is the centre – so the perspective provided by the Vortex actually affirms that he is uniquely, and specially, the figure at the heart of the universe.

“It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby, I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

Here, as a reminder, is what De Botton is proposing… the Temple to Perspective.


Image Credit: The Guardian – for an interesting, more to scale version, check out this pic from artinfo.com

Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence… The temple features a single door for visitors who will enter as if it were an art installation. The roof will be open to the elements and there could be fossils and geologically interesting rocks in the concrete walls.

He thinks that’ll produce awe, not depression…

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

I’d say Douglas Adams is closer to the truth. Unless you can find a way to provide yourself with value and significance, the universe is a very big place, and it’s going to blow your mind.

I reckon the Psalms, in the Bible, have a much better account for human perspective than Adams or De Botton. While the universe is really big, the Psalmist, in Psalm 8, points out that God is bigger. This both inspires awe, and gives value to humans…

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

But the story gets better. This is perspective – and it’s a perspective that gives value. This God isn’t just interested in humanity corporately – but in individuals… Here’s half of Psalm 139. We don’t get in the box and perceive the universe, the God who created the universe perceives us…

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

The story gets better again in Jesus… This is why Christians – not just the religious people who believe in a creator God – have the best narrative to tell and be part of… We become part of the story because God steps in, he doesn’t just know us, he loves us, and makes us his children by giving us his Spirit. It’s the complete opposite to De Botton’s temple. We’re not small and insignificant in the scheme of the universe – the God who created the universe gives himself to us… and dwells in us… here’s how Paul spells it out in Romans 8…

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

I’m not suggesting you should pick truth based on what the best story is – but this is the sort of perspective that is going to produce awe and a good and happy life, based on being valued by an infinite personal and relational entity, not a small and depressed life based on being a speck in the scheme of an infinite universe that doesn’t care if you expire tomorrow.

Think it’s cool that Spurgeon started preaching when he was 16. Check out Elijah Kaneshiro. Possibly the world’s cutest child preacher. Much less shouty than that kid from last week. Here he is in a video with embedding disabled.

Here’s a four year old preaching on predestination (well, not really). I never expected to see something like that (unless there’s an autocue this is some pretty impressive memory work). He starts preaching at about 3.30 (I did skip backwards and forwards a little bit).

And look. You can buy his DVD. 1 minute in is where the fun begins. He tells a story about a boat, reunited with its creator and owner.

Not sure how I feel about this. What do you reckon?

Here are a couple more kid preachers…

Not much difference between this and most tongues preaching is there (and I don’t think the audience can discern the difference).

This is Elijah’s little sister…

More on sin and righteousness

One of the key passages in building my theology of sin is Romans 14 – the idea that different actions will be sinful in different contexts depending on the people around you (ie if you cause your brother to stumble by exercising your freedom).

Here’s a little prooftext that fits in nicely with my “everything is sin” framework. Romans 14:23b in particular.

22So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Here’s one that doesn’t fit so nicely…

4Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

7Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

And another passage that helps frame my approach to righteousness…

26If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Then a couple more passages from Romans. Chapter 2…

12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”

And Chapter 7… which again is pretty important to my model…

13Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

On Worship

The iMonk bemoans the evolution of worship.

“Worship has now become a musical term. Praise and worship means music. Let’s worship means the band will play. We need to give more time to worship doesn’t mean silent prayer or public scripture reading or any kind of participatory liturgy. It means music.”

Sadly, the Bible’s definition of worship (Romans 12) suggests that doesn’t even come close to capturing the essence of worship… (but the cartoon does).

Romans 12:1
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”

This question came up in my candidacy interview last week. The Presbyterian (Westminster Confession of Faith) use of the word worship falls between these two ideas in a sort of semantic compromise.

This issue creates more tension than it should because I think you can hold both ideas at once (the Biblical and the Presbyterian) and still be correct. Am I missing something here?