27 ways to recapture, live, and tell our story

After yesterday’s post a friend zeroed in on the paragraph below, and asked for some really practical steps towards doing this.

“We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves.

I want to start with the disclaimer that I’m a rookie and I’m still figuring this stuff out… and this stuff is harder than it sounds because it does challenge plenty of stuff we modernist, literate, Christians have embraced. I’ve been reading/grappling with this, and what it looks like in our church communities as I try to serve one, so I’ve got some thoughts. I’m not alone, there are heaps of books on this, The Benedict Option is the most famous. I liked it (with some significant reservations). I’ve written a few things around this before like my theses about what a continued reformation would look like in Australia, some propositions and stories about a different way of doing stuff, our need to be more imaginative in our political engagement (and less secular), and some thoughts on how to respond to what the census reveals about the Australian soul/mission field.

These points below are a bit sequential and integrated. I struggle with making anything too concrete, because I think most of how we should live is a contextually driven application of principles. What a narrative approach looks like will be different in the university, and in the juvenile detention system. In order to stop this getting stupidly long I’ve mostly just gone with summaries of these ideas, that I’m happy to unpack (though many of them are either the subject of past posts, or of books that you should read).

I think the best books on this (or the ones that have shaped/are shaping my thinking, I’m not saying I agree with everything in these, just acknowledging their import in getting to these ideas) are:

  1. Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive the Apocalypse
  2. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens (and Hauerwas’ Community of Character)
  3. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
  4. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option
  5. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism
  6. James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World
  7. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching
  8. John Stackhouse’s Making The Best Of It
  9. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality
  10. James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love (and his cultural liturgies series, though I’m only two chapters in to his latest).
  11. Andy Crouch’s Culture Making
  12. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem
  13. Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time

I’m currently reading Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that shape the Church for Mission; it’s fast climbing the list; it’s like an optimistic, outwards looking, Benedict Option (so is How To Survive The Apocalypse).

The abstract.

1. Teach people that narrative matters and is where we get our identity and our ethics from. There’s an irony that a post like this is so propositional in its delivery. Everybody lives a way of life (an ethic) derived from an understanding of where we’ve come from (an origin story) and where we’re going (an eschatology). These combine to give us a sense of who we are, and we make these decisions based around who is authoring and starring in the story, and we are clearly not entirely the author of our own stories because life always pre-exists us. Or, as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it:

“We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.”

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

2. Have a sense of the Bible’s grand narrative in a way that shapes how we let God’s story shape our story; and preach that, and everything connected to that.

3. Understand that part of this narrative thing is seeing ourselves as embodied characters in the story being formed as we participate in it; and the connection between worship and story, and between our embodied lives and people being confronted with the story. So see practices as both formative and declarative. Live the story we preach.

4. Understand that this narrative is caught as much as taught; that knowledge is socialised before it is rationalised, so see church community as a community formed by a narrative as it lives that narrative and also as a plausibility structure for that narrative. Peter Berger who came up with ‘plausibility structures’ wasn’t just talking about the ‘worldview’ we have in our head that operates as a grid for us in assessing information to decide what is true, he points out that plausibility comes socially, in communities, through people living according to a truth in deliberate ways, who deliberately pass on that truth (like parents and schools do).

5. See (and train people to see) counter narratives for what they are; idolatrous stories built around deforming practices that have a certain compelling power that convince people because they address desires and emotions, rather than because they present rationally coherent accounts of reality. But this seeing also involves empathy and charity and seeking to recognise truth in these views that can be re-directed to its proper source (ala Paul in Athens), and recognise the true, created, desires that are finding a wrong ‘end’ in idolatry. Part of this is learning (and teaching people) to exegete places and cultures, not just Bible passages.

6. Embrace the good, true, and beautiful in order to appeal to our nature as storied creatures who are shaped by desire and storywhich means both being good participants in a culture (created by others — both ‘high’ and ‘pop’), and creators/curators of stories and artefacts. Show how the cross is both sublime and ridiculous and have that inform our aesthetic and our engagement with the world (and its stories); the Gospel both answers our human longings and subverts the way we seek to answer them for ourselves.

The concrete.

1. Preach the Gospel as a cosmic story of God redeeming and recreating the entire world and defeating evil (Satan, sin, and death) through King Jesus, where we have a part to play rather than a propositional thing about how we find personal forgiveness for our personal sins. Teach each part of the Bible as part of this story where we see the drama unfolding.

2. Pray lots more. God answers prayer. Prayer is a dynamic relationship with God. Prayer shapes the way we see and then live in the world… Jesus teaches us to pray ‘your kingdom come’ in the midst of his most pointed ethical teaching about what life in the kingdom looks like.

3. Re-calibrate maturity as something other than personal piety; instead see it in terms of participation in this story (virtue formation), which requires a commitment to knowing God. I spoke this week to somebody who was feeling down because their prayer and Bible reading time wasn’t going well, while they were simultaneously practicing incredible acts of grace and forgiveness. Maturity is about being Christlike in an embodied sense (and in our thinking and desires); not about knowing more about God (which is a particular Platonic thing, Plato taught that we are not really ’embodied’ but a soul waiting to escape the body so we should feed the soul, that’s become a pietistic default for Christians). Prayer is good (see above), but prayer disconnected from our embodied, creaturely life, as the sort of act of a soul with soulish desires is not an expression of maturity. 

4. Build church as a community with rhythms of life beyond Sunday gatherings. Practice gathering as a community in homes, but also as a faithful presence within the broader community. Build deliberate rhythms that involve people spending time together without a purpose beyond deepening relationships that are created by what we have in common (firstly Jesus, then things that bring us together like eating, life in a particular place/culture, interests). This community makes discipleship/formation possible (especially inasmuch as formation requires the rejection of other powerful stories, and that is easier in community (especially for those who have to make sacrifices directly connected to these prevailing stories — the single, the same sex attracted, the unemployed, etc).

See that simply being together (publicly and privately) as different people brought together by God, who love, serve, support and forgive one another, and love our neighbours together, is part of our formation as virtuous ‘image bearing characters’ but also as part of us being ambassadors. Be deliberate in explaining these actions to each other and connecting them to the story of God’s kingdom being revealed and built in Jesus (though without making the mistake of loving our neighbours as a bait and switch in order to sell them the Gospel).

5. Engage in cross shaped (sacrificial love) for our neighbours — especially the marginalised — as a community as both a formative practice (an act of worship), and part of our proclamation. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies, but when he does that he doesn’t say “I carry around the death of Jesus in my body’ but ‘we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies’, in Romans 12 he says ‘offer yourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).

6. Value liturgy beyond Sundays (but including Sundays). Create liturgy (habitual practices) that are forms of worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) connected to our story (in view of God’s mercy) so that we don’t conform to the world’s stories (via its habits/patterns), but are transformed by the Spirit renewing our minds, through these practices. These liturgies have to be repeated so that they are disciplines that form us and counter the deforming power of other habits. Our low-evangelical culture’s low view of the sacraments has probably been to our detriment, because they do something formative to us because we are embodied people and are a clear way of participating in the Gospel in a way that reminds us who we are and gives us a more tangible sense of the presence of Jesus (who is there even when we’re not conducting the sacraments, the low church team gets some stuff right too).

7. Practice hospitality. With your church community and your friends and neighbours.

8. Encourage people to make and do things as expressions of our faith, but also just for creativity’s sake; be it as work (an embodied practice) or as creativity. Challenge our culture’s utilitarian view of work and creativity  — that suggests work or creativity only has value if it has a purpose connected to its narratives (that people are beings who need to be entertained, sexually stimulated, or economically productive). The utilitarian approach to Christians making things would be to only make things that directly and explicitly serve the purposes of the Gospel (so we get bad Christian art and music).

9. See our ‘privately owned’ institutional space as public space to be generously shared with others. Buy more space, ambitiously, make it available to people we agree with, generously, and as much as possible participate in face to face relationships with those people, trusting that when we act as hosts and are confident in our story there’ll be opportunities to explain why we’re generous and hospitable to outsiders, and how we understand ‘space’ (the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it).

10. Re-imagine our political engagement — re-introduce the imagination into how we speak of political issues. Tell stories about people rather than propositions. Embrace the ‘sacred’ rather than rationalising. Join parties and present faith-based positions into the formation of party policy/positions. Realise that our political horizon is not just about life as individuals (and liberty), but about opposing the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world — systems set up by sinful people to perpetuate sinful behaviour. See pursuing justice as a necessary outcome and expression of belief in a just judge; not a thing we do apart from the Gospel, but explicitly because of it.

11. Value virtue over utility. Our churches, across the evangelical world, are driven by pragmatism rather than emphasising character; and this expresses itself in our metrics, and in our politics. Virtue ethics are ethics created by a story. I’m preaching to my past self here, I even used to call myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; I repent.

12. Pursue formation, not just ‘conversion’ — we’ve made label ‘Christian’ a descriptor for somebody who ticks a particular belief box, and let our efforts be pointed towards achieving that ticked box, not to the harder work of character formation.

13. Accept, embrace even, the ‘grey’ that comes from our creatureliness. We’ve been far too black and white in our thinking and engaging; this manifests in plenty of ways but one of the most pernicious is that people think they need to believe a bunch of black and white truth claims before belonging in a community where they can explore and come to convictions over time. It also means we’ve settled for soundbite theology and limited attention spans rather than wrestling with complexity.

14. Practice rest, silence, and the making of space for all this stuff. We’re too busy and we’re overstimulated (while our attention spans are too short). Most of us. To put in the bodily effort required for this sort of transformation; this, coupled with a consumer culture where some people unplug from a church because we’re not being taught/spoonfed content for our growth/stimulation, or judge a community on its preaching/input (often compared to super preachers on the Internet), means we’re not building the depth of relationship with anybody that this stuff requires; we either don’t have the time in the short term (the diary), or over the long term (years) to build deep relationships. We’re impatient. Rest pushes back on this impatience.

15. Re-imagine work and ‘success’ for us and our kids. Spend less on education; work less; don’t take promotions. We’re economic captives to ‘Babylon’ even if we think we’re fighting against a ‘Babylonian’ sexual ethic.

16. Tell stories about people (and let people tell their stories).

 

The ambitious.

1. Value institutions and build them. Starting with the church. Institutions and systems can be corrupted by sin, but perhaps the best way to fight institutions that have been corrupted is actually through institutions (not just with a vacuum). The people who made the tower of Babel were making a bad institution, if people had chipped in to help Noah building the ark they would’ve been participating in a positive institution (much like the later temple builders)

2. Counter our nation’s/world’s idolatrous narratives with better stories; and better supporting infrastructure for participating in those stories. For example, instead of abandoning church schools, or using them as an expensive way to form ‘leaders’ who are contributors to an economic vision of the human, use them to fight ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, math) education and its view of the person as an economic unit functioning in a machine with, perhaps, a liberal arts education focused on virtue formation. Our stories and institutions bring a sense of personhood by forming our understanding of what it means to be a person.

3. Foster entrepreneurial optimistic ‘disruptive’ engagement with the world, for example consider how participating in rejecting the narrative of profit, productivity, and the ‘market’ might result in start ups that are social enterprises with a social justice focus; subvert and disrupt that narrative using its own equipment,  and encourage Christians to create businesses aimed at expressing things that are true about our convictions. Make those expressions overt, but aim them at the common good, not self interest.

4. Re-imagine faith and work. The workplace isn’t just a mission field where we can convince colleagues of the truths of the Gospel, but a field in which we can live our convictions that bodily work matters, that death is the enemy, that our bodies will be raised, and that God has a particular concern for (and uses) the weak and the marginalised against the powerful and the oppressor. Choose vocations (or create businesses) that are deliberate expressions of something true about God’s world that allow us to see work more directly as storied, without devaluing the ordinary work of serving others with the gifts God has given us, or according to the needs of our society (ala Luther); don’t explicitly or implicitly prioritise full time ‘Gospel ministry’ as the only real Gospel ministry.

5. Rediscover an aesthetic connected to our story and use it in creating art and architecture; think about how our story might shape our buildings and spaces and so shape our practices (what does it mean that our story is about ‘light and life’ when many stories in our world are about ‘darkness and death’, how might a well lit auditorium (or lounge room) full of plants, colour, and movement reinforce this truth, where a dark and uncomfortable room where we all sit still and stare at screens might reinforce counter-formative practices). Make ‘artefacts’ that express this aesthetic in a way that pushes back against the darkness.

Over to you. What are your ideas?

Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

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. 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. 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. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 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.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 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. 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. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

Marking our time, euthanasia, and a eulogy for my gran

This week I inherited a grandfather clock.

I inherited it from my deeply and dearly loved grandmother who died last Friday. It’s now proudly displayed on our lounge room wall, where it marks my own mortality. Every ticking and tocking swing of the pendulum, every cheerful 15 minute chime, marking both the passing of time and the countdown to that day when my body will also draw breath for the last time.

My gran, Cynthia Campbell, was 92; she’d lived a full life which included travelling the world as an adventurous and independent nurse before finding love in perhaps the unlikeliest of places; regional New South Wales with a man, my pa, whose sense of place meant he wanted to put down roots and put them down deep. Pa and Gran, as we called them, had two kids — my dad, and my aunty — and they built a home that served as a base for hospitality but also got as close to self-sufficient as a house in town can get. Their veggie patch was a marvel; pa’s toolshed well stocked; and the house marked by his little innovative ‘fixes’ to little problems that arose through the wear and tear of long life in the one place. All of this marked by the ticking and chiming of this clock.

Inanimate objects don’t really ‘witness’ anything; though we might wish they did, so the clock’s connection to the life of this house is mostly in the imagination. It’s timber has not absorbed the smell of the Anzac biscuits baked fresh for our arrival; the chime does not echo the laughter or words of love spoken around the table or on the telephone that sat next to it; the hands of the clock have not learned to give an embrace that is both warm and safe. But the clock was there for these things and so in some ways it roots me to them; to gran.

One of the nice tactile things about this particular clock (and many like it) is that you have to wind it; its marking of time requires clock work and clockwork. It will run for as long as it is maintained; and were I to stop winding it, one day it too would stop (8 days later, in fact). In this a clock is both like and not like a human body. We cannot perpetually wind our bodies up, nor do we vivify our hands so that we go about our purposes marking time; but there comes a time where the clock stops being wound and we switch off. Gran’s death has been the first real opportunity our kids have had to be confronted with death and mortality; and Soph, 6, when we were talking about how gran died summed it up as ‘her body just switched off’; which it did. At 92, and even with a pacemaker helping her heart keep time, no amount of winding or retuning could keep gran going; and so her breathing, once as regular as a ticking clock, started slowing and becoming irregular. And then it stopped. But while we’re a complex mix of biological cogs and levers, we are not machines. A machine with a careful maintenance schedule and the right parts should be able to run forever; but machines have no soul; no sense of themselves, their purpose, or the lives they touch. Machines do not live and so they cannot die; it’s a curious anthropomorphism that we talk about our machines dying. Machines don’t die; but people do; it’s because our best machines outlive us that we can turn them into family heirlooms and pass them on to new generations. 

It’s interesting to consider the changes wrought on the world and how we see it by the simple clock and its clockwork engineering; the ability to measure time with machine like precision, and our ability to observe an intricately integrated and complex machine and make inferences about the workings of the universe… machines disrupt and change the ecosystems they’re introduced to; but machines do this without intent or a will. I’ve long been fascinated by the Luddite movement; an uprising of humans against sophisticated machines that were taking jobs and changing society. I understand the Luddite impulse but I also wonder about the emotions of the creators of those machines as they saw their handiwork destroyed. Those beautiful machines turned into something ugly and pointless… but I wonder if they were more glad that the Luddites took out their anger on the engines not the engineers… machines don’t take jobs, machinists do. We tend to anthropomorphise machines — to expect them to have human qualities and to talk about them dying, but the flipside is that we increasingly see the cosmos, and people, in machine like terms; with the rise of clockwork we even started to speak of God as the ‘clockmaker’ and to imagine him somewhat distantly winding up the universe and then stepping back to watch time unfold; and this means we talk about death in terms of ‘flicking a switch’ or to see it as a natural end to our life, and the operations or machinations of our body being all there is. We see death as something akin to sand passing through an hour glass, as a natural and normal part of the machine-like universe doing its thing. 

But it isn’t.

We see ourselves as cogs within this machine, or as little machines; operating like clockwork, wound up, and now just waiting for the kinetic energy that is loaded up into our bits and pieces to run out so that we expire.

But we aren’t.

Machines are not people; nor are people machines. If I took a sledgehammer to my beautiful clock and destroyed it the world would lose something beautiful and intricately crafted; how much more has the world lost with the loss of my gran? Or the destruction of every human body, bodies knit together more intricately and beautifully than a clock? Death is the ugly destruction of something much more beautiful than our most beautiful machines. Machines break, people die. 

On the day gran drew breath for the last time, the Victorian government’s lower house passed its euthanasia bill; the word euthanasia is derived from the greek words for good and death, and the pursuit of a ‘good death’ seems noble. And inasmuch as a death can be good, passing away gently in your sleep, with pain managed via the miracles of modern medicine, at 92, and surrounded by family, gran had a good death. A death that made me appreciate what a service palliative care built on the belief that people have a dignity that sets us apart from machinery can be to our world… But as members of my family gathered to say goodbye as we could, and as my folks and aunty were there when gran drew her final breath in as good a death as you might see, I came to realise there is nothing good about death. There gran lay in her room, with this clock on the wall relentlessly beating away like a metronome, while the rhythm of her breathing faltered and the beat of her heart faded away, and there was nothing inherently good about death; which is why we grieve, and this wasn’t simply the mechanical process of a machine being shut down for the last time either. Death stings. We think it’s natural because it happens so much — and will happen to all of us — or is happening to all of us. Death didn’t begin last week for gran, it began 92 years ago with her birth. It’s a lifelong process marked by the passing of time; time which now passes to the rhythmic beating of a second hand on the wall… tick… tock… and if you’re lucky to those cheerful chimes that mark every quarter hour, and peal out some extra notes for each passing hour. If you’re extra lucky you’ll be reminded of your mortality by having to keep winding up that clock every seven days to mark the passing of each week. That’s what clocks, especially grandfather clocks, do; they count down towards our death… and they last beyond it.  

And so I inherit a clock, a clock which hung on the wall still ticking as my gran passed into death, still ticking after her heart stopped, which I can’t help but see as measuring my days. Inheritances are a funny thing, I’ve known my whole life I’d be inheriting ‘the family clock,’ but have not wanted it because to claim it would require the death of the grandparents I loved dearly; first pa, and now gran. A clock that now ticks and tocks, that with careful preservation I too will be able to hand on to another generation of Campbell progeny.

But this clock is not the inheritance I prize most from my gran; the inheritance I most appreciate is one I’ve been enjoying for as long as I remember, it’s more in the realm of the heritage her life (and pa’s) has created for our family, and the things she has been passing on to our family. A heritage of good news about the world and about death. A heritage that has both her son and daughter in vocational church ministry (and a grandson and granddaughter), and that extends beyond her line of her family tree to her siblings, and her nieces and nephews (and their kids).

I love the picture of Timothy in the Bible whose mum and grandma raised him with a heritage so that Paul can say Timothy ‘has known from infancy the Holy Scriptures’ (2 Timothy 3:15), we know it came from his grandma because Paul says earlier: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” (2 Tim 1:5). Despite what the euthanasia advocates desires (with good intent), there is no good death, but there is a good word about death. On Friday we’ll say goodbye to my gran at her funeral, and I’ll be part of giving her eulogy; like ‘euthanasia’ the word eulogy has greek roots — ‘good’ ‘word’ — I have many good words to say about my gran. About her love for us; her generosity; her hospitality; her kind and anxious soul; that she sacrificed much out of love for her family… but I’m most thankful for the good words I inherited from her; good words that give me hope in the face of her death; hope that we are more than machines; hope that means the ticking of the clock which counts down my remaining days on this mortal coil is not just a countdown to me being ‘switched off’ in the best death I can hope for… I’m most thankful that in these good words I discover good words from my creator about my gran, and about death. Because in the ‘good words’ found in those Scriptures; in the good news of Jesus; I see that God is not a watchmaker who sees my gran (or us) as wind up toys that will fall over and be discarded. I see that God is a father who looks at my gran as a beloved daughter. I see that God is not distant — that he didn’t step back after making a ‘machine’ but stepped forward into this world, in the coming of Jesus, to destroy death, that he holds all things together (Colossians 1), gives life and breath and everything to each person (Acts 17), and that he promises to step in again — to return and raise the dead — because death is not some natural thing — an end — where we can find a ‘good’ — death is an enemy to be destroyed.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” — 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This is a good word that God speaks into and beyond the grave. This, more than anything, is something my gran wanted her kids and grandkids to inherit — a heritage — a legacy — and while her physical possessions have been divided up amongst our family so that we might remember her — this above all was her desire and prayer for her family.

On Friday I’ll speak some ‘good words’ about my gran, last Thursday as I said my goodbyes I said some good words to her. I kissed her on the forehead for the last time and said “thanks for loving us so well; but more than that, thanks for loving Jesus.” I do not know that I could stand the constant beating rhythm; the tick tock; of my new-but-old clock without this hope. Nor could I face the death of my beloved gran. Or death at all.

 

A tale of two epitaphs: The haunting of Port Arthur tells a bigger Australian story than it seeks to…

We’re on holidays in Tasmania. It’s stunning. We’ve been to snow fringed lakes, and stunning bays, and we’re now enjoying historic Hobart. Yesterday, en route to Hobart, we spent some time in Port Arthur at the world heritage listed historic site that is the best preserved remnant of Australia’s convict history; it was a prison settlement, and like most historical sites the place itself, and its architecture, tells a story that functions as a backdrop to the stories of lives lived and lost in our nation’s past.

Port Arthur’s historical site, of course, occupies a more recent place in the Australian story and our national psyche. In 1996 it was the site of Australia’s last shooting massacre, when a young man named Martin Bryant entered the historic site and sprayed staff and visitors with bullets, taking 35 lives and leaving 23 people wounded. This shooting led to a significant change to Australia’s gun laws, and left an indelible mark on the historic site; where there’s now a moving tribute to those who were killed or wounded in the massacre, and to those brave people who rushed to the aid of the victims. It’s a solemn monument to a significant moment in our national story.

What fascinated me more than the conditions of the prisoners, government officers, and settlers in the historic site was the prominent space given to Christianity in the lives of both the convicts and the establishment. The church that met on the hill above the settlement hosted services attended by 1,100 people per Sunday. The building that hosted these gatherings was, from 1836, a grand, convict-built, sandstone structure in prime position on the hill; a prominent and unmissable reminder of the place of Christianity in the lives (and attempted reform) of those sent to the colony, a constant visible presence reminding those living in the community of the inherent dignity and value of all human life; a reminder it appears at least some of those in charge of life in the prisons took on board (according to the records quoted in signage on the site).

The parsonage — the home of the protestant minister who ran services at the church — made for interesting visiting and reading. It told the story of three of the chaplains to the community — the first, Rev Durham, was staunchly anti-Catholic, but also advocated for better treatment of prisoners, and for the church to be responsible for education in the community, and a letter from one of the convicts claimed that he’d won the respect of those he was sent to minister to — the convicts. The second chaplain, Reverend George Eastman, had a classic minister’s family, with kids who apparently ran amok, disrupting all sorts of things happening around the community; he too was held in high esteem in the community, but he died on site, and one of the signs in the parsonage particularly struck me, it quotes his epitaph. The words on his grave stone seemed to me to be great words for a preacher of the Gospel to aspire to, but also told the story of the role of the church in a settlement where death was common, and the church did indeed play a prominent role in helping us face our mortality; or rather to offer hope beyond death. The Port Arthur site includes a small island in the bay, the Isle of the Dead, which functioned as the cemetery.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

What stunning words. This man’s ministry to others in the face of death spoke from beyond the grave. A good kind of haunting. The kind that leads to hope; a testimony to glorious immortality for any who put their faith in Jesus. The best we Christians have to offer society; and perhaps the reason the church was so prominent in the early life of this settlement, and other parts of colonial Australia. The Hebrews quote is from a chapter of the Bible that speaks of faith.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. — Hebrews 11:1-4

What a testimony to this man’s ministry and the place of the church in the colony. To a church operating as a city on a hill; a light in the darkness; a voice of hope beyond death. A position reinforced by the environment; a story told by this historic site.

But the story doesn’t end there… because the story of Port Arthur’s historic site is a haunting one; and perhaps more than anything else it is haunted by the loss of a voice like this, or a church like this. And perhaps here there is something of the story of our nation; a parallel haunting story.

The pastor who replaced Rev. Eastman, Rev Haywood, arrived to a settlement in decline; the prison was closing, and to top things off, he started to believe that the parsonage was haunted by ghosts; perhaps Eastman’s. He moved out of the house, then left the settlement in 1877 when the prison closed. The parsonage became the post office. Christianity was moving away from the centre of the community. 7 years later the church building caught fire, just the outer walls remain; a haunting but powerful monument to the place of religion in a site littered with buildings in similar state of disrepair; none are quite so grandly designed or constructed as this building though.

Next to the old church is a much smaller chapel style building, St Davids, which still functions as an Anglican church to this day. When it was commissioned in 1927, the local paper wrote: it’s “a pretty little building, erected in a prominent position in the township in the shadows of the ruins of the old church. It is a welcome addition to the buildings of the township” (the page of the paper available at that link has an interesting little report on a church service at Davey Street Methodist where the address was given by miss Barbara Storey — which tells two fascinating stories about the church in 1927, one being that sermons were summarised in the city’s newspaper, the other being about women preaching not being particularly newsworthy). Prior to the construction of St David’s (in the 50 year gap between 1877 and 1927) services had been conducted in Port Arthur’s town hall, the old Asylum. Now this quaint little building runs regular services in the shadow of a grand, but skeletal, church building that was the town’s most prominent structure; it looks like it could comfortably seat 40 people; it’s a haunting story about the place of the church in Australia; but not the only part of the site that tells this haunting story. Where once there was a grand building, serving 1,100 people per Sunday with the hope of the resurrection, and helping people confront death, now there is this quaint building — that once made the newspaper — providing a handful of tourists, and perhaps some locals, that same message.

The church still has a place in Port Arthur, it’s still kicking along, but it is part of an historic site; a tourist attraction, a relic of an Australia past; representing something every bit as ghostly as the other stories of the past you’re confronted with in your walk around the site, and offering something about as plausible to the average Aussie punter as Rev. Haywood’s ghost sightings.

This wasn’t the most haunting part of our tour of Port Arthur for me. I’m more into ancient history and recent history than the history of colonial Australia; and I can remember exactly where I was, as a 13 year old kid, when I first learned about the Port Arthur shooting. It was a Sunday. I was at youth group, sitting on the stage steps inside the Presbyterian Church building in Maclean, and some of my friends were talking about it. It’s one of those news stories where you remember where you first hear it… It left an indelible mark on my memory; a haunting. Even.

The memorial garden and ‘Pool of Peace’ are a stirring reminder of this moment in our history; I saw a bloke probably a couple of years older than me, sitting quietly and contemplatively on the corner of the pool for a few minutes, perhaps, as I was, pondering the fragility of human life; being confronted by the spectre of death; haunted, still, by the events of 21 years ago. It’s hard to know what to say in response to death, which is why our mortality and the fragility of life is confronting, perhaps it is why the original settlement buried its dead on an island, a boat trip away from the day to day reality; the water providing a buffer between the mundane and its inevitable end; with the church and the ministry of somebody like Rev. Eastman helping to bridge that gap, and providing the comforting picture of “glorious immortality” — the early settlers seemed to grasp that being confronted by death without being comforted by immortality is something more than haunting; more than ghostly; it is ghastly.

But the memorial, in the main, reminds us of the haunting Aussie story; what we’ve lost because we’ve lost the prominent place of people like Rev. Eastman, and the church has gone from being a prominent visual part of life in our community, to having a small presence in the shadows. So. The ‘Pool of Peace’ offers a thoroughly secular response to the events of 1996; haunting words engraved next to the pool and on its edges, another epitaph, in stark contrast to the words on Eastman’s gravestone:

“Death has taken its toll

Some pain knows no release

But the knowledge of brave compassion

Shines like a pool of peace.

May we who come to this garden

Cherish life for the sake of those who died

Cherish compassion for the sake of those who gave aid

Cherish peace for the sake of those in pain.”

These are poetic words. They aren’t without a sort of limited hope, and in some ways they are words that allow the victims of Port Arthur to do what Rev. Eastman does; to keep speaking; to speak of the cost of evil, and the pain and grief that comes through death. You can’t help but be moved by that garden, these words, and the still waters of the pool; tucked into a part of a site that tells a bigger story of Australian life.

Somehow Eastman’s testimony, his epitaph, stands in stark relief to these words though, and somehow this is where the church might still have a role to play in Australia, even if it is to keep us feeling haunted by ghosts of a past we’ve lost, a place we once had… with a message of ‘cheering hope’ that comforts us in our own ‘isle of the dead’, that comforts us as we stand beside graves, or on sites where death has touched us, or haunted us.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

The church is not yet dead; even if it is starting to feel like a bit of a ghost story, or something that haunts our society rather than comforts it. And there’s a small monument to this in the memorial garden too; and perhaps the brightest moment of our trip came from this monument, this sculpture of the cross with the names of those who lost their lives engraved on a plaque, tucked back in the shadows; behind the ‘pool of peace’; a reminder of the prince of peace, the one whose resurrection secures our glorious immortality; the one who spoke life in the beginning, but who also spoke from beyond the grave.

As we rounded the corner, through a tall hedge, into the monument, there were a couple of kids playing underneath this cross. One, a young girl, stretched out her arms and yelled out, breaking the stillness — her voice rippling across the pool — “Mummy! Mummy! I’m dying on the cross like Jesus”… the man sitting peacefully on the edge of the pool looked up, shocked at this breach of the peace, the girl’s mum hushed her, and beckoned her back to her side.

I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. As I caught the eyes of the sombre fountain sitter. He wasn’t smiling, though his eyes were, a little. As we walked up to the inscriptions on the edge of the pool, I heard this girl explaining the Jesus story to her sister. “They killed Jesus on a cross like that, then they put him in a tomb… and then…”

And then.

Haunting.

Cheering hope. Resurrection. Glorious immortality. He being living yet speaketh.

Even in Australia.

Why (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…