Tag Archives: worship

Embodying the word of God is our liturgy (a response to a Gospel Coalition piece today)

Over at the Gospel Coalition Australia there’s a self-admittedly click-baity piece by Peter Orr titled Against Liturgy: The Word of God is Enough. It’s a relatively standard modernist-evangelical response to the push to recapture ‘liturgy’ led by James K.A Smith, but which you’ll also find in the water of the writing of lots of theologically Reformed types grappling with how to follow Jesus against a post-modern, post-Christian, back drop (so also, for example, in books by Mike Cosper (Recapturing Wonder), Alan Noble (Disruptive Witness), Tish Harrison Warren (The Liturgy of the Ordinary).

Now, while I’m a big fan of Smith’s framework, I have problems with how he applies or prescribes it (and similar problems with other pushes for liturgy that land on the practices of the institutional or medieval church — the church of the cathedral rather than the household). I suspect the helpful emphasis Smith, and others, bring to the forms our practices take not just to the message are a sort of double edged sword that also cut into forms developed at a time that Christianity was in the cultural and political ascendency — we might need to ask what sort of aesthetic, cultural practices, and forms the story of the Gospel most naturally produces (more on that in my review of Disruptive Witness and a thing on what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might involve).

Orr’s summary of Smith’s framework, which he critiques, is as follows:

“For Smith, the Scriptures are the answer, but they work powerfully in us through patterns of worship. Smith is not denying the power of Scripture—at this point—but arguing that Scripture will only (or mainly) transform us as it is combined with the liturgical habit and practice of Christian worship.”

For Smith, such habits and practices do indeed involve images and the way they seep into the imagination. For Orr, this framework threatens the power of the living word of God. He says:

“Smith’s basic assumption here seems to be that the Scriptures are just like any other piece of information. That is they are inert and do not effect transformation unless they are supplemented by the implicitly more powerful practices of liturgy and habit. The theology of Scripture underlying Smith’s thesis at this point seems to assume that Scripture has no innate power of itself. Although he absolutely believes that the Bible is the Word of God, it won’t transform unless it is combined with the liturgical practices that allow its message to be internalised. It does not seem to have any innate power in itself.”

He then says the Bible is where God speaks, and where transformation comes from.

“What will call the wanderer back? What will strengthen the struggler? What will nurture children? What will encourage the mature believer? The living and active word of God. Do we need to think about how the liturgies of our services help people internalize the Scriptures? Yes! But these liturgies have to be built around the conviction that the Scriptures are ‘the word of God written’ and, as such, are powerful in and of themselves. We don’t need the false ‘liturgy’ of paintings or gowns to call us back to Jesus but the wonderfully powerful word of God.”

Having read a fair chunk of Smith over the years, I’m not sure Orr is fairly representing Smith’s views as opposed to creating a strawman. I’m equally not excited about Smith’s description of how his framework might shape kids ministry or the life and imagination of believers through the use of images, but I have a problem with the flattening of the dynamic of God’s word that might come from Orr’s click-baity title and how it frames the content of his piece.

Because the title is fatally flawed.

God’s word inevitably produces a liturgy. If liturgy is a series of practices, repeated as an expression of worship, in the pursuit of transformation, or the formation of character, then such practices are inevitable and inextricable caught up with God’s speaking to us and acting in us by the Spirit as we hear his word. You can’t split what the Bible doesn’t.

The living WORD of God, Jesus, says this, recorded for us in the written word of God (already there’s a fun dynamic going on there):

Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” — Luke 6:46-49

There’s a connection between hearing God’s word and putting them into practice. Repeatedly and habitually. A connection Orr acknowledges; but that is undermined by the heading of the piece.

If it’s true that everybody worships something, that to be human is to worship, and this is the part of Smith’s framework that Orr likes, then it is also true that everybody has a liturgy, every church has a liturgy, every Christian has a liturgy — a set of habits and behaviours that form us. The question is what liturgy, what forms or mediums support the word of God in its transforming work in our lives. For many, and perhaps for Orr, the reading, singing, and preaching of the words of Scripture in our gathering together is the liturgy required to emphasise that God speaks and acts through his word… but I’m not sure that’s the liturgy that God’s word itself suggests. I’m not sure it cuts it, because that alone is not the liturgy — the set of practices — that God’s word supplies, or that were the common practices of the early church.

In Romans 1 Paul uses one of the three words translated as ‘worship’ in the New Testament, to make the claim that Smith makes in his cultural liturgies series — that we are creatures shaped and oriented in the world by our worship; that our thinking often follows the desires of our heart.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” — Romans 1:25

This is the description of our nature as worshippers who adopt a set of practices — a liturgy — that conforms with our gods. On this, it seems that Orr and Smith are in agreement (at least inasmuch as Orr consistently praises Smith’s insights). What’s interesting, though, is that the ‘worship word’ is the one translated as ‘served’ (λατρεύω — latreo), the word translated ‘worship’ here is about being awestruck (σεβάζομαι —sebazomai). Paul comes back to this idea of worship as service — as habitual service — later in this letter to the Roman church. The letter that talks lots about transformation (Romans 8), and about the role of God’s word in that transformation (Romans 10), but in terms of our ongoing formation and the place of liturgy, I suspect this is where I depart from Smith and Orr. Paul has a particular vision for the practices that bring transformation (or that conform us into the pattern and image of Jesus rather than the world), and while I think formation has to be embodied it’s not statues and stations of tactile learning in the kids church area (though I’d be all for more play-based and tactile pedagogical practices in kids churches, as opposed to exclusively head-focused practices that our modernist practices have normalised). Paul has a particular shape for our liturgy that comes from keeping God’s WORD in view as we hear God’s word, a liturgy given to us in God’s word.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but 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 12:1-2

Here Paul uses the noun form of the verb he used in Romans 1 — our hearts will worship something, our bodies will practice some sort of worship. God’s word tells us that our liturgy should be ‘in view of God’s mercy’ an offering of our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). He goes on to talk about how this works in context of the church — the body of Christ, the members belonging to one another — in the rest of Romans 12 with a set of liturgical practices that embody the Gospel to one another, as we live lives shaped by God’s spirit in us. It’s not just hearing God’s word that God’s word says transforms us  — it’s God’s word enacted by the Spirit at work within us, through our new worship, is where transformation by the Spirit happens.

So here’s my contentious claim contrary to Smith’s desire to have our imagination shaped by tactile statues — in our liturgy, our imaginations are to be shaped — our habits caught — from the lives of the saints, who are passing on the liturgy or practices taught and commanded in God’s word — putting into practice the teaching of Jesus. We don’t learn God’s word and what it looks like to apply it in a vacuum — God’s word points us to God’s WORD, and we learn what a liturgical life shaped by his sacrifice looks like from God’s word, the Bible, and from those in the body of Christ — the community shaped by the proclamation and practicing of that word. This is what ‘making disciples’ looks like.

And by this I don’t just mean long dead figures whose names we append ‘St.’ to, I mean the living breathing examples of the people of God around us as we gather as embodied people to hear God’s word and put it into practice. This is why Paul so often appeals to his example in the lives of the churches he pastors, and connects that to the example of Jesus. The word of God is full of examples of people, like Paul, talking about embodying the Gospel and imitating Jesus, and instructions to do likewise — to take up a liturgical way of life. You can’t say the Bible has authority and in the next breath say that liturgy has no value and that God’s word is enough. The liturgy of offering ourselves as living sacrifices is what we pass on from generation to generation, and it’s these examples of the love of Jesus, reflecting and inextricably linked to the word and WORD of God, that are most powerful in those circumstances where we’re tempted to doubt or to worship some other created thing.

Consider the dynamic Paul describes here, in God’s word, what it demonstrates about the connection between hearing God’s word and experiencing it being practiced in the lives and liturgy of his faithful church:

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

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus — 1 Thessalonians 2:7-14

And perhaps my favourite liturgical passage (alongside the description of the life of the church in Acts 2, which seems to look a lot like the life Paul calls Christians to in Romans 12).

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 3:15-17

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What might a ‘Christian aesthetic’ look like? And why bother?

Late last year I was listening to the podcast Cultivated (one of my favourites), and about halfway through this episode the panelists started talking about what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might look like.

“That makes me think of a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’d love to talk about and explore, is: what would a Christian aesthetic look like, if you go beyond the content level, which is often how we talk about these things, right? Something is Christian if it tells a story from the Bible, or has a Christian theme or message. Protestants are prone to that kind of word/propositional orientation anyway, less than Catholics, who are oriented more towards the visual. What would it look like to think about an aesthetic, a form, that’s ‘Christian’, certainly in architecture there are certain forms or styles that we could point to and say ‘that’s a  ‘Christian’ aesthetic,’ that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity …” — Brett McCracken, Cultivated Podcast

It’s been something of an ‘earworm’ or a ‘brainworm’ for me since, coupled with my love of the idea that when Christians did start building their own buildings, they incorporated the cross into the floor plan, and put the highest point of the ceiling above the intersection, so that the space itself represented the story of the Gospel, and that Jesus death serves as the bridge between earth and heavens, that will ultimately bring heaven to earth. That’s a ‘certain’ sort of form — a provision of a habitat that helps us embody the Christian story from the ground up (though for most of us, who are architecturally illiterate, and textually literate, this sort of thing might be meaningless — greater actual literacy is not a reason to be illiterate when it comes to aesthetic stuff though). I love that idea — while also pondering if the very decision to own public buildings, rather than meeting in homes, was a good move (aesthetically or ‘formally’). I say this having been pastoring a church for four years that has now met in a rented public theatre, an empty ‘box-like’ room, and now a church auditorium with all the modern bells, whistles, screens and lighting — each ‘space’ has shaped the life and experiences of our community and our gatherings in profound ways.

The Cultivated conversation explores questions of form, or a Christian ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to Christians making art, I’m interested in considering what it looks like to ask these forms in our architecture — our use of space both public and private, and social architecture. How we create a ‘stage’ or a habitat where we embody the Gospel story as ‘characters’ and form habits.

One of the ‘modernist’ assumptions that ends up shaping ethics (how we live) is that we are consumers in a machine-like environment, that things have utility, which led to a corresponding rise in utilitarian ethics and pragmatism, and through all this, we Christians in our modernist framework have tended towards making pragmatic rather than aesthetic choices about space (and even art). Here’s a cracking quote from Karen Swallow Prior, from that same Cultivated podcast episode.

“We’ve inherited a lot from the Victorian age and we don’t even realise it. We often don’t even distinguish between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. And one of them is utilitarianism. And so we have undue emphasis on the idea that things must be useful, that they must have a purpose, in order to be valuable, of course, you know, when we apply that to human lives we know what that results in, but I think that’s part of what makes us uneasy with art, that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘all art is utterly useless’ right, and what he meant by that is it’s just there to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose, which of course is a sort of a purpose. Modern Christianity is uncomfortable with something that is just there to be enjoyed and take pleasure in… we think we have to be on mission all the time and fulfil some sort of purpose” — Karen Swallow Prior, Cultivated Podcast

Here’s the thing though; art does ‘serve a purpose’ — it is part of the ‘backcloth’ of life, part of the ‘environment’ we live in or the habitat we inhabit, art-as-artefacts are part of what forms a ‘culture’, and so art shapes our seeing of the world both directly as we engage with it, and subtly (by being part of our ‘environment’). And if we bring in my favourite academic discipline — media ecology — and one of its maxims: the medium is the message, then we start to see that forms do inherently communicate something along with content. To keep ‘ecology’ on the table — think about the relationship between the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habit’. If we want to be creatures of habit — those who habitually live out the Christian story because we are formed as characters within God’s story — not our own consumer-driven stories with us as the hero, but as disciples — maybe we should consider our habitats — how we structure and design space, including what it looks and feels like — an application of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ to how and where we meet and live…

I’ve been challenged to re-imagine how we approach church as Aussies who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that the Gospel is the story of Jesus arriving in this world as the king who conquers sin, satan, and death and who launches a kingdom — his people, to live a life, for eternity (but starting now) where these enemies have been destroyed, so that we’re free from their grip, and he is victorious.

I’m struck by how many of our practices as Christians are adopted from a modernist world with modernist assumptions — a couple in particular, that the world is ‘disenchanted’ (thanks Charles Taylor) and that we are simply ‘brains on a stick’ who need logic and facts to make good ‘rational’ decisions (thanks James K.A Smith). I’m simultaneously struck by the way this adoption of a ‘modernist framework’ as ‘the Christian frame’ has us reeling because we now live in a post-modern, post-Christian, environment and our practices aren’t keeping people (humanly speaking) or persuading people, and how much this framework has shaped our understanding of making disciples or Christian formation, and in this post, I’m particularly considering how that approach to formation has de-emphasised embodiment, and so de-emphasised our ‘environment’ and the arts. So that the idea of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ seems a bit wanky — we’ve lost a sense of deliberately Christian architecture or art, whether within the life of the church or in the witness of the church to the world (or both).

“I want there to be a place for evangelistic art, really, really, really good evangelistic art. I want there to be a place for art that has very obvious utility. I don’t have a problem with that. But once you get in the field of the Terence Mallicks, and he’s making a movie about creation, and dinosaurs, and trees and light. You’re asking yourself a really important theological question: How does God perceive light, and sound, and texture, and scent? Because that’s what he’s talking about. Because if we have a theological way to frame God’s care of those things in creation, then Terrence Mallick is a profoundly Christian artist…” — David Taylor, Cultivated Podcast

We reformed evangelicals in reacting against worldly idolatry of beauty (too high a view of creation), and the way we’ve seen that play out in the Catholic Church with its iconography and expensive cathedrals, have tended to over-correct, adopting and almost ‘dis-embodied’ approach to life in the world — so we think less about space, and place, and beauty than other streams of Christianity (including the Pentecostal stream, who have a different ‘frame’ but, perhaps, are more likely to uncritically adopt the forms that are popular in our world).

There’s been a recent pushback against modernity (and post-modernity) by people who realise we’ve been breathing the air for so long that it has become normal — that perhaps, to quote another podcast I’ve listened to quite a bit lately — Mark Sayers in This Cultural Moment — we’ve been colonised by our culture, rather than ‘colonising our culture’ with the Gospel. Sayers argues you should understand the west in three eras — pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian; that missionaries have often come from the ‘second culture’ — one shaped by the Gospel into the pre-Christian world (think Africa, or the world the early church operated in), and that the ‘third culture’ — the ‘post-Christian’ culture lives off the fruits of Christianity but ‘wants the kingdom, without the king’ — it has moved on to a new story about what human flourishing looks like.  In episode 2, After discussing Leslie Newbigin’s return from the mission field in India to ‘post-modern’ England, and his realisation that the ground had shifted such that the west is now a post-Christian mission field, not “Christian” or “pre-Christian.” Sayers talks about some of the misfires of the early ‘missional’ church (including his early attempts at a missional church), which adopted secular forms, or aesthetics, to shape the teaching of the content of the Christian story. He said his question was: “how do you do a kind of church that incarnates into the culture of my friends?”

“Gen-X culture was hitting… post-modern culture was hitting… so the question was how do we incarnate into post-modern or Gen-X culture. I planted this congregation. We didn’t have singing. We didn’t have sermons. It was conversation, you know, clips from the Simpsons, we didn’t have a “front”… I was very much influenced by some of the alternative worship stuff that was happening in the UK. It was an attempt to use the cultural forms, it was the framework of missiology, but there was a thing that I missed was that there was an assumption that if you did this and you just did mission, then it would re-energise Christians, it would bring alive their faith, it would bring the church back to its core purpose… the model then of the three cultures is the idea that the third culture is not a ‘pre-Christian culture’… it’s not a return back to culture one, we’re turning to culture three… what it is, is a culture that is defining itself against Christianity, wants some of the fruits of Christianity whether it knows it or not, consciously, and therefore has a corrosive and caustic effect. The science of missiology taught people in Christian culture not to colonise people in culture one, when they’re communicating the Gospel to them, but what I realised was happening was that when I was in culture two incarnating and using cultural forms to speak to culture three, a post-Christian culture, that it was colonising us.”

John Mark Comer, the co-host of This Cultural Moment, sums this up as ‘you go out with the Gospel of Jesus, and instead of influence, you are influenced. Instead of shaping, you are shaped.” You uncritically take on the aesthetics of the world, and they start to shape how you see the world.

James K.A Smith puts it this way, in a series of paragraphs from chapter 3 of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

“In our desire to embed the gospel content into forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we re-tool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar… confident of the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms…” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

He says this ends up with us saying “come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar because we’ve modelled it after the mall”…

“”Forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message… what are embraced as merely fresh forms are in fact practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”

“When we believe that worship is about formation, we will begin to appreciate why ‘form’ matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves towards the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices. By the form of worship, I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute the elements of that enacted narrative.”

“Only worship that is oriented by the Biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituation of rival, secular liturgies.” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

Sayers and Smith are essentially pointing to the same truth, through different (though related) paradigms. If our forms or aesthetics are predominantly derived from the world around us (not that this is always terrible) there is a risk that we will be shaped by the world, rather than the forms or aesthetics that are predominantly derived from our story, and the practices of Jesus and teachings of the New Testament. Both Smith and Sayers/Comer land in the same place — spiritual habits — or ‘disciplines,’ shaped by the Gospel story, which include coming to terms with our embodiment as the key for transformation. Smith, for mine, leans too heavily into the medieval practices that developed as the church moved into ‘institution’

Now. I’ve written quite a bit about where I depart from Smith’s proposed embodiment of these insights (that I love), I think he ultimately picks the medieval, or pre-enlightenment (or Augustinian), church as a particular point in time disconnected from our modernist assumptions so that its practices will be counter-formative… while I think much older (pre-Constantine) practices of the New Testament and early church — forms and practices specifically developed in the Christian story — are both more disconnected from modernism, and from Christendom and its ‘forms’ — such the backdrop is more like ours, and the practices Christians adopted against that backdrop are more likely to be helpfully counter-formative for us. It’s not that everything between then and now is wrong, or that we shouldn’t be progressing in our telling of the story of God working through history to bring about his kingdom, it’s just that I’m not sure the practices produced by Christians when we were in the cultural ascendency are the ones we should pin ourselves to when trying to rehabituate and rehabilitate the church. I’m not sure it’s enough to say our post-Christian inclination to adopt the forms of our culture wasn’t at the heart of the church when it built cathedrals that looked a lot like castles (Solomon had a similar issue here); even though I’m prepared to cede that the medieval church, at times, might have had a less sinister approach to aesthetics and practices than it did when Luther kickstarted the Reformation (using popular forms from outside the church), and Calvin adopted a particular sort of iconoclasm that went far beyond doing away with inappropriate and idolatrous aesthetic practices. Anybody trying to learn from history inevitably goes back into the annals to find some point where they think the church departed from a faithful model, and to find faithful counter-examples; this is inevitably an inexact science built around drawing analogies (see Dreher and the Benedict Option for another example of this phenomenon).

I think we’ve often made the distinction Smith points to between form and content when it comes to the Gospel — being flexible on form and firm on the Gospel as an expression of the sort of ‘contextualisation’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 9. And it’s not that we shouldn’t play with expressing the Gospel in different forms — that’s part of being human and forms being cultural expressions — but I do wonder if we’ve been deliberate enough in developing a particularly Christian culture, or forms, or aesthetic that might pair with the Gospel content as we adapt our engagement with a variety of cultures so that our ‘medium’ and ‘message’ work together to disrupt and challenge idolatrous status quos (which are often packaged aesthetically). I wonder if we’ve created a universal flexibility on forms without grappling with the idea that ‘the medium is the message’ — and without critically asking what forms or mediums undermine our preaching and living of the counter-cultural, subversive, aspect of the Gospel.

Social architecture and how the habitat of the home shaped a new habit for the early church

Paul is able to both understand and embody a culture and challenge it in the way he does so — it’s what I think he does in Athens — and to do it in a way that doesn’t challenge the way we Christians operate in our own spaces, where he’s one of the architects (divinely inspired) of a radically different aesthetic, or form. A totally new use of space that is utterly subversive.

Paul’s treatment of eating immediately after he talks about his adaptability in 1 Corinthians 9 is interesting. Eating with people is a ‘form’ now (see anthropologist Mary Douglas’ fascinating essay ‘Deciphering a Meal’) and was a ‘form’ that had a particular meaning in the ancient world in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture. There are ancient records from the Roman world observing the dining habits of the Jewish people.

Living in their peculiar exclusiveness, and having neither their food, nor their libations, nor their sacrifices in common with men.” – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius V.33

“They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart…” – Tacitus, Histories 5.5.2

The Jews had a particular practice — not becoming impure by eating with gentiles. This form had a meaning — the Jews saw this as something of an aesthetic practice, a thing that made their eating more beautiful (and this is apart from the dining program aligned with their calendar of festivals).

The Romans had their own forms, or aesthetic, when it came to dining, Pliny the Younger describes a meal around the table of an acquaintance (and again, there’s a certain sort of ‘physical space’ required for this, and an ‘aesthetic’ created by that space, check out the adjectives attached to the content).

“I happened to be dining with a man, though no particular friend of his, whose elegant economy, as he called it, seemed to me a sort of stingy extravagance. The best dishes were in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food put before the rest of the company… One lot was intended for himself, and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” — Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.6

Paul takes that form and, with Jesus, talks about three particular forms — eating at ‘the table of demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:18-21), eating with non-Christians in their homes as an act of love and mission (1 Corinthians 10:27-33), and eating together as the church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The act of eating together as a church required a particular sort of space — a home, organised in a particular sort of way that created a form — and this form might be part of a sort of aesthetic framework that transcends time and place.

What he describes in chapter 11 is a new and subversive form of eating; a new aesthetic; where people of different ethnic backgrounds and social class were to meet together around a table as equals, united as one by and in Jesus. This unity was a certain sort of aesthetic. A beautiful, embodied, picture of the Gospel. Part of a Christian aesthetic must grapple with the idea that as ‘images’ we humans are a certain sort of divine art (we are God’s handiwork, ala Ephesians 2). Part of our forms will include the way we inhabit space together. This form of eating together communicated the message — and it still does. What we eat — the content — around that form might change from culture to culture, across time and space (apart from the bread and wine), but the habit of gathering around a table might actually be at the heart of a Christian use of space — our social architecture in our public spaces and our homes. It creates, or assumes, a certain sort of habitat.

Sketching an aesthetic for Christian habitats — homes and church owned buildings

Let me unpack this a bit specifically as it relates to aesthetics and our how our ‘habitats’ shape our habits and our character, and how we might shape our ‘form’ or aesthetic, or architecture, in a way that is both adaptive to different cultures, or ethnicities, while simultaneously challenging where those cultures or ethnicities are affected by sin.

What would happen if we designed our spaces — be it home or church owned buildings — with some attention paid to architecture not just for utility’s sake, but with an eye to how aesthetics at a level not simply of ‘content’ (eg obvious pictures, or the colour of the carpet)  but also of ‘form’ — in such a way that the form helps us inhabit and retell the story of the Bible in such a way that it shapes our habits. We already do a bit of this when it comes to acoustics, and the ability for people to move through various stages of a church gathering in a functional sense (that supports the ‘habituation’ of good things). I was struck by something one of the pastors of the church whose venue we hire said about how deliberately they’ve designed their facility so that the space for the ‘service’ (the auditorium) is the same size as the space for eating and talking together as a community (the cafe area). It’s a great facility with an eye to a certain sort of aesthetic and attention to detail I’m not used to in the Presbyterian scene… but part of me wonders how much artificial lighting, smoke machines, and big speakers form the backbone of a Christian aesthetic (I’m not opposed to the idea that the development of technology is part of humanity’s role in God’s story, see John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City for a nice balanced account of this). I’m also struck by how a poorly designed house (like ours) in terms of living, kitchen, and dining, space limits our ability to participate in the sort of eating together that happens in the early church; and my dreams about an ideal home or ‘church building’ are concepts with a certain sort of ‘social architecture’ underpinning them.

I’m not naively suggesting that this sort of focus on space or ‘the aesthetic’ will magically transform us — that we’re exclusively products of our environment such that the right habitat will automatically fix our nature; and I’m totally aware of our tendency to idolatry — that our default response to beauty is to objectify it and seek to make it our own — but I feel like instead of cultivating an appropriate approach to beauty, or aesthetics, to counteract our sinful hearts, we’ve uncritically adopted an almost negative view of beauty and baptised that as ‘utilitarian’ and so we’ve treated this as the Christian norm.

Here are some of my early thoughts, or ‘sketches’ about some elements (a certain sort of ‘content’ geared towards the ‘aesthetic’) and ‘forms’ (a certain sort of delivery of that content) that might be part of how we structure our spaces to be both beautiful and formative habitats that orient our habits around the story of the Bible as they act as spaces that help re-tell that story…

  1. Light and life.
    Natural light. I’ve been pondering how often we have church in dark rooms (for the purposes of projection and managing lighting), where there’s something from start to finish in the Christian story about God being ‘light and life’ — and some part of that is him being the creator of light. There’s something to the idea that the introduction of electric lighting has ‘deformed’ us in all sorts of ways (including the way the screens of our smart devices do things to our eyes and brains when, prior to their development, we’d have been sleeping). The use and availability of light shapes our practices. The Gospel is a movement from darkness to light, and we’re not meant to fear it. Do our spaces communicate something else, even if subliminally? Is projection (and lighting) a case of harnessing this good gift from God?
  2. Water.
    There’s something about how there are rivers running through the garden in the beginning, and the end, of the story (and, for instance, in Psalm 23) — and that it’s involved in baptism, that means some sort of refreshing, flowing, presence of life-giving water works nicely in telling the story. Plus, you know, that stuff about Jesus at the well and him being living water…
  3. Trees and fruit.
    The trees in the garden are a picture of God’s provision and hospitality, fruit his initial gift of miraculously sweet, juicy and sustaining produce (both on normal trees and the tree of life), which is also a metaphor for the ‘good’ or ‘flourishing life’ for Christians (think the parable of the sower, the ‘true vine’, the fruit of the Spirit). Tree imagery also features prominently in the design of the fittings for the tabernacle and temple, Ezekiel’s vision of the new creation, and the new creation described in Revelation 21-22. And of course, there’s the tree at the heart of the Christian story — the cross. I’m struck by how churches in the past put lots of emphasis on flowers, and how little I thought of that at the time, but how an experience of stepping in to a sort of ‘oasis’ when you gather with Christians — a space trying to capture something of the gardens at the beginning, middle (Gethsemane) and end of the Christian story might help the idea that we are an alternative kingdom — and this might spill out into a world (an environment) desperately in need of a better picture of relating to the natural world. I love the idea of a massive table laden with fruit being part of our experience of eating together — a recognition that for all our technological processing of food to make it more convenient and desirable (with sugars and fats), we can’t compete with what’s on offer in nature.
  4. Table/feasting.
    God shows hospitality to his first image bearing priestly people — with a garden full of good things to eat, and then Israel, his renewed image bearing priestly people are promised a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’; Israel marks its story with feasting (and fasting), with festivals tied to its life together. Sharing the passover, in particular, was a chance for the retelling of their story of creation/salvation through Egypt — and for Christians that’s the feast that became the first Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but feel we’ve been a bit reductionist and utilitarian with a move to individualised portions handed out during a service, formalising the ‘teaching function’ of the meal to what the priestly-pastor says during the carefully ‘demarcated’ time in our week, rather than this being something to do whenever we eat together. There’s an aesthetic element to the reduction of this practice (or its re-imagination). When Robyn and I have spoken about how we’d redesign our home, particular with hospitality being at the heart of our ministry philosophy, I’ve had this romantic idea of the kitchen and dining room being at the literal centre of our house, in a way that communicates something and also sets our rhythms for family (and guest-as-family) life together. We already have an obscenely big table that doesn’t really fit in the space allocated, but this is tucked in the back corner of the house. If the early church meeting in houses was a deliberate sociological and aesthetic practice — where our group identity and character were shaped by architecture — maybe we should consider how much our church buildings should take the shape of houses rather than auditoriums, concert halls, or whatever other space we uncritically adopt; or if we do start running spaces that look like public meeting halls, how we make them truly public not just big private spaces outside the home for us to use in ways that mirror the use of other private spaces that aren’t homes…
  5. The Cross.
    I do love the idea of the ‘cruciform’ church even as I’m subtly challenging the approach to space that began around the time we Christians moved out of homes and into cathedrals… but something of the ugliness of the cross and the utility it represented for the Roman empire being subverted and made beautiful in Jesus’ death is compelling to me in some way, and something about the reminder that at the heart of all the beauty in the world God chose this ugliness to shame our worldliness and to build something new needs to be at the heart of our theological approach to ‘aesthetics’ — if there’s no sense that the cross has challenged and overturned our appreciation of and use of beauty and creation then we’re trying to run ‘creation’ and ‘redemption’ as two separate poles in our framework rather than grappling with how those poles come together in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but part of our thinking must surely be asking ‘how does this experience of beauty prompt me to sacrifice my desire to grasp hold of beauty for myself by connecting me to its maker and redeemer?’ Maybe it’s that things are sweeter without the fear of death and decay — the promise that ‘all things will be made new’ — and part of an ‘aesthetic’ is the reminder that even the good things we have now are not yet perfected.
  6. Gold.
    This one has been historically controversial because churches have lined themselves with expensive gold while neglecting the poor; but there’s something in the way gold is threaded from being ‘good’ around the garden (Genesis 2:11-12), to plundered from Egypt, to used for the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and the golden calf — then in the gifts laid before Jesus, and prominently featured in the new creation. There’s an aesthetic quality to Gold — an inherent beauty — that explains its value, and there is something to an appropriate not using gold for our own ends but to glorify God that expresses a refusal to try to serve both God and money. I’m not suggesting that our use of ‘gold’ — aesthetically — be at the expense of the poor, or in any way idolatrous; in fact if the poor aren’t being included and welcomed into our ‘richness’ then we’re doing it wrong (and maybe that’s part of the historical issues with the church and wealth). I wonder if somehow it’s more about the way that gold reflects the light than about it being exceptionally valuable, and there are plenty of gold coloured things that aren’t made of gold. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that gold serves as something of a metaphor for the inherent goodness of creation, that can be used to glorify God or idols. I have some thoughts about how this might be approached aesthetically, in both church and home, that doesn’t require much more than a trip to Kmart.
  7. White.
    Part of a tendency towards dark colours in buildings has been a focus on a certain sort of aesthetic, but I wonder how much we’ve balanced light and dark in our approach. There’s a bit to be said for the idea that being ‘clothed in white’ is a bold and stark statement in a world where mess is everywhere, and as much as gold might be part of our aesthetic because of how it reflects and amplifies light, white does this too.

Exactly what ‘forms’ these different elements take could vary greatly, and so my sense is that an approach to the ‘aesthetic’ is descriptive rather than a one size fits all ‘prescriptivity’ — which means the quote from the podcast I opened with, the idea that part of an historic definition of a particularly Christian aesthetic is that people might say “that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity” is maybe not where I’m landing with this — and these forms aren’t distinctively Christian, you’ll find them in modern architecture, in Kmart, and in my favourite cafes. The extent that these are elements of a “Christian aesthetic” and not simply ‘beautiful’ is caught up with how the form/content stuff plays out in each place, and our creative intent as we carve out spaces that carry this aesthetic… but to want this to always be explicit is to fall into a certain sort of utilitarianism that kills art. Perhaps the thing that actually does away with the ‘Christian’ part of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ is when these things that are inherently beautiful are co-opted for idolatry or the service of self, not God. Part of a Christian aesthetic is recognising that Christians don’t have exclusive access to knowing what is beautiful in our world; we all innately recognise beauty. The problem with our use of worldly beauty or aesthetics has often been that it’s derivative, that we’ve simply tried to imitate cultural forms common around us, rather than creating our own cultural forms within our cultures built from our story. What we do have is the ability to connect what is true and beautiful to its source, God, and see it as the backcloth to his story — the redemption and renewal of the world in and through Jesus.

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masculinity and the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s better for us if we do…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipline. Sacrifice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 2 — the drive to work

Part one of this series considered the changing (disrupted) economic landscape and the future of work (and the idea of a post-work future), it suggested Christians might have reason to be optimistic about a disrupted future, perhaps especially if we take up the challenge of being disrupters — challenging the idolatry of work, and profit, the understanding of humanity that suggests we’re fundamentally economic beings, and the routines of work that mean we feel busier than ever. In order to get to a stage where some of these changes become plausible these next two posts are going to step back and consider why we work, what work is (and what its purpose is). 

The drive to work

Do you work to live, or live to work?

Do you work to pay the bills, or to change the world?

How do you think most of your friends would answer these questions?

Our jobs often involve repetition that is frustrating (not to mention the frustration around results) — and its not just the daily routine of alarm clock, breakfast, the commute, the recurring functions of your job (the admin, the reproduction of tasks, the meetings), it’s also the ‘rat race’ the work to eat/eat to work, and work to rest/rest to work cycles built into the monotony that become habitual liturgies in this worship. We’re shaped before we know it, and taught to love things (like money and productivity) by this frustrating and frustrating pattern but we keep doing it. We’re driven to. So why is that? What gives us this drive to work, or rather to ‘work-as-worship’? And why do we want to escape?

This little short animation that ran before Disney’s Moana over the summer is a nice little picture of the tension we live in.

When I ubered to the airport in Sydney a few weeks ago, my driver’s name was Roman. He’d come to Australia from New Zealand, but before that, was from the Middle East. We talked about parenting. About how hard it is. About the pressure society places on kids to grow up to fast, and about how parents get no down time. He loved Uber cause he could be home at dinner time, then head back out. He worked to support his wife and kids. He worked to secure their future. This purpose gave him the drive to do a relatively mundane job (and one he is way over-qualified for).

Here’s why I think we work. We work because we want to change the future; not just the present. We work because we want to carve something out for ourselves and those we love. We want to shape the world in some way — either directly in the act of making things, or creating order, or indirectly in what we use the products of our work for. The way we want to shape the world, the thing we want to carve out, or the version of ourselves we’re working towards are a product of our values (the things we love), and our values are a product of, or ordered by, our ultimate loves (the things we worship).

Work is an act of worship. And I don’t just mean this in the ‘Christian sense’ but in the David Foster Wallace sense of worship being the act of self-sacrifice for the object of our ultimate love. Work either is that love, or it’s a means to serving that love with what we’re paid for work (or both).

Work involves the sacrifice of your time, energy, some sort of ‘presence in order to apply energy’ (even if remotely and via a computer), effort, and intellect; ideally in work that sacrifice reaps something more rewarding than what you’ve invested into the enterprise, but these things are finite. Your time and energy are going to be exhausted. The number of breaths you take is finite. You have an expiry date. And in that sense everything we do is ‘sacrifice’ and the returns are limited. So the decision to go to work is a decision to sacrifice yourself to, or for, something. A cause, a company, your family, your experiences, your pleasure, your empire. If we’re driven to work for some finite thing, especially if we’re driven to work in order to get or consume more stuff because we worship wealth, and comfort, and ‘the things of this world’…. then as Wallace says, it ‘will eat you alive,’ the catch is, if we’re driven to work in a way that consumes us (without giving back), so that we can consume stuff (without giving back), then it’s also likely our drive to work is destroying the planet (ironic really, if we consider climate change and the emissions created by a consumer-first approach to driving to work (where apparently the average occupancy rate per car in Brisbane is something like 1.2 people)).

Brian Walsh wrote this book called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God In A Dangerous Time back in 1994. It’s one of those books that, when read in hindsight, seems prescient, prophetic even, and that you wish had been read more widely and taken more seriously by the church. He writes about work, and how Christians might subvert, or disrupt, how work happens. He talks about how the stuff that drives us to work — that we sacrifice for — is tied to worship.

“Modern culture has entered into a covenant with an unholy trinity. Three good dimensions of creation, three good dimensions of our culture-forming tasks have been absolutised. They have been erected as idols and they demonically distort our cultural lives. These three idols are scientism (the belief that science provides us with authoritative knowledge and functions as the omniscient source of revelation in our culture), technicism (the effective translation of scientific knowledge into power and control of the creation which promises us a scientific-technical omnipotence), and economism (the golden head of the idol that believes that a rising standard of living is the ultimate goal in life and the only route to personal happiness and societal harmony). The question for our time is whether this unholy covenant is still tenable. Do these gods deliver on their promises? Can we continue to make the sacrifices necessary to appease them? My answer to all of these questions is a resounding no…

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good.”

Disrupting this drive to work

Walsh’s analysis 23 years ago is pretty similar to Rod Dreher’s analysis in his Benedict Option (and the observations of a bunch of other modern thinkers. His analysis is that it’s not politics or sex that presents the greatest danger to us in terms of ‘idolatry’ or Babylonian captivity; but economics.

The reason for this state of affairs—nothing less than a spiritual catastrophe in the Western church—is, I submit, the enculturation of the church. As a community of believers and as individuals we have, mostly against our best intentions, been thoroughly sucked in to our secular culture. This is what I mean by the term “enculturation.” Our consciousness, our imagination, our vision has been captured by idolatrous perceptions and ways of life. The dominant worldview, the all-pervasive secular consciousness, has captured our lives. And what is so intriguing about this phenomenon is that we were not taken after a long drawn-out fight. No, it happened in our sleep. You see, while we were fighting with each other about evolution, the infallibility of the Bible, spiritual gifts, and various other hotly debated issues, we were falling into a deeper and deeper sleep in relation to the cultural captivity of our very consciousness. We were asleep to the secularisation of our lives and of our most fundamental values. We simply bought into the materialistic, prestige oriented, secular values of our age without ever noticing that that is what was going on.

What he suggests as the antidote for this captivity is a rediscovery of our own story; our own worship; a new drive to work. If we’re going to disrupt the economic status quo (ala post one in this series) as Christians we need to consider how our drive to work might look different (the sort of work we do, why we do it, and how we do it).

Christians have a different approach to work because we have a different approach to worship (or rather, we worship a different God), and our worship is linked to bearing his image. We work because we’re created to work; created in the image of the God who worked to create the world (and then rested from this work). It’s in our nature. And our approach to work is shaped by our nature. Work isn’t just a thing we do, it’s part of our purpose, and that purpose is shaped by what we worship. Here’s Walsh again.

“When a community in a capitalist society insists that labour—the work of our hands, the toil of our brow—is good, it is being subversive. Why? Because when such a community breaks with the dominant utilitarianism, which sees work as a disutility and consumer goods as utilities, it thereby breaks with the whole movement of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. This movement has propelled us into energy and capital intensive production processes which produce more and more goods at an ever increasing rate, while also decreasing the quality of the products, decreasing the role of human labour, and decreasing the resources of creation. When that is the fundamental movement of a culture, then a community which says that work is good and more and more consumer goods and services is not necessarily good, that community is being subversive. Insisting that work is an integral dimension of human life (not to be contrasted as productive activity over and against consumptive leisurely activity), that it is a form of worship, that it is meant to ennoble humankind, that it should be dedicated to serving one’s neighbour and the stewardly care of the creation—all of these are subversive ideas. But Christianity is not only subversive in a culture such as ours; it is also deeply offensive to the dominant forces in our culture. This offence is related to what the Bible calls “the offence of the cross.”

…Dare we imagine an economics of equality and care in place of the economics of affluence and poverty? Can we imagine what would happen if we began to disciple our children with a prophetic vision and imagination? Can we imagine our work life to be at one with our worship—an act of service and praise, not a necessary evil on the way to an affluent lifestyle? In a production oriented society where meaning and worth are measured by one’s productivity in the market place, therefore defining retirement as a loss of worth and meaning, can we imagine what it could be like if the elderly had an indispensable role in our communities? Can we imagine a society which has broken through its morbid preoccupation with death and truly affirms life, not just at the fetal stage, but in all of its dimensions and stages? Is a relationship of friendship, instead of exploitation, with the rest of the creation imaginable? Is it imaginable that the mass media could be an agent of awakened social, cultural, and spiritual renewal, rather than the one thing that numbs us into cultural complacency and sleep more than anything else? And is our imagination spiritually opened up enough to conceive of a business enterprise that is characterised by stewardship, environmental responsibility, and real serviceability rather than profits, pollution and superfluous consumer goods? It seems to me that, in the midst of a declining culture, these are the kinds of questions that a prophetic imagination raises for us. We are called to be a prophetic community, a prophetic people. — Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity

In the next post in this series, I’m going to suggest that this new drive isn’t just a new origin story (which is where Walsh starts), but a new end of the story; one that brings a new ‘end’ to our work (both in terms of a telos, and an ending of the story we’re living in). It’s not just who God is as we meet him in Jesus that should shape how we work and worship, but where Jesus is taking us, and what work will look like in the future (in this world, and the new creation). This story will change the way we approach work, because it changes the way we worship. It will make us disruptors of the status quo. In the final post I’ll consider what that might look like in real terms.

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Minimalism and the danger of replacing one idol with another

Robyn and I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things on Netflix last night. And now I want to throw out all my stuff.

The doco follows the two guys behind The MinimalistsJoshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, on a speaking tour around the United States, interspersed with little interviews and vignettes with people who’ve adopted the minimalist philosophy including popular atheist philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris to Project 333 founder Courtney Carver, to a few Tiny House dwellers, to Colin Wright who lives his life from two bags while travelling the world, with plenty of other people thrown in the mix. It makes the compelling case that we need less stuff; that we should disengage from the modern default of pursuing happiness through consumption, because, in the words of Fight Club’s narrator; the things we own, end up owning us. It challenged me to think about my consumer habits as a Christian, and where they might reveal what I treasure, it gave me some fun ideas, but it also left me wanting more in terms of a solution to the problem it recognises in modern western life.

“We spend so much time on the hunt. But nothing ever quite does it for us. And we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

It’s a bracing reminder of what our consumption does to us, to our brains, and to our world and of the perennial dissatisfaction that comes from life lived vicariously through our possessions.

“You have this thing that you were obsessed about, but then the new version comes out and now you no longer care about the one that you have. In fact, the one you have is a source of dissatisfaction.” — Sam Harris, in Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

The diagnosis of what is wrong with a consumption based approach to modern life is spot on. My favourite quote of all in the documentary, from a speech by former U.S President Jimmy Carter titled Crisis of Confidence, explains a little of my uneasy relationship with Minimalism (even as I plot a widescale decluttering of my life, and a continued changing of my consumption habits).

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter’s diagnosis — which Minimalism endorses — is on the money. Modern consumerism isn’t just a behaviour; it’s about our identity. It’s about worship. From the Bible’s insight into our humanity it’s about how we feel the void left by our departure from God. It’s idolatry.

I thought Minimalism was spot on both in its diagnosis of what’s happening in our hearts, and thus in our culture, and of the damage our consumption does to us, the planet, and to others. Sadly, I’m not totally sold on the solution they (and those the people they featured) offer. Their solution was about a change in identity, a change in lifestyle, a change in consumption, and ultimately a change in worship. And while the gods they chose to replace ‘stuff with’ might make them better people to know and love, and give them more satisfaction, they’re still ‘idols’… it’s still ‘stuff’ just less of it, or less tangible stuff in the form of relationships and experience. The solutions offered in Minimalism still involved essentially defined by ‘stuff’ — sometimes just by its absence (whether in a tiny house or via meditation/stillness). The various minimalists spoke of pursuing something like asceticism, or simply a more self-controlled (no less self-indulgent) approach to consumption. I felt like most of the ways the minimalist alternative to maximalist-consumption driven living were built on an approach to life that is still built around being a consumer; but consuming more carefully by pursuing things of value. There’s a sense to that the idea that we should focus our ‘ownership’ on things that we love, that do give us pleasure, that this is actually just consumption with a modified philosophical aesthetic. I look at the sparsely furnished rooms and carefully curated piles of possessions and think ‘there’s beauty there’ and wonder how I can work my way towards achieving that particular way of life.

“There’s nothing wrong with consumption, the problem is compulsory consumption. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of acquiring things because that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

This approach reminded me of a bit in C.S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters where the character, Screwtape, writes on gluttony — and our possession based, greed-driven, over-indulgence is very much like gluttony. Screwtape wants his apprentice Wormwood to know that the most pernicious type of gluttony actually comes with the appearance of self-denial; because it’s actually ‘self-interest’ that makes gluttony or consumption so harmful (Carter was right!). My concern is that the solutions offered in Minimalism (though perhaps not the ones modelled by the Minimalists on their journey of self-giving, and by some of the other people interviewed who’ve simplified in order to maximise generosity) fall into the trap of replacing one excess with another kind of gluttony… And there’s a danger in my own heart, and my own desire to correct my excess, that I’ll go the same way.

“My dear Wormwood,

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled by it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast’. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”

If you want a really radical antidote to consumerism — one that might help you avoid both gluttony of excess, and gluttony of delicacy, one that might do something more to kill consumerism in your life and replace it with an alternative, one that might bring a truly meaningful solution in community not just individuals… the answer might not be to listen to a bunch of millionaire businessmen and people who tasted worldly success telling you about their conversion to a newer, simpler way of life. The answer might be to listen to a bloke who swore of this way of life from the beginning because, well, he was perfect. Jesus has some pretty profound things to say about humanity, consumption, and the pursuit of meaning.

He says life as humans is ultimately about the pursuit of treasure. This is because somewhere in our DNA, we pursue meaning through worship

Jesus said ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also’ he said this having said ‘store up for yourself treasures in heaven’…

We are, by nature, worshippers who look for identity in what we treasure. The Bible’s answer to this is not to find the right thing to treasure, but to treasure Jesus… to pursue treasures in heaven. And this provides us with some guidelines not just for approaching the good stuff in this world with moderation (without worshipping it), but for understanding that the best way to approach consumables isn’t fundamentally about self-interest, self-indulgence, or self-control (though it will produce this), it’s about the other. Jesus models the pursuit of treasure in heaven when he lays down his life for the sake of others. He comes back to this theme of ‘treasure’; or consumption, and our desire to find meaning in controlling and possessing as much as possible, in a slightly indirect way when he challenges us to be givers not consumers; sacrificers, not killers. To follow Jesus is to adopt a life not of self-denial, but self-giving from a place of knowing God gives us everything.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

This does involve a radical approach to our stuff; you might remember the story where a rich young bloke comes up to Jesus to ask how to be part of God’s kingdom — how to have treasure in heaven, and Jesus tells him to give away everything to the the poor, and to come and follow him. This approach to stuff is what taking up your cross ultimately looks like — and it’s a death to self that I’m still working on in my own life. The bloke can’t do it, and Jesus says those famous words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Now. Giving away everything doesn’t actually get you into heaven; there is grace even for my inability to totally kill my idolatry of my stuff and my comfort. Part of the point of the stories about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel up until the crucifixion are to show that Jesus is the only truly faithful law-fulfiller. The Sermon On The Mount is first about him, and its an exploration of what it looks like to fulfil the humanly impossible Old Testament command to “be holy because I (God) am holy”… When the disciples are blown away by how big this command sounds and ask “who can be saved” if this is required, Jesus says:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What he calls the rich man to do is what he did when confronted with temptation, and what he did in his whole earthly life, up to and including the Cross. And that’s what makes following him the way; this means both following his example (discipling ourselves to become like him, or ‘worshipping him’) and relying on him as the one who actually achieves the righteousness God commands.

Following Jesus means changing who we worship — where we look to for identity and satisfaction — it means shifting our eyes from the things of this world to the one seated ‘in his Father’s glory’ — and having that change the way we live. It means ditching our old habits and consumption, and switching it for something else; not just mastering our vices but taking up virtues. Idols don’t just get killed they get replacedMinimalism offers a compelling picture of a replacement for the idol of worldly physical treasures, only it replaces them with other worldly things; one guy they interview says his whole approach to life is built on the idea that this is all there is, and our time is all we have. When Paul reflects on what it means to become a ‘new self’ with new worship in Colossians 3, he does something interesting that parallels Jesus’ call to pursue treasure in heaven by talking quite concretely about how we live here on earth. He starts by connecting us to Jesus promise that the “Son of Man” would come into his father’s glory:

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.”

And he uses this to call us to put to death the idolatrous parts of our ‘earthly nature’ — our default patterns of looking for meaning through consumption and stuff… to ‘put on the new self’ which is being ‘renewed in the knowledge of the image of its creator’ (and from Colossians 1:15, that’s Jesus, this is about being a disciple, it’s about taking up our cross). Then he gives us this new pattern of living; one not built simply on being more appropriately ‘self-indulgent’ but rather built on putting others first.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Looking for meaning in consumption — the hunt for identity in buying or not buying things — is a vice. It’s destructive; not just for hoarders, but for minimalists as well. If we believe we’re living a good life simply because we’ve adopted simplicity we’re still missing the heart of true worship. The opposite of greed — or the virtue that combats the vice — is not frugality (or minimalism), but generosity. Just as the opposite of gluttony is not abstinence, but hospitality. Generosity and hospitality require a particular approach to stuff that means not finding meaning in it, and not holding on to it — and there’s plenty of great stuff in the habits and philosophies put forward by the people featured in Minimalism that’ll help me (and maybe you) embrace a more generous and hospitable way of life; so long as my approach to stuff is profoundly ‘other-centred’ because my treasures are in heaven. That’s where love kicks in. Which is interesting, because the closing words of Minimalism which is something of a slogan for the Minimalists:

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”

The Minimalists have some fantastic stuff to say in Minimalism, but really following Jesus is the way to do this right.
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14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

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 3:18

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but 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 12:1-2

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 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. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but 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 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

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!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

The worship wars (3): porn as deadly (idol) worship

“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

worship-wars
Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).

What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?

What are we teaching our children?

No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.

This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…

Consider how far our society has progressed, such that the only service for children who perpetrate sexual assault on other children is oversubscribed; the expert in this story says two causes for this prevalence are the sexual abuse of children (who become perpetrators) and the availability of internet pornography.

Consider that the Washington Post published a piece recently that called pornography a “public health crisis” which pointed out that:

“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.

In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”

Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.

Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:

Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:

“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”

The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.

Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.

In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.

Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.

It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…

“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?

The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.

We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.

Pornography is worship.

Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.

It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.

The war for your worship  involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three

So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).

Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.

Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.

This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:

Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.

“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high.  This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith

When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.

In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25

The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32

How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?

Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)

1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)

The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”

The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.

Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”

If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.

It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…

2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)

David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.

This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.

Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.

But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.

While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’, if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…

Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator

Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.

Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.

3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)

Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.

You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.

This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.

But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.

We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.

Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.

Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.

Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.

The real worship wars (2): You are how you worship

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” — Stanley Hauerwas

worship-wars

In part 1 I suggested that we’re worshipping beings, and we become what we worship, and that this should help us understand that the real worship wars are about what worship really is, and so they aren’t so much about song selection, or music styles, but represent a choice between life and death, as we choose between God and idols.

The worship war — the real worship war — is not first a war about how we worship on a Sunday, but who we worship with our whole lives; and when it’s a war about how, it’s a more complicated question than song choices, it’s about what, or who, is conscripting our desires and imaginations, and how our desires and imaginations are being conscripted, daily, by our acts of worship — our habitual ‘liturgies’. You become what or who you worship as your desires align with the values dictated by your god, and the telos caught up with the salvation narrative that god offers; you become what you worship; and part of that involves a becoming how you worship.

Colossians 3 is something of a call to worship, to break the Romans 1 default, and to worship Jesus — and it starts with the heart, and the imagination (in that I’m not sure ‘rational knowing’ will ever allow us to grasp ‘things above’), but this involves the re-conscripting of our loves via our actions as we “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). This is what worship looks like (and it involves music)…

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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 3:11-17

That last bit is vital. For Paul, it seems, everything we do has the potential to be worship — whether its that we offer our whole lives as living sacrifices to God, or do everything in his name, he blows the idea of worship way beyond Sundays (and far beyond music and the sacraments).

Sundays will never be enough for us if the very air that we breathe, and the culture we live in, crackles with the addictive unseen liturgies of counterfeit gods, like ionised air in a lightning storm, so we live just waiting for death from above to zap us. Worship, proper worship, of the real God, is what keeps us alive; and keeps us from idols (or expels the idols from our hearts). Worship shapes us because it teaches us to love; that’s the thesis of a trilogy of books from James K.A. Smith, summed up best in this quote:

Worship is the “imagination station” that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavours are indexed toward God and his kingdom. If you are passionate about seeking justice, renewing culture, and taking up your vocation to unfurl all of creation’s potential, you need to invest in the formation of your imagination. You need to curate your heart. You need to worship well. Because you are what you love. And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

One of the things I love most of all about Smith’s trilogy Imagining the Kingdom, Desiring the Kingdom, and recently You Are What You Love is that he causes us to rethink the belief that people are primarily ‘thinking things’ — that the best way to persuade or change, to evangelise or disciple, is via a well reasoned argument. Smith calls us to a more incarnate Christianity, pointing out, with philosopher Charles Taylor, that us Protestant types have contributed to the disenchantment of the world via our commitment to a model of humanity that emphasises head-on-a-stick rationalism where it’s what we know that counts.

“Critical of the ways such an enchanted, sacramental understanding of the world had lapsed into sheer superstition, the later Reformers emphasized the simple hearing of the Word, the message of the gospel, and the arid simplicity of Christian worship. The result was a process of excarnation—of disembodying the Christian faith, turning it into a “heady” affair that could be boiled down to a message and grasped with the mind. To use a phrase that we considered above, this was Christianity reduced to something for brains-on-a-stick.” — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Guilty as charged. And he’s right. The rational model of humanity doesn’t hold water. When was the last time you thought your way into a significant change of behaviour without your habits, desires, and loves, already pulling you to change your mind?

Smith’s argument, especially clearly stated in You Are What You Love is that we actually love or worship our way into change and this happens via our habits before it happens via our rational capacity. This has been true in my experience; and in my observation of the way justifications spring up to defend emotional attachments or loves (healthy or otherwise). It accounts for why we get addicted to behaviours that are destructive and make no rational sense. We admit this anthropology freely when we talk about love. An advert just popped up on my TV claiming “Love is never wrong”… The way we think about the world is shaped by what we love. By the time our head catches up, our hands and hearts have already well and truly persuaded and changed us. And this change seeps into us from all over the place, 24-7, as we’re called to worship all sorts of gods by participating in all sorts of liturgies; the habits that form our loves. These happen throughout our lives, without us noticing, so that we’re conscripted into worshipping all sorts of stuff in the place of God. I think this is caught up with being made in the image of God, and is evident in Biblical warnings about the effects, on the image we bear, of choosing to worship other gods or ourselves.

Smith’s answer, then, for us is to push us to a better, richer, fuller, more incarnate approach to worship. Only, it’s a Sunday-heavy model, and in many ways it just seems to buy into the same old, same old, worship wars; even while acknowledging that the real war is one we fight every time we head to the shops, or turn on the TV, and while saying this:

Obviously an hour and a half on Sunday morning is not sufficient to rehabituate hearts that are daily immersed in rival liturgies. Yes, gathered, congregational worship is the heart of discipleship, but this doesn’t mean that communal worship is the entirety of discipleship. While communal worship calibrates the heart in necessary, fundamental ways, we need to take the opportunity to cultivate kingdom-oriented liturgies throughout the week… The capital-L Liturgy of Sunday morning should generate lowercase-l liturgies that govern our existence throughout the rest of the week. Our discipleship practices from Monday through Saturday shouldn’t simply focus on Bible knowledge acquisition—we aren’t, after all, liturgical animals on Sunday and thinking things for the rest of the week. Rather, our day-to-day practices need to extend and amplify the formative power of our weekly worship practices by weaving them into our everyday liturgies. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Worship is not just music (but it includes it), or church on Sundays (but includes it), or the sacraments (but includes them)

Music matters, because as part of worship, it forms us; it shapes our loves, our imagination, and our ethics. I loved this Hauerwas quote that I saw on Facebook this week:

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

Music matters. But to call a music pastor a worship pastor is to concede defeat in a much bigger conflict — the conflict for our hearts; and for the image we bear in the world (and so whether we live, or die, or invite people to life or death).

Part of Smith’s proffered solution to the 24/7 worship wars is built on a return to meaningful Sunday worship in the historic narrative traditions of the church. What we do together on a Sunday matters. The sacraments matter. But sacraments and singing — corporate liturgy in a Sunday ‘worship’ service (which is a bit of a tautology because worship, in one sense, means service) — are not the full extent of worship, or even corporate worship (the stuff we do with the people of God). And here’s where I depart from Smith a bit; because most of the solutions he offers to our liturgy-soaked world; a world full of idolatrous habits and loves that sings to us like a siren hoping to dash us against rocks; focus on re-connecting to the historic traditions of Sunday-centric corporate worship. Especially the sacraments.

If the biblical narrative of God’s redemption were just information we needed to know, the Lord could have simply given us a book and a whole lot of homework. But since the ascension of Christ, the people of God have been called to gather as a body around the Word and the Lord’s Table, to pray and sing, to confess and give thanks, to lift up our hearts so they can be taken up and re-formed by the formative grace of God that is carried in the rites of Christian worship. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

I think he’s right that heaps of us need to repent of a pretty anaemic view of the place of the sacraments, because they are habits that teach us and remind us of a story, and so shape our loves; but we need more than that. But I’m not sure that the church Paul wrote to in Colossae limited themselves to a worship session on a Sunday morning; not if they were anything like the church in Acts 2.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47

Is it possible we shot ourselves in the foot a bit in the worship wars when we reduced the shared Christian life to Sundays, and shrunk the meaning of the word worship so that it focused on a particular set of corporate practices enacted one day a week?

What would it look like to see worship — corporate worship even — as an everyday activity, not just something we do once a week?

How might we do it in such a way that an every day practice is enriching and incarnate, without being weird and cultish?

In this series I want to consider what the worship wars might look like if we take up the challenge of worshipping with our whole selves, our whole lives; having our imagination and desires captured by the Gospel story as we habitually put it into practice, or put it into practice until worshipping God becomes habitual. First I’ll flesh out the model habits/desires/head model of worship to give a couple more examples, apart from Smith’s relatively high brow examples of the shopping centre, cinema, and university, of where the battlefields in the modern worship wars really are…

We need to habituate the whole week with worship. We’re at war 24/7. There’s a battle raging for our hearts and imaginations — for our love, for our worship, all the time.  Just as every thing we encounter is an opportunity to worship a false God, to be shaped bit-by-bit into the image of our idols, participating in idolatrous pictures of human flourishing, every thing we encounter, every person we meet, every experience, is an opportunity to worship the true God and participate in his story; being shaped to meet his created purpose for us. Good created things have a purpose apart from idolatry, and have a purpose in the worship wars. 

The real worship wars (1): You are what you worship

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” —David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Image Credit: davidhardie.com

Here’s a confession. It irks me when people call music ‘worship’ or music leaders ‘worship pastors’; not because music is not worship but because worship is so much more, and our terminology matters (so does music). What irks me more, even than this, is that we’ve spent so much time in the ‘worship wars’ fighting about whether to pursue contemporary or traditional styles of worship that we’ve missed the real worship war.

If you google the phrase ‘worship wars’ you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff about music in church, and different styles of church service. There were some shots fired in the worship wars by the Gospel Coalition recently (it’s so unlike them to be combative), which, because I’m irked by the terminology slippage of the word worship, irked me enough to get me to kickstart this series that has been in my head for some time.

Worship is more than music. It’s even more than the liturgy involved in your Sunday ‘worship service’ (including the sacraments). Worship is bigger than Sunday, and until we see that, we’re going to lose the worship wars to the real opponents. Idols and Satan.

There is a real battle going on when it comes to our worship, but the question isn’t so much about music on a Sunday or the aesthetics and regularity of the sacraments (though aesthetics matter too).

I’m going to spend a couple of posts on what I think the real worship war looks like, and where our attention should be focused in what is a real battle for the lives of people in our churches and our world.

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

Everybody worships. We are born worshippers, and as secular novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace puts it in the most excellent This Is Water, the only choice we really get as humans is the choice of what to worship; that defines everything else about us.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

What if this is the worship war that matters, not a choice of style of worship — or music — within the church, but the competition for your heart and your service?

Only, what if it’s not a choice? What if what we worship is determined for us by our participation in this great worship war, where different objects of worship are competing for our love and our attention? What if those default patterns aren’t just products of our decision to worship, but form it? What if we worship from the hands (the habits), to the heart (the desires), to the head (the imagination), rather than from the rational mind down? What if it’s harder than DFW thought?

What worship is

So if worship isn’t music or the Sunday service — but rather, those are aspects of our worship — what is it?

I’m going to make the case that worship is the whole-hearted, whole-handed, and whole-headed, attempt to reflect on, and so reflect, the image of our god(s) as we bow to and serve them with our whole being. When it comes to the God of the Bible, and our worship of him, our worship is what leads us to glorify him as we bear his image in his world. The New Testament uses two Greek words for worship: proskuneo and latreuo; roughly translated as ‘bow down’ and ‘serve’. The Old Testament pairs these (in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint) in Exodus 20:4-5, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

We’re consciously worshipping creatures; we pick a god and that choice shapes us. That’s part of what separates us from the animals (although they too declare the glory of God, with the rest of the heavens); we’re made to be oriented to God, via worship, and part of the sinful human condition is that we orient ourselves to all sorts of other stuff instead. The image we bear in this world reflects the God we worship, and so, we become what we worship with our hearts, hands, and minds.

We’re made to bear God’s image, and so his first commandment to Israel is about worshipping him — not the stuff or animals he made. We’re made to bear God’s image, and yet we keep exchanging God for other images; and that’s deadly. Paul describes the human condition — our defective worship — in Romans 1 (and I’m suggesting ‘glorified him as God’ is synonymous with worship).

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

Do you think Paul, here, is talking about people singing songs about rabbits? Or sex? Or some other created thing? Or about people going bird watching on a Sunday?

Now. He might well be talking about these activities as forms of worship but the sort of worship he’s talking about is actually the orientation of our desires, and imaginations such that our habits and lives reflect the object of our love. A nature-worshipper might well sing about the beauty of creation and go bird-watching on a Sunday, and that might refresh them, but they keep finding ways to practice their love for nature all week ’round; cause that’s what worship is. A sex-worshipper will sing songs about sex, but will also consume magazine articles about sex, pursue sex, and ultimately, desire as much sex, and as many orgasms, as possible in their finite life on this mortal coil. Worship can’t just be about the songs we sing — or Sunday morning — its about the desires of our hearts, and the practices of our hands that cultivate those desires and inform our thinking as we live lives that express our fanatical service to these gods. In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, two characters, Marathe and Steeply discuss this aspect of our humanity — our fundamental need to worship, and the reality that we do so without choosing consciously if we don’t consciously choose…

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple… Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith…”

“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you… You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self… choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice… This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance?” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

You are what you worship

We all grow attached to things — become fanatical worshippers of some god; and this happens whether we’re conscious of it or not as we are lured into worship by different visions of the good human life; different stories we’d like to see ourselves living in. As a result of our hearts and imaginations being conscripted, we start practicing new liturgies — new habits — which reinforce this conscription. That’s the pattern of the rest of Romans 1; defective worship leads to defective lives (and defective lives lead to defective worship).

Idolatry — the worship of other gods, or the making of gods out of good things God made — has transforming power with damaging consequences. The Old Testament is full of warnings about these consequences but the concept of becoming what you worship is never far from the surface of these consequences; worship dumb, dead, stuff and instead of being the living people of the living God you’ll be dumb, dead, stuff. Or as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 115:

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.

The thing that’s truly beautiful (and truly tragic) about David Foster Wallace’s insight into worship is that he highlights how even as our idol worship delivers it doesn’t ever satisfy. Worship sex, pursue orgasm after orgasm, and your god will give you what you want (Romans 1 promises that too); but you’ll spiral into awful objectification or addiction (the next post in this series will consider pornography as a form of worship). That’s true of almost all our idols; as we attain the thing we desire we find it doesn’t scratch the itch we thought it would, or that we become so detached from flourishing patterns of humanity and relationships that we are utterly destroyed. We become what we worship, or, as DFW puts it:

If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He also observes the spiralling effect that comes with worship of things that aren’t God (and so aren’t really able to satisfy what he calls the ‘gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’). This dovetails with the Psalmist’s observation that we become what we behold; what we worship. The Bible differs on its assessment of the morality of these default behaviours; it’s not just that this sort of worship of something other than God is sinful, it’s the heart of all our sinful acts.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

At the end of This Is Water, a truly profound assessment of the human condition, Wallace asks the students he’s speaking to to consider their habits, to consider living a life that runs counter to this default. He does this, in part, by challenging the narrative behind these defaults by urging us to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of those around us

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This is liturgy — or worship — of a particular kind, but he’s really just urging people to switch idols, moving from a selfish worship of self, to a self-emptying worship of other people. His narrative here is a form of humanism (unless you take his advice to worship some spiritual thing). It won’t answer the gnawing sense he identifies, and it won’t achieve the aim he suggests (eerily, given his end), that it might.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He’s right though. The worship wars are a matter of life and death. What you choose to worship will give you life, or take your life. To win the worship wars — where the real enemy is actually death — we need to take up a better story one that captures our desires and imaginations, and adopt habits consistent with that story; lest our loves lead us to death. That seems to be Paul’s agenda in much of his writing in the New Testament, where he speaks specifically of worship (in a way both similar to DFW, but grounded in a different story), and of a story that changes the orientation of our hearts, minds, and habits.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  — Romans 12:1-2

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… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

Paul’s approach to worship differs from DFW’s because his story connects us to something transcendent; something beyond ourselves; something above, something infinite. It’s built from a better story — the story of the transcendent God who both calls us to worship him alone, and makes himself knowable in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in Jesus’ divinity; and who provides the model of the ultimate worshipper in Jesus’ humanity.

The worship wars are a competition for our loves, a conflict based on what story we live — and thus a conflict that shapes our destiny; the end of our story. Will we live, and live in the light of eternity, like Paul, or live, and face death with the gnawing, nagging, sense of having lost eternity, like DFW, or simply choose the default rat race setting of life for ourselves, and so destroy those around us for the sake of our very temporary happiness, while being shaped and destroyed by whatever it is we’ve chosen to worship.

We’ll see next post that the worship wars are not so much about the songs we sing in church, or the sacraments, or even church on a Sunday, but about much more. The stakes are much higher than a Sunday runsheet, or who gets in the band.

What do you love? What are you prepared to die for? Will it give you life? This is where the real action is in the worship wars;

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“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. 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. 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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

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.’ 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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 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. 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. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

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Snippet // David Foster Wallace on humans as creatures who worship

This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.

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Three (or six) videos about life under the sun

I like these videos a lot. I come back to them occasionally. They have pretty huge explanatory power – but they are all sort of depressing and without lasting hope.

Life is amazing. And improbably. And amazingly improbable. And we all have different ways of dealing with the improbable hand we’ve been dealt.

This has been the pursuit of smart people since before the smart guy in Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) – but there haven’t been any particularly new answers. Life as we experience it is a vapour. Nothing is new.

These come from smart people: Ze Frank (The Time You Have – but seriously, check out his animal videos), Leonard Read (I, Pencil) and David Foster Wallace (This is Water).

They all kind of remind me of the Wisdom literature – which I spent a fair bit of time reading for my thesis thing. They’re also a bit like sermons. Sermons about what it means to be human.

This is Water

The video misses what I think is the most pertinent point Wallace made in the speech. Which was given to a bunch of graduating students.

“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

He’s so close to nailing the Christian understanding of idolatry.

But here are the other two…

The Time You Have in Jelly Beans

I, Pencil

I, Pencil does get a little bit theological.

There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Handat work.

… Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

I tried to find an equally compelling video about life following Jesus – because his arrival on earth changes up the vapour verdict of Ecclesiastes, provides a different understanding of the “water” that surrounds us, that we breathe in, that defines our reality, provides a different way for us to think about our jelly beans or days on the earth, and how to spend them, and his amazingly improbable life – God made man, murdered and resurrected to redefine our humanity – is a greater story than the improbable and amazing story of the pencil. Or any human ingenuity.

The best I’ve got is this one – a sermon Jam from David Platt.

This one isn’t bad either. I don’t mind the “sermon jam” as a genre.

And Francis Chan’s “God is Better” is a nice counter point to “This is Water”…

An Open Letter to Brisbane after my visit to Hillsong

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.

Jesus.

Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.

Regards,

Nathan

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10 propositions on the relationship between church, mission, and worship

This semester at college, in the wisdom of our curriculum setters, I’m doing some nicely overlapping thinking across three of my subjects – Church Ministry and Sacraments, Christian Worship, and The Modern Evangelical Movement . This is my attempt to integrate some of that thinking and give you some of the fruit of the grunt work I’ve put in on a couple of essays. I’ll post those essays at Venn Theology at the end of semester if you’d like to read more…

1. It starts with God – God is a relational God – both internally, within the Trinity, and externally – on his own mission – the Missio Dei (Mission of God in Latin). This mission is to gather a people to himself, who will glorify him for eternity – and he conducts this mission by sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the world.

2. The Church is on a mission from God – The church is the gathered people of God. We are instruments of God’s mission. United with Christ, equipped by the Spirit to take part in the gathering of God’s people. The church is a divine pyramid scheme – it exists to grow itself. Our union with Christ has an “incarnational” pay off, where when we act together as the Body of Christ we are being like Christ to the world around us. Mission is one of our primary tasks as a church, some have suggested mission is our human focused task, while worship is our god focused task,

3. This mission involves the proclamation of the Gospel in word, deed, and “being” by a priesthood of all believers– perhaps, after reading John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel this week, “the promotion of the Gospel” is a better category. But we’re all on mission together. This mission will necessarily involve words, but it will also involve demonstrations of the truth of the gospel through how we relate to one another and the world around us as the people of God.

The church’s participation in mission to the world began in earnest with the calling of Paul (Acts 9:15), who defines his mission, which he invites his churches to partake in, as preaching Christ to those who have not heard (Romans 10:14-16, 15:17-21), as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20, Colossians 4:2-6), to bring them to faith (Romans 10:17, 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and present them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:25-29).

The church is called to be different (Col 3:1-17, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18), and its conduct and ‘being’ is a fundamental part of its mission (John 13:35, 17:14-18, 20-23, 1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:14-16, Romans 12).

Some see social transformation as the content of evangelism, emphasising the incarnation and conflating “setting the oppressed free” with “proclaiming good news” (cf Luke 4:18-19) – but the preaching of the good news is what truly frees the oppressed.

4. While how we do and think of church (ecclesiology) and how we do and think of mission (missiology) are very closely related – they must be distinct – we can’t collapse them into each other. Many modern “missiologists” see the church exclusively as a tool for mission, so the social context of the church shapes church. If the church is incarnational, and is an entity equipped by God to do certain things (teach the gospel, administer the sacraments, “worship”) – then there are certain things that are non-negotiable even if they’re culturally weird. This is particularly true because part of how we define the church is by looking to the New Creation – where there is no mission to expand the church because the people are already gathered.

5. The Reformers worked with a “mother” analogy for the church. This is helpful. Though mission wasn’t a big deal during Christendom, and was more the role of governments who were understood as God’s tool for expanding the Christian state, the idea that the church is simultaneously responsible for “begetting” the faith of believers and nurturing believers is helpful – especially in the light of discussions and debates about who Sunday gatherings are for – where a dichotomy between serving believers and serving seekers has been unhelpfully pushed in recent times.

6. Mission is worship. If worship is magnifying the work of God as we praise, glorify and serve him, and involves the sacrificial giving of ourselves and our gifts for others (which I think is the definition of worship) – then mission is a form of that. Perhaps the ultimate form of that in our time and space – though this changes in the New Creation.  Participation in the mission of the church, as a subset of the mission of God, can be understood as an extension of the God glorifying purpose of each individual believer for which he has given us gifts that we are to use to build the body.

7. Worship is God focused, but involves being “poured out” in the service of others – Paul frames glorifying God, worship, and service, as using one’s gifts to serve others (Romans 12:1-12, 15:14-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5), and sees preaching the gospel as his service and priestly duty (Acts 20:19-27, Romans 1:1, 15:16, Ephesians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, Colossians 1:23-29, Titus 1:1).

God gathers his people to pour them out as gifts for others (Romans 12:1, Ephesians 4:1-16 (Especially if, following Carson, the church is understood as the “host of captives” cf the Levites (Numbers 8, 18)), Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6).

Spiritual gifts are used in the service of others, to produce maturity (Ephesians 4:8-16, Colossians 3:12-17, Romans 12:1-16, 1 Corinthians 12, 14), and to proclaim the excellence of God amongst the pagans (1 Peter 2:9-12).

The language used of the church in these passages is the language used to define worship.

8. Worship is mission. This does not necessarily follow point 6, but when point 7 is introduced the argument becomes a little easier to make – the way the church worships God functions as a testimony to others, and thus, alongside point 3, leads to the conclusion that our explicitly God focused worship of God is part of our mission. Because it is part of who we are as God’s people, and who we are as God’s people is part of our mission. This is not its only function – because it is part of what it means to truly be human (if the chief end of man is to Glorify God and enjoy him forever), and we will continue worshipping after every knee has bowed to Jesus, and in the throne room of God after judgment – where there are no non-Christians to gather. But in the here and now – our decision to not worship ourselves, or our idols, is part of our testimony to who God is – and is the only right response to the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship.

9. So, Corporate Worship – the stuff we do when we gather – is also mission.  The tasks of the church – preaching, the sacraments, and ‘worship’ (in the what we do at church sense of the word) – involves making a clear and appealing presentation of the gospel of Jesus. Clarity requires some form of contextualisation. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to base the unbeliever’s response to the gathering in their ability to perceive the truth of the gospel in the clarity of the gathering – corporate worship, the sacraments, and identity shaping orientation in the form of the Sunday service achieve this goal, and simultaneously the goal of worship and mission – when they involve the gathered people of God sacrificially serving one another with their gifts in a manner that clearly demonstrates and declares the truth of the gospel of the crucified saviour. Both aspects of the “mother” role of the church are accomplished in this manner.

10. Clarity on what the gospel is, what mission is, and what worship is, should nurture Christians and encourage them to worship with all of their lives, by being on mission with all of their lives. The Sunday gathering of the church should do this, thinking of the church as the permanent community of God’s people, on a permanent mission, rather than just God’s people when they gather, and missionaries when they’re outside the walls of the gathering is also helpful.

None of this seems all that controversial unless you spend a bunch of time reading stuff by people who disagree with points 3, 4, 9, and 10. Most Christians agree with 1 and 2, while 5, 6, 7 and 8 are matters that are settled by how one understands what the church is, what the gospel is, and what worship is… the methodology I used in coming to these conclusions was largely to start with a look at how the Bible develops the concept of what it means to be the people of God, and how this people is called to interact with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

I think this is a pretty useful way of thinking about life, and church – and even stuff like music – does anybody have any qualms with the logic?