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:

“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’

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:

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.

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.


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, 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.



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?


Why don’t we think about non-verbal communication when we’re singing in church?

In October last year, I stirred up a bit of a hornets nest when I wrote something that was admittedly deliberately provocative about “worship” and “music in church gatherings.”

I’ve probably nuanced what I would say about “worship” since then – I think, and this is a working definition, that “worship is the sacrificial use of the gifts God has given you to glorify him by loving and serving him, and one another, and pointing people to Jesus.” I think that best accounts for Romans 12, and Paul’s approach to ministry and spiritual gifts, particularly in Corinthians.

I’m pretty convinced by the argument that singing in our gatherings is part of “word ministry” – it is designed to both express something about our faith in Jesus, express something vertically in terms of vocalising our praise to God, and express something horizontally in terms of encouraging our brothers and sisters as we sing together, and highlighting something for the non-Christian in the midst of our gathering (ala 1 Cor 14:22-25).

Singing is communication. Singing is word ministry. And laying aside all debates about the charismatic movement and whether flaying your arms around, or at least moving, is biblically mandated (or rather, warranted, ala what Bob Kauflin dealt with when he spoke in Brisbane last year), I think we I’d at least argue we’re doing this communication part badly… or at least not communicating as fully as we could be… if we adopt the dour posture common in the reformed evangelical (Presbyterian) circles that I move in.

Here’s why.

Image Credit: The Speaker’s Practice

Most communications experts and consultants I’ve dealt with over the years – from uni lecturers during my undergrad degree, to consultants we hired in the workplace, to preaching lecturers at college – stress the importance of things other than words when we are speaking. Things we call “non verbal communication.”

The number in the pie chart above seems pretty arbitrary – I’ve heard it said that non-verbal communication can account for up to 85% of what we communicate, or how effectively we communicate it, when we speak. That’s what these guys claim.

They also claim that 90% of the emotional work is carried by non-verbals.

If this stat is true then it plays into another aspect of communication – particularly when it comes to the fine art of persuasion. And if communication is not “persuasive” in some sense, if you’re just preaching to the choir – literally – when you sing, and you’re not trying to reinforce or hammer home something using music as a teaching tool, then I’d argue that it’s not really a particularly useful form of Christian encouragement, and you’re not really treating music as word ministry.

Persuasion, since Aristotle (and later, my favourite, Cicero), has been divied up into categories of pathos (emotion), ethos (character), and logos (content) – here’s a run down from another public speaking site I found via google. And a little diagram – I’d argue from the stat above, even if its inaccurate, that pathos includes convincing non-verbals…

Image Credit: Visual Books Project

In my experience of my circles our approach to music heavily invests in the logos element of our music, treats music as a ministry that requires a certain character test for members of the band (ethos), and maintains a deep suspicion of pathos because it’s largely, especially in the absence of the other two elements, where manipulation goes down.

I’ve written something about manipulation and persuasion before. And personally I am deeply, and culturally, suspicious of any attempts to manipulate the way I think with bells and smells, ritual, minor falls and major lifts, or any little tools that bands might use – like clapping.

I’m not suggesting working our way through this chart until you find something that resonates with you.

Image Credit: (get the T-Shirt)

But I don’t think this suspicion is the answer – and I think its stymying our ability to communicate the gospel clearly in everything we do when we gather. I’m trying to figure out what being mindful of what I’m communicating non-verbally when I sing looks like.

Good persuasion, following Cicero, means starting with character, and then tying logos and pathos together under that rubric. I think Paul takes Cicero’s ball and runs with it in his letters to the Corinthians (my Corinthians essay) – arguing that the character test for Christian ministry is being sacrificially cross shaped in how they do life, and especially how they gather… and I think, if emotion is carried by non verbal communication, and assuming we’ve got issues of ethos and logos right in our singing, then we need to be thinking about how we do pathos well with our non-verbals when we use singing to communicate the gospel. In a way that is sacrificial and meets the definition of worship I floated above.

The call then, is for us to be genuinely authentic when we’re singing together, rather than faking authenticity, pretending to be bought in to the emotional stuff, because we want to communicate something. There are heaps of people, particularly in our culture, who are just like me – suspicious of overtly emotional stuff, wary of manipulation through an increasing sensitivity to the tricks of advertisers, spin doctors, and other charlatans – so we can’t do the pathos, or even the logos, right, without getting the ethos right first. But nor can we be so scared of this stuff that we avoid pathos all together – because a lack of emotional buy in amounts to an insincere and inauthentic approach to persuasion, and also fails at communicating as effectively as possible.

It’s traditional for posts about doing non-verbal stuff while you’re singing to say the Christian thing to do is to be sensitive to the people around you and not do stuff that will distract or offend them – which if worship is sacrificial service of others as well as of God – goes without saying.

The questions then are – if singing forms part of our word ministry – if it’s communication – how do we communicate our thankfulness to God using the means of communication that he has given us,* how do we best use these means to encourage each other about the power of the gospel in our lives as we sing, and how do we use them to communicate the gospel to outsiders?

Interestingly, as a bit of a throwaway, this book chapter on gestures in communication, suggests that gestures are particularly helpful for overcoming a communication divide (from p 21) – I’m not going to hang the whole thesis of this post off this, but I wonder if seeing some familiar gestures in response to music (like the stuff you might see at a concert), rather than a room of dour people, may overcome some of the gaps between the inevitable Christian jingo and vocabulary some of our songs contain, and make the experience of corporate singing a little less weird – rather than more weird, though you could equally run with this point to justify interpretive dance… this book chapter also suggests we’re generally reliably able to spot people who are performing “rehearsed” gestures, rather than spontaneous.

I don’t think the answer is looking something like this…

* I’m trying to be careful here not to suggest a non-Biblical requirement where we must make gestures as we sing – I think the expression of the vertical aspect of our singing has significance for its effectiveness horizontally as a means of encouragement and communicating the gospel.

On blogging and “tone”

So. For those of you not following along with the discussion on yesterday’s post about worship… here’s an update.

I wrote that post with a healthy dose of irony. I thought. And I was aiming for humour, rather than offence, when adopting the persona of an “angry young man” essentially writing to a bunch of other “angry young people” and calling them old. I was trying to call out those people who were once advocators of change for being a bit stuck in the rut of that advocacy when things have changed. I also thought it was funny that the issue at hand dealt with music – which I thought was universally understood to be a marker of generational change…

And, in order to be noticed, I adopted hyperbole. I ironically wrote a reactive polemic against reactive polemics, calling for nuance. I thought that would be relatively clear.

But it turns out, once again, that the Internet isn’t very good for that sort of stuff. Even though I think that blogging is a medium different to other mediums (ie content is spur of the moment, geared towards the sensational, provocative, not completely thought out and referenced, opinionated, a contribution to discourse, etc), and think the reader has as much responsibility to consider the genre when responding as the writer does to consider the reader when writing… I think this post failed. People responded to the style, rather than the substance. And so, I edited it. You should read the post and join the discussion.

I am sorry that my post was not clear, and I’m sorry that it was possibly an offensive caricature of particular positions (again, ironically, because I would argue that almost all reactionary/polemic based stuff, especially on the internet, relies on caricatures and straw men).

Also, I am sorry if you’re 35 and I called you old, or if my post offended you in myriad other ways. But I guess my one response is – don’t let the offence get in the way of engaging with the issue, or be an excuse for dismissing the substance of the post or its criticism of your position.

13 Propositions on Worship and The Generation Gap

UPDATE: I have attempted to remove irony and hyperbole from is post because people were missing the attempted humour, unduly hurt by the tone, or commenting on the style rather than the substance. I apologise for my failure to communicate clearly. I also apologise that these changes make certain comments on this post a little redundant as they refer to aspects of the original post which have now been redacted.

Bob Kauflin is an American dude who came to Australia and shook the church music apple cart a couple of weeks ago. I’m still thinking through questions of emotion and persuasion and manipulation that his talk in Brisbane raised for me – I’ll post those reflections at some point, probably in a bit of a series I’m working up in my mind that I’ll explore more deeply on Venn Theology, probably post exams.

I’m a little worried that the debate on the definition of worship, currently being driven and developed at The Briefing, as a development of the Briefing’s already reactive position, is the continuation of an old conflict that the current generation hasn’t experienced, and thus, doesn’t understand. Our Australian Church History lecture yesterday covered the emergence of the so called “Briefing” position on worship.  The Briefing position, as it is described in the comments on the Briefing articles, arose as a necessary corrective to changes on the Australian scene involving the rise of the charoismatic movement. This movement typically focused on emotions and experiences as “worship” and relied on vacuous lyrics and appealing music. The “vibe” of the Briefing response has been to create a culture where our generation feels suspicious of emotion, experience, and good music – because that is what has been modeled. I think this is part of the danger of defining yourself against something. It has also created a somewhat strange definitional approach to the issue, which continues in the current response. Worship is reduced to a narrow dictionary definition, rather than a concept, and the odd response to the erroneous “worship is music” is to say “music is not worship”…

In evangelicalism in Australia we don’t have the history wars – like the intellectual elite do, we have the worship wars. It seems we reacted so strongly against the rise of pentecostalism/the charismatic movement that we’ve thrown out baby and bathwater when it comes to expressive or “affectionate” practice in church, because we don’t want to call what we do in music “worship”… because worship is all of life. Which seems odd. Music in church is a subset of all of life. From the other angle, certain advocates of a particular reformed position want to define only what goes on in the context of a church service on Sunday as “worship”…

Here are the steps in my thinking currently (which I will flesh out more later).

  1. I am pretty sympathetic to the view that all of life, for the Christian, is mission. A life lived sacrificially, based on Paul’s example (cf 1 Cor 11:1), will look like a life of pointing people to Jesus and seeking to present them mature in Christ. Paul’s use of “worship” in Romans 12:1 is a subset of his view of the Christian life and mission, a life where he was poured out as a drink offering for the sake of the gospel (Phil 2:17, 2 Tim 4:6-7 (and that’s in quotes because there’s a bit of a debate going on (part 1, part 2) about what the best sense of that translation is amongst that generation of people who make me an angry young man on this issue).
  2. Because all of life is mission, and all of life is worship, worship and mission overlap significantly. Both are what we do in response to the lordship of Jesus. We worship him by, amongst other things, serving him (there are several words conflated into our word “worship”), we serve him by, amongst other things, bringing people into his kingdom, the eschatological horizon we operate under is every knee bowing to Jesus in worship (Phil 2, Revelation 5). We also praise him, by singing to him (eg Psalm 98), which I would argue has a significant overlap with mission, the way we praise God speaks to our relationship with him – both to God, and to non-believers. I’m not arguing that praise and worship are synonyms, but they both form part of our response to Jesus.
  3. People in both the Old Testament and New Testament worshipped other stuff. Idols are objects of worship. For the original readers of the New Testament much of what was said of owning Jesus as Lord, was in competition with what was expected of a Roman Citizen in their response to the emperor (Daniel suggests this was similar in Old Testament times). Worship is a response to a God and King. Part of mission is pointing to Jesus as God and King. This is the outcome of church practices that Paul hopes for (1 Cor 14:22-25).
  4. Because worship is the outcome of mission, we need to make sure when we are we are doing music in a way that calls non-believers, and believers, to worship. This includes doing music well. Doing music well might look/sound different to different people. But I think you can make a case that God wants music to be joyful. I find it very hard to be joyful when the words are good (and evoke a sense of joy), but the music isn’t. There’s a disjunct. I think joy and physical expression are also probably linked. We talk about the necessity of non-verbal expression in good preaching, understanding that good communication requires it, but hesitate when it comes to music. This is odd.
  5. Doing music well means doing music with joy. As well as with reflection on theological truths. I go to a rock concert and I respond with my body. People see my response and know that I love the band. I go to church, and I yawn when I sing. Church music in its current form is a boring and largely emotionless experience for me. This is necessarily an outcome of our approach to music. This makes a statement to non-believers who enter our gathering, which seems to be one of Paul’s concerns for how we gather (1 Cor 14:22-25).
  6. All of life is church. This is where another attempt to unnecessarily divide the Christian life into neat categories via terminology/word studies occurs, as if we’re only a community when we’re meeting on a Sunday, or only worshipping when we’re meeting as a community and doing whatever we do on a Sunday (which includes singing).
  7. Trying to neatly compartmentalise things into categories like this is unwarranted and brings confusion rather than clarity. It doesn’t really pay heed to the way language works in the Bible and overlapping semantic ideas, and the use of paired terms. The Christian life is full of overlapping categories. It’s a massive Venn Diagram. And the push for neat distinctions is a western construction that makes little sense.
  8. It’s dangerous to define yourself against something, rather than as something. Responding to the challenges presented by the pentecostal movement was necessary, but baby and bathwater solutions aren’t real solutions. It seems to me that the argument goes “some people think worship only describes singing, therefore we must answer their wrong definition by saying singing is not worship”…Operating as an almost binary corrective means you ends up with two equally imbalanced sectarian movements – not a realigning of the position in a church. Particularly because the new generation you produce doesn’t really define itself through the conflict you fought, but through the position you adopted, without really owning it. If we, for a minute, use the imperfect of a different venn diagram, where we have a red circle and we want to correct the red circle, the corrective approach seeks to correct the red circle by setting up a disconnected blue circle, where blue is the complete opposite to red. Perhaps the truer colour is actually purple, but we just don’t want people being red. Real change, across the board, happens when you take the good parts of the red circle and overlap them with the blue to make purple. And the aim should be to make the Venn diagram as circular and purple as possible. It seems that most of us are willing to acknowledge that Sovereign Grace, Bob Kauflin, and the “Reformed Charismatic Movement” more broadly are self correcting – particularly with regards to their use of terminology. I would suggest it is difficult to argue that our reactive approach to the charismatic movement has brought this change.
  9. Music is liturgy. The songs we sing shape the way we live. Music has ethical ramifications.
  10. All gifts and talents are given by God, they become “spiritual” gifts when they serve the body and point people to Jesus (1 Cor 12-14 pushes me this way). Music is a gift. Musicians should be encouraged to perform to God’s glory, and we should stop pretending people are a pancreas when they’re a hand.
  11. If physical expression is a natural response to music, emotion, and the security that comes from love (Bob Kauflin used the illustration that you don’t have to teach a child to reach out for their parent), and, if an incredible portion of communication is non-verbal – the onus is on the people suggesting that music in church shouldn’t involve being physically expressive to prove that position from the Bible. Not for the physically expressive and emotional to defend theirs. The idea that it is culturally normal not to be physically expressive, and thus we should not be expressive because people will find it off putting, is the product of a sub-culture that is the product of the music wars, and would seem to be demonstrably incorrect based on the growth of the pentecostal movement (frankly, the appealing part of their services is the music rather than the teaching), and crowd behaviour at music performances across a variety of genres (that aren’t seated). Especially when young people are involved.
  12. It is possible that our approach to church, worship, and music, are not so much shaped by the Bible and mission, as shaped by an old conflict that the current generation did not participate in, and so, it is possible that a more moderate position is the way to go. Previous generations holding on to their positions and traditions is a guaranteed way for the church to become irrelevant, and thus for our “worship” to get in the way of our mission, which I would argue makes that “worship” not worship.
  13. The nature of multi-generational church is that the young question the traditions of the old, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and sometimes the previous generation need to remember that they were the young once, and still are on many other issues. Fresh insight should be listened to and weighed up, not just dismissed because it is overly optimistic, or not based on experience/tempered by conflict.

Possibly a little bit too honest “worship” leading…

Ahh. This one has been doing the rounds – it’s been an open tab for far too long in my browser. So here you go.

I think the “I’ve sung this song for years…” line is perhaps the one I feel the most convicted by.

Via Jesus Needs New PR, but Tim also posted it in the interim, so he can have a link too.

The future of church music

I don’t want to sound like a total Apple fanboy (I remember when I used to be an unfanboy) – but the iPhone is the future of music in church. Don’t believe me?

The real question is how emo “worship” leaders are going to manage procreation without a guitar to attract the ladies…

Two new contenders for world’s worst Christian music

Long time readers will remember the world’s worst “worship”… purely assessed from an aesthetic standpoint – I don’t know if this is acceptable to God. That’s up to him.

Here are two contenders to knock it off its throne (I have included the original as the third video in this post). In the Hokey Pokey one it’s worth persevering until 3.48. Apparently short term memory is not biblical… nor is Alzheimer’s.

If Nickleback was Creed

Some people can’t get enough of Christian music (or bands that are publicly Christian). Here’s a song highlighting the problem with the Christian music industry.

What about me?

Here’s a nice little video expressing the problem with some Christian music… It’s an old point, but a good point.

Via Faith and Theology

YouTube Tuesday: Irreverant irrelevance

This one’s from Vimeo, not YouTube. But it’ll do. It’s another terrible piece of “relevant” worship. Shorter this time. So that’s something to be thankful for.

Boom Boom Pow from Tim Corder on Vimeo.

On the question of Worship

I read this somewhere the other day. I thought it was prescient and worth recording for posterity…

The problem with the modern church’s understanding of worship is they see it as a noun not a verb.