Minimalism and the danger of replacing one idol with another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear Wormwood,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

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

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

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

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

The Minimalists have some fantastic stuff to say in Minimalism, but really following Jesus is the way to do this right.

14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

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

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

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

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

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

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

What are we teaching our children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

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

Pornography is worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

worship-wars

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

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

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

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

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:11-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: davidhardie.com

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

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

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

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

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

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

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

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

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

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

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

What worship is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

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

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

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

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

You are what you worship

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

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

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

 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVrn1Sz0H8

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2e5H-LSzkU

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

An Open Letter to Brisbane after my visit to Hillsong

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

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

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

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

Dear Brisbane,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The talk didn’t go there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,

Nathan

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: TimHawkins.net (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.