Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

There’s been a thread running through some of my recent posts that’s maybe not simply a thread, maybe it’s an elephant worth naming. And patting. And seeing if we can teach it to sit and let us give it a good scratch behind the ears.

I don’t believe ‘identity’ is a coherent category for Christians to use; not in politics, or in theology.

I don’t think it’s a category you find in the Bible, and I think when we shoehorn Biblical categories into this ill-fitting modern boot, we end up with terrible pus-filled blisters, and ultimately, deformed feet.

I think we should stop. And here’s why.

I think the Bible has an utterly different concept of personhood — both in terms of who we were made to be in relationship with God, and with what personal choice and the things we might ‘identify’ as indicate about us as people. I think the word is freighted with too much baggage to be a useful word if ‘identity’ is being used either descriptively (ie drawing an analogy between its use in popular psyhcological/sociological/political thought), or prescriptively (ie seeing those psychological/social/political concepts mapping on cleanly to a Biblical anthropology such that the word is something real and fundamental to our theological schema).

When we talk about ‘identity in Christ’ we’re talking about an act of ‘self-definition’ in Jesus, an enshrining of my own personal decision making and my decision to ground my sense of self in Jesus; this might be experientially true, but I’m not sure, for Reformed types, that it is theologically coherent to speak in these terms, and I think it comes with a whole anthropology that, appears to be a fruit of the Reformation but is actually a fruit of Renaissance Humanism (which in turn, influenced the Reformation). I suspect we’re better off talking about personhood as something given and received — even given by false gods — than something self-defined, grasped, activated, realised and performed as an autonomous action.

This might be oddly pedantic for someone who keeps saying that words have a descriptive function, not just a prescriptive one, and maybe we can fight the good fight to reclaim the word “identity” as something given to us by God, or reflective of heavenly, spiritual realities here on earth, not just a thing I self-determine as I project and perform my autonomous self-understanding and desires into the world… but if we’re going to have that contest we need to know we’re having it, and what we’re up against —  what’s ironic is the same people who reject using ‘gay’ as part of an identity statement for a Christian, because of the way it is understood by the average punter, is that they don’t apply the same standard to the word ‘identity’… There’s a whole other compelling argument, made at Mere Orthodoxy, that when we use ‘identity in Christ’ language we do that in a way that can eradicate a whole swathe of creaturely things that are good and God given as part of our personhood in the process, especially when that becomes a totalising weapon used to stop people making identity claims we don’t like (for eg ‘gay Christian’).

I know I’m unlikely to convince many people. But here are some of my thoughts.

The concept of identity is very closely linked to the concept of individuality. The need to define ‘who I am,’ let alone the need to have my answer to that question recognised and legitimised by society and the state (via laws or ‘identity politics’) is a relatively new concept. Previously you knew who you were because that reality was given to you by God, or the gods, or your nation’s god-ordained political system/structure.

The concept of the individual is both new, and humanist. That is to say, it emerged as society sought to decouple our understanding of the self from God and a cosmic order. When I say ‘new’ I mean in the scheme of human history, not relative to my lifetime. It’s new in that we had a really long time, including the periods in which the Old and New Testaments were composed, where people did not think of themselves as ‘individuals’ at all, but rather, as belonging to a series of systems — family, clan, tribe, nation, etc. In 1860, in a chapter ‘The Development of the Individual‘ in a book on Renaissance history, Jacob Burckhardt, a historian, traced the development of ‘the individual’ as a concept, to the start of the renaissance period in Italy. He said:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness — that which was turned within as that which was turned without — lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such.

This ‘veil’ was, in some ways, the idea of a divinely ordered social structure that you were born into, that meant your position in the world, in this system, was given as part of God’s providential design. Now. Maybe some liberation from those structures is good and necessary (and we’ve all benefited), but it’s possible there’s a baby and bathwater situation going on here, because it didn’t take long, once this veil was removed, for us to get quite comfortable not just with the idea that God didn’t have designs for how I lived in my private life, or what I spent my leisure time on, or where I worked, but with the idea that God didn’t have designs for me at all — or, indeed, that God was not in the picture. This sort of humanism is a necessary precursor for the deism that then developed (the idea that God is not actively, or providentially, involved in creation at all — but is distant, having made the universe and then left it to its own devices), and deism was necessary for atheism.

Burckhardt talks about how, at first, this individualism didn’t rock the political system too much; people were content to have private individual freedom, without engaging in conspiracy or revolution. He says “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety. Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State — all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts. The private man, indifferent to politics, and busied partly with serious pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilettante, seems to have been first fully formed in these despotisms of the fourteenth century.”

Now, Burckhardt is writing a sort of ‘history of ideas’ a few hundred years removed from the period he’s describing, writing from a world shaped by the individualism he describes here, and its development through the renaissance, the Reformation, and the enlightenment.

The Renaissance produced ‘humanism’ as a philosophical outlook, this was a product both of the development of the idea of a ‘self,’ and the beginning of a departure from the idea that all positions in society represented a divinely ordained hierarchy. Humanism was, in particular, a product of the empowerment of the lay person rather than the clergy, and so reflected ‘non-church’ or non theological concerns. There are many good things about this move, and yet, the same move involved pushing God to the margins — to the ‘sacred’ space, carving out a ‘secular’ where God was not operating. Humanism was concerned with ‘individuals’ rather than a cosmic ordering of reality, or a system that people were born into.

Humanism eventually produced two lawyers who would reform the church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin (three if you count Erasmus). There’s lots to love about what Luther and Calvin brought to the church — both as lawyers who recognised truths about the Gospel that maybe only a lawyer could recognise, but also as humanists; and the church today would benefit if more people dug deeply into their thinking. But neither Calvin or Luther were infallibly objective commentators, the Reformation has the fingerprints of both humanism and the work of lawyers all over it. Again, these are not bad things where these perspectives gave access to truths about God that had otherwise been missed, but, they do freight in ideas from the Renaissance, and from humanism, that might obscure certain truths if these ideas aren’t held in tension. Like all of us, they brought their personhood into the task of understanding God, and his word.

One additional change brought about by the Reformation, as an implication of the sort of politics required to ‘consciously decouple’ the Catholic Church from state power, was a further breaking down of the idea that all monarchs (and priests) were appointed by God in a reflection of the divine order. The Reformation was another nail in the coffin of the medieval (or more ancient) conception of the world — where kings (and church priests) ruled by divine right and were part of the ordering of society. Luther had a much broader vision of God’s providence in his ‘priesthood of all believers,’ perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Nobility. Luther didn’t want to so much do away with God’s providential ordering of society — he wanted to broaden it, so that the work of all members of the body of Christ, the church, were appointed by God to play a role in the divine order, and, ideally, all people would find life and their purpose — their true humanity — in Jesus. Luther wanted the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ — or the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to be much more overlapping than the church of his day did — he didn’t want the Spiritual removed from the picture all together. He says:

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

And, describes his ‘priesthood of all believers’ — “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,” before saying “From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of “estate”; for they are all of the same estate, — true priests, bishops and popes, — though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one “temporal ,” the other “spiritual.” He is one Head, and He has One body.” 

Now, this might all feel a bit repetitive, but the point of the repetition here is that while the Reformation often gets blamed for kickstarting individualism, or discovering that it is a theological truth — like ‘identity’ — that comes when you do away with the old spiritual ordering of the universe, like the Renaissance did, or humanism attempts to, Luther actually had a different picture that wasn’t about individuality, but about being called to an office within a body — whether the spiritual body, or the community. While he elevates all individuals to ‘the priesthood’ (or lowers ‘priesthood’ to ‘the normal’), he doesn’t champion a sort of autonomous ‘define your self with no rules’ approach to life, or give us the building blocks to spiritualise personal identity, he invites us to be people-in-community (or in a system). Luther said all our work, within our vocations either in the ‘temporal’ or ‘spiritual’ realms are meant to be contributions to the health of our body — and he doesn’t just mean our own person… he said: “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

So, to be clear, I think Luther is right — and that the proper re-ordering of the disconnect between the clerical rule of pre-Renaissance Europe and the everyday human was to not create a secular/sacred divide, where the clerics ruled the sacred space but kept their hands off the secular, but a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that held the sacred and secular together, and saw human dignity and value as things given by God along with the call for us to operate in community in ways that reflect heavenly realities. This isn’t to say the humanism of the Reformation did not, at the same time, impact its understanding of the Gospel (for good and for ill). In his landmark essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,’ (a seminal text in the movement now called ‘the new perspective’), Krister Stendahl suggests that the Reformers in general, and Luther in particular, brought their modern, western perspectives (humanist concerns even) to a pre-modern (pre-individual) text.

What’s interesting about Stendahl’s paper is that he suggests a key difference between modern readings of Paul, and perhaps Paul’s own thought world, is that with the rise of ‘the individual’ as a construct, our understanding of our selves, or our identity, or our personhood — what it means to be human — becomes not an act of knowing God and understanding our calling in the created order (and so knowing nature as well), but introspection. When we overlay our method of processing the world onto Paul’s, when that processing of the world is reasonably novel, we end up reading Paul through our own eyes. This is the heart of the ‘new perspective’ as a theological movement — and, you can take or leave its conclusions, but its starting point — acknowledging that modern people think (and so interpret) differently to ancient people seems like a sound starting point.

Stendahl offered an alternative reading of Paul’s writing that challenges, but doesn’t totally overturn, the supremacy of the individual in a particular Reformation schema. This is to say that there is an element of the Gospel that relates to an individual’s position before God, and, at the same time, a corporate or communal aspect of the Gospel that is thoroughly integrated with the individual person. Stendahl says:

“Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s plan for his creation. Or perhaps we should say it this way. Paul’s thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and conscience. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.”

Stendahl’s contention here is that inasmuch as Paul is interested in ‘identity’ it’s about a communal identity found in Christ; rather than in being Jewish or Gentile. That we find who we are as people in communion (or union) with Jesus, rather than through introspection and the pursuit of an authentic expression of an individuated self.

In his conclusion, he says, that when we as readers are conscious of our tendency to impose our own views on the text, and tried to step back, we can observe the way western thought has developed — both theologically, climaxing with Luther, and in the secular frame climaxing with Freud, and then ask whether this trajectory is a valid and glorious one, building on seeds planted in the New Testament, or we can try to strip back those assumptions and understand what the text is saying (or try to do both). There’s almost an invitation in Stendahl to either read the Bible ‘westernotelically’ — where God’s intention was to develop the liberated (liberal) western human, through the intervention of Jesus in the world, or to read it ‘Christotelically,’ and then to keep looking back to the Jesus who arrived in the first century world, understanding the Scriptures as deeply connected to his life, and mission, and our life being caught up in his. Where you land on this question will impact how legitimate the concept of ‘individualism’ or even ‘identity’ is for Christians engaging in theology in the modern world.

Stendahl critiques the Protestant tendency, in individualising the function of the Gospel, to individualise the function of the Old Testament law, such that it exists to teach us how to live morally and so convict our conscience and show us our need for Jesus, but also give us instruction after we trust him (so that gentiles are under the law), and instead suggests we should read the law as a necessary part of the history that leads us to Jesus. Stendahl explores a debate on the translation of παιδαγωγὸς (paidogogos) in Galatians 3:24 in various modern english Bibles as ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘custodian’ and the theological significance of those choices in terms of what gets freighted in to our understanding of the function of the law, he suggests the law is best understood as occupying a holding position for the Jews until their true teacher and king, Jesus, arrived. , understanding that we, as Gentiles, are not under the law, but are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Luther might actually agree with lots of Stendahl’s observations, if not his conclusions. I think Luther gets misread pretty often through the prism of post-Luther Reformed thinking and emphasis, and that he actually grounds his understanding of the Gospel not in justification and its mechanisms, but in union with Christ (where individual justification and sanctification flow from that communal reality), and we see this teased out in, for example, his Letter to the Nobility quoted above. But you also see it in his desire to strip back the text of the Bible from the Latin translation of his day to the original languages; that same impulse might see us stripping back the thought worlds of our day, to the original thought worlds of the Bible.

Luther did, himself, attempt to hold communal realities and individuality (of sorts) together in a theological system, and, if anything, the communal reality (particularly in a social context where everybody was assumed to be part of the body of Christ) still defined the function, even the personhood, of the individual. Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and his application of this to the temporal and spiritual (or secular and sacred) roles people occupied was built from his understanding of our union with Christ, and so, with Christ’s body, the church.

But the reformation of the church, and as a result, the western world, didn’t stop there. And the Reformation itself provided some of the building blocks for ongoing reform outside the church; specifically the foundations of liberalism and the individualism we see at the heart of the modern west. Where Luther challenged the way a divine ordering of reality had been operating in the hands of a corrupt church, modern ‘secular’ humanism challenges the idea of a divine ordering of reality. What we get, instead, as secular humanism captures the imagination of the post-Renaissance/post-Reformation west, is not a ‘priesthood of all believers’ but the divine rule of the individual; the sovereignty of the self. This little snapshot definition of humanism from Oxford has a nice summary of the move involved: “The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.”

When the divine ordering of human society gives way to the all encompassing secular space, built on the bedrock of humanism, the only authority that really matters is ‘the self,’ and any communal endeavours have to be built not on an understanding of, or appeal to, a divine order, or common good, even, but to common self-interest (or coalitions of over-lapping self-interests for the sake of holding power).

After Luther, but before Burckhardt, came John Locke. Locke is one of the founding fathers of liberalism; the political doctrine underpinning both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in modern political conversations in the western world. If the Renaissance created the individual, Locke was important in enshrining the individual as the supreme authority; completing the shift of locating human dignity in the ‘image of God’ imprinted on us, to the idea that each individual is Lord of his or her own domain. Locke spent a fair bit of his time arguing from the Bible to justify his understanding of the relationship between the person and the state, especially in his two treaties (treatises?) of government. In the Second Treaties of Government, Locke argues for certain principles of individual liberty that work to establish the sovereignty of the individual. Locke located legitimate exercises of political power, basically, in the protection of property — starting with the property an individual person has in their own self, and extending to rights for an individual to claim created things where their labour had fused with the created thing to give it a sort of value. Locke says:

“Every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.”

This is an expression of a move from either an understanding of a commons, where natural resources belong to all (particularly as given by God), or an understanding that all ‘property’ is owned by monarchs or rulers (in feudal systems). For Locke, legitimate governments existed to guarantee these property rights (both to the self, and one’s work), and to afford individuals the liberty to pursue life, liberty, health, and property. Again, I’m glad Locke existed and brought a bunch of changes, but in bringing these changes life as individual people became further detached from the providence of God, and the ordering of creation such that our experience of its goodness was seen to flow from his hands. Instead, it flowed from our own individual efforts.

So. What does this potted history have to do with identity? And why it’s a nebulous, and perhaps unhelpful concept to build Christian anthropological (and political and ethical) thinking on?

Well. Identity as a concept is a product of these movements — of renaissance humanism, secularisation, and the development of the absolute sovereignty of the self; sometimes justified with some implications of the Reformation, but often only paying lip service to a Christian heritage and seeking to cut loose from the roots and branches that produced the fruit. In a journal article from 1983, ‘Identifying Identity: A Semantic History’ (that became a book chapter), Philip Gleason traced the development of the concept of identity by tracking the use of the word identity. He found that this word that gets given so much weight in modern Christian theology has a very short history; and that alone should give us pause about how keen we are to use ‘identity’ and how people ‘identify themselves’ (ie with what terms or qualifiers) as a yardstick of orthodoxy. He says the emergence of identity as a concept in politics (or sociology) and psychology is very new.

The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one. It came into use as a popular social science term only in the 1950s. The contrast between its handling in two standard reference works dramatizes its novelty. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, carries a substantial article on “Identity, Psychosocial,” and another on “Identification, Political.” The original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, carries no entry at all for identity, and the entry headed “Identification” deals with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.

This fits with the Google ngram data I posted in a previous examination of how unhelpful the word ‘identity’ is when it comes to a Christian approach to sexuality.

When it comes to the links between the development of the individual, unmoored from a divine order — or a ‘given’ self — Gleason traces its usage back to Locke, and Hume (two key figures in the development not just of humanism, but secular humanism).

“The OED’s first two usage citations illustrating psychological “personal identity” are from Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739). This tends to corroborate Robert Langbaum’s assertion that identity did not take on psychological connotations until the empiricist philosophers called into question what he calls “the unity of the self.” The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway, but it became a problem when Locke declared that a man’s “Identity … consists in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Langbaum argues that Locke and Hume “use the word identity to cast doubt on the unity of the self,” and he has written a book to show how writers from William Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence reacted to this challenge to the integrity of “the self.””

Gleason tracks the emergence of the concept of identity as we might know it from the mid 50s, where he says a book titled Protestant-Jew-Catholic made the case that in a fragmenting culture where personhood had become disconnected from an established order, and was left in the hands of the self, religion was still the most satisfying way for “locating oneself in society” and answering the aching question “who am I?” He quotes a publication from 1963, to demonstrate how ‘Identity’ had moved from the fringes to the centre of moral discourse, and the defining question of a particular age, which asks “who, thirty years ago, would have thought that the problem of identity would become one of the most crucial issues for the searching individual in our society?” 

Gleason then traces the development of the concept of identity (especially identity formation) in psychology, specifically through the work of Erik Erikson (which is about as cool a ‘given’ name as possible for a bloke who then talks about the quest for the development of the self). He says that in the psychological realm, Erikson saw identity formation as a process that “involves an interaction between the interior development of the individual personality, understood in terms derived from the Freudian id-ego-superego model, and the growth of a sense of selfhood that arises from participating in society, internalizing its cultural norms, acquiring different statuses, and playing different roles.”

Charting its actual use in publications, Gleason identifies a contest within the modern understanding of the word ‘identity’ between its psychological and sociological uses, and, indeed, the present use of the word still seems contested in those spheres. This is true even when Christians try to appropriate it in order to ‘contextualise the Gospel’ and speak truths about God’s role in defining ‘the self’ into the modern conversation that often doesn’t realise what is lost through his absence… we use ‘identity’ in either psychological, or sociological ways, or interchangeably without recognising the difference. Gleason says the psychological and sociological understandings of the concept of identity can’t be easily reconciled:

“The two approaches differ most significantly on whether identity is to be understood as something internal that persists through change or as something ascribed from without that changes according to circumstance. For Erikson, the elements of interiority and continuity are indispensable. Working within the Freudian tradition, he affirms that identity is somehow “located” in the deep psychic structure of the individual. Identity is shaped and modified by interaction between the individual and the surrounding social milieu, but, change and crisis notwithstanding, it is at bottom an “accrued confidence” in the “inner sameness and continuity” of one’s own being.

The sociologists, on the other hand, tend to view identity as an artifact of interaction between the individual and society—it is essentially a matter of being designated by a certain name, accepting that designation, internalizing the role requirements accompanying it, and behaving according to those prescriptions.”

Gleason suggests that the incredible spike in popularity of the term identity was that its dual use gave it currency in emerging questions in the 1950s, especially post World War 2. He describes how talking about ‘identity’ replaced talking about ‘character’ and how part of the traction it gained was a sort of reconnection between an individual’s quest for self-hood, and the way social identities (including national identities) were being studied, and/or redefined at the time.

The quest for an individual ‘identity’ alongside a social identity emerges as a significant concept in the west only in the period between 1955 and 1963, but piggybacks off the Renaissance, the Reformation, the work of John Locke, and others, including Freud and Erikson. While it has a heritage that stretches back to the 1300s, it this search is a product of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the secular age’ and specifically the plethora of individual identity-constituting choices that flows out of the rejection of the idea of a God, or gods, providing order and meaning, and a place for each person in the cosmos. Taylor explores this idea in depth in his work The Sources of the Self. Taylor notes that the roles we play in forming our identity after the ‘nova effect’ that comes from the social order being disconnected from a divine order often leaves us with a plethora of choice, and performing our identity not just through rituals (typically non-religious rituals of belonging), but also through choice (and particularly consumer choice).

Gleason’s paper is worth ploughing through, both for its substance, and its conclusion — one that urges caution in employing the word “identity” mindful of the contest or confusion caught up in its use; a warning that we Christians might heed when co-opting the word to use for our theological purposes (or even to try to show how the Gospel of Jesus provides answers to both the psychic and sociological quests for an identity). He says:

“For these reasons, responsible use of the term demands a lively sensitivity to the intrinsic complexities of the subject matter with which it deals and careful attention to the need for precision and consistency in its application. But of course its enormous popularisation has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more of a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage. The depressing result is that a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence, and the historian need not be intimidated into regarding it as more than that.”

When Christians talk about our ‘identity’ in Christ, it’s hard to distinguish what we’re saying at that point from the idea that Christianity is just one ‘choice’ we make, that impacts the role we play and the community we belong to, while we ‘internalise its cultural norms’. The Christian story of who we are as selves, especially selves in Jesus, is something different to this. A Christian understanding of personhood makes space for a whole range of ‘identities’ as descriptions of roles we play in different relationships so that I can be, for example, husband, father, pastor, friend, sport fan, coffee connoisseur, or dog owner as ‘identities’  — I could even be straight, or Australian, or white (or if it were true, gay) and have that as part of my experience or story, and a description of communities I am connected to, without that threatening my understanding of my ‘self’ being rooted in God’s life and providence, and found and redeemed in the body of Jesus, through union with him by the Spirit, and so also find my identity in the body of Jesus, the church, and in the roles God has appointed, or provided, or calls me to in this world as a priest in the priesthood of all believers, in service of the body. I don’t need to claim a totalising ‘identity in Jesus,’ as an expression of my individualism.

That is to say, Christianity has something to say for those who are searching for a sense of self, who want to answer the question ‘who am I’, but the answers Christianity gives might, in their most satisfactory form, not rest in weird ontologically weighted labels around sexuality, race, or even religious belief, and the recognition of one’s individuality, desires, or ‘id,’ but instead might look to a more ancient schema, both in a divine ordering of reality that works its way through to the givenness of our personhood (in an integrated sense of body and soul), and the calling, or telos, we find in Jesus as we are united to him, and called into the priesthood of all believers, such that we can find meaning and purpose in both the spiritual and temporal realms. To push towards that sort of vision of the person might involve pushing back both against individualism (as a product of Renaissance/secular humanism), and identity (as a child of the uncertainty produced by that move), and to something more grounded in the life and providence of God.

Good news for the anthropocene has to be a non-anthropocentric Gospel

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the nature of the Gospel for some time; it’s been one of those intra-Christianity debates I’ve followed with interest because I’m convinced that the Gospel, and how we understand and articulate it, is pretty central to being God’s faithful people in the world. I’m convinced our world needs good news that is both actually good, and that represents, or heralds God’s plans for the world.

The word ‘Gospel’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’ — ‘good news’ — but in the ancient world a ‘euangelion’ had a particular function, especially when brought by a ‘keryx’ (a preacher). A keryx was a herald who spoke on behalf of a king (or empire), and where the keryx proclaimed ‘good news’ it was often the announcement of a victory or the beginning of a reign of a king in the world. The subject of the good news, and the attention of the keryx (or their function as a representative), was about the king, the empire, or the victory — the benefits to the people receiving the proclamation were self evident fruits of that victory.

So there’s this debate about what the ‘heart’ of the Gospel is; and whether it has truly been proclaimed if you haven’t articulated certain shibboleths particularly around penal substitution or propitiation; and so also whether you have made the heart of the Gospel the forgiveness of sins dished out to you as an individual as God’s wrath is turned aside from you and laid on Jesus. The thing is, there’s a certain vision of the Gospel where it is reduced to these truths (penal substitution and propitiation and the individual implications of the Gospel) that becomes not just individualistic but anthropocentric — that is, centered on the Gospel being ‘good news’ not just for us, but in a way that becomes ‘good news about us being saved from sin, and its penalty (judgment).’

An anthropocentric Gospel is good news; but it isn’t all the good news caught up in the victory of Jesus, or even the fruit of that victory. An anthropocentric gospel met with an individualism and a commitment to identity construction through personal choice and authenticity produces a particular kind of Christianity (and a particular approach to Christian mission and discipleship). It can lead us to limit the goodness of the Gospel to the salvation of the self (and selves), and when that’s coupled with a sort of neo-platonism, where we have this sense of salvation being ‘escaping from this world’ into some spiritual nirvana-like heaven, we can end up focusing on ‘saving souls’ rather than ‘making disciples who live as God’s kingdom in his world.’ These arguments are well rehearsed by the likes of Scot McKnight and N.T Wright, and make of those scholars what you will, but there’s one warning buried in their critique that all Reformed evangelicals should hear; that is those of us who are a product of a movement in church history that sees how human traditions and institutions can distort the Gospel and abuse power (that’s the very nature of the Reformation), who with the Reformers (and Augustine) see human nature as ‘curved in on the self,’ and who want to be on about the good news (that’s what evangelical should mean). If we were seeking to be true to these labels (if indeed these labels are useful and good, and if these descriptions are essential to owning these labels), then we should constantly be assessing where worldly ideas and institutions have infected our thinking about the church, and the nature of the Gospel. We should constantly be questioning whether our hearts are pulling humanity to the centre of the story of the world, for our own glory — at the expense of God’s (ala, say, the Fall, and the tower of Babel). We should be sympathetic to critiques that the Gospel we proclaim has become more anthropocentric (about us) than Christocentric (about Jesus).

One way to test the truth of an idea is to look to our source material (the Scriptures), another is to assess the fruits of what is being proclaimed (particularly against the sort of fruit the Scriptures describe), or, to compare what is produced from a Gospel we proclaim versus what is produced if a less reductive Gospel is proclaimed. One can draw a fairly straight line between a Gospel that is reduced to the salvation of souls through substitution and propitiation and an approach to church that emphasises conversion over discipleship, while also buying in to the culture’s expressive individualism and its attendant identity politics and power games. One can then draw a line between this and the sort of politics that sees ‘evangelicals’ aligned with Donald Trump — selling our birthright for a bowl of putrid stew that doesn’t even satisfy our hunger — or with a church culture that promotes narcissism and feeds consumerism and the uncritical adoption of worldly forms and methods in the church. Anthropocentricism is not the way of the Gospel, it is the model of humanity flat out rejected from the opening pages of the Bible, and when our Gospel is anthropocentric it prevents the church embracing the way of Jesus, and it is not good news for the ‘anthropocene.’ It offers no alternative kingdom to the kingdoms that have brought us into this present moment both culturally, politically, and environmentally.

The ‘anthropocene’ is a name that gets bandied about for the particular epoch we’re living through in a ‘big history’ view of the world. It’s the idea, in short, that sees “recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” You can read more about the problems associated with the anthropocene at Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Welcome to the Anthropocene is an exercise in secular prophecy — with a degree of judgment, truth telling, and expressions of hope. It’s promises of hope aren’t ‘good news’ yet, because they are unrealised, and if human hearts are ‘curved in on themselves,’ its chances of success rest on convincing humans as individuals and societies, that environmental action has to be an expression of self interest; which is ultimately self defeating and we’ll just end up with a modified anthropocene, an approach to nature still centered on human flourishing at the pinnacle, or, it will rest in convincing humanity to embrace ‘re-wilding,’ where we submit ourselves to nature and let it shape our paths. Now, this isn’t to say where we’ve over-reached in our subduing of creation, that some ‘rewilding’ won’t be necessary to restore a healthier dynamic of relating, in fact, I’m a fan of the concept as described here, but rewilding, like many environmental programs in a secular world (that is one where the physical world is the only reality and does not, in any way, reflect transcendent or supernatural realities — like a heavenly realm), runs the risk of enshrining nature as the ultimate concern or reality (or a god), and that will shape our humanity, and order our loves and concerns, like any worship or religion does.

The Christian answer to these problems — where we submit ourselves to the God who orchestrated nature, and seek to bring him glory — but where he must first change our hearts by his Spirit, and where we must live in the world first in right relationship with him (which is achieved through the forgiveness of sins and new start brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus) — is genuinely a more hopeful story, for us and for the world, especially coupled with the promise of the Bible that our king, Jesus, will return to make all things new, in a beautiful picture of a ‘garden city’ where built architecture and nature work together in harmony to bring life and to bring glory to God. Welcome to the Anthropocene shares stories of hope, but none is more hopeful as a picture of ecological renewal and harmonious life than the church forests of Ethiopia and humanity’s rediscovery of our task as ‘gardeners’ working in partnership with our gardener king.

Now, in case the idea of human contribution to climate change is something you have theological issues with — let’s just rehearse, again, the argument that the Bible actually lays responsibility for the state of the world — post Eden (and outside Eden) with human sinfulness and God’s curse. The idea that humans are responsible for the state of the world, within God’s sovereignty, is not foreign to the Biblical account of the world. And, anticipating another argument — that creation, Biblically, is anthropocentric — ie, ‘given to man’ where we are the pinnacle or centre of creation — consider that our role was not to dominate or destroy the world, but act as God’s representatives in a world that is his (Genesis 1), that was made to reflect his divine nature and character (Romans 1:20), that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,’ that ‘heaven is his throne, and the earth is his footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1-2)  — the earth itself has a theocentric purpose — to glorify God, and a Christocentric telos, it is being reconciled, redeemed, renewed, and re-created through the death, resurrection, heavenly rule, and return of Jesus. The Gospel — the message of Jesus’ victory, includes good news for the world — when we reduce it just to ‘good news for ourselves’ — making it anthropocentric, we offer no path out of the anthropocene — no alternative kingdom that might offer an alternative paradigm for stewarding God’s world towards goodness, truth, and his glory.

A Gospel that offers hope to the world is a Gospel that is not primarily about us, and the mechanism of our individual salvation (though it won’t deny those truths), a Gospel that offers hope to the world curves our hearts away from ourselves, and away from God’s world and its goodness (these are idolatry) towards the rule of Jesus in the heavenly realm, and the reconciling work he is doing in the world as the children of God are revealed (both now, and when he returns).

Any Gospel that is about escaping the world — rather than its renewal and reconciliation in and through Jesus — is not good news in the anthropocene. It just entrenches a pattern of domination and subjugation of the physical world because it doesn’t matter to God, or ultimately to us.

Any Gospel that is about human individual salvation (or the mechanics of such) is not good news in the anthropocene because the victory it celebrates is not total, without a victory that involves the renewal of all things.

Any Gospel that is not about Jesus — at the centre — is not the Gospel of the Bible, and doesn’t have us escape the anthropocene and its anthropocentric view that everything is about us. We are not the pinnacle of God’s creation. Jesus, in his perfect humanity, and also his divine sonship, is.

The Gospel is the story of God’s glorification of Jesus, the story of God exalting Jesus to the highest place, and giving him the name above all names, so that at his name ‘every knee shall bow’ (Philippians 2) — it’s the opposite of Babel, where people lived for the glory of their own names and tried to exalt themselves. The opposite of the anthropocene. The good news for us is that we’re invited in to the glory of Jesus through our union with him, and invited to participate in God’s renewal project for the world as ambassadors of reconciliation, but this comes as a fruit of Jesus’ glorious victory through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.

We can run all sorts of shibboleth tests around Gospel proclamation, or evangelistic textbooks, but if our Gospel is not Christocentric, and aimed towards the glory of God through the eschatological renewal of all things — not just us — secured through the victory of Jesus over Satan, sin, and death — not just on an individual scale, but a cosmic one, then we’re not really preaching a true Gospel, we’re preaching a true aspect of the Gospel, and we’re not really offering hope to the world, or to the individuals living in it.

Are we the good bad guys? A review of Stephen McAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guys

West Aussie blogger-pastor-public theologian-social commentator-runner Stephen McAlpine wears a lot of hats. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma. A Rorschach test. A canary in the coal mine of the evangelical church. Something of a prophet. Legitimately a whistle blower on church abuse. He is an excellent writer. He’s also my friend; we spar occasionally in the ‘commons’ of Facebook, or the comment section of his blog, and I’ve been known to write essay length reflections on conversations he starts, but we also regularly exchange messages and banter in private.

Stephen is a good man. He sent me an advance copy of his new book, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus In A World That Says You Shouldn’t, not with the expectation of a review (though we all knew that was a possibility), but because it’s an ongoing contribution to a conversation we’re engaged in hoping to sharpen one another, and serve our churches. You can pre-order the book from the publisher, or support the good guys at your independent book retailer The Wandering Bookseller. It’s a book that is quintessentially him.

If you read and love his blog, you’ll love the book. If you read and struggle with his blog (because he’s a Rorschach test and you see conservative culture warring at play) then this book might give you extra ammunition — but it might also, over the course of 130 pages — give you a sense that he’s actually doing something a little more nuanced than just being a crunchy conservative.

One of Stephen’s gifts — one that helps him transcend the ordinary punditry you might find on social media and gets him cut through (increasingly global cut through, which is nice to see) is his ability to coin a metaphor, then to put the coin in a slot, then to guide a metal claw into your organs and wiggle it round a bit aiming for your heart. He’s a real skill tester. Some of us are still learning metaphors. Metaphors keep Stephen’s writing punchy and memorable. Another strength is his integrity; he calls out bad behaviour on his (sometimes our) own side of different conflicts. His willingness to call out abusive behaviour in the UK’s Crowded House church (from first hand experience) years ahead of the curve came at great personal cost for him, but was a catalyst. His recent defence of Aimee Byrd after her book publication exposed a pretty toxic culture within the Reformed scene was also courageous. He apologises when he gets things wrong. He doesn’t just chuck ideas out into the aether, but he, with his church community, walks the walk. This isn’t a review of Stephen, but of his book — and yet ethos is so fundamental in the communicative (and interpretive) exercise, and my knowledge of Stephen — even our friendship — does shape how I see and respond to his writing. None of us comes to a Rorschach test as a blank slate, and that’s kind of the point. They expose us, not the people who make the ink blots.

Both these strengths are on view in Being the Bad Guys, from the titular metaphor, through a variety of others he includes in the mix (some favourites — the ‘Schackleton Option,’ ‘the second service Christian’ and ‘renovating the wrong house’), to the way his own life as a good-bad guy plays out. Stephen’s cultural and theological and theological-cultural analysis is always coherent and compelling, sometimes I’m not convinced, sometimes the claw misses my head and doesn’t raise me up, or it drops me early (ok, I’ll stop), but even when I’m not convinced he’s shifting the conversation the church needs to be having in directions they need to go. Maybe he’s making it easier for the next player to grab hold of that plush toy their kids keep asking for in the shops (ok, I didn’t stop). There is more skill than failure in this work, and it’s worth a read (especially because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a one-sit read at 130 pages — and the pace and punch, the timbre, of Stephen’s writing, coupled with metaphor-induced aha moments makes it an easy read).

Here’s where I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced we have to be the bad guys, or that, universally, we are. I still think there’s space for us to reform the church, and so reform public perception, through a commitment to ‘living such good lives among the pagans’ — there’s plenty of room in Stephen’s book to point the finger at the church, not just the culture, for public perception. I think we can point a bit harder to some of our responsibility for our public perception, and repent, and perhaps play a different role in the culture to the one we’ve played, and I suspect there are plenty of people not on Twitter who aren’t as sold on the church being a black hatted villain. This actually just means embracing Stephen’s suggested solutions with a particular sort of zeal.

I’m convinced there’s a certain stream of Christian in the late modern west who are the bad guys, and that sometimes they dictate our behaviour, but also that they’ve (for too long) dictated public perceptions about Christianity. Where I am convinced is that if these Christians were to follow the way of life Stephen describes — both in the posture taken by ‘the church’ (as an institution) and in the posture taken by us Christians (‘the church’) in everyday life in the world (and our workplaces) — then we would stop being the bad guys. At that point, if Christians were known for the things he calls us back to, rather than for being repugnant warriors in a destructive culture war — then, if we keep being perceived as being the bad guys, his book would have an even edgier prophetic thing going on.

For those reading Stephen from a politically conservative angle (and it is blurbed by the former Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the National Party, John Anderson, so that’s an audience), there’ll be plenty in the Rorschach Test reaction that will fuel, or confirm, their fear about the pace of cultural change, especially around the area of sexuality — but for those people, Stephen offers the balm of the Gospel and our hope, and the reality of the kingdom of Jesus being expressed in and through the church. I’d have liked a few more illustrative examples showing how ‘the right’ is actually every bit as hostile to Christianity and destructive to the church (especially post-Trump), because the illustrations are part of the blots that people are going to emotionally respond to — but what I will say in Stephen’s favour is that he doesn’t point the finger of blame at ‘the left’ or even the ‘sexular revolution’. He sees these as symptoms of a deeper problem in the post-Christian west. Following arguments developed by Charles Taylor, Dale Kuehne, and Mark Sayers, Stephen describes the modern ‘iWorld’ as a secular context where loyalty to a transcendent creator has given way to loyalty to the self, but where we live in a post-Christian culture profoundly shaped by Christianity that is desperately trying to cut ties with its parents like a rebellious adolescent. Where once we maybe thought the death of Christendom meant a return to pre-Christendom, and were excited by that — now we’re having to grapple with the reality that the post-Christian return doesn’t move backwards, but forwards.

Sayers gets a lot of credit for his insight about moderns wanting ‘the kingdom without the king’ — and Stephen quotes him, but, credit where credit is due (and, Taylor was also saying this just in a really long winded way), Stephen’s ‘Exile Stage 2’ basically made the same point. Before all these writers though, C.S Lewis made the same observation in his first speech as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, he said:

“Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”

This analysis came from the ‘golden age’ of modernity. The point most social conservatives seem to look back to with fondness as the halcyon days of Christendom that must be recovered — where we can have our modernity cake, and eat it too. I quote Lewis from 1954 to illustrate a point that Stephen makes, while also to suggest that the challenges facing the church are not a product of a recent cultural moment — a precipitous one, even — but an age old one. Lewis, like Jacques Ellul (writing at the same time) point the finger not just at technology but a sort of instrumental or utilitarian framework where we believe, because of technology, that all progress is good. This belief requires (and creates) a shift where we aren’t in an enchanted or supernatural cosmos, where God is the author of life, to one where we are at the centre as authors of our own destiny, pursuing an authentic “identity.” Identity politics, one of the ‘bad guys’ trotted out by conservatives, and Christians, to fight a culture war against the left is a product of this shift, and one of the best parts of Stephen’s cultural analysis here — is that he sees this identity politics, and the underlying cultural shift, affecting both left and right — and damaging the church and our witness. He is genuinely offering a ‘third way’ in the culture wars — despite what our bias might want to hear him saying. He particularly sees ‘identity politics’ problematically playing out around the victim-perpetrator schema made popular by progressive politics (with the same underlying assumption as the so-called ‘conservative’ politics of the iworld — that is, the autonomous self-as-identity).

Here’s an example of the ‘Rorschach Test’ effect in a paragraph.

“We may feel that to allow our opponents to claim victimhood and not to highlight cases of our own is like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. However, to begin with we must acknowledge the very real and painful injustices that most minorities have experienced at the hands of a dominant culture. There have been victims, and the church must recognise that it has a special calling to the marginalised.

Yet, without taking away from these horrific situations, there is an impersonal identity-politics agenda that (ironically views humans in a binary manner. You’re either a victim or a perpetrator, says intersectionality ideology — and who wants to be a perpetrator, right?”

Plenty to offend or inspire all of us… then he says:

“Christians should not play this game. It gives us a losing hand, since other levels of victimhood are seen to have a stronger claim on the chips in the middle of the table. More importantly, it is not a tactic worthy of those whose identity and worth is in Christ.”

While his premise is that the world is more hostile to Christianity and its claims than in previous generations, he doesn’t want us to turn to victimhood, or the idea that we are a persecuted people (explicitly in the west). He’ll go on to say that the story of the Gospel positions all of us as both victim and perpetrator; life is not so simple as the post-Christian iWorld would like it to be.

The premise is that while we aren’t ‘persecuted’ we no longer occupy the central position in society (or even have a seat at the table at all). He’s a little less prepared to place all the blame on this shift on the church and our misbehaviour than I am, and a little more convinced that there’s no way back (or to ‘being the good guys’) than I am (while I am in full agreement with his take that when Christians fully embrace the iWorld and sexular liberation the road to being a ‘good guy’ from society’s perspective becomes fairly wide and clear). He says, for example:

“It is indisputable that the church’s role in our culture is shifting from central to marginal. That drift may take some time, for, as Tom Holland points out, the West is ‘firmly moored to its Christian past”. But these moorings will either slip off eventually, or be cut, and the Western ship will drift into uncharted waters. And they are uncharted… For all of secularism’s self-confidence, we actually don’t know what it will be like on the “other side of God.”

On the whole, Stephen is more pessimistic about the course of life in the world than I am, and though he resurrects the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to describe the current age, I found the optimism of Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, more compelling — even as both it and Being The Bad Guy land in very similar places, from very similar analysis. When I dug back in my archives to find a review of How To Survive the Apocalypse, I found a response I wrote to n earlier version of Stephen’s thesis — one he called embracing a ‘plan B’ strategy. Taylor’s secular age diagnosis includes the idea that we live in after a ‘nova effect,’ with stacks of different options (including spiritual/religious options), which means every belief, every issue, every moment is contested, not all conclusions are foregone. Both Stephen, and How To Survive The Apocalypse end up with different diagnoses, but strikingly similar treatments (the Daniel option, really). And that’s ok. Maybe this is the book to give your pessimistic friends — or those who are too optimistic — because ultimately it pushes us towards genuine hope; the hope we have in Christ, as the solution to our cultural moment.

What we can be sure of in this shift, Stephen points out (eventually also quoting David Foster Wallace), is that the secular future will still be ‘religious’. There is no dogma free public square, “there are only different types of dogma.” This is where the ‘second service’ Christian comes in. Stephen builds this metaphor from the phenomenon experienced in his church, with its evening service, where many attendees belong to another church in the morning and his service is their ‘second service’ — it’s hard, he says, to disciple someone if that’s their engagement with your church community. The problem is that we are all ‘second service Christians’ because we are “immersed in a highly effective discipleship program offered by our culture Monday through Saturday. In everything from our phones to Netflix to advertising and news items, we are being offered a discipleship program that invites us to a completely different way of life, mediated to us through a dazzling array of images, sounds, stories and suggestions.”

Look. People might come to Stephen for a manual on how to fight the culture war — a way to tackle the reality of a hostile frame, or, they might come to Stephen to read someone who, on face value, is a conservative culture warrior saying things that make us uncomfortable and ‘blaming the progressives,’ and, to be clear, the sort of progress Stephen blames for our modern malaise (as Taylor would put it) is not left wing politics (though it includes them, and he often illustrates using them), but the sort of individualism that comes from liberalism, and especially the idea that liberalism liberates us from the divine. You might come with your pre-conceptions framing your reading… but, consistently, what they get in response is a manual for how to be the church. And this book is no different.

“In response, our church gatherings on Sundays must offer discipleship programs that are deeper, richer, and more compelling than those offered by the culture.”

And here’s where I’d offer another little bit of pushback. where, perhaps this is a product of a different ecclesiology at play. Stephen often plays Monday to Saturday against church on Sunday to the point of reinforcing it; both in good ways, and bad. He sees the task of the church as preparing her people to face the workaday world, but it almost feels like he sees us being tasked to face that world alone, as individuals (who might have a few friends in the mix). Part of the thicker discipleship his solutions require (and part of the life he describes) requires discipleship to be the product of much more than just “our church gatherings on Sundays” — he describes, but doesn’t name, the idea that church can’t just be an event on a Sunday (and unfortunately that quote above, in isolation, reinforces that view).

My other bit of pushback is around the idea that the project of pluralism failed us, simply because our opponents act as aggressive monotheists, or polytheists, having learned a thing or two from the Christendom playbook. At one point he describes the missional church’s misstep where we thought post-Christendom would look like pre-Christendom, in this optimism we thought “given the chance to offer our wares alongside everyone else, our products would be more compelling. All we had to do was to strip away the detritus of Christendom that had built up over the centuries — the overt institutionalism, the push for temporal power, the alignment with economic structures that fuelled greed, and the less than attractive liturgical forms. The pure and simple claims of Christ could be presented and examined without prejudice by a culture just waiting for some good news.” This optimism doesn’t appear to have aligned with reality, and now (apart from other evidence), Stephen is ready to declare it a mistake, suggesting that one of the things that got us our present situation was the assumption that “the post-Christian secular public square would be a neutral venue, a space for everyone, where all sorts of ideas would be discussed freely. We prepared our strategies for an open market, never realising that huge tariffs would be imposed on anyone selling their wares in the public space. The public space is not neutral. Why not? Because secularism is not neutral.”

Now. Note again the beautiful metaphor… and he’s right that the public space is not neutral. I’d say one of our missteps as the church is that we assume the neutral public space required we, the church, make neutral arguments — rather than making religious arguments and asking for those to be accommodated as one view among many, we tried to make neutral arguments that would reinforce our authority. We didn’t treat the public space as a free market but as a market to monopolise (see, ‘Postal Survey, The’). I’m also not sure we ever did the reform work necessary across the board, in a way that shifted public perception of the church or the Gospel — and while we spend lots of time calling out bad behaviour of progressives outside the church, and those who give in and join them from the church community, and Stephen does this in his book in a convincing way, I don’t see many Christian voices calling out the Christian right and the culture wars with such explicit vigour. Perhaps because so often our politics and theirs are more aligned. There’s nothing in this book that explicitly names figures behind the ‘progressive right’ — or that side of the culture war; the kind that produces Trumpism, or the ACL (though these are discussed in very general terms), while he’s quite happy to specifically name names and movements from the left (like Rob Bell and Josh Harris, or pressures and examples from outside the church like Roz Ward, or Jazz Jensen).

And the problem might not be that we assumed the public square would be neutral, but that we didn’t act as though it should be neutral; and when others adopt the same aggressive theism that we adopted, and so want to topple statues, and our remove our God, from the public square, maybe the virtuous, true, and beautiful line for us to run is actually to affirm what the public square should be. The catch is, how to do this knowing that though the public square should ultimately belong to the Lord Jesus, who declares ‘every inch his,’ in this world the powers and rulers and people conspired to crucify Jesus ‘in the public square of that great city’ (Revelation 11:8).

The good news is that you don’t have to accept the premise of this metaphor for the book’s conclusion (or even its argument) to be a blessing, and this lies in Stephen’s strength as a prophetic voice who applies Biblical truths about God as saviour and judge to our present times and calls us to repentance and life. It’s Stephen’s integrity as a commentator on both the word and the world that keeps driving us back to Jesus — the good news of the Gospel, but also Jesus as an example for us to follow as we live in a world that was hostile to him (and look, sorry to be self-referential for a moment, but my response piece to Stephen’s very famous ‘exile stage 2’ article was to challenge the premise that the world has ever been something other than the world that killed Jesus. We’ve always, even with the success of the Christian socio-political project, for good and for ill, been operating in ‘Rome-Babylon’ — this isn’t a new cultural moment). Stephen’s consistent antidote to the pressure of the world is what it always has been — from Revelation (God’s actions) to Revelation (the book) — the answer is to see Jesus as he truly is, and so know God as he really is, and to be the people of God he is re-shaping us to be by his Spirit.

Stephen’s call to be the church in a hostile world is not a call to bunker down, or a call to arms, but a call to hold out hope, and, even if people think we’re the bad guys, to live such good lives that we adorn and commend the Gospel. There’s lots to love where Stephen gets specific about what churches and Christians should do as ‘the bad guys’ in our culture’s eyes. Confession. Repentance. Transformation. These are also things that, if you’ve been watching Stephen long enough, he has modelled with integrity. They aren’t silver bullet solutions to win a culture war against secular vampires — they’re a turn to virtue and to doing the business of being God’s people in the world.

His call to create communities that are ‘thick and rich” and “don’t get caught up in the increasingly toxic culture war”  is built on a twin strategy of ‘admitting reality and ’embracing possibility’ — to admit reality is to own our failures, including the way Christian power was used to marginalise or exclude others, and to embrace possibility is to not try to get our seat of power back, but to ’embrace a place at the margins’ (learning from those churches that are already doing this well).

I don’t want to spoil his last three chapters, that are where ‘new’ content can be found for those who are regular readers of his blog, but his call to self-denial in the face of a culture built on self-affirmation or self-flourishing is worth the price of admission. So too, his unpacking of what it might look like for us to be “confusing, intriguing, attractive, and compelling” communities of bad guys (and gals) — those called to “identify not just as “persons” but as a people”, offering hope and life to those the post-Christian culture of radical individualism chews up and spits out. His work on Haggai and Daniel as paradigms for navigating life in exile are helpfully connected to the great truth that, in Jesus, our exile from God is over and we are now citizens of the ultimate ‘new city,’ the city of God. His strategies for renewing the church are wise, creative, and virtuous, whether or not you share the cultural diagnosis that underpins them, and are actually the sort of actions that would be required for us to be living as the ‘good guys’.

Whatever you make of the diagnosis underpinning the book, whatever your ‘default’ Rorschach-like reaction to its framing — perhaps defined by where you stand in the culture war — we’d all be better off if the church heeds the clarion call Stephen offers in the pages of this book, and that he finishes with:

“You can refuse to allow the atomising nature of modern individualism to get its grip on you and pull you away from God’s people. And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be.”

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On the need for subversive ideologies

Australia’s Gospel Coalition CEO, blogger, and genuinely nice guy Akos Balogh is currently working on a series over on his blog about critical theory titled ‘Are You Being Shaped By This Subversive Ideology.’ Part 2 leads off with a quote from Hebrews, “‘Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.’ (Hebrews 13:9),” this could just have easily have quoted Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick to see Critical Theory as a ‘pattern of this world’ or a ‘diverse and strange teaching,’ but not to apply that same standard to the systems, patterns, and teachings that Critical Theory seeks to dismantle. For Christians, all systems of thinking and action — all patterns, political systems, and pretensions — whether whiteness or wokeness — are things we, at least, should be demolishing and bringing captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4), as we adopt a methodology or way of life that comes not from the world, but from Jesus, our king. This means Christians are actually called to be subversive.

Now, I’m not sure where Akos is going to land, whether or what insights from Critical Theory, or Post-modernity, and its critiques of modernity and power structures, he might affirm, but there’s something a little culture war-y about the posture of the series so far; and TGCAU has a little form here. If we’re not being shaped by ‘this subversive ideology,’ as Christians (or citizens), then might I suggest that we always need to be shaped by other subversive ideologies? Otherwise, without subversion, the status quo inevitably becomes enshrined as the default vision of ‘the good,’ and looking around at society, culture, and politics, I’m pretty sure we’re in need of some good old subversion, as I argued in a previous post, this subversion probably needs to be both conservative and progressive (mostly it needs to be wise and good).

Akos writes about the move from boring post-modernity, to a toothier ‘social justice theory,’ where the insights of post-modernity are turned into moral imperatives. He says “This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.”

Now. We might be in real trouble if universities in Australia were pumping out graduates from these ‘social justice’ type courses (and, bear with me, ‘woke capitalism’ is certainly also a thing). That would be a status quo worth subverting. The ‘so many students,’ at least according to data on university enrolments from Australia’s Department of Education, is a subset of the 19.9% of university students who fit in the ‘society and culture’ segment of the university population, 25% of the student population are in ‘management and commerce’ degrees, 6% in Engineering or related fields, 7.9% in IT, 2.4% in Architecture and Building, 7.4% in Science, and 1.1% in Agriculture, add the 15.4% who are in Health, and that’s 65% of students who are in ‘modernist’ courses with a STEM flavour. That’s a pattern. That’s a system (the other 13.6% of students are studying Education or Arts). Drilling down into the ‘society and culture’ field of education, research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, says this sector includes “Political Science and Policy Studies, Studies in Human Society (History, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, Sociology), Human Welfare Studies and Services, Behavioural Science, Law Justice and Law Enforcement, Librarianship, Informational Management and Curatorial Studies, Language and Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Economics, and Sport and Recreation.” Gender studies is there, but that’s a whole lot of other courses that aren’t necessarily producing activists committed to a social justice outlook. According to that same AAH paper (albeit a paper from 2014, using data from 2012) the ‘Other Studies in Human Society’ field, that includes Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies only accounts for around 12% of full time equivalent employees in the Society and Culture sector. Given that (according to the Grattan Institute) only 2 in 5 high school graduates enrol in university, the number of Aussies getting Gender Studies degrees and becoming activists is negligible, especially when compared to non-activist students who get jobs that plug them in to an economic and social machine that is more representative of a system or status quo or pattern of the world.

Perhaps these activists have a disproportionate impact on society and culture — perhaps they’re particularly effective online, and in a sort of ‘chattering class’ that cares about moral or ethical conversations (where plenty of Christian leaders find themselves engaging). Perhaps they even wield a disproportionate influence on western politics, especially on the left (though equally, they gain a disproportionate amount of attention from the Christian Right in these same online fora). But. Here’s a couple of caveats — perhaps the social justice activists from the Gender Studies departments, or Critical Theorists are actually right in some of their diagnoses about power, and systems and structures (but maybe sometimes wrong about their prescribed solutions to said problems), and perhaps, we Christians, aren’t so much at risk of being swept up by this ‘subversive agenda’ but not being subversive enough when it comes to the status quo that accounts for the vast majority of university graduates, and the 60% of Aussies who don’t go to, or haven’t graduated from, university.

We Christians could be a little more subversive when it comes to systems or patterns of thinking that are drastically shaping our conception of what it means to be human. Systems like liberalism and its radical individualism, or capitalism. Power structures like systemic racism or the patriarchy. This isn’t to say the answer is rushing out and subscribing to Critical Theory or getting a Gender Studies degree, but surely the same discernment we’re so willing to apply to progressive politics should be applied to the conservative realm and its patterns. The call to follow a crucified king in an upside down kingdom where the proud fall, and the humble are exalted actually requires a degree of subversion?

Akos suggests that the political principle of this ‘subversive system’ is “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice.” I won’t rehash the argument I made elsewhere about how the Biblical account of empire — whether Babylon, or Rome-as-Babylon, seems to fit with a belief that society is formed of dominion systems of power and hierarchy — but I will suggest, briefly, that identity politics is actually a product not of ‘social justice’ but of liberalism; and some unexpected consequences of Reformation Christianity and its emphasis on the individual (and a protestant work ethic).

Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, traces the rise of what he calls ‘the age of authenticity’ to a protestant impulse to disconnect people from a previous social order, particularly an order where people were born into class systems or professions, this came with a disconnection from the idea that this social order was created and dignified by God (or a reflection of the supernatural realm in the natural order), such that, for example, kings were appointed by God. When we pushed that transcendent ordering of the natural world to the side, we were all left masters of our own domains, forced to construct our own individual identities, and, often, choosing to construct our identities through performative projections of our ‘authentic’ desires; our ‘id’ into the world — when we talk about identity politics, we’re really talking about id-entities — the idea that we as individuals create ourselves, that we need to be recognised by others to be legitimised, and that we can often construct this identity through consumer choice; either as we build our appearance and our connection to place, or as we associate ourselves to brands, sub-cultures, or tribes, in order to be understood. The system that we all operate in — whether plugging in to the economy as the quickest means to the sort of security that allows us to construct our ideal ‘id-entity’ through consumption or experience, or participating in woke capitalism, or social justice activism, or culture wars — is one built on this conception of the human. It’s a picture that needs subversion, or disruption.

Historian Tom Holland (not the Spider-Man actor) does a great job charting this in his book Dominion. He starts his exploration of the impact of Christianity on the secular west — or rather its formative and foundational role in the western world, with an exploration of the systems of dominion or domination ultimately replaced by Christianity, but maybe, following Taylor, that we might be returning to in the post-Christian west (as a result of some streams of Christian belief and practice).

He says, of the Babylonian and Persian realms, that they had a particular relationship to a conception not just of the universe and the ‘heavenly realm’ but the nature of the gods, “beyond the physical apparatus of the Great King’s vast empire, then, beyond the palaces, and the barrack rooms, and the way-posts on dusty roads, there shimmered a sublime and momentous conceit. The dominion forged by Cyrus and secured by Darius served as a mirror to the heavens. To resist it or to subvert it was to defy Truth itself.” The sort of power systems that led empires to crucify, destroy, or torture their enemies in order to promote or maintain power gave way in the west, at least for a while, to a thoroughly different way of operating; but this does not mean that ‘systems of power’ are a fiction; they are, instead, the very patterns the Biblical story emerges against — the patterns Hebrews and Romans call Christians out of as we pattern our lives on the cross. Holland says his ambition in writing  Dominion was to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Note that Christianity in its rejection of the sort of power structures of ancient empires was subversive and disruptive. 

Holland argues that the subversive and disruptive effects of Christianity served to overturn a certain ancient, and perhaps human-without-Jesus pattern of dominion; the same sorts of patterns that always sit latent in human hearts in a Christian anthropology — or that are always active in human hearts and actions without the influence and transformation brought by the Spirit, such that we should expect to see not just human lives given over to dominion (or being dominated), but human systems and cultures being built around the idolatrous use of power. These are the sorts of systems that Paul and the writer of Hebrews were worried might pull people away from the pattern of life found in the Gospel. Holland says the pattern that has shaped the western world, for good, is not one of dominion built on power, but rather, a culture built on the emptying out of power for the sake of the other; the power of the cross not just as a symbol but an ethic.

He says:

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

That’s powerful stuff right there; and I’d suggest where cultures, including the west, are moving away from the image of a god dead on a cross, and towards systems of power modelled on different concepts of god (idolatry, including greed), we’re seeing returns to dominion systems that just go by other names, like capitalism. Now. Capitalism is a product, like much of the west, of Christianity — a product of the idea of property rights and a person owning ‘property’ in the form of their own self (thanks Locke), and a product of ‘the protestant work ethic’ and democracy, and some of this is good fruit from a good tree — but idolatry is where good things — created things — are taken, and instead of being received with thanksgiving, worshipped in the place of God; made ultimate. The Social Justice Movement, or Critical Theory, is its own power game (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and it is not immune from critique using its own framework of deconstruction and assessment of an approach to power — but its critiques of systems of power at work in the west aren’t all wrong; especially because Christianity has had an awkward relationship with state power in the western world. If the book of Revelation is a criticism of Israel and its harlotry — cuddling up to the beastly Roman empire and so executing Jesus and persecuting his church, then the church, too, has been guilty of cuddling up to beastly human power structures — dominion structures — and copping some ire from the people we were meant to serve for our failures, historically and presently, is part of doing the business of repentance for us Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who are sensitive to systematised abuses of power also point the finger at us, we had a whole Royal Commission exploring some of the failures of the church in this area, but those aren’t all our failures — just our failures that broke the law. We’ve also failed in our calling to be those who stand not at the centre of society but for all those made to bear God’s image, our neighbours marginalised by dominion systems. If the church is so cosied up to worldly patterns — especially in the west, which still bears the hallmarks of the Gospel and is now enjoying the fruits, how will we be able to see where disruption or subversion is still required without voices from the outside?

If we assume the status quo is good and right, how will we avoid the ‘patterns of this world’ — and isn’t there a chance that sometimes things that challenge our comfortable status quo will feel like ‘diverse and strange teachings’ — much like the prophets calling Israel away from idolatry, or Jesus arriving in first century Israel felt to God’s people who had become too comfortable with the gods and systems of the nations? If we get caught up conserving the good things about the west to the extent that we don’t hear a call to ongoing progression or disruption don’t we run the risk of conforming to the patterns of the world? To systems of dominion or empire? Won’t we end up becoming vassals to the empire in ways that make it hard not to bow the knee, or kiss the hand, or bless the President, when he beckons to us, rather than ambassadors for Christ and ministers of God’s reconciling work in the world?

In an essay titled ‘Woke Politics and Power,’ published in The Monthly, Australian academic and media personality Waleed Aly unpacks a way that the Critical Theory/Social Justice movements play power games via cancel culture. His analysis is well worth the time because he observes that underneath the Social Justice/Critical Theory movement is both a power game, or dominion system, and an animating force that is essentially the same as the forces animating capitalism (that also explains, again, why woke capitalism is a thing). It’s the same false fruit of Christianity (and perhaps particularly post-Reformation Christianity) behind the ‘age of authenticity’ and the pursuit of an id-entity that needs to be recognised by others (including the state) to be validated. He’s not the only one making this observation. The whip smart hosts of the podcast The Eucatastrophe have been banging this same drum for three seasons of their show now, and, really, Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and William Cavanaugh have made similar observations (MacIntyre in After Virtue, Cavanaugh in many places including this most excellent essay about Amazon as a modern god). The issue is a version of liberalism, or radical individualism, built on a radical form of individualism that props up, and in a vicious cycle, is a product of a form of capitalism-as-empire. Aly examines wokeness, and cancel culture as an application of woke power, as a reaction to liberalism that doesn’t escape liberalism’s constraints. He says:

“But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time.”

It’s a really, really, good essay.

So how do we disrupt, or subvert, the worldly patterns, systems, and power structures underpinning both wokeness and whiteness? How do we challenge not just the ‘subversive systems’ that challenge the status quo and so feel like they’re challenging the things we want to conserve, but also the more invisible systems that we’ve become complicit in that still need to be challenged?

Well. I tried to unpack that in this earlier post, but it’s ultimately going to work with the same spirit that animated the west and subverted older models of idolatry or dominion, and that animated the Reformation itself, even if subsequent generations of reformed Christians created a dangerous emphasis on the individual in their deconstruction of ecclesial power structures — the cross of Jesus. Weakness. Power given for the sake of others, not for self interest.

More than that though it will have to come with two simultaneous convictions — the existence of a heavenly realm and a heavenly being who has some say in how human relationships and systems should look — and we Christians have that at the heart of our story of creation and redemption; a God who made heavens and earth that they might reveal his ‘divine nature and character,’ who sustains things by his powerful word, who uses the ‘wisdom of the cross’ to shame and defeat worldly empires and power structures, and whose ‘word-made-flesh’ taught us to pray that his kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ — we need a re-enchanted sense of the world, and our place in it within a system, not simply as individuals, and we need a conviction that our personhood is given, not just self-actualised.

The first of these convictions is going to come through worship that rejects idolatry. In Romans, Paul describes the way cultures and norms are formed when we reject God as creator, and worship creation instead. There are plenty of religions-of-liberalism. Aly describes wokeness itself as a sort of religion — the kind philosopher Émile Durkheim described in his sociological definition of ‘a religion’ — Durkheim’s model describes how all sorts of things, from politics, to consumption, to sport, function as ‘religions’ in a post-transcendent, or disenchanted, world. There are plenty of corporations out there vying to fill the religious void in your life, and even to appear ‘enchanting’ — Cavanaugh’s essay on Amazon describes this, where he says “we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

“Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology, N.T Wright suggests that much of what might otherwise be called ‘liberalism’ is just a modern form of Epicureanism. Wright argues that this is built from a consistent atomisation, or individuation, of all parts of life, playing out in the way we approach systems — from the universe down, whether that’s in economics, politics, or anthropology. He talks about modern life as life in ‘Epicurean Babylon,’ and suggests that this Epicureanism has infected the church, including how we understand God as creator and redeemer, in a variety of damaging ways, and sees part of the way this atomisation has taken place being the destruction of the role of narrative — not just in post-modernity, but in western modernity as well (where propositional truth and a sort of ‘mechanical’ model of life and the universe were assumed, so that a ‘deistic non-interventionist God’ is assumed, and that isn’t so different from a disenchanted, materialist universe where secular and sacred are separate realms, rather than integrated or overlapping). In such a world material things become our objects of worship, or the ways we define our ‘identity’ — rather than seeing our humanity as something given to us with the purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God (or, bearing his image). This is to say that the current state of play in the West isn’t just a product of Christianity, as Holland suggests, but also the product of a turn to, or at times a synthesis of Christianity and, a sort of Epicurean cosmology that underpins liberalism and its understanding of the world, the economy, and what it means to be human.

For me the second task, rediscovering who we were created to be, means being suspicious of the word ‘id-entity’ as a theological or ethical category (and a preference for talking about personhood), and an avoidance of identity based politics, identity-construction through consumer choice (and, instead, an approach to formation and ethics based on virtue and embodying the narrative we’re called to live in by the God who made, and re-created us in Jesus, who is transforming us into his image). Id-entity construction is so often a product of idolatry — our hearts, that are factories of idols, are poor guides for what our humanity should look like, and we aren’t as in control as we think we are of our ‘identity’ if, fundamentally, we are worshipping creatures who become what we worship. Our transformation, redemption, or re-creation in Christ certainly involves transformed hearts — but this transformation, like our bodies that are born into a ‘story’ (our families, communities, etc) is ‘given’ to us in that it is brought about by the Spirit (see Romans 7 and 8). The whole exercise of talking about Christianity as an ‘identity’ that we construct lends itself to a sort of liberalism where our religious commitment ends up being a personal consumer choice and a bid to construct and have our heart-desires recognised in much the same way as a sports fan, or a member of a sub culture or community. The Biblical concept of personhood in relationship to God as creator and redeemer is, in many ways, the antithesis of liberalism and we should be really cautious in adopting the language, or anthropology, at the heart of the liberal system (or empire).

This attempts to re-understand humanity, or personhood, requires a commitment to discovering who we are in the Gospel, as the culmination of God’s story — or revelation of his character to us, and in our union with Christ and as his body in the world, and a commitment to the sort of worship, or liturgy, that forms us as the people who live this story in all of life. The stuff Paul says at the start of Romans 12 about true worship is the antidote to the false worship of Romans 1, and the basis of our transformation and the renewing of our minds and the not being conformed to the patterns of this world, and its the ‘offering of our bodies’ in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus). As MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, when examining the givenness of our personhood, and how that has been lost in modern constructions of identity (or how the modern bureaucratic state wants to educate/form us into particular identities within an economic machinary), ‘“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? ‘ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

Finally, because subversion requires challenging the status quo we need to not just hear political and social voices we might otherwise exclude. The prophetic voices calling for disruption, subversion, or Reformation. I fear that many of our conservative, institutional, voices would react to Luther the way the Pope did. The Protestant impulse might have led us to some interesting political and social positions where different sorts of idolatry were birthed, and it may have not just ‘re-ordered’ given structures that underpinned a sense of God’s providential ordering of the universe (like kings and popes), but done away with a link between the two in some profound ways, but it did get the emphasis on disruption or subversion — the church always reforming — right. Perhaps rather than dismissing voices that challenge systems and status quos as ‘diverse and strange teachings’ we might consider and discern whether we should be receiving them as a ‘voice calling from the wilderness’ encouraging us to make straight paths for the Lord. Our tendency, especially in a ‘liberal’ world that teaches us we are the autonomous authors of our own identity, is to be blind to the systems that are shaping us, because we believe we are in control.

The telling of the Christian story as a counter-narrative to the stories of the world is one way that should open our eyes, but we probably also need to hear the Christian story as told by non-liberal (non-western even) Christian voices to examine where our version of the Gospel might have been colonised, or where a worldly dominion model might have crept in without us noticing (or worse, with us noticing but not caring because that’s more effective, or comfortable). One example of this that I’ve come across recently is this application of something like ‘critical race theory’ to ‘whiteness’ in the church, or more particularly, in the Christian academy by Ekaputra Tupamahu. This article’s insights into how liberalism, particularly in the form of property rights (starting with the self, or the body, as autonomously governed personal property) and then copyright are particularly ‘white’ western phenomena (made evident, historically, by colonialism in the west, and white ownership of non-white persons as slaves). The application of ‘property rights’ — an expression of liberalism — to the field of Biblical studies, and specifically, to a problem in New Testament studies known as ‘the synoptic problem’ is a fruitful example of listening to voices from outside of the liberal western world and allowing those voices to lead us in a task of subverting some damaging assumptions.

Brian Walsh, the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, which explores, for the most part, an Old Testament Babylonian context and the way Israel’s creation narrative called them to be a subversive people who believed something different to the sort of idolatrous capitalism and environmental (and human) destruction at work in Babylon’s dominion-based empire, in order to map that on to a call for those bearing God’s image in a new Babylon, also wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empiredemonstrating (as Tom Holland does) a shared philosophy of dominion or domination at work in Babylon and Rome, seeing these as the backdrop for Christianity and its subversive politics — namely, the kingdom of God, centred on a crucified king. In it he said:

“What was true of an ancient community of Christian believers struggling with a powerful and appealing philosophy is also true for Christians in a postmodern context. Arguments that deconstruct the regimes of truth at work in the late modern culture of global capitalism are indispensable. So also is a deeper understanding of the counterideological force of the biblical tradition. But such arguments are no guarantee that the biblical metanarrative will not be co-opted for ideological purposes of violent exclusion, nor do arguments prove the truth of the gospel. Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.”

The trick is to not embrace deconstruction (alone) or dominion-style power games as we listen to these voices, but to embody a subversion built on hope, and joy, and eschatological anticipation of the renewal of all things, and so to work towards reconstruction of our own systems aligned to the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus. It’s actually these voices from the margins — or the wilderness — speaking out against empires, dominions, or domination systems — that are echoes of the voices of the prophets; the voices that are indispensible for our task of being disrupted to our own personal transformation, and to the transformation of the world around us, or at least our anticipation that the one reconciling all things to himself will one day return to make all things new, but it’s the voices of those pointing us to Jesus that are the ones offering us not just diagnosis, but a way forward.

On politics, partisanship, and Christianity

Today I read a post from the ACL’s Martyn Iles, and a piece on Christianity Today about the ‘fight for the soul’ of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States (where a group feel that a broader-than-hard-right political stance is a sign of theological liberalism). I responded to the Iles thread. I often do. But I’m conscious that my responses calling for ‘less polarisation’ are often interpreted as being politically partisan, so, for example, when I commented on a post by former CEO of the ACL, Lyle Shelton, people responded by calling me a leftist.

I’d like to think politics is more complicated than this; and, that, while Christians can (and maybe some should) be partisan, we run into trouble when we think our party platform is the only expression of Christian politics.

Politics isn’t optional for Christians. The belief or affirmation at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord and King of heaven and earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and to give our lives to follow and serve him. The church itself is a ‘polis’ and a political actor in the world as an alternative kingdom, with an alternative king and an alternative way of life (an ethic) to those held by different political structures or empires.

The western world is politically fascinating for Christians because so much of it is shaped by Christianity and its values after the Roman empire was Christianised; so much we take for granted like hospitals, education, and human rights can be traced back to Christian roots in the west. So much of our vision of progress is shaped by Christian conceptions of humanity and goodness and the dangers of power held and systematised by self-interested groups. So much of our vision of what we’d like to conserve in the west is not just the fruit of Christianity but its roots and branches. We can’t conserve those roots and branches by throwing out the fruit, or the fruit by throwing out the roots and branches. One quick picture of the ‘fruit’ of Christianity comes in what the Bible calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, and self control. So little of modern western politics exhibits these fruit; in fact it often feels like the opposite, and we Christians obscure both the fruit and the root of Christianity when we embrace other ways of being political.

Partisanship is optional for Christians. You can choose to be an ambassador for Jesus aligned with either the conservative side, the progressive side of the political contest for the good, and do so from genuine convictions, or be ‘centrist,’ you can even, as a Christian, repudiate state based power as a form of violence and dominion and critique all sides of an increasingly bitter culture war. Those who resonate with the progressive side have to be careful to hold onto the goodness of the roots of Christianity, in order to participate in those systems or parties as a Christian presence, those who resonate with the conservative side have to keep looking to the fruit — the nature and shape of the kingdom of God — and a desire for transformation, to participate in conservative politics as a Christian presence. We need both, or to try to be both (which might limit our presence), those in the centre need to avoid false compromises where one or both sides are embracing, or systematising sin; centrism can’t simply be about synthesis, but about trying to hold truths from the progressive and conservative ‘sides’ in tension. Centrism, ultimately, becomes its own side. Neutrality, or being apolitical, isn’t actually an option; the challenge for all Christians is to be ‘Christ centred’ in our participation in politics. This means we can’t demonise the other.

Our communities — our polis — the church — should be a place where those engaged in politics from the right and left can be corrected, refreshed, and renewed for the task of Christian politics; where we can be re-centred on the call to serve King Jesus and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships and our presence in the politics of the world. If you feel like your politics make you unwelcome in the church, because the church is either ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ and there is no place for you, we, the church, are doing something wrong.

I slip, too often, into demonising those who wed ‘Christian politics’ with one partisan outlook; who make no space for the other. You’ll find me trolling leaders of the ‘Christian Right’ and speaking out against Trumpism and its various international forms. I’m aware that even speaking against polarisation is, itself, polarising… But this is not because I think Christians can’t be ‘right’ or ‘left’, it is because totalising partisanship that goes to war with the political other ends up undermining the unity of political mission and purpose we are to have in Jesus; the work of seeing his kingdom come in the world. It’s also because, while there are lots of progressive ideas I embrace, and lots of progressive voices I value and listen to, I’m actually more inclined to a certain form of conservatism (I am an office bearer in a conservative institution, after all), or centrism.

That said, my ‘politics’ is in no way limited to a vote for ‘a’ party or ideology, politics is the business of shaping a ‘polis,’ my volunteering at our kids kindergarten is also political. In my circles people don’t seem as in danger of fusing their faith with progressive politics, as they are with fusing their faith with conservative politics; but I recognise this is ‘a bubble’ I operate in. Even where the danger is real and present — that our politics is too conservative, or too progressive, and so is distorting how we present Jesus to the world, the antidote is not an equal but opposite reaction, it’s doing the hard work of re-centering ourselves on the politics of the kingdom.

This might look, for example, like calling our brothers and sisters, and being called by them, away from the political methodology or vision of the world, and towards, for example, the fruit of the Spirit, and the unity we’re meant to have that transcends partisanship because it is the unity shared by those in the kingdom of Jesus who share in his Spirit; if you can’t acknowledge that is the case for a partisan other, then this is sad and destructive.

In 2,000 years of the church, Christians, by the Spirit, have transformed political realities in ways that reflect the kingdom; we should celebrate and seek to conserve that, and grieve when such fruit is not conserved; but in thousands of years of politics and empire there is lots of stuff that is anti-Jesus; it was imperial power used to justify his crucifixion; the church has often been too wedded to such power so progress looks like consciously decoupling from such power, rather than embracing it and wielding it to protect our hard won territory, and seeking ongoing partnership and progress in the work of the kingdom, living in such a way that shows we want our prayers to be realised, and trusting that the risen Jesus is Lord and king.

Review: How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy) by Sam Chan

Disclaimer: The review copy of this book was provided to me by Zondervan, the publisher, at the author’s request. There was no obligation for a positive review. You can read my reviews of other works by Sam Chan, on preaching, and evangelism, to see that my review of this work was always likely to be slightly biased.

Sam Chan wrote Evangelism in a Skeptical World back in 2018. It was a hefty tome, that dug deep into some of the challenges for making the good news about Jesus more plausible for a post-Christian, post-everything, world. As a practitioner, a preacher with a bent towards evangelism, I found it profoundly useful.

I worked hard to roll it out in our church community; we spent 2019 working through his book in weekly staff meetings at church, we presented sections of the book in 5 minute highlight spots in our Sunday services, we flew Sam to Brisbane to run a public training night in partnership with another Presbyterian Church up here, and I gave away 30 copies to families in my congregation, and to friends. I am an enthusiastic supporter of Sam’s material. Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a textbook. How To Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism In A Skeptical World is a popular level repackaging of some of the material in the textbook, especially geared at everyday Christians — not just professional practitioners like me.

Sam says:

“One shortcoming of that book was that it served as a textbook that addressed any of the concerns of professional evangelism — evangelism done by those in professional Christian ministry. That’s why I’m writing this follow up book. This book is for everyday Christians, not just those in Christian ministry.”

The goal is to equip such Christians with ‘fresh insights’ so they become more confident and competent in evangelism, and walk away “thinking not just, “I can do that,” but also “I want to do that.”” This is a lofty and noble goal. I’d love just 10% of my community — or the church at large — to be driven to evangelism — to adopting an evangelistic lifestyle — the way this book depicts it. Were that to happen, there’d be plenty for the other 90% to do just in hanging around as part of the ‘plausibility structure’ of the Gospel.

There’s an age old debate in evangelical circles about whether the work of evangelism is reserved for particularly gifted individuals, or whether it is the task of all believers; the beauty of Sam’s approach is that it has space for both views, because it places the task of evangelism in the hands of the community, and helps us see how we might each play a part in the body, and its task of evangelism, but it’s also the work of a professional evangelist who has written, previously, a textbook for the professional evangelist. The question is whether this book makes the jump from ‘professional’ to everyday enthusiast. And I’m not sure; partly because I’m ill equipped to make that judgment from where I stand.

How To Talk About Jesus unpacks key principles in the Everyday Evangelism chapter of the first book, and adds a few insights and ideas that represent developments in Sam’s thinking since its publication. It’s a much more accessible read, coming in at 130 pages, and boasts a stunning line up of endorsements from around the globe including Ed Stetzer (who wrote the Foreword), Mark Sayers, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Glen Scrivener.

People familiar with the textbook will find a package that’s much easier to dig into and discuss with others — partly because it is a much less intimidating form than a book that spends a significant volume of ink justifying its existence by anticipating objections, and working at establishing a model. Those who, like me, see Evangelism In A Skeptical World establishing a theological coherent and sociologically engaged methodology will have confidence to roll this book out in our own lives, and as a resource in the lives of others. The previous theological justification for this methodology is reduced to a couple of pages.

All your (my) favourite ideas from the first book are there (sometimes a little repackaged) — merging universes, go to their things first, coffee-dinner-gospel, listen before you speak, tell a better story, tell a story about Jesus — these were the six strategies in the Everyday Evangelism chapter in his first book; each is unpacked in a chapter, simultaneously tightened up, and expanded to include updated cultural analysis. Lots of Sam’s strengths lie in his whip-smart (though always humble) ability to integrate ideas from a variety of realms, his theology, his personal experience in relationships, his listening to others and their observations, and a reasonable grasp of other disciplines related to persuasion (from speech act theory to sociology). So, for example, his chapter on merging universes includes a section on friendship in the modern world that digs into loneliness that expands on the earlier book:

“Sociologists say that human beings need friendships at three different levels. First, they need a tribe of 150 people for belonging, status, and identity. Second, they need a network of thirty friends. And third, they need an inner circle of five trusted friends — the sort of friends you can call on for a favour, to help you move to a new house, or to babysit your kids in an emergency. Studies are now showing that most people in the West lack this tribe, network, and inner circle… It’s harder now than ever before to make friends because of our fractured, isolated, and transient lifestyles. Studies show that loneliness is the new health epidemic in the West. Sixty percent of Australians report themselves as lonely, and 80 percent say it’s a problem in their world.”

That sort of analysis of the opportunities for Christians to provide the sort of community that the command of Jesus to ‘love our neighbours as we love ourselves’ ought to generate is helpful, so to is how, in a later chapter, he explores the balance between friendship as an ends in itself, and friendship as a means to an ends in a way that stops this being a sort of ‘dark arts of Christian persuasion’ manual. The pub test for an evangelism hand book is, I think, would I be happy for a non-Christian friend to read this to see how Christians think about the purpose and nature of evangelism (and so the nature of those we seek to reach). This book, from where I sit, passes that pub test. Sam’s work incorporating family systems theory into our friendships and where evangelism sits is really helpful, he uses the dilemma of ‘overfunctioning and underfunctioning’ to unpack how we might approach relationships with integrity as people who genuinely believe the Gospel is good news and the source of truth, and life, and hope.

“God has blessed us with great friends We should enjoy our friends just for who they are — a good gift from God to enjoy — regardless of whether we get to tell them about Jesus. But at the same time, we should make the most of every opportunity God has given us to tell our friends about Jesus. If I only see the friendship as a means to tell them about Jesus, them I’m overfunctioning. I’m trying to make something happen that might not be there. And I am using them as a means toward an end… On the other hand, if I don’t try to tell them about Jesus I’m underfunctioning. There will be times when I could have and should have tried to tell them about Jesus.”

The new tips (chapters 7 and 8) are useful additions to the six strategies from his first book; they are ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ and ‘Lean In To Disagreement,’ there are elements in both these chapters in the previous book, but the disagreement chapter perhaps represents some reflections on the ongoing changes happening in the west since the publication of Evangelism In A Skeptical World, which had a significant section devoted to defeater beliefs and apologetics framed on the defensive, this chapter suggests the time has come to adopt more positive apologetics; this observation perhaps owes a debt to Mark Sayers, whose analysis mirrors the analysis Sam provides in the front of the book for a time such as this; namely that the nature of the post-Christian west is that we’ve not moved back to a pre-Christian era, but a world profoundly shaped by Christianity where people now want the fruits of the Gospel without the Gospel, or as Sayers puts it ‘the kingdom without the king.’ There are, then,  actually positive aspects of Christianity that create the sorts of objections people now bring to Christianity (Sam works this through, for example, with the idea that a God should be assessed using criteria like ‘goodness’ or ‘love’). One of the beautiful things about Sam’s methodology — built from his theology of evangelism — is that it lives up to the title; it is relentlessly about Jesus. If you want help talking about Jesus in a way that grapples with the world as it is, in ways that might work, Sam is a good guide.

Chapter 7, ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ is perhaps where the biggest question about whether the book nails the brief comes up for me, but as a bivocational professional, Sam is actually better positioned to assess the questions I have than I am.

Many of the examples Sam shares from his own life involve conversations, and relationships, built from particular opportunities that are created as a result of his profession. It is profoundly easy for me to get into conversations about religion because 90% of my conversations with new strangers involve the question ‘what do you do?’ and the inevitable awkward conversation that develops from my answer; I can relate to lots of the opportunities Sam describes in the book, but it’s harder for people in my church community to pivot those interactions towards the sorts of conversations and relationships Sam describes. It is easy for me to slip into the de facto chaplain role in the lives of my friends — and probably even for him to do this as a bivocational worker. There’s a bit more groundwork to put in that we professionals don’t have to do. And look, a significant chunk of my audience (so far as I’m aware) are professional ministry types — and you guys and girls, you have no excuse. Imagine your community if you modeled the sorts of relationships that Sam describes to the people around you, involving them in the work of the Gospel happening in your neighbourhoods and suburbs.

That said, Sam doesn’t shy away from the fact that the lifestyle change required for the approach to evangelism his book advocates is costly and requires a deep systemic commitment, not just for him, but also for his family. It’s not a set of evangelism tactics, silver bullets, or pre-packaged solutions. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a professional evangelist to practice hospitality, or have a sense of how to listen to others, and ask questions, or to take up any of his other challenges — lots of it boils down to a commitment to people, and to Jesus — I just think it helps. The way of life he pictures is compelling (but probably difficult for introverts, though Sam, himself, is an introvert).

While there are parts of the two final tips that are likely to prove challenging, there’s gold in these chapters that are worth the cover price if you’ve already got Evangelism in a Skeptical Age. The section on ‘How to be a Chaplain‘ and especially ‘how to be wise’ could be titled ‘how to be the things I love about Sam Chan,’ other than the great section on hospitality earlier, it’s the closest he gets to acknowledging that his BBQ obsession is a useful part of his evangelistic tool kit. In my time at Bible College I became pretty convinced about the idea that the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament was essentially Israel’s international evangelistic strategy — that the nations flocking to hear Solomon’s wisdom, in the Bible’s narrative, was a model of how Israel was to be a compelling blessing to the nations, connecting them to truths about the world and the ‘fear of the Lord’ as the beginning of true wisdom, and that the texts in the wisdom literature are deliberately ‘global’ in their approach (so, Proverbs borrows stacks of Egyptian wisdom material and reframes it). Sam finds similar examples in the faithful, chaplain-like, presence of Israelites in foreign courts — from Joseph, to Moses, to Daniel, to Ezra — all of whom were known for their wisdom. You’ve heard of the Daniel diet, here’s the Sam Chan diet:

“I’ve learned so much by going to parenting courses run by experts, most of whom are not believers. I read the New York Times and the New Yorker regularly. And I have a steady diet of podcasts: The Moth, TED Talks, This American Life, Conversations (ABC Radio), Invisibilia, Reply All, Pop Culture Happy Hour, You Are Not So Smart, The Savvy Psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, Planet Money, and Radio Atlantic. And at the same time, I have access to God’s special truth — not only through the Scriptures, but also through the blessings of being a believer — and a Holy Spirit who lives inside me to change me and guide me.”

I know, too, that while Sam was in hospital for a while he didn’t just watch Aaron Sorkin movies (which he describes in the book), he also binged on Master Classes, because the guy is relentlessly curious about the world.

Look, we’re not all going to be Sam Chan. He’s an evangelism genius (probably just a genius genius). And that’s ok, but we could all do with being a little more like Sam Chan, I read this book and I want to be more like ‘that guy,’ it is a guide to better (Evangelistic) living, which makes it a great book for “a time such as this.”

The good sauce: Preaching, Kanye, silver bullets, and the living and active (s)word

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. — Hebrews 4:12

I love this picture of God’s word. The Bible. Chuck in a couple of other ideas from Hebrews, Paul in 1 and 2 Timothy, and John in John’s Gospel and you’ve got a pretty good rationale for any Christian ministry being about opening up God’s word and hearing him speak; having him do something to us. More on these ideas a bit later…

But for now, lots of Christian Twitter TM (and Facebook) is overjoyed by Kanye West’s public celebration of ‘expository preaching’ in a podcast. Stephen McAlpine has a good take on this over at his eponymous corner of the internet. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to open that in a tab and go read it.

Kanye said:

“One of my pastors, pastor Adam, who is, the way he preaches is called Expository, it’s like one to one by the word. I like all different types of preachers, but there’s some types of preachers, they have the Bible in their hand and they close the Bible and they just talk for two hours. And. Some do have annointing. But the expository preachers go line for line. And for me it’s like, I come from entertainment, I got so much sauce. I don’t need no sauce on the word. I need the word to be solid food that I can understand exactly what God was saying to me through the King James Version, through this translation, or the English Standard Version.”

Cue rejoicing not so much in the heavenly realms, but certainly amongst the reformed evangelical Christians who jumped hard onto the Kanye bandwagon last year. It’s instructive that when I watched this clip on YouTube, the next clip autocued for me was Kanye on stage with Joel Osteen.

Look. Expository preaching is better than the sort of preaching that Kanye describes where a person shuts their Bible and just starts banging on about other stuff; BUT, expository preaching is not a silver bullet or an iron clad guarantee that someone is actually treating the Word of God as it should be treated. Expository preaching is also not made any good-er or true-er because it has been endorsed by Kanye…

In fact, I’d argue that rather than being a silver bullet for faithfulness, or even the best form of preaching, expository preaching is a tool that we might bring to a text only when the genre of the text we’re reading supports the use of an expository model to unpack the meaning of a text.

When Paul talks about the task of the preacher, he says:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15

This was a favourite idea banged into us by our principal at Bible college, especially in the slightly more accurate representation of the Greek, that the ‘worker’ is meant to “rightly divide the word of truth.” Expository preaching takes a particular approach to ‘dividing the word’ — typically working verse by verse, line by line, or sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase, or word by word. It atomises. It treats the truth of Scripture as being found in the detail, properly understood. It weighs all words of scripture equally because one spends time unpacking the meaning of each phrase. A verse by verse exposition of Job is going to get interesting if one fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of the text in Job is bad advice from unwise friends.

At it’s worst (and possibly even at its best, where it is appropriate because of considerations like genre), it sees the task of ‘dividing the word’ as ‘pulling it into pieces to understand them’ not necessarily as ‘seeing how all the bits fit together.’ Exegesis, the work of interpreting every word and every phrase in a passage you are preaching on is vitally important, exposition that simply replicates your exegesis is not; in fact, exegesis needs to balance the atomising of the text into clauses and ideas with understanding the function of a text in its context; sentence, paragraph, idea, book, and canon — and it should ask questions about rhetorical purpose, not just content.

I’m mindful that one could tilt at all sorts of windmills by extrapolating a short quote from Kanye West about the goodness of expository preaching, and using that to critique not just those who’re on the Kanye bandwagon, but to use his definition to misrepresent expository preaching and so critique the whole thing, so here’s a quote from John Stott (quoted in this journal article) about the absolute importance of expository preaching for faithfulness, that contains, I hope, the best definition of what expository preaching is, or isn’t. Stott, up front, is opposed to exactly the sort of exercise this little(ish) blog post represents.

“I cannot myself acquiesce in this relegation (sometimes even grudging) of expository preaching to one alternative among many. It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Of course, if by an ‘expository’ sermon is meant a verse-by-verse exposition of a lengthy passage of Scripture, then indeed it is only one possible way of preaching, but this would be a misuse of the word. Properly speaking, `exposition’ has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prys open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is `imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. But the `text’ in question could be a verse, or a sentence, or even a single word. It could be a verse, or a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it.”

I’m going to suggest that there is more to faithful preaching than simply exposing the text, that is, that preaching is not just about making plain the meaning of the text, line by line, but it involves trying to produce the same impact as the text — that the meaning of a text rests not just in its content, but in its function or purpose. And so, that ‘exposition’ itself, as a technique is sometimes an ‘imposition’ on texts written, as they were, to be read in particular ways and to achieve particular ends.

Here are three reasons I’m not sold on classic ‘expository preaching’ as the only, or most, faithful version of the preacher’s task — sorry Kanye — not just why sometimes you might need sauce (thanks Stephen McAlpine), but why sometimes a burger needs a bun, and lettuce, and sauce to be a burger, not just the meat patty (that I understand some places sell as ‘burgers’). If you don’t bite into the whole thing, you’re not really eating a burger, you’re just chewing on some meat. You’re not ‘rightly dividing the word’ but distorting the ultimate meaning of Scripture-as-Scripture.

It’s a ‘technique’ that we often treat as a silver bullet

Though my talks are often ‘expository,’ or at least parts of them are, I’m not sold on ‘expository preaching’ as the Holy Grail or silver bullet or absolute model of faithful proclamation.

Faithful proclamation is important; and for mine, faithful proclamation involves a faithful proclaimer, faithfully understanding the text and re-presenting its meaning. Faithful proclamation is about more than technique or method; and, inasmuch as it is about content, faithful proclamation — specifically preaching — of God’s word will proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s revealing act through the Scriptures.

The catch is, we live in an age that is obsessed with technique. We want to reduce faithfulness, often, to bringing the right tools to the job. Expository preaching is a reasonable modern tool, when you look at 2,000 years of preaching.

Histories of preaching, like this article, that champion expository preaching, often see a long dark ages in the church starting in the post-apostolic period with true ‘Biblical’ preaching then emerging with the Reformation. What’s interesting to me is that there isn’t a huge amount of evidence in the New Testament that the preaching of the apostolic age looked ‘expository’ (think the sermons in Acts, with their sweeping big picture story-telling of the Old Testament, or from creation (eg Paul in Athens), or the way the epistles use the Old Testament, and especially Hebrews, which plenty of scholars see as a sermon transcript — it might be that it’s a new medium that arrives with a Protestant understanding of Scripture (including the printing press and the Scriptures being available in the vernacular), the church, the nature of truth, and the task of the preacher. This doesn’t make it wrong, it may be that it is a faithful way to proclaim Biblical truth, it just means it might not be the way to proclaim Biblical truth.

Other ages may have brought bits of the world into the pulpit — the article linked above is critical of Augustine and his ilk for emphasising rhetoric and other Greek forms of speech; but that critique also needs to apply to our own modern sensibilities; our fusion of certain forms of speech or persuasion with ‘faithfulness’. Any critique of expository preaching as a product, mostly, of the Reformation — an approach unfamiliar to the people closest to the time the text of the Bible was produced, and the sermons of the first century preached — could equally apply to the historical-critical method of exegesis, and our rejection of any prior model; there’s a sort of chronological snobbery at play in some of our thinking about ‘faithfulness,’ so in that history of expository preaching article, the writer also throws Augustine under the bus because “his interpretations were usually allegorical and imaginative, as was true of others of his day.”

But, what if being imaginative is a legitimate approach to the task of preaching, and perhaps, within some boundaries, the task of interpretation? What if we have to attempt to imagine ourselves into the ancient worldview of the author and audience, not impose ourselves and our modern obsessions on an ancient text?

One of our modern obsessions, described by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society, and rehearsed by others who think about communication mediums from oratory, to the alphabet, to the printed word as technologies, is with finding the right technique. When we drop this emphasis on technology and technique into the church ecosystem informed by the modern world, we get a belief that ‘faithfulness’ looks like employing the right techniques. Expository preaching becomes a particular sort of ‘technology’ or technique we turn to to shape the church, and shape us as people. Here’s Ellul:

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

What if we view the expository sermon as a technique and ask how it has modified our very essence? Our understanding of the living and active word of God? What if we were made for something different and this technique, as a medium, imposes something on us as a ‘force of the modern world’?

If Ellul’s critique of the technological society was on the money in 1954, and others like Neil Postman took up his critique in works like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, then we moderns need to be careful to identify where our particular socio-cultural moment is shaping the way we approach the living and active word of God. We should avoid the mistake of thinking that our particular moment has either the ‘silver bullet’ methodology, or a monopoly on ‘faithfulness’ because we can defend our technique.

The expository talk, with its propositions and focus on the detail, often comes at the expense of sweeping narrative (like the sermons in Acts). It, like the linear nature of the printed word (and how it changes the way we speak and remember), is actually a modern technology that has penetrated and reshaped our psyche.

Expository preaching often treats content — not content, form, and intention — as the essence of the text (and so, the sermon). 

Here is an exposition of a sword. It’s an exploded diagram that names and labels every part.

If a sermon did to a passage what this diagram does to a sword it would leave you with a good understanding of the composite parts of the sword, and maybe even the building blocks to allow you to jump to the concept of what a sword is for. But it’s not going to cut you. Or move you. Or penetrate into the centre of your being.

What if faithful preaching isn’t just a description of a sword, but the swinging of a sword?

What if we were made for the sort of communication that resonates not just with our rational brains, but our hearts, emotions and experience as well; for Logos, Pathos, and Ethos, in the Greek rhetorical schema; or for ‘locution, illocution, and perlocution’ in modern speech act theory? In speech act theory an act of speech is broken down into the content (locution), the delivery (illocution), and the intent (perlocution).

Sam Chan’s Preaching As The Word of God (reviewed here) digs in to some of the issues with robbing the word of anything but the bare ‘locution’ (the words themselves), because to do this limits the communicative act to only its content. It’s a fascinating approach to any sort of media; and not the approach you might learn in an arts degree, or something literary. It feels like a method of preaching divised by engineers who want the Bible to act as something like a manual for life, rather than something like a sweeping piece of artistry; a narrative, or cosmic drama, or even a persuasive text (and, for example, John’s Gospel is up front about its intent — it is written so that we might believe). Sam quotes Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching, which defines the technique of expository preaching, or ‘Biblical exposition’:

“Biblical exposition binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change. Because hearts are transformed when people are confronted with the word of God, expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.”

Sam Chan, in a work outlining how speech-act theory might help us approach preaching faithfully, identifies a few issues with this approach (one of these I’ll unpack a little more below). First he acknowledges a strength, one that resonates a little with Kanye’s appreciation of exposition.

“Although proponents of this approach would never suggest that preaching should be the mere quoting of Scripture passages verbatim (which would be akin to a “dictation” theory of preaching), they are not too far from asking a preacher to merely paraphrase a Scripture passage. The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasizes the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself.”

One of the problems he identifies is that the nature of exposition inevitably breaks down the text into chunks that are then explained, particularly as ‘propositions’; there is nothing inherently wrong with propositions (that statement, is in itself a proposition), but “much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles.” I’m not convinced, for example, that exposition allows the faithful re-presentation of narrative, or poetry.

Part of the issue I have with ‘Biblical exposition’ that focuses on taking up the ‘locution’ of a passage, rather than the preacher faithfully reproducing the illocution and perlocution (or even adapting the ancient model of perlocution with methods that achieve the same outcomes in a different context) is that it has a truncated picture of who we are as humans. It is the product of a particularly modernist anthropology; the sort of thinking about what it means to be human that has reduced the path to formation to education, and that sees education not as an apprenticeship built on life together and imitation, but on getting the right information. We’re not simply computers who need the right data downloaded into our mental hard drives, or brains on a stick who need the right information  in order for transformation to occur. Faithful preaching will recognise the nature of God’s word (as living and active), and the nature of people as living and active, and work to bring the word of God to bear on living and active people — not killing the text, or the hearer.

If Scripture is living and active, we understand it best when it is unchained to do its work on us, not when it is dissected. Dissecting scripture is like trying to understand a lion by dissecting it, you might get some sense of how sharp its teeth are by holding them in your hands, but a greater sense if the lion bits you with its powerful jaws. We can provide diagrams of swords, or textbook descriptions of how swords work, and call that preaching, or we can swing them.

The Bible, God’s word, is God’s word about Jesus — exposition won’t always get us where we need to go

Once one acknowledges that expository preaching might not do justice to a passage of narrative, it also opens up the possibility that expository preaching is an insufficient technique if the Bible has a metanarrative; a big story that each part contributes to. If expository preaching involves an explanation of the particular text and its particularities, then the move to connect the text not just with the immediate, but the canonical, context is already a move away from pure exposition. Without that move one ends up weighting all parts of Scripture equally, and while all of Scripture is God’s word, all verses are not equal in significance.

So, for example, Deuteronomy 14:19 should not receive as much weight, in the diet of a church, as a verse in a Gospel or an epistle. Being good readers, and so good preachers, of God’s living and active word involves understanding how his word fits together. There’ll be more fruit in digging in to a verse by verse treatment of Romans, for example, as a result of its genre, than a verse by verse treatment of Job.

But also, the Bible provides us with an interpretive grid, in the words of Jesus in Luke 24. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets are written about him; our job as interpreters (and preachers) is incomplete if we have not connected the text to this context. Pure exposition of, for example, Isaiah, is not a faithul presentation of the living and active word of God if it does not connect us to the living Word of God, Jesus. And it’s actually this sort of preaching, rather than line by line exposition of the Old Testament, or the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that we see modelled by the Christian preachers in the New Testament. Where expository preaching can essentially be traced back to the Reformation (even by those who believe it is the faithful model), there is a sort of preaching that is faithful to the Old Testament scriptures modelled in the New Testament that looks a whole lot more like swinging the sword around than death by 1,000 propositional cuts.

Faithful preaching properly understands God’s word, and so proclaims Jesus as saviour and king, and calls for a response to him — for repentance and faith; for hearts and minds changed so that we become more like Jesus as we are called to love and worship God, and see our lives the way his story calls us to.

This is the pattern of the sermons we find in the New Testament — whether the teaching of Jesus (repent for the kingdom of God is near — and the Old Testament is being fulfilled), the apostles in Acts (repent, for the kingdom of God has come with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scritures), and in Hebrews — which is soaked in Old Testament quotes and imagery, and shows their fulfillment in Jesus as saviour and king.

An expository sermon can do this, absolutely — but the sermons in the New Testament aren’t line by line expositions of Old Testament passages, they are deep reflections on the entire weight of the Old Testament testimony about Jesus — the law, the Psalms, and the Prophets — being brought to life in order to call people to repentance and faith; they often cut to the heart of the people listening (this is the explicit description of the response of the audience in Acts 2 to Peter’s sweeping re-telling of the Old Testament narrative (quoting Prophets and a Psalm).

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” — Acts 2:36-38

Faithful preaching is preaching that moves people towards faith in Jesus because it does what the Scriptures do, aiming for what the Scriptures aim for… sometimes that will require exposition, other times it will require other techniques. Don’t chop up the living and active (s)word into little bits. Swing it like you mean it.

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Halloween, Harry Potter, and the Satanic Panic

Halloween is a big deal on our street. It’s bigger than Christmas. Probably. This year two of our three kids are obsessed with Harry Potter, so will be dressed up as Hermione, and Professor Lupin (in werewolf form, thanks easy book week costume from Spotlight).

Harry Potter was a favourite series in my childhood, from the moment the first book was introduced to our family by our cool aunty from Canada. I had a running competition with one of my sisters to see who could re-read the early books in the series the most times. But my wife, Robyn, is meeting Harry Potter for the first time as an adult, trying desperately to keep up with our oldest daughter who has now ploughed through the series multiple times. Harry Potter was on the banned book list at her primary school.

Halloween is a pretty fraught holy-day for Christians; it’s obviously become a popular and commercially successful venture here in Australia, after decades of resistance, and is apparently becoming an even bigger deal in the United States. In the spirit of the ‘Satanic Panic’ of old, the sort that involved widespread conspiracy theories and loopy ideas about backwards masking in rock music it’d be easy to see a dark and sinister agenda behind the rising popularity of a festival that seems to not just glorify the supernatural realm, but a sort of ghoulish supernatural realm — the demonic… This isn’t helped by groups who’re harnessing ‘the darkness’ to make a political point. Here in Queensland there’s a group of ‘satanists’ who are holding a ‘dark mass’ tonight, to mark Halloween. There’ve been prayer chains and emails sent out to and from different Christian organisations and their mailing lists raising awareness about this little chapter of darkness. However, it seems the guy running the show is employing a fairly dark form of black humour, the blackest of black humour, to make a political point about religious freedom legislation in Australia that protects Christians.

His garb is a little, umm, underwhelming, and obviously from the discount section at a costume shop.

He’s also been standing outside Brisbane schools recently trying to drum up interest for Satanic religious instruction classes. His little chapter of ‘satanists’ sprang up demanding the same legal protections and privileges that Christians enjoy — and they’re loving the ‘hypocrisy’ of Christians trying to shut down their Halloween eve gathering. When you don’t believe a supernatural realm exists, playing around with Satan and the demonic seems like a bit of a cheap thrill; some harmless fun even, and an easy way to score points at the expense of Christian gullibility and a genuine degree of hypocrisy when we act to limit the religious freedom of another ‘religious group.’

In diagnosing the modern world with its smorgasbord of religious and spiritual views, philosopher Charles Taylor makes two interesting points that might help us understand something of the appeal of Halloween, not just as a commercial venture, but as a chance to nod to the supernatural, and even the darkness. The first is that our modern world mostly assumes that the supernatural realm is gone; we operate in a closed off universe where we can poke fun at the religious without fear, mocking not just the godly, but the gods themselves (and Satan and demons too). That seems perfectly reasonable for people to do; and yet, the second idea from Taylor is that lots of us actually feel haunted by our decision to close ourselves off to the idea of the Spiritual Realm, and stories about ghosts and magic are not just a product of mischief but a genuine hauntedness; the little chills we get when playing around with the darkness, or turning towards the supernatural he calls ‘frisson’ — a word awkwardly meaning ‘skin orgasm’ — Taylor sees these thrills and chills maybe pointing us to an actual truth; a sign that in our probing around the edges of reality we might actually be acknowledging something that’s really real. He observes that we now go to movies (or read books) like Harry Potter for these thrills, but in doing so we’re venturing into territory that once terrified our ancestors. For them witches, demon possession, and Satan were genuinely terrifying forces, and now we turn to these forces for giggles… sometimes. For most of us, most of the time, “science” has negated “this whole dimension of dark forces,” Taylor says this has calmed our fears but we remain fascinated with the idea of both dark forces and their counter-forces so we recreate them in popular stories, films, and art to “give ourselves frissons, while still holding the reality at bay.” For Taylor, the path back to enchantment — to a magical or supernatural reality — runs, in part, through these sorts of stories being taken seriously.

This is something that fantasy writers like Tolkien, Lewis, and Harry Potter’s J.K Rowling have embraced quite deliberately. In an interview about the religious (not just supernatural) themes of Harry Potter, Rowling says the books represent her own grappling with the idea of death and an afterlife. Rowling, by her own account, is a regular church goer, and the books Christian themes aren’t as buried as Tolkien’s, or as overt as Lewis’s, but they’re there, quite explicitly. Especially in the final book in the series, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. In an interview about the religious themes in her books, Rowling said:

“The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. [But] it’s something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.”

It’s not just implicit, either. The Deathly Hallows features a scene where Harry and Hermione have a conversation by the side of his parents’ gravestone; which bears the inscription “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” a quote from 1 Corinthians 15:26. In the graveside conversation Harry and Hermione tease out some of Rowling’s preoccupation with the question:

“Harry read the words slowly, as though he would have only one chance to take in their meaning, and he read the last of them aloud. ‘“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” …’ A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’ ‘It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’ said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means … you know … living beyond death. Living after death.’”

I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it; except to say that whether or not life beyond death exists in the enchanted world of Harry Potter is resolved in a way that might land where Rowling herself does…

The Deathly Hallows and Halloween are both interesting cultural artefacts in a world not so certain about life beyond death; a world devoted to staving death off through our scientific efforts, to pretending death isn’t really looming for us all (by pushing our cemeteries out to the margins of our cities, rather than having them surround church buildings that we attend every week), and to turning funerals into celebrations where the body isn’t present. Halloween’s popularity is interesting to observe through the lens provided by Charles Taylor — it’s simultaneously a vastly successful commercial enterprise for our new god of consumerism, a pagan festival of consumption of excess sugar, and ghastly decorations, an odd ‘frisson inducing’ dalliance with ideas that might have once terrified us — the ghostly, ghoulish, or demonic figures wandering the streets demanding we sacrifice our treats less we be ‘tricked’… and maybe, just maybe, an acknowledgement that somewhere at the edge of our consciousness we’re haunted by the loss of belief in a supernatural world — not just in demons and darkness, but in the light — in God himself, and life beyond death.

The word ‘hallow’ means ‘holy’ — to ‘hallow’ something was to make it holy, and the original day was not a day to celebrate the power of the darkness — the ghoulish, the demonic, or the satanic — but its defeat. It was not a day to mock God, but to mock death. Historically, of course, Halloween was “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before All Hallows, or All Saints, Day — a day when Christians remembered the faithful friends and family who have died. It is a celebration that death has been defeated. The origin of the practice of wearing slightly dark costumes the night before came from a tradition of not fearing death, but mocking it; it was not from a tradition of celebrating Satan and his minions but revealing that they did not have the last laugh; that God himself won a victory over sin, and death, and Satan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. And it was.

Which is to say that Christians need not fear Satanic dark mass rituals – no matter how seriously, or otherwise, the people involve take them. The idea of such a mass should not move us to outrage or conniptions, or to fear. Satan is real; but Satan has already been defeated. The dark mass is, for us, a toothless tiger. So too are many of the costumed wild things wandering the streets on All Hallows Eve. Halloween is not evidence the darkness has triumphed over the light, but the way our culture celebrates it is disconnected from its origins, and from a supernatural picture of the universe; since this supernatural picture is closer to our view of reality than a closed off world only observable by science, maybe, just maybe, we should embrace this holiday and shed some light on the darkness?

For those of you reading who aren’t Christians; perhaps the thrills you feel dipping your toes into the supernatural realm once a year — or as you read Harry Potter, or watch ghost stories, are because there’s something realer than real going on. Perhaps when we let death and darkness creep into our lives, in this one night, it might cause us to ask what we’ve lost by pretending, most of the time, that death isn’t an enemy at all. Pushing it to the side so we don’t have to worry about it — and perhaps this night need not be a night of terror for you, or for others, if we grasp hold of the truth that not only is death a real enemy, but death itself has been destroyed, darkness loses. Light wins. Death can be mocked, not simply embraced as an inevitability.

The trick is, if the supernatural realm is real, that doesn’t just mean God is real, but the devil is too — and the dark joke might end up being on the Satanists with their black mass, who’ve totally misread the situation… by thumbing their nose not just at God, and Satan — in their politically motivated mockery — the Bible suggests they’re in a pretty dark place. One part of the Bible describes the situation facing those who don’t die trusting in Jesus, it says:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” — Ephesians 2:1-3

The ‘ruler of the kingdom of the air’ — that’s Satan. He’s the one who loves people kept in darkness, and death, and rejecting God. The little black mass speaks truer than those participating know about their own position in the supernatural universe. Not only is the Satanist honcho wearing a cheap, not particularly scary costume, he’s dabbling in some darkness that might be beyond him.

So. We’ll have a couple of Harry Potter’s companions treading the streets this weekend; knowing, as they do, that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and that death was destroyed by Jesus. Our family will be thankful that those who have gone before us trusting Jesus are safe and secure and victorious; not just in the grave, because the supernatural, heavenly, realm is real, and death and darkness can be mocked from a position of security… Or, as that same bit of the Bible quoted on the Potters’ grave finishes, when talking about the hope that gave meaning to All Hallows Day:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?

 

Think(ing) of the children

Sometimes you have a series of events coincidentally, serendipitously or perhaps providentially landing on your lap and you’ve got to figure out if the connections you build in those moments are like those graphs that assume correlation is the same as causation (like 5G towers and Covid transmission, you know, where the correlation is actually population density), or like those moments where you’re Archimedes lowering himself into a bathtub while thinking about how to measure volume.

Yesterday was maybe one of those for me. So here I am, flying a little kite (this time like Benjamin Franklin), wondering if I’ll get hit by lightning.

As a parent, my number one desire for my kids — above all other desires — is not just that they cling to the faith modelled by their parents, but that they take it up and advance it. Clinging to it would be fine. Sure. But I don’t want the world to be a danger to my kids and their faith, I want them to be a danger to the world. This desire is behind my entire parenting strategy — from schooling decisions, to pedagogy (where I want them to play so they’ll disrupt and challenge status quos, not just be STEM formed cogs in an economic machine), through to what sort of pop culture (or high culture) they engage with, and even their extra curricula participation. I haven’t read N.D Wilson’s book where this quote comes from, but it has long stuck in my head:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

Yes. More of that.

I fear that so much of Christian culture ends up being ‘defense against the dark arts’ rather than ‘attacking the darkness’ — we pull our punches in the formation of kids so that mere belief in a bunch of propositional truths, and knowledge of the books of the Bible and some Colin songs are going to be all they have in the kit bag when they eventually step outside the Christian bubble.

Yesterday my youngest daughter asked a dear friend of ours, an adult — a parent with her own children even — ‘Han, why do you come to church?’… Han gave her a brilliant, coherent, and best of all ‘not from mum and dad’ answer about why church is good not just necessary. Ellie’s own answer was ‘mum and dad make me’ — so we’ve still got some work to do. But she’s five. We might have a year or two left if the Jesuits were right…

We’re in the process of stepping our church community towards independence from our mother ship. We’ve been a campus of a multi-site church that has a well resourced kids program, and pumps out terrific kids curriculum. It’s not a static mega-church monster either; the kids and youth leaders at our mother ship ask hard questions about discipleship, and pedagogy, and are committed to a ‘discipleship based’ model where the relationship between leaders and their kids is a big feature.

We’ve always integrated the teaching program for the kids with what the adults are hearing in the room next door, so that families can have conversations about the same subjects and grow towards Christlikeness together. It’s a great model. It’s hard to duplicate without the resources the mother church has — from kids pastor (who is excellent), to creative people who make videos for kids (who’re excellent), to teams of young leaders who can serve our kids and go to another service in the evening. We’re going to have to step towards an adapted model — and the question is whether we’re going to step back from the pointy ‘cutting edge’ of kids ministry that our mother ship is positioned at, into the slipstream, or run the risk of jumping ahead of the point.

Whatever decision we make is going to rely on our resources, but it’s also going to have to be an expression of our theological anthropology — our understanding of how people (and children are people) are formed, and what we hope to see people formed into. If we want our kids to be dangerous, like I want my own kids to be, we want them to have a cutting edge — we’re making splayds not sporks… or something.

There are a few other building blocks in the mix here for me. First that I want part of the danger my kids bring to the world to be in the form of being both a faithful presence (to borrow from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World), not withdrawn into a Christian bubble or enclave, but working in the institutions that help build a society, or creating cultural artefacts that make Christianity possible, or even plausible, as a way of life and belief. Second, that I want them to be a non-anxious presence, to borrow from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in Anxious Times. I want my kids (and the kids in our church) to be leaders, rather than those who are led by the world (or at least people who follow good leadership). Third, I want my kids to be raised by a village of people — a community — or family, not just by me, to dilute some of my weirdness, but also to build the “plausibility structure” (in Peter Berger’s words) for Christian belief so that Christianity isn’t just something their weird parents buy into, but so many adults they know and love buy into as well; including adults who’ve got totally different lives to us; the lives my kids might one day lead, or that might have more in common with others who might lead my kids somewhere else. More on this later.

David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission builds a little on Hunter’s vision of the church as a place that cultivates the sort of people who might change the world and its norms. In his chapter on ‘the discipline of being with children,’ Fitch talks about the way all our structures actually end up serving not the goal of being a dangerous ‘faithful presence’ but forming people who become anxious that the world is out to get them, and that they need to be protected. He says:

“The world has become a dangerous place for children. So we obsess about everything that could go wrong with our children. We obsess over their education and their ability to compete in the world marketplace for a job. We obsess about protecting them from the horrors of abuse, whether that abuse be sexual, physical, or emotional. We build sophisticated systems of surveillance for child abusers. We spend more per capita educationally in the United States than anyplace in the world. We fund more sports, art, music, and tutoring programs for children than any other society in the world. And yet actual parental time spent with our children might be at an all-time low. To pay for the best sports programs, schools, household comforts, and surveillance systems, the average family must have two incomes.”

That’s surely pretty true here in Australia too. We’re already feeling the pull of extra activities for our kids, and our oldest is only 8.

Fitch builds a system of ministry practices off those times in the Gospels when Jesus says he will be present in his people, for him, this ‘discipline of being with children’ comes from Jesus’ saying in Matthew 18, that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.” I think Jesus is using the child as a metaphor, but this metaphor doesn’t eradicate the place children have in God’s kingdom — the idea that children are part of the body of Christ, and our work as the body towards maturity, not just distractions to be farmed out into some program, seems on the money to me. Fitch describes how they practice ‘being with children’ in his church.

“We decided to resist making children’s ministries into a program. We wanted to lead the community into being with our children. From the very beginning, when we were but a small Bible study, we asked every member, young, old, single, and married, to spend time with the children during a Bible story time. At various times we would say that by being with the children, you were being prepared to experience the kingdom. If you refused, you might be refusing the kingdom itself.”

Bible story time was the part in their service where the kids would go out; it happened while the sermon was happening for the adults. Fitch describes what this commitment for “every member” looked like.

“We adopted storytelling methods based on the curriculum called “Godly Play.” We emphasized adults getting on the level of the child, inviting God’s presence by the Spirit to be with us, then telling the story slowly, allowing space for wondering and questions, and above all being present to God. Adults spent time being with the children as they explored. This space between the adult and the child became sacred. We asked everyone in the church to participate in this ministry with children. There were regular teachers rotating in and out, but everyone was asked to participate. All adults were asked to be in the children’s ministry a minimum of once every eight weeks. They were asked to be present with our children, to know them, to be changed by them. This resulted in a community where our children could grow up recognizing Jesus not purely as a historical person and a doctrine, but as someone present to us in our daily lives. We recognized, in this screen-crazy society, the space for his presence would never be more available with our children than during these early years.”

I read this years ago, and, let me tell you, there are lots of reasons to do this and most people you ask to be involved in kids ministry seem to say no, almost as a reflex. Almost as though we’ve bought into a picture of growth and maturity and the life of the church that says our real growth is going to come through hearing God’s word, rather than participating in Jesus’ body, and that the hearing has to be at a particular level for it to do its work on us alongside our serving the body. Fitch digs into this objection a little, especially (but not only) when it comes to people who say they aren’t ‘gifted’ to be with kids, or parents who want church to be an escape from kids. It’s worth hearing his challenge. He says parents would say:

“We’re with our children six days a week. We’re exhausted. When we come to church gatherings on Sundays we need some ‘Jesus and me’ time.” It was clear that elements of (what I have called) exhaustion mode were at work here. We tried to open their imaginations for something more. We shared how God is at work in this space. That perhaps they could learn a new relationship with their children based not on control but in being with Jesus with them. Perhaps this could change the entire rest of the week they spend with their children. Perhaps various sports and arts programs during the week might become less important. This was the inertia we had to overcome in fostering a community that would be present to their children.”

His answer to people who say being with children is not their gift is brilliant, he says “being with children in our teaching ministry is not a spiritual gift. It is never mentioned in the Scripture as a spiritual gift. Instead, the church brings all its gifts to the space of ministry with children.” This is a big ask, but maybe it’s a necessary one? There’ll be compliance and training to go through to do this in accordance with child safety; and that might be another barrier that we throw up to say ‘it’s too hard’ — but while we’re small and starting out, that barrier is worth tackling head on, and once you start doing that, maybe it becomes part of our culture?

The “Godly play” curriculum Fitch mentions is something I’ve been doing some reading about, even as we think about how we shape our physical space where we meet so that kids feel welcome, rather than feeling like an afterthought. Play is part of Friedmann’s antidote to the age of anxiety. Friedmann says:

“Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem-storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective.”

Play is also part of what might make us dangerous disrupters of the status quo because we’re able to imagine — because we’ve learned to imagine — something different. As Jurgen Moltmann framed it in his Theology of Play, play is liberating. He said “we enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.”

It might even be that an approach to children in churches that aims to make them dangerous to the world in the changes that they might bring aligned with the story of Jesus, rather than the world dangerous to them, and that includes the all members of the body, might actually benefit and form all of us — kids and adults — towards maturity. Maybe we need to become a little more dangerous too — not just in how we raise our kids, but in the example that we set for them as we seek to be a faithful presence in the world.

At the same time that I’m pondering the why and what and how of kids ministry, and our capacities as a small church that has been a bit like a toy boat in Archimedes’ bath, riding the waves as he splashed about following his epiphany, wondering if we’ll capsize, or if the surface of the water will normalise when that big mass is removed… we’re working our way through Ephesians. Which, can I say, is a cracking letter that should probably be immortalised for eternity. Paul has a particular model of formation — both a pedagogy (a method) and a telos (an end goal) — for Christian maturity in this letter. One that maybe could shape how we function as a church community, and how we seek maturity our selves, and in one another, and including the kids in our community in that ‘one another’ as parts of the body.

Paul seems to think that maturity isn’t going to be a product only of what we know, though knowledge is a good and important thing — but of being who we now are in Jesus, and in the body we’re united to by his Spirit. ‘Learning Jesus’ is something we do in community, not just as we receive content, but as we walk together with those in the body and practice the ‘new self’ in our relationships. Paul grounds this new walk in his ‘big story’ picture of reality in the chapters leading up to chapter 4; where he makes the stunning claim that the Christian has been brought from death — and the clutches of Satan — to life in Jesus, and that this isn’t just a future pie-in-the-sky reality, but rather, because God’s Spirit is dwelling in us we are already raised together with Christ, and seated together with Christ in the heavenly realms, such that our unity in him is a declaration of God’s grace, mercy, wisdom, and character in those heavenly realms, made to all those powers that once held us captive. But this new self — it’s worked out in a ‘walk,’ and a different walk to the way the Gentiles walk, it’s the walk we learn as we take our place in the body of Christ, the church, here on earth, and live as children of God ‘walking in the way of love.’

Paul’s pedagogy is a pedagogy built on example and imitation as we live out this story, these truths, together — and this story is what makes us dangerous to the world. It forms us to be a people who get our crap together in such a way that the default and destructive patterns of the world — patterns set up by Satan in opposition to us and to God — lose their power, and even, maybe, that we might be able to challenge them in anticipation of Jesus returning to make things on earth as they are in heaven.

In David Kinnamann and Mark Matlock’s book Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways For A New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, one of the practices Kinnaman and Matlock’s extensive research found produced ‘resilient disciples,’ that they believe is geared to resist a modern world where “screens disciple” our kids more than almost any human relationship, is “forging meaningful, intergenerational, relationships.” So much of our approach to kids ministry (and a reason people leave small churches for large ones) is the desire to find a ‘peer group’ for kids to relate to, Kinnaman and Matlock found that the more important relationships are non-peer relationships. In examining the challenges facing youth and kids growing up in the modern world, they said:

“Consider that this younger generation has grown up in the most corporate (in the business sense) expression of the local church since its inception. Its leaders have often acted more like entrepreneurs and showmen than prophets and shepherds. Meanwhile, churches have lost influence in their local communities. This generation is the first to form their identities—and their perceptions of church—amid high-profile sexual abuse scandals and sky-high levels of church skepticism. At the same time that the church is fighting back perceptions of irrelevance and extremism, social pressure is leading to more isolation. All of this means that young people have to travel a long road in order to find supportive relationships, inside or outside the church. This leads us to the third practice of resilient disciple making in digital Babylon: when isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. Resilient disciples’ connections in the church are far and away more extensive than those of habitual churchgoers, nomads, or prodigals. The vast majority of resilients firmly assert that “the church is a place where I feel I belong” and “I am connected to a community of Christians.”

In their research, conducted by the Barna Group in February 2018, Kinnaman and Matlock found that 77% of those meeting the criteria as ‘resilient disciples’ said they had “close personal friends who were adults from my church, parish, or faith community,” while only 27% of people surveyed who’d left the church said the same, at the same time, 72% of those who met the resilient disciples criteria admired the faith of their parents, while only 16% of those who left admired their parent’s faith. In another study, cited in Faith For Exiles, the Barna Group found that a significant number of us Christians, especially young Christians, believe that ‘discipleship’ is something we work on by ourselves, specifically saying “I believe my spiritual life is entirely private” (41%). Kinnaman and Matlock suggest our practices and programs are part of what has perpetuated this belief, that is profoundly at odds with Paul’s view of how maturity happens in Ephesians. They say:

“Yet so often church is created for the individual. Songs are sung vertically to God; we no longer sing “horizontally” to one another. Even sacraments like baptism are often described in terms of individual spiritual journeys, disembodied from the corporate experience of the body of Christ.”

Paul says:

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” — Ephesians 4:15-16

There’s no age limit on this. This is for adults, and for children. Maturity happens in relationships, in the context of the body; a body that pursues Christ likeness in community “as each part does its work.” Kinnaman and Matlock’s research suggests that this model is actually what keeps people committed to Jesus.

“The top relational predictors of resilient Christians are these: I feel connected to a community of Christians; the church is a place where I feel I belong; I feel loved and valued in my church; I feel connected to people older than me in my church.

Faith communities and Christian households, then, must become resilient villages designed with outcomes in mind.”

So what does this look like for me? As a parent? And as someone paid to pastor my own kids — where a big part of my motivation for having the job is to have a church that will disciple my kids in a world where following Jesus is still hard, and increasingly less plausible because the fabric of society and culture no longer supports belief in things that the Gospel assumes (like the existence of God, or objective moral or natural goods). This isn’t a task I am equipped to handle on my own. I could spend my life trying to convince my kids about sexual orthodoxy and the place sex has in God’s design, not just as a created good, but as something that testifies to and anticipates the new creation. And they might believe me. It’s unlikely. I’m sure my parents modelled some … no… wait… I did not learn much directly about sexuality and my discipleship as a follower of Jesus from my parents. And so, with my kids, I imagine I’ll be part of that picture, I trust, and we have conversations about sex already. But so will single people, young and old, in my church family. So will my, and more importantly their, celibate gay brothers and sisters in our community. And that’s a beautiful thing.

And it’s not just about modelling an alternative, and dangerous, commitment to sexuality. It’s part of being formed to challenge the darkness we find in the world as we adopt an example, or model, for navigating economics, or education, or work in ways shaped by Jesus. In my own life I think it’s true that while I do admire the faith of my parents, their faith, teaching, and example would not have been enough to keep me here (humanly speaking), there were myriad other people who were deeply influential in forming me as part of the body.

The trick is to foster the relationships now, through our structures, in the body of Christ (as a structure) that will help our kids navigate the playground (whether in primary school or high school) or the cultural landscape and pursue Christlikeness through that. That’s not something peers are going to be all that helpful with, and perhaps it’s not something that just one trusted adult can help with. So I think Fitch is on to something.

It’s going to involve a commitment, within a church community, to build trust and relationships and opportunities to ask questions, and to play and serve together, not just to be given curriculum material in a program or something that feels like the Christian equivalent of a STEM class room. It’s not just about rote learning verses abstracted from their context, or answers to catechism questions, or Bible knowathon facts, it’s about learning a walk, a way of life, in relationship with people rehearsing the Christian story until it sinks into our bones and changes us so that we are dangerous to the world because we are agents of his kingdom.

What it might look like in reality is having a few people committed to the ‘storytelling’ aspect of the time that kids are gathered together, and involving a rotation of other members of the church community through that time reacting to the story, playing together, sharing one another’s stories, and answering questions from the kids from those stories, particularly in ways that build plausibility for being part of the body of Christ — a bit like when Paul describes his time with the Thessalonians — where the Thessalonians “became imitators of us and of the Lord” because, he says “you know how we lived among you for your sake,” and “because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”

Maybe this is what it might take for us to do what N.D Wilson suggests when he says, of our approach to kids: “Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

So. Eureka moment, or am I about to get struck down by lightning?

,

On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

Owen Strachan is, increasingly, a ‘thought leader’TM in the hardline evangelical Reformed Baptist movement in the United States. He was, for a time, the President of the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He’s an influential voice. If one was to peruse his Twitter output in recent weeks, and months one would find that he’s turned his earnest voice to ‘wokeness’ and ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’. These are the bad guys in the culture war, where feminism was, for the CBMW guys, just the pointy end of the spear.

Strachan posted a video clip from one of his recent talks yesterday where he quoted 2 Corinthians 10. Here’s the full lecture for context.

He said:

“We are speaking the truth in love. We are demolishing strongholds according to Paul in Second Corinthians 10:4. A lot of us today, we don’t think in those terms, that language sounds kind of hostile and arrogant and imperial and very western. That is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, martyred in the Christian faith, who tells us that he demolishes strongholds, the Corinthian church is to demolish strongholds, and by extension, two thousand years later roughly, you demolish strongholds that would seek to take you captive. We want unity in the truth of Jesus Christ, but where people have embraced wokeness, we must follow the steps of discipline per Matthew 18:15-20. We need to treat them as if they are being taken captive by ungodly ideology. Because they are… Even as we also publicly confront those teaching unbiblical ideas in a broader sense. Though it will pain us greatly, excommunication must be enacted for those who, after going through the Matthew 18 steps, we pray we don’t have to go all the way to the end, but if we do, excommunication must happen for those who do not repent of teaching CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality. At the institutional level the same principles apply. Trustees, voting members, organisational heads, educational boards, and so on, must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer. Not one day more. Not one hour more. It is time. It is time for a line in the sand.”

Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and intersectionality are quickly replacing ‘Cultural Marxism’ as the term of choice in these culture war debates; which is a small mercy, at least, because Critical Race Theory is not so much a pejorative label with anti-Semitic undertones, but an actual discipline. These umbrella labels are attempts to describe the same sort of phenomenon; a cultural move afoot that recognises that the established status quo typically benefits those holding cultural and institutional power, and indeed is systemically set up to benefit those holding cultural and institutional power such that this status quo also costs those excluded from cultural and institutional power.

One way to observe this status quo, in the West, is to look at the question of power through, say, a prism of individual wealth. Globally, the white male comes out pretty well. This systemic ‘status quo’ stuff is more obvious in other cultural contexts, like Russia’s oligarchy, or China’s communist party. More ‘free market’ based nations, cultures, or economies, have changed the power dynamic so that power is more connected to wealth (success in the free market). But this isn’t a neutral status quo, the market isn’t free of history or the institutions (banks, corporations, etc) that mediate it to us, or even the expertise to navigate it (that comes via education, opportunity, and connections). It is geared through cultural, structural, and political systems, to benefit those already at the centre; and those people are typically white and male. It’s not that being white and male guarantees success, it’s just that the status quo keeps benefiting the same people. This also isn’t to say that all white people benefit from these systems, or that no non white people do, one’s success will depend on how well one adapts to, or challenges, the status quo. An example might be that not all white people can afford a sports car or a nice suit, but if you have a sports car and a nice suit as a white person in the west, particularly in America, you’re less likely to be assumed to be a criminal than a black person in the same car, and more likely to be assumed to be an individual success. If you’re a non white driver of a sports car the narrative is often that you’ve succeeded by sheer force of will, against the odds. Those odds, or what is overcome, are the ‘status quo’…

In short, critical theory says there’s a system built to perpetuate this, and that we experience that cascading down from the top into all systems and relationships. Critical race theory observes that in the west there’s an ethnic element to this status quo, partly through the colonial history of the ‘commonwealth,’ where the British Empire brought an ‘establishment class’ into various nations, benefited from the wealth of nations connected to the empire, and built cultural and physical infrastructure to benefit that establishment class (universities, old boys networks, gentleman’s clubs, legal systems, political parties, corporations etc) at the expense of non-establishment (non-white) people (including through slavery, but also in dispossessing people from their lands). Then, these establishment institutions assume the white experience as a default, whiteness as a norm, and white voices at the center, and this perpetuates itself generation by generation. Often these nations and cultures have not just been built on ethnic inequality, entrenching a biased status quo that benefits the establishment class, but they have been built by cultures where power was held by blokes, sometimes for theological reasons, other times because of the typical power dynamic created by brute physical strength. So when ‘woke’ CRT people speak of ‘whiteness’ — it’s not white skin they’re particularly interested in, but the assumption implicit in our culture and institutions that whiteness is the default, such that, for example, I never have to describe ‘where I’m from’ (and really, I don’t actually know with much precision), I’m just white, and I don’t suffer the downsides of systemic racism, or the inherited baggage of intergenerational economic disparity built from those establishment decisions that created a status quo I see as ‘normal’ and am not particularly predisposed to change or challenge, on my own, because not only is it normal, it is beneficial.

Where feminists particularly focused on the maleness caught up in the patriarchy, race theorists look at ethnicity, and when those groups recognised the similarities in experience and outlook the idea of ‘intersectionality’ was born. Throw in the sense that the status quo operates through the application of power, given to maintaining, or further entrenching the status quo as ‘the norm,’ sometimes the ‘God given’ or ‘natural’ norm, and we get the language of oppressed and oppressor in the mix.

This wokeness, when you open your eyes to the systemic reality — whether as an oppressed, marginalised, person, or someone benefiting from the system — then brings a new ethic. So we see groups or institutions that subscribe to ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ seeking to re-alter the landscape so that the voices that are dominant ‘status quo’ voices — that are all too often centered — are turned down, while the voices of the oppressed are amplified.

In the ultimate expressions of intersectionality or wokeness, powerful ‘centered’ voices can find themselves ‘cancelled,’ or historic statues toppled, for perpetuating oppression, while marginal ‘intersected’ voices — especially, say, the voices of a black trans woman (the ultimate intersection of oppressed classes) — are elevated, or centered. Now, we’ll come back to the question of whether this is actually a change of structures, or just a change of people occupying the positions of power in a structure that is essentially the same, below. It’s worth noting too that this whole intersectional agenda only really works in the west, it’s a particular product of western history, multiculturalism, violence, and even (in a positive sense sometimes) Christianity. Intersectionality doesn’t see ‘whiteness’ as a problem in China; it’s not a universally true, all encompassing worldview, and the people who want it to be have a pretty small view of history and geography. In some ways, our ability to even identify injustice, oppression, and systemic sin in our ‘status quo’ might, itself, be a product of the Christian framing and vocabulary that comes to the west via its heritage. It’s worth bearing that in mind when declaring it a heresy or a ‘line in the sand’ where anybody who uses any wokeness, CRT, or intersectionality should be excommunicated.

There are, of course, truths to the criticism of the west offered by critical race theory, or intersectionality, that anybody with a Christian anthropology might recognise. Our story — the Bible — is full of political leaders who create empires and cultures that perpetuate their godlike power, and that oppress and enslave (think Egypt, Babylon, and Rome). It shouldn’t surprise us when power based empires or cultures create a marginal experience where those not sharing power, or benefiting from the status quo, have similar observations, language, and experience that builds a shared revolutionary suspicion of the status quo.

In these ‘dominion’ style cultures it was hard to be from another ethnic group, or a woman, and to be a woman from another ethnic group did work in a sort of intersectional way. If Jesus had met, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in Jerusalem, she’d have been an example of an intersectionally marginalised and oppressed voice on an additional count; as it was she was an outcast in her community, a bit like the woman accused of adultery, caught up and spat out by what we might now call the patriarchy and its status quo benefits offered to blokes (so that women bore the cost of sin and shame disproportionately). We see these dominion systems as an outworking of the sinful rejection of God, and our desire to rule in his place and to seek dominion over others, rather than co-operation.

This is the fall written into the fabric of human society — our beliefs, our structures, our institutions, our cultures — are as fallen as we are at an individual level, and then serve to perpetuate that fallen view of the world (so a Babylonian was raised to think like a Babylonian, according to Babylonian stories about what the gods were like, and who the king was as ‘the image of God, and this was the same in Egypt, or Rome, where the rulers of those empires were also ‘images of God’ in imperial propaganda).

The trick is that it’s hard for an Egyptian, Babylonian, or Roman kid to realise how much the default system, or status quo, was a departure from God’s actual design for life; and how flawed their picture of God was when built, inductively, from the life and rule of the ‘image of God’ at the heart of their empire. It’s harder still for someone caught up in the power games at the heart of the empire, and benefiting, to hear that their stronghold is a house of cards, and to see the oppression and destruction it brings.

It might take, like it did with Naaman, a general serving the King of Aram, an empire opposed to God’s people, the de-centered voice of a marginalised ‘servant girl’ to bring the whole house crashing down. Naaman wanted to keep playing the power game in his interaction with Israel; the girl sent him to the one who would speak God’s word — a prophet — but Naaman went to the king. The prophet, when he got there, wouldn’t take wealth, or power, or glory for healing Naaman, but sent him to get dirty and lower himself into a river. His picture of power was inverted; his stronghold demolished.

To suggest ‘CRT, wokeness, and Intersectionality’ are grounds for discipline and excommunication is a fascinating step, given that there are pretty strong Biblical precedents for reaching a similar diagnosis of what happens when idolatry and sin are systematised; namely, that people are oppressed or enslaved. It might be better, I think, to question the solutions offered by those bringing this diagnosis to bear on modern cultures and institutions (including the church). There’ve been some interesting contributions to this project from Tim Keller recently, and in these two response pieces to him from David Fitch (part one, part two).

Here are some additional further possibilities that might lead us to be cautious when it comes to drawing ‘lines in the sand’ — and ‘excommunicating people’ — especially when we belong to the ‘identities’ that are typically the beneficiaries of the status quo (especially if much of your professional life has been given to entrenching the gendered part of that status quo).

It’s possible that exactly the power structures that CRT, Intersectionality, and Wokeness identify are the structures we should be demolishing both in the world and in the church, but that the trick is we’re meant to demolish those with different weapons than the weapons of this world; and those same weapons might also be turned against the new world order dreamed about by those championing regime change or revolution under the CRT, Intersectional, or ‘woke’ banners.

That is, it’s possible that the demolition job the Gospel of the crucified king does on human structures and empires and power games actually demolishes both ‘whiteness’ or the patriarchy and ‘wokeness,’ intersectionality, and CRT.

It’s possible that the whole ‘identity politics’ game, whether played from the right or from the left is a politics built on a model of the human person where we’re creating our own ‘image’ and thus projecting our own ‘image of God’ as we pursue some sort of authentic self or ideal human life and experience (‘identity’).

It’s possible that democracy means that instead of having empires where the king is the image of God, we’re all kings and queens trying to carve out our own space, playing the game Charles Taylor calls ‘the politics of recognition‘ — where we want our identity to be affirmed and recognised and upheld by the law, and our chosen ‘identity’ to be the one that is at the centre of society, and that flourishes most of all.

It’s possible that Christian contributions to politics in the culture war have simply been a form of the identity politics we claim to hate, built from a desire for our own recognition as the ‘images’ that should be the social and cultural norm in a particular form of empire.

It’s possible then, that the church built by people playing this sort of ‘politics of recognition’ game, uncritically adopting worldly mechanics of power, or not demolishing the strongholds of our particular empires (democracy, meritocracy, technocracy, etc) have created a situation where those in positions of power in the church, at least those whose voices are centered, tend to look a whole lot like those in power in the world.

It’s possible that in all this we’ve totally lost the sense of personhood being something given to us from above, and built in relationships and community, not something we build by playing an individual power game where we claim our space in the world and yell ‘this is me, know me and love me for who I really am’ at the universe (see The Greatest Showman’s anthem ‘This Is Me’ for example).

It’s also possible that we’ve lost something of the essence of the Gospel in both the shaping of our own institutions, communities, and culture — the Gospel that is the story of a member of an oppressed people group (Israel under Rome), born into a system that was threatened by his very existence (Herod’s rule as a symbol of Caesar’s rule), and so further marginalised him (his exile into Egypt). Jesus was a non-centered voice in both Israel’s religious institutions (he wasn’t a priest, or a pharisee), and he consistently sought to ‘demolish the stronghold’ the Pharisees had built — the religious edifice that oppressed the people for their own wealth, relied on cosying up to imperial power (Herod and Pilate), and claiming, ultimately, that Caesar, not Jesus, was king of Israel as they sought to silence his voice.

It’s possible that we’ve missed the New Testament’s diagnosis that opposition to Jesus and his kingdom, particularly through the use of the power of the sword, was beastly, or Satanic, and represented a false image of God being held by those who were meant to be living as God’s image bearing, priestly, people; and that the leaders of the Temple had become oppressors who ‘devoured widows houses’ just like their tax-collecting Roman rulers did; as beastly, prowling, Satan-like wolves, rather than being like lambs trusting God as a shepherd.

It’s possible that where we’ve missed that essence, and even systematised the domination system caught up in our status quo in our churches the ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing will not be ‘out there’ in the community, but ‘in here’ in the church. Some examples might be where we uncritically embrace leadership manuals, or business practices, or status quo practices (like old boys clubs, gentleman’s clubs, setting the parameters for who gets authority in our institutions in ways that perpetuates a ‘sameness’ to the voices that are centered, etc). It’s possible, too, that the church will never see where it has sided with the ‘oppressor’ or the status quo unless we see these practices through the eyes of those who are marginalised and oppressed. If voices like ours are the voices we keep centering, how will the status quo ever be challenged? How will the strongholds ever be demolished? If, God forbid, we have systematised sinful patterns in our church structures, then it’s precisely the ‘woke’ intersectional critical race theorists we may need to hear from; there are plenty of examples in the Gospels of voices who would normally be ‘marginalised’ being centered in the kingdom; including the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection (see the response of the disciples who “did not believe the women”).

If we’re going to discipline people and excommunicate them; let’s do it when they have a Lord, or king, who is not Jesus, and pursue an image of God not found in Jesus, and want revolution that looks something other than like bringing in the kingdom of Jesus. You know, like supporting Trump for president.

Let’s demolish strongholds. But let’s demolish all strongholds.

And let’s recognise that we might need to listen to voices who are typically excluded in order to see what we’re missing. The catch is, we won’t find many black trans women in our churches (and nor should we play the game of intersectional one upmanship, perhaps our posture should simply be to listen to those members of the body of Jesus, including the global church, whose experience and outlook is different to our own). This isn’t to say that wokeness, intersectionality, or critical theory aren’t ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing because they pull us from Jesus, just that they might be allies in tearing down some strongholds that have already dragged us into captivity. ‘Wokeness,’ in the culture wars, often feels like an attempt not to change the game, but change who occupies the centre (even whose image gets turned into a statue that sits at the centre of civic life). Our solutions to the problems of this world aren’t meant to look like elevating other, previously excluded, voices to the place of supremacy or dominion (though God does oppose the proud and give grace to the humble), that just perpetuates the same system under different parameters, our solution to the problems of this world don’t just sit in the space of diagnosis, but revolution. Our revolution isn’t about picking other humans as kings or queens who’ll become the image of our God to us, but about following the king who is the image of the invisible God. Wokeness, where it seeks to play a dominion game, captivating us and pulling us away from Jesus as the radical inversion of beastly empires we need, but also whiteness, the status quos from the world we’ve brought into the church.

This is, of course, why culture wars style politics, or worse, culture war Christianity, is problematic. And this is, in a sense, exactly what Paul is writing against in his letters to the Corinthian Church.

In the city of Corinth the dominant culture was one of power and status. They played the Roman game harder than most. The city skyline was dominated by an imperial temple. The city was big on oratory and impressive orators. They wanted Paul to be an orator — a big and flashy speaker who’d sway their power obsessed neighbours over to this new empire. They liked Apollos because he was an impressive orator, then, by the time 2 Corinthians rolled around, they were enamoured with the ‘super apostles,’ who, when you look at Paul’s response seem to be the very opposite of him; the sort of church leaders wielding the weapons of this world — sharp tongues — playing a power game that the Corinthian church was getting behind. Winning the culture war.

The Corinthian Christians didn’t quite understand how revolutionary the message of the Gospel was; how much Jesus being the antithesis of Caesar, Pharaoh, or a king of Babylon meant for how we’re meant to approach life, as individuals and in community. Jesus’ diagnosis of the world — from Israel outwards — was that the powerful had become oppressive; that sinful rebellion against God and siding with Satan and cosying up to Rome had corrupted the people and institutions who were meant to be representing God and his heart for the humble.

Jesus upended the ‘dominion’ style status quo, and its politics, and brought something very different as a solution. A cross. This is how Paul sees strongholds being demolished. God’s power and wisdom is found in the crucifixion. This realisation shaped Paul’s message — so that he resolved to know nothing but Jesus, and him crucified, but it also shaped his posture — his approach to persuasion — so that he came to the Corinthians not with powerful words, but in weakness and trembling. So that he ‘renounced underhanded ways’ of persuasion, and ‘carried the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus might be made known’ (2 Cor 4). If we’re going to trot out a part of 2 Corinthians 10, lets ground it in Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian pursuit of dominion within the life of the church, and for the church within the life of the city. If Paul were here today I don’t think he’d be speaking for ‘wokeness’ or ‘whiteness’ in a sort of fight-to-the-death battle for supremacy; I think he’d be pointing us towards weakness. I don’t think he’d be kicking out those who identify how the pursuit of strength in church structures has led to oppression of people we should be loving with our might, or those who cry out for reform and justice in the church on that basis (it’s worth seeing, for example, how Strachan’s speech plays out specifically against conversations about race in the American church in the midst of the conversations amplified by the black lives matter movement, and the current unrest in America produced by generations of racism that are now entrenched in the status quo). Paul might have used a ‘war’ analogy in 2 Corinthians 4, but it was precisely to subvert the sort of power games we’re so used to playing in the church and in the world.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

The cross of Jesus is our weapon; it demolishes both wokeness and whiteness because it stops us playing the culture war and invites us, instead, to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), who carry the death of Jesus in our body, and have relationships marked not by dominion but by the self-emptying example of Jesus.

This might mean rejecting, or re-directing, the power and opportunity given to us by the status quo; the platform, or the centering of our voices in the life of the church. It might mean making space to listen to those voices marginalised by structures that perpetuate the same sorts of people being given authority and influence. It might mean hearing the critique of our church structures, and the west, from those who stand among the oppressed. Maybe that’s where we find what the paradoxical strength in weakness of the cross looks like embodied in the western world. In the voices of those, faithfully in our churches, but from the margins of our society.

This might mean that CRT, intersectionality, and wokeness aren’t the enemy, even if they challenge the things we hold dear. It might mean that the things we hold dear, the things that give us strength and influence, are actually things we should be letting go as we embrace weakness, rather than grasp worldly weapons.

Here’s Paul again, just after talking about the ‘weapons’ he uses to demolish strongholds — the things Satan uses to capture us and pull us away from Jesus.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Which, of course, is an outworking of his whole understanding of the Gospel of his king, and the way it confounds the systems and conventions, the status quo, of the world he lives in.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:25-31

On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)

My recent trip to the optometrist also included a routine check up, where, it turned out my eyes are aged the same age as the rest of my body. Older. And so, I have ‘presbyopia’ — which is a apparently very common condition, but brilliantly named given my occupation as a Presbyterian minister.

Presbyopia has the same greek root as Presbyterian — ‘elder’ — I have elder eyes.

Eyes that according to the diagnosis are suffering from a physiological insufficiency of accommodation associated with the aging of the eye that results in progressively worsening ability to focus clearly on close objects. Symptoms include difficulty reading small print, having to hold reading material farther away, headaches, and eyestrain.

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

I’ve written a couple of recent pieces about the pastor drought and what might be causing it in our neck of the woods, and about why I’m (still) a Presbyterian anyway, and in some ways I wish I’d had this diagnosis, and so, this language, earlier. 

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

As a denomination we’re increasingly unable to recognise what we’re not seeing because we’re old, inflexible, and tired. Incapable of seeing what’s right before our eyes, and, like me, unaware of what we’re missing. We’re probably not good at reading small print either… 

For various reasons our denomination in Queensland is at something of a cultural crossroads. The ‘pastor drought’ is biting, so there are vacancies popping up all over the state, and filling those vacancies from within the state will perpetuate the problem. There are good things happening in some healthy churches, but some of our larger churches have grown beyond the size our system is capable of accommodating and beyond the size that most pastors are equipped to lead. We, as a denomination, have been wedded to pragmatism in our ‘business meetings’ and even in local congregations, outsourcing theological thought to committees who then deliver reports that most of us are too busy to read or engage with properly, and we haven’t made great business decisions because very few office bearers in the denomination, or members of the courts of the church have been trained or equipped to operate businesses — most of us have been trained to exegete the Bible, and some of us have vaguely relevant pre-Bible college experience that is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, the elders who could be joining our business meetings as a denomination — those with business acumen — are excluded as a function of our meeting times, and our operating rules haven’t found ways to both affirm a theology of male eldership and broaden these courts to consistently include the voices and wisdom of the other 50% of the population. We’ve become stuck in our way of seeing the world, and the world is changing. We’ve lost focus. 

Presbyopia. 

Recent events have been a bit like the eye tests you do at the optometrist where you suddenly realise you’re not seeing what you should, and so we’re conducting ‘reviews’ and ‘think tanks’ and bringing in ‘fresh eyes’ to set ‘new directions’ (the previous ironic title of our denominational rag). But how can we be sure this won’t be a case of the blind leading the blind?

If, and let’s stretch the Presbyopia analogy just a little further for a moment, if the phenomenon of ‘old eyes’ kicks in at around 40 (you know, around my age), then seeing clearly might not just involve people in their late 60s (boomers) inviting people in their 40s (xers) to the table. It’s quite possible those ‘younger’ elders won’t just bring the wisdom of age and experience, but eyes that are already becoming inflexible precisely when we need to shift our focus. 

There are things that are good, true, and beautiful that come from having a denomination where age and experience are valued; elders are an essential part of any community (and family). But there comes a point in the life of a family not only where we don’t let grandpa drive the family car, but when a parent turns to their kids knowing that their eyes might see things with a little more clarity. 

Let me just make some bold assertions (propositions even) for a moment, and feel free to push back if you think these are unfounded. 

Pragmatism of the sort that is producing problems at a local church level and at an institutional level is wedded to a certain sort of modernism; especially a modernism connected to technology and technique. The cultural dilemmas facing our denomination are fundamentally an outworking of an uncritical adoption of modernity not just as a framework for assessing and talking about truth and morality, but for operating in the world. 

1. The shifting cultural landscape and the erosion of the church’s place in society is a product of both our uncritical embrace of modernism, and the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the culture (and, perhaps even the failure of modernism to present a fully orbed understanding of what it means to be human, or to have meaning, or to know truth).

It’s not just that the culture has shifted way from truth (and by that we mean become post-modern and post-Christian), it’s that the shift to modernity was already a destructive shift away from truth and we didn’t see it while we were making the shift (think the disenchantment of Christian belief, where we’re blind to the spiritual realm, and our becoming wedded to pragmatism in our ethics, rather than, say, virtue or working from principles that might produce an action that was ‘right’ but less immediately effective).

An example of this is that modernism is big on authoritative institutional voices, so, we adopted this posture and voice as Christians, specifically as conservative church institutions (not just Presbyterians), when speaking to the world about moral, political and social issues. These areas of life are typically not reduced simply to pure rationality or propositions about science/nature/natural law (like marriage), but that’s the posture we adopted — and people were keen to take away our drivers license because we looked like the equivalent of a 95 year old escapee from a nursing home stealing a car and rampaging through the streets at 10 kph. We did this while simultaneously undermining our institutional credibility (around, say, institutional child abuse and even church finances). Then, as we realised the shift was happening we doubled down on pragmatism. The ‘culture wars’ approach to politics is this paradigm taken to extremes; where suddenly it doesn’t matter what action we take, so long as the outcome we believe is ‘good’ is achieved. Within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland this pragmatism plays out both in terms of how we typically talk about achieving ministry success (more bums on more seats in flashier buildings with better AV capacity), and in how we approach decision making in our courts where questions tend to be about methodology, resource distribution, and wisdom rather than about theological consistency, and where theological thought when it does happen is outsourced to an increasingly smaller group of experts because we don’t have time for that in our ‘business meetings’.

2. Pragmatism, as an outworking modernism, that mostly looks like finding the right lever or silver bullet or ministry model isn’t going to fix this shift.

It won’t fix our internal issues if our internal issues are, in part, that we are institutionally wedded to modernity and to pragmatism, and it won’t fix our external issues if we think the way to respond to the shifting culture is to simply present the unadorned propositional truth of the Gospel (or if we do adorn it, to think that the best way to adorn the Gospel is in pragmatic ways that imitate the ‘excellence’ we find in business and marketing manuals with good technology and technique). 

3. Embracing post-modernity, especially its suspicion of institutions and its paradigm of deconstruction of institutions where reconstruction work is typically aimed around the subjective experience of an individual, isn’t the answer either.

Institutions are good and necessary. Individuals suffer from presbyopia (or plenty of other conditions that limit true seeing of the world). There is truth at the heart of Christian belief that can be expressed propositionally (just not exclusively propositionally). Narratives are powerful, but not only subjectively so. This is where maybe a shift to meta-modernity (or post-post-modernity) would be an interesting step to embrace institutionally.

4. The children are our future (and also our present), and so are adults without presbyopia, maybe they should help set our direction, especially if they can see more clearly than we can.

Our church structures are set up to be conservative (and there’s some wisdom in that so long as we’re conserving the right things), but one way this plays out is that the ‘rooms where it happens’ to borrow from Hamilton typically exclude anyone at low risk of actual presbyopia, and probably also anyone at low risk of metaphorical presbyopia as well (not to mention, in the main, that they also typically (though not in all cases) exclude women of all ages).

There are now a couple of generations below Gen-X who’ve been grappling with cultural changes, and some people in these generations are exceptionally thoughtful and committed Christians who’ve navigated the challenges and tensions in their own lives that we’re now trying to recalibrate our denomination to respond to because we’ve realised we’re not seeing as clearly as we should. Any review process worth its salt won’t just include the next generation down — those who’ve been waiting patiently to become the establishment — but all generations. Instead of viewing these younger generations with suspicion, as though anybody not wedded to the methodology of modernism (propositions and pragmatism) has become worldly (without critically assessing our only ‘becoming worldly’ as an institution that is thoroughly modernist), maybe we could listen to them. One way this ‘suspicion’ plays out, like so much else, is when the modernist v post modernist thing kicks in in debates about sexuality and, for example, the language used to describe one’s experience, where anything ‘post-modern’ is dismissed as squishy or dangerous theological liberalism, when what is possibly happening is a shift in how language is used from prescriptive to descriptive. There are other ways too, but I feel like I need some evidence to support these assertions and one of the first places I think this modernist/post-modernist schism became apparent to me was in the furore surrounding a review posted here some time ago about a thoroughly modernist book tackling sexual ethics produced by another thoroughly modernist institutional Christian publisher.

We need grandpa no longer in the driver seat, and the fresh eyed learner driver to navigate this road trip and keep the car from breaking down or crashing.

5. If we’re serious about a cultural review and ‘think tanks’ and substantial institutional change we need to invite people who are clear eyed (and so under 35) into our processes, and these discussions.

Otherwise we’ll have the blind leading the blind to more of the same, but also, in my own actual (and metaphorical) experience, it’s energising to see the world through fresh eyes. The optometrist was right that my tired eyes were making the rest of me tired too. It’s invigorating both to get glasses that correct your vision and take up some of the strain, and to hear from voices younger than you who help you see the world with a little more clarity.

Two of my favourite parts of the last two years have been regular catch ups with my ministry trainee, Matthew, who consistently probes and prods me to see the world differently, and reading his blog as he’s ventured into publishing some of his thinking for a wider audience. I trust I’m also operating as ‘an elder’ for him, but he’s navigating a thoroughly different world to the one I knew in my twenties. For another eye-opening experience, get a hold of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites for an account of the way the spiritual and cultural landscape has shifted past the kinda hard secularism and skepticism that so much stuff by people over 35 (me included) assumes is the default paradigm, into something quite different.

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On seeing… truly (or how my escaping colour blindness is a metaphor for escaping spiritual blindness)

My wife Robyn is an amazing gift giver. She is thoughtful. This year for Father’s Day she exceeded all expectations by giving me a trip to the optometrist and some new glasses.

That might sound like an anti-climax.

New glasses.

But these are magic glasses.

I can now see colours that previously did not exist for me.

Colour blindness is a weird phenomenon to try to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it. I’ve given up. I’ve also given up playing the game where people ask ‘what colour is this’ because I just don’t know, and I can’t see what I’m missing, and I hate that. I hate trying to identify colours, especially around the red/green spectrums, but the way colour works means I also have trouble with purples, and yellows, and other weird colours I’d never expected.

I had a default way of seeing the world. I had no idea what I was missing.

But now I know.

And boy, was I missing a lot.

You can watch reaction videos that pretty much capture my experience here.

It’s crazy to know how much I was missing. One way to demonstrate it, simply, is that I thought I had these apps on my phone’s home screen grouped by colour.

Now I know I didn’t…

One retailer of these glasses, EnChroma, has a video that says that colour blind people see “a world less saturated, less vibrant” and that has been my experience. Apparently you non-colour blind people can experience life through our eyes by looking at the world through a piece of green cellophane.

Even wearing them I spent a bunch of time skeptical that what I’m seeing now is really real, and not just the world through rose coloured glasses (and maybe the person who coined that idiom was colour blind…). But the more I dig in to this reality, the realer it seems. EnChroma has an online colour blindness test. Here are my results without the glasses on, and then wearing them.

I was missing so much. Who knew? Well. Everybody. Everybody who isn’t colour blind that is. And if you are colour blind — those reaction videos are real. These glasses are amazing.

It’s worth seeing the world as it is.

Over the past year or two I’ve been having another experience that feels a lot like this. I think I’m also recovering from being spiritually colour blind.

It started with my deep dive into C.S Lewis’ academic work The Discarded Image, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and their shared analysis of the modern western world; that we’ve chosen a view of the world that is “less saturated” and “less vibrant”; that we’ve, because of our commitment to rationalism and a purely ‘sensible’ world; a world where only what we can sense is real; disenchanted reality. Where we could’ve kept our rose coloured glasses on we’ve reached for (or been given) the green cellophane by a culture, and powerful institutions, and perhaps spiritual forces, that do very well for themselves by keeping us blind to reality as it is. We settle for a less saturated, less vibrant, life and colour blindness becomes our reality, green cellophane becomes our lens.

And this lens effects the way we see everything. Reality as we live in it, but also, for Christians, the Bible and the story of Jesus as we encounter it. One ‘new pair of glasses’ that might help us see the world as it really is, or at least one that worked for me, was Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm, which invites us to free ourselves of the green cellophane view provided by the modern world, and to read the Biblical text the way its first readers would have understood it; part of this exercise is to, with Lewis, Taylor, and Heiser, acknowledge that not every part of our modern, secular, age is a product of a Christian vision of reality, and that not everything modern is truer than the past.

Trying to take off the ‘green cellophane’ of the disenchanted view, or overcoming spiritual colour blindness with this new lens is weird. I spend a lot of time feeling the same sort of skepticism about this way of seeing the world that I now feel when I see colours. Surely this can’t actually be real?

There’s an interesting dynamic here for me where, for example, there’s a temptation to read Genesis 1 as modern people and either say ‘science disproved this, so it can’t be true’ or to read the creation story through the lens of modern science and try to make it cohere, and this is a trap that both the young earth creationist movement and old earth counterparts fall into.

I remember sitting in an Old Testament subject at college scoffing at  ancient conceptual maps of the cosmos with a heavenly and earthly realm like this one, because to take that seriously was to take the Old Testament too literally, when we now have our model of the universe through science, and so our job was to get to the ‘actual truth’ the Old Testament was trying to convey; that God is the creator of a good and ordered world, and we mess it up through sin… but what if one of the big points of the creation story is that there is a heavenly realm, and an earthly one? And what if this is one of the threads that binds the whole narrative of the Bible from first chapter to last chapter together (where heaven and earth are brought together in a new creation)?

The green cellophane view says ‘get to the sensible point that aligns with how we see reality’ — but the rose coloured glasses say ‘sit with the view of the cosmos this text creates and have it change the way you see reality.’

This doesn’t mean rejecting the insights of science around material questions, or even questions about the age of the earth, but it means the activity of trying to approach the text of Genesis 1 through green cellophane is always going to leave you with a less vibrant, less saturated, world.

This is also true of the Gospel itself; if we green cellophane the Gospel stories then reading these biographies of Jesus leaves us looking for the “Jesus of history” and positioning Jesus as an alternative, revolutionary, political leader to Caesar, bringing an alternative economic system that we’d love to see realised in this world as we pursue justice; a moral example; a wise teacher; and maybe at most, still a saviour who’ll bring forgiveness to you in a divine economy or supernatural order that has very little to do with day to day life now (and very little to say about the significance of the Holy Spirit). The stuff about Satan and Demons you shove to the side. Angels become ‘human messengers’ through a little etymological gymnastics (literally what we were taught at Bible college by a former lecturer though), and you’re left with a disenchanted Christianity. The rose coloured glasses view — the more vibrant, more saturated view — sees the Gospels as the story of God’s victory over Satan and his demons; those authorities and powers that ruled the nations, and captured and captivated Israel, exiling them from God, and a victory that means beastly human governments that are built around spiritual powers and authorities no longer have dominion over people. It’s a victory that means not only can Israel come home to God via their Messiah, but the nations can be restored as well, and be seated in the heavenly realms, even now, because of our union with Jesus by the presence of the Spirit.

We’ve been working through Ephesians at church this year, and I think seeing reality this way is exactly what Paul is after when he prays for the church that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17) before launching into the story of how Jews and Gentiles are now united in Jesus, raised together with him, and seated in the heavenlies. He wants this reality to be their view of the day to day world we live in; a more vibrant, more saturated, reality.

Here’s one of the talks I gave in that series where one older, wiser, listener (ok, my dad, who’s got a pretty compelling picture of the way pronouns in Ephesians are used to distinguish Jewish Christians (we and us) from Gentile Christians (you) in Paul’s schema) summed up with the statement ‘who knew the Nephilim were so important for understanding the Bible’… You might think getting to those strange ‘sons of God’ in Genesis is a ‘weird flex’ from Ephesians… and you might be right. Consider this an invitation to put on some rose coloured glasses and take up a more vibrant, more saturated, view of the world, including how we understand politics, economics, and ethics (how we live as people, in communities). It’s straight off our Zoom recording, filmed from an iPhone, so apologies for the quality.

Maybe we need a way of seeing the world that is different to the green cellophane handed to us; a more vibrant, more vivid world. Maybe those ideas of ‘the eyes of our hearts being opened’ and us being enlightened is part of recapturing the wonder not just of the Gospel, but of creation itself.

Perhaps our job as people ‘raised with Christ and seated in the heavenlies’ is to first see the reality of God and his world rightly, through new lenses, and then to see our task as getting the good news and the rose coloured glasses out to as many people as possible; what if we were as excited about the eye opening truth of the Gospel as the people in those reaction videos putting on their rose coloured glasses for the first time?

The trick is that so much of this task actually starts within the church, where, we’ve been so thoroughly schooled from the rational, sensible, secular age outlook that to simply say what the Bible says about the Spiritual realm and its reality, and its interplay with the political or the economic makes you feel and sound like a crazy person. Why settle for a less vivid, less saturated world when you can see truly.

Why be a Presbyterian? (Or why I am, anyway)

I read the story about the Presbyterian pastor drought in Eternity (that I wrote a response to here) was released on the final day of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland’s state assembly. These normally happen in June, but Covid-19, and a few other circumstances, have bumped the schedule this year.

The Presbyterian Church of Queensland is at a bit of a crossroads; we’re putting together ‘think tanks’ and reviews to figure out the denomination’s future and look hard at its culture and structures, we have vacancies all over the the state, including in some of our biggest and most strategically important churches (in terms of pipelines in to ministry, at least).

A huge part of me, reading the Eternity article, while sitting in a room on the last day of Assembly, thought “this,” “this is why we have a pastor drought.” Assemblies aren’t my favourite things. Every year at the State Assembly, or every three years at the General Assembly of Australia feels like a contest to define what the word ‘Presbyterian’ means.

The wagon circling thing I described in the last post is a natural response by a conservative denomination, defined by not going into church union (the Uniting Church), facing a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. But it’s hard, if you’re the sort of person who likes the Protestant Reformation because of the Spirit of always challenging and reforming institutions and status quos because of the fundamental insights that humans are a limited, sinful, mess and the institutions we create often enshrine that limited, sinful, mess, and that the Bible is God’s word and our actual authority on how to live in God’s world. It’s hard if you want to keep bringing the insights of Biblical scholarship (the Biblical Studies departments in our colleges) into conversation with Historical theology (the doctrine and church history departments), to challenge long established thoughts, and patterns of exegesis, with good and robust scholarship. It’s hard if you want to make the case that whole swathes of previous consensus, both theological and pastoral, have been built on a particular interpretation of a contested passage of Scripture because our pragmatism and decision making processes don’t really make space to tease that out, while at the same time we’re under more pressure than ever to codify our positions on particular issues.

But denominations, and Presbyterianism in particular, are worth persisting with. They’re not for everybody. I’m thankful that the richness of God’s kingdom includes other denominations, and those who sit outside denominations as voices in the wilderness calling for reform and repentance and modelling that. There’s a parallel in what one might call ‘church politics’ and how politics in general operate; to take James Davison Hunter’s critique of modern politics, I don’t want to ‘politicise everything’ and so suggest that everyone should be a Presbyterian (or in an institution) because the guide to Christian faithfulness comes in the form of Presbyterianism or the institutional church, but I do think that institutions are a good thing, and there is wisdom and virtue in seeking to be a faithful presence in an institution for its good and yours. In a thing I once wrote on politics I talked about a paradigm of dirty hands, clean hands, and busy hands. The ongoing reform of our institutions will require people to sign up as members, to get their hands ‘dirty’ in the work of compromise and presence and reform, while it will also require some people not to sign up as members, who model and call for change, and others to do the work of building alternative institutions that might challenge all of us to look at how we’re operating (or to jump ship).

So here are some reasons one might consider signing up for the long process of becoming a party to the institution (or edifice) that is the Presbyterian Church of Australia (or Queensland). And while this might feel like a ‘male only’ enterprise, Queensland has its first candidate for ordination as a deaconess in a long, long, time working her way through Queensland Theological College. She was a student minister in our church, and I’d hate for this bold pioneering woman to have to wait another 30 years for others to join her in occupying an official status within the denomination.

And look, this isn’t actually an encouragement for everyone reading to go into paid full time church based ministry. Churches are a body, we have many parts, you have a part to play, a ‘calling,’ if you’re a Christian; that will express itself in the community of the church (the body) and its work; the work of the kingdom. There’s a very good chance you are not meant to be an ordained Presbyterian Minister. The work of the Gospel here in Australia is going to require a lot more work on things adjacent to Gospel proclamation; the sorts of things that build credibility for the message of the Gospel as we regain lost social capital, and challenge a shifting understanding of how the world works to help the categories at the heart of the Gospel to make sense to the hearts and minds of people counter-formed by the idolatries of our time and place. But that sort of work will, I think, also require churches operating as institutions, which could (and I think does) include denominations. Part of the answer to the pastor drought is, and will be, a rediscovery that the work of the church is not the work of a pastor, but the body.

  1. God is at the heart of Presbyterian theology, and the Gospel of Jesus is good news. Look, I recognise that many of my readers aren’t “Team Calvin” when it comes to the conception of God that animates Presbyterian theology, from Calvin, through the Westminster Confession, to us. God is big, and sovereign, and good. He reveals his bigness and goodness and transcendence to us through the Incarnation of Jesus, and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and makes us alive in him by his Spirit, and raises us into the heavenly realm, as the Spirit unites us to Jesus. Presbyterian theology makes much of God as creator and redeemer; and so makes much of Jesus (it could do more with that last bit about the vivifying work of the Spirit, not just that the Spirit moves us towards faith because we are chosen by God, rather than choosing God for ourselves). It could do better at organising revelation as a Christ centred narrative, rather than building artificial constructions around the Law as part of the whole counsel of God, but I could do more with being reminded that God is creator, not just redeemer, and so creation itself testifies to the divine nature and character of God, not just redemption (though they aren’t at odds, nature is oriented towards grace, just as humanity in Adam finds its fulfilment in humanity in Jesus).
  2. The Presbyterian Church of Australia isn’t just ‘confessional’ — its basis of union makes it primarily ‘Biblical’ — as in, the Bible is our supreme standard, and there is flexibility (provided by the Declaratory Statement, that says this), to be present in the Institution and to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the human conclusions drawn by the Reformers, and the Westminster council. It is a good Reformed, reforming, evangelical, and Christ Centred institution, where, if I’m one of the most progressive voices in the mix, we’re avoiding plenty of divisive issues threatening schism in other institutions. Lots of our internal debates are actually about how much weight we give each aspect of those descriptors; how much ‘Reformed’ we put in the mix as we do the integrative work of theology and practice, and how we navigate a fellowship where different exegetical conclusions, from a faithful theological centre, are brought into communion and community.
  3. The Gospel is good news that creates an institution, a “kingdom” even, a community, a church, a body of believers. There is a deep theological and spiritual unity between believers across time and space that institutions recognise; the move to be local and independent and time bound, in critique of past institutions, often jettisons these connections and the deep, encouraging, and formative truth that we belong to a body far bigger than our own.
  4. Institutions are part of the fabric of society; the collectives and communities of people that help us make meaning. They are, in their occupation of physical space and their traditions and practices, and their teachings about the good life, participants in ‘the commons’; they are plausibility structures that give weight, through community and practice, to ideas. They provide a basis for culture making. The widespread distrust in institutions isn’t a reason to walk away from institutions into a new world order of individual autonomy, it’s a chance to ask questions about, and reform, our institutions to be re-oriented towards a good. Institutions are uniquely equipped to both form and change people and communities. The sort of world that wants to get rid of institutions is a dystopian world imagined by the neo-capitalists on one hand, who want the very wealthy to get wealthy through corporations at the expense of all others, and want institutions to be subject to market forces, oriented to that end, or big government types who want ideologically driven government departments to be responsible for setting and dictating norms. Mediating institutions and communities protect us from both poles. They can, and should, be places that serve as a ‘commons’ — spaces where dialogue can happen in pursuit of good, true, and beautiful things and so people are formed. Institutions can and do, of course, become corrupt and corrupting (see Reformation, The). One way this happens is if institutions either change too rapidly, or don’t change at all. Presbyterianism has the capacity, the theology, and the heritage (both in the Reformation, and the situation around church union in Australia) to navigate those twin poles well. Denominations are well positioned in terms of ‘social capital’ and ‘actual capital’ to be beneficial to society as we articulate a particular vision of the good human life built on the truth and beauty of the Triune God and the Gospel. Non-denominational movements have to start the social capital (and physical capital) game from scratch, often defining themselves against institutions; post Royal Commission (and even post plebiscite) this might be a wise and good, even necessary, path of action. But my frustration with how established denominations have acted historically (and even presently) can either serve as an invitation to be faithfully present in, and seek the good of an institution, or to begin that hard work of institution building elsewhere.
  5. Accountability is a good thing; and the Presbyterian system balances local (congregational), regional/national (top down institutional), and historical (confessional) accountability in a way that seeks to be good and true and beautiful. This does make us slow and conservative, and change feel like turning the Titanic around, but it does stop us being caught up and swept around by every cultural change.
  6. The ‘process’ towards ordination is a good thing. Good things cost money. Ministry traineeships, whether you end up in full time paid vocational ministry or not, are a good in and of themselves. I’d like us to talk about them less as ‘means’ and more as ‘ends’ — you can take two years to be paid to do ministry in your church, as a missionary to Australia, and hopefully have that happen in relationship with a community and other fellow workers who will shape you. I didn’t do a traineeship, I don’t think they have to be norms, but I do think they are good. Theological Colleges and theological education could, (and perhaps) should be drastically overhauled (rote learning languages… puh-lease). But this work is happening. Lots of smart people are putting time and attention to it. The financial cost of study both in opportunity cost, and in dollars spent (or fee-helped), was worth it. I would do it again. Four years to interact deeply with centuries of thinking, and writing, with those further along in the journey, and a bunch of peers — that’s not a means to some professional gig, it’s just a good thing in and of itself. The pinch we feel when asked to give six years to a training process is the pinch of stepping out of a particular way of viewing life and success built on money and security. There are lots of ways we might balance this, or stretch it out so that there’s on the job training, or good opportunities to learn using online tools, etc, but theological education and the chance to be formed as a person who thinks, not just as a worker who is equipped for the task of ministry is invaluable; and too many of us are far too pragmatic coming out of college, which means the education and our vision of what education and formation is needs to be revisited. Assemblies are frustrating because they so often are business meetings about pragmatics, rather than asking questions about ‘what a church is’ or what the church could and should be doing. Our anti-intellectual, pro-vocational approach to education is coming home to roost. We Presbyterians now outsource our brains to committees to do our theology work for us, and then nod along (and vote with) the experts who’ve become impossible to challenge because they are the magisterium the experts (which is tricky if we keep tasking one arm of the theological enterprise, the Doctrine/historical theology department, with the task rather than tackling an integrative engagement with the world). If we keep making theological training a ‘means to an ends’ rather than theological formation an ends in itself we will perpetuate the problem, but that there is a costly pathway is not in itself a problem if the pathway is disciple making and inherently good. I am thankful for my education, and my educators. I’m also thankful for the process outside of theological education that goes alongside ordination; that a person in our denomination is not only internally ‘called’ but is ‘sent’ — capturing the two senses of the Greek word in question — that the checks and balances and relationships around ordination involve congregations, and elders, and other pastors, and theological gatekeepers is a good thing, even if it feels like it can be an inquisition rather than an encouragement.
  7. Our polity would be a good thing if we implemented it. Lots of the failures producing ‘pastor drought’ conditions, are, in my observation not so much a failure of Presbyterian polity (though I have some quibbles, like the ecclesiology that has the minister not be a member of their congregation, but of the Presbytery), but a failure to apply Presbyterian polity. We need to do better work to generate healthy local governance, and better culture and practice in the regional and national courts of the church. The priesthood of all believers is a great tradition of the Reformation, Elders and pastors as shepherd like overseers are a good, Biblical, principle. Elders who aren’t just business managers called on to make strategic decisions, but who largely sit disconnected from the nature of ministry because that has been outsourced to staff (whether a solo pastor, or team) aren’t what our polity imagines. Nor are elders, or pastors, who wield positional authority rather than relational authority (or influence) built from personal example (imitating Jesus) and love. We have a system that should protect and support both the shepherds, and the flock. We just don’t trust it, because at times the slowness of this system has been seen to be an impediment to the ‘mission’ (where the mission has been framed as bums on seats, rather than the long and slow work of discipleship).
  8. We do, or have, had a genuine diversity around a shared theological centre. There are those in our fellowship who believe the Declaratory Statement is a gateway to liberalism, and who’d like us to be more tightly Confessional. And those who have expressed a view that we need more ‘Reformed’ in the mix, particularly, to name names, in response to the ground won in and by (often growing) churches who are especially big on a Christ-centred Biblical theology (at the expense of a more covenantal framework); and so who are primarily on about Jesus, and position God as redeemer in a way that emphasises the Gospel, and salvation, with sometimes a thin doctrine of creation (and re-creation). Such churches have been broad and evangelical, and attracted members (and often elders and ministers) who are less ‘Reformed’ and more ‘Evangelical’ in their outlook and expression. Debates about giving communion to children are trickier to navigate in a congregational context where lots of members aren’t operating with a covenental frame, but have Baptistic backgrounds. How much we accommodate that diversity in our congregations, eldership, and even the assembly while maintaining some distinctive from other faithful churches, denominations, or institutions is a challenge. Divisions and ‘poles’ within the denomination nationally, and locally, coupled with our tightening/wagon circling in the face of a changed ministry context, can lead us to culture war type games against one another where we narrow what ‘Presbyterian’ means, rather than accommodate, but our denomination is richer for its diversity of expressions around a shared theological centre than it would be if we tightened the boundaries and saw participation in both our church communities and our courts as requiring full embrace of a particular theological vision. I don’t disciple my congregants using the Westminster Confession, but the Bible, and I do sometimes feel like the discussions in the courts of the church assume a univocality in what it means to be Presbyterian that simply isn’t there.

So. Sign your life away. It’ll be good for you, and others, if more of us do. A small part of the answer to the pastor drought might be sitting there in front of your computer screen, reading this piece.

For my next trick, though, I’m going to suggest that maybe the ‘pastor drought’ is overblown, and we’ve actually got a ‘church glut’ and an assumption that the model we have been using is the model we should be using.

On the pastor drought and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

Eternity ran a piece today on the ‘pastor drought’ not simply being a phenomenon within the Sydney Anglican Diocese, but also within the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales; anecdotally (and I could give firmer evidence) the situation facing the Presbyterian Church of Queensland is similar.

I am a Presbyterian (minister), and the son of a Presbyterian (minister). I have a list of thoughts from my own experience (as one ‘likely’ to be in the sort of stream that produces Presbyterian ministers) that might explain the pastor drought, both in terms of the front door ‘in’ to Presbyterian ministry, and the doors ‘out’ of Presbyterian ministry, and I offer them for the consideration of those who are interested in such things; I suspect there are analogies between our denomination and others in the same situation.

Before I give my reasons, I do not think the issue is that we have upped the theological value of forms of work other than Gospel proclamation, or that we have stopped proclaiming the Gospel (see Philip Jensen’s claims on The Pastor’s Heart, and my response).

I do not think the issue is that people prefer team ministry settings (though I am in the process of moving from being employed to pastor a campus of a multi-site team ministry to being the pastor of an autonomous church plant within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

Some of these issues will be a bigger deal for some people than others. Some will feel ‘worldly’ and those who have a pious response to these ‘worldly’ factors are welcome to quit their jobs and move into ministry to practice what they preach for others…

  1. We have normalised a pathway in to ministry that is financially difficult for those who might otherwise train. In NSW we have “MTS” or Metro, depending on your denominational tradition, in the Presbyterian Church of Queensland we have MTN (the Ministry Training Network). Ministry apprenticeships have become an established part of the pathway to ministry, and while they almost certainly help people clarify their call, these two years make the training pathway into ordination in our denomination a 6 year process of not earning a full time salary for those who are typically tertiary educated (so qualified to work in other areas), and often (though not always) married and starting to have children (though not always). We expect candidates for ordination to move, often from rural or regional areas, to capital cities and to live (in our context) in non-subsidised accommodation for a four year period, where they will be expected, as a candidate for ordination, to change church communities after the first two years.
  2. We sold manses. This one relates to the above in that it’s about the financial side of ministry, but the financial sacrifice caught up with transitioning into ministry continues beyond entry into ministry; where, in the past, churches made taking a call to a new parish possible through the provision of appropriate housing in the community being ministered to, now, ministers are encouraged to purchase or rent their own properties using a ‘housing allowance’. This is all well and good for those with sufficient capital pre-ministry, or a working spouse, who can afford to live within the vicinity of their church’s footprint, but it does make calling a minister, particularly to an urban area, very difficult. Signing up for a denomination means signing up to being uprooted over and over again over the course of six years, being part of up to three church communities, living in up to three houses (with all moves paid for out of your own pocket, probably), and then placed somewhere not of your own choosing, where you’ll have to find your own housing (and pay for it), having spent six years spending your savings in order to live week to week. Signing up to train from an independent church, or as a non-candidate, aiming towards a specialised ministry role within your existing church, or to plant a church in a place of your choosing still involves housing costs, but much more stability and autonomy in the process (and in setting the timeframe, and the flexibility of working arrangements before training is finished).
  3. We have a cultural moment suspicious of institutions, and have done nothing in our culture and governance to make partnering with an institution attractive rather than a burden. Very few ministers in our denomination say positive things about the mechanics of our denomination (the courts, etc). We don’t see institutions as strategic, and champion the ‘local church’ and then wonder why, for example, so many people find ministry in, for example, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches so attractive. We have not undertaken significant institutional reform in response to this cultural moment, and the legitimate causes of distrust in institutions (for example, the Royal Commission, and even, debatably, the political stances adopted by the institutional church in public debates) both within the body of believers, and in the community, in such a way that makes presence within an institution desirable or plausibly better than alternatives. It is hard in this context for a person passionate about the mission of the Gospel to justify fishing from an institutional boat.
  4. We have a church culture that limits the role of senior pastor to the ‘privileged’ — typically those with undergrad tertiary training who approach theological education at a post-graduate level; we are increasingly ‘white collar’ both in our leadership and congregations, and the delivery of training content, to justify and sustain a funding model, is geared around those who can navigate tertiary education with a degree of independence. Some of this might be necessary and connected to how we conceive of the nature of pastoral ministry.
  5. We have a shaky theological anthropology, that comes out of modernity, that produces a shaky pedagogy both in our training institutions and in our churches – our methods for ‘forming’ people as disciples rely heavily on information, not practice, or relationship, or imitation, and so our training models are biased to a certain type of ‘thinker,’ who we then seek to reproduce and plug into a particular pathway, and we have a particular model of discipleship that only really works for that sort of person, limiting those who might be plugged in to the pathway to church ministry.
  6. We have not grappled with the changing cultural, moral and philosophical landscape that help people make meaning and arrive at understanding. Our institutions are thoroughly modernist and fighting a vanguard action to defend the goodness of modernism; while our world is a contested multi-cultural mix of modernism, post-modernism, and post-post-modernism (maybe meta-modernism), and unless our institutions can accommodate different meaning making structures with a shared theological center, we will not attract anybody from outside the status quo culture.
  7. Precisely when we should have been sending wagons out to explore new frontiers, positioning the church for adventure and ministry as an adventure, we’ve circled them. We’ve marked out theological boundaries within institutions to halt and resist ‘progress,’ rather than robustly establishing a theological centre. For Presbyterians this is part of our narrative and a deep suspicion of any of the culture that produced church union; we are institutionally suspicious of anything that sounds ‘progressive’ or of ‘social justice’ or of any statement that doesn’t line up with a conservative theological (or political) status quo. Our public political pronouncements have made it quite difficult for anybody left of Tony Abbott’s version of the Liberal Party to feel welcome in our church communities, let alone to become office bearers. Where the Presbyterian system, in particular, and enshrined by our Confessional standard, deeply values conscience, and liberty of opinion, and where our Basis of Union and the declaratory statement makes it clear that Scripture is the ‘supreme standard’ and that conflicts between our understanding of Scripture and the Confession could conceivably emerge, increasingly the declaratory statement is treated as a gateway to liberalism, and any disputable matters or areas of freedom or conscience are being eroded with black and white documents framed by ‘theological experts.’ We Presbyterians are increasingly operating as though Biblical studies and exegesis were closed by the magisterium now called the Westminster Divines, such that historical Reformed theology sets the boundaries for faithfulness, rather than a theological centre — the Gospel and a commitment to God’s revelation through his word — being the basis from which we explore and engage with the world. In theological institutions, not just in Australia, but around the world, the doctrine/historical theology departments are increasingly brought to bear as authorities over the Biblical studies departments. Our national institution, the Presbyterian Church, is increasingly ‘Reformed’ rather than ‘reforming’.
  8. Our most vibrant church communities are broad and evangelical; whether that’s churches in regional areas that are faithful outposts for the Gospel that attract those from other Reformed, or evangelical, traditions, or churches in urban contexts that have been attractive on the basis of Gospel preaching and programs, and so the ‘pathway’ in to our institutions is not necessarily a ‘reformed’ pipeline, but a broader, evangelical pipeline. The narrower we make our institution, the narrower the pipeline from these vibrant ministries becomes.
  9. Often, the theological training institutions of such denominations have tightened up the faculty so that theological ‘breadth’ gives way to a certain sort of platform or theological vision. The interesting thinkers who challenge the status quo have often been removed, or left these narrowing institutions in response to such movements. This is probably truer in Sydney, in my observations from my time as a prospective theological student assessing my options, than it is in Queensland Presbyterianism. The competition for students amongst such institutions has led to, I think, institutions adopting distinct theological visions or flavours, rather than seeking to give good and broad educations, training people who might hold diverse positions, with a robust theological centre (that arguably should centre on the Gospel of Jesus in its fullness). I would suggest we also have too many theological colleges, and, if I were constructing an ideal educational pathway (assuming a head based pedagogy), I’d pick and choose faculty members and subjects from all over the country (which is increasingly possible with centralised accreditation and decentralised (online) models of teaching). When we make structural and cultural changes to make our institutions narrower we should not be surprised when they attract less people to the pipeline, especially for those people born after a turning point in the culture who can, and have, established a robust Christian faith built within the philosophical conditions of post-modernity, or whatever comes after, and even with an intellectual toolkit created by critiques of modernity (including aspects of Critical Theory, or post-modernity) who are being confronted with institutions that suggest such moves are unfaithful, or implausible.
  10. We have not substantially changed our model or practice of church or ministry in response to the changes in our cultural architecture (our institutions, practices, stories, media institutions, art, etc), social imaginaries (the way we come to imagine the world and what shapes that as a product of both culture and sociology), political moment (the culture wars, polarisation, etc), or plausibility structures (the number of people in communities holding particular beliefs in such a way that those beliefs become plausible defaults), or, where we have changed, it has been to embrace a pragmatism or utilitarianism that does not start with our theological vision, or Christian virtue (that is, we’ve embraced the ‘church growth movement’ and its uncritical, and perhaps ‘toxic’ taking up of worldly models and metrics). Where we should be turning our attention to rebuilding plausibility for the Gospel through culture making, institution building, community development, ‘renewing our social architecture,’ or recouping some of the social capital we burned in the events of the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, the plebiscite, in ways that make the Gospel plausible when those who are set apart to proclaim it do so.
  11. We haven’t asked hard questions about church properties and their function, and how the church growth movement and the building of ‘Westfield’ style churches at the expense of corner store style churches have changed our allocation of resources; maybe we don’t have a pastor drought at all, maybe we have too many church communities/buildings. There’s an assumption behind the question about the pastor drought that the same number of churches we had in a previous cultural moment (or more) is the number of churches we should have in this moment.
  12. We’ve bought into the culture war and seen ourselves not as a peacemaker in those wars, or as a community that might bring people together, united in Christ, across cultural and political divides, and so our institutions throw their weight behind political causes without space for nuance or disagreement, or hospitality and are seen as aligned with one particular pole in a polarised culture. Conflicts within our institutions become about ideological purity and the defeat of the other, rather than breadth or accommodation.
  13. We have framed the ‘mission of the church’ numerically and made it about converts, rather than making it about character or deep discipleship, and measure leaders accordingly. The idea that my success or suitability as a pastor depends on fruitfulness (something like breaking through different growth barriers), other than the fruit of the Spirit being present in a pastor’s life, or the life of those in church community with the pastor, is a pressure too great for most pastors to bear.
  14. Especially because the cultural landscape we’re now called to engage with is remarkably different in ways we are yet to fully acknowledge. We keep expecting the results of the past without diagnosing the substantial cultural changes not only confronting pastors, but members of our congregation. We can have all the reviews about the ‘vitality of ministry’ or the abilities of pastors in the world, but unless we recognise that ‘growing ministries,’ in my observation, are often a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic through transfer growth, rather than the product of evangelistic growth, then those claiming vitality within a particular framework will simply be further enforcing a damaging status quo, and framing the conversation about entering ministry around the idea of joining ministries that replicate such models, or where people are trained to specialise within team contexts in large staff team churches (5Ms or whatever portfolio divisions get made).
  15. We’ve uncritically adopted structures and cultures that have created a culture where very few senior pastors are gifted or qualified to operate in the settings they find themselves, especially managing large and complex ministries and staff teams. This, coupled with unhealthy expectations, metrics, and culture has given rise to the creation of toxic, or narcissistic, systems and structures, unhealthy inter-personal relationships in staff teams, and possibly an increased rate of burnout. The status quo model of ministry, built around the idea that a successful church ministry moves through various stages of ‘church growth dynamics,’ typically led by the same individual transitioning between different functions, is almost unchallenged.
  16. There’s often hushed conversations about a bullying culture in church contexts, but it’s almost never part of the party line examinations of the pastor drought. This isn’t exclusively limited to denominational settings either, the situation around Acts29’s director last year suggests it can happen both in non-denominational ‘networks’ that exist, essentially, as critiques of denominational institutions, and in small house church settings.
  17. Our uncritical adoption of the Church Growth Movement, which is built on bringing forms, systems and practices from the business world, has formed a generation of Christians as consumers, and pastoral ministry becomes about meeting needs or demand, to keep bums on seats, or gain more, often at the expense, rather than in partnership with, neighbouring churches. The pressure to create an ‘event’ that is attractive not just to non-Christians, but to Christians, significantly changes the nature of the task of the pastor, and makes success more about personality than faithfulness.
  18. Coupled with this we’ve embraced, sometimes as a theological conviction, sometimes as a cultural or political conviction, an individualism that damages our shared commitment to institutions, and communities, but also positions the pastor as a ‘solo’ worker; this plays out also in how we view married couples where one spouse is employed in pastoral ministry. This Mere Orthodoxy piece ‘The Church of Individualism‘ speaks into this.
  19. This individualism, as the Mere Orthodoxy piece argues, has involved proclaiming a Gospel that has a “king but no kingdom,” to a secular context that wants the “kingdom without the king.” I’d argue that in the U.S, the ‘king’ part is more obvious because of the close connection between Christianity and politics; but where we have a more rigid cultural separation between church and state, and a more dramatic ‘secular/sacred’ divide (that Sam Chan argues means we operate as a de facto closed country where people only want to talk about religious beliefs in private spaces, rather than in public), I think we conservative evangelicals in Australia have particularly emphasised Jesus as (personal) saviour, not Jesus as king, let alone emphasising the kingdom (this isn’t to say we deny that Jesus is king, simply that we see the Gospel in individual terms with an emphasis on future salvation from sin, rather than present reality.
  20. Conservative denominations have not grappled with what a particular theological position on the ordination of women means for ministry in our churches, or the staffing of our churches. One might uphold the position that men and women have different functions in the life of the church and still imagine other ways to staff and manage church communities. The egalitarian response to “complementarian” denominations who raise the ‘pastor drought,’ that it’s the inevitable result of ruling out half a potential workforce, is a category error, and yet, there is something in the critique.
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Support Soul Tread: a new Aussie publication

Here are three great reasons to support Soul Tread, a new Aussie mag currently crowd sourcing funding via Kickstarter (and one not so great one).

  1. Electronic media is bad for our brains.
  2. Electronic media might actually be bad for our spirituality.
  3. Curated content from a broad range of Christian voices put together in a beautiful designed, typeset, and printed magazine is a good thing and an antidote to some of these effects.
  4. People keep saying I need an editor; I’ll be contributing to this magazine, and will be edited.

On points 1 and 2 (because point 4 means you aren’t going to click those links), there’s a mounting body of good evidence out there that consumption of content via social media platforms that are shaped by algorithms and more sinister ‘surveillance capitalism’ motivations is bad for our brains; that we become addicted to dopamine hits from social media use, but also more narcissistic as we engage the world through a filter that makes ‘me’ hyper-important, and my pre-existing interests hyper-present, and invites me to perform ‘virtue’ according to a particular tribe, presenting myself as a certain sort of ‘digital image’ or ‘digital icon’.

There’s a good case to be made that the ‘media ecology’ of the internet and the black glass screen is distorting our experience of the world and reshaping our hopes and dreams. Elon Musk is one of my favourite whipping boys here because he already thinks we’re living in a computer program, and, if we’re not, he seems to be determined to take us there. The digital eschatology of the modern ‘technocracy’ is a scary thing for the shaping of our understanding of what a good human life looks like, and what a good future for humanity looks like, and that should be disrupted. One way to disrupt this is changing our media practices; and the types of physical things we bring into our physical environment that we then interact with. A printed magazine is an act of subversion.

Support this initiative. It’s a really great project, and Rachael, the editor has a vision worth engaging with, and has put together a team of people from around the country who I’m excited to engage with. You can support it, and secure both a copy of the magazine, and some great ‘swag’ (that’s what us (older, at least) millenials call this sort of thing) on the Kickstarter campaign page, but also follow along on Facebook (which is ironic, given points 1 and 2).