Preaching from the hyper-linked Bible

Have you ever seen this image?

It’s a stunning representation of the cross-references in the Bible from a guy named Chris Harrison. There’s a similar visual aiming to highlight contradictions in the Bible (most of those don’t stand up to much scrutiny). It’s not new, I first posted about it back in 2010, but it serves as an illustration of my point here.

I’ve been thinking a bit about preaching — and just to be clear, I’m not wanting to position myself as a master of the craft here. Not at all. But I have a growing set of pebbles in my shoe regarding the way we tend to see the task of preaching within churches who claim we’re shaped by the Bible. These pebbles include the assumptions we bring to the task of interpreting the text (exegesis), to the speech-act of transmitting the text, and to how we see it as a living and active word within the life of a church community shaped both by the text, and by the God who speaks through it, while shaping us as receivers of his word by his Spirit. I’ve written about my issues with the sacred cow of expository preaching — especially when it is reduced to transmitting content (locution) rather than speaking in a way that aims for the text’s persuasive intent (perlocution).

As I ponder the task of preaching, and its place in the life of the plausibility structure — the community — that is the church, I see a huge part of the task of the preacher in the modern church as giving people back their Bibles, in the hope that our communities will become what Stanley Hauerwas described as a “community of interpretation” or a “community of character” — one that puts flesh on the bones of the story of the Bible as it rehearses and performs it together in the world.

Why giving people back their Bibles? Well, because I reckon the modern Protestant church, for all its original protestations against the Catholic Latin Mass has been systematically removing the Bible from the hands of its people — both reducing it from narrative (and ancient literature) into a series of propositions and axioms that fit a modern grid, and by using it as a weapon to justify a range of abusive behaviours; from domestic violence, to abuse, to cover ups, to racism, to the mistreatment of people whose experiences see them operate as sexual minorities — the Bible has been used to prop up worldly power structures, even literally, as a prop weapon wielded by Donald Trump on the steps of a church after his militarised security personnel tear gassed a bunch of divine image bearers.

So often the word of God hasn’t been used as a sword to cut us — including, and perhaps especially, the powerful — to the heart and cause us to repent by turning to God and finding life in his kingdom, but as a weapon wielded by powerful people with sinister agendas. Recent decisions by ‘courts of the church’ in conservative denominations in the United States — and no doubt, upcoming decisions in our own denominational settings — have effectively undermined the Bible’s goodness, and its function as God’s living and active word. And the progressive arm of the church has not helped here, in its attempts to deconstruct the power of these oppressors it has often deconstructed the power of the Bible itself, through critical scholarship that secularises the process and content of the Bible, or fragments the unity we see in the visual above, and through various models of interpretation that don’t simply prioritise the perspectives of marginalised communities in the modern world, but risk colonising the text through the eyes of just a different ‘enlightened, capitalist, liberal’ western viewer.

And whatever side of the conservative/progressive spectrum one comes from — there’s an overwhelming cacophony of information out there seeking to debunk, prove, or educate the reader — it’s not uncommon for me to have a member of my congregation fact checking my sermons on wikipedia, or via a sneaky google, in real time.

This stuff isn’t just ‘out there’ — the debates aren’t just happening in the abstracted ivory towers of the academia, or on Twitter. These descriptions of the modern world aren’t just things I’ve read about, but realities I have to grapple with every time I open the Bible to teach from it. Maybe this speaks more to my context, but I’m preaching every week to people who had overbearing or abusive fathers, who’ve experienced family violence justified by Biblical texts, who’ve been in spiritually abusive contexts or constructs and are trying to recover, rather than deconstruct, women who’ve been subject to various forms of purity culture or the patriarchal sense that they are lesser, or that faithfulness looks like “mothercraft,” and sexual minorities who’re trying to pursue faithful obedience to God in church settings where God’s word has been used to justify their parents cutting them off from their family, to attack their choice of language to describe their experience and attempts to faithfully steward their hearts, minds, and bodies in obedience to Jesus, and their choice of cake colour.

The Bible has been used as a weapon, and this has often been a function of people not grasping the richness, complexity, and unity of the Bible’s story. It’s often done through ‘clobber passages’ or proof texting in ways that produce trauma, and a variety of trauma responses when someone with institutional authority says ‘the Bible says’…

I don’t know if other preachers are grappling with this dynamic, or if it’s just that I’m woke or whatever. But trauma is real; and if you haven’t had someone shaking or crying in the middle of a talk, or even walking out, because of something triggered by a particular verse or phrase, then maybe it’s because your church community already bears the hallmarks of a place that isn’t safe for people with the experiences I describe here. When I’m preaching — aiming to ‘give people back their Bibles’ — I’d love to see these folks recover a love for the Bible not as a weapon used to destroy them, but to cut away the things that are destroying them so they might find life in the presence and love of God as his children. I’d love to equip them to fight back against the weaponisation of the Bible by knowing how the Bible actually works.

I also see my task as giving people their hyper linked Bible. The Bible on display in this infographic. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it looks like to preach the Bible in an age of hyperlinks — and where most people are going to interact with the Bible digitally rather than in paper and ink form. I’m not one for suggesting that technology change is something we should uncritically embrace as Christians — in fact, quite the reverse. And I’m totally down with the idea that digital devices (like writing before them, thanks Plato) have damaged our ability to internalise information. We process information in a pretty weird and distracted way, thanks to the hyperlink (and tabbed browsing), and yet, the beauty of something like Wikipedia is that it demonstrates how conceptually linked and integrative information is — hyperlinks can create hyper-distraction, sure, but can also help us push into intricacies and perhaps even reveal the artistry of God; the author of life, and the divine author of both the story that climaxes in Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in history, and the description of that story in the 66 books that make up our Bibles.

I’ve also been motivated by my friend Arthur once inviting me to imagine a generation of Christians brought up on the Bible Project, and just how wonderful the resources our hyper-linked communities have to be digging into the Bible outside the context of the Sunday sermon — the question ‘if stuff that good is out there, and wildly (and widely) accessible, how can I link my community to it’ is part of the thinking here for me. How do I turn the hyper-linked ‘fact checking’ from a bug into a feature and augment the teaching of the Bible that way?

This means, in my preaching, I’ve moved away from a few sacred cows, and I’m exploring what it looks like to preach to a generation of people I hope will be treating the Bible as a rich hyperlinked text — cause it is — worthy of deep meditation and that it also is compelling and beautiful and divine and human because of the unity of the story it tells, that lands us

Firstly, expository preaching tied to one passage. At some point in my training as a preacher I was actively discouraged from hopping around the Bible (and, I agree one can perform all sorts of textual gymnastics and tangents if one doesn’t do this carefully), and yet, whatever the passage you open the pages of your Bible to, or more likely, you flick to on an app, the passage has a literary context — it sits within an illocution within an argument, within a book (or letter), within a corpus, within a Testament, within a library (the Bible), within a narrative. I don’t think we can reduce our sense of the ‘locution’ — the message of a particular text — to the sentence, or words, before us — because the Bible is hyperlinked, and the whole context frames our understanding of the concepts the words used evoke, and the narrative that frames it. The obvious way to do this is to not simply go to the New Testament, from the Old, to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, but to the Old Testament, from the New, to show the same. There are often direct quotes of the Old, in the New, that make this straightforward — the trick is to find not just quotes but allusions; imagery and evocative themes — geography even (ask my church family about my current obsession with mountains). In the past 12 months we’ve covered the narrative of the Bible from the starting point of Revelation — from creation (there’s lots of Edenic imagery in there), to fall (there’s lots of Babylon imagery in there), to the prophets (there’s plenty of Daniel and Ezekiel), to the victory of Jesus over sin, and death, and Satan, to the New Creation — and from the starting point of Genesis 1-12, tracing similar threads. I’m not sure I could conceive of preaching either Genesis 1-12 or Revelation without following the threads that are woven together in these texts.

Secondly, preaching small passages. Picking a manageably small discreet unit of text is one of the necessary implications of verse-by-verse exposition, or even ‘big idea’ preaching where a preacher has to demonstrate how a big idea is faithfully derived from the text. I’m not saying I’ll never do this again — different genres and books lend themselves to this sort of preaching (like in an epistle). I’m struck by how much intertextuality becomes more obvious if you give it a little more rope — so, for example, we worked through Matthew’s Gospel in the first quarter of this year and it was only by preaching on a three chapter chunk that I noticed how the parable of the sower, that ends with a listener to the word producing an abundant harvest of grain was in a sequence of parables about wheat, wheat, bread, bread, and fish — and then a narrative about Jesus — the model of the good soil — producing abundant wheat (and fish) in the feeding of the 5,000.

Thirdly, connecting a passage to the ‘design patterns’ it resonates with from the big story. I love the work the Bible Project does on how the Bible is a ‘unified story that leads to Jesus’ — but this has absolutely been my bread and butter my whole life; it was the milk I was nourished on by my parents, and the churches I have been part of since infancy. We can assume this context as preachers, and just preach the text in front of us, or we can open our communities up to the rich intricacies of the Biblical text in ways that make proof texting without this context much more difficult — and arguably make our understanding of the actual text we might build a community around richer and less distorted by reductionism. It’s definitely harder work, but, at least so far as I can tell, humanly speaking, it has been a comforting experience for those processing various Bible-related trauma.

Fourthly, prescriptive application. This is a step I’ve taken for a couple of reasons — it is not because I don’t know how I think people should live (it is, in part, because I don’t know that I’m an infallible enough guide to avoid lumping people with my own prescriptive hobby horses). The abuse of the Bible by people in authority, wielding the text as a sword, shows how fraught prescription is — and how it leads to the abuse of the flock preachers are tasked to feed. Application in sermons often takes the form of reducing description — whether in a narrative (for eg David and Bathsheba), or in the Bible’s narrative (for eg the Old Testament laws about bacon) — to principled prescription, whether general or specific. I’m struck by how often our applications are prescriptions for individuals as well, rather than about what a community that plausibly lives this narrative might look like, but that’s for another post. There are times when the Bible itself offers prescriptions — and in those times, where the prescriptions (the imperative) is grounded in the narrative (the indicative), I’m reasonably confident offering a prescription, but I’m struck also by how often those apparent ‘prescriptions’ are descriptive — like when we’re called to love one another, and then pointed to the example of Jesus, but not given an exhaustive set of specific behaviours. Even then I find myself moving towards description, or not being specific at all but letting the story itself, and the space we make around it as a community to have it sink into our bones and imaginations might actually be what produces the changed lives. I’m also hesitant because in a diverse church community I wonder if descriptive application, or simply the telling of the story or unpacking the meaning of the text and inviting people to find life not just in the narrative in one passage, but in the metanarrative that narrative belongs in.

We are people shaped by stories — whether a trauma story, a family system story, the stories we try to author for our own lives, or the ones told to us by culture — and we have a pretty good hyperlinked story to immerse ourselves in as individuals, and as a ‘community of character’ where we are being formed as participants in the story, and the body of Christ.

If you’re interested in what any of this looks like as I play with this idea — and sometimes it works better than others — you can find my preaching in podcast form here, I reckon this particular sermon is a decent example of the principles. I’m sure I could preach better. I’m sure. In terms of oratory, I have preached better (and sometimes shorter) in the past, when I was giving TED talk styled sermons with lots of illustrations, and cultural commentary, and without notes. I’m not claiming to be the finished product, but articulating a shift I’m trying to make both built out of a conviction about the nature of the Bible itself, and the task of caring for the people I’ve been tasked to care for.

I’m aware, too, that there are other ‘speaking roles’ in the life of the church that aren’t simply preaching/teaching — that encouragement, prophecy, exhortation, rebuke — are all types of speech that are grounded, too, in the Scriptures and part of using it. I’m sure the public speaking bits of a Sunday service can, and should, include those types of speech — just as I’m also sure that some of these types of speech need to be grounded in people having been given a hyper-linked Bible and the wonder at the one who inspired it first, and can happen in the context of safe and secure relationships — within a community, with the person doing the speaking, and with God. I’ve had much more profound and fruitful pastoral conversations with people dealing with the sorts of traumas I’ve described above, where the Bible has been open on the table, as a result of this framework than I might have had if I’d simply yelled clobber passages at them from the pulpit (or even just carefully expounded a series of propositions from one particular passage).

The one sacred cow I’ve picked up as part of this process — and, in part because the circumstances of our church community have changed such that we’re sharing a space, and a gathering, with people from a Church of Christ — is weekly communion and the tying of the ministry of the word to the ministry of the sacraments (or, as should be the case ‘the ministry of the word and sacrament’) — where communion itself is an invitation to participate in the application of the text, and the community shaped by the text, and where, a couple of times, joining together in making promises around a baptism has been the application too. Each sermon essentially culminates in an invitation to see ourselves as partakers in the story through our union with Jesus brought about through his death, resurrection, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit to unite us with him and each other. It’s not a silver bullet, but it has been a good discipline for me to make sure my sermons from a hyper-linked Bible are linked to the Gospel, and to our practice of remembering and proclaiming the Gospel to one another as we gather.

A storied tribute to Eternity News

My association with Eternity News, such as it was, began in 2009 (Tuesday the 4th of August to be precise — I keep all my emails thanks to the wonders of gmail). On this auspicious date the founding editor (and founder) John Sandeman emailed me to tell me someone’d suggested I’d be moderately “good at collecting off the wall internet stuff at least vaguely about Christianity.”

I wrote back: “Sounds good. Count me in.”

That was basically the core business of one of the earliest iterations of my blog, and I must’ve given it a go at least once, because, right here in the Obadiah Slope column from Eternity’s second print edition I’m named as Eternity’s “net spy,” that was right about the time the gossip column in the local paper in North Queensland (the Townsville Bulletin) had called me a “PR Spin Twit” in a hatchet job on my CEO, so “net spy” was quite flattering and an association that would last over a decade was born. Here’s a PDF proof John sent me of my first cameo in the paper.

In our email back and forth, as John sounded me out on what sort of correspondent I might be, he outlined his vision for Eternity (as well as being a proper print news outlet), and why I might get on board sharing stories from the far reaches of Queensland. He said:

“We need to report on what God is doing in Queensland. Occasionally we will have to report a church split or something negative, but we really want to dig out the good things that are going on. People stories, new movements, old churches stirring, reconciliation, church plants, Christians campaigning for social justice, and against bad stuff.”

I believed then — and I still believe now — that a news outlet reporting on these stories not just in Queensland, but around Australia, is a good thing for the church. At various times in Eternity’s history I was a Queensland correspondent for a locally focused section of the print edition, where I was even described as “Eternity’s Nathan Campbell” — an upgrade from “net spy.”

I’ve waxed lyrical about Eternity’s broad table approach to reporting — and opinion columning — in the polarised church and media landscape we find ourselves in, and was a supporter of a shift in content strategy towards sharing ‘seriously good news’ they made after a review in around 2015 (see John’s comment on this post of mine, I had a great phone conversation with the review team, that I still remember, standing in the carpark of a hospital in Brisbane). I said then what I’ll say now — the Aussie Christian media landscape needs less echo chambers that draw boundaries, and more platforms that host conversations between people who disagree. I recognise that its table was not as big or inclusive as people in the progressive arm of the church would like it to have been (the comments section on any Eternity article on Facebook made this clear, so did the boycotts, typically from friends of mine on the Christian left). I recognise too that the decision to include voices from the Christian right in recent years, while excluding the left (with a boundary drawn around sexual orthopraxy rather than creedal orthodoxy), caused significant controversy.

The recently announced change in direction at Eternity saddens me for a whole host of reasons. Australia is not a huge media landscape in itself, but the Christian publishing section of the market is even smaller. And I’d love us to have institutions like Eternity to report on the sorts of things John had Eternity reporting on from its earliest days. I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter (and contributor) to Soul Tread, a print only Christian publication (that has recently published edition 7) for exactly this reason. I was struck by the editorial review of my first piece for Soul Tread, where the editor pointed out that much of my writing online is given to deconstruction, and analysis, of problems in the church while she’d love me to articulate a constructive vision for an alternative. I love a good editor. And John, and his team at Eternity have been that for me. Eternity has offered a platform for seriously good news, and for both deconstruction and construction.

I have made much of my early association with Eternity above, but I was never as connected to the project as I’d have liked — it’s not my day job after all, and I have three young children who rightly demand my attention. And at this point I want to insert a disclaimer, cause, right now, I’m going to engage in some of that deconstruction I’ve just mentioned above. And I want to make it clear that this is speculation from a passionately interested, and kinda connected, outsider — writing as a blogger — rather than inside knowledge backed up by investigation and evidence. It is opinion. It comes from someone who wants to see story telling organisations like Eternity succeed as something more than the advertising arm of a Christian institution (no matter how noble that institution — seriously, I’m not here to paint the Bible Society as the bad guy in this story).

I’m thankful, for the team’s investigative skills and courage and the way they’ve tackled significant stories in the life of the church, and for John’s stewardship of a section of the public conversation about the church in Australia. If you look at my ‘author’ page on Eternity (screenshot below), I’m thankful for the mix of articles of mine they chose to publish over the years (they’re not all here, cause some were in the print era). I think they were bold to publish some of them, and, to some extent, I was probably the most progressive columnist in their network — right back from when they published my list of reasons I would not tell people how to vote in the plebiscite. John has rightly always been keen to point out my conservative credentials too — I remain an ordained minister in one of the most theologically conservative denominations in the country.

I believe the decision at Eternity to broaden the table from centre-to-centre-right to include voices from the hard right was made, so far as I can discern, as the beginning of the end of what, in newsrooms, is called “the separation of church and state” — commercial imperatives (the state) should be kept at arms length from reporting content (the church). There was obvious pressure being exerted on the Bible Society, and so on Eternity because certain groups in the Aussie landscape perceived, in its centrism, a ‘woke bias’ — while, at the same time, my friends on the left were boycotting Eternity over stories around race and sexuality. This, I believe, led to the inclusion of new columnists as proof that Eternity was not a lefty rag devoted to fomenting woke politics and the social Gospel. I am aware of the consternation this caused the existing stable of contributors to Eternity — because I was one, and because of group chats. I believe it placed the ‘church’ part of Eternity in an invidious position, and the pressure they were placed under from the Christian left and the Christian right is, I think, proof that the newsroom was fulfilling a ‘mediatorial’ role of sorts. There was a certain sort of integrity that meant the same invitation to contribute opinion columns was not extended further to the left — something John discussed in an editorial — but, here’s my speculation — let’s call it me being a ‘net spy’ again — I wonder if the push to include voices from the hard right was a test of integrity that the newsroom could not bear as the ‘state’ started exerting more pressure. If Eternity is a victim of the very culture war it gave space to report — and to call out.

The evidence that sends me towards this hunch rests on the article I wrote for Eternity that you will not find on my author page. In early March 2021, as Eternity began platforming conservative writers like James Macpherson (March 2), and as these group chats between contributors exploded with concern that the nature of the platform might be shifting under this pressure, I pitched and contributed a piece to Eternity with the aim of proving the ‘big table’ vision had legs, and that maintaining a connection and challenging presence in response to the pieces by Macpherson, that courted a market further to the right, was a better response than a boycott. My piece came off the back of the Church and State conference in Queensland last year, and the associated media coverage.

It named, and linked, speakers platformed on that conference to a hard right movement — connecting the dots to institutions (like the conference and Caldron Pool), it suggested that in the fallout of January 6, hard right voices in Australia calling for revolution and joking about violence in the context of a “war” against ideological opponents were not offering a helpful Christian contribution to our political life, and, it invited those I named to the table, and to conversation, rather than to the fight. I named names because there was a piece in the Caldron Pool about ‘wolves in the Presbyterian denomination” that had been written about me, but where the author (another Presbyterian minister, who I named in the piece) refused to actually say he was talking about me. I don’t believe the sorts of conversations that are life-giving and transformative should operate without speaking truthfully and directly. I took that risk. I sourced my info. I framed what was opinion as opinion. And John backed me — he published the piece — because Eternity had a commitment to not being an echo chamber, and to hosting a conversation John believed was important for the good of the church — whether he agreed with me or not, who can say.

It’s fair to say that the reaction to the piece was not, in the main, people from across the aisle joining me at the table (I did sit down for breakfast with Church and State’s Dave Pellowe). Instead, it lead to threats of lawsuits against Eternity, and me, especially from Caldron Pool’s founder Ben Davis; to pressure being put on the ‘church’ part of Eternity by the State, and so, after a conversation with John, I decided to apologise — not for the content of the post, which, as I say, was meticulously sourced and still represents my opinion (since born out in Caldron Pool’s involvement with Freedom Rallies) — but for some of my bombastic tone, and for the way it fed the very polarisation it was attempting to name, and we decided to withdraw my piece rather than rewrite it, as an olive branch. Maybe we caved. Maybe we modelled something good that the piece itself invited in an attempt to get people across a divide to the table. In the end it didn’t appease the critics. It turns out those who are most outspoken in favour of “courage culture” and against “cancel culture” are some of the quickest to threaten to bring in the lawyers.

The decision to pull my piece caused a mini-outcry on the Christian left, and I saw several posts (and received messages) arguing that John should have backed me harder. John is not, in my estimation, one to shy away from a fight — I apologised publicly, and maybe too quickly, and left him on the hook for what he’d published in my name. I want to make it clear that I jumped first, and left John holding the grenade. And I regret that now. I even published my apology/retraction here on St. Eutychus while waiting for John to get back to me on a joint apology because of how quickly the situation was escalating. I recognise that caused him an awkward and vaguely frustrating conundrum in the difficult internal landscape Eternity was navigating. The apology and withdrawal was at my initiative, and I’m convinced that the furore created by my piece publicly was echoed privately, in the church-state relationship at Bible Society (I have some other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle here from people adjacent to Eternity that lead me to suspect this).

If my piece was in any way a lightning rod, a part of, or a catalyst for the trajectory that sees the Bible Society take these steps to make Eternity a promo-mag for its activities, then I’ll feel the weight of that. I don’t want to overstate the way this episode is maybe a microcosm of what I’m speculating caused this step, but I do recognise that platforms and agendas much bigger than mine have been exerting much greater pressure on the ‘state side’ of the business (see, for example, this piece from Caldron Pool by the Presbyterian pastor my piece named asking “When did the Bible Society Lose Sight of Eternity“). Let me engage in a little more speculation here — this sort of pressure — negative press — was hardly likely to help the Bible Society achieve its mission to a much broader table than Eternity’s readership and editorial agenda was reaching (and was likely to do it harm by making it a political football). And again, getting the Bible into the hands of people across the political spectrum, and any cultural divides, is a significant and important mission of eternal significance — the link with Eternity’s mission, and its willingness to host controversial conversations and highlight stories of failure was never a good fit. The state was always going to have to put at least equal and opposite pressure on the church…

Now, I might be wrong about all the behind the scenes stuff here, but there’s plenty of public commentary about the move that suggests others — on the right and left — are interpreting the decision through a similar lens.

There’s a couple of old sayings that gets bandied about for journalism students: “the media is a mirror,” and “we get the media we deserve.” These are increasingly axiomatic in an age of poll driven publications trying to remain viable in a diversified/fragmented market, where publications now ‘give the readers what they want’ rather than stewarding a role in the public conversation where they give us what is true, and oriented towards the public good. I’m also scared that with Eternity’s shift into advertorial we, in the church, are getting the media we deserve — that this shows we aren’t mature enough to have nice things. That our tribalism, conflict, and culture wars have overwhelmed a beautiful vision from an old school media man who wanted to “dig out the good things going on” and tell the stories about the work God is doing in Australia, through his people.

For now I’m thankful for Eternity’s role in the story of the Australian church; and its telling of stories from the Australian church. I’m thankful for the team of editors, writers, and outside contributors who caught the vision, and I’m praying those who’ve taken redundancies as a result of this shift find alternative channels for their gifts. I want to honour the contributions of those I’ve worked with, and especially, John’s vision.

I’m prayerfully hopeful that something good might emerge from the death of Eternity; that we’re not simply going to be left with a fragmented Christian media landscape of 2-bit bloggers (like me), echo chambers, and blokes hurling grenades from self-constructed bully pulpits. Friends have issued a couple of ‘watch this space’ messages that have whet my appetite here, with nods to a news outlet operating with an even broader table than Eternity’s.

Eternity has a special place in my heart. And it, like everything God has made, was beautiful in its time.

Caldron Pool founder goes the full Nelson

Nelson Muntz is Springfield’s resident bully. Famous for offering nothing to the town’s public square more enlightening than a little ‘hee hawing’ like a donkey — or ass — at the misfortune of others, and a few punches here and there.

The Caldron Pool is a deep dark corner of the internet here in Australia that likes to throw rocks at people and host a good old ‘hee haw’ session about everyone who isn’t aligned with them. It must be exhausting believing that you alone have the words of eternal life. Founder, Ben Davis, whose background is in illustration, is a full Nelson, an illustrating bully who runs the risk of becoming a cartoon caritcature.

A full nelson in wrestling is an attack from behind — a stranglehold. Ben — and his loyal troop of Caldron Poolers — don’t attack from in front, or go toe to toe with critics; they love to strangle any voice who dares raise concerns with threats of legal action, or letters to one’s employers (that’s what he did with me when I dared raise a criticism of the platform in an Eternity Article now deleted because Ben claimed he’d send in the lawyers). My understanding, from his own comments in another angry cesspit — the Unofficial Presbyterian group on Facebook — is that a lack of disciplinary action applied to me by my denomination caused him to leave the Presbyterian Church. For an angry mob who talk lots about free speech and cancel culture, they sure don’t like it when anyone dares call them out for their bullying behaviour. And look — people need to stand up to bullies, to not do so enables their behaviour and turns us all into victims. The Caldron Pool hasn’t just become ugly, they’ve just started taking that ugliness further and further towards the moderate right, or anybody who doesn’t align with their views — they’ve published hatchet jobs of many people within the Australian church — including voices more conservative than me like Murray Campbell and David Ould — because those blokes dared to criticise the platform and the myth being peddled by the founder.

In a now deleted parody site I set up (Ben Davis hated this more than anything else), I made the point that in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Caldron Pool is the tributary that sends living water into Narnia; it’s also where Shift the Ape convinces Puzzle, the donkey, to dress up as a fake Aslan. Caldron Pool is a bunch of asses acting like lions. Much of my radio silence in these parts lately has been an attempt to stay above this fray, but I’m sensing that others are starting to understand just how insidious this form of the Christian right is, and how, left unchecked, they represent a danger to the mission of Jesus.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where, through misadventure, Bart Simpson decks Nelson. We find out the punchy bully has a glass jaw; he runs home in tears calling out for his mother. Bart does his best to not become the new bully in town; but the cheering crowd want nothing more than for a new bully to maintain a certain sort of social order. Principal Skinner even gives Bart the ‘school bully’ parking spot.

Caldron Pool is full of glass-jawed full Nelsons; all clamouring to be the bully for the day hee-hawing about whoever they want to send the mob after on a given day. In recent times this has been the Gospel Coalition, and particularly an article by Amy Isham. I know Amy a bit from the online world, she is lovely and seeks to sensitively engage with people who don’t share her view of the world. For this, and for calling for a posture like this when engaging with the LGBTQIA+ community — Caldron Pool’s favourite whipping community — they love nothing more than a hee-haw at sexual minorities — Amy was the subject of an awful hatchet piece. I find myself in this weird position where I think TGC is too conservative, theologically and politically — though I love many of the contributors and board, and have written for them at times in the past, but for Caldron Pool they are beyond the pale (just like Eternity). TGC must be doing something right to be garnering enemies like this…

Stephen McAlpine is more politically conservative than I am, and has spent years establishing himself as a sharp cultural/political/Christian commentator with a readership that leans conservative. He and I, perhaps not despite, but because of our disagreements, are friends. I respect and admire him greatly. He has backbone. He has a track record of speaking up against abusive systems, and people, at cost to himself. I’ve especially admired the way he has called out conservative men for mistreating Christian women who speak up about issues that we men might be unable to see. His defence of Aimee Byrd when she was deplatformed by her podcast cohosts and thrown to the wolves online; an equivalent group of people to the Caldron Pool/Unofficial Presbyterian in the U.S (and there were posts about Byrd from the usual suspects here), was particularly notable. Stephen is a good man. He is not a coward. He has form at confronting bullies head on. He is not the type to embrace a full nelson or a coward punch. He dared to speak against the Caldron Pool piece about Amy. And the angry mob came for him. The angry mob hides a man with thin skin and a glass jaw. An ass in a lion skin they’ve been tricked into following. Perhaps they aren’t sure how to back out and so they double down in their support, and so they’re sent into the fray by a bully who can’t stand being called out.

He must be called out. Bullies must be faced. Not with violence, but with truth and love.

The really significant thing about Nelson Muntz is that he’s deeply insecure and hurting. He needs love, not punching. He needs connection. It feels like someone, somewhere, hurt him badly and now he lashes out as a means of self-protection. There is something deeply troubling about his response to criticism and how quickly he both plays the victim and engages in behaviours like DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). It doesn’t take a specialist to recognise something deeply unhealthy in his approach to people, and yet so many are happy not only to enable but champion him through this misguided sense that courage without wisdom or love is a virtue; that what we need in this moment is any ass prepared to be a lion. Ben doesn’t need a good punching to sort him out, he needs those who will turn the other cheek. He needs to meet Jesus — or Aslan — through people embodying the way of Jesus. In the meantime his reactions — and those of Caldron Pool — to anybody who speaks up to criticise their approach will be an unveiling; they’ll pull the lion skin off and reveal a puzzled ass underneath.

In the Last Battle the Caldron Pool is not a cesspit; and it’s not just the tributary that feeds living water into Narnia. It is the gateway into the new creation. In the last chapter in the whole series the followers of Aslan make their way, with Puzzle, further up and further in into a new creation.

“Now they saw before them Caldron Pool and beyond the Pool, the high unclimbable cliffs and, pouring down the cliffs, thousands of tons of water every second, flashing like diamonds in some places and dark, glassy green in others, the Great Waterfall; and already the thunder of it was in their ears. “Don’t stop! Further up and further in,” called Farsight, tilting his flight a little upwards. “It’s all very well for him,” said Eustace, but Jewel also cried out: “Don’t stop. Further up and further in! Take it in your stride.” His voice could only just be heard above the roar of the water but next moment everyone saw that he had plunged into the Pool. And helter-skelter behind him, with splash after splash, all the others did the same. The water was not bitingly cold as all of them (and especially Puzzle) expected, but of a delicious foamy coolness. They all found they were swimming straight for the Waterfall itself.”

The Caldron Pool is living water one climbs into the heavenlies; not some hatchet job site hee-hawing like a donkey at anyone who’ll listen. But Lewis understood the Gospel, and so Puzzle the ass-lion is redeemed when he meets Aslan and is given grace.

The light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-coloured cliffs led up in front of them like a giant’s staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty. And the very first person whom Aslan called to him was Puzzle the Donkey. You never saw a donkey look feebler and sillier than Puzzle did as he walked up to Aslan; and he looked, beside Aslan, as small as a kitten looks beside a St. Bernard. The Lion bowed down his head and whispered something to Puzzle at which his long ears went down; but then he said something else at which the ears perked up again.

The crucified and risen Jesus who ‘turned the other cheek’ and responded to mistreatment with blessing (as he commands us to) makes me look small and kitten like; he exposes human bullies for what they are. And when we act the same way, it has a similar effect.

I’m not perfect in any of this — I’ve lashed out plenty of times responding to my own mistreatment — but I’m thankful for the grace under fire I’ve seen modelled by others this week. And I won’t stay silent while people like Amy and Stephen are attacked, because I didn’t love it when people stayed silent when the mob came for me. I need to keep seeing Jesus in the response of those who respond to hate with love.

When Ben sees this he’ll almost certainly come at me; there’ll be a mob calling me out as some sort of chinless liberal (that’s what they called Stephen though, and I’m definitely more to the left politically than he is). He’ll wave his arms and threaten legal action and try to silence those who speak out; but bullies operate using fear and an angry mob. And I am not afraid of Ben. I just hope somehow, sometime, he meets Jesus and repents.

A minority (or majority) report on the Presbyterian Assembly about vaccine passports

First there was the dress.

Then there was Laurel/Yanny.

Now there’s the decision of the Special Assembly of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly of Australia that met yesterday to discuss vaccines and public worship.

Eternity News has reported a version of events (and the decision) from yesterday’s meeting that does not align with my perception of the meeting, or its decision, in a variety of ways, and nor does it align with the perception of others. And yet, there can be no doubt that all the parties left the meeting yesterday perceiving the object of the meeting in different ways — such that we all left reasonably satisfied, and committed to the courses of action and positions we took into the meeting.

I’ve been in contact with the editor of Eternity, and am aware that the source quoted in the piece, one of the movers of the original motions voted on, is likely to have been his interpretive guide regarding the decision of the Assembly and its implications.

So. To set the record straighter, inasmuch as that was possible with Laurel and the blue dress…

Here’s my understanding of the meeting, the decision, and its implications. General Assemblies of Australia are conducted in open court, unless otherwise determined, and so the substance of this meeting is public.

As Eternity reports, Mark Powell and Darren Middleton brought what is called an ‘overture’ to a special assembly that was called by a group of ministers and elders from around the country. It should be acknowledged that both these gentlemen are fully vaccinated, believe the vaccines to be a reasonable response to the Covid pandemic, believe the pandemic to be serious enough to require government interventions (including social distancing), and are more concerned about the prospect of excluding healthy (though unvaccinated) people from a community gathering when those people do not pose a risk to the vaccinated but to other unvaccinated people (and where the vaccinated people who might carry non-symptomatic Covid are a risk to the unvaccinated). Their point was that risk management responsibilities are complex, and our general principle should be not to exclude healthy people from worship services and their original motions were supportive of the idea that unwell people should continue to be excluded from the gathering.

The first step in proceedings was establishing that the Moderator of the GAA had competently called a meeting — under the Basis of Union of our federated church, the GAA is responsible for matters of doctrine and public worship. It was the contention of the movers of the overture that this matter relates to both doctrine (around areas of church and state and Christian liberty) and public worship (questions of who should be included in gatherings around word and sacrament). Others had doubts about the competency of the motion and whether the question was one of doctrine and worship — where there is broad agreement on the principles — or governance and wisdom/prudence at a local level (best left in the hands of the State Assemblies and local sessions and Committees of Management (bodies of elders and managers). Because the movers of the motion were determined to keep the question at the ‘principial’ level rather than mandating particular actions/requirements for state and local bodies (noting that different states will have different legal frameworks and health situations), the assembly voted that it did indeed have capacity to make declarations at the general principal level — but whether it would’ve been competent to be more directive to local congregations was not on the table (and would, I suspect, have been an area of more contention).

The original overture from the movers used language that concerned many of us — and that was the subject of revision and debate. There is no doubt that for some of the people in the Zoom, the implications of the language being used were those suggested in the Eternity piece, but such implications were not for this court to decide, nor could the court make such decisions under its remit/authority (nor could it given that every state will have different legislative frameworks to navigate).

Some of the preamble to the Overture read:

  • “It would appear to be inevitable that, when lockdowns are lifted, unvaccinated persons, both Presbyterians and visitors, will seek to join in public worship and other church activities.
  • Vaccine certificates (passports) are now being considered by governments and business operators so that access to services, buildings or public places may be granted or denied depending on a person’s vaccination status, raising the potential for societal segregation.
  • As people struggle to maintain both liberty and love, the unequal treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated people and the implications of vaccine passports may become divisive and threaten the unity of the Church, especially if State governments require vaccine certificates (passports) for attendance at religious gatherings.

Some of the arguments around the exclusion of unvaccinated people made this not so much an issue of conscience but of two classes of people — like the Jew/Gentile distinction in the first century church, where Jesus did indeed remove the dividing wall of hostility. I am not convinced by that line of argument, personally, and think that if there’s a New Testament principle to apply it’s the stronger/weaker brother principle around food sacrificed to idols (and other matters Paul applies this principle to); and I’m not convinced that all vaccine hesitancy is equal; some of it is the result of diabolical twisting of scriptures and misinformation campaigns — and we’re meant to be people of truth (see, for example, the way people are making comparisons between vaccine passports and the mark of the beast in Revelation). That said, I do think there is a conscience issue here that is worth grappling with in the context of our spiritual union with Christ and the way we express that in gathering as people.

The three original points of the Overture read:

  1. Exhort all members and ministers to work hard at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, treating issues of vaccination as a matter of liberty of conscience not determined by church law (Rom. 14:22, 15:4; WCF chapter 20).
  2. Declare that in light of the Bible’s teaching on the free offer of the gospel and the unity of the Church that no Presbyterian Church should deny entry to unvaccinated people for the public worship of God (Matt. 28:19-20; Gal.3:28; Jas.2:1-3; John 17:21-23).
  3. Remind all leaders and members of our churches of their obligation to love their neighbours and therefore, voluntarily and willingly, to use all reasonable methods of preventing the spread of disease, including self-isolating for the appropriate period if they show any symptoms of an infectious disease or have a positive COVID result, even if asymptomatic.

The original language was so concerning to many members of the virtual (or Spiritual) house that an alternative notice of motion was prepared. The process in our courts is that the Overture is stated, and received — in order to be debated — and then the court of the church will determine its mind.

I had incredibly strong reservations about clause 2 in the overture — specifically around the language of ‘declare’ (which is a technical word that actually carries less weight than other imperatives, like “instruct”) and “no church should” which again, was framed as weaker language than “must not”…), even if the discussion was designed to be at the ‘principial level’ rather than at the ground level around mandating of certain behaviours. I was quite uncomfortable with this language, and was (evidently) not alone.

The overture was received in order to be debated — as the Eternity report indicates this was by a strong majority. This does not mean that a strong majority supported it in this form, but that the Assembly decided it was worth discussing not simply dismissing. The vast majority of the house seemed to think this was a good idea, although, this was perhaps because an alternative set of motions had been circulated and it was anticipated these might be adopted as ‘counter motions’ that better expressed the will of the house — and expressed a view consistent with a reformed understanding of Government; where we understand that the Government is provided by God and that public health is within the ‘sphere’ that governments are responsible for such that their public health orders are legitimate expressions of God given authority.

The alternative option presented in the documents for the Assembly (but not ultimately debated or voted on) was going to ask the GAA to:

Acknowledge that:

  1. public health is a proper function of the civil authority;
  2. churches are to submit to the civil authorities established by God, and to resist such authority is to resist what God has appointed and to be liable to judgment (Romans 13:1-2), unless submission to the civil authority intrudes upon the spiritual independence of the church and the obedience otherwise due to God;
  3. vaccination policy and vaccine passports are public health matters under the jurisdiction of the civil authority;
  4. according to expert health advice, vaccinated persons are less likely than unvaccinated persons to contract COVID-19 themselves or to transmit it;
  5. the sixth commandment requires all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life and the lives of others, therefore congregations are obligated to ensure, as far as practicable, the safety of all who assemble for corporate worship and other church activities.

Encourage the State Churches to:

  1. cooperate with their respective State governments by observing their lawful directions in regard to COVID- Safe measures, including the use of vaccine passports;
  2. negotiate with their respective State governments with a view to obtaining alternatives to vaccination that would allow persons who should not be vaccinated for medical reasons or those who for, reasons of conscience, are unwilling to be vaccinated, to join with vaccinated congregants in worship;
  3. assure their members who for reasons of conscience are unwilling to be vaccinated at this time that their right to defer or reject vaccination is respected;
  4. encourage their congregations to foster the unity and peace of the church by seeking to make appropriate provision for both vaccinated and unvaccinated congregants to join in church activities, including corporate worship, without breaching public health orders.

Given the choice between the two options — the Overture and the counter motion, I have some sympathies with the desire to include those who are vaccine hesitant, recognise the issues of conscience/freedom are important principles to maintain, and some sympathies with the government’s responsibilities to protect the vulnerable and manage a complex public health system (and economy), and note that almost no government that I can see thinks vaccine passports are a long term solution in Australia (but are part of protecting/managing the health system through the pandemic), so it’s probably I’d have voted for the second option had the motions in the overture not been substantially altered. The Queensland Government advised a heads of churches meeting last week that it has no intention of introducing anything like vaccine passports for church services, which certainly was both a comfort to me as I considered my response, and perhaps serves as an indication that some of the fears around vaccine passports are a product of fake news and scare campaigns (I’m looking at you Caldron Pool). I recognise that the landscape is different in Victoria, and to some extent, in New South Wales.

I was concerned that clause 2 of the original overture might provide a pathway to civil disobedience should state assemblies, or local churches, decide that government restrictions were an overreach on their sphere sovereignty — so found myself more in agreement with the political theology expressed in the second.

Personally, my absolute preference would’ve been for the GAA not to feel like it needed to say anything at all here, but rather to trust that our doctrines are clear and that states and local congregations are best positioned to shepherd their own communities through this situation. Part of the ‘politicisation of everything’ has left us feeling that we need official ‘black and white’ statements of law to guide us through decision making; I’m not sure that allows us to be nuanced or nimble enough to operate in these times. I think we also run the risk of being caught up in political posturing and polarised agendas of our day in ways that suck us in to ways of thinking and operating in the world that are unhelpful — whether that’s putting all our eggs in the ‘individual freedom’ basket of the right, or in the ‘systemic/public health’ thinking of the left. I’m inclined to think that vaccine hesitant people need to spend more time thinking about public health concerns and systems of relationships (systems thinking stuff), while people on the right need to think more about risk management and government overreach.

As it panned out the counter motions were not needed because a series of amendments deliberately left the original overture with a fairly weak ‘motherhood and apple pie’ principial expression. Attempts to shift the language back to firmer more imperative language than ‘desire’ — even the word ‘intend’ — were rejected by the house, which ultimately adopted an altered version of clause 2 of the overture and used the mechanism to ‘move the previous question’ to eradicate all expressions of the proposed clause 3 (after some discussion about whether we might include vaccination as a legitimate measure for limiting the spread of Covid 19 — something that the movers of the Overture were happy to support (and that I believe was sensible). Basically the court served to turn the overture into a statement that everyone walked away agreeing with because it says basically nothing substantial that can be applied in any particular direction in this pandemic. Of course we all desire that people be able to attend church, that is, of course, our core business — inviting people to worship Jesus as we gather together to proclaim the Gospel.

Here’s the final wording of what was adopted:

  • Exhort all members and ministers to work hard at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, treating issues of vaccination as a matter of liberty of conscience not determined by church law (Rom. 14:22, 15:4; WCF chapter 20).
  • Affirm that in light of the Bible’s teaching on the free offer of the gospel and the unity of the Church, the Presbyterian Church of Australia does not desire anyone [to] be denied entry for the public worship of God on the grounds of vaccination status.”

It’s evident that this is the case because once the amended wording of the overture was adopted, the movers of the alternative no longer saw their motions as necessary.

The reporting in Eternity represents one view of the outcome — a legitimate view because the outcome is so open to interpretation, but not, in any sense, a definitive view of the implications of the principles decided — and some of the suggested implications are only ‘a’ potential implication rather than ‘the’ necessary (or even likely) implication of the principles agreed by all.

And so: the dress is blue (seriously, use a colour dropper tool in photo shop), the word is laurel, and Presbyterians remain Presbyterian in all our beautiful dysfunction.

A line by line explanation of why the Australian Parliament should not pray the Lord’s Prayer (because they don’t mean it).

Peta Credlin just shared a letter from Victorian Liberal MP, Matt Bach, celebrating that the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten had been unsuccessful in her attempt to remove the Lord’s Prayer from Victorian parliamentary proceedings.

This was, of course, one of the key ‘how to vote’ issues that saw the ACL endorse One Nation, in Federal Parliament, but it’s a campaign I’ve never understood, because, in modern, secular Australia the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in any Parliament House seems to be not just implicitly contrary to the content of the Lord’s Prayer, but explicitly against the instructions given by Jesus as he taught his disciples how to pray.

Christians should not be excited that the Lord’s Prayer is being attached to the work of our politicians in a Federal Parliament House that uses the (multifaith) prayer room for sexual trysts between staffers, or that it is being prayed in a parliament that has introduced bills that, in some pastoral contexts, would make praying “your will be done” punishable by a prison sentence.

We should not be excited about people opening their work praying words that they then set about undermining with their decisions; especially decisions built on the greed and dominion building projects of our nation. To celebrate the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in this context is to undermine both the commands of the Lord Jesus and his teaching on prayer, and what is being prayed for in the Lord’s Prayer; those who pray it, who aren’t committed to the Lord’s Prayer being answered in their conduct and decision making are precisely the people Jesus is warning people about.

I was struck, too, by Mr Bach’s reasons for celebrating this (temporary) victory in the state of Victoria, he said “it is also a marker of the long Westminster Parliamentary Tradition, and a reflection of the core tenets of our Judeao Christian Heritage, like individualism and the rule of law” (emphasis mine). He also had a shot at the “radical left” and their “woke agenda” which leaves them despising Christians and western civilisation (“many from the radical left despise not only Christians, but all Western Civilisation, and are currently embarked on a woke agenda to destroy it. They must be resisted”. I suspect that Jesus would be shocked to discover the words of his prayer being used in a Right v Left culture war within the confines of modern liberalism when his kingdom project (the one we pray for) is altogether more interesting and revolutionary; challenging both the liberal left and the liberal right, but also, if the radical left — represented by Premier Daniel Andrews and his government — is as bad as Bach says, surely we don’t want them associating their agenda with the kingdom of God, or requesting divine assistance in bringing it about? It’s like Trump holding the Bible. It’s a hollow icon being employed as propaganda in order to ‘own the libs’ (or in this case, because Australian politics is confusing and the Liberals are the conservatives, the ‘leftists’).

It’s not just Victoria where this is an issue though; this will no doubt be raised in the Federal context, and in the federated context (state by state). So here’s why politicians committed to the liberal economic order that now dominates the western political landscape should not be praying the Lord’s Prayer.

The Federal parliament uses the following version of the Lord’s Prayer (and the Victorian Government’s committee appointed to make a recommendation on this present debate used the Federal Government’s Standing Orders in its findings).

Our Father, which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the version you’ll find in the King James translation of Matthew’s Gospel. Let’s deal with what the prayer means, line by line, and why it’s inappropriate for our governments to be praying it if they don’t mean it.

For starters, in context, Jesus’ teaching on prayer is particularly a teaching against religious hypocrisy — and the sort of hypocrites who pray in public to be seen by others. The argument that the Lord’s Prayer is a tradition and that it should open public sittings not because our collective hearts are in it, but because it’s part of the shared fabric of our parliamentary system seems to me to be both open to the accusation of hypocrisy that might come from saying empty words, and Jesus’ critique of performative prayer conducted not in relationship with God, but to present oneself in a particular way to others.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” — Matthew 6:5-7

It’s hard for me to see the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament as an expression of fidelity to God, or even an expression of Christian values, when the practice runs counter to the commands of Christ about how to pray. Especially when the praying of the prayer is co-opted into not only the liberal political agenda, but the right wing side of a right-left culture war. There’s something pagan about the idea that the Lord’s Prayer serves as some sort of invocation or ritual that can be performed by people who are not praying to “their Father who is unseen” but to TV cameras as an expression of the traditions of our liberal, western ancestors.

It gets worse when we get into the content. While Parliament prays a slightly amended version of the KJV, I’ll quote from the slightly more modern sounding NIV below.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name”

This is not an expression that God’s personal name is “hallowed” but, rather, an expression of a desire that God’s name would be set apart as holy — that our Father in heaven, the Lord of hosts and God most high, would be recognised as the rightful ruler of the cosmos and our lives. The opposite of God’s name being hallowed is God’s name being sullied or taken in vain. The commandment in the 10 Commandments about not taking God’s name in vain is not about using “God” or “Jesus” as swear words; but about attaching God’s name to your actions (and empire) and then dragging it through the dirt. The problem the nation of Israel found itself facing in the Old Testament was that they took God’s name and trashed it, and so, faced judgement and exile. Consider these words from God in the book of Ezekiel:

“So I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.” — Ezekiel 36:18-21

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer prayed by Israel’s Messiah; the one who came to restore God’s kingdom and create a new people who would live for God’s name (and not take it in vain). It’s a prayer that followers of Jesus — children of God — might live with God as their heavenly Father, and so bring honour to his name.

You can’t pray these words and then commit to dishonouring God through disobedience without being exactly like Israel. A nation that in the Old Testament claimed that its political leaders were acting for God’s will, when it was clear from their actions and their idolatry that they were not.

I don’t think any modern political party in Australia can claim to be pursuing government in a way that wholeheartedly seeks to honour God.

The other catch is, in Ezekiel, that the new people who would carry God’s name again needed new hearts, so that they could be a new kingdom. And this happens (and the Lord’s Prayer is answered) in the coming of God’s kingdom as Jesus ascends to rule beside his Father, and, together, they pour out God’s Spirit on a people to make us new, and to make us the “kingdom of God”…

If we don’t mean that God’s name should be restored to its glory by his intervention in history through the man he appointed as Lord, saviour, and judge, the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus, whose obedience was an example of life lived in accord with God’s will, for his glory, then we shouldn’t say these words.

Which leads me to this next bit…

“your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is a prayer not just for earthly political revolution — parliaments who might pray this prayer for reasons of human tradition — but for human transformation from above; for the heavens breaking in to earth so that people are able to do God’s will (unlike those described in Ezekiel). This prayer that God’s will be done — by people — in God’s kingdom — is a prayer for people re-created by God’s Spirit; for these words to be prayed devoid of this context — to become a prayer that the kingdom of Australia might increase, or some earthly kingdom built on individualism and the rule of Law, not on whole-hearted obedience to God enabled by his Spirit, misses what it is that Jesus is asking his followers to prayerfully look forward to (and to participate in as they pray).

When we read a Gospel narrative, like Matthew, and these words of Jesus — it’s worth noticing the positioning of the elements of the story. This lesson on prayer happens in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pulls back the curtains to reveal what God’s law has always required — perfect holiness — and what the nature of his kingdom has always been (the beatitudes, in contrast to human systems built on sinful grasping, violence, and dominion). The prayer of Jesus is matched with the ethical teaching of Jesus; they are linked — but they also come as the culmination of Israel’s story as Israel’s king is on his way to launch God’s promised kingdom at the cross, and through the pouring out of God’s Spirit.

Jesus is encouraging us to pray for systemic revolution — a kingdom where he is king of kings — and individual transformation, lives where we are able to do God’s will because God’s Spirit is alive in us because we have received salvation from Jesus through faith in him. The Victorian government has shown little interest in either (this is also true of the Federal Government).

If we don’t want something like Christendom — the kingdom of Jesus being coterminous with the kingdom of Australia — then we should not ask our political leaders to pray these words. God’s kingdom comes with every heart brought to life by his Spirit through faith in Jesus.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer and meaning something other than what the Lord meant is a fast path to the sort of hypocrisy he warned us about. And then there’s this stuff…

Give us today our daily bread.

This seems like a straight up request for provision from God, the creator, for his people — and there’s an element where that is legitimate; especially in Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, we should expect God to supply our material needs. There’s a sort of hat tip to Israel’s time in the wilderness here, where God provided Israel manna (bread) from heaven. In that story Israelites were not to store up bread beyond their actual immediate needs; the provision was predicated on recognising providence and was meant to limit greedy over-consumption. It’s hard for me to see that ethic at the heart of Australia, or Victoria’s economic approach, and yet, there’s again more to this than meets the eye.

In Luke, Jesus says “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” He sees the Lord’s Prayer, and our trust in God to provide, as grounded in his much bigger provision — the gift of the Holy Spirit — who is poured out for those who are children of God and part of his kingdom at Pentecost, the festival or bread. And the literal translation of the Greek in Matthew’s Gospel is “the bread of tomorrow today” — it’s a request for ‘eschatological bread’ — the heavenly provision of eternal life that Jesus brings (bread is a pretty significant metaphor in the Gospels, right?).

If our politicians are not asking God to provide his Spirit — and so, because he is our Heavenly father — to also meet not our long term economic needs, but to provide daily provision for us — then we shouldn’t ask them to pray these words.

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

The ethic of forgiveness is, of course, at the heart of Christianity — and the heart of the kingdom. The kingdom is launched through the ultimate act of forgiveness. Jesus himself will provide the mechanism for forgiveness through the cross — to pray this prayer without relying on the atoning work of Jesus — asking God to forgive — is empty. It’s like sacrificing sheep on a hill in Jerusalem because you haven’t recognised that forgiveness of sin (our debt to God) is secured only in and through the death of Jesus.

And the idea that we “have forgiven our debtors” while we’re putting out culture war garbage calling for the destruction, defeat, or resistance of the other again fails to practice the sort of ‘forgiveness of debtors’ Jesus preaches about in the surrounding chapters of the Sermon on the Mount.

If our political leaders are not seeking forgiveness through Jesus, or offering forgiveness to their enemies in the way Jesus models at the cross, and teaches, then we should not let them get away with praying these words. That’s hypocrisy.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

I find it hard to take it seriously that politicians in a late modern capitalism that champions liberalism at a market and personal level can say “lead us not into temptation” with a straight face; our economic prosperity is built on leading people into temptation and having them work to pay money to satisfy desires cultivated by culture. The idea, also, that the evil one does not use the trappings of empire to capture the hearts and minds of people, via idolatry, simply because our politicians pay lip service to our Christian heritage in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, while utterly ignoring (and outright rejecting) the exclusivity of the Lordship of Jesus and the glory his victory over evil brings to his Father (the answer to the prayer) is risible.

It’s also particularly laughable to have politicians in our Federal Parliament pray these words while facing accusations of sexual assault, a grasping culture where people use power to coerce and abuse others, and where a cultural review is taking place because self-control and love for others are foreign virtues in that place.

There’s no doubt that Christians seeking God’s kingdom in the past — or even in the present, in our various parliaments — have profoundly shaped the western world and its political institutions for the good; but, we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Oz. We’re in 21st century Aus. Those politicians should do that work as a faithful presence in our community, but I would suggest that if they get a morale boost from a bunch of hypocrites praying the Lord’s Prayer next to them as they pray it in earnest, that they have something badly wrong.

In my estimation, short of a miraculous work of God secured through the proclamation of the Gospel and a move of God in the hearts not only of our leaders, but the people, the ongoing commitment to the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament is not bringing glory to God, or securing his support for Australian politics through some formulaic invocation, instead, it is the very form of hypocrisy that Jesus was teaching against as he taught his followers how to pray as his followers, and the sort of blasphemous use of God’s name that Israel was exiled for, rather than a hallowing of his name.

And so, I think Christians — including Christian politicians who may well pray the Lord’s Prayer as they seek to act as representatives of God’s kingdom in and through their public service — shouldn’t be campaigning to keep the last trappings of Christendom in the halls of buildings where God’s name is treated with contempt (and not just as a swear word, but in the policies enacted, and the lives lived by our leaders), to do so is to risk being complicit in attaching God’s name not only to the wrong side of a culture war, but the wrong side of a spiritual war. The same war Jesus came to expose, between the evil one and God, fought out using human puppets and empires, when the government of his day nailed him to a cross.

Created things have a purpose: unpacking some thoughts on ‘natural law’ and how Christians think about beauty

There’s this idea doing the rounds (apparently) that I don’t believe in natural law.

I’m not sure why this idea is doing the rounds (making it all the way to theology lectures at a local Bible college). I guess if there aren’t that many people pumping out content into the Internet, the people who do become interesting enough to discuss.

But this is a pretty major misunderstanding of my position on the created world, and one that I feel I should at least be clear on because it has pretty major implications for stuff like how we Reformed Christians tackle issues like sexuality.

I’ve tried to articulate this paradigm a bit before, but maybe this is a chance for me to be clear. This week at church we’re hitting part 3 of a mini-series on Ecclesiastes, within a series on Wisdom in the Bible, looking at wise use of God’s good world.

Like Proverbs, and Song of Songs, I think Ecclesiastes operates as a commentary unpacking how Solomon wasn’t actually wise, despite the narrative in 1 Kings, because he didn’t ‘walk in the way of Wisdom’ or ‘fear the Lord’ — he didn’t follow Deuteronomy’s commands to “love the Lord with all his heart,” instead, his heart was given to worshipping created things instead of the creator. The narrative about Solomon starts with him asking for a listening, or discerning heart, and then finishes with his heart being led astray to idols because he gave it to the wives God had told him not to marry (in Deuteronomy). Solomon is a picture of the way idolatry corrupts our relationship with nature. And so, Ecclesiastes uses a Solomon like figure and his exploration of giving his heart to all sorts of created things to find meaning, only for him to discover that these created things are ‘hebel’ — the Hebrew word often translated as “meaningless” — the message of Ecclesiastes is that these created things are like vapour; you can’t grab them or build a meaningful or truly wise life by giving your heart to them.

There are bits of wisdom along the way in Ecclesiastes, in its critique of Solomon’s idolatrous wrong use of creation (it’s the thing that ultimately explains how Israel split into two, and how both the north and south ended up in exile). One of the tensions Ecclesiastes brings to the surface for us is unpacked in chapter 3:

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. — Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

Our hearts are wired to be satisfied by something eternal — something that will endure forever — but we keep wanting to satisfy that hard-wired desire not with God, because we can’t get our heads or hearts around him, but with the beautiful things God made. We, in the words of Romans 1, “worship and serve” created things rather than the creator, hoping they’ll fill a void that only God can, and, in Romans 1 this leads to all sorts of grasping and destructive behaviour — but also, it leads to pluralities of sin (systems even) where God doesn’t just give individuals over to their sinful desires, clouding their thinking, but plural thems. In the Old Testament we see this both in idolatrous empires that are condemned for shared idolatrous practices (like at the start of Leviticus 18), or Egypt and Babylon as idolatrous systems with utterly different images of God (and so, of ‘law’ and nature), and Israel taking on corporate idolatry so that they become like the nations and so are sent to live with them in exile. Idolatry and its impact on our thinking and our hearts isn’t just a personal matter, in the Bible, but a cultural one — and cultures become blind to “natural law” or to the created purpose of the things God has made — the more they are impacted by shared idolatrous worship and practices. Calvin expressed the dilemma this way:

…the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols… The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth…”

This area of theological thinking is called ‘the noetic effect of sin’ — the idea that sin (whether individual and original, or systemic/corporate) leads us to wrong thinking or knowledge about God’s world. This means though natural law exists, all of us (because we have idolatrous hearts at birth, and live in cultures impacted by various idolatries that blind us) have trouble recognising natural law; that we do at all is because of God’s “common grace”, or, because sinful idolatry hasn’t yet eradicated the image of God in us (though, over time, the Bible does suggest we “become what we worship,” and this seems observably true of individuals (like Solomon) and nations (like Babylon)).

Wisdom, though, lies in using created things according to their natural design or order or law. Created things — that God has made “beautiful in their time” have a purpose; Ecclesiastes suggests that wise use is to not turn these things into idols, but see them as gifts from God, and so fear him — doing the Deuteronomy thing of loving him with all our hearts, and the Genesis thing of being his image bearing representatives who steward the world according to his purposes as agents of his nature. Romans 1 suggests that “what has been made” (including people) has a function of “revealing God’s invisible qualities,” his “divine nature and power.” I would call this a telos woven into the natural order, and so, I think it is appropriate to operate with a category of ‘natural law’ where “right” or “wise” use of creation (not idolatry, but receiving it as a gift to be stewarded to reveal God’s nature) is what we humans were made to do; and, where we are condemned and face judgment for our failure not just to obey written laws (like Solomon), but this natural law as well. I think when Romans talks about humanity in Adam, and the law, it’s not just talking about Israel being under the law, but also about natural law — our use of creation — and our wrong use of creation condemns us.

Also, with plenty of modern scholars (and not so much with older Reformed thinkers, like those who framed the Confession), I believe Paul is speaking about his pre-conversion experience in Romans 7 — that he is unpacking not just life as an Israelite under the law, but, because he has been universalising the Gospel and its implications so as to include idolatrous gentiles exiled from God because of Adam’s sin, gentiles under God’s natural law (see what he says about gentiles — those without the written law — and nature (natural law even) back in Romans 2:14-15). In Romans 7, Paul is definitely predominantly reflecting on his experience as one who had the written law though, but he has spent the preceding chapters joining the Jewish and Gentile experiences of sin, and re-creation. In chapter 7 he is unpacking the tension between being made in God’s image (common grace), having the law (written, though perhaps also the ‘law written on people’s hearts from chapter 2), and being profoundly impacted by original sin (and the impact of idolatry, and the mind and heart altering slavery to sin and the ‘flesh’). It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the flesh is essentially ‘natural’ — our sinful natures are our natures in Adam (something he unpacks more in 1 Corinthians where the ‘natural’ (or, in the Greek, the ‘psyche’ man) is played off against the spiritual (or, in the Greek, the pneuma man) in chapter 2, and in chapter 15 he makes it clear that the ‘natural’ man is ‘in Adam,’ while the Spiritual man is ‘in Jesus’). When we speak of ‘natural law’ we have to take into account that we are, by nature, unable to really grab hold of the created order because of sin. We can’t even do it when we have special Revelation (God’s word). Because we are idolaters who worship creation rather than the creator.

Paul describes the tension thus (and it’s interesting that the word translated in verse 14 as “unspiritual” is actually just “fleshy”):

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? — Romans 7:14-24

Now. A traditionally Reformed reading takes this as an account of total depravity (which it is), and of the ‘simul justus et peccator’ (simultaneously saint and sinner) nature of Christian life. And so, the Christian has to spend their life mortifying the flesh, seeing ourselves as wretches who aren’t so different from how we were before Jesus rescued us. I’m not interested in rejecting total depravity, or the idea that, this side of glory, God’s sanctifying work does not include mortification; it absolutely does. Our hearts have been conditioned by sin — both inherited and cultural — and we’re not great at recognising just how embedded sin (and idolatry) is not only in our own hearts, but in our societies and structures. And yet, our hearts that were once totally ‘curved in on themselves’ and given to worshipping creation in the place of the creator have been made new. We have the rescue that Paul was experientially crying out for before his conversion — the natural person has given way to the spiritual. We are no longer in Adam, but are in Christ — we are now being transformed into his image, in, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, ever increasing glory. We are not just called to mortify sin, but we have been vivified. We are not just called to stop idolatrous use of creation from idol-factory hearts, but to re-embrace right use of creation as God’s image bearing stewards who he is making more like Jesus. We have a king “greater than Solomon” who leads us home to God, rather than into exile, and models wisdom for us, and new hearts — brought about by the Spirit — that mark us as children of God and allow us to obey both the revealed law of God — especially Jesus as the word made flesh — and natural law, taking created things and using them for their created purpose — to reveal the divine nature and character of God.

If we read Romans 7 the way the Reformers did — in their desire to uphold both the total depravity of man, and the ongoing effect of sin this side of the New Creation, we miss that according to Romans 8 we are already (but not yet fully) vivified new creations in Christ. This leads to an ethic that focuses on mortification with one hand tied behind our back; because the best mortification flows out of vivification — we don’t just avoid wrong uses of creation brought about by disordered hearts and their disordered idolatrous loves, but from discovering right use of creation, and living wise lives that line up with natural law, or nature’s telos. This isn’t to say the Reformers missed out on the importance of vivification, or union with Christ, but that often our use of their understanding of sin is clunky (and that sometimes our forbearers got their exegesis wrong and we’ve got hundreds of years of faithful Biblical scholarship that we should start incorporating into our doctrine and ethics).

Our minds (and desires) are changed by the Spirit. Paul says that people without the Spirit can’t obey God’s law — and if this is true of revealed written law, how much more is it also true of natural law where we’re dealing with the very things we choose to worship in the place of God? Romans 8 says:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. — Romans 8:5-11

If people have the Spirit, they have a different approach to God, his law, and his world. We become people who have the Spirit of new life living in us. There is a massive and glorious ontological shift that makes us heavenly creatures who are united in Jesus and raised with him (not just from death, but into the heavenly realm), not earthly creatures like Adam. There is a whole ethical field available to us that was not previously possible. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus in order to be glorified; and not all of this is in the future — life is given to our mortal bodies because God lives in us now.

Which means we can live wise lives with the world — not like Solomon — we don’t take fleeting vapour and try to satisfy our longing for ‘eternity’ from the created things God made, worshipping and serving them in the place of God, but, instead, can conform our use of nature to God’s natural law in ways that reveal his divine nature and character. We don’t worship the things God has made beautiful in their time, but through them, we worship God. The telos of the beauty God made is for God to be worshipped as creator.

And so, Paul’s intro to all this at the start of Romans 7 should shape our understanding of life in and with the world (and how to read Romans 7 and 8). We are now able to live a “new way” — fruitfully — rather than “bearing fruit for death”…

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. — Romans 7:5-6

And this will involve a fair bit of unlearning patterns of life and uses of nature that come from our old selves, and from humanity in Adam — not just individually, but seeing how idolatry creates systems of sin that misuse nature; it will involve seeing how idolatry blinds people to natural law (and leaves them grasping after natural things to satisfy the eternity written on their hearts), and seeing too that proclaiming natural law, just like proclaiming God’s law, to hearts without the Spirit brings condemnation and judgment, but proclaiming the Gospel and inviting people to have hearts changed by the Spirit is God’s solution to disordered human lives, and to helping people rediscover the telos of the created world as we discover his divine nature and character most perfectly displayed in Jesus.

The Gospel might just be more compelling if we, God’s new creation people, live lives with God’s creation that wisely reveal his divine nature and character. That might be part of fleshing out the Gospel. So natural law is important. Those things we call ‘created ordinances’ like marriage, and sabbath (and even breathing) have a telos, and we humans are blinded to God’s good design by confusing the beauty of created things like sex, or rest, with the beauty they were made to reflect and throw us towards. Our job as Christians is to use that beauty to point to God’s beauty.

Paul unpacks this a little, including by providing a new pattern for non-idolatry, in 1 Timothy, arguably Romans 12 is also a great place to go to see a payoff from our false worship in Romans 1-2 being corrected by the Spirit so that we become true worshippers of God, but in 1 Timothy 4, Paul talks about false teachers who’ll over-react to idolatry by saying God’s created world is bad and should be avoided while we embrace spiritual existence, he says of these teachers:

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. — 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Now. Here’s the payoff for those who’ve followed this whole way.

This framework is why I don’t think making natural law arguments for definitions of marriage in an idolatrous culture was a good strategy. Idolatry blinds people to truth about nature. But it’s why I think Christian marriages that are lived according to natural law, to “reveal the divine nature and character of God” as we receive marriage (and sex) as a good gift from God with thanksgiving are a compelling testimony to the goodness of God. It’s also why those committed to celibacy in order to conform their Spirit-filled lives to God’s natural law are a powerful testimony to God’s divine nature and character as well.

This framework is also why I’m much more supportive of ‘Side B’ Christians; those who are gay or same sex attracted who align their lives with God’s revealed and natural law but attempt to discern a vivified ‘vocation of yes’ with their recognition of beauty in people of the same sex (attraction), than to ‘ex gay’ and affirming Christians who either try to ‘mortify’ sin without vivification, or not mortify sin at all (not recognising the impact of idolatry on our culture and desires).

Side B Christians might use various language, including “celibate gay Christian” to describe their experiences and even their vocation as new creations; acknowledging an attraction to people of the same sex; a recognition of beauty; this attraction (in the testimony of Side B Christians) includes but is not limited to sexual attraction. In the classic Reformed tradition (in which I stand) a disordered sexual desire is to be mortified, it is part of our total depravity/original sin/fleshly nature — but, one way this disordered desire can be mortified might include discovering and practicing the right use of the object of that disordered love and the beauty that has prompted the idolatrous desires.

This is where the distinction between “same sex attraction” and “same sex sexual attraction” is profoundly important. This is a distinction that Side B Christians regularly make, including when they use “gay” to describe “same sex attraction” not just “same sex sexual attraction” — that we would do well to heed. I think this is particularly important in order to be pastorally consistent. I find all sorts of women attractive without desiring sex with them, though my disordered sexual desires spring out of this attraction to women I find beautiful — a “right use” of that beauty for me is not simply ‘not lusting’ but also ‘thanking God’ and loving the person as God calls me to, as a sister. I don’t tell blokes in my congregation struggling with porn, lust, or sexual sin not to love women, or to find them beautiful, but to cultivate a recognition of attraction, or reception of feminine beauty made by God, that isn’t sexual. To glorify God and see his ‘divine nature and character’ in what has been made — including his image bearers — not to idolise or grasp or give our hearts to them (even in marriage) like Solomon did. This is wisdom.

And, while we’re on the issue of pastoral consistency — the spectre of ‘conversion therapy’ looms pretty large in any conversation like this; the ex-gay or ‘not side B’ camp that focuses on mortification or a ‘vocation of no’ and lumps all ‘same sex attraction’ in the ‘disordered love’ basket (not just sexual attraction) runs the risk of justifying various forms of conversion therapy that we’d never implement in pastoral care for an unmarried heterosexual person. While marriage might be ‘an option’ for a single Christian who lusts, it is not the solution, because marriage is a voluntary and mutual union and there’s no guarantee that any single person will enter such a union. The solution is godliness, not marriage. And I’m not sure we’d ever try something like aversion therapy for a heterosexual person, where we teach them to be repulsed by the beauty of women, we would, intuitively (and rightly) encourage people to cultivate right seeing and loving of people we might otherwise desire. It’s also worth pointing out that porn culture and purity culture have bought into the idea that all attraction is sexual, that every interaction is potentially going to lead to sex, and that ‘purity culture’ with heterosexuals has been super damaging because it ends up not being a form of ‘aversion therapy’ for the person struggling with lust, but one where the objects of lust are forced to take responsibility for the perverted male gaze (amplified by porn culture). We’re in all sorts of trouble and the way forward in heterosexual sexuality might also be cultivating a better approach to beauty, rather than aversion, or the pornification of Christian marriages (the sort described in a recent episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill). Neither marriage, nor aversion, is the best pastoral response to someone struggling with lust — cultivating godliness as a vivified person who sees fellow images of God revealing the divine nature and character of God, for his glory, is… that is, after all, the chief end of man (and so should shape how we respond to other humans, and see their ends). This piece from Christ and Pop Culture remains the best article I’ve read on this topic.

The Side B Christian who, by the Spirit, puts to death their sexual desire or sexual attraction — that which involves desires for a wrong use of a person God has made beautiful in their time — by rightly ordering their attraction (a recognition of created beauty) in order to glorify God, seems to me to be fighting with both hands – living new life vivified by the Spirit, with a new capacity for righteousness (right living in accord with God’s nature, as revealed in his written and natural law) as new creations being transformed into the image of life, and through that right use of creation (receiving it with thanksgiving, recognising the divine nature and character of God as creator, and glorifying God through obedience, while recognising beauty he has made according to the telos of that beauty) is a way of life that reads Romans 7 and 8 together, not just one that reads Romans 7 as describing the reality of life for a believer now — one where we constantly look over our shoulder trying to kill the sin behind us, rather than one that looks forward to our new creation life and tries to live by the Spirit towards that telos now.

I don’t think this puts me outside the Reformed theological camp — unless to be Reformed is to read Romans 7 the way some Reformers did, but rather, I think it’s a consistent outworking of not only the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity, but also the Reformed doctrine of Union with Christ. That is, it’s because I believe, with Calvin, that the human heart is an idol factory, that idolatry blinds our hearts and minds (as a judgement from God), and that Paul is talking about pre-conversion life in Romans 7, that I am suspicious of uses of ‘natural law’ in politics and ethics for non-Christians (but big on their role in the life of the new-created Christian), but it is also that I believe that our salvation involves our justification and sanctification being brought about by the Spirit dwelling in us and uniting us with Christ that I believe not only should we ‘mortify’ the old self and its passions and desires, but also, new and glorious life is the project for Christians as we testify to, and anticipate, the future return of Jesus.

We need vivification, not just mortification, or we’re only fighting the Devil and his minions with one arm.

From non-place to New Eden: why churches should plant micro-forests

On Sunday our church’s Committee of Management met. These types of meetings are routinely boring. They typically spend a chunk of time on church finances (yawn), red-tape compliance (argh), and facility maintenance (blurgh). Our Committee of Management does those things (and I am thankful for the gifts other people bring to those tasks), but we also give a chunk of time to environmental issues and aesthetics.

We meet in a rented facility that belongs to another church community; we meet as one gathering on Sundays, but have two management structures. We’ve recently asked our landlords/partners in the Gospel if we might turn a small kids play area that is too small to meet various safety codes into a kids ‘nature play’ area complete with garden beds and other natural features that might encourage play, but not need the same sort of insurance risk assessments.

Two of the wonderful women on our Committee of Management are passionately integrating creation care into the fabric of our church life; one of these ladies, Wendy, has been leading our church into a new season of waste management, we now have recycling collection containers for just about everything that can be recycled, from disposable gloves, to plastic communion cups, to soft plastics, to our disposable coffee cups (and lids). She’s been reading the work of Jonathan Cornford from Manna Gum, especially his book Coming Home, and sharing insights from it, and her deep dive into recycling, with our church family. Another lady, Hana, has been a passionate advocate for environmental issues in the life of our church for some time, and our Committee’s discussion turned to Subpods (a type of buried compost bin developed here in Australia), and micro-forests — especially the kind that feature native plants, and that have the capacity to form ‘microclimates’. Here’s an ABC article on a growing move to establish micro-forests as a way to combat climate change in hyper-local ways.

The size of a tennis court, micro-forests were originally devised by Akira Miyawaki, a botanist who wanted to restore biodiversity in urban environments.

Since the first tiny forest was planted in Zaandam in the Netherlands in 2015, the Miyawaki method has been growing in popularity, particularly in Europe, as communities work to mitigate the “urban heat island” effect.

The method replicates mature ecosystems, but on a small scale, with each plant, grass and shrub chosen carefully to complement the others.

Now, we have a small amount of green space to work with in our little location, but this all got me thinking again about the church forests of Ethiopia and our place in the world as citizens and gardeners anticipating the New Eden, especially as we keep thinking about church spaces and how to use them as hotbeds for the sort of re-enchantment we need in a disenchanted world.

Recently I’ve been digging into the writing of Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth was one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, and some time back my friend Arthur pointed me to his work on re-wilding as a picture of resisting the Babylonian project of perpetual human progress via empire, or dominion, particularly the kind wrapped up in the myth of progress and the rise of the machine. Kingsnorth has quite spectacularly documented his conversion to Christianity in the last year, there’s a fascinating series of articles you can dip into from to this reflection on the modern machine age’s linear view of time and progress, and how destructive that is to us and the world, to this interview about the myth of progress, to this article on his new post Dark Mountain project ‘The Abbey of Misrule,’ titled Dreaming of the Rood (“Rood” is a word for crucifix), to, ultimately, his testimony The Cross and the Machine, published on First Things. In that he says:

“Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress—the triumph of the Nietzschean will—­dissolves the glue that once held us. Fires are set around the supporting pillars of the culture by those charged with guarding it, urged on by an ascendant faction determined to erase the past, abuse their ancestors, and dynamite their cultural ­inheritance, the better to build their earthly paradise on terra ­nullius. Massing against them are the new ­Defenders of the West, some calling for a return to the atomized liberalism that got us here in the first place, others defending a remnant Christendom that seems to have precious little to do with Christ and forgets Christopher Lasch’s warning that “God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder.” Two profane visions going head-to-head, when what we are surely crying out for is the only thing that can heal us: a return to the sacred center around which any real culture is built.

Up on the mountain like Moriarty, in the ­Maumturk ranges in the autumn rain, I had my own vision, terrible and joyful and impossible. I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost—the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first—above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them.”

Watching Kingsnorth convert, through this series of articles, because of his sense of the systemic nature of the Christian story, and its importance as a true and revolutionary myth — the antidote to the destruction he sees around him in the dominion systems of the world is a bit like watching Jordan Peterson convert because he sees the same thing happening at an individual level. We could turn Kingsnorth into the ‘lefty’ version of Peterson at this point, or see Peterson as the ‘righty’ version of Kingsnorth — or — perhaps we could see in their stories both the compelling power of the Christian story of the transformation of the individual and the cosmos through the victory of Jesus that we actually need both systemic and individual transformation to come from God, and that maybe both these stories are part of the Gospel (not just one — the systemic change championed by the theological left, or the individual change through penal substitution championed by the theological right).

Kingsnorth has been grappling with the secularisation of our view of the world and its accompanying disenchantment, and the revolutionary power of the Christian story, especially when framed not just as a story of personal salvation from a dying world, but of resistance to Babylon/Rome styled empire, centred on the cosmic victory of Jesus and the promised renewal of all things — God’s New Eden Project. He’s long been an advocate for re-wilding, trying to step back human destruction of the world by re-introducing nature and trying to live with it better… And now, in his story, and in this fuller picture of the Gospel as the story of life in a Garden-City, with God (as opposed to life in Babylon without him), we might see re-wilding — or letting forests back in to our dominated landscapes/ecologies — as a path both to re-enchantment and discipleship. Such re-enchantment might even be a necessary pre-condition for sharing the Gospel story in a disenchanted, secular, age. Kingsnorth’s conversion demonstrates how powerful it is to recognise the truth of the Christian story because one has first been disenchanted by the Babylonian myth of progress and dominion, and re-enchanted in the hunt for alternatives. If re-enchantment of the natural world is coupled with a right view of nature as a created good that reveals the divine nature and character of God, then this might help us live and tell a more compelling version of the Christian story.

It may also be that stories (or myths), like Kingsnorth’s fiction, can help us see the world this way. Maybe Tolkien and Lewis were onto something in their desires for us to grapple both with grand stories (myths or fairytales) and nature as spiritual disciplines that help us see God, his world, and our place in it, rightly.

As C.S Lewis said, “the fairy tale stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Stories might be a path to re-enchantment, and re-enchantment might be a path back to God in the machine age. Lewis’ first lecture at Cambridge was all about the way machines drove us into the post-Christian, secular, context we now find ourselves in.

Tolkien wrote a poem called Mythopoeia, about his friend C.S Lewis a man of whom he said “you look at trees, and label them just so…” Lewis’ view of the almost sacramental function of the natural world was not quite enough for Tolkien… he also wrote this letter to a newspaper about his love for trees and how that stands as a testimony against the machine-loving enemy (the same sort of Babylonian empire he represents in Middle Earth with Sauron and Mordor):

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

It would be possible to idolise nature… not just to rightly love it… to turn a sort of sacramental view of creation and our role in it into pagan worship of trees rather than a recognition of God’s role as God, creation’s role in testifying to his glory and divine nature, and our priestly image bearing role as representing this nature as we steward his world towards this purpose, but how we use and interact with the physical world is a testimony to how we understand God and the world. Our participation in the world, and our use of space, has to be different to Babylon’s; our spaces and use of the world has to be forming us as different people being transformed into the image of the living God we meet in Jesus, not the gods of Babylon.

Which brings me to how we shape, and steward, church spaces — and why planting micro-forests might be an anti-Babylonian act. There’s incredible historical rationale for the idea that church architecture shapes the people who inhabit these spaces — habitats do, indeed, shape habits. Aesthetics form ethics. Whether this was in the houses and tables of the early church — which reinforced the truth that Christians (regardless of social status) were part of a new family, or household (or “economy” — the word “economy” being derived from the greek words for ‘household’ (oikos) and ‘use or rule’ (nomos), or in the grand cathedrals deliberately built to reinforce both the stories of the faith (in stain glass and statues), and the shape of the Gospel (with a cruciform floor plan, and the highest point of the steeple, which reached to the heavens, being situated at the junction of that cross, where the communion table sits… this isn’t new. In fact, the Old Testament Temple with its Eden undertones, and the cosmic-geography reinforcing “Holy of holies” also served to form a people for life in the world.

We don’t do that now. I wrote a bit about the idea of church spaces as ‘non-places’ when I was writing down my ideas around the ‘New Eden Project’ (cause everyone needs a manifesto… right…). In philosophical terms, non-places are places like airports; places designed to feel the same, to be generic, to be “places of transience where humans feel anonymous” — they are specifically designed not to form us in the way that architecture does, and yet, by their very nature (and dominance of the modern landscape) they deform us, because they become blank canvases where Babylon’s capitalist machine can bombard us with visual advertising and erode our ability to pay attention. There’s a great Eucatastrophe episode called “Resisting Secular Space” that digs into this, and a follow up about “Sacrifice Zones” that is related.

Non-places are also ‘thin spaces’ rather than ‘thick ones’, they ground us in the ‘immanence’ of the here and now, rather than inviting us to connect with something transcendent. There’s a reason many people, like Kingsnorth, find an urge towards the transcendent in nature and beauty. The philosopher Charles Taylor would say life in the ‘secular age’ where we’re quite disenchanted and ‘ensconced in immanence’ features these occasional moments of ‘frisson’ or the haunting sense that something bigger than us might be out there. Our modern church spaces — especially black box auditoriums filled with technology — are not spaces that will throw us towards the transcendent with this haunting moments, but ground us in the day to day myth of the machine. Churches that create multipurpose facilities that are architecturally generic, or who meet in public facilities that are function rooms or the like, have the disadvantage that our spaces aren’t working to form us in the Christian story — but they’re also not neutral — they’re forming us in generic ‘non-spaceness’… Often we take black box spaces (like the theatre our church met in for a few years) and use lighting and other technology to create “atmosphere,” and yet, as Jamie Smith observes, we end up bringing the atmosphere of the cinema or shopping centre into the church and just forming little consumers, or citizens of Babylon, creations of the machine myth of progress, while preaching Jesus.

When you think about the story of Genesis 1-3 in these terms, Adam and Eve found themselves in a garden temple in the heart of an ordered cosmos. They were created as God’s ‘image bearing’ rulers of this ordered world, called to “be fruitful and multiply” as they represented God’s heavenly rule and relationship with creation in their own rule and relationships. They were placed in this garden and commanded to operate like priests in a temple (the ‘guard and keep’ words in God’s instructions to Adam are what priests did in the Temple later in the Old Testament). They were in a place — a fruitful garden — embedded in relationship with God — that was meant to form them as people, and be where they carried out the task of stewarding creation. Their exile from the Garden, like Israel’s exile from the Land, and from access to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was a move from space designed to form them as God’s people into non-space — not yet cultivated land outside of Eden, or, in Israel’s case, into the deforming space of Babylon; cut off from one of the sources of their spiritual formation (the cultic life of Israel with its Temple, sacrifices, feasts, and festivals). Our re-creation as “Temples of God’s Spirit,” through Jesus, and the picture of his return in Revelation 21-22 gives us a new pattern of ‘gardening’ as God’s priests in a world that’s a lot like Babylon (but one where we are home with God, rather than exiled from him).

Perhaps there’s something to that advice Jeremiah gives to Israel as they live in Babylon — the idea that they might cultivate little Edens in the middle of a city built on an utterly different dominion myth (one like the progress myth we find in the air we breath). The less famous bit before he says “seek the welfare of the city”:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”

Israel is to live its story because the God of Israel is the Lord of hosts — the most high — and Babylon’s story of humanity; its gods and images of gods — are not the path to, or pattern for, life. And so, planting little gardens — little Edens — and eating the produce might just be an act of rebellion against the dominant religious myths of their time…

Planting micro-forests — or at least thinking intentionally about our spaces and their structure and how we model and liturgise ourselves into being stewards of the environment rather than slaves to the machine — is an act of deep resistence.

So our Committee of Management meeting, though a routine piece of ‘church machinery’ was deeply spiritually refreshing for me, because it’s a joy to be led on this journey to resistance, and taking part in it, beside people who’ve caught this vision for life in God’s kingdom in a way that transforms even what we put in the bin and plant in the ground. Our Committee of Management is committed to a different sort of ‘household management’ — to being the household of God — which means we’re pursuing a different sort of economic management, and trying to create a different sort of ecology. Which is a beautiful thing.

If your church has some vacant green space — maybe space you’ve designated for new buildings, a playground, or an expansion of the carpark — why not plant a forest instead?

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine.

Paul Kingsnorth

On venues and hospitality

I feel like I’ve written about this before somewhere… but…

This week the West Australian Government banned, and then unbanned, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles’ roaming soapbox “The Truth of It” from two public venues it oversees; the Albany Entertainment Centre and Perth Concert Hall.

They should not have done this — and not just for commercial reasons (though that was the lever pulled, if I’ve understood correctly, by the venue partner to get the event back on — which, if true, just reveals that, as in almost all cases (see: woke capitalism), money is the actual idol at the heart of our culture, not sexual identity… sex sells, as it always has). They shouldn’t have done this because it is a power-hungry expression of something at odds with democracy and true secularism (plurality). They shouldn’t have done this because doing this reveals their own ‘state religion’ — the one they’ve replaced Christianity with.

Now. My take on the ACL is well-rehearsed in these parts — I’m not a fan.

So much so that Martyn has blocked me (or refused to host my views he finds troubling) on his Facebook page. That’s arguably a private space, and, sure, he’s quite welcome to block me if he doesn’t want to hear criticism of his brand of Christianity. That’s his right. I’ve also started limiting who can see and respond to my posts on Facebook too.

As much as I find the personality cult surrounding Martyn and his roadshow personally problematic, a government stepping in to cancel it is more personally problematic to me. This isn’t something to celebrate — especially if you are part of a minority group. This sort of government intervention around the use of public space — the demarcation of who acceptably belongs with a voice in ‘the public’ as recognised by the state — is dangerous.

In our first few years as a church plant, my church family met in a State-government owned theatre, many churches around the country meet in rented public school buildings. Public buildings that are available for hire to multiple faith groups and ideologies are an expression of pluralism and part of the bedrock of civility. We never had any pressure placed on us by our venue (we did, when we moved out due to renovations, get kicked out of a replacement venue because we aren’t an arts group and so were in breach of their leasing provisions). The hardening ‘secular frame’ in Australia which might mean these sorts of spaces become unavailable overnight, and my experience not having our own church property, means I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that church buildings are incredibly important (and we should probably stop selling them). They’re important for practical reasons — but as I’ll unpack below, I think they’re important for political, cultural, and theological reasons (and if we were good at architecture, on the whole, and didn’t just build multipurpose facilities that function as “non places“). Look. There’re going to be lots of generalisations in this post and they are just that… general observations.

My take on cancel culture is also well documented. I don’t like it (and it’s always religious). I don’t like this decision from the Labor Government in Western Australia. Governments, with strong majorities, banning voices who oppose “their views” isn’t just a slippery slope to totalitarianism, it’s an iron clad un-democratic use of power to disadvantage anybody who might challenge your grip on power.

I’m also, I think, on the treatment of public space as a religious contest for victory (toppling statues), rather than for a place where civility and a generous pluralism might play out — I’m not a fan.

I’m especially not a fan when Christians play, or enjoy, all these games ourselves. Toppling statues. Holding up Bibles outside churches after protestors have been tear-gassed. Only advocating for our own Christian freedoms (to the extent that, when we’re advocating for someone who denies the Trinity we’ll call them a Christian just to serve our broader project). Cancelling people whose views we don’t like… that stuff.

Now. Arguably the ACL both wants ‘religious freedom’ for Christians to participate in public spaces (and say whatever they want without consequences from their private employees), and to limit the ‘religious freedom’ of others participating in public spaces (like drag queen story times in public libraries, and gay couples calling their relationships marriage). They have been, I would argue, inconsistent on this principle of freedom in public spaces. Now, as an aside, I’m not saying I think drag queen story times are a public good, but I do think they are an expression of an essentially religious frame, and that anyone who says they’re ‘indoctrinating kids’ while running a Sunday School needs to be able to carefully explain what the difference is without imposing the Christian moral frame that doesn’t want kids grappling with adult content. They’re certainly an ideological use of public space that the ACL has opposed (and, surprise surprise, LGBTIQA+ political groups in Western Australia have supported an equal but opposite reaction against the ACL, celebrating the cancellation).

The secular governments in Australia at the same time have been increasingly treating public spaces as spaces to be free from religion, through an awkward definition of secularism that sees it as being ‘not religious’ rather than ‘not sectarian’, and through a weird secular-sacred divide that we religious people have also often enforced by pretending that religion does not affect every part of our life and being.

In ‘secular Australia,’ Religion is what happens in private places, like our hearts, our religious spaces like our Cathedrals, our Temples, or our Mosques. Or. You know. The prayer room in Parliament House. This decision from the West Australian Government is utterly consistent with other state governments, and the Federal Government, who want to restrict ‘religious freedoms’ to ‘religious spaces’ — because our governments, like most Christians in Australia, operate with this secular/sacred divide. So, we’ll protect (legally) a minister (like me) from conducting weddings outside our theology and “sacred” rites, or churches from employing non-religious people (or employing according to statements of belief and codes of conduct), and some people will even extend those protections to church run institutions (like schools), but we won’t protect a photographer or baker who, through religious convictions, won’t supply a service to a same sex couple (now, again, I think there are principles of hospitality and neighbour-love that mean Christians should feel free to offer those services without feeling like to do so means they suddenly adopt another person’s moral frame). The photographer and baker aren’t offered the protections afforded by ‘religious space’ because they are operating in public (even as private enterprises… it’s confusing). I do wonder what might happen if more churches had on-site bakeries…

The prevailing cultural narrative is that religion happens in private religious spaces, and that it doesn’t belong in public spaces. And we religious people have been part of creating that narrative in a bunch of ways. I’ll pick two. Firstly, “secularism” — including this divide — is a product of Christianity, and secondly, in the way we’ve used our own spaces as private rather than public.

Secularism is a product of the western world, which is for good and ill, a product of Christianity. They aren’t having these debates in Muslim countries. Secularism, depending on which ‘subtraction story’ you believe (those are stories that explain how we got from Christendom (where the vast majority of people and the architecture of society were built on shared religious beliefs) to where we are now (a pluralistic, fragmented nation with contested public space) is a product of explicitly religious movements before it becomes a product of the rejection of religion itself (that’s a bad modern ‘subtraction story’). Tensions between Protestants and Catholics about public space like who gets to build a Cathedral in a public square, or run a school, or influence the King and so win victory over the other are pretty similar to tensions around who gets to read stories in the local public library. It’s just our religious options have massively expanded (in what Charles Taylor calls “the Nova”). This expansion in religious options is also a product of The Reformation, which opened up the possibility of questioning traditional dogma.

Now. None of those historical changes are necessarily bad; as a Protestant, I’m glad we’re not all Catholic. I’m also glad that, for the most part, Protestants and Catholics have stopped killing each other (or even cancelling each other) because of religious differences and that now there’s even civility and dialogue.

What is bad, I think, is that with the disenchantment of space brought about by the Reformation, and the emergence of ‘the public square’ in the west, brought about (at least according to Jurgen Habermas) by the end of Feudalism (a divinely endorsed ‘order’ where space was given to people by divine birthright and there was no public or private, only land ruled by a sovereign monarch and ruled according to their will) and the birth of democracy (where you need space for ideas to be thrashed out and debated). There had, of course, been public squares in Greece, but its version of democracy was less universal than the democracies brought about in the west by the universalisation of the concept of the “image of God”.

Anyway. I digress.

See. The thing is.

Churches have always run their physical spaces as private spaces, as sacred spaces even — only opening the doors (in many cases) one day a week. Reinforcing, perhaps, the secular/sacred divide. Church space is here for you on the sacred day, but the rest of the time, all the other hours of your life, and on all other issues of communal life — wherever other discussions occur, the performing arts take place, or cultural artefacts are presented — that can all happen in secular space, and probably public space at that.

We haven’t been fantastic at bringing our own vision of beauty and culture and truth to the public square in part because we haven’t anticipated and reacted to change around us, in part because we’ve been busy reinforcing the secular-sacred divide in our practices, not only because we haven’t done ‘public Christianity’ well, but also because we just haven’t been using our own spaces well. There are, of course, groups committed to public Christianity — the ACL is one (and if Martyn’s the best we’ve got… then…), but also City Bible Forum, the Centre for Public Christianity, and a bunch of other organisations out there are doing this… but my point is that we haven’t seen the church (our local community, but also the visible church in Australia) as a public institution meeting in public sacred spaces, but private institutions (and often we ‘desecrate’ the places we meet by emphatically saying ‘they aren’t sacred’, rather than saying ‘these teach us how to view all space’).

We haven’t been great guests in the public spaces post-nova, in the secular age, where multiple religious views are brought to market for performance, recognition, and even debate. But, nor have we been great hosts.

We haven’t treated church buildings as public spaces — either as hosts who hold events for the public (outside of Sundays — and here I’m not talking about the way that churches use buildings to funnel people in to a Sunday service, that’s a ‘private use’) but events that use church buildings as a “public square” where other voices can be heard, or by inviting other people to use our facilities (where we might disagree with them). This isn’t universal, there are plenty of church buildings being used as community hubs out there… and plenty of church buildings that lose the Gospel and the call to be different from the world as they seek to play host, and so end up just as secular community spaces.

Churches are (typically) rightly careful about who gets to preach and teach in order to continue passing on the good news of the Gospel of Jesus (and maintain our distinctives), but we also have to figure out how to steward our spaces — whether our buildings will be public or private, or used in a way that reinforces the narrow view of the sacred, or in ways that break the secular-sacred divide.

But I reckon it’s worth asking the question — perhaps especially those in the West at the moment — would your church host a branch meeting of the Labor Party mid week (I’m not even asking about the pulpit)? And if the answer is no, and it’s about values, then we can’t jump straight to “but public space is different” — because we haven’t got a reputation for treating it differently (especially the ACL). Why should we ask the government to act as arbiters of a public square, when we don’t treat it as a truly public square ourselves (in excluding others), and when we aren’t using our own spaces as we’d want the government to use theirs? Why are we assuming that government is ‘secular’ and so ‘neutral’ (again buying in to the secular/sacred divide) rather than religious (and not Christian)?

We have a reputation for trying to exclude visions of human flourishing we disagree with from public life (again, think drag queen story time, or the same sex marriage debate). Public space isn’t different, public space has always been religious. Sometimes overtly, sometimes just because we have a theological frame, as Christians, that means we can recognise that every social political ideology is fundamentally religious, and every public act is liturgical. Because we are worshipping beings (and that’s the heart of being made to image God).

We also have plenty of religious spaces that we can start using to challenge the insidious secular/sacred divide that is so often at the heart of modern political problems; spaces that we can use (even architecturally) to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over every inch and every moment of life, but also spaces where we can make the truth public, and show that this means fearlessly inviting voices we disagree with to the table with us. Rather than silencing the voices of those who disagree.

Identity is a Trojan Horse. Stop bringing it in behind the gates of the church

The word “identity” looks like such a gift to Christian thinkers and preachers hoping to help people answer the existential question of our age “who am I” in a way that brings people to defining their personhood in choosing to follow Jesus as Lord. But it’s a dangerously loaded term used in ways that mean it isn’t just ‘neutral’ gold to be plundered in order to preach Christ. It’s more like a golden calf, or, indeed, a Trojan Horse, bringing enemy soldiers behind the gates and allowing the Gospel and its claims about our personhood to be infiltrated by worldly ideas of self-definition through authentic choice, and the need for that choice to be performed and recognised by others.

The question “who am I” is only of ultimate significance for those who don’t like the answer you are given…. Or rather, the answer “you are given”… our concept of personhood, as Christians, starts with God as the creator and sustainer of life, in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being — the one who gives us as people in community and for community with himself, and others (the two great commands to “love God” and “love our neighbour as ourselves” are built from this reality. Our bodies and our gifts are given to us for a purpose outside our own definition and choice, and our responsibility (or vocation) is to receive our givenness and give ourselves to the giver, for his glory. This is true for all of us created in the image of God — we are to “give to God what is God’s” (that is, what has his image on it), and it is especially true for us captivated by Jesus, who are being transformed into his image, as his body.

This picture in Ephesians is utterly at odds with modern understandings of personhood — and especially with the notion of “identity” — that we are the ones in a position to answer the question “who am I” at all…

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” — Ephesians 4:11-13

You are not your own, as if your “identity” is yours to define — which probably takes some of the pressure off us as Christians as we keep being told to “define yourself” and live according to your desires; we are already defined from above, our language now simply rests in the ability to describe ourselves and our bodily participation in this given vocation.

The Presbyterian Church in America last week voted to prevent men who “identify” as gay or same sex attracted being ordained to church office. The Overture, which secured overwhelming support from General Assembly delegates, read:

“Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same-sex-attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same-sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

Eternity has published a report (by me) on the significance of this change for our denomination’s ability to pastor same sex attracted Christians (especially as this move is now a live conversation in Australian Presbyterian circles).

While I have significant concerns with the move by the Ad Interim Committee whose report on sexuality was the motivation for this change to flatten all attraction into lust or sexual desire, and with the resultant approach that sees sanctification for same sex attracted believers resting wholly in mortification of sinful desires, rather than in vivification of ones loves and desires as they are rightly ordered around the right love of God, his creations (including other people) made possible by the Spirit, I am also deeply concerned by the way “identity” is being treated as a shibboleth here as though it is a coherent theological category, not a psychological and sociological fusion invented in the 20th century that has become a profound and established part of our theological lexicon. I’ve unpacked the origins of the language of identity, and my concerns about its theological use, at length in this earlier post — but basically my issue is that the language of “identity” is almost always about self expression of “true” desire (psychology), and recognition by others (sociology) and attempts to make it a theological category almost always fail to account for both our givenness, and the constitutive (ontological) nature of our relationships to both God and others (family, community, ethnicity, body of Christ, etc).

Our own local denomination — the Presbyterian Church of Queensland — adopted a paper on sexuality that also brings the Trojan Horse of identity behind the gates of the church (while lauding the PCA’s Interim Report on sexuality, sharing its collapsing of the category of desire and lust into attraction (and “internal temptation”), and following its attempt to make a measured distinction between phenomenological/experiential use of language and ontological use of language around how people who experience same sex attraction and navigate life with that experience. It also falls into the trap (because it sees all ‘attraction’ as ‘sexual desire’ and so the disordered temptation that gives birth to lust) of reducing the call of the Gospel on a believer’s same sex attraction to “mortification” with no space for “vivification” around the rightly ordered love, brought about by the Spirit, of those created things we are attracted to and inclined to worship. It is a document defined by moral pessimism rather than Christian hope and newness of life, and what is possible for a re-created heart liberated from bondage to the flesh (basically, it reads Romans 7 and 8 wrong. I think).

I believe the paper to be deeply flawed, but found myself in a significant minority position here in Queensland, and I would suggest this is because we aren’t yet realising that we can’t decry the idolatrous expressive individualism of our age on the one hand, and incorporate the language of identity on the other, without playing the same “identity politics” game of self-actualisation through performance of our identity choices (and choosing what choices are legitimate to recognise or not within our social ‘identity’ group).

Here’s a few quotes from the Queensland paper:

“Indeed, fleshly notions of identity have assumed particular importance in our current cultural context. Rather than perceiving identity objectively, that is according to certain biological facts (biological essentialism) or biblically revealed purposes, it is perceived more subjectively, according to who we conceive or desire ourselves to be (psychological existentialism). It is assumed that our subjective desires make us who we are and are essential for our well-being.”


While the world creates identities and tribes based on gender, sexual desires, generations and political persuasions, the church derives its being and identity from Christ. Thus, we should strive to reject false labels and identities in our church communities, knowing each other as sinners who are intimately loved, forgiven and called to righteousness in Christ.

This idea that we “derive” rather than are “given” an “identity” is a Trojan horse with massive implications for how we take up the vocation of being creatures given and gifted by God for his purposes (not our own), in relationship networks that are deeply real and also given. The paper, of course (because it is by smart people) attempts to reclaim the word identity and ground it in these deep truths…

“In other words, in Christ we are a new creation with a new identity and orientation (2 Cor 5:17). When we receive God’s truth, we are no longer of the world, knowing ourselves according to its false categories or our own fleshly desires. We know ourselves as people drawn into the loving company of Father, Son and Spirit, belonging wholly to him as adopted children (John 14:16-21; 17:14-19) and able to worship and obey him as we were made to do. In Christ, we receive a new foundation for our identity that humbles our self-righteous egoism but also assures us we are infallibly secure in his justifying love.”

But if the word “gay” can’t be re-narrated, because it ‘always carries another meaning in the community of people listening to its use,’ and we want to insist on the dominance of that meaning — then neither can the word identity.

It’s worth noting that the members of the Ad Interim Committee that produced the Report taken up by the Overtures seem to be, in principle, against the way the overtures sought to legislate what they had described as a “wisdom issue” — recognising the complexity of language (and that it must work both ‘ontologically’ (almost prescriptively) and phenomenologically (almost descriptively) at the same time, for different audiences. The Overture represents a decision to be prescriptive, and see word use as ‘ontological’ — though it does, perhaps, give some wiggle room (and is significantly better than the first versions of the motions).

Kyle Keating, one of the same sex attracted members of the Interim Committee provided a thread on Twitter unpacking the consensus view of the Committee…

That report also made it clear that neither the Scriptures nor our Confession disqualify same-sex attracted men from holding office, a position which the whole committee held and for which the two SSA elders on the committee (@JimPocta and myself) are particularly grateful.

However, overtures 23 and 37 on the ordination of SSA men are not, in my opinion, an appropriate extension or application of the work of our committee. Despite containing much that I agree with, they reflect a deeply flawed approach to controversy through amendments to the BCO…

Why would I speak against two overtures which have so much content that I agree with? Several reasons:

1) They codify the language of expressive individualism in our BCO, actually reinforcing our culture’s inclination to place far too much emphasis on self-identification. What we say about who we are is far less important than who Jesus says we are, and to create a standard that is focused on the contemporary categories of identity is to make too much of them.

2) The language overture 23 codifies will likely be outdated in ten years. Are we prepared to go through the laborious process of amending our BCO every time our culture comes up with a new way to self-identify? That’s not the purpose of the BCO. The BCO gives the principles which the proper courts (presbyteries and sessions) apply. Our report argues against language policing. As Kevin DeYoung noted in our presentation: the goal was not the creation of terminology shibboleths.

He says more, but those two objections are important context.

While Derek Radner, a member of the Overture Committee that framed the motion passed on the floor provided his own context. I’ve unpacked some acronyms used in his Twitter thread for clarity.

Many of us assumed that, because the sexuality report said, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church,” all the overtures about ordination would fail.

However, debate showed a divergence in the reading. Because the report said that, as a matter of wisdom & maturity, Christians should be encouraged to leave Same Sex Attraction identification language behind, many concluded officers must not use this language as mature persons.

Since the Overture Committee did not get to hear the Ad Interim Committee speak to their report, this group did not hear them show this was not their intent. Others of us, myself included, saw language as a matter of wisdom that should not be regulated, even for officers.

Tim Keller, himself a member of the Ad Interim Committee, tweeted his own word of caution about bringing Trojan horses (like the word identity) into the camp and using them as yardsticks for Orthodoxy. But I fear it’s too late, and the barbarians of expressive individualism are already behind the gates and defining how we approach complex pastoral and cultural issues without us realising.

Before we put modern words like “identify” or “identity” into our Constitution we should first do a major study to be sure we are using the word to convey biblical truth. Start with terrific essays by Michael Allen https://buff.ly/31AAGYH; also Scott Swain https://buff.ly/3ybQYV1

We want to make sure we use a word that won’t be considered in twenty years as opaque and obsolete.

One of my favourite thinkers, O. Alan Noble, has a forthcoming book on this issue You Are Not Your Own, he also tweeted:

Our conception of “identity” in the contemporary west is contradictory, elusive, and often self-serving. We’d do well to be extremely wary of using it in official contexts.

On word use, social media, and weaker brothers

It has become apparent that in a recent Facebook post some language I used has caused some brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to stumble; they have because of a communication failure assumed the worst of me, and so circulated my post to senior members of my denomination nationally and locally worried that I have veered into apostasy.

I have to own this failure to communicate, and it has caused me to reflect on how I use words, and how I use social media.

I believe the unity of the church is profoundly important — matched only in importance by the mission of the church — and, I believe the unity of the church is part of the mission of the church. So we live in perplexing times.

I use words in a particular way. I understand the way I use words — and the way I frame my writing and my speech according to my audience. That is part of the communicative act — it’s part of using words to describe and persuade.

The meaning of words changes rapidly, and, in an increasingly fragmented age where we have no common, fixed, perhaps even transcendent basis for the meaning of words (that isn’t to say I do not think there is a transcendent basis for the meaning of words) we have to nimbly communicate through confusion around meaning, both keeping pace with the changing meaning of words and contesting their meaning. It’s a challenge.

Two examples of the contest of not only words, but phrases — especially the way this contest plays out in a “culture war” setting — are the phrase “black lives matter” and the terminology used (by Christians or otherwise) to describe the experience of same sex attraction (whether a person uses a letter from the LGBTIQA+ acronym, like “gay,” or some other terminology including, for example “same sex attraction.”

I’ve outlined before that my philosophy of language is descriptive rather than prescriptive and that so much pain within conversations is caused by people approaching words differently, but on the back of some fresh experience of this pain, I’m using this post to provide certain clarification around both my use of language, social media, and approach to relationships from here on in.

More than 10% of my congregation are people whose experiences are in the what you might call ‘sexual minority’ category — that is, those who might describe themselves as “same sex attracted” or LGBTIQA+. This is not accidental; it is the result of years of advocacy on behalf of Christians in this category who are seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus; and by this, I mean, seeking to obey the Lord Jesus, as we understand the Scriptures, within a traditional sexual ethic — namely, our church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and sex outside of marriage is adultery, and, following the teaching of Jesus, that lust is, itself, idolatry.

I’ll say up top that I’m a reluctant public commentator on matters of Christianity; I do not wish to carve out a platform or profile. I do not check stats for this blog. I do not advertise. This website costs me at least a thousand dollars a year to register, and operate. I am happy to write for external publications because I enjoy crafting articles for publication, but I do not wish to court controversy or be a culture warrior. I am committed, as much as possible, to writing constructive or ‘generative’ pieces into the future, rather than deconstruction and critique. I am a public commentator on issues of public Christianity because I am a pastor and I care about my flock. I think part of the role of a pastor is to make space for your brothers and sisters to flourish, laying down your own strength while serving the chief shepherd. I have the ability and the privilege that allows me to speak as someone who will be heard. So I do. My social media accounts are not ‘platform building exercises’, though, until now, I have added any friend who has requested to connect where they have had more than 25 mutual friends, or reached out to ask questions about things I’ve written.

I am, first and foremost, a person. I am human. I am fallible. I think out loud. That gets me into trouble — but I am a person who aims to operate with integrity and conviction. I want to pursue truth rather than brand loyalty, a following, or popularity. So I am prepared to say unpopular things that challenge status quos.

I am also a husband and father. I have a responsibility to my family. I want to live in a world where it is plausible for my kids to follow Jesus, not because I think this relies on human effort, but because I understand that God works both by his Spirit and ordinary human means to bring people to himself, and my deep desire is for a church community that nourishes my faith, my wife’s faith, and my children’s faith. Given one of the major stumbling blocks for belief in the Gospel seems to be how Christians treat the LGBTIQA+ community, I think it is incredibly important that my kids have people in their lives (in their ‘plausibility structure’ who are both LGBTIQA+ and committed to the way of Jesus.

I am, thirdly, a pastor. I love my church family. I love my LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters who are modelling costly discipleship and rich community. I believe these brothers and sisters in our church community and the wider church are something like the Desert Fathers, those voices who withdrew from ordinary life and so were able to spot the idolatrous culture of the city and call it out. Our culture worships sex, desire-fulfilment, and individual self-expression and identity formation through choice/consumerism; it is courageous and prophetic to stand against that tide and these brothers and sisters model this in the area of sexuality in ways that have much to teach us. I will, as a pastor, give my strength, privilege, and voice, to carve out space for them to flourish, and to serve our church — and I will advocate for them when they find themselves under attack from the wolves, or bitey sheep.

Fourthly, I am committed to the work of evangelism — not only in a commitment to preaching and living the Gospel as a church community, but to making a compelling case for Christianity for those in a post-Christian, post-modern (maybe meta-modern) world. I’m not interested in re-Christianising only the politically conservative, for whom Christianity aligns nicely with a political agenda, but with those who feel most aggrieved by the way Christians have been caught up with empire. I want to take the Gospel to the marginalised, into the issues that groups like the ACL ignore, and into the lives and stories of my friends and neighbours. I believe that one of the best ways to do this is to listen, and to adopt a posture of hospitality. When I use social media, just as when I use my dining room table or backyard, I am inviting people not into a ‘public’ space, but a space that is private and where they are able to enter a conversation. I enjoy that these conversations can involve people from across the political spectrum, and religious spectrum — I think, for example, the church is at its best when it has that sort of diversity in the mix. I confess my posts have become ‘too public’ to do this well; but the primary audience of my social media is not ‘the church’, it’s ‘the world’ — and my primary use of social media (I hope) is not performative ‘image’ or ‘platform’ building, but to present myself as I am, and to engage in virtual, mediated, relationship with people with the aim of taking that relationship into the real world over a meal, or a drink, or at church. I want people to engage in conversation with me in the hope that the conversation will leave them feeling warmer towards Jesus than they did before engaging.

Any ‘public Christianity’ I do is an expression of these three roles — and my social media use is not ‘public Christianity’ (though admittedly it has become more and more that way without careful stewardship). My posts aim to be pastoral rather than political; I want to resist the politicisation of people and their experiences (both in church politics and worldly politics). This does not mean my posts are not political — they are in two ways; firstly I believe the local church (and the wider church) is a political institution — an expression of the kingdom of God, and that the Gospel itself is political (in that we declare that the resurrected Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth). As we operate as a local community, and that operation is reflected (though mediated) in our ‘social media’, that will be ‘political’ in a subversive way (I hope). Secondly, that pastoral stance produces a political stance, especially in a world that is so dominated by an ‘us and them’ culture war that uses vulnerable people as political footballs without caring how hard they get kicked. Some of my ‘politics’ involves kicking the people kicking vulnerable people (and I’d like to do that less), some of it involves putting my hand up to get kicked instead (I’d like to do that more), while some of it involves asking people to play a different game.

From here on in I’ll be changing the settings on my posts to friends only to minimise engagement with those who might feel my posts are a stumbling block, and to make it clearer that I am not particularly interested in ‘in house’ conversation with other members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in that forum (should my posts cause those brethren to stumble). There are other forums for that sort of conversation but you, my dear brothers and sisters in the PCA, are not the intended audience for my Facebook profile, it is given to the roles I’ve described above — as person, husband, father, pastor, and friend. St. Eutychus does have a Facebook page as a hangover from when I checked stats and thought a platform was important — I will continue to post articles there for wider engagement. I am happy to have debates there.

If you are a Facebook friend from the PCA but my posts trouble you, you are, of course, welcome to read along, but at the point that you feel offended or a sense of disunity, I invite you to contact me directly rather than kicking the denominational rumour mill into overdrive. I will do my best to accommodate you in contexts where we are in conversation.

In the case of the offending post I both described a member of my congregation as “coming out”, and, in the comments I described people who hold to a traditional sexual ethic as “celibate gay Christians”. The latter is offensive to some, the former caused significant confusion for many brethren around the nation despite the immediate clarification offered in the comments section of the post.

I want to briefly outline why I use “gay Christian” quite happily to describe members in good standing of my church community (when they so choose), and why “coming out” is something I believe is worth celebrating — but the main point of this post is to explain why and how my use of social media as a tool not for communicating within the people of God, but as part of God’s mission to the world will shape the way I use language, and what expectations I will then operate with when it comes to people interacting with my social media presence from here on out.

I don’t believe that a person who calls themselves a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim where their sexual preference is competing with their union with Christ in defining their personhood.

My understanding (and I’ll note here that I am cishet, married, and have no experience navigating life as a sexual minority) is that for my brothers and sisters who have been aware of their sexual orientation from quite early in life, that orientation is a significant aspect of their narrative, and their experience navigating the world and relationships. If a Christian, in good standing in a church community, told either a non-Christian or a fellow Christian that they are “gay” or “lesbian”, I think it’s reasonable to assume that both the church friend or the non-Christian friend would have unhelpful immediate assumptions about what that means for their faith; namely, the assumption is that one cannot be both “gay” and faithfully Christian (leaving aside “affirming” theology and its claims for the moment — and… I use those scare quotes because I think, ultimately, asking a ‘theology’ to do the work of personal affirmation is tricky (not that that is always the case here), and we’re meant to align our lives with theological truth, rather than the other way around… but I think almost all the ‘theology’ on the table here, whether supporting a ‘traditional’ sexual ethic or embracing same sex relationships ends up affirming a liberal view of the individual and identity… and so I don’t necessarily see it as totally distinct, much as I don’t see ‘left’ as all that distinct from ‘right’ politically). It seems to me that these individuals need language that can describe their experience and their religious commitments in efficient ways.

I don’t believe that identity is an airtight theological category — in fact — I think it’s a trojan horse that slips in all sorts of idolatrous anthropology built from expressive individualism into the church (and, that, for those who have issues with what ‘gay’ means in the ear of the average punter, it would be interesting for them to account for what ‘identity’ means in both a therapeutic and sociological/recognition sense such that we should ask if it’s a legitimate category to be putting at the heart of our theological anthropology). So I don’t believe that someone who says they are a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim, but rather describing their experience — and that the qualifier “celibate” helps further answer the questions and objections that the hypothetical person they speak to might have.

I understand that for many the word “gay” is associated with homosexual practice, and that for many Christians the debate about whether same sex attraction itself is sinfully disordered (a form of concupiscence), or whether it is lust and sex (the activities prohibited in the Bible) that are sinful expressions of an idolatrous rejection of God’s design for human sexuality, such that the word “gay” is an affirmation of a sinful and disordered aspect of a person’s life. I acknowledge that for both these groups (and they overlap of course) the use of the word “gay” is something like participating in idolatry. And yet, when I hear how my LGBTIQA+ brethren use terms like “gay” or “queer” they are doing something quite different with their language and it seems to me that “same sex attracted” is a label that thoroughly reduces a person’s experience to their sexual desire, and for those in the ‘concupiscence’ camp, that seems to me to be altogether worse (eg “I am a same sex attracted Christian”).

My “celibate gay,” queer, and LGBTIQA+ Christian friends are using language descriptively to describe their experience; inasmuch as they are making an “identity claim” it is a claim around experience/narrative, not ontology. And, to the extent that they are describing an experience it is an experience outside my own, and I want to be careful to listen well to them and to not think it is my job to control how language is used (remember, I am a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist). I think it’s particularly worth noting that words like “Gay” and “Queer” have been thoroughly contested, and the definitions in popular usage have dramatically shifted over time. The language keeps changing and to abandon the contest for words is to ensure the devil gets all the good music. Additionally, I’d note that the variety of experiences of attraction (sexual or otherwise) is consistently being nuanced as people have freedom to breakaway from historically rigid categories, and so, different labels are being given to different experiences of attraction at breakneck speed (did you know, for example, that because of the dynamic of ‘asexuality’ being unpacked in various ways, and in order to accommodate the different experiences of same sex attraction, people within the LGBTIQA+ umbrella will now make significant distinctions between romantic and sexual attraction, such that you might experience being romantically attracted to one sex, but sexually attracted to another). It pays to listen carefully in order to understand how language is being used, rather than insist on word meanings if one wants to have a conversation with another person; otherwise it’s like a Protestant theologian talking to a Catholic — we use all the same words, but have vastly different meanings.

This does mean that for Christians whose experience life as sexual minorities, they are navigating two sets of language — the expectation to meet certain theological shibboleths within the church, but also, often, actively working to make sense of their own experience as they navigate the complexity of positioning themselves in both the church and the world. Explaining to their church friends why they aren’t pursuing marriage with a person of the opposite sex, and to the world why they aren’t pursuing their attraction into desire (or lust), a relationship, or sexual activity. And we want to police their language use. Give them a break.

Also, I’d note that the terminology used — specifically ‘gay’ — is a broader and much more inclusive label than “same sex attraction,” which reduces a person’s experience — and perhaps even their identity — to ‘sexual attraction,’ whereas, so far as I understand it from conversations with my friends, to adopt a more inclusive label like gay, or queer, is to acknowledge a variety of shared experiences (and solidarity) with other sexual minorities who have to navigate a world (and church) that brings a degree of pain, trauma, and exclusion (even just from normal expectations around marriage and procreation). To police that particular term because it is “only ever about sex” is to choose a false prescriptive definition, and to significantly limit the semantic domain of a word (where there aren’t many better ones) that carries much more weight than simply some sort of idolatrous ontological identity claim built around sexual practice. It’s to make the mistake of elevating sex to the supreme position in a person’s life, and to flatten a range of narrative type experiences into some nebulous category of ‘identity’. In short, it’s a failure to listen.

My friend and colleague Matthew Ventura has written about the difficulty choosing the right language according to the audience he is speaking to, and about how he uses words not to make an “identity claim” (whatever that means) but in a paradigm of differentiation and solidarity. Here’s his description of why he uses the terminology he chooses when using the descriptor “celibate gay Christian.”

“A second approach seeks to step towards LGBTIQ people and say ‘I’m one of you. We can relate to each other’s experiences of being sexual minorities.’ Of course, for the celibate single same-sex attracted Christian, there will be plenty of areas of our experience that are not common to non-Christian LGBTIQ people, but this approach aims to highlight the commonalities and express solidarity. The motivations for this approach can either be missional (taking a step into ‘their world’ with the hope of eventually welcoming them into ‘our world’ of God’s family), hospitable (seeking to bring other marginalised people in and offer them a place of belonging in a safe and loving queer community) or a personal motivation (seeking a community where one can feel understood, supported and loved in their minority experience), or any combination of these motivations.”

Now, I’m not gay, but I think the reasons he gives for someone who shares that experience to use particular terminology also applies to the church in its participation in God’s mission to the world.

Matt makes a couple of observations on how people on the “differentiation” end of this spectrum operate, and how those seeking solidarity with the LGBTIQA+ community operate and the risks connected to these positions; the risk he describes here is the one my post fell foul of this week.

By associating themselves so closely with other LGBTIQ people, “celibate gay Christians” have risked causing scandal. Regardless of their actual moral conduct, celibate gay Christians often perceived by other Christians as being deviant, theologically liberal, or morally bankrupt simply by their close association with other gay people. Understandably, many Christians would prefer to avoid causing scandal by opting for the safety of unambiguous terms that clearly differentiate themselves.

That’s a useful framework. Ron Belgau at Spiritual Friendship has written about language being used narratively, or phenomenologically, rather than ontologically, which I think is also useful. It also fits better with a sort of ‘narrative ontology’ that sees us persons given bodies and lives to steward by God in accordance with the telos given to us by his story (rather than being authors of our own destiny and identity). In his excellent book A War of Loves, David Bennett spells out seven reasons behind his choice of language, a couple are worth quoting at length.

“The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behaviour; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out. We have all been impacted by the fall. The particular challenge for the majority of gay or same-sex-attracted Christians is untangling the sinful aspect of same-sex attraction from their God-given desire for intimacy. Some find that this need for human intimacy is met in celibate friendships; a smaller group report a special God-given attraction to a particular opposite-sex partner in a mixed-orientation marriage. But most side B Christians choose celibacy.”

Another reason he gives is to speak prophetically to the surrounding world.

“Those of us who are orthodox or traditional Christians and who are gay or SSA need to reclaim our space in the conversation over sexuality back from the secular culture. While we have shared experience of same-sex desires with those who are gay and seek to be in gay marriages, including dealing with them in a fallen world that is prejudiced and unloving, we are different, and this needs to be reflected in how we understand what it means to be gay or SSA in broader society. Also, people like me have benefited from the gay rights movement in many ways and would not be able to live the open life we do without many of these wins for human dignity, but we don’t want that movement to spell the deprivation of our rights to live in churches that support our choices and obedience to Christ. We can identify with many of its wins for the human dignity of LGBTQI/SSA people, including employment rights, protections from hate crimes, and anti-discrimination laws, even if we may disagree on sexual ethics.”

His final reason lines up with Matt’s “solidarity” framework.

“My seventh and final reason is invitational. Mainstream secular culture feels alienated by terms like same-sex attracted and gay lifestyle. There is no monolithic gay lifestyle. The term same-sex attracted sounds medical, like a diagnosis—reminiscent of when same-sex desire was seen as a disease. Such terms can place hindrances in the way of those who need to hear the gospel message. When I entered the church and heard these terms, they kept me from feeling included and understood. On the other hand, the term gay is positive and welcoming for those who are gay or SSA. Christians would do well to focus on removing boundaries—existential, intellectual, and spiritual—in order to know the good news for our own sexual brokenness, and then, further, to share the good news humbly from this place with others.”

Which is to say if we listen to our Christian brothers and sisters whose lived experience we’re talking about, and we’re wanting to speak the good news of Jesus in ways that are compelling to others who share that experience, there might be a 1 Corinthians 9 “all things to all people” rationale for using this language — even if, for Paul, sometimes becoming like the Greeks was massively problematic for Jewish Christians. But I’ll unpack more of this below.

My observation of the status quo — including my own experience this week — is that we can spend a lot of time trying to decide what specific words always mean and so interpret them that way, or we can spend a lot of time trying to understand what people mean when they use words. A lot of the consternation about my post would’ve been lessened by less insistence that the words I used always mean a thing they don’t, and more seeking to understand what was being communicated. As someone who uses words though, I do have a responsibility to ensure my choice of words is connected to clear meaning for my audience. The catch is we all have so many audiences, and so many of our audiences use words differently.

All that said, I do not believe that a person’s sexual attraction is inevitably a personal choice (though I am comfortable that there is a degree of fluidity experienced by a variety of people and sexual and romantic attraction is complicated). I do not think a same sex attracted person, or a person whose experience of gender does not conform with their biological sex, needs to ‘become straight’ or even ‘become not LGBTIQA+’ in order to put their trust in Jesus; I think to live with Jesus as Lord will have implications for how we use our bodies and desires as part of our Christian vocation — as we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And this will mean faithfully aligning one’s sexual behaviour, and desires, with the Bible (that said, I also believe church communities should be places where people come to hear the Bible taught before they have decided what that means, not having decided what that means), and that acknowledge that there is disagreement on how to interpret the Biblical data (personally, I find the arguments for an ‘affirming position’ on same sex relationships unconvincing). This means I believe it is fantastic for a person, and for their church community, if someone whose experiences (including, but not limited to attraction and/or desire) fall within the LGBTIQA+ spectrum, “comes out” and shares those experiences with vulnerability and trust, in order to be fully known, loved, and supported in their pursuit of faithfulness.

So, with all those bits of data in place — the reason I use the language I do — both the description “celibate gay Christian” for those who self-describe that way, and “coming out” for people who embrace the vulnerability of being known and supported, rather than closeted, spins out of my relationships and my sense of call (as a pastor with an evangelistic commitment to marginalised people groups in a post Christian world). I appreciate that this creates challenges for my brothers and sisters much like Paul’s ‘gentileness’ was a problem for the church in Jerusalem, and that perhaps I could work harder at being a “Presbyterian to win the Presbyterians”…

But here’s some of the theological framework behind this choice that I have alluded to above — I believe the choice of terminology here is roughly equivalent to idol meat in Corinth.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a situation where the moral freedom of Christians in the church — to eat meat from the local marketplace that came from local temples — was a stumbling block for other Christians in the church. Paul tried to balance the competing priorities of unity and mission; there are, in 1 Corinthians, very good reasons to eat gentile food — namely, to win gentiles to Jesus. Paul describes his missionary flexibility (offensive both to non-Christian Jews, and to Christian Jews, when he lands in Jerusalem) in 1 Corinthians 9, and unpacks his unity-first ethic in chapters 8 and 10. He does a few key things in his presentation of the tension. First, he makes it clear that idol meat is not illicit — that to eat it is not actually to definitively participate in idolatry — much as those celibate gay Christians who use the descriptor work very hard to make it clear that they aren’t endorsing idolatrous sexuality (even if other people who use the words “gay Christian” might be — just as some Corinthians who claimed to be Christians who ate meat in the temples might’ve been). Paul makes it clear that the stronger brothers and sisters in the church are actually correct. Paul connects eating this meat with eating with non-Christians (in chapter 10), saying one should stop doing it in that context at the point it confuses non-Christians about whether or not you are affirming their idol, but that is relational rather than caught up in some prescriptive meaning of the symbol of the meat. Paul wants Christians to eat with non-Christians as an extension of the mission he describes in chapter 9 — and he wants both differentiation (not being idolaters) and solidarity (being a Greek to win the Greeks) to be part of the pattern of engagement. His guiding principles, expressed in chapter 10 are the glory of God, the unity of the church, and the good of others so they might be saved.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

The tricky navigating act here is that Paul prioritises the protection of the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8.

He writes:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Now, in drawing and applying this analogy to the current circumstance I probably shouldn’t just assume the position of the “stronger brother”, but it is clear that my use of my freedoms (knowing, as I do, that despite my language use I have not succumbed to idolatry but am using language for pastoral, evangelistic, and prophetic reasons in a contest for meaning) have caused brothers and sisters to stumble, thinking that I am affirming idolatry. There is an onus on me here to be more careful with my language in church facing contexts. I assume Paul didn’t police the language (or meat eating) of Christians eating meat with their gentile friends without weaker brothers around — because he gives guidelines for how they should do that (in chapter 10). This is why my response to the present imbroglio is to more clearly define my social media use as ‘world facing’ rather than ‘denomination facing’ — I’d like to use it as a dinner party, rather than an in house church meeting.

But I will say, too, that the idea that Christians in various minority experiences — in this case sexual minorities — should position themselves as the stronger brothers and moderate their language, while existing on the margins of our institutions and having very little ‘social capital’ within the church; where their language is institutionally policed, and where their employment or sense of belonging not only in church communities but their biological families is always at risk (and often these relationships are sources of trauma-through-differentiation rather than solidarity) just seems intuitively wrong to me. We ask these brothers and sisters to do so much additional emotional, spiritual, and existential labour just to exist in our communities. Maybe we could flip the script a little bit and do all we can not to cause them to stumble — even if that means adopting terminology we are initially uncomfortable with, and joining them in solidarity in our shared pursuit of God’s glory, and the mission of the Gospel.

Book Review: Questioning Christianity by Dan Paterson and Rian Roux

Disclaimer: Dan is a friend, and a review PDF was provided to me free of charge. Dan is the founder of Questioning Christianity.

If Sam Chan’s books on evangelism (reviewed here and here) are the sorts of textbooks or handbooks you give to Christians to provide a framework for how we share the good news about Jesus in a post-post-modern, post secular context, then Questioning Christianity by Paterson and Roux is the book you give to Christians to give to their friends (and a book you give to your friends) who are seeking to make sense of the world we live in.

I’ve written here, and elsewhere (part 1, part 2), about the power of story in a post-post-modern world — the snapshot summary is that if post-modernity involved the death of ‘grand narratives’ about life (including the idea of God), the pushback against post-modernity’s overreach — whether that’s ‘post-post modernity’, meta-modernity, or the “new sincerity” — has included a rediscovery of the place of, and existential satisfaction connected to, a meta-narrative. Meta-modernity basically fuses post-modernity with the reaction against post-modernity — recognising that post-modernity rightly reacted against modernity’s disenchanting atomisation of life into a series of propositions, and while it killed ‘metanarratives’, it replaced those big stories with stories and recognised experience and emotion as legitimate parts of the human quest for truth (even if that truth was largely ‘subjective’ and in the context of one’s own story). A summary of meta-modernity says the difference is:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Evangelism and apologetics in this age is going to look different; it’s going to look like the skeleton you find in Sam Chan’s work, and the fleshed out body you find in Questioning Christianity (and also, hat tip to Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, that applies this model to a particular ethical question — around sexuality). It’s an ambitious book — it aims to serve multiple audiences and both present a positive, sincere and hopeful account of the Christian story as the story that organises the universe (and life within it), while also engaging big questions that might be raised in response.

The ‘big story’ — the book’s first section — charts the Biblical story through narrative settings — garden (Eden), tower (Babel), Nation (Israel’s story), Cross, Church, and City — and matching ‘character developments’ — created for good, damaged by evil, chosen to bless, redeemed by love, sent together to heal, and set everything right. There’s a sort of ‘hero’s journey’ going on in that set of movements for those familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work on the shape of stories.

Though the book works with a narrative framing, it manages to teach the importance of profound doctrines, with real and appealing clarity, along the way — for example — zeroing in on the importance of the Trinity and God as loving-community in the chapter telling the Garden story

There’s a commitment to a Jesus-centered Biblical Theology here that is rich and good. There’s a small quibble I have with the way the book zeroes in on the ‘universality’ of the ‘mythic’ shape of the Bible (that is, the way it functions to provide a meta-narrative for all human people). It’s a quibble the book seeks to address, but may not fully resolve. The Bible’s story is not merely archetypal in a way that answers, say, the Jordan Peterson’s of this world who see the power of myth and archetypes in organising life here and now, but also in C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien’s sense it’s the ‘myth that became history’ and the ‘eucatastrophic tale’ that ‘hallows all other tales’ — the “true fairy tale” — it’s not just a story that mirrors and meets our desires and quest for a true self, but first God’s story about Jesus that becomes our story through our union with Christ. I think Questioning Christianity threads that needle. Especially with this paragraph, recognising this dilemma:

“Perhaps one of the most unique and striking elements of the Christian story is that it is not merely religious philosophy or ideology, for its central claims are based on historical events that can be investigate and verified. That Jesus is history is what makes the gospel good news rather than simply a good idea. Christians believe that the One who made the world has left His historical footprint on it.”

Another minor quibble is that I think while the narrative does good work with God’s presence (Eden) and exile from Eden, and then Israel’s exile, I think I’d’ve liked to have split the Israel chunk of the ‘metanarrative’ a bit more decisively around the land, and exile into the nations — and done a bit more on recognising that we modern (gentile) readers are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, not of Israel, and that Israel’s exile in Babylon represents them joining the rest of us in need of re-creation.

The way the story becomes our story is, in part, a function of God’s redemptive commitment not only to Israel through its Messiah, Jesus, but for all nations through the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, who is exalted to the highest place above all powers and principalities. Our position as readers of the Old Testament is as those brought in not through heritage, but through God’s gracious act to unite us to himself in Jesus, so our lens, in the Old Testament, isn’t only what’s going on for Israel, but what’s going on in the hearts of the Babylonians. Where Israel is ‘chosen to bless’ — it’s not just chosen to experience God’s blessing, but to be a blessing to the nations (like it is, for a moment, under Solomon). It’s, in part, the failure to do this that leads to Israel’s exile. That gets a sentence or two along the way, it’s not missing from what is an excellent retelling of the Biblical narrative, but, personally I’d have made it a bigger deal. As I say, this is a minor quibble. I do think it’s a quibble that leaves us with a slightly different question, as gentile readers, at the end of the Old Testament to the ones listed in the book, something like: “If it isn’t clear God is blessing Israel, does God care about non-Israelites like me?” The payoff to adding this thread might’ve come in the section on the church, and on Pentecost, where the Spirit descends as a clear sign that not only is exile over for God’s faithful Israel, those who recognise Jesus as the Christ, but as the Spirit spreads with the proclamation of the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to the ends of the earth — our exile ends as we are united in Jesus. And, again, this is not absent, it simply enriches the story as it is presented — but, more importantly, it shows how this story about Jesus becomes my story as an Aussie (gentile) living in the 21st century.

“This moment marked the birth of the church, where God’s holy presence was no longer cloistered in tents or temples built by human hands. Now He dwelled in His people. Christians became mobile temples, taking God’s presence with them wherever they went as hotspots of heaven on earth. And God’s power animated them to do the impossible.

Where God had scattered humanity by confusing their languages at Babel, now at Pentecost He began a global gathering of tribes and tongues by enabling Jesus’ followers to tell the Christian story in languages they never knew.”

Once the story has been told, Paterson and Roux shift to showing how we step into that story. Before, I again, offer some quibbles (that may actually simply be expressions of my different theological tradition), I want to say this attempt to move from the abstraction of ‘narrative’ to something more tangible and concrete is often the missing link in the shift back to metanarrative; part of the move from modernity (just believe propositions) to post-modernity and beyond is trying to capture the language of belief/faith/trust that is more than simply ‘give rational assent to’ — and there’s whole theological schisms around this stuff (think the New Perspective), but capturing the sense of inhabiting and embodying a story does seem to sit in a rich vein of both Old and New Testament writings and practices. I think Questioning Christianity offers some really helpful language to bridge this gap.

That said, I do think this section would sing, even more, if the language around relationship was grounded in Union with Christ, not only ‘believing and following’ (though I recognise those are fundamentally Gospel invitations in that they are what Jesus calls for in the Gospel. This is, for what it’s worth, how I understand the language of repentance in the New Testament — not so much as a call to ‘reject sin’ but to ‘follow Jesus’ (and so reject sin). This slight change in language would’ve represented a shift to seeing ourselves positioned in this grand story ‘in Christ’, by the author of the story — rather than us choosing this story as the one we’d particularly like to inhabit, but maybe that’s my Calvinism coming through…

“Perhaps the best way, though, to come at defining Christianity is to let the Bible shape our answer. As best we can distill, becoming a Christian is fundamentally about stepping into the Christian story in response to Jesus’ invitation to believe in Him and follow Him. And first and foremost that means beginning a new relationship with God.

This is the beating heart of the Jesus movement.

From here, a new life story begins to emerge as we embrace a new community gathered around the gospel, receive from God a new identity as our foundation for self-understanding and expression, follow Jesus’ roadmap into a new way to live, and launch into a new purpose for our lives.”

I have not-insignificant concerns around the use of the word ‘identity’ here, and the way it freights in the ides of ‘self-understanding and expression’ via consumer choice; but this is a pretty niche concern of my own, and I simply would’ve replaced the word “identity” with “character”, and connected that back to the quote from Alisdair MacIntyre that Paterson and Roux share up front. And yet, this is such a helpful section in what is, overwhelmingly, an excellent book that sits in a unique position in the landscape. As a pastor of a church, I found the chapter on church within the broader work incredibly encouraging.

Each of the chapters in this section moves from ‘abstract’ to concrete transformative practices and resources, and these bits are terrifically helpful and memorable distillations, grounded in the Scriptures. They’re also where the six-stage framework setup in the first section are brought to life in helpful and integrated ways.

It’s one thing to commend the goodness and beauty of the Christian story — and life in it — which this book does admirably in parts 1 and 2, it’s ‘next level’ to then engage deeply with the questions raised by Christianity, which is both the heart of Dan’s ministry organisation Questioning Christianity, and this book. The book could’ve been an adequate evangelism resource — an excellent one even — if it finished up after section 2. But section 3 tackles big apologetics questions: what if the snake was right? How can a good God allow suffering? Why isn’t God more obvious? Has Science disproved God? Can I trust the Bible? Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? How can God be good when the church is so bad? Dan cut his teeth as an apologist working with an international apologetics organisation, and these chapters distill his time on the road answering big questions into erudite and tight answers that don’t simply assert a bunch of propositions, or get hyper-defensively aggressive, but seek to resonate with experiences and curiousity — engaging the questions as good faith exercises in the pursuit of truth (a bit like Paul in Athens).

A questioning faith is a robust and growing faith, and the book gives a grammar for the sort of Christianity that can withstand the pressures of the world we live in, and produce resilience rather than fragility. This section is, I think, as much for Christians to create and grapple with questions we should be wrestling with as it is for non-Christians coming at them for the first time (or over a long period of time).

God is not afraid of your questions. Why? Because if some- thing is true, then any doubts, rather than subverting faith, should serve as a doorway to a deeper faith. For the healthy response to any doubt is to launch an open investigation. Doubts should spark you to study the reasons for faith, and upon embarking on that journey, if your curious questions are met with credible answers, then you can emerge with a more fully-orbed trust that there is a substantial why behind the what of your beliefs. Serious space should always be made for questions and questioners to explore whether the Christian story can stand up to scrutiny. Such is the hallmark of any true story.

Truth invites questioning.

Yes and amen. There’s been a substantial debate within evangelistically minded Aussie pastors (and podcasters) around how we should promote Christianity in our present climate; whether we should emphasise the ‘good’, or acknowledge the place we now occupy in the post-Christian landscape. Whether our language should acknowledge and create doubt and curiousity or push toward certainty. I think there’s scope both for surprisingly positive presentations of the Gospel to people who’ve dismissed it (the first third of the book), and for engaging with the hardest form of the real questions (and accusations) people bring to the church, even in forms people might not’ve considered yet.

Paterson and Roux offer us an engagement with questions people are actually asking, which is better than hypothetical questions that people in were asking back in modernity — there’s a shift, in some sense, that I’ve observed from ‘is Christianity true’ to ‘is Christianity good’ and even if it’s held to be true, if it isn’t good, people don’t have a place for it in their lives. Questioning Christianity presents a Christianity that is good and true, and an account for why sometimes it hasn’t seemed either.

I must confess that these aren’t the existential questions I grapple with — I’m a bit weird — maybe. But they are questions that get asked (anecdotally, I’ve now had a series of people call my phone number, listed on our website, to ask about the apocalypse and Covid and a sense that we’re in the midst of a massive socio-political moment, and those have been fun conversations).

I’d love to see a follow up book applying the first section (the story) to ethical issues and questions — a bit like Harrison’s A Better Story — not just those the church struggles with, but those that are evidently problems that any grand metanarrative has to answer (around things like justice, personhood, the environment) — places where the goodness of the Christian story shines through (even if the church has been an agent of Babylon at times).

This is a good book — one that like Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens left me inspired to view my faith as an adventure — a story to engage in — not just dead letters or propositions — and so I’d urge you, wherever you sit on the spectrum from unbelief to unquestioning Christian, to pick it up and give it a read. Maybe you, like the authors, will find truth and goodness in questioning Christianity again, they describe their experience living in this story as follows:

“We have found rich meaning and help and hope in following Jesus. And perhaps the most exciting aspect of becoming a Christian, of joining Jesus on the road, is the unpredictability of God. For it is when you hand over the pen of your own life story that you find yourself swept up into an adventure as wild as the imagination of God.”

That’s also my experience.

Buy a bunch of these for your friends — and, be sure to follow Questioning Christianity on the socials.

Dear Facebook. Please un-kill Bill.

It’s fair to say that I’m not on Bill Muehlenberg’s Christmas Card list (and nor is he on mine)…

In fact, in the past, Bill described me as a “spineless wonder” and my writing as “mainly all waffle, bubble and froth,” where I “foolishly run with all the sorts of things which we expect the homosexual militants and atheists to say,” also calling me things like a “craven, carnal, men-pleasing shepherd” (in case you’re wondering if he’s actually talking about me here, he provides a link in the comments when pressed on what sort of pieces raised his ire).

So, you might expect me to take great delight — schadenfreude even — from Bill’s removal from Facebook for violating its terms of service. But I don’t.

I do find Big Tech, or woke capitalism’s, activist streak problematic.

I don’t like cancel culture.

I don’t think silencing loud and potentially damaging voices like Bill’s actually serves the human project — the pursuit of truth.

I believe we should be contending for truth; that truth should be made public, and that part of the pursuit of truth requires airing views that fall outside an acceptable status quo and that should be debated (publicly).

The idea that ideas and even criticism of a status quo should be limited or restricted because of the damage those words might do does seem like a fast path to totalitarianism.

Though my friends on the left find the spectre of ‘cancel culture’ raised by the right problematic (especially with Bill’s inevitable comparisons to Hitler and Stalin), and will no doubt point out the paradox of tolerance, and that speech has consequences and private media companies do not have an obligation to host Bill’s bigotry — and though I agree with them that virtuous speech is costly, not free — the ability for ideas to be fully and frankly exchanged seems fundamental to our shared pursuit of truth and goodness.

Facebook is not the ‘public square’ — it is a private square, and yet, almost every example of a ‘public square’ has been privatised thanks to late modern capitalism and the digital age.

If Big Tech, and the broader woke capitalist agenda have landed on the objective, capital T, truth — then ideas that criticise such truth should not be a threat, but a chance for that truth to be demonstrated in conflict. It seems more likely that capitalism (or these media corporations) has simply harnessed a series of social agendas and the challenges to this orthodoxy threatens to undermine their money and power.

Bill said:

This is all part of the censorship and leftist tyranny that Tech Giants with near-monopoly powers like Facebook operate with.

And as I have often written about before, most of the other groups are just as bad, be it YouTube or Twitter or even online booksellers like Amazon. They are all singing from the same hardcore leftist song sheet, and conservatives and Christians really are not wanted.

Woke capitalism isn’t a ‘lefty’ agenda out to get us, singing from a lefty songbook; it’s a capitalist agenda out to make as much money, by creating as much power, as possible. Here’s a piece from The Atlantic that outlines the “iron law of woke capitalism,” a development of what was the “iron law of institutions” — that claimed that senior individuals in institutions would inevitably act to preserve their own power, rather than the institution, the piece titled “How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture” is worth a read beyond just this paragraph.

That self-preservation instinct also operates when private companies—institutions built on maximizing shareholder value, or other capitalist principles—struggle to acclimatize to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social-justice causes. Progressive values are now a powerful branding tool.

But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.

Ross Douhat, who described woke capitalism in a piece for the NY Times, said the problem with this new corporate strategy is that “it encourages cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement, their sense that all the major institutions of American life, corporate as well as intellectual and cultural, are arrayed against their mores and values and traditions.” It’s not that these corporations are left-aligned by conviction, it’s a corporate strategy.

These companies (and their founders) will act in their own self-interest and serve us, the consumer up, with whatever they think protects that self interest; it’s commercial pressure that shelved Israel Folau, not ideological pressure (which is why Qantas will partner with Emirates, from the UAE, where homosexuality is illegal, but not with a footballer whose performance threatens their bottom line).

When it comes to these big tech companies, the real threat they pose isn’t in what they choose to censor as part of a political agenda, but how they commodify our attention and relationships — and us — and the way they manipulate us and our social interactions not from a political agenda but in the pursuit of their golden god. In his stunning piece Worshipping the Electronic Image, Chris Hedges wrote about this risk:

“Those who seek to communicate outside of digital structures to question or challenge the dominant narrative, to deal in ambiguity and nuance, to have discussions rooted in verifiable fact and historical context, are becoming incomprehensible to most of modern society. As soon as they employ a language that is not grounded in the dominant clichés and stereotypes, they are not understood. Television, computers and smartphones have addicted a generation and conditioned it to talk and think in the irrational, incoherent baby talk it is fed day after day. This cultural, historical, economic and social illiteracy delights the ruling elites who design, manage and profit from these sophisticated systems of social control. Armed with our personal data and with knowledge of our proclivities, habits and desires, they adeptly manipulate us as consumers and citizens to accelerate their amassing of wealth and consolidation of power.”

It’s not the political elites pushing a lefty agenda I’m particularly worried about here, it’s that our ability to engage in discourse and the pursuit of truth is manipulated by corporate agendas who operate from utter self interest, censoring views that might cost them a dollar or two and claiming that the censorship is motivated by protecting the vulnerable.

Hedges provides a solution to the breakdown of the public square.

Intellectual historian Perry Miller in his essay “The Duty of Mind in a Civilization of Machines” calls us to build counterweights to communication technology in order “to resist the paralyzing effects upon the intellect of the looming nihilism” that defines the era. In short, the more we turn off our screens and return to the world of print, the more we seek out the transformative power of art and culture, the more we re-establish genuine relationships, conducted face-to-face rather than through a screen, the more we use knowledge to understand and put the world around us in context, the more we will be able to protect ourselves from the digital dystopia.

This isn’t to say that Bill should be happy not to be on Facebook anymore, and to have the opportunity to build real world relationships (though it might do him good not to be, and public discourse good if more of us were having discussions elsewhere) — but rather, that, in his anger, he’s tilting at the wrong windmills. And maybe he should be calling for a decoupling of capitalism and public discourse, rather than left-wing politics.

That might not serve his narrative though — or his culture war. It might, however, help in the bigger and more pressing need — the shared pursuit of truth. That sort of pursuit requires voices being heard, not suppressed though — which is why we shouldn’t celebrate the power of big tech to mute the microphones of the uncivil voices. All revolutionary voices and ideas challenge civility and the status quo. By nature.

If we keep attacking Facebook, or other big tech companies, as though the ‘left agenda’ is the root cause of the problem, we’re missing the mark. The problem, perhaps, is that so many of the hard right are so embedded in capitalism that they can’t see how the problem is with the soil all that discourse — and life itself — is planted in… remember, when we talk about Facebook, we’re talking about a company that has monetised self interest built around algorithmically understanding and grabbing your attention, with a newsfeed philosophy expressed by Mark Zuckerberg’s theory that “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

The problem with big tech companies deciding which views they want to connect to their worship of mammon is multi-faceted, it has knock on implications for all of us when they operate as mediators (or priests) for the sort of public imagery and religiosity that is acceptable.

Media platforms work best when they are hosting conversations that serve the pursuit of the common good; commercial media platforms are almost immediately distorted (though you don’t hear Bill and friends complaining about Sky News). These priestly mediating companies do provide a song sheet — but it’s not one that is designed to form us into lefties, but into consumers. Facebook is a giant advertising beast harvesting your data to sell you more things, and to sell you to more companies.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a public square that is free from the manipulative power of the market — such a square is probably an ideal that has never actually existed; even the literal public squares of old were formed by physical architecture (including statues and temples) that articulated and shaped a ‘social imaginary’ — providing a coherent worldview that would ground dialogue between parties who disagreed on small things but agreed on the foundational vision of the world. Our physical public squares are as bombarded with imagery and noise (like outdoor advertising, branded buildings, and pop up marketing events) as the old ones, so the answer to this very modern dilemma is not just to start holding discussions (or protest groups at ten paces) on village greens.

I (also) fear that pushing people out of public squares — whether online or in the real world — forces them into ghettos and echo chambers (Facebook’s algorithms do just this too, which is doubly concerning). This is why religious freedom is something the government should take an interest in, because ‘banning’ a religion (or even shadow banning it, to use some social media terminology for a ‘soft power’ ban) doesn’t stop people holding such beliefs, it stops people publicly holding problematic beliefs and sends them into these ghettos with a victim narrative. It’s a path to radicalisation.

Ask yourself if Bill will be more or less radical without Facebook’s terms of service looking over his shoulder (though, let’s face it, Bill’s not the kind of person who moderates his language for the sake of others or because of platform ‘rules’ anyway)? Ask yourself if he’s going to do more or less harm without a wider market offering pushback on his views.

I worry, too, that cancellation is a form of martyrdom in the culture wars — that it actually takes Bill’s views too seriously, and means he now joins his account to a litany of complaints from those who are simultaneously perpetually angry at the victim narratives they see driving society into the pits while taking every opportunity to position themselves as victims.

And look, I will say that I find it fascinating that those who call out against cancel culture the loudest — whether that’s the leader of a political movement with the slogan “truth made public” who censors voices critical of their positions on their own platforms (like a Facebook page — and, in an update, I’m not just not able to comment on Marty’s page now, but unable to view it while logged in… I’m actually blocked, and the featured image on this page is what I get when I try to visit), or the editor of an online publication that publishes regular screeds against cancel culture are the keenest to cancel voices who are critical of their positions not only on platforms they control, not just via blocking, but also by writing to church denominations seeking to have church employees who are critical of their positions defrocked and/or disciplined, while simultaneously threatening court action. The same outlet is happy to post Bill’s opinions on his cancellation with no sense of irony.

So Facebook, please un-kill Bill. Even if there’s no dollar in it. At least he’s more interesting to some of us than a dead squirrel. Just.

Under Review

My denomination has been in the news over the last week, because a financial situation that has been bubbling away for some time has reached a head. Please, if you’re a Christian whose been reading these stories and trying to understand how we could all get it so wrong — suspend judgment for a moment, and take time to pray for those involved in the legal and financial situation at the coal face, and for congregations around Queensland wondering what this means for their church communities. There’s more to this story than simply bad governance, or a church’s historic involvement in a complex industry, and I’ve seen more than one public conversation where people have the wrong end of the stick; or perhaps have only grabbed hold of part of the elephant…

The situation also requires more than people with a ‘thin’ Gospel (one that emphasises proclamation alone, without meat on the bones, or boots on the ground) saying that churches shouldn’t be involved in these industries in the first place. I was reminded, over the weekend, that the way the early church gained a foothold in the community in the first few centuries was running something like a burial society — burying those people who could not afford a fancy funeral. We’ve always been called to love and serve people in complex areas at the margins of our society — and we in the west dehumanise and devalue our old people (or at least remove them from sight/having value) before they die, by shuffling them off to these halfway homes to be cared for by a marginalised workforce (who, were, for example, disproportionately affected by Covid in Australia because of where they live, in high density housing at the margins of the community where social distancing is tricky, and the nature of their work). It wasn’t wrong, necessarily, for the church to be involved in this ministry — whether it has been conducted as a ministry of the church is an entirely different question, and one we should answer.

This crunch moment has been coming for some time — in one form or another — and so the Presbyterian Church of Queensland has been conducting a review of the denomination and its ministries across the state. A Review Committee was appointed, and they asked for submissions from ministers, elders, and members in our churches across the state. The review now becomes either pointier, or pointless, depending on how receivership unfolds. But, for what it’s worth, here is my own contribution to that discussion. It is not short, but the short summary of what I’m suggesting needs to be reconsidered in our denomination is:

  1. The Role of women — especially their absence in rooms where key decisions are made. We can have male eldership, and listen to (and seek) the wise counsel of our fellow image bearers in the co-operative task of representing God in his world, cultivating the community of the Kingdom of Jesus, and stewarding the world he put us in to rule over.
  2. An obsession with ‘technique’ and ‘technology’ rather than spiritual health — part of this is that we’re too wedded to modernity, and the idea that people are brains on sticks who will follow a path towards personal growth (and thus church growth) if we just get our systems right.
  3. A defining narrative that keeps looking back to the glory days of ‘avoiding liberalism via church union’ which means we don’t ask good questions, or imagine change and innovation that will help us engage the current cultural landscape with the good news of Jesus.

    This means, for example, that we ourselves are suspicious of the sort of ministry that aged care could have been for us, and allowed a company to operate without any genuine interest from ministers and elders in the denomination. We have become ‘Reformed’ and stagnant — increasingly looking to pre-Union theological commitments (especially those of the Westminster Divines), and perhaps the ‘doctrine/historical theology’ department of our college as authoritative, rather than ‘Reforming’ — continuously looking to the Bible (and the Biblical studies department of our college) to grow to be the communities God has re-created us by his Spirit to be. The WCF is a beautiful expression of our theological convictions, but it is the ‘subordinate’ not ‘supreme’ standard for a reason. Ideally the Doctrine Department and Biblical Studies departments are working in concert and steering the ship; but we’ve tended in one direction culturally and lost some imagination in the process.
  4. Seeing our Presbyterian polity and structures as a ‘bug’ not a feature — we keep trying to work around systems that are an impediment to a certain sort of growth, rather than seeing those systems as a deliberate and thoughtful limit that prevents the kind of growth that might cause problems. Whether that’s in the structure of local church communities, or at a denominational level — sometimes the fence is there for a reason. Part of the solution in this present crisis is to be more Presbyterian in our governance (and culture).

We were asked to respond to five questions; which appear as headings below.

1. What have the current PCQ challenges revealed about the changes we as a denomination need to consider and why? For example, what do we as Congregations, Sessions, Presbyteries and a Denomination need to let go of? What new approaches to how we work together do we need to find? Have we discovered any new strengths?


I believe the current crisis — the PCQ Apocalypse — has pulled the curtains back and revealed a scene less like the apocalyptic vision of the majesty of Jesus in Revelation 1, and more like the old man peddling a machine behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. This is a useful comparison because in John’s apocalypse Jesus is revealed as the transcendent Lord of all; the victorious and risen king of heaven and earth; while the Wizard is revealed to be merely human, pulling off faux-mystery in an immanent world by pulling the right levers and pursuing an agenda on human power alone.

I believe one fundamental piece of revelation in this ‘PCQ challenge’ is that we have, as a denomination, become wedded to technology and technique; to pragmatism and market based thinking and solutions; we have immanentized our concerns, and our denominational operations at exactly the time we should have been pulling back the curtain that is the barrier between heaven and earth, and unpacking what it means for us to live as God’s living, breathing, temple — filled with the Holy Spirit — in an age that is obsessed with technology and technique because our culture has closed itself off to the transcendent. This situation has revealed that we, as a denomination, have been placing our trust, and our energy, in the wrong places.

Here’s an anecdotal example; I have been attending PCQ Assemblies for seven years now as a member of the courts of the church. If we were to add up time spent in discussions on the floor of the Assembly and to weigh training seminars on technique/technology, discussions about the business of running an aged care corporation with a variety of subsidiaries, reports from schools and hospitals where the secular/sacred divide is heavily enforced, and time spent thinking theologically about our mission, or presence, in the world; the overwhelming majority of our time and headspace has been devoted to the former, not the latter. When we do think theologically – typically as GIST reports — we think almost exclusively about sexuality and gender, and not about greed, pragmatism, Christian ethics (beyond sexual or medical ethics), or theological anthropology. We are ill equipped, in our practice, to handle a crisis because we have normalised not thinking theologically, but thinking pragmatically.

Our courts function largely as bureaucracies making decisions about efficiency, and increasingly judging our performance on ‘results’ where the metrics are brought over from the realm of business.

We devote our theological energy to fighting against idolatrous cultural forces that are not our biggest threat; spending much more energy in the area of sexuality on how we deal with LGBTIQA+ social pressures, and almost no time on pastoring people with porn addictions, or addressing our own systemic greed, racism, or the besetting sins of the modern western church.

We might flinch at the idea of ‘racism,’ but I am yet to see any discussion of ministry with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples discussed, or the pursuit of meaningful representation or acknowledgment of past injustice perpetuated by the church around land, and the stolen generation (while that is a significant conversation outside the church).

We are blind to our blind spots; and have closed off avenues for self-reflection, and thus for genuine repentance and change because we have stopped ‘always reforming’ and started assuming that our default ecclesiology, theological anthropology, and ethical practice is correct; this ‘present situation’ has revealed the limits, I believe, of operating the church like it is a business (at an institutional level, but perhaps also at the level of the local congregation).

The philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote The Technological Society in 1954. He described a cultural shift that had become obsessed with technique in the pursuit of efficiency; all other concerns became secondary. He said “technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity.” This obsession with technique in the ‘technological society’ we find ourselves living in in the modern, post-industrial (and now digital) world, coupled with a default mode of operating that ignores the transcendent, or at best, sees God at work in the mechanics of ‘efficient’ day to day life gives birth to an ethical system that is not just pragmatic (what works efficiently), but utilitarian (what works efficiently and produces the best results).

Alisdair MacIntyre describes a similar social shift in After Virtue, where the pursuit of utility creates bureaucracies obsessed with technique and ‘right order;’ and the development of the ‘management’ class. MacIntyre’s critique is, especially, that we have lost more ancient (and Biblical) concepts of virtue and character, as we have lost a sense of our ethics (and actions) being shaped according to a “telos” (purpose, or ‘end’ in the way ‘end’ is used in the Westminster catechism). He said things like: “Whenever those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises.”

Our church operates as part of the ‘technological society’ in a post-virtue bureaucracy, where, as we drill down into our practices and metrics, such Nietzchean premises (although ‘baptised’ in missional language) are operating.

The Church Growth Movement is one example of the fusion of the ‘Technological Society’ and the post-virtue pragmatic/utilitarian bureaucratic approach to church. When missionary Donald Macgavran returned to the U.S from India and realised the western world had become ‘post-Christian’ and a ‘mission field’ — he turned to the world of business and marketing/advertising for solutions to grow the church; Christianity became a product, and the church became a corporation. Pastors and elders became managers and bureaucrats, while the flock became consumers not members of the body. The metrics became numerical and financial growth, not maturity and formation of disciples.

Our churches — and even our involvement with Prescare — are expressions of the same sort of bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency through technique; ministry leaders hunt for silver bullets to grow our churches according to metrics that are not connected to our telos, but to ‘mission, vision, and values’ statements that could be photocopied from a fast food outlet (or shopping centre).

This phenomenon isn’t only visible at the denominational level, in the failure of the Assembly to properly mitigate against the risk of this present catastrophe; the same approach is effecting the ministries of local churches: as ministers burn themselves out trying to break through ‘church growth barriers’ (like the ones described in Keller’s Church Growth document), especially by becoming bureaucrats and managers of human resources, as team ministries collapse because very few of us are gifted or equipped to manage staff teams, and as we feed a culture of consumerism by shaping the experience of church around the technology or techniques we employ (think, for example, about how local churches ‘pivoted’ in the pandemic).

Our prevailing question cannot simply be ‘what works best to achieve good results’? but ‘what is the right and Godly thing for us to do for God’s glory’? That we ask the former, and not the latter, question is evident, also, in the handling of information during the Prescare crisis; justified not by our ecclesiology, or theology, or a commitment to transparency and truth at cost to ourselves, but by ‘commercial in confidence’ reasons at the advice of professionals from outside the church. We got into this crisis because we acted in ways inconsistent with our ecclesiology (why were we running a complex network of corporations in the beginning, that we did not have the expertise to manage), and when we say this is a ministry of ‘the church’ what do we mean by the church? And we have not responded to this crisis in a manner consistent with our ecclesiology.

When it comes to ethical questions we should be working from the ‘ends’ or telos, and from the character life towards those ends requires in us, or, as MacIntyre puts it, “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?’”

These forms that come from a technical, post-virtue society — the practices and culture we bring in from the world of business and bureaucracy — form us, and leave us, as people and an institution, ill equipped not just to handle an erupting crisis, but to make good and right decisions in the build-up. Unless we address this culture, a changing of the guard in the denomination will not represent us learning or reflecting, but us looking for a different technique, or silver bullet.

Unless we shift our theological ethics from pragmatism or utility (often in the name of ‘mission’) to emphasise developing the character or virtues produced in disciples of Jesus, as we pursue our chief end (“to glorify God and enjoy him forever”), we are doomed to repeat these same mistakes over and over again. This isn’t to say there is no place for wisely adopting ‘truths’ from the world outside the church; nature is God’s second book; but we must ask if when we plunder the gold from Egypt we are bringing in idol statues, or melting it down to furnish the Temple for God’s glory.

If you were to set four or five strategic priorities for us as a denomination for the next five years, what would they be?

  1. Re-imagine our practices from first principles.
    Invest time and effort into developing a culture that is not shaped by ‘worldly metrics’ but by a theological vision — an ethic born from our theology (including Christology and pneumatology), anthropology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

    We must keep, as children of the Reformation, pushing back to ‘first principles’ in our decision making. We pump out church leaders, and elders, who are great at pragmatic system building, and utilitarian calculations, but often do not give time to theological reflection, or prayer, or thinking about how our action (or simply our being) serves to bring God’s presence to the world as his image bearing people and the body of Christ.
  2. Re-form our understanding and articulation of the Gospel, and so our communities as plausibility structures for the Gospel that form us and witness to God’s kingdom, and his king, Jesus.
    This requires deepening our ‘gospel fluency,’ in order to sharpen our Gospel proclamation (in word and deed) by asking questions about where worldly thinking has crept in not only to our structures, but our articulation of the Gospel (for eg, to what extent have we assumed liberalism and capitalism are ‘goods’ that represent truth not upended by the crucified King being what God’s wisdom actually looks like). If the Gospel is not simply ‘God saves individual sinners through repentance’ but “Jesus is the Lord and King who brings forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom of heaven, by pouring out his Spirit to make us new,” then as we live as communities of renewed people who love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might — as people filled with the Spirit — and so love one another, and love our neighbours, because we now know what love is — this becomes the plausibility structure for the Gospel both for our people as we become disciples, and for our neighbours as we invite them to meet Jesus. This is what it looks like to ‘know what story’ we are living in, and this story must shape our ethics.

    If we can’t articulate how a practice is an expression of that story, we shouldn’t be doing it.
     
    This would lead to a fuller and deeper sense of how the Gospel is good news about an alternative kingdom, expressed in alternative communities, to the world that is subject to the powers and authorities in league with the ‘prince of the air’ and allow us to properly question the forms of ‘worldly’ wisdom, truth, or practices we embrace in this new stage of denominational life, and would sharpen our articulation of the Gospel and our critique of the idolatrous patterns of this world.
  3. Re-enchant our gatherings, spaces, and sense of purpose.
    Our church practices are often thoroughly secular, and instead of forming disciples of Jesus who have their eyes fixed on ‘things above’ where we are raised and seated with Christ, through our union with him by the Spirit, we are occupied with ‘earthly things’ — our church practices, because we borrow so much in terms of ‘forms’ or ‘mediums’ from the world around us don’t ‘renew our minds’ but ‘transform us into the patterns of the world.’

    We are already new creations in Christ, and our use of time and space — our engagement with God’s world — should (including and beyond the Sunday gathering) involve a robust and embodied commitment to life in God’s kingdom as an expression of the ‘now and not yet’ reality that the kingdom of heaven begins here and now in those of us who are already seated in the heavenly realm.

    This might look like being a church that commits to developing a doctrine of work that sees it as more than just a place to earn money to give to church, and a doctrine of creation that sees us valuing beauty, the arts, and architecture. The artist Mako Fujimura talks about this task as ‘cultivation’ or ‘creation care’ and specifically calls for Christians to be ‘generative’ — people who live and love in ways that are life giving and productive alternatives to the systems of consumption and death outside God’s kingdom.
  4. Re-image our church to fully reflect the divine image — male and female — living as co-labourers/collaborators in the kingdom.

Our theological anthropology is built on the claim that male and female are made in the image of God, and that the ‘telos’ of the image of God is ultimately revealed in the “exact representation of his being” and the “image of the invisible God,” Jesus. That we are “all one in Christ Jesus” — this should not eradicate the differences between men and women, and yet, the story of the Bible, both in creation, Israel, and the church seems to envisage men and women as co-laborers and co-heirs in the kingdom who are united to Christ by the same Spirit, and united as one in his body, the church.

That this difference is expressed in different roles in the church is one of our denominational distinctives; and yet, there is nothing in the Bible that pictures, at least so far as I can tell, courts of the church that are essentially closed off to the wisdom and counsel of women; or to their participation in discussions about the business of the church; that the courts of the church are closed to women seems particularly egregious, theologically, when our Presbytery and Assembly meetings are not given to the Spiritual oversight or ‘teaching’ ministry of the church (ala 1 Timothy 2), but to pragmatic business decisions that would no doubt be best served if the wisdom of the whole was more readily available to us.

There is no Biblical reason not to restructure our courts to include the voices of women, appointed by church communities to this role; to do so would not necessarily undermine the role or office of elder (or require expanding it), but would allow our elders and ministers to consider the counsel of women on pastoral and wisdom related issues arising in the life of the church. It is no coincidence that wisdom is consistently depicted as a woman in the Old Testament, and that the wise life consists of listening to wise counsel.

That Paul sees a place for women praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11) in the public life of the church, and consistently describes women as his fellow workers and partners in the Gospel suggests to me that we could rethink our structures and gatherings locally: from pastors and their wife, or female ministry workers and their husbands, and how we view the calling of vocational ministry for a household within the household of God, through to wives of elders (who Paul seems to believe must be qualified on the basis of godliness, ala 1 Timothy 3), through to stewarding the gifts and wisdom of married and single women in our churches in ways that draw on these gifts for the management of the household, or economy (οἰκονομία) of the church, the household of God.

One theologian, Brendan Benz, suggests that because we are image bearers of the Triune God, the image of God is actually most fully on display in relationships, not in our individual lives, specifically in relationships built on love, and listening, in the pursuit of wisdom and godli(ke)ness.

Reformed theologian and writer Aimee Byrd has much wisdom to offer on this issue in her recent work Recovering (from) Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

3. To achieve these priorities, what changes do you think we need to make in the way the denomination is structured, the way we relate, how we are governed and how individuals and committees are held accountable within our denomination? What resources do we have or need, to achieve these priorities?

I believe our obsession with pragmatism — or technique and efficiency — means that we have spent years trying to circumvent the slow and clumsy nature of Presbyterian Government, but it is that very form of government (that ordained ministers and elders swear to own, and defend) that should’ve been a bulwark against our adoption of worldliness.

Our best resource is our Presbyterian form of Government and the natural limits it imposes on change, church size (including ministry team size), and speed of decision making processes. Anything that is too complex for us to manage under our current system should be a warning light on the dashboard that we shouldn’t be doing it.

We should abolish Commission of Assembly — or significantly minimise its scope to declare business ‘urgent and emergent’ — especially where the technology now exists for meetings to be held, and called, using digital technology. Not because this is a pragmatic ‘technique,’ or technical solution, but because we would be applying the PCQ Code to the appointment of committees, and so see administrative responsibility as a delegated responsibility under the Spiritual responsibility of the courts of the church; such that committees and commissions operate with greater accountability to both the Assembly, and our local church sessions and congregations. How can we reflect on spiritual or theological failures in our decision making processes when those processes are opaque to those who hold that responsibility?

We should abolish many of our committees that are not particularly necessary to manage the areas of ministry and mission identified in our code. And we should stop seeing the solution to our present crisis as being more Anglican (whether in the power and authority we give individuals, or committees), or being more centralised, or being more ‘top down’ led by particularly gifted leaders or visionaries. In the words of Bonhoeffer, God hates visionary dreamers.

Our best resources for equipping us to do the work outlined above are our local churches, and our theological college. Our college and faculty should be encouraged to form the sorts of thinkers — men and women — who might lead us in the sort of necessary theological thinking and towards wisdom, not pragmatic ‘leaders’ who produce visionary techniques to break through barriers when we don’t understand why those barriers are there to begin with (ala Chesterton). 

Part of pressing harder into our Presbyterian distinctives means defining whether we view ourselves as Reformed and Confessional, or Reforming and operating with the Confession and the Declaratory Statement and Basis of Union. The pressures being placed on Christians by the world outside the church, but also by ‘progressive’ agendas within the wider church, are producing an impulse to define ourselves in more black and white terms where once we were comfortable with liberty of opinion and appealing to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Fear of ‘progressive’ agendas — especially with Church Union as part of our defining narrative as an institution — limits our capacity for truly ‘catholic’ or evangelical progress or Reform, and enshrines tradition (and the Confession) as perhaps more authoritative than it ought be (especially in the light of the Declaratory Statement and Basis of Union).

To be ‘reforming’ rather than ‘Reformed’ would require us to allow a greater plurality of theology and practice within the framework provided by the Basis of Union and Declaratory Statement; and would mitigate against any impulse to respond to present circumstances by pushing for more centralisation or uniformity in practice (or theological vision).

Our cultural push towards an “episcopalian” system of government (and culture), where committees and denominational office bearers function as Bishops, has led us to a sort of ‘church politicking’ where those committees exercise disproportionate influence (authority even) as they ‘speak for’ the denominational institution. Our denomination, both in Queensland and Federally is a ‘broad church’ that shares particular distinctives, but an expressed commitment to Christian liberty. And yet, our cultural milieu, and particularly the way politics is played outside the church in the ‘culture war’ struggle for power and ideological dominance — perhaps especially as our secular culture has lost a shared transcendent foundation — means we have turned church politics, and committee membership into a sort of ‘civil war’; as MacIntyre puts it “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — if we do not define ourselves as deliberately broad, with a shared theological centre, but as rigidly confessional, then such a move is a form of ‘civil war’ against those in our numbers (and congregations) brought into our fellowship, or communion, through evangelical commitments or the animating spirit of the Reformation, rather than particularly Presbyterian or Reformed (Westminster) commitments.

A commitment to ‘reforming’ rather than ‘Reformed’ principles would mean pushing for our thought leadership at the College and Committee level to value diverse perspectives within a broad framework, whereas a push to Reformed principles would necessarily narrow the participation and scope of both the College and our Committees. We should articulate our approach here with clarity such that ministers, sessions, and congregations are afforded the opportunity to stay or depart in the same way that any amendment to the Basis of Union triggers such an opportunity; because to push towards ‘black and white’ and centralisation, away from the Declaratory Statement and the emphasis on liberty of opinion in the Basis of Union is to introduce significant change; and we should have the integrity, as a denomination, to acknowledge that.

4. What do you think a healthy Presbyterian denomination looks like in 21st century Australia? For example, what services and processes, formal and informal would a healthy denomination provide to churches, ministry workers and presbyteries?

Unpacking some of the above, I believe a healthy denomination looks like:

1. We practice what we preach: A church of people with theological and ethical integrity, whose lives and doctrine are a coherent witness to the nature and character of God as revealed in the person of Jesus.

2. A broad community committed to listening, discerning, and truth telling, seeking to ‘truth in love’ in the pursuit of transformation into the image of Jesus as our model of maturity.

3. A community whose methods and metrics aren’t uncritically adopted from the ‘patterns of the world’ but that are the products of engaging in God’s world as a community of people who have the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God, and who are being transformed by the Spirit. Health looks like Godliness, and communities producing and embodying the fruit of the Spirit in their interactions with one another and the world, and people shaped to do the work of the kingdom not only in Sunday gatherings, but in God’s world as we work for his glory.

4. A community committed to union with Christ, who see diversity in the body of Christ as an expression of the breadth of God’s love and the radical inclusivity of his kingdom. This would be a church community that celebrates the ‘less visible parts of the body,’ that values the contributions of women and men, that creates an environment where people can participate in the life of the church regardless of education, or class, or ethnicity. It would be a church community that values singleness as a vocation, not just marriage (and so doesn’t talk about unmarried women in the courts of the church as though they are incomplete without a husband). It would be a church community that includes those committed to celibacy, living ‘as eunuchs for the kingdom’ as they subordinate their sexual desires to their love of Jesus. It would be a community that sees inclusivity as involving listening, and pursuing the wisdom of, all of its members in making decisions, wherever possible.

5. A community led towards godliness by leaders — men and women — committed to personal godliness, and to appropriate vulnerability, confession, and accountability for error, and to transparency in decision making. This would look like conducting far less business of the church in closed court, and being far more consultative in our practices. But it would also look like developing a culture where people own their failures, and repent, and find forgiveness; but also where accountability and healthy conflict is possible and encouraged – not a culture of rubber stamping the ideas of prominent and popular leaders.

6. A community that operates with trust, rather than loyalty — where that trust is democratised, and built, again, on transparency and seeking wisdom ‘outside the room’. Where we subject decision making to scrutiny from within the church, and from organisations outside the church as a norm. The most damaging aspect of the present crisis is how often whistles were blown, and ignored, through a loyalty culture.

7. A decentralised communion with a strong commitment to a theological centre — but freedom (and diversity) in the areas of methodology. There has been a culture of centralising a variety of services in a bid to centralise our mission, vision, and values as an organisation. I do not believe this is healthy.

8. A commitment to church planting and revitalisation in urban, regional, and rural areas with a sustainable model of church community and leadership so that our people, and our physical spaces can be better stewarded for the kingdom.

Our denomination has celebrated large churches with team ministries, and spent time seeking to accommodate these ministries into our polity because they hit the metrics we have valued. These ministries are not always going to be the best ‘technique’ for producing the metrics that matter; the training and equipping of the saints for works of service, or the sorts of communities where every member of the body is honoured and contributing, or the environments where elders (and teaching elders) can properly discharge the tasks of eldership (as outlined in the New Testament); such churches require a shift to bureaucracy, and often break through natural ‘barriers’ by restructuring community life such that members of the body no longer know, or are in fellowship, with one another. This turns a feature of church life into a bug to be squashed. This model raises the bar for vocational ministry in our denomination to heights nobody but ‘particularly gifted’ leaders can scale; but also creates conditions where the broader church rewards and normalises narcissism rather than godliness (see De Groat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church), and emphasises technique, technology, and the consumption of a product over character and participation.

Equipping us, as a denomination, for this vision of health would require (from least to most important):

1. A well-resourced theological college that looks beyond simply training clergy, and considers how it might equip elders and members of our churches to think theologically and contribute to the shared work of the church, but also a college that values diversity of opinion on areas of liberty and encourages broad, interdisciplinary, thinking and the integration of theology and practice.

2. A group of Godly, trusted, and experienced men and women offering their time as mentors and coaches; not to implement a centralised mission in pursuit of particular metrics through the appropriate technique, but who are committed to post-college training and developing of theological and cultural reflection, as well as self-reflection and growth towards godliness

3. Presbyteries to build a culture of trust, and a network of relationships that allow Presbytery meetings to function as places of theological reflection on practices and decisions, and to not simply operate as pragmatic decision making bodies around a nebulous ‘vision’ for their area.

4. Sessions that are equipped to see their task as primarily theological and pastoral rather than practical; elders who are appointed because their households are models of the households we hope to see influencing the household of God.

5. Elders who are prepared to say no to the worst impulses of pastors, not to operate as ‘yes men’ in service of visionary goals that will take a church community (including its leaderships) beyond the size it can manage well.

6. Ministers committed to godliness and the development of a life of character that aligns with the story of the Gospel (and displays the fruit of the Spirit), and comes from a prayerfully dependent relationship with God; the story they then model teaching and proclaiming; above all else.

7. Members of our church families who are shaped as resilient disciples through life in communion with God and with his people, through the teaching of his word, prayer, and formation as worshippers of the Living God who is revealed to us most clearly in Jesus, and who are equipped, encouraged, and unleashed to serve him in his world.

5. What kind of culture would we have if we were a healthy denomination? How might that culture come about and be sustained?

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

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:4-21

What Bluey can teach us about creation, wisdom, and image bearing

Bluey has gone gangbusters globally; and such recognition is, of course, utterly well deserved. Last night I had growth group (what our church calls our small groups) at my friend’s house — a house that, thanks to her two boys, always has a collection of sticky geckos stuck to the roof; this is to say that if you’re a parent there’s a relatable Bluey moment for every parenting experience.

Our church is currently working its way through the Biblical concept of wisdom, in conversation with the wisdom literature — but also (with the help of good Bible scholars like Will Kynes) seeing that “the Wisdom Literature” is a made up imposition on these few texts because wisdom is woven into the fabric of the whole Bible, and indeed, the whole of creation. We’re in the ‘10,000 feet’ abstracted part of the series at the moment considering how wisdom is lived, not just ‘believed’ and that it is about right relationship and understanding of God, his world, and each other, shaped by God’s revelation of himself in his word, and the ‘second book’ of creation. You can follow the sermons as they get closer to ground level via our Vimeo.

Our created purpose — in Genesis 1 — is to bring order to the world; to “be fruitful and multiply” as we rule the created world as God’s regents. Psalm 8 suggests this rule is connected to God’s glory — a glory displayed in the heavens, and the heavenly realm, that we were meant to co-operate with in the world as we spread the conditions of Eden across the face of the planet, “cultivating and keeping” the garden; shaping the world to be like the garden-temple — the place of God’s presence, as we partnered in wise relationship with him.

right after human nature is corrupted in the pursuit of wisdom (via the fruit) apart from God — or in broken relationship with him as an expression of a desire for self-rule, that fractures our co-operation with each other and the world — we get this genealogy that notes that people and cities become ‘culture-makers’ — who make a mix of generative, life-giving things that can be used to glorify God (or in idol worship, or entertainment), or implements of destruction; musical instruments, agricultural tools, and weapons — we are homo faber — “man the maker”…

Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. — Genesis 4:20-22

This is a family of makers — but in the next sentence we hear how Lamech, the patriarch of this little family — is a maker of death.

In our first week in this series — considering what a wise relationship with the world looks like — I noted how often wisdom in the Old Testament is tied to craftsmanship — to the right use of raw created materials to co-create (or in Tolkien’s words maybe, ‘sub-create’) beautiful creations that glorify God. To fulfil our vocation as image bearers is to create things in accord with our purpose, in relationship with God — those same skills and imaginations can be used to build idol statues, and weapons — and the priestly garments — that take the gold and jewels present around Eden in Genesis 2 (and plundered from Egypt and use them to recapture humanity’s (now Israel’s) priestly representative role as people creating God’s Eden like presence in the world.

See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. — Exodus 31:2-5 (see also Exodus 35:30-35).

The tabernacle and priestly furnishings are a reflection of Eden; and an anticipation of the Temple that Solomon will build, and the new creation golden heavenly city of Revelation 21. So the craftsman who makes the bronze furnishings — especially fruit trees, fruits, and other ‘garden’ imagery for the Temple is described in similar terms in 1 Kings.

“Huram was filled with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge to do all kinds of bronze work. He came to King Solomon and did all the work assigned to him.” — 1 Kings 7:13

We were created in the image of the creator to be creators. Dorothy Sayers put it this way in her most excellent The Mind of the Maker:

“When we turn back to see what [the writer of Genesis] says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.”

Tolkien specifically saw this role playing out in the telling of stories — the creation of worlds — that would teach us true things about the world; but that were also in themselves, an expression of a truth about us — that we are image bearers of a story-telling, world creating, God. Here’s some Tolkien (from On Fairy Stories).

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Tolkien makes a distinction between the illusion of creation and genuine ‘sub-creation.’ He sees ‘sub-creation’ as a sort of elvish life-giving, or generative creation, working with the fabric of the natural world (and God’s design), and illusory ‘magic’ as de-generative. And so, in his books, the elves are sub-creators, but the magicians are a metaphor for those who would make and use technology outside our sub-creative purpose. Elvish stories tap into our deep desire to be makers who sub-create rather than destroy.

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself.

In a letter, to his friend Milton Waldman, Tolkien speaks about what happens not only when our sub-creative tendencies draw us to the creation of machines, but when they are motivated by hearts bent on autonomous power and dominion — disconnected from the creator. He calls this “fallenness” — and says it is a tension at the heart of Middle Earth (and our own earth as well), he says a desire for the ‘things of this world’ (we might call it ‘idolatry’) corrupts our making, and so our making corrupts the world.

“It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Which is all well and good, you might be thinking.

But what about Bluey. You promised this was about Bluey.

First up — Bluey is just beautiful Tolkien-esque sub-creation; the layers of careful, thoughtful, generative and life-giving ideas, imagery, and music woven together in the life of the Heeler family and their community is pure faerie. Bluey even has a little explicit dose of elvishness, or faerie, to it in the episode Fairies. It is, maybe to Tolkien’s dismay — a world exclusively made up of talking animals; but it is everything that good sub-creation should be. And so, it should be taken seriously because it is a manifestation of our human desire for rightly ordered relationship with the world and each other — it is a source of wisdom inasmuch as it rightly recognises truths about flourishing life in this world.

But I want to talk about the episode Flat Pack (and I will be this Sunday, in my talk).

I went back to watch Flat Pack (currently available on iView) because it is something like peak relatability to me as someone who might be better sub-creating in words, than with ‘wise hands’ — I have several flatpack horror stories that mirror Bandit’s efforts in constructing an outdoor chair. I wanted to talk about the folly of pursuing wise work in the world without reference to the maker’s instructions — and I still will — but I was blown away by the high art of this episode. I know it is an episode with a little controversy and history attached to it — and, no doubt it carries a certain amount of controversy within the realm of conservative Christianity.

Flat Pack is a creation story told next to a sub-creation story that then integrates the two stories in a beautiful and profoundly religious way; it also — consciously or not — offers an integration between the ‘science story’ — a story of the pursuit of knowledge from God’s second book — and the theological story told by the Bible.

Augustine spoke of the world being God’s second book in order to encourage people to pursue deep and wise knowledge and use of the ‘gold’ buried in nature — he saw the purpose of the world, and our knowledge of it — to be somewhat connected to the use of material gold in the Old Testament (whether the gold is in the hills or in nature). He said we should ‘plunder gold from Egypt and use it to preach Christ’ — and that the task of the Christian is to be well informed about God’s world; to be widely and wisely educated. He was, with others, part of the impetus for the development of science, in the west, as a quest to know more about God from his world; the idea that knowledge about the material reality would somehow contradict knowledge of God from the Bible was anathema to Augustine (his commentary on Genesis is quite brilliant; especially on Christians who use it to make truth claims about the world that science makes obviously not true, particularly, in his day, this was about the movement of heavenly bodies). In a book called The Literal Meaning of Genesis he wrote:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven”

For Augustine — creation rightly understood would involve an alignment between what the Bible says about creation — the questions it is answering — and what science would reveal about God from creation — and wise living would connect the dots; so that we wise image bearers might sub-create good things (including in speech and writing) that reveal and glorify God.

Whether deliberately or not Flat Pack stands in this great Augustinian tradition; it is a thing of beauty.

Bandit and Chilli are building a piece of flatpack furniture from the Bluey equivalent of Ikea; in the world of Bluey they are the dog-gods. Existing in the ‘heavenly’ realm, upstairs — while Bingo and Bluey are in the lower, earthy, regions. As Bandit and Chilli — Bluey and Bingo’s mum and dad — fashion their heavenly constructions — a heavenly throne — Bluey and Bingo play with the off-cuts. While mum and dad create — they also create as little images of dog-gods (or images of god-dogs?).

While mum and dad struggle with their chair, Bluey and Bingo play their way through the evolutionary story — starting as fish, on some bubblewrap, becoming frogs, then dinosaurs, then monkeys, and then cave-people-dogs as their environment is subtly changed by the provision of the upstairs dog-gods. While they’re in the cave, these cave-people dogs draw the creation story complete with the heavenly ‘mum and dad’ as gods overlooking the process.

Bandit and Chilli finish their work in the heavenly realm, and look down, proudly, at the little living image bearers they made — “we made them,” Chilli says; and they are good and pleasing. The little makers are chips off the old block — images of their parents; but also, in the ‘cosmic story’ — images of their making-gods. The supreme creation of these god-dogs (or dog-gods?).

Bluey and Bingo eventually become grown-up people-dogs who master their physical world, once the ‘upstairs gods’ have finished their creation, they find their tools and say “let’s be builders.” They have become like their gods. They use their tools and resources to cultivate an entire culture; one that looks a lot like a temple-city, with a library, before Bingo ‘finishes growing up’ — building a rocket ship to explore the cosmos.

Once her life as ‘mum’ is complete, with Bingo a little ‘image’ of her, who has learned her ways, Bluey feels at a bit of a loss. She sits down. It could all be over. But then — she reaches out to the gods (in a little homage to Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam), and ascends to the heavenly realm to sit down with her makers in their heavenly throne. And, as she does, and we see this golden vista — the world put right, filled with ‘sub-created’ culture — Bingo says “this is heaven.”

It’s beautiful. Heavenly. Elvish even. This is children’s television — but there are some deep ‘cosmic architecture’/understanding of reality flat packed into this seven minute episode if you know how to put them together. The thing is, according to the Bible’s own creation to heaven story (which is, pretty much, the story of the Bible in a nutshell) — we don’t just figure out wise, generative, life by ourselves — in fact, we do the Tolkien thing of idolatry; the ‘machine-based-domination’ of one another in a sort of ‘military-industrial-complex’; and we actually need God to step in to the story to redirect our making, and to show us what it is our sub-creating hearts need in order for us to be truly human and to flourish as sub-creators with our sub-creation connected to both the image and likeness of God, and the purpose he made us for. There’s a nice little picture of this where Paul visits Athens — and sees in their building; their sub-creation — even in the creation of idols, temples, and altars — some part of our human need to know God and to make things from his world.

Our making of art, and stories, and even things that reshape our world — temple-cities, libraries, buildings — can be an expression of our ‘reaching out for’ — our quest — for God, and the way his nature is still imprinted on ours; it can be — like the tower of Babel (a picture of the city of Babylon in the Bible) our quest to reach for the heavens and our assertion that the gods in heaven are like us; dominant military-industrial death-hungry monsters who justify our corruption, and sometimes it can be both those things at the same time.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

The world changes — our human quest changes — because God came down the stairs; the creative word — the light and life of the world — Jesus, the maker — stepped into the earth as the true image of God, the true human — to show us the true way of ‘sub-creative’ life, and to restore us to it by reconnecting us with God, pulling us up into the heavens (seating us with God, even, in Ephesians 2, and Colossians 3), so that we make with our eyes and hearts fixed on God again, rather than on our idols and our destructive will to power.

Our making doesn’t have to be an expression of our quest for God any more, if the Christian story is true, because in Jesus God finds us, and so our making can be re-cast as sub-creation — taking up the task we were made for to be like God, and to reveal God’s nature — his love and glory — to the world. Our redeemed making is an expression not of God’s absence; but his presence.

Tolkien saw the Christian story — the Gospel — as the justification for making; for sub-creation; for fairy stories with joyous ‘eucatastrophic’ endings (that’s “good catastrophe”); he saw in Jesus the ‘good catastrophe’ written into the fabric of the world. The ‘true fairy story’ that doesn’t just redeem us and re-create us, but redeems our making so that we participate in God’s work in the world. He said:

Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

We humans were made, and we Christians were redeemed, in order to sub-create — to make things that reflect God’s presence and nature in our world, to bring the conditions of heaven to earth — it’s our idolatry and corruption that gets in the way; an idolatry and corruption that required God’s intervention in our story, and his re-creation of us as image bearers caught up with Jesus, but this re-creation involves us being given the task of being wise sub-creators who reveal his glory to the world; we could do much worse than making art as wonderful as Bluey, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or getting our flatpack furniture rightly ordered.

Revisiting Generous Pluralism (unpacking a little of my political theology) — part 2

This picks straight up from where yesterday’s post left off — as part of an explanation of how I understand generous pluralism, within a broader political theology, because a paper will be released by our denomination’s politics, culture and theology committee (GIST) in coming months.

Fourth Point: The ‘Politics’ of the Kingdom

Because to be ‘made in the image of God’ is to be made to spread the presence of God over the face of the earth as his ruling-representatives who are like him — so that Israel’s task as a “kingdom of priests” is a continuation of the created purpose for humans, to be re-created in the image of Jesus and brought into the Kingdom of Heaven by God’s anointed king (the Christ), the Gospel is inherently political.

Even the word Gospel — ‘good news’ — was a word used in the Roman empire to announce the victory of Caesar, or a new Caesar taking the throne. Mark’s Gospel, which announces as Jesus ‘the Son of God’ goes toe to toe with imperial propaganda that said the same thing about Caesar Augustus (claimed to be the Son of God in various gospels circulated around the Empire).

The nature of the Kingdom of God, in the Old Testament, was to be different — Holy — set apart — generative — rather than destructive. Israel was to be a subversive presence in the Ancient Near East because of its vision of the dignity and created purpose of every human; and because instead of having ‘image of God kings’ who were the images of violent domineering gods who rule through chaos and destruction (like the gods of the Enuma Elish — Babylon’s creation story), Israel would not have a ‘king like the nations’, but Yahweh as king, and, failing that, Yahweh’s anointed. So, Israel’s little exercise with Saul, when they ask for a ‘king like the nations’ is a picture (in Samuel) of ‘life by the sword’ — life under a domineering, proud, military king like the nations — but Hannah’s song at the start of Samuel sets the scene for the nature of God’s king and kingdom (much like Mary’s song does in Luke).

Both depict an upside down kingdom where the proud are humbled, and the humble exalted.

Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2) Mary’s Song
“There is no one holy like the Lord;

there is no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.

 

3 “Do not keep talking so proudly

or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

and by him deeds are weighed.

 

4 “The bows of the warriors are broken,

but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

6 “The Lord brings death and makes alive;

he brings down to the grave and raises up.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

he humbles and he exalts.

8 He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.”

These songs outline the character of the politics of God, and his king. Jesus is the king the Old Testament has been waiting for. God-as-king.

Saul is not the idealised version of the ‘image of God’ who will lead God’s people. Neither, for what it’s worth, is David — though he is a “king after God’s heart” — his rape of Bathsheba is a picture of Adam-like kingship where he, like Eve in Eden (the verbs are the same) sees, desires, and takes something (in this case someone) God forbade taking. Solomon, his son, builds the temple — then builds a house for himself bigger than the Temple, and breaks all the Deuteronomic rules for kingship — including going back to Egypt to get military machines, and marrying many wives to solidify his political power, and amassing wealth. Kingship in the Old Testament ends up (like priesthood) being viewed as negative and not fulfilling the image bearing purpose humanity was made for. The Old Testament ends with the hope (or expectation) that Yahweh might bring a ‘day of the Lord’ where he will establish a Davidic king forever, who would truly end the political-theological exile from God, restoring his dwelling place (the Temple) and presence with his people, and in the world — and restoring a people who might take up our created purpose once again.

Jesus is crowned as the king of heaven and earth in his crucifixion, and ultimately in his ascension as he enters the throne room of heaven as the victorious son of man (pictured by Daniel); the fully divine-human son of man and son of God is now reigning in heaven (Acts 2, Ephesians 2-3), and his kingdom — a new polis — begins on the earth in the church — the new ‘temple’ — God’s presence in the world. We are ambassadors of the kingdom, priests, and ministers of the reconciliation God will work in and for all things as the first fruits of the new creation and Temples of the living God (Acts 2, Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 15, 2 Corinthians 5, 1 Peter 2, Revelation 21-22).

The still incarnate (human) Jesus is reigning in the throne room of heaven and we are already united in and to him by the Spirit, and raised and seated with him, so that we are ‘positioned’ there too; and he continues to serve as the true image bearer of God, the priest and king who intercedes with the Father on our behalf as we pray. His victory unites Jews and Gentiles in this new, re-created humanity with this political task of being his image bearing regents who spread his kingdom across the face of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20). The Great Commission is not just a call to ‘make converts’ — but to make disciples; citizens; new-creations who bear the image of Jesus in the world, and, by the in-dwelling presence of the Spirit function as God’s faithful presence — the body of Christ — in the world.

The church, then, is an alternative political kingdom to the kingdoms of this world; a new polis, participating in the ‘upside down kingdom of the cross’ — those who ‘take up our cross and follow him’ — so our political strategy is not to be Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman or like the beastly self-centered and proud kingdoms caught up in service of Satan, and the gods (Elohim) opposed to Yahweh in the heavenly real. This kingdom is cross-shaped. When we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice “in view of God’s mercy to us” in Jesus, as our true worship we are able to avoid the deforming patterns of this world, and display a challenging (perhaps subversive) alternative, trusting God to vindicate us even as we are confronted with evil (even an evil state, and even as we submit to such power (Romans 13), like Jesus did). Our unity as believers (across kingdom lines that formerly divided us) is a testimony to the victory of Jesus over the powers and principalities, and the “ruler of the prince of the air” (Ephesians 2-3). The victory of Jesus is a victory over the forces arrayed against God in the heavenly realm, establishing (as if it was in doubt) that Yahweh is the most high; but also reversing the distribution of the nations under alternative spiritual authorities in Deuteronomy 32 and at Babel. Where in the past “God overlooked the ignorance” caught up with idolatry, because Israel was his inheritance among the nations, now he commands all people everywhere to repent — recognising the reality that “in him we live and breathe and have our being” (Acts 17).

A faithful presence — as re-made image bearers — is distinguished and distinguishable from fallen humanity and the political kingdoms built on the cursed patterns of human relationships described in Genesis 3; a fracturing of our role to be co-rulers — representative regents — with God, and one another, in Genesis 1. The distinction is cruciformity; embodying the nature and character of the God revealed to us in the crucified Jesus; and the values expressed in Hannah and Mary’s songs.

It’s also important to remember that though we are God’s presence in the world, and called to imitate Jesus, we are not God (we are not judge, jury, and executioner, nor are we saviour or king — we are ambassadorial/priestly presence, this is nicely captured in the person of Paul, who seems to adopt the motif of the ‘suffering servant’ in his conception of his role as apostle to the Gentiles, though who is able to say “was Paul crucified for you” while also calling us to “imitate him as he imitates Jesus” (1 Cor 11:1), carrying around the ‘death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus may be made known (2 Cor 4), and becoming a suffering “fool” for Christ rather than adopting the power-based rhetoric of the world while ‘demolishing worldly arguments’ that set themselves up in opposition to God (2 Cor 10-11)). And, indeed, the church is not tasked with ‘wielding the sword,’ though governing authorities may well be Christians. Our job is not to change hearts — that happens by God’s Spirit as an act of grace and recreation (Romans 8, Ephesians 2); our job is to proclaim and live the Gospel, the power of God (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1-2) — to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice as we live wise and good lives amongst the pagans (Matthew 7:24-27, 1 Peter 2, Romans 12 etc). Our role is not to condemn people to judgment, or to stand by and celebrate that judgment (like Israel may have been tempted to as God opposed the nations who opposed them), our task is to embody the virtues of the Kingdom; loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, praying for those who persecute us and to invite people who see the King at work in us to join us in repenting as we proclaim his victory and invitation to be re-created. This might involve calling sin sin (like John the Baptist did with Herod), but it will necessarily involve the proclamation of the victory and reign of Jesus as ambassadors in Rome would carry around the ‘Gospel’ of Caesar.

So. My “political theology” and my account of the posture we are to take is first captured in this idea that we, the church, are a polis called to live as God’s faithful (cruciform) presence in the world; challenging and subverting worldly empires that are beastly and cursed, so that we might invite people to rediscover the life they were created for — reflecting the nature of God as we worship and serve him.

Fifth Point: Mapping the Terrain

While it is possible to articulate a ‘political theology’ against the backdrop of the west — whether reflecting back to the halcyon days of Christendom, or a nobler ‘pre-Christendom’ age, or this new ‘post-Christian’ era we find ourselves in, I believe a Christian political theology and/or posture worth its salt is one that coherently guides the public activities of Christians in any time or place; a Godly political theology is not simply a theology that operates in exile in Babylon, or in first century Israel, or for the church in Rome in the second or tenth centuries, or in 21st century China. A proper political theology should not be something we simply form against our own context, but one that forms the way we engage in our context.

This is not to say we can’t (or shouldn’t) observe, or learn from, the history of the west and its intimate relationship with Christianity (see, for eg Tom Holland’s Dominion for a narrative account of Christianity’s profound shaping of the west). We should observe the transition of epochs or ages in the west from pagan pre-Christian, to Christian, to post-Christian — noting that post-Christianity is not simply a return to the pagan preconditions of the first few centuries of the church, but that post-Christian governments are defining themselves against Christianity as though it is intimately involved in the wielding of the sword, and that often (to quote Mark Sayers) citizens of the west ‘want the kingdom but not the king’ — or, as Holland would express it ‘secularism is a Christian development’ (Charles Taylor would agree on that front, seeing ‘secularity’ as a product not just of Christianity but reformation). In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, De Descriptione Temporum, C.S Lewis made this point about these three different western epochs.

“The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors, whether they welcomed it themselves as Christians, or, like Gibbon, deplored it as humanistic unbelievers, a unique, irreversible event. But we have seen the opposite process. 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. The Pagan and Christian ages alike are ages of what Pausanias would call the δρωμενον the externalised and enacted idea; the sacrifice, the games, the triumph, the ritual drama, the Mass, the tournament, the masque, the pageant, the epithalamium, and with them ritual and symbolic costumes, trabea and laticlave, crown of wild olive, royal crown, coronet, judge’s robes, knight’s spurs, herald’s tabard, coat-armour, priestly vestment, religious habit for every rank, trade, or occasion its visible sign.”

Taylor sees the ‘secularisation’ of the world emerging from its disenchantment (Lewis’ diagnosis is essentially the same, though his sense of what caused that change, technology, is only an aspect of Taylor’s account), and from the post-Reformation emergence of many options for belief (pluralism) within any particular society or nation, where previously nations in the west (and non-Christian nations) had enjoyed a sort of political, cultural and religious order that functioned as a hegemony. That divinely order and authoritative ‘architecture of belief’ shifted, and we were left defining our own sense of the good as “buffered selves” — individualism is, in some ways, both a product and a cause of secularisation.

Pluralist (or polytheistic) contexts make it harder to identify the idols or powers and principalities (the cosmic forces) at work in any particular society, community or individiaul — but this does not mean such spiritual forces are absent or irrelevant in the modern west (or even in the operation of Christendom; Luther, for example, was pretty quick to see the Devil in the details of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century).

One of our questions, as Christians, is how should we engage not only with the civil magistrate — but in a world where the forces once held together in a common social architecture of belief — religion, culture, and politics, have now fragmented (from each other, and to the extent that common myths, stories, religious beliefs and practices (and spaces), and political philosophies are no longer almost universally held. How should we operate in a secular liberal democracy within a capitalist framework, particularly a post-Christian one drawing on the fruit of the Gospel, as opposed to a not-ever-Christianised China? Do these different contexts produce thoroughly different outcomes or has Lewis overstated the difference between pagan and post-Christian contexts in that people remain idolatrous worshippers, it’s just our modern gods are less overtly and explicitly ‘religious’ in nature. Paul’s diagnosis that idolatry is ‘exchanging the truth about God for a lie, worshipping and serving created things rather than the creator’ gives us a consistent anthropological and political starting point for our political engagement with non-Christian neighbours. Secular prophets like David Foster Wallace (“everybody worships”) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, that recognises the idolatrous impulse at the heart of various forms of consumption and the pursuit of transcendence from the material world, are useful companions on this journey. The intersection between religious orders and politics are more visible in eastern or majority world contexts, and even in communist/atheistic China.

How a Christian takes on the task of ‘faithful presence’ in second century Rome (a minority culture), when closer to the centre of power (in Christendom), in minority ‘post-Christian’ Australia, or in 21st century China might simply be seeking to express and embrace the cruciform values of the kingdom of Jesus and adopting a posture of loving, faithful, difference to their religious neighbours who hold deeply different beliefs. Just as a Protestant, or Catholic, in Ireland must navigate deep difference across Christian traditions, or a Reformed Christian must work out how to accommodate anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, or the Australian government has to figure out how to approach education when schools were previously sectarian enterprises, or whether an Islamic community should be free to build a mosque, or how a faithful Christian community should operate in a Chinese context where the government explicitly opposes Christianity and persecutes the church. In whatever the context, our political call, as Christians, is to faithfully embody the message and ethos of the king we represent, trusting that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and that we will be vindicated — this will, I believe, look like proclaiming truth about God as creator, redeemer, and judge — but recognising that political and religious transformation is not ours to secure through the mechanics of power, but God’s to secure by the inbreaking of his kingdom through the Spirit.

This means we will not seek to coerce co-operation or conversion to Christian life for those whose idolatry means God has ‘given them over’ to a darkened mind and heart, leaving them unable to please God or obey his law (natural or revealed). This means that, at a fundamental level some degree of pluralism is God’s design for life this side of the eschaton; Christendom, and the wielding of the sword (or the mechanics of power) against other religions (like Israel is called to in Deuteronomy) is not the way of Jesus; and post-Christian paganism (or idolatry) is going to involve religions that look a whole lot like capitalism (greed which is idolatry), liberalism (self-worship autonomous from the creator), and the worship of sex and sexual pleasure.

Some form of pluralism in the world outside the kingdom of God is the norm, the sword — in Romans — was given not to Christian governments, but to the beastly and idolatrous Roman empire and our call to submission to that sword — even for disobedience to unjust laws — was an opportunity to embrace the cruciform nature of the kingdom, trusting that God would vindicate his people when they did not repay evil for evil (Romans 12). This is consistent with how the early church understood the task of witnessing — or martyrdom.

Should Christians find themselves wielding the sword — or as a presence within the institutions of power (like Joseph, Daniel, Esther, or Erastus) they are still called to be a ‘faithful presence’ with their first loyalty being to God and his kingdom.

Pluralism coupled with faithful presence is not polytheism; it is not a call to affirm the truth of the positions reached by idolatrous systems, though it may involve recognising a common quest for truth and goodness (like Paul in Athens, or Paul’s recognition that rulers and authorities bring order and goodness even as idolaters). Pluralism might involve a posture of humility and listening in a shared quest for wisdom and truth (like Solomon listened to international proverbs such that they are included in the book of Proverbs attributed to his name), recognising, with Augustine, that “all truth is God’s truth” and we might find some to plunder in Egypt.

Pluralism is not a posture within the church; where Israel’s aggressive monotheism does find continuity; we are to “keep ourselves from idols” and to flee sexual immorality, and to expel the immoral brother — but this does not mean we are to expect non-Christians to embrace Christian sexual morality and to not be in relationship with them when they do not (1 Corinthians 5). We can eat at the table with idolaters so long as that is not understood as our embracing idolatry (to the detriment of the weaker brother), and as part of our witness as God’s faithful presence, so long as it is not us ‘sharing the cup of demons’ — but we are to guard our own table more with more care (1 Corinthians 9-11).

The challenge for us, in adopting a posture in our secular, liberal, democracy (or in any context) is to consider how to be a faithful presence amongst those with different religious convictions to our own; whether we are in power or they are. Our task is not to be proud oppressors, but humble ambassadors of the crucified king — a task that may well lead to martyrdom, and our bodies being left to be mocked in the ‘public square’ of that great city — Egypt, Babylon, Rome, or Jerusalem — where Jesus was, himself, crucified (Revelation 11). Beastly empires will reject us because our faithful presence will challenge, or confront, the powerful with the message that Jesus, not Caesar, is the son of God.

Sixth Point: Integrating these blocks to pursue a ‘generous pluralism’

In our context, where many views are invited to be accommodated at the political table — a table that is not ours to run as hosts, but where we enter as fellow citizens of our nation — the question is how we should welcome contributions of others, and their own pursuit of the good. So, if all the above is true, these are, I believe the necessary implications.

We must recognise that our neighbours are fundamentally religious and shaped by a certain sort of worship.

We must recognise that this darkening happens individually and culturally; and that our political systems are products of human hearts corrupted by idolatry and given over to that corruption by God as an immediate and ongoing judgment for sin. We must recognise that this religiousity is expressed in a variety of ways and that we are more comfortable with some gods (like marriage, family, dominion, and money) than with others (like sexual liberation) — and we should examine why that is, and seek to be consistent — not just in how we treat the capitalist and the muslim, as those whose hearts belong to another god, but in how we treat those who worship ‘individual sexual liberty’ in the pursuit of an ‘identity’ apart from God. Some pluralism is a necessary function of our own existence as ‘citizens of the kingdom of this world’ who are also, like Paul, be citizens of human empires. We are no longer exiles from God, so now live as sojourners in these nations — and for us to be accommodated, rather than simply martyred, requires the state make such an accommodation. This (via the golden rule and the call to love our enemies) should shape how we wield political power or influence should we receive it. If we want ‘religious freedom’ because we recognise that to be human is a fundamentally religious enterprise; then we should consider how we extend or support that same freedom to others while also faithfully proclaiming God’s call to repent because of the victory of Jesus, and his role as saviour and king of all nations, and the one appointed by God as judge.

We must recognise that the freedom to worship other Gods is actually a freedom given by God, as an expression of his sovereignty — as he chose Israel, and then the church, as his worshipping communities — his inheritance — but that he calls all people everywhere to turn to Jesus and receive forgiveness of sin, and re-creation as his heirs through his Spirit, and that he has appointed us to that task.

We must recognise that the tendency for beastliness has not been eradicated by Christendom (and indeed, that beastliness was, paradoxically, operating in tension with the goodness of a Christian presence and influence on the west). Sometimes the emperor, or ruler, listens when the Gospel is proclaimed — we see that in Jonah, but also in Constantine.

We must recognise that our primary task is not to change the world or to change hearts, but to live as changed people who glorify the Triune God who changes hearts through the events of the Gospel — God’s “good news” about his victory and rule over the heavens and earth. Our posture, then, is to be a faithful presence — bearing the ‘image’ of Jesus as we worship God by his Spirit. Change in the world, historically, has happened when Christians have done this. And part of that recognition of our task is what should limit our tendency to reach for the sword; to keep us clear of culture wars or the beastly, worldly, mechanics of power — the ‘medium’ of worldly politics is part of the ‘message’ — its forms and tactics are forms of idolatry, and liturgies that form us as we engage in them.

We must recognise that our task, when engaging with the world, is not to engage on the terms supplied by the beastly power games of human politics — that liberalism, secularism, and various forms of idolatry (for example, greed, or racism) — are self-perpetuating. Part of being a faithful presence will involve challenging and exposing the status quo (like John’s Revelation), calling it what it is, and trusting that God will vindicate his faithful church, as he did Jesus. We should also not, for example, avoid explicitly religious language when explaining how we understand what fruitful life in God’s world as his faithful people should look like, in order that we might best be understood and accommodated (so playing games that reinforce secularism, or idolatry, or individualism/liberalism) is a failure to be fully faithful, and reinforces blindness.

It cannot be our job to create a Christian state through the creation of laws that our neighbours cannot obey (Romans 8), or to coerce or co-opt faith through the law. There will be good things that flow to our neighbours should they live lives aligned with God’s design (and have been in the west), and part of being a faithful presence is to advocate for such goods, and to embody them in our own community, the church, we might even participate in democratic process on the basis of securing that good, but I believe we should do this in balance; recognising that the government, in a pluralist context, has a responsibility to govern for different visions of the good and that we would want to be accommodated as much as possible were we at the mercy of the political or religious other (so, for instance, the early Christians advocated for law changes around their own persecution — they asked for pluralism, accommodation, and reciprocity, as might a Christian in modern day China) because these things are, in themselves, religious, political and social goods aligned with God’s design, as the one who providentially continues supplying life, breath, and everything else to idolaters who have rejected him, so they might seek and perhaps find him — it is not simply the means by which the goodness of Christianity might be established.

Generous pluralism, then, is a recognition of deep — almost infinite — difference between positions; not just because deep disagreement exists as a human product of creatureliness and personhood, or our situatedness in nations and cultures and families who are different because of different experiences, stories, and values — but because there is a profound and real gap between those who have the Spirit of God and are his re-created images in the world, and those living in exile, cut off from his presence. That gap can’t be bridged by anything but the Spirit as a gracious gift from God; and political difference is an expression of that ontological and epistemological difference. I wasn’t seeking to make a significantly different posture to John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism, except that I wanted to ground it as a posture more deeply in the spiritual realities causing difference and frame our approach around obedience to the commands of Jesus to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and treat others as we would have them treat us, and his example of generous hospitality and invitation to his enemies (us) — both in life, and death.

If I were coining the phrase to describe how I believe we are to navigate this necessary balance between faithfulness and pluralism now, rather than four years ago, I would perhaps not focus on generosity as an attempt to articulate the reciprocity at the heart of the commands of Jesus; I am happy enough with the word — but I wonder if a better expression of the spirit of generosity, embodied in the nature and character of God and his invitation for all people to be restored to his presence, in the light of his ongoing providence and provision (all generous), and in the ministry and mission of Jesus, that was so centered on the table, I would probably talk about how our role is to envisage public life as a table; and to practice hospitality, whether as hosts, or guests.

Scroll to Top