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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the pastor drought and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meta-modern church: some thoughts about church in the post-post modern era

There’s a lot of energy being expended by Christian institutions fighting a sort of rearguard action against post-modernity. The assumption seems to be that to be Christian is to be wedded to modernism with its objective (propositional) truths, authoritative institutions, and an anthropology that thinks human change (and conversion) comes through rational argument and information, rather than experience or emotion.

One wonders if the energy being expended trying to fight not just for the Gospel, but for a philosophy and a cultural moment rapidly in the rearview mirror when it comes to how most western humans understand the world and themselves is part of the conditions producing the so-called ‘pastor drought’…

There are reasonable reasons to be suspicious of some forms of post-modernity. Post-modernity is built on the idea that we as humans are limited in our ability to know anything, and are always a product of the perspective created by our own personal experience, whether we know it or not. Some forms of post-modernism deconstruct institutions (like the church), and question absolute truth claims (like the Gospel) on the basis that authority structures are inherently self-interested in perpetuating an objective truth claim they can’t justify. Embracing post-modernity and its emphasis on experience, subjectivity, and the emotions, has led many to deconstruct themselves all the way out of Christianity. And yet, there’s much we should, and could, learn from post-modernity and its epistemic humility (the idea we can’t really come at things totally objectively, and are limited, is a pretty good starting place for figuring out our limits), we humans are wired to learn and be formed by experience and via our emotions, and we will expand our understanding of the world by hearing voices outside our own experience (or tradition) in ways that might help us get closer to the truth.

One of the things post-modernity ate, whether accidentally or on purpose, is not just the idea of objective propositional knowledge about lots of areas of life (perhaps with the exception of math and (some forms of) science) is the idea of a meta-narrative; a grand organising story underpinning reality. It left us with a fractured, pluralist, community made up of individuals and identity groups with many stories shaped by their own experiences. Figuring out how to be the church in a post-modern context, without trying to be a modernist institution wielding institutional authority and making the same old truth claims that nobody wants to listen to (unless they become a sort of archaic modernist themselves, trying to live as an outsider in a brave new world) has been tricky. We probably don’t need to convert post-modernist thinkers to modernists in order to convert them to Christianity; though sometimes it feels like it; instead, we might need to give people the experiential and emotional data that makes belief in the Christian story plausible (and of course, Sam Chan’s book on Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a great companion for this task). Trying to simultaneously deconstruct the church and its (modernist) practices in the face of the critique from post-modernity, and re-construct it as a community plausibly living and telling the Gospel story has involved a clunky gear shift for the church as a whole, and lots of institutional inertia is still pulling us in the opposite direction; this isn’t helped by those who are committed not just to Christianity, or Jesus as Lord, but to modernism itself, as the way, the truth, and the life.

The rear guard action hasn’t really worked by many measures of a healthy or flourishing church here in the west; and perhaps it’s because we’ve put our eggs into propping up a not super-effective construction of church, rather than putting our energies and efforts into deconstructing both the church and post-modernity; this is an area that Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer have been pressing into (explicitly at one point, Sayers says he got tired of his post-modern friends deconstructing their way out of Christianity and decided to shift gears not to deconstruction of the church, but deconstruction of society and re-construction of the church.

And maybe it’s time to stop the rearguard action, and, though it’ll be a massive headspin, jump straight to the vanguard…

The rearguard is the soldiers standing at the back of the army trying to hold ground while the rest of the army retreats to some sort of safety to regroup; the vanguard is those soldiers at the front of the army on a charge; those who blaze new ground for the people behind them to step into.

The thing about post-modernity is that while it has been helpful in a whole bunch of deconstruction work, and brought lots more voices to the table, it hasn’t done much construction. It hasn’t left us with a better picture for how to co-exist in communities of difference (say, the modern secular state), but has created an environment where opposing truth claims are grounds for conflict, where people play the politics of self-interest, and lobby to win not just protection for their own truth, but the eradication of any others. Post-modernity didn’t create the conditions for hope, but for cynicism. One place this is evident is in the TV comedies of post-modernity, and one way a shift in the fabric of society to a post-post-modern outlook, is the death of cynicism (or nihilism even), and the return of hope (often built around communities of difference, where people are joined together in a common purpose (think Parks and Rec, Community, etc); what’s even more interesting is that more recent comedic efforts from the writers who brought us this turn from cynicism have been grappling with the afterlife (in The Good Place, and Upload), and maybe probing a little around the edges of questions about the ‘eschatology’ of the west (will technology save us? How do we live well now given what we do and don’t know? etc). There are still artefacts of a more post-modern outlook (hey there Ricky Gervais), but a shift is happening.

David Foster Wallace made this case a while back in an interview with Larry McCaffery, when he said:

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

“All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

And…

The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. ”

He wrote an incredible essay on the issues with post-modernity and television in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction, where he also said:

“There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the abscence of plot are moods — antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality”

The art, or cultural artefacts, of post-modernity are entrenched in post-modernities defining characteristics; the death of metanarrative and the championing of experience and emotion over ‘integrated plot or enduring character’ — and of course, cynicism, irony, and deconstruction about institutional authority or tradition. The truly post-modern church is a sort of pastiche of the culture it apes; every moment of the service is curated to produce an emotional response, or experience, nothing is long or deep, the over-arching plot of the Bible, or even character formation understood as a long hard slog in the same direction, are replaced with the cultivation of ‘moments’; silver bullet and quick fix self-help sermons, coupled also with a cynicism about the Christian tradition and the practices of the institutional church one’s new ‘movement’ or ‘independent church plant’ is seeking to detach from as it ‘contextualises’ and re-imagines itself in the style or form of modern entertainment.

But there’s a shift. And maybe instead of fighting the post-modern seeker sensitive church, or the deconstructed ’emerging church,’ or trying to idealise (or idolise) some period in history — whether the modernist moment, or the medieval moment with its cathedrals, liturgy, and enchantment, or the halcyon days of persecution and nimble, subversive house churches of the pre-Christendom era — we should ask what we can learn from each era as we deconstruct not just the church with the lens society brings to us, but so that we can see where our churches and our forms, practices, and beliefs have been produced by particular moments in time, and seek to reconstruct ourselves not explicitly in contradiction to the spirit of the age, but explicitly in ways shaped by the Christian story. And if we’re going to get caught up in the war against ‘post-modernity’ — maybe modernism isn’t a great ally in that conflict (though there might be parts of modernity that resonate with us), and maybe meta-modernity offers a more hopeful ‘common ground’ for conversations with the culture and engagement with the form and content of Christian belief and practice, such that in our deconstruction of post-modernity and its truth claims we might help prod people towards this new meta-modern moment.

The shift from post-modernity is happening in those areas that most profoundly shape our view of the world, where once this was the task of philosophers, now it is the task of the TV comedy writer, even politics sits downstream from culture. It’s not just in literature where what David Foster Wallace described as post-modernity’s deconstruction or ‘patricidal work’ has been felt; it’s everywhere. Our literature — even our sitcoms — are part of the culture that shapes our outlook (where culture is at least, in part, a product of shared ‘cultural texts’ or artefacts). And the shift from irony and deconstruction is in full swing. One way this has been described as a movement is as the ‘new sincerity’… Here’s a video exploring how this is working in the world of the sitcom.

The ‘new sincerity’ has, in some quarters, merged into this new idea of ‘meta-modernity’ or metamodernism. Meta-modernity includes a return to a more hopeful outlook, and even to meta-narrative. This shift also accounts for the popularity of those figures who offer a grand, organising, account of life in the world — for example, the Jordan Peterson phenomena.

This isn’t ‘new’ or cutting edge; a guy named Luke Turner published a ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ back in 2011; but it’s slowly (I think) becoming clear that metamodernity’s critique of the deconstructing, cynical, hopelessness of post-modernity, and the identity politicking world it creates, isn’t particularly sustainable, and that a metamodernist approach offers at least one way out of the void that doesn’t require a return to modernity (and a loss of the good deconstructing work that post-modernity was built on). Turner says, of metamodernism:

“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.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

From a Christian perspective this is not without problems; but there is lots in the Christian view of the world that ‘oscillates’ (to use a word from the manifesto), or resonates, with the goals of metamodernism.

The conflict between Christianity and metamodernity will kick off, as it does with any other philosophical outlook, with the claim that some ‘objective form’ of the Christian word, or truth exists; the claims John’s Gospel makes when calling Jesus not ‘a’ word, but ‘the word who was with God, and was God’… and that Jesus, the word, is both definitively ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and the one we turn to for the truly good life, or, as Peter says in John’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That said, because we live in a world where the future has not yet been realised — as people who live with the hope that eternal life will be found in Jesus and a new creation — Christians can, and should, recognise that we live alongside those looking for life, and truth and a ‘way’ elsewhere; and where post-modernity deconstructed truth claims in such a way that divergence has bred competition for dominance, metamodernism offers a more humble stance on the idea that we might, as people, pursue grand narratives as valuable and meaning making; and it invites us, as humans, to search for the grand narrative that both resonates with human experience and desire the most, and produces goodness and hope. It adopts a stance that is open to such truth claims, rather than ironic and cynical.

So here’s some ideas for what a church (or the church) for the metamodern world might look like; those who’ve followed along here for a while might recognise some of these qualities being aligned with the New Eden Project as an idea, and it’s true. These ideas are related.

So a church wanting to flourish in a meta-modern world would be a church that embraces and supports, and even, creates, ‘metamodern’ cultural artefacts; those that reject irony and cynicism and replace them with beauty, and a pursuit of something transcendent (even if that search often lands in humanism, community, and relationships, it will engage and critique that landing — resonating with what it can, like Paul in Athens, rather than simply rejecting such texts out of hand).

A church wanting to engage with this world will frame the Gospel as a grand story, or metanarrative, that we are invited to ‘live in,’ not simply a proposition (and indeed, will frame the whole Bible as a story); it will present this story as one that is more compelling than the others, and as the ultimate ‘true’ grand narrative, without adopting a sort of monotheistic zeal that leads to the destruction of all others and their gods (Deuteronomy with sledgehammers style), but will deconstruct other grand stories on the basis that they do not produce the results one hopes for (Paul in Athens style).

Such a church will see itself as a community built around that story to give it plausibility as we embody a certain sort of life together that has both emotional and experiential appeal because it is built on goodness, and hope, and beauty, and character (or virtue, and a rejection of cynicism and utilitarianism.

It will stop thinking that the answer to the shifts in western society is to bring back modernity, or to deconstruct post-modernity, and instead will set out being constructive; and so will move away from purely ‘rational’ propositionalising of the objective truth of the Gospel, and will instead try to match the truths of the Gospel up with people’s experiences and emotions; investing the time and energy of its people into culture making and institution building to produce the sort of cultural artefacts that work alongside the plausibility structure of Christian community to support the truthiness of the Christian story.

It will stop looking to the world of engineering, business, and marketing to shape ‘churchmanship’ and instead will value the arts, and the people industries, seeing church not as an event where a truth is propositionally proclaimed, but a community that lives out a narrative together.

And ultimately, it will engage the world with a posture of hope — in part because of how our story ends, but also because hope is what the world is looking for, rather than despair and cynicism — and even if that doesn’t work to reach more people, it would be a breath of fresh air for those of us already in the church. Wouldn’t it.

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.

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The perils of small (and large) target Christianity

In the politics/PR world there’s a thing called the ‘small target strategy’; it’s a way to manage your brand and reputation by only putting out there what is absolutely essential for the broader public to know, and so minimise the things about you that might give offense.

Now, there’s a certain sort of wisdom built on this sort of approach, but also a pragmatism that can end up leaving the public knowing less than they should when making a decision, or forming an opinion about you, or your party, or your brand — to the extent that some might question the ethics or integrity of such an approach.

In politics the ‘small target’ strategy gets deployed at election campaign time where the political other is so repugnant that all you have to do to secure victory is stay out of the way; it’s questionable, in a democracy, whether such a strategy earns you a mandate from the public to implement any particular policy beyond ‘not being the other side;’ and it’s a strategy also deployed because big target politics — the sort where you have a massively integrated political platform built on convictions, invites people to pick one area of your platform that they utterly repudiate and so choose the other side (Bill Shorten’s Labor leadership, and Labor’s failure at the last election, in part were a product of a big platform built from hubris and a sense that the other side, the Liberals, were so on the nose — adopting a small target might have been more expedient, politically, especially when elements of the platform were so easy to zero in on to create problems in the electorate). It’s typically, at least in Australia, a strategy adopted by oppositions; but Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign in 2016, and Scott Morrison’s 2019 campaign might have established it as a norm on both sides.

In public relations the small target strategy can be a response to a crisis, but can also be a longer term approach built around ‘staying on message’ — that’s where you just repeat the mantra at the heart of your organisation and your business at every turn; it ends up leaving you in a bit of a niche, where you’ll only be relevant to the public so long as that mantra is relevant. In a crisis the small target strategy means saying or doing as little as you possibly can — sometimes invoking the terrible ‘no comment’ strategy; it’s the equivalent of burying your head in the sand hoping that whatever danger or disaster is approaching will pass by without damaging the nerve centre of your organisation so that you can live to fight another day. This PR blog provides a definition of the strategy:

The ‘Small Target’ strategy is simple, conceptually – it’s selectively choosing to stay silent or minimising the response to an issue or crisis.

Now. I’ve been listening to plenty of chatter about the decline of the church in Australia, especially the reformed evangelical church scene I’m part of; perhaps especially focused on Sydney Anglicanism and the “pastor drought”. I’ve also been following a debate within this subset of the church, both here and abroad, about the definition of the Gospel, and I want to suggest part of the dilemma facing the church here in Australia is that we’ve settled for a small target Gospel, and a small target communication strategy in both a political and public relations sense (where evangelism; the public proclamation of the Gospel overlaps with both categories); and I want to suggest this campaign strategy isn’t working, and we’re reaping the results.

So, contra Philip Jensen, who in a Podcast interview on The Pastor’s Heart suggested the Sydney Diocese is where it is because it has ‘stopped preaching the Gospel’ (and there’s a big implicit critique of drinking too much from the fountain of Tim Keller in just about everything Philip Jensen says these days), I’m going to suggest it’s because the Sydney Anglicans (and others influenced by them) have preached too small a Gospel, and that’s become part of the toolkit for the modern church often coupled with church growth movement strategies that adopt ‘small target/big emphasis on unity around the key message’ as a growth and retention strategy (often growing by grabbing people from other churches). Stephen McAlpine’s engagement with Philip’s interview, and a follow up with others, is also worth reading (part 1, part 2); and I wonder how much a sort of tribal/culture war within the Sydney Anglican Diocese (historically Matthias v Barneys, UTS v UNSW, etc, etc) where people who didn’t fit one’s orthodoxy were discouraged from ministry, where its training institution has become increasingly narrow in its posture towards the world, and where the last Archbishop election involved a public dog fight between these camps, might also be to blame, and my understanding from talking to plenty of people over the years would be that Philip has been at the pointy end of that internecine/inter-nicene war.

But before I dig deeper into this; I want to acknowledge that in the present lay of the land a ‘big target’ approach to church is exceptionally costly to those running with it; in a landscape where people will chop and change churches for a variety of reasons (including personal preference) adopting ‘policy positions’ or articulating a Gospel vision beyond a small Gospel (as I’ll define it) leads (and in my experience ‘has lead’) people to break fellowship and to seek a more comfortable ‘small target’ church that is big on essential nature of the the small target gospel. If we approach churchmanship (awful word), or public Christianity, as though it’s a political or public relations campaign, where results matter, and where our metrics are numbers of bums on seats, and where we’re ultimately just competing for the distribution of the choir amongst various churches, rather than seeking to persuade others of the truth of the Gospel and its implications for their lives, then a big target strategy is a bad idea. It will probably, so long as others are adopting a small target, small Gospel strategy, shrink your church; and there’ll be a danger that you turn non-essentials into essentials and make it feel like there’s no room for disagreement on the implications of a bigger Gospel. So long as people will pick churches like choosing brands to purchase, or political parties to vote for, the small target strategy and the small Gospel will be the path of least resistance for church leaders. But like with politics and public relations, what seems prudent or pragmatic might ultimately lack integrity and normalise a certain sort of head-burying cowardice; it might also be a failure to boldly articulate a bigger vision that might prove unpopular with the public (but could also be truly and properly animating and life giving for those who get on board).

To be clear, though, this cowardice is not the sort embraced by the seeker sensitive movement that sought to eradicate anything offensive in the message of the Gospel — a ‘no Gospel’ strategy embraced this ‘small target strategy’ with great effect; the issue with the small gospel strategy in Reformed Evangelical circles in Australia is not with what it includes — that is, the offense of the Cross, of sin, and of God’s judgment, but what it excludes. Our scene wants to hold out that offense, and sometimes hold on to conservative moral values, without challenging anything tricky that might upset the western economic status quo (except when we tell upper middle class people that their sons and daughters should go to Bible college instead of being doctors or lawyers).

Small Gospel, Small Targets

There’s a tendency in the best parts of reformed evangelicalism to reduce the Gospel to the mechanism of the atonement and its implications for the individual. Penal substitution is, as far as I understand the Bible, part of the good news of God’s activity in the world in Jesus. But our small Gospel (Jesus died to save me, a sinner, from my personal autonomous rebellion against God, by taking my punishment in my place) often doesn’t help us escape from a disenchanted, modernist, individualist vision of life in the world and a disembodied eschatological hope (‘my soul getting into heaven’) (in fact, the Protestant Reformation arguably contributed to all these aspects of modern life). A fuller picture of the Gospel would, I think, make the subject and emphasis of the Gospel Jesus himself, and emphasise not just the fruit of the Gospel for me, and my personal salvation, but the victory of Jesus over Satan, and through his resurrection and ascension, the reconciliation of all things (a cosmic scale, where there’s not just the material world but a spiritual one too), where we get to be part of this victory even now, because God’s Spirit now dwells in us. Forgiveness of sins is part of this picture; but so too is our re-creation and resurrection as God’s children, as, through Jesus the Lord, Saviour, and King, God sets out to liberate all things from decay, and we anticipate the making new of both heavens and earth.

This is the debate playing out particularly in America between Scot McKnight, and those who’ve taken up the diagnosis of his book The King Jesus Gospel (where N.T Wright always looms large), and John Piper and those who’ve bought into his paradigm (let’s put those two figures at ends of a spectrum in this debate and recognise there’s significant nuance not just in their positions but in those of people along that spectrum).

Here are a few links:

This Gospel, where Jesus is not just personal Saviour who punches my ticket into heaven when I die, but also victorious king, and not just victorious king over sin, but vindicated king of heavens and earth and defeater of Satan and his beastly minions in heaven and on earth, has political implications for every inch of the Christian life; and implications not just for me as an individual, but for us as a community of people participating in this kingdom, anticipating and testifying to the renewal of all things as new creations in Christ, transformed into the image of Jesus. To proclaim this Gospel involves living it in our lives — both as individuals and community — as an alternative vision of life in the world; it involves seeing sin as something that doesn’t just corrupt us as individuals, but operates in partnership with curse, and Satan, to corrupt cultures and systems that people create. McKnight, in his book, saw this shifting an emphasis in our proclamation of the Gospel from making converts (small target), to making disciples (big target), and some of the implications of this bigger, cosmic, kingdom, not just individual salvation scope of the Gospel for discipleship are that it is not simply enough to pursue individual piety and a personal relationship with God, but to take up a vocation aligned with the kingdom that goes beyond simply proclaiming penal substitution (and so, it is true, thanks Keller, sorry Jensen, that being a pastor is a great vocation for a Christian, but not the only great, Kingdom oriented, vocation).

The playing field created by this bigger Gospel means a ‘small target’ Christianity that simply proclaims individual salvation from personal sin and a personal relationship with God through Christ as mediator, by the Spirit dwelling in me, doesn’t really cut it in terms of an assessment of the problems with life in the modern world and the antidote offered in Jesus.

When Australian culture largely still operated with a social and cultural architecture that assumed Christian beliefs (including morality) at a political, institutional, and even aesthetic/cultural/artistic level, we, the church, could get away with a small target Gospel (maybe), to connect a bunch of norms with their source. We didn’t need to build all that other kingdom infrastructure because we inherited it from Christendom, and simply assumed it as foundational. But those foundations have shifted and now our small Gospel doesn’t land on soil cultivated by the historic impact of the bigger Gospel, it lands on rockier ground, or, as Alan Noble describes it in Disruptive Witness, we’re planting and trying to harvest on concrete.

People drinking the church growth Kool-Aid, or embedded in ‘toxic churchianity,’ and let’s face it, that’s most of us because it’s the air we breath, will default to this small Gospel, small target version of Christianity because it is pragmatic and maximises success in the metrics we’re given. A huge part of the problem with retaining people in Christian ministry boils down to these metrics and the associated pressure to create a big and growing church with lots of converts (or people grabbed from other ‘less faithful because they’re less numerically fruitful, or less programmatically excellent’) churches, because this leaves the pastor operating both as gospel teacher and CEO, and success resting on navigating both in the most effective way possible.

The “best strategy” to adopt in the current model is the most soul destroying; it’s to be a pastor without conviction beyond the small gospel, out of fear that you’ll offend someone and they’ll head to the better option up the road, or elsewhere. This leaves us not thinking about how we change and challenge the architecture of belief — political and cultural — outside the church, and still throwing the same good seed that once might have worked in a landscape more explicitly cultivated for that seed, and not getting the results we’ve come to believe should follow faithful Gospel preaching ministry (or people questioning whether we’re faithfully preaching the Gospel at all, and undermining attempts to renew or change the cultural architecture by telling people something other than Gospel proclamation might be a Christian vocation, thanks Philip). Keller isn’t blameless on the church growth front either; his ‘Leadership and Church Size Dynamic’ model provides a pathway away from the ‘pastor sized’ church to mega church and despite his own example of political engagement (a dedicated centrism), I’d suggest both in the model, and observing those who follow it, the ‘small target’ becomes more appealing for a pastor the more disconnected the pastor becomes from the lives of his congregation and the more the success of the movement depends on avoiding controversy. The most successful versions of this paradigm (according to these metrics) — both within Sydney Anglicanism, or in Acts 29, or in other networks seem to be the least politically engaged churches with the leaders least likely to articulate a political position on any issue that might cause offense. It has been refreshing to see Hillsong’s political engagement grow as (I’d suggest) its Gospel vision has grown (see, for example, its engagement in the Black Lives Matter conversation).

A small gospel matched with a small target strategy is not the solution we need; but a shift to giving church communities (and pastors) freedom to pursue a bigger Gospel and bigger targets in terms of messaging and engagement with the world outside the church (including seeing Gospel ministry as taking part in the renewal and reshaping of those parts of the world outside the church that form our beliefs and practices), without pulling up stumps and heading elsewhere if that big target offends you, might be.

The trick is to pull off a ‘big target’ where we display unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. The bigger Gospel broadens the need for unity in Christ beyond unity in the individual mechanism and spiritual implications of the Gospel into some sort of commitment to a shared life and mission (beyond just the making of converts, and into the making of disciples, with ‘political’ and ‘economic’ implications in the true sense of both words — it organises us as people, and guides our collective approach to resources).

In a polarised political climate it would be easy for such a ‘big target’ approach to produce a ‘left leaning church’ and a ‘right leaning church’ who end up at odds with one another in both Gospel communication and politics; and an excluded middle. It is interesting that it doesn’t feel like churches are adopting a ‘bigger target’ strategy when they support politically conservative campaigns (like campaigning against same sex marriage, or abortion), but it does when churches speak out on systemic racism, asylum seekers, and the environment; or that one isn’t risking offending someone in a theologically conservative environment by adopting right leaning politics emphasising individual responsibility and morality, like we are when we speak out about systemic sin that people might be complicit in or benefit from without knowingly, as an individual, choosing to do so. Talking about individual morality, and applying that to the political realm, fits with the small target Gospel.

This, again, is where the small target thing is so much easier; we can avoid anything that feels like ‘worldly politics’ or division and focus just on getting bums on seats and buy in on the smallest possible truths that unite us (in our case, the Gospel of penal substitution). But that won’t work in an increasingly post-Christian context where heaps more scaffolding is required before people are even coming at questions of how the “Good News of Jesus” becomes good news for me, or changes me (or us); a big target approach considers how we challenge alternative scaffolding that supports unbelief, while building our own plausibility structures (communities of believers, following Berger) and social imaginaries (the things in our culture — stories, architecture, practices, politics, etc that support belief, following Taylor).

Grappling with how Paul navigates idol food, idol temples, and missionary dining in idol-food eating cities, with the unity of strong and weak brothers and sisters within the body of Jesus might be helpful here; especially noting that Paul doesn’t choose the ‘small target’ practices of the “weaker brother” in either Romans or 1 Corinthians, but urges their accommodation within a bigger drive to reach and engage the cities and critique, disrupt, and demolish the value of their idols by introducing the big good news of the Gospel of Jesus (an approach he models in, say, Athens in Acts 17 and Ephesus in Acts 19, and describes in 2 Corinthians 10).

The other challenge is for our ‘big target’ strategies to be appropriately shaped by our ‘big Gospel’ — for us not to adopt other forms of political strategies that undermine the message of the Gospel (think political lobbying as power game), or positions that simply pick one form of the post-Christian status quo to conserve because it aligns with the individualism of the small target gospel we’ve imbibed, without pondering how human sin and beastly, Satanic, empires work as the antithesis of the Kingdom of God, and so dismantling structures built on sinful behaviour might also be within the job description of Gospel shaped politics and communication.

The context for our public messaging, and our ‘politics’ has changed — and so the content of the Gospel we proclaim (in word and lives) needs to change too; a small target Gospel if a good thing at all, was an historical anomaly and retreating to it in order to avoid the costs of a big gospel (and even to hand some of that over to ‘the culture’) was maybe a mistake.

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To knee, or not to knee? That is the question

Some people responding to my celebration of NBA star Jonathan Isaac’s decision to stand during the national anthem while all around him took to their knees have (rightly) raised questions about how my post fits with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback in the NFL who first took a knee during the national anthem in protest against racism in the United States.

Kaepernick’s actions developed quietly in the pre-season, and became more public and intentional as a result of then Republican candidate, now President, Donald Trump’s reaction to his actions. Trump has a long history of, at best, courting the white supremicist vote for his own political ends, not only through dog whistling tweets and soft responses to fascism (including his response to Kaepernick’s kneeling, but also around the NASCAR “noose” story earlier this year), and at worst, being a white supremicist by conviction.

In the washup of his decision to take a knee, Kaepernick said: “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Love it. Others didn’t. His actions were framed as actions against the Flag, against the veterans, against the civic religion of the United States — they were framed as a desecration of sorts. But, for Kaepernick, they were simply an expression of his convictions that something in the United States had to change before he could feel like he belonged.

While, in my last post, I suggested there’s a parallel between ‘taking a knee’ and adopting a posture of submission, or worship (the greek word proskuneo), one can also adopt a posture of idolatry or worship by standing for a liturgical moment in the cult of civic religion. Kneeling during the anthem can also be a rejection of an alternate vision of the good; an alternate idolatrous regime. Our bodies are instruments of worship, and their postures, especially habitual ones (like kneeling, or standing), form us.

Since my post about Jonathan Isaacs, Israel Folau, no stranger to not bending the knee to idolatrous social pressures, has also drawn the ire of the Twittersphere for failing to kneel before an English Rugby League game, where he plays for a French team. The way new shibboleths emerge, and the mobs who are willing to conduct spontaneous heresy tribes with cancellation looming large is one of the more visible expressions of how deeply religious our hyper-secular society has become; and how much we’re all aggressive monotheists rather than pluralists. The overlap, or faithful presence, of Christians within these movements is an interesting test of one’s political theology.

While the present pressure to ‘take a knee’ feels implicitly, if not explicitly, religious — a call to give bodily expression to convictions about truth and goodness, where those who don’t participate are expressing a rejection of an orthodoxy that leaves the crowd incredulous — the roots of the ‘taking a knee’ movement were also, essentially, Christian. In that Kaepernick is, by all accounts, a man of deep Christian convictions. His decision to take a knee in the face of injustice was a decision not to stand for the values of a country, or its flag, while that country and flag were symbols of oppression; of a sort of beastly Babylonian imperialism. As James K.A Smith puts it in Awaiting The King, politics is inherently religious, he says: “There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics.”

In Smith’s system, which pays attention to embodied practices as ‘liturgies’ aimed to form us with a vision of the good life, the act of standing for the national anthem is not neutral, it is a civic liturgy. Smith says, of the modern civic religion: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to “pledge allegiance” is not happy with anything less than your heart. In this case, a liturgical lens works like a cultural highlighter that draws our attention not just to the “laws of the land” or the decisions of supreme court justices but to the rites interwoven in our public life together—the rituals and liturgies that inculcate in us a national myth and habituate in us an unconscious allegiance to a particular vision of the good.” Our Australian equivalent is the civic cultic apparatus that has emerged around ANZAC Day and its mythology; a mythology that shapes the collective Australian psyche (and psyche is just the Greek word the Bible uses for soul). Smith suggests his lens is a useful one because it invites us to “be attentive to the ways we are formed by the rites of democracy and the market, not just informed by their institutions.

Whether one stands or kneels during the national anthem is now loaded up as a civic-religious rite; one is either perceived as joining in and participating in the civic cult, or perceived as desecrating that valuable thing by participating in an alternative religion. And as we intentionally use our bodies in either direction, according to Smith, we are being formed towards some vision of life — then, when the Twitter voices pile on to either celebrate or condemn our actions, that formation process goes into hyper-drive. Our formation is amplified by the filter bubbles we belong to and their reinforcing interpretation of our embodied acts.

How are we meant to live, as Christians, when no public territory is religiously neutral? By being attentive, discerning, and acting with intent as people who belong to a different polis; the kingdom of God. As Smith puts it in his fancy phraseology: “our political engagement requires not dismissal or permission or celebration but rather the hard, messy work of discernment in order to foster both ad hoc resistance to its ultimate pretensions and ad hoc opportunities to collaborate on penultimate ends.” This is quite similar to what James Davison Hunter calls being a “faithful presence,” and is also the sort of leadership Edwin Friedman calls for in A Failure of Nerve, that of being a differentiated non-anxious presence in an increasingly anxious and fractious body politic. We’re to know who we are, such that we can resist being deformed or conformed to the patterns of this world, while seeking to be transformed, and to transform the world around us according to the picture of the kingdom of God revealed to us in Jesus.

Jonathan Isaac decided to not kneel, not because he rejects the idea that black lives matter, but so that he might make the case that racial justice won’t come through kneeling, or perhaps even politics, without the Gospel. His decision was an attempt to be a faithful presence, one differentiated from the world around him and its conforming patterns. In my piece unpacking his actions, celebrating them even, I hoped to qualify both that Christians can faithfully be present, kneeling even, in protest movements, and faithfully present in empires (think Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and then under Darius, think Joseph in Egypt, think Erastus in Corinth). It wasn’t a problem for any of these individuals to contribute to the common good in an empire, despite the idolatry inherent in these empires, but there is a pressure that comes with this sort of presence; a pressure to bend the knee to idolatrous systems, rather than to king Jesus.

Sometimes this sort of faithful presence isn’t just about joining some sort of pre-existing empire, or political cause, Christians can even start, or lead, protest movements as expressions of our convictions about the nature of the kingdom of God, and the nature of beastly kingdoms set up in idolatrous opposition to Jesus. When Kaepernick first took a knee, the symbolic meaning of his refusal was clearly a repudiation of empire consistent with his faith. One of his (many) Christian tattoos features the words of Psalm 27:3, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” His taking a knee, surrounded not just by players, but an empire, that first saw this as an attack, was an act of courage, coming from convictions he owns as a follower of Jesus.

Both Kaepernick’s kneeling, and Isaac’s standing, were acts of faithful presence. Like the paradoxes in Proverbs in the Bible, where the wise person either answers a fool according to their folly, or does not, the vexing moral issue of our time is captured, in some form, in the question ‘to knee, or not to knee’?

Does one take a knee in solidarity with a brother who sees the idolatrous impact of empire on his people, who refuses to put the nation state — the empire — in the place of God?

Or does one stand, because at some point the act of kneeling has become synonymous with alternative forms of empire, and a religious social pressure just as opposed, ultimately, to the truth of the Gospel as that which it kneels against?

The key is that whatever you’re attempting to do as a faithful presence, your posture reveals a faith in Jesus as king, not in the alternatives; which will mean freedom to do either, and will require charity from within the body of Christ to be directed at those exercising wisdom and freedom in a different direction; not an attempt to eradicate our fellow Christians as repugnant others in a culture war.

This ethical conundrum became a little less clear cut when Kaepernick’s symbolic act was co-opted by two essentially religious groups. First by Nike, in order to sell more shoes through that insidious form of capitalism. This sort of capitalism is the kind where a multi-national company that has a history of using oppressed people to make shoes in the third world for peanuts, can simultaneously make a poster boy out of a member of an oppressed group who took a costly stance on racism to sell more shoes. It’s here that we might note that what often gets called ‘cultural marxism’ is really just another lever pulled by the capitalist machine to sell goods to a different audience, an idea you can dig into further in The Eucatastrophe’s episodes on cultural marxism. And second, when it was co-opted by people wielding essentially the same but reversed, political power against the (racist) empire as an expression of a culture war with a merchandising arm. Those campaigning against racism, and for the dignity of black lives, are certainly more aligned with God, as creator, and the kingdom of God, as the ideal, than those seeking to uphold white supremacy through systemic racism, but there’s an insidious idolatrous agenda, built on worldly power being applied without God in the picture, co-opting this kneeling campaigning, and twisting potential solutions to racism away from the truth, and towards the idolatrous status quo, just with different labels. Whether BLM or Nike, whether one kneels or stands, as in so much modern politicking, the forces of ‘the market’ are in the mix attempting to make more money through social and political posturing. One wonders who is making and selling the shirts that NBA players are wearing during the anthem…

Modern capitalism (surveillance capitalism or otherwise) is just like modern black-hat Russia in its manipulation of discord in western elections; it doesn’t matter which side wins, so long as the fight is happening in a destabilising way, if that happens, Russia wins. Modern capitalism is like the arms dealer in the culture war, selling polarising political-religious iconography to both sides, turning a buck, growing the market, conscripting us not to our political theology, but to Mammon. How dare Isaacs not wear the Black Lives Matter T-Shirt (he did still wear his Orlando Magic shirt, which you can buy in the gift shop for…). Mammon doesn’t care so long as you buy your political merch and wear it loudly in performance of your virtue; the louder and more obnoxiously the better, in order to promote an equal, but opposite, reaction (and more sales).

When the market turns activism into a way to make a buck or two, we should be doubly suspicious of its religiosity; these acts then serve the twin idols of our vision of the political good (our idealism, or empire), and the economic machine. Black Lives Matter is increasingly a monetised social media phenomenon with merch. Kaepernick’s kneeling became a Nike campaign putting “overt” into religious overtones.

Now, to not kneel, but to stand, is its own act of rebellion, or subversion, in the face of another conforming pattern of this world; and it’s unclear whether by standing one is upholding the idolatry of empire, rejecting the capitalisation of activism, rejecting an anti-racist political movement that is, itself, potentially idolatrous, or simply standing as an expression of faith in an alternative kingdom, with its king.

And here’s where Smith’s diagnosis of the modern ‘political field’ is useful; global capitalism means politics isn’t just about the government; it’s not just about a political empire, but also an economic one, our governments increasingly become pawns in an increasingly global idolatry; the worship of Mammon, and the church, or kingdom of God, stands in opposition to all these forces. Smith describes this, again this is from Awaiting The King:

“If the church is a “public” that stands, in some sense, counter to the pretensions of the earthly polis, we can’t narrowly mistake this as a critique targeted only at the state because, in the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies—and globalized societies more and more—the economy functions as a “structure-building force” that shapes everything. The market now constitutes “the inner logic” of society itself: the dynamics of society are “moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.” This coupling of market forces and the crowd’s demand for publicity means that everyone dreams of monetizing their Instagram feed. And that effectively becomes the ethos of a society.”

This ethos is on display in a protest movement that is essentially performed for photo opps, and that arose from social media activism, using a hashtag. How can we possibly know if every knee publicly bent is a knee privately committed, as part of a body, to the renewal of society around the issue of race. How many knees bent in public, and knees belonging to people whose behaviours and ideologies in private, or out of the camera’s gaze, are given to maintaining the status quo? Isaacs was right to emphasise the need not just for a change of actions, but of hearts.

How one decides what to do when such pressure is applied, and the stakes so high, is an interesting shibboleth test for life in the modern world. Navigating this sort of climate, where nobody is prepared to give an inch in the culture war, but all acts are interpreted through a hyper-political lens, is almost impossible, and certainly crippling. The key for us Christians is to use our bodies in ways that align with our story — our understanding of their God-given and redeemed purpose; our trajectory, or, as Smith puts it, our ‘teleology,’ which “is an eschatology: a hope for kingdom come that arrives by the grace of providence and doesn’t arrive without the return of the risen King. And this changes everything. A teleology that is at once an eschatology will be countercultural to every political pretension that assumes either a Whiggish confidence in human ingenuity and progress or alarmist counsels of despair. But precisely because Christian eschatology is a teleology of hope, it will also run counter to cynical political ideologies of despair that reduce our common life to machinations of power and domination. Furthermore, a Christian political theology attuned to eschatology will run counter to a kind of postmillennial progressivism to which the so-called justice generation sometimes seems prone…”

Any action, or story, that does not share this teleology or eschatology is essentially idolatrous, which isn’t to say we can’t participate in public alongside people who do not share our worship of Jesus, but simply that we should be careful that the use of our bodies is aligned to the truth, not to truncated visions of what it means to be human, and how to solve the problems we’re confronted with in a world marred by sin.

So, Christian. Kneel in the protest movement against racism, or stand against solutions to racism that don’t include king Jesus. Do so as a faithful expression of obedience to your Lord Jesus. There’s freedom here, and this is a course that requires wisdom — but don’t be so co-opted by worldly agendas whether of ‘political empire’ or ‘economic empire’ (and really, these are just two sides of ‘Babylon’) that you lose sight of what is ultimate. Don’t crucify your brothers and sisters for choosing a political action that is different to yours, but celebrate when ambassadors for Jesus are able to be a faithful presence in any community, pursuing the goodness, truth and beauty of the kingdom.

Because remember, ultimately, there is no choice about bowing the knee; we’re all going to take a knee as we participate in various non-ultimate realities here and now, and those realities are going to be religiously motivated economies, like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome were, but every knee will one day bow to Jesus. And it’s his kingdom that counts, and his rule that offers a solution to the problems of sin, including racism. This is part of that ‘eschatology’ — that future hope — that Smith talks about, a future secured through the death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

As you choose who or what to bend your knee to now, bend it to him. It’s good training.

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Out. Standing

I’m so on the record as thinking Christians can say “black lives matter,” or tweet “#blacklivesmatter,” without being a “cultural marxist” or complicit in everything that Black Lives Matter TM might stand for (according to the about page on their website) that I’m not sure this post needs a disclaimer; David Ould even mentioned me in his dispatches (while he was arguing that Christians should not ‘take a knee’ in the face of pressure to do so).

But I think Christians can, and should, reject systemic racism, the patriarchy, and all other forms of sin that have become so entrenched in the cultures and practices of the west that they have become the status quo; just as a Christian in China should reject systemic sin in China, and a Christian in ancient Rome was called to do the same.

Racism is entrenched in the United States; and in Australia. Systemically.

Black lives matter. There. Here. Everywhere. And yeah, black lives matter because all lives matter, but all lives will only matter when black lives do…

I’m also, I hope, on the record enough as a contrarian who doesn’t like groupthink, or cancellation, or the way people get conscripted into popular ideologies (or systems) that are just other forms of ‘systemic’ sin; the sort of tit-for-tat we see in the culture war, that you’ll understand why some part of this image, though it might be used to undermine the narrative about systemic racism as a deep social ill, resonated with me.

One thing idols do is ask us to ‘bow the knee’ — one of the Greek words we get translated as ‘worship’ in the New Testament is ‘proskuneo’ it’s this idea of ‘falling before’ the object of our reverence; there is something deeply religious about ‘taking a knee’ — and for Christians, if you’re going to ‘take a knee’ to affirm that black lives matter, it’s, I think, important to demonstrate that you’re doing so not out of worship for some worldly god or thing (an idol), but as an expression of your obedience to Jesus, and as an opportunity to listen to and love those around you as an ambassador for Christ. Of course I think that’s both possible and necessary, and that Christians should enter the contest for words and terms and fill out their meaning with the truth of the Gospel; black lives matter because black lives are human lives; and humans are made to reflect the image of God. God loves black lives. Jesus (not white, sorry Eric Metaxas) died for black people. Our use of terminologies, and our involvement in protest movements can be a testimony to the Lordship of Jesus, to the nature of his kingdom, and a way to build a bridge so that others might meet Jesus through our faithful presence in their lives and movements too.

Some have argued that Black Lives Matter is simply another insidious outworking of cultural marxism, classic marxism, some other descriptor mashed into marxism, or just the dastardly left; as though one can’t be faithfully Christian and present in the communities and movements on the left. They are wrong. Both about cultural marxism being a thing, about Christianity being some sort of polar opposite of the left (and so the right). Black Lives MatterTM certainly uses the language of intersectional oppression on its website, and one can decide for one’s self how far to recognise patterns of oppression in the west, and how much those tend to be driven by people who are white, and male (and then heterosexual, and Cis-gendered). Those debates are for another time (or other posts in my archive).

Yet. Some part of the subversive nature of Christianity, and the crucified Lord who would not deny his identity on trial before Pilate, finds its origin story in the story of Daniel, where Daniel’s friends would not take a knee to Nebuchadnezzar and his giant golden statue, and where Daniel would not ‘take a knee’ and pray to the emperor Darius as god. The world is full of powers and movements and idols that call for our worship; and where we demonstrate that worship with our posture.

Jonathan Isaac is an NBA player for the Orlando Magic. He’s an ordained pastor. When his team mates took a knee this week; he stood.

Not because he doesn’t believe “black lives matter” (he says they do in his interview clarifying his stance). He stood as a matter of conscience, and from a position he derived from his faith. When CNN tried to unpack his position, featuring his own words, Isaac, like Daniel, pointed to a greater source of support for Black lives; the object of his worship.

“The television broadcast showed Isaac, who is Black, standing as players and coaches from both teams, as well as referees, took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. The 22-year-old forward was also the only player seen not wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt.

Isaac can be seen wearing his Magic game jersey instead.

He explained his position on Friday ahead of the game versus the Brooklyn Nets, saying that he doesn’t think “putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand-in-hand with supporting Black lives.

“For me Black lives are supported through the gospel. All lives are supported through the gospel,” he said. “We all have things that we do wrong and sometimes it gets to a place that we’re pointing fingers at who’s wrong is worst. Or who’s wrong is seen, so I feel like the Bible tells us that we all fall short of God’s glory. That will help bring us closer together and get past skin color. And get past anything that’s on the surface and doesn’t really get into the hearts or men and women.

“Black lives are supported through the Gospel.”

In the Foxsports report of the same answer Isaac gave to the question about his stance, he’s quoted as saying:

“For myself, my life has been supported through the gospel, Jesus Christ and everyone is made in the image of God.”

You can watch his inquisition interview here.

It’s bold, gracious, and kinda beautiful. He certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to so boldly proclaim his rationale for believing that black lives matter without daring to be different and subversive; while not bowing the knee.

It’s an incredible interview.

Now. I’d have some quibbles with the sort of implication that suggests God wants us to get past skin colour, rather than see his glory reflected in the faithful lives of all those who are gathered by Jesus from every tribe, tongue, and nation as people made in the image of God, and restored to that glorious purpose in Jesus.

I think he’s bang on about the individual implications of the Gospel, and the need for forgiveness of sins, and I’d simply go further and suggest that the Gospel is the answer to the systemic implications of the Gospel, in that in Jesus we have a king who creates a kingdom where barriers that divide are removed, and replaced with the unity brought through the cross, the resurrection and the indwelling of the Spirit in the lives of believers.

I’d want to suggest that ethnicity and diversity are God given realities to celebrate, and that our bodies are intrinsic to who we are; that colourblindness isn’t the goal, so much as seeing each other truly through eyes opened by God. And I probably am happy to affirm his statement and support #BlackLivesMatter as a protest movement (which isn’t to say I think Black Lives MatterTM is the same as either the movement or the statement).

But wow.

What a confounding, subversive, interview. Challenging a new orthodoxy so much that the reporters covering his actions were struggling to understand how he could be so different.

With the whole league, players, officials, lock stock and barrel taking steps to support Black Lives Matter as the NBA resumes, Isaac’s stance is likely to be costly (he’s copping incredulity on Twitter). Not Israel Folau level costly, probably, (and if you’re wondering if there’s some sort of double standard at play here, I thought Folau was brave, and badly misrepresenting Christianity. I had no issue with his taking a stance for his own beliefs, just his beliefs), but costly.

I’ll stand up for him.

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The Flailing New York Times: why we need media(ting) institutions that mediate, not culture warriors

Donald Trump has been relentless in his attacks on the ‘fake news media’ — part of his culture war strategy is to white ant the credibility of any institution that might seek to hold his craven, narcissistic, sociopathic pursuit of power and wealth to account. One of his favourite targets is the “failing New York Times.” The Times, as a sort of bastion of New York culture and elitism has always stood in stark opposition to Trump’s kitschy megalomania and Reality TV style boorishness. The paper has been a strident critic of the President, and has been for many years, it both endorsed Hillary Clinton, and thoroughly dis-endorsed Trump, calling him the “worst nominee ever put forward by a major party” (they weren’t wrong). In the wash-up of the election results, trying to understand how they, like most of the nation’s elite establishments, had so failed to predict a Trump win, the Times committed itself to a renewed understanding of its calling as a media institution.

“As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.”

Another way of framing this commitment was that the Times committed itself to not being a combatant in the culture wars, but the sort of mediating institution that media institutions are meant to be; institutions and ‘public spaces’ that allow the sort of civil conversation and listening that builds consensus about what is actually true. Functioning societies that aren’t autocracies (governed by a sole authority), or technocracies (governed by experts, science, and data), require an informed populace making decisions from commonly held truths (this is, of course, obvious when you have a pandemic, and a need to communicate and coordinate public health responses, including public behaviour). Trump’s anti-media culture war agenda is dangerous because it can force media agencies to fight fire with fire; it can make ‘truth’ contested. By playing the game Trump wants to play, media companies become wedded to an agenda other than the truth and so open to undermining as ‘the fake news media’ who are perpetuating an elitist view of the world that misunderstands the experience of the common man; and so misunderstands reality. The Times editorial at his election was a hopeful sign that it wasn’t going to be dragged into the mud.

Democracy needs an independent press; a trusted press; a press that operates as a ‘mediating institution’ — not simply one that treats all claims as equal and airs ‘both sides,’ but one that pursues truth, expertise, the public interest, that both speaks truth to power and exposes the truth about power. What we don’t need is media institutions trapped in the culture wars as combatants. That won’t serve anybody. The undermining of trust in the media both because media companies, in order to operate as a force in the market (and to meet its costs, or secure its funding, for eg the ABC) adopt biased positions to sell to a market, and because powerful figures have their own vested interest in undermining institutions that might call them to account, is a pox on all our houses. It’s a particularly vicious cycle when our politicians are poll driven (in order to keep power) and the polling companies are subsidiaries of media companies.

In short, we’re screwed. Our media institutions have become not institutions ‘outside’ the mechanics of power, as a sort of public square, or ‘commons,’ but institutions caught up with wielding power for their own ideological and commercial interests. It’s no coincidence that people like Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos get control of media institutions as they seek to fashion a world in their image of what a world should be.

What doesn’t help mainstream media, like the Times, is when they also become victims to ‘polling’ — to reflecting the voice of the people, rather than operating as a mediating institution that is objectively pursuing the truth. When a media agency becomes an arm of the culture wars, and starts flailing predictably in the direction of some repugnant other, it undermines the ability it might have had to build common ground on issues of truth. The catch, of course, is that with someone like Trump whose only mode is culture wars and self interest, the speaking of truth to power will look and feel a whole lot like ‘culture wars’ to his supporters.

The New York Times is trapped; if Trump is what they say he is, then to say so will be to support his criticisms of them, to become a player in the culture war game, and to lose its institutional cachet, and its trusted position in a democracy. This is true in Australia as our own media institutions get caught up in culture war games.

But it’s worse — despite columns dedicated to public civility from ‘centrist’ (or conservative) figures like David Brooks and Ross Douhat, the Times has failed in its attempts to “reflect all political perspectives,” at least from the perspective of the person they brought in to do that job, who has just publicly announced her resignation because the ‘failing New York Times’ is a flailing, hot, seething mess of resentment internally. In a resignation letter that will surely now sit alongside the open letter from 150 prominent writers condemning cancel culture, Bari Weiss announced her departure from the masthead.

She’s resigning because the Times, ultimately, is inhospitable to those who do not share its orthodoxy. This is religious language being applied to a public institution; it’s a telling category shift. Interestingly, Weiss, who has a long record of opposing anti-semitism, was interviewed after a mass shooting at the synagogue she grew up attending, she said of her Jewish compatriots who had supported Trump and the climate he created, that she saw contributing to rationale of the shooter, “I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain: They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people—and frankly, this country—forever: Welcoming the stranger; dignity for all human beings; equality under the law; respect for dissent; love of truth.” On her reasons for departing the Times, Weiss said:

“I was hired with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home. The reason for this effort was clear: The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers… But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else… If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets. ” 

She goes on to detail not her cancelation, but her treatment at the hands of colleagues who she says have bought into this particular ideology and so police her orthodoxy, and how inhospitable that becomes.

This stuff is tricky; because in the fallout of the Harpers letter there’s been a fairly public dispute at Vox, where an editor, Matthew Yglesias, was a signatory to the open letter, and a trans writer on staff, Emily VanDerWerff, published an email she’d written to management about how unsafe his signature made her (without calling for his cancellation, but the Internet didn’t read it that way); inhospitality goes in all directions. The argument that free speech is not without cost; especially when it offends or marginalises, is not so easy to dismiss as ‘sticks and stones will break my bones’… What’s noteworthy here is that the treatment Emily VanDerWerff is receiving from strangers on the internet is essentially the same that Weiss says she is receiving from colleagues within her organisation.

Incivility is a terrible thing. And disagreement is complex; we can’t simply create an institution committed to the common good and to canvasing ideas as though we have a blank slate, either historically or emotionally. There must be ideas that are beyond the pale, whose intolerance and exclusivity will drive others away from a platform, Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” has to kick in somewhere (this idea says “if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant”). I’ve written before about the analogy of tables, or hospitality, and community; where, for Christians, there’s the Lord’s table (those you break bread with on a Sunday, where theological particularity might matter), your own tables (those you’ll invite around for a meal as host), and tables where we might eat as guests in the commons; media outlets, and the public square, naturally sit as ‘third tables’ (or third spaces), it becomes problematic when media outlets that have a role to play in the commons behave like religious sects. The second and third tables, in order for society to function as something other than a theocracy, have to practice accommodation, hospitality, or some form of pluralism. I’ve also written about how, for Christians, ‘costly speech’ is a better ethical paradigm than ‘free speech,’ these examples of incivility in the public square outside the church are the equal and opposite version of the church seeking to impose its morality on the third table; the third table — mediating institutions that allow the pursuit of common goods and common ground — can’t operate ‘policing orthodoxy,’ instead, it must operate around principles of hospitality and pluralism.

The flailing New York Times has failed to do this because it has become an institution conscripted in the culture wars; a sectarian institution, an institution committed to what the coiner of the culture wars moniker, James Davison Hunter, calls “ressentiment” (the French word for resentment), he says “it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. Ressentiment is, then, a form of political psychology… Nowhere does it find a more conducive home than among the disadvantaged or mistreated as directed against the strong, the privileged, or the gifted. But here an important qualification: perception is everything. It is not the weak or aggrieved per se, though it could be, but rather those that perceive themselves as such. Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged… The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity…

Now, this isn’t to deny that there are those who have been mistreated by the strong, but it does mean that part of the culture war manual is positioning yourself as the victim; which is both the criticism of the signers of the Harper’s letter (that they are claiming victimhood) and the criticism in the Harper’s letter that the process of claiming victimhood is used to silence others. It’s also the heart of Weiss’ criticisms of those in her Jewish community who supported Trump, and her own rationale for leaving the Times. It’s ressentiment all the way down. The antidote to ressentiment is listening and love; it is hospitality.

The flailing Times tried that in appointing Weiss, they failed at it in appointing Weiss, committing to not playing the culture war games, and then becoming increasingly, at least in Weiss’ account, pugnacious crusaders for a particular ideological position.

Hunter says “In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.”

I’m sympathetic to the signers of the Harpers open letter and their call for the free expression of ideas, the idea that our ability to collectively know truth, or at least seek it, requires a certain degree of free speech. If their objections are understood as powerful people who contribute to the ongoing marginalisation of the ultimate intersectional oppressed class complaining about the sort of ‘cancelling’ that oppressed peoples have long experienced at the hands of the elite, then the only thing more brazen would be an open letter from the kinds of sectarian church traditions that have sought to impose their moral frame on all of societies tables complaining about cancel culture; the church invented cancel culture (or Israel and other nations of the Ancient Near East, then Rome, did, with the knocking down of idol statues), we just used to call them ‘inquisitions,’ heresy trials, or witch hunts. But some of the signers of the Harper’s letter, like Weiss, are themselves members of oppressed groups; victims even (J.K Rowling, for example, is a feminist and an abuse survivor, Salman Rushdie the subject of a fatwa), Weiss, too, is an outspoken critic of anti-semitism. if we allow the game to be played on these third tables as a sectarian religious, or culture war, where the most intersectionally aggrieved parties dictate the terms about what can and can’t be said, then the flailing New York Times, and other media(ting) institutions will fail; and will fall into the hands of demagogues like Trump (an argument the Harper’s letter makes). Mediating institutions can’t function as mediating institutions if they aren’t operating as ‘third tables,’ or common places; when they ‘mediate’ in a sectarian way they’re acting more like churches pursuing a theocratic end, and executing heretics. This isn’t to say that those who have historically been excluded from platforms, when they were previously enthralled to other ideologies, should not have their grievances heard, or be received with space-giving love, the trick is finding ways to invite such people and groups to not just be guests on the platform (like Weiss’ introducing conservative and centrist voices to the Times), but allowing people of various convictions to function not simply as guests at the table, but hosts.

On the flip side, the church might learn from these stories — not in ways that lead us to operate our own tables differently, but in ways that moderate how we engage in the culture; not as culture warriors who long to wield the power of the cancel button again, but as people not given to ressentiment, but to love and hospitality. The ABC’s Scott Stephens presciently made a point very much like this in a conference I wrote about back in 2015, where he said:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

Maybe not just the public broadcaster, but any organisation with the noble aims expressed by the Times after Trump’s election. Maybe such institutions might aim to be more like a table, and less like a trebuchet with arms flinging destructive projectiles at some repugnant other.

 

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On technology, hope, church forests, and the gardener-king

This weekend I’m presenting a talk at the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC) for the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST). The conference theme is “A Hopeful Future: Christians, Creation, and the AI World.” Because of Covid-19, the conference is being held virtually, and it’s not too late to register.

My presentation takes the work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman (media ecologists), and Charles Taylor, to suggest that technology is not neutral because it becomes part of the ecology that forms us as humans, and comes with inbuilt mythologies about the good life, and true human ends, including a sort of technological eschatology where a hope that people genuinely believe is good is the hope that we might become part of the machine. Technologist David Porush coined a term for the ‘good coding’ that would allow technology to mirror and interface and capture the human consciousness — “eudoxia” — or ‘good words’ — I’m playing that against Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” — or ‘good catastrophe’ — the injection of hope from above when all seems hopeless that he sees as the quality of good human stories, because the satisfaction they bring is aligned with the true hope that comes from the Eucatastrophe at the heart of God’s interaction with creation; the incarnation, resurrection, and future return of Jesus. The “desire for dragons” he speaks of won’t necessarily be answered by Jurassic Park, and the use of technology to clone and resurrect dinosaurs (or by ‘augmented reality’ video games that bring the Jurassic world to life).

That’s not to give the game away too much, but as I was putting together this presentation (and you’ll find some of the building blocks in things I wrote about Telstra’s Magic of Technology advertisement, and Amazon Prime’s show Upload), I was struck again by the imagery of Ethiopia’s Church Forests. They’re such a stark picture of a non-technological response to a world where technology is used to dominate the physical landscape in order to deliver our vision for the good life. This essay from Fred Bahnson was part of drawing my attention to them (along with the video essay from National Geographic).

Screenshot from the fascinating documentary/essay project from Fred Bahnson and Jeremy Seifert, from Emergence Magazine

The documentary opens with the line:

“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, a church, to be a church, should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the garden of Eden.”

These forests have protected Ethiopian biodiversity from being eradicated by agricultural dominion, Bahnson’s essay, which touches on the research of Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, who studies the forests as his vocation notes:

“Until roughly a hundred years ago, Ethiopia’s northern highlands were one continuous forest, but over time that forest has been continually bisected, eaten up by agriculture and the pressures of a growing population. Now the entire region has become a dry hinterland taken over almost entirely by farm fields. From the air it looks similar to Haiti. Less than three percent of primary forest remains. And nearly all of that three percent, Alemayehu discovered, was only found in forests protected by the church.”

There’s something quite ‘new Edeny‘ about these forests; and while Ethiopian Orthodox Spirituality doesn’t always resonate with my theological framework; a significant part of how I approach theology is rooted in my disenchanted, western, view of the world. Part of technology’s formative effect is ‘disenchantment’ — the idea that technology isn’t just like magic, but is magic in its truest form, because other belief in magic just expresses desires we haven’t yet found technological solutions for.

Today I happened to find this piece from Simon Smart at the Centre for Public Christianity, whose imagination also seems to have been captured by the images of these church forests.

“Fred Bahnson, who wrote the essay that became the documentary on the Ethiopian church forests, thinks of them as arks, or “tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown”. Deploying the metaphor globally to image our contested and fragile future, he writes, “We will need many more arks like them … tens of thousands of arks: cultural, biological, spiritual.” … These kinds of initiatives take work. They require nurture. And a strong foundation. The church forests emanate from a belief in the sacred — sacred space worth protecting, and sacred life and the value of every person. The centre enables the whole. The solid protective walls are permeable, in that an open gate welcomes all who want to enter to find refuge and abundant life. They offer a bright sign of hope in northern Ethiopia, and perhaps a symbol of what is possible in our own search for sanctuary and refreshment.”

I draw on both the Church Forest and J.R.R Tolkien in my presentation, struck, again, by not just the ‘Eucastrophe’ bit of On Fairy Stories, but the way it unpacks Tolkien’s whole project — in a world increasingly shaped by dominion through technology, with imaginations fuelled by science fiction, he turned to the purity of the fairy story as a critique of that sort of vision of man; calling for us, instead, to be ‘co-creators’ — who participate in generative imitation of God both in our stories, and in the lives promoted by stories that echo the truths of the Gospel. In a letter unpacking his approach in Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien lays his motivations bare (brazen for a guy who accused his friend C.S Lewis of too much allegory).

I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of 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.

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”

I’d not noticed how much this is true; the good wizards in Middle Earth have a deep affinity with nature, while Saruman and Sauron both employ magic to enslave and destroy — both the natural environment, and the lives of those around them. The Lord of the Rings, then, functions as a critique of finding hope in magic or technology, rather than the eucatastrophe, and the animating belief that all sad things will one day come untrue.

The story that animates us — whether the pursuit of the ‘good words’ that will unite us with our technology, or the good intervention that will save us from the jaws of our machines and the destruction of beastly dominion — sin, and death, and Satan — will shape the way we live now. If the Gospel is true, and the world is a sacred place made to reveal the divine nature and character of God in concert with the Gospel message, coordinated under the rule of the resurrected and resurrecting King Jesus who will return to “make all things new” — in a new Eden — then planting forests that protect biodiversity, and position the church community within the natural world in a way that is more like the elves and less like the orcs, might be ways that we live in anticipation and hope.

I also came across, in the last few weeks, this article, ‘When the Gardener Returns: An ecological perspective on Adam’s Dominion,’ by Old Testament scholar Doug Green (who’s also part of our church family, and whose work I drew on quite a bit in articulating a ‘political theology’ that plays off two threads at work in the world, those taking up the call to bear God’s image as it is revealed in Jesus, and those falling into beastliness, this isn’t to say that I’ve understood him, or represented him in such a way that he is responsible for my representation of this thinking…).

Taking up the resurrection appearance of Jesus in the garden in John’s Gospel, and Mary’s meeting ‘The Gardener’ — the new Adam, the man “destined to bring all of creation into order, harmony, and abundance,” Doug says:

“While the day of the final curse-lifting renewal still lies out in our future (Rom 8:19-22), in Christ’s resurrection the age to come has broken into this present age, and the Gardener has already taken up his royal vocation of subduing the earth on God’s behalf. Accordingly, the reborn Gardener of Genesis 2 calls his subjects — the renewed humanity of Genesis 1 — to live as true humans, by living from the first definition, found in Genesis 1-2, of what it means to be human, but especially by living toward the gospel’s vision of what humanity will be in the age to come. With our “ethical eyes” looking back to our origin and forward to our destiny, we are called to live as ambassadors of the New Creation, who give the watching world a foretaste of what life in that kingdom will be like. Surely this should be good news for creation as Christians seek to live the royal, second-Adam life, as God’s gardeners. Yes, Christians may work the earth for human benefit, but we must do so in a protective and caring way that previews and anticipates the great day of renewal when Jesus, the Gardner-King, will finally deliver the natural realm from its bondage to decay and at last transform the whole world into a new and better Eden.”

Ethiopian church forests are a little picture of the possibility of this sort of approach to church; they’re the products of generations of faithful cultivation, and we should probably start now.

On book reviews… A review of a review of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

My denomination’s flagship old media publication, Australian Presbyterian, that is desperately trying to carve out a niche on new media platforms, has published a review of Aimee Byrd’s book. It’s fighting a losing battle because the market is already saturated with plenty of other old media platforms occupying the same digital space; plus there are all those people whose voices would otherwise be excluded from conversations in our denomination also carving out their own spaces, particularly women. It’s interesting to see an establishment media outlet taking on a woman for getting an audience and not knowing her place; while talking about how men on the internet have been behaving badly.

It’s not a good review.

Both in its take on Aimee Byrd’s book, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which it says is very bad, and in its execution, ie, it’s not a “good” expression of the form, or genre, of the review.

Now, I do my own thing when I write reviews — I’m not particularly interested in assessing the review on my terms; I’m more likely to write something like a review essay – a thing of my own, inspired by the ideas gleaned from the book, and encouraging people to read (or not read) the book in question. Sometimes I write reviews of very bad books, but mostly, I write reviews of books that I think add things to significant conversations, especially conversations in the life of the church.

John Updike, who is a much more significant authority figure on the writing of reviews than I am, as both a writer and a reviewer, came up with six principles for writing book reviews. Now, these aren’t the be all and end all of book review rules; there’s a subjectivity involved in any writing. But they’re interesting principles one might use to assess whether a review is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on some sort of scoresheet.

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio- fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

These are good rules. Mark Powell’s review in the Australian Presbyterian breaks every one of them. Especially the ‘vaguer sixth’…

EDIT: Mark has, since my publication of this piece, suggested that he was not writing a “review” but rather a “reflection” on the events surrounding the book. Whether or not these criteria then apply is up to you (and to me, as the one posting) to discern; I’m comfortable with what I have written, but am happy for Mark’s qualifying comment to sit alongside this… I’m not sure the distinction is quite so fine as he might like, but it does speak to limitations around the word limit he was operating in; his criticisms of the book in the piece are a substantive part of the piece, and as I’ll suggest below, significantly misrepresent the book. Here are some things Mark has said on Facebook while promoting his ‘reflection’:

“Aimee Byrd’s book is deeply flawed, but there are some important lessons for us to learn as a denomination, especially regarding online civility as well as due process, around it.”

“Nathan Campbell you’ve assumed that the above article is a “review” of Aimee’s book and then judged what I’ve written in that light. However, the editor of AP asked me to NOT do another review—because so many competent ones have already been done which I mention / link in the piece—but to instead do a “reflection” on the furore around it.”

“so, here’s my thoughts on Aimee Byrd’s new book and the controversy around it…”

And when one person said “thanks Mark: an excellent review. I don’t think I need to read the book to know that it’s terrible,” he didn’t say “it’s not a review,” he said “part of the challenge here is not giving an unhelpful book undue publicity but at the same time not just dismissing it because we know we’re going to disagree. As Proverbs 26:4-5 says, this requires much wisdom.”

“What I wrote was not a formal book review, but you seem intent on questioning my motives about this. I’ll leave it for those following this thread to make up their own minds as to how successful my reflection was. As I’ve said elsewhere, this clearly has to include an engagement with what Aimee wrote.”

I think I’m hearing him correctly and disagreeing with the distinction he is making between ‘review’ and ‘reflection’ — not because I think if he were to write a more traditional ‘book review’ about the book he would take a different form, but because I think in the world of new media the text we’re asked to review includes the discussion generated by an artefact, not just the artefact itself. For Christian writers to have books published now, publishers require an online platform and the ability to produce online conversations, or buzz; I’m not sure we can separate the buzz from the book (I also made this case around a controversial review I wrote of a bad book, though, mea culpa, part of my assessment of that book was that it did not do what a book on that issue should do, and what it explicitly set out not to do, which is what I’m suggesting Mark Powell has done here).

So while Mark Powell sought to clarify afterwards, I’m not going to go through this piece and replace the word ‘review’ with ‘reflection’ — and I think even in a reflection, the criteria for reviews outlined above (and below) still stand; that we’re to be people who do not bear false witness, so it is important to as best as possible accurately present the views of those we critique; I’ve given Mark opportunity to clarify the things I’ve said about him here (beyond the ‘review’/’reflection’ thing), and edited accordingly.

As a side note — it’s conventional in this sort of writing to refer to a person by their surname alone, or their first name if you know them. I’ve known Mark Powell since I was a kid in regional NSW, but I’m choosing to use Aimee Byrd and Mark Powell in full to continue reminding you, dear reader, of the biological sex of the writer (and I say sex, not gender, because I think as a general rule we’d be better off clearly establishing the very physical givenness of sex, as opposed to ‘identity’ or ‘construction’ — I think ‘gender’ is now a confused and loaded word, especially when one starts talking about ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’ or ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’ and what appropriate expressions of those look like). Mark Powell’s review is a male, in a church context, writing about a female, in a church context, so how he writes, not just what he says, demonstrates something interesting — and that is also under ‘review’ in this review.

Mark Powell cites Andy Naselli’s review of Aimee Byrd’s book as an authoritative critique of her work; Andy Naselli comes much closer to Updike’s list of principles than Mark Powell does, but this, perhaps, is because Naselli has his own principles for public disagreement, that he drew from Tim Keller. And Mark Powell breaks those too.

1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views.

2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own.

3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.

4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.

5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives!

6. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology—because only God sees the heart.

I’d argue Mark Powell’s review fails on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th principles, so he should take responsibility for misrepresenting Aimee Byrd’s views (the 1st).

The thing is; what I’m doing here — and what Mark Powell does in his review — is adopting the fallacy known as ‘arguing from authority’ or appealing to some authority figure whose views might persuade the reader of an argument if your own argument is weak; or your own authority insecure.

The problem with Mark Powell’s review is not that he doesn’t follow the principles outlined by Updike, Keller, or Naselli. It’s that it comes from an agenda never fully disclosed, and at the risk of poisoning the well, Mark Powell is not the man I would listen to on how men and women work together for the cause of the Gospel; he, in his review, assumes his theological platform is normative and Biblical, and Presbyterian, but it is a narrow sort of Presbyterianism informed by a belief in a particular theology of headship. He has principles, drawn from 1 Corinthians 11, about the hair length appropriate for women before they are being sinfully rebellious. Those views are fine for someone to hold; he draws them in good faith from a systematic theology that is integrated and coherent in its own way; but they are not the views of the Presbyterian Church, they are his views as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. Mark Powell doesn’t declare his own hand while operating as a culture warrior in his review (there are bits of Updike’s rules that are just genuinely good principles for engaging with this sort of exercise).

I think I’ve been clear enough, or at least tried, to articulate clearly how I think men and women should be working in Gospel partnership, and how that could play out differently in the courts of the Presbyterian church, and in our gatherings. It’s clear that I come from a different theological starting point to Mark Powell, and that I’m much more inclined to see Aimee Byrd’s book as, if not a necessary corrective for our churches, a good faith conversation starter from a woman who shares a confessional framework that we operate in. I say this to nail my own colours and convictions to the mast so that you can assess whether or not I break all the reviewing conventions I have laid out above…

Let’s do some reviewing of Powell’s review now.

For starters, he sets the context of the book and the discussions around it with a retelling of events in a manner that is problematic (and quite disputed); he takes a terminology (doxing) that I’m not sure he understands, and accuses Aimee Byrd of participating in doxing, when even the accusers he quotes are careful to make a distinction between Aimee Byrd sharing a site containing screenshots of the awful, slanderous, things said about her and Aimee Byrd making a site. He praises elders (men) in Aimee Byrd’s church for taking a stance against the men named in the group; without acknowledging that their names would be unknown if their fruitless deeds of darkness were not exposed; you can’t have your doxing cake and eat it too. Basically, what good Godly men do, from Powell’s view, is to be admired and defended, but women who don’t know their place are to be put back in it.

Mark Powell offers no substantive engagement with Aimee Byrd’s book-length appeal for reform in the church; instead, he misrepresents it (and doesn’t even try to re-present it fairly, he does not quote it at all). He shares the critiques of others. He never properly addresses her arguments (or landing points), in fact, he suggests she is arguing for something she explicitly says she isn’t in the book — and he doesn’t make any attempt to suggest her statements were made in bad faith and that she tried to create particular outcomes flying under the radar. He complains about Aimee Byrd trotting out feminist tropes like ‘the Yellow wallpaper’ — and, without irony, becomes an installer of yellow wallpaper. Even if Aimee Byrd is wrong on a variety of points in her book (and as a human author, whose work is not infallible, this is likely), this is not a good faith exercise in dialogue to persuade Aimee Byrd of her errors; it’s an attempt to stop people encountering her arguments. It is a hatchet job. Even if Aimee Byrd is wrong about everything — the point of Updike and Keller’s principles — is that you treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated; if Mark Powell’s view on women is that we shouldn’t listen to them in case they teach us something, then his review demonstrates the folly of that approach (this, I don’t think, is Mark Powell’s view on women, but in demonstrably failing to listen to a woman who has published a book that he has set out to publicly review, this is what Mark Powell demonstrates his actual view on women is). I believe Mark Powell loves women, and wants to see them flourish; I believe his writing is thoroughly consistent with his framework and how he believes the Bible spells out a pattern for human flourishing. I also believe Mark Powell’s framework is wrong, and while I think he is Presbyterian, and our denomination is one where big R Reformed people with sympathies for the Federal Vision movement, or those who like Doug Wilson, might find a home, I don’t think our denomination is so narrow that only those with this sort of framework should find a home (or a platform). The AP mag has form on this; it was, of course, home to the article that suggested women’s ministry training should be restricted to mothercraft.

In his framing of the debate Mark Powell makes a category error; a sort of error quite common in hard complementarianism. He jumps from a passage where Peter is explicitly talking about the relationship between husband and wives to make a case for how ‘all men’ and ‘all women’ should relate in obedience to Scripture.

“We should clearly and consistently condemn any physical or verbal abuse of another person, and especially when a man commits this against a woman. 1 Peter 3:7—a passage that Byrd strangely never refers too in her book—is more than apt.

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.””

Now, unless Mark has substantially changed his position on 1 Corinthians 11 since last we debated it; he and I read that chapter differently too — I think veils (head coverings) were a first century wedding ring — a picture of the inter-dependence of husband and wife — and that wives in Corinth were declaring independence from their husbands in public by unveiling their heads (a greek word for wife is the same as a greek word for woman, and context shapes how we read it). It’s an approach that has significant implications for how we structure not just church and marriage life, but all relationships between men and women; and that Mark Powell is so quick to use them interchangeably here is at least indicative of a consistency in his approach…

So far as I can tell as an outsider to the life of the Byrd household, Aimee Byrd writes with the full support of her husband. Some of the worst examples of comments on the cesspit, The Geneva Commons, were comments speculating about their relationship and asking “where her husband is” as she writes the things she writes. The issue with the comments on the Geneva Commons, misogynist though they are, is not an issue simply because Aimee Byrd is a woman and the people making the comments are men (though that fits with Aimee Byrd’s call for reforms too), the issue is that Aimee Byrd is a human being made in the Image of God, being transformed by God’s Spirit into the image of Jesus; how we treat her is an expression of our view of Jesus (‘by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love, one for another’). The way we treat our brothers and sisters in the faith (including the way I write about Mark Powell, who I do see as a brother in the faith, just one doing substantial damage to the witness of the Gospel in Australia by playing the culture war game so vigorously both inside and outside the church) reveals how we see Jesus. If Mark Powell can’t bring himself to listen properly to Aimee Byrd’s cries for reform — cries echoed by women in our own churches here in Australia — even if he disagrees; then this review is an indictment of him (and perhaps the platform he is given), not of Aimee Byrd.

His review is a staggering effort to eradicate the voice of a woman, while, at the same time, it is being revealed the length a group of men in positions of authority in a sister church in the U.S were going to to also eradicate her voice. And Aimee Byrd is not a feminist outsider, she’s not even an egalitarian — she is a member in good standing of a Presbyterian Church, a church in good standing with the Presbyterian Church of Australia; how we respond to her is going to communicate volumes to the women in our churches.

Mark’s review is not the same as the comments on the Geneva Commons; I’m not wanting to suggest there’s an equivalence here; but it’s easy for women in our churches (I hope) to see the Geneva Commons experience as an outlier, rightly condemned, than a norm, if the norm isn’t a similar eradication of women’s voices on how our church is structured (and even, how we understand the Bible). Mark Powell was right to unequivocally condemn the Geneva Commons threads; but to condemn that while ‘reviewing’ the book in such a bad faith way (see Keller’s rules, and Updikes), is to be complicit in the same ‘yellow wallpaper’ — just not to the same toxic degree. He says:

How Aimee Byrd has been treated clearly grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:29-32). And the fact that many of the men who are guilty of such sins are office bearers in Christ’s church is a timely warning and exhortation for us all to repent and refrain from any such conduct.

I believe that while his treatment of Aimee Byrd in this review is not the same as the treatment dished out in the Geneva Commonsthat perhaps benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy; and maybe it’s a more damaging expression of that in the long term because I don’t think the Geneva Commons guys are going to get their views platformed in our denomination’s national magazine.

Let me quote another para of Mark Powell’s review. Where he gets into his substantial criticism of her book (points largely echoed in the two other reviews he cites).

“Byrd does a very poor job in handling the Scriptures. Significantly, passages which are integral to the entire debate are completely ignored (i.e. 1 Tim. 2:8-15, 1 Pet. 3:1-7). This is inexcusable, especially when Byrd is arguing that women should take up teaching and leadership roles in the church and that obscure New Testament figures such Phoebe, Lydia and Junia were “church planters” and even apostles.”

Mark Powell does not demonstrate this assertion; he simply asserts it — and maybe he’ll appeal to word limits and the importance of getting his take on Aimee Byrd’s book out there to stop it gaining a foothold in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. His main contention in this paragraph seems to be not so much that she mishandles the Scriptures, with reference to Phoebe, Lydia, and Junia — but that she ignores the Scriptures Mark Powell thinks she should be writing about.

This is Mark Powell complaining that the book does not talk about elephants, when, in fact, it is not a book about elephants at all. Mark is reviewing the book negatively for failing to meet his terms. He misrepresents Aimee Byrd as trying to do something (arguing that women should take up teaching and leadership roles in the church) that Aimee Byrd explicitly says is not her intent. Mark Powell is consistently black and white in his thinking, and does like to put things through a pre-conceived grid while assessing them; Aimee Byrd seems to me, in my reading of her book, to be trying to suggest the grid and the black and whiteness aren’t the be all and end all of relationships between men and women in the church, and that the grid of asking about ‘roles’ and ‘authority’ accounts for 1% of our life together as Christians, and she’s interested in exploring what to do with the other 99%…

He complains that the book is weak in precisely the area the book says it is not addressing. Now, if he wanted to say this book was a Trojan horse that undermines the structures of the 1%, he could’ve just said that.

Mark Powell says:

“Byrd’s treatment of Genesis 1-3 is superficial at best. She argues that there is no creation paradigm involving authority and submission between Adam and Eve. That is patently untrue.”

I’ll just put this here.

“Interestingly, Adam was called to a special submission in three areas. Before the fall, Adam and Eve served in a holy temple-garden. Adam bore a priestly responsibility of the vocation to guard or protect, which is the meaning of the word keep in this text: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15 NASB). Adam was called to submit, or sacrifice himself, in this way. Second, Adam had to sacrifice a piece of his own body for the creation of Eve (Gen. 2:21–22). And third, even in describing the union of marriage, we see that unlike the surrounding ancient patriarchal culture of the time when Moses wrote Genesis, in which the woman left her family and was then under the authority of her husband’s family, the man was to leave his family and cleave to his wife (Gen. 2:24). So if we want to call this leadership, yes, it is the best kind. But it is also submission—sacrifice of the man’s own rights and body for the protection of the temple and home and out of love for his wife. These are proleptic representations of Christ, the true keeper of our souls (see Ps. 121), who left his heavenly home, took on flesh, lived the life that we could not, and died the death that we could not so that he can hold fast to his own bride, the church.” — Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 116-117

This ‘superficial reading’ is consistent with, for example, Greg Beale’s ‘Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission‘ — it’s an expression of good, Reformed, Biblical studies work on Genesis 2, drawing out implications for how we understand the pre-fall partnership between man and woman. Aimee Byrd doesn’t just have a ‘creation paradigm’ for Genesis 2, she has a Gospel paradigm. What Mark Powell means by ‘superficial’ is ‘does not agree with my reading of the text’… And that’s fine. He should just say that.

Mark says:

“Byrd argues for what I refer to as a “sexist hermeneutic”. Byrd believes that Scripture is inherently ‘androcentric’ (male-centred) and that we should adopt a “Gynocentric (feminine) Reading of Scripture”. This is an expression that Byrd uses no less than twenty-three times. Her point is that while women are not the centre of the Bible’s message, the feminine perspective should be one of the grids through which we interpret it. The problem with this approach is that it de-thrones Christ from being the lens through which we interpret God’s Word (e.g. Luke 24:27).”

Aimee Byrd does indeed see Jesus as the lens through which we interpret God’s word; Mark Powell misrepresents her at this point; I believe that Jesus is the objective fulfilment of Scripture, it is written about him, but that doesn’t stop me reading Scripture from a cultural position, in a language removed from the culture and language of the first audience of Scripture. I have to attempt to put myself in the headspace of others to humbly see how Scripture might be fulfilled in Jesus because I am a limited creature, and cannot escape my own subjectivity. My sense of Jesus being the fulfilment of Scripture is aided when I hear the perspectives of others with different cultures and experiences; Aimee Byrd seems to me to be arguing that by hearing the voices of women as they subjectively interpret Scripture from their own creatureliness, we might enrich our understanding of how it is fulfilled in Jesus (something demonstrated, I think, in her treatment of Genesis 2 above). Creatureliness is not a sin — and we can’t insist that a woman read and notice things about Scripture through the eyes and perspective of men — as though ours is the objective experience, or as though we have perfect access to truth, without eradicating their creatureliness and the difference we want to keep affirming. To do so is the opposite of humility. Aimee Byrd isn’t advocating for men not reading the Bible as men, she’s advocating for co-operation in our sitting under the text and looking to find its fulfilment in Jesus. Mark Powell is arguing for the sort of colour-blind, experience blind, black and white approach to truth that again, is thoroughly consistent with the sort of modernism and politics he finds himself drawn to (arguably because of his own creaturely distinctives). An example from my own life and preaching might be a helpful one here — you will, as a man, preach the story of David and Bathsheba, or Absalom and Tamar, differently if you ask women what these stories make them feel and how they’d like to hear them taught. David’s primary failure is not that he ‘betrays his comrade in arms Uriah because Bathsheba belongs to him’ (as I’ve heard it preached). Bathsheba is not a temptress (she’s washing herself according to the requirements of the law). Our perspective on the events of this narrative are limited, and our limitations will affect how we see a story fulfilled in Jesus (that he is not a king who treats women as objects to be ‘taken’ by strength like Eve ‘took’ the fruit she saw and desired).

We, the church, will be richer and have a truer picture of the Gospel of Jesus, if we listen to those given ‘the same Spirit’ who are part of the same body — this is not to jump straight to questions of teaching and preaching in the gathered church, there are a whole lot more options for listening (like, you know, reading books written by a woman, that call for reform, and trying to hear them properly). Aimee Byrd describes the #MeToo movement, for example, as a gynocentric movement — a movement where women are sharing about their experiences of life in society, and the church, from their creaturely perspective — movements like this are a chance to affirm difference, but to be enriched by difference as well.

“This movement is a gynocentric interruption. Women are using their voices and asking men to listen. How is the church going to respond? We certainly don’t want to mimic the culture and adapt the philosophy of the sexual revolution. But in our efforts to combat the reductive worldview of our secular culture, we need to make sure we are not overcorrecting by slapping yellow wallpaper over it. We need to look at our own blind spots and embrace the whole picture given to us in God’s Word.”Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,  93

“We have the privilege of listening from the perspective of the full revelation of the gospel. What do we have to say to our culture now about the holiness and grace of our Lord God? What do we have to say about the value of men and women made in his image? What do we have to say about his household? We live in a time where we can cruise over to Walmart and buy a Bible for $5.99. Now that we are armed with a better idea of how the male and female voices operate synergetically in Scripture, let’s explore Christ’s presence in the Word of God and therefore its relationship to the church.” — Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 94

Sadly this review is an example of the very yellow wallpaper that Mark Powell found so triggering. He says:

“Byrd contends that complementarians are “biblicists” who “emphasize proof texting over a comprehensive biblical theology” and that “they often don’t notice they are also looking through their own lens of preconceived theological assumptions”. Ironically, though, this is what Byrd herself is guilty of doing. Her entire book is framed by the classic feminist metaphor of peeling back the “yellow wallpaper”. And as such, it is her own philosophical feminism which wallpapers over the meaning of the Biblical text.”

I think the quotes I’ve included above already demonstrate a Christ-centred, comprehensive, Biblical theology and even theological anthropology, at the heart of Aimee Byrd’s work. The issue is not that she doesn’t cite passages from the Bible, or have a theological framework — and the issue certainly isn’t the yellow wallpaper metaphor that Mark Powell seems to have misunderstood (which is about the normalisation of the eradication of women’s voices), it’s that Mark Powell doesn’t acknowledge that his own theological system sees women’s voices seeking to ‘teach’ men something as problematic, and so he was never going to be able to listen to Aimee Byrd on her terms.

What we have here, in Mark Powell’s review, is a perfect artefact of approaching a book through his own lens of preconceived theological assumptions. He asserts, without demonstrating, he dismisses, without engaging, he silences, without listening. The reason he can’t see the yellow wallpaper is because he is the yellow wallpaper.

He reads Aimee Byrd’s book through his grid — which is a grid emphasising headship; specifically male headship. A view that ends up centred on the question of authority, and the role of an individual in authority. I’m not going to prosecute the Trinity question around eternal subordination, or functional subordination, or whether the father has authority over the Son and Spirit, and what that does to questions of equality; I just think that’s a weird, western, modernist (and, frankly, worldly or ‘Babylonian’) grid to read back into the relationships in the Trinity. The Trinity as a community is dynamic and relational; the Son submits to the Father, he does not grasp equality with God, while the Father ‘exalts the Son’ and raises him to the ‘highest place’ giving him the name ‘above all names’ — this sort of static authority structure where we’re worried about what individual is ultimately ‘the authority’ is such a weird way to approach human relationships even if you are trying to map them out according to the Trinity. One thing the Trinity should challenge, and so too our union with Christ as ‘one body,’ is our radical, western, notion of individuality, that freights questions of authority with much more weight than they should carry. Aimee Byrd seems to Mark Powell to be undermining authority structures precisely because he has no category for the sort of thick co-operation or even complementarity that Aimee Byrd is calling for. Her vision of the church is not one without male leadership (she affirms the structures of her tradition); it’s one of collaboration and partnership; of listening.

We can even back it up a bit. Do you have only men handing out bulletins, helping visitors to find a seat, and passing the offering basket? Why? What message might that be sending? If Phoebe can deliver the epistle to the Romans, a sister should be able to handle delivering an offering basket. Backing it up a little more, are laypeople teaching adult Sunday school in your church? If so, are both laymen and laywomen being equipped to do that? If Junia can be sent as an apostle with Andronicus to establish churches throughout Rome, then you should at least value coeducational teaching teams in Sunday school. Do the men in your church learn from the women’s theological contributions? If the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nyssa can call Macrina “the Teacher,” showing just how dependent his theological understanding of the Scriptures was on his sister, then the men in your church can learn from their sisters as well. Sisters make great adult Sunday school teachers when invested in well, as well as excellent contributors in class discussion as learners. They could also contribute theologically in written resources the church offers. And helpful women authors should be recommended as church resources. Like Macrina, they may even excel in training other theological leaders. That should all be seen in the dynamics of a typical Sunday in your church, whether you hold to male-only ordination or not—men and women co-laborers serving under the fruit of the ministry with reciprocal voices and dynamic exchange.”— Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 233.

Note, for example, Aimee Byrd doesn’t call Junia a ‘church planter’ — but a sent one (an apostle) who partners with Andronicus to establish churches; she isn’t creating a separate category of female ordination and leadership — she’s calling for collaboration — for being co-laborers. She’s not calling, so far as I can tell, for any woman operating under her own individual authority, but for a recognition of genuine inter-dependence and partnership. This is Aimee Byrd’s ‘trojan horse’ — her ‘gender agenda’ — that we, the church, might partner together in love to make the truths of the Gospel; that together we might be pursuing the example and image of Jesus in our lives, expressed in our relationships.

“Just think of the way Jesus showcases leadership in the washing of feet and how differently he exercises his own authority as the Son of God, in contrast to the one-dimensional ways taught in biblical manhood. He doesn’t play the man card, or even the Son of God card! He serves. He listens. He teaches. He fulfills. He gives his whole self. He equips and empowers men and women. And he calls them to do his work. He does not call them to different roles or different virtues.”Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 123.

On wonder women and platforms

When are blokes going to learn?

The Aimee Byrd de-platforming saga rose to new heights of farce today as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals put out its clarifying statement, that simply affirmed what everyone already thought was the case, while Todd Pruitt and Carl Trueman finally said something after their podcast co-host was unceremoniously dumped from their show. The Alliance statement, which puts the decision in the hands of their board, says, of people who’ve left that:

“Those asked to leave have one thing in common; they have caused our audience to respond in a largely negative way. They have caused other contributors to either speak up, to sit out, or to leave altogether. And these situations often and recently have kept other contributors from joining us.”

If their argument is that the ‘audience’ is unhappy with Byrd, then this is a very clear choice in favour of a particular sort of audience.

Men.

And if the argument is that the way the Alliance platform has been used by people who have been asked to leave (Byrd) has kept people away from the platform, then I think it’s fair to say that this episode is going to lead to a whole new set of contributors not joining.

This response is tone deaf; it’s another ‘old media’ approach to new media; an utter failure to recognise that the internet doesn’t work like the pulpit of the local church; and that ‘hard complementarian’ approaches to church life have been massively disrupted by the Internet in the same way the printing press disrupted the church during the Reformation. There, suddenly, lay people had a voice and could propagate alternative views to those held by the magisterium.

I do believe that men and women are different; I do believe that this difference plays out, and is systematised, in the world in toxic, patriarchal ways — the pattern of curse in Genesis 3 even. I do believe that the way the church is structured as a community of resistance to the toxicity of the curse — including a toxic masculinity — is meant to involve men using the strength and power society offers to love and serve those society marginalises who are part of our community; including women. I think that’s what Paul wants from men who pastor church communities, and from husbands of wives — that our love for women is shaped by Jesus’ sacrificial, self-giving, other-raising, love. It’s not about authority or role, or hierarchy (a point made in Byrd’s book).

I mean, by-the-by, the word Paul prohibits for women in 1 Timothy 2, ‘authentein’ (αὐθεντεῖν) only occurs once in the New Testament; its etymology is ‘self-arming’, it’s not the picture of male eldership that Paul then lays out in 1 Timothy 3. Paul very much has Genesis 2-3 in view in 1 Timothy 2, the ‘childbearing’ word (τεκνογονίας) is the word used in Genesis 3:16 as well; 1 Timothy 2-3 is a pattern for alternative relationships in a cursed world. That self-arming authority is prohibited for women — as a response to the cursed ‘rule’ of men, is not necessarily given to men as a pattern for life either. When I say “don’t hit your brother” to my daughter, I’m not saying that he can hit her… Paul retells the Genesis 2-3 story in 1 Timothy 2, grounding what he’s putting forward as an alternative in creation (and showing where problems come from); and the problem in the Fall wasn’t that Eve spoke, and Adam listened, it was that they both fell for Satan’s lies. There’s a reason, for example, that Proverbs personifies wisdom as the ideal wife for the faithful king. Women aren’t automatically wise, they don’t always say true things; Solomon, the ultimate wise king, is, like Adam, led astray by bad advice, but in the ideal world, men and women are listening to one another seeking truth, and wisdom, and the flourishing life found in relationship with God, through Jesus, jointly operating as his image bearers, male and female.

Do you reckon the Proverbs 31 husband no-platformed his wife? Not that I think Proverbs 31 functions the way it’s often used; rather, I think the whole book is ultimately a metaphor for Israel, and an encouragement to choose wisdom God’s way, rather than the false wisdom offered up by a cursed world… rather than rushing for quick fixes like trees with forbidden fruit. Even if it’s a metaphor it only works if it’s a picture of some sort of desirable thing, right? Just not a norm, so don’t feel guilty if you’re a woman who doesn’t have a bunch of side hustles…

We are meant to get a new pattern for life in the Gospel (see, for example, Ephesians 5, and Philippians 2). We are meant to be better than the world, because we see women as different and equal; we see the God given gifts and abilities they have, and, because we are members of one body, we seek their flourishing. The church is meant to be better than the world for women, not worse. I’m continuing to work my way through Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and I think it offers a necessary corrective to the way the patterns of the world have infiltrated the church.

Here’s the problematic thing with this situation; the lesson that needs to be learned. If the Alliance is concerned about its audience, and is responding to complaints about Aimee Byrd’s book, it has a ready made audience in the cesspit of the Genevan Commons. That’s it’s base. That’s the audience this cancellation is going to appeal to. Our calling as Christian men is not to trample women and elevate ourselves at their expense; it’s to use our strength to make space for women in a world that gives us a platform by virtue of our privilege.

In the Pruitt/Trueman piece, Todd Pruitt didn’t like that he was being criticised for not speaking up on Aimee Byrd’s behalf; he especially didn’t like what my friend Stephen McAlpine had to say about him, and there’s an oblique reference to this criticism in the piece.

“For two years or more we have been trashed in blogs, social media, and on the GC site. We have been cast as crypto-feminists out to undermine the church with our liberal dogma. Of course anyone who knows us understands just how ridiculous such a charge is. However, in just one day last week, numerous people who are not privy to internal Alliance discussions and have not bothered to ask us what we know of what has happened at the podcast, have felt able to opine online about us.”

Poor boys. People have been mean to them and said such mean things. Let’s all take a moment to remember their historic courage in the face of such a nasty group of bottom dwellers. Pruitt and Trueman wanted to throw back to the last two years they’ve spent defending Byrd, while people said such mean things to them (and about their relationship with her), but when the going got tough — when Aimee Byrd was causing problem for the Alliance’s audience, when it mattered, when the voices from the cesspit escaped and were listened to by the Alliance board of faceless men, did Pruitt and Trueman speak up then? When it might cost them their ‘platform’ — a popular podcast? Did they sacrifice ‘platform’ and go with their cohost (and one hopes, someone they viewed as a friend and fellow worker in the Gospel)? No. In fact, Pruitt even deleted his Twitter account while Twitter was piling on Aimee Byrd, and while the revelations about the Geneva Commons group were coming out.

Todd Pruitt will have a platform without Twitter. He’d have a platform without the podcast. He has a platform, and a voice, by virtue of being an ordained man in the church. Platforms are given to us; women in Christian circles have to earn their platforms, and then fight to keep them.

Platform is such an awful concept, but I’m using it intentionally, just for this piece, as a synecdoche for ‘voice’ — I hope the payoff is worth it…

Women in conservative Christian circles have to fight to be heard; especially if their voices are limited to contexts outside the gathered body of Christians (as they are in hard complementarianism), which is where, again, the Internet comes in to level the playing field.

I’ve written a couple of pieces on this stuff now, and been following the conversation this fiasco has created on social media; especially amongst women. Overwhelmingly, the response to the Alliance’s actions, the follow up piece, and Pruitt and Trueman’s explainer has been to suggest that this is typical behaviour from Christian men, and that it reinforces how precarious a woman’s voice is in the Christian scene; how easy it is to erase them. I’m blown away by how often I get thanked for just sticking my head up to say ‘this is not right,’ but also how blind we blokes are to the damage we’re doing.

That the Pruitt/Trueman post essentially degenerated into their historic record on copping flack, and the airing of grievances about how Aimee Byrd revealed the vile things being said about her (things they admit were vile), and how mean people are now being to other men with protected platforms (the equivalent of academic tenure)… It is the very worst of the tone deaf stance we adopt when we fail to listen to one another.

The Alliance post implies that it was Aimee Byrd’s failure to answer the nine questions put to her by a group of unnamed men that led to her de-platforming:

“We are not opposed to providing for conversations we don’t perfectly agree upon. That seems to be in keeping with iron sharpening iron. Yet it must be a conversation, a two-way dialogue, and done so graciously. When that is not possible, when contributors will not or cannot define or defend what they believe, continuing together is no longer viable.”

It must be a conversation. Two way.

I love conversations with people who post anonymously and badger me with passive aggressive concern-trolling questions about my orthodoxy when I’ve made vows to uphold a confessional stance. Those are my favourite internet interactions, definitely — and I’m a bloke who owns my own platform (this blog), and has another one (a job at a church).

They want to be broad. It seems. And gracious… But apparently gracious conversation means a woman being badgered with nine questions that imply she has somehow become a person of suspicion. These questions were so loaded it was like that scene in Monty Python where the crowd, having already decided a woman has no value, is happy to test whether she’s a witch by drowning her. There’s no win for the woman in that scenario. I’m pretty sure a book, and a statement that one upholds one’s denomination’s confessional framework is a ‘definition’ of ‘definition and defence’…

The church is meant to be different. Belief that men and women are different, and equal, is meant to produce something less self-protective or self-arming, or patriarchal, or covered in the yellow wallpaper alluded to in Byrd’s book.

There are two scenes in the movie Wonder Woman that have remained with me to this day (my other abiding memory is that in seeing a strong, empowered, and supported woman on screen, my wife finally understood why I enjoy super hero movies). In the first, Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) has just arrived in the western world having grown up on an island with no men. She confidently walks into a room full of male army officers and speaks her mind; the men are shocked. Women are normally only in these meetings as secretaries. They seek to close down her voice; to cancel her; to de-platform her. It’s a picture of patriarchy at work; a failure to imagine how men and women might co-operate.

Now, remember, Wonder Woman has super powers, and so this is going to be a metaphor. The Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood crew at Desiring God got very, very, upset about Wonder Woman being a soldier fighting on the front line, as they did about Captain Marvel, when they longed for the good old days of princesses being cursed by witches, waiting for their heroic man to come and kiss them while they slept (which, you know, consent issues)). I am not saying we should throw women into the clutches of the patriarchy simply because they are super; when Paul was writing, “the patriarchy” was the Roman Empire, that would end up enjoying killing Christians for sport. But I am saying we blokes should not exclude or trample women (or say toxic, misogynist things in ‘private forums’), and we probably should not just speak up about toxic blokes on the internet and how much they hurt our own feelings, but recognise that when we’re complicit in the de-platforming of a woman’s voice, when that woman is asking to be heard, we’re not following the way of Jesus.

The platform stakes are much higher for women in a world. Platforms are fought for; not earned. One thing I’ve noticed here is that women are much more supportive of one another, once they’ve got a voice that is being heard; much less likely to go hammer and tongs at another woman than a man is with another man, or a bunch of men are with women. I suspect this is not because ‘women are more relational’ or whatever archetype you might turn to, but also because I take my position and my voice for granted, and the position of those I hammer, because they are given to us and not particularly precarious. There’s so much more at stake for a woman speaking up when her voice can simply be eradicated. This includes in the church context, where the deck is stacked so that women have to fight to be heard and where that fight has to somehow broadcast their voices into rooms where they are absent (like the Alliance board room, and, I am part of a church tradition where we have room, after room, where decisions are made in the absence of women because somehow ‘male eldership’ means ‘no listening to women when making decisions’).

I made this point in my review of Wonder Woman on The Gospel Coalition (now, just pause for a minute and ponder why a bloke is writing this, and how much I might inadvertently be trampling into territory that a woman’s voice might occupy, I’ve thought about that often since). But kudos to TGC for publishing this, especially because I gave them some flack in a link above about the printing press, and the internet…

There’s this beautiful picture of male/female co-operation, or platforming, that has stuck with me as an inspirational metaphor for what male strength and partnership might look like. I like it so much I made it a GIF.

This is what the church could be; I mean, it’s ironic that she’s about to smash a church — but there’s a sniper taking out innocent people from that bell tower… who knows if there’s some deeper symbolism here, but… would you just look at that platform.

This group of blokes — Wonder Woman’s friends — are not threatened by her gifts, they recognise that everyone flourishes when the whole group flourishes, and that part of their strength might be given so that Wonder Woman can do what Wonder Woman does.

Now, I recognise that women don’t, or shouldn’t, need men in order to be human and flourish or succeed — that this could sound like some sort of ‘benevolent patriarchy’… and, yet, simultaneously the beauty of non-cursed, Christian, relationships, shaped by the love of Jesus, the mutual dynamic of sacrifice for, and elevation of, the other — whether in marriage, or in the church, is that we are no longer independent, but interdependent; in the marriage context we belong to one another (1 Corinthians 11:11: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman”), and in the church context, we were joined together by God so that our achievement and sufferings are shared (1 Corinthians 12:25, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other).

Wonder Woman is heroic, but so are the blokes in this image. In a world that says they should be the heroes; they should be the ones standing on the platform; they serve. They elevate another. They each serve according to their gifts.

It’s just such a shame that Todd Pruitt and Carl Truemann didn’t keep holding up that platform for Aimee Byrd. They, and the Alliance, let Wonder Woman down, just when they could’ve and should’ve been holding her up and supporting her. The thing about the group of men in Wonder Woman who wanted to shut down Diana’s voice; it turns out that the movie’s Satan figure, Ares, was hiding amongst them, playing them like puppets, deceiving, and they should’ve listened to her right from the beginning.

On the image of God and its eradication (and restoration): or, more thoughts on cancel culture and statues

I believe the “Image of God” is a vocation not purely an ontological reality that gives an inherent dignity to human beings by virtue of their being human.

Humans have dignity because we have the created capacity and purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God as his representatives in the world; our task is to be for the God of the universe what the idol statues in other theocracies did for their gods.

But the imago dei as it has been understood and developed in church tradition (particularly via ‘systematic theology’) is built on a bunch of assumptions about the nature of human being that I think are problematic; partly in that they emphasise “being” over “doing.” I’ve written about why we’re better off speaking about the “tselem elohim” than the imago dei, and grounding our Genesis 1 informed ‘theological anthropology’ in the Hebrew/Ancient Near Eastern thought world rather than the thought world of the early church in the Latin East with its graeco-roman influence (which isn’t to say the historical church has nothing to say about Anthropology, where I’m going here resonates with, for example, Augustine and Irenaeus), it’s just to say ‘systematic theology’ can often be built on some pretty shaky systematising, especially if it’s built on exegesis that reflects a particular age, and its obsessions and suppositions, rather than (inasmuch as we can access it) the world of the text and both its first audience (Old Testament Israel, whether pre-, mid-, or post- exile — or all three), and its (to borrow a phrase from Old Testament scholar Doug Green) ‘Christotelic’ fulfilment.

For more on how Biblical studies, rather than just church tradition, should inform how we understand the Image of God I’d recommend John Walton’s work on what the nature of ‘being’ is in Hebrew thought, where he suggests ‘function in a system’ not ‘material essence’ is how we should view the ‘making of things,’ J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, a book exploring the relationship between images and idols in Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern belief and practice, and Alistair McFadyen, who in a paper titled “Imaging God” identified this same “tendency within theological tradition” for the “image” to function as a noun, rather than as a verb. It’s a good article that draws on Psalm 8 to make the case that this ‘verb’ — this ‘imaging God’ — requires us to be relationally connected to God for our calling to reflect him to be possible; he says Psalm 8 provides a reflection on how to ask what it means to be human, but one that as we enter the reflection we start reflecting God…

“What we have, rather, is liturgical performance. And if there is a sense in which we might say the anthropological question is not only asked but answered in the psalm it is not by the communication of facts about essential human nature. Rather, the psalm IS its own
answer to the question. That is to say, in singing the psalm and praising God, in asking the anthropological question, we are performing an answer to it: actively imaging God by seeking our humanity as sought and called by God. The psalm becomes a kind of performative utterance, drawing the singer into the dynamics of imaging relationality of which it speaks through direct invocation of the power of the divine Name through direct address.”

I’ve written before about how the Bible, in its form as a narrative centred on, and fulfilled in Jesus, contains the story of humanity’s glorious creation, our fall, our struggle to be who or what we were created to be, and God’s redemption, restoration, and transformation of our function through Jesus. I drew on Mesopotamian and Babylonian sources to show how this story happens against a particular backdrop with very different stories, and a very different concept of who and what the ‘tselem elohim’ (or “image of God” is) and what it looks like to carry out that vocation in the world, and then looked at how the work of Jesus in the New Testament is a work of re-creation and revivification of us as living, breathing, images of God. That the image of God in us needs restoration, and that we need to be resurrected and recreated, suggests that we can (and do) in our failure to be who we were made to be, start a lifelong process of attempting to eradicate the image of God imprinted on us, so that we can, instead, function as the images of our gods. There’s an increasingly popular phrase articulating this idea — drawing on Augustine, but also on Paul, on Psalms, on Isaiah (and pretty much the entire Old Testament); this is the idea that “we become what we worship” — our decision to worship created things, in the place of our creator, distorts our bodies and hearts and minds so that we represent something other than God, while as “created things” ourselves we are meant to reveal the divine nature and character of God. There are aspects of God’s image that we don’t eradicate before we die — that we live, and breathe, speak, create, and love — but as we worship other things in God’s place, our lives, breath, speech, creativity, and love are given to things other than God and so ‘image’ or reflect the things we worship.

When we engage in false worship we participate in a process that leads to death, and thus, to the eradication of the image of God in our bodies; we return to the dust from whence we came, as we die — as we expire rather than being inspired (receiving God’s Spirit to re-create us so that we do not bear the image of Adam, but the image of Jesus (1 Cor 15), we die in “lives” that aren’t participating in our created vocation as God’s image bearers, but rather lives in rebellion against him, expressed as we reflect the gods of our choice. If we choose to worship things other than God we were “made in God’s image” — created with a purpose — but we are explicitly and wilfully rejecting that purpose. Eradicating the image.

Jesus the image of God (Colossians 1) then comes to transform us into his image (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15), by the Spirit, which enables us to turn from false worship (Romans 1) to true worship (Romans 12), participating in a new script for our lives that shapes us, again, to be living, breathing, images who live and love like God.

There are, of course, ethical implications for this.

I should love my neighbour, as Jesus commanded, because my neighbour (as C.S Lewis might put it in the Weight of Glory) has the capacity not just to function as God intended us to in this creation, but the potential to be a glorious new creation, heavenly even, not just indwelt by the breath of life (psyche in the Greek), but by God’s Spirit (pneuma in the Greek) — Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, has those glorified in Christ shifting from being psyche-icons to pneuma-icons (icon is the Greek word for ‘image’).

I should view people according to the capacity for a person to participate in their created vocation (and that I too, was once dead), but I should also recognise that so long as a person has life, and breath, and speaks and loves and is capable of creativity and still the tension between knowing what we should do, and fighting the temptation to do something else (Romans 7 — which I take, because it’s pre-Spirit, to be Paul describing life in Adam). There is an inherent dignity to that; and yet, that same dignity, which is given as a reason to not murder to Noah, is eradicated enough by idolatry that the same texts (the Torah) can command the destruction of idolatrous nations around Israel, while the prophets warn that Israel will share the same fate should it worship the breathless and dead idols of the nations. This command, for example, in Numbers: “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52) is actually a command to destroy ‘cast tselems’. If a “tselem elohim” is an ‘idol statue’ then to ‘become like them’ is to become an image of something else.

The image of God as a sort of ‘inherent dignity’ is a place people go to both to ethically justify any ‘natural’ human behaviours; the enacting of our basest internal desires, and it’s also a place people go to affirm the dignity of those who fall outside other norms and constructs (often set up from frameworks and anthropologies that look more Babylonian than Christian); that is, the image of God is cited as the reason to love and value those on the margins. It is appealed to in debates about race. But, I suspect, if you’d asked why an Israelite felt justified in going to war with Canaan, on the basis that the Canaanites were made in God’s image, they’d have said it was precisely because Canaan was failing in this calling that war was justified; and yet, Israel’s counter-narrative in Babylonian exile is not just that all Israelites are made in God’s image (where, in Babylon, it’s just the king), but that even the Babylonians have that capacity, lost in their own exile from God. This different view of the image of God in those we might treat as lacking dignity (if we see godlike as the ability to, say, use power or perform as a contributor in an economy) still focuses on something internal (a person’s capacity to reflect the divine nature and character of God, to participate in being fruitful and mulitplying by reflecting the life and ‘doing’ of God), but emphasises that this happens in relationship with God. The ‘image’ isn’t a thing we reflect through performance, but through relationship with God. Classic, Biblical, Christianity (whether Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, or Arminian) doesn’t ever see this as exclusively a human action, but as an enaction enabled by God’s self-revelation through the world, his word, and Jesus and the Spirit; we can’t exclude any human with life and breath from participating in the ‘breath of life,’ given by God, or from God loving and relating to that person as they are. Yet, we can say that idolatry and a person’s breaking of relationship with God does affect a person’s image bearing function. There are also lots of other reasons to see those at the margins of a society that devalues people who can’t perform certain functions as our neighbours, made and loved by God, and as precisely the people Jesus came to liberate through the restoration of the image of God in humanity, the liberation of the world from bondage to curse, sin, and death, and in the renewal and restoration of all things.

“Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8)

We can also, when it comes to ethics and politics say ‘that person is not reflecting the image of God’ in how they live; we can say that certain behaviours push us away from the image of God and into the image of other gods (so Paul in Colossians 3, for example, and all the warnings about idolatry in both Testaments). We can say that these behaviours are sometimes systematised in laws, in political systems, and in cultures (practices, art, rituals, norms, etc); and react accordingly — both seeking to set our hearts and minds on heavenly things, not earthly things (the liturgy of Psalm 8) through true worship — including how we use our bodies and interact with the world (Romans 12), and speaking to condemn idolatry and warn about its affects; and I think even to talk about how idolaters are not ‘imaging God’; not being who they were created to be. This doesn’t mean following Israel’s example in the Old Testament (which was tied to an explicit command of God connected to his actions in the world to restore an image bearing people, and thus creation itself, that anticipated and were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus to pour out the Spirit into the lives of a people). This doesn’t mean operating as judge, condemning to dust, or executioner (though I do think “the state” can do that) — but it does mean recognising that idolatry systematically (both at an individual and cultural level) eradicates the ‘doing’ part of the function of humanity, and that restoration is found in union with Christ, and the Spirit’s act of renewing and re-creating as we are “raised with Christ” and transformed into his image; that is “the image.” It does mean not simply appealing to the ‘image of God’ in a person to say their natural desires should be affirmed and celebrated, or that they must be treated with a particular dignity (there are commands from Jesus that should shape the way we act towards others). This allows us to recognise the distorting impact of sin on our ‘nature’ — we all ‘know what we ought to do,’ but ‘because of sin at work in our flesh,’ naturally choose to do non-image-of-God things with our lives; and when we choose to worship created things in the place of the creator this drastically amplifies this distortion.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the eradication of a variety of tselems; of statues, but also the cancellation, by different groups, of a variety of human images. Someone asked a question in a discussion about Aimee Byrd’s cancellation at the hands of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (and the similar abhorrent treatment she’s receiving at the hands of a cabal of so-called Reformed Christians in a closed group on Facebook) and statue toppling. I think both are acts of desecration; deliberate expressions of judgment about a person’s function as a representative; an image bearer of God.

The question is whether a person who is either erecting a ‘sacred’ digital icon of themselves, desecrating a statue, or desecrating a person’s reputation by ‘cancelling them’ is operating with a true or false picture of God, and thus seeking to reflect, or promote a true image of God while destroying or ‘desacredising’ (trying to capture what ‘desecrate’ means in a not-word word) false images. To ‘cancel’ someone is to ‘demolish their image’ — to damn their memory — to pass judgment on that image as not worthy. I think, in some ways, to cancel someone is to take the sword (in Romans 13) into one’s own hands; to position oneself as God, not a person — and to take up the role of Israel entering the land. Because there is no secular/sacred divide; and because every person operates as ‘the image of their god’ (we become what we worship), both every human ‘image’ affirmed or cancelled, and every toppled or erected statue is either a ‘desecration’ — a claim that this image is not of God, or a ‘consecration’ — an attempt to secure or reflect the image of a particular god. Some acts are both at the same time; to put an image on the outer is an act of defining who is on the ‘inner’ — but also, often images are replaced, not simply eradicated. So, for example, a mining company blowing up a sacred indigenous site simultaneously declares that site ‘de-sacred’ (delegitimising an alternative view) while ‘consecrating’ mining as a holy act in service of a view of humanity and who we should be that is ultimately also religious.

Those cancelling Aimee Byrd should just honestly say they don’t see Aimee Byrd representing truths about God; they might say at that point she is representing an image of an idol, and that, like idol statues in Israel, she should be destroyed… Just as Trump, when he positions himself as a monumental figure of faithfulness (even in a photo opp) should admit that he is presenting himself as an image of the god he worships, and those holding Trump up as a leader (or even just a ‘good Christian’) who ‘bears the image of God’ should acknowledge that the god Trump then represents is the god they are worshipping and reflecting; a God who, incidentally, looks nothing like Jesus, and a whole lot like the false images Paul tells us to get rid of in Colossians 3. The trick is, often in desecrating others who are bearing the image of God we actually eradicate something of our own humanity by propping up and worshipping a false god, or we reveal the gods we’re really worshipping; and the screenshots circulating of the kinds of criticism levelled at Aimee Byrd are revealing.

The ‘image of God’ is a more flexible, dynamic, vocational thing than simply an ontological reality underpinning the common humanity of Trump, Byrd, and those being deformed by the cesspool of the “Genevan Commons” Facebook group. For what it’s worth, I think Aimee Byrd is seeking to reflect the image of God, in relationship with God as we see God revealed in Jesus; and this may also be true of those raising questions about her ideas from good faith positions…

But I think those who take the bold step of appointing themselves as gods, whether in her ‘cancellation’ or in the support of alternative images (idols) like, for example, Trump and his image, are on pretty dangerous ground. Ultimately it’ll be God who determines who bears his image, because of his Spirit dwelling in them, transforming them into the image of Christ, with heavenly, imperishable bodies, and resurrected life in the New Creation in perfect relationship with him, and those who become tranformed ultimately into the images they’ve worshipped — images of dead idols, who return to the dust.

If this model is correct, then it’s actually more theologically true to say that it is those with the Spirit of God dwelling in us, and connecting us to God so that we both worship, relate to, and reflect him who are the image of God in the world; to cast someone out of the church is not to damn them, but to recognise that God’s image is found in the body of Christ, and the goal of such casting out — whether of an idolater (1 Cor 5) or false teacher is not simply to damn their false image, but also to position them alongside other humans we believe desperately need the image of God restored in them by the Spirit. Images in the Ancient world weren’t so much ‘destroyed’ but ‘exiled‘ from the relationship systems that made them function. It’s not our job to give or takeaway life, or the potential for image bearing, but to point to how that image bearing potential is found in Christ, and in true worship.

Gone with the wings: Christianity, cancel culture, and Presbyterianism in Australia

Conservative Christians have enjoyed expressing outrage at Gone With The Wind being cancelled this week; and by that I mean ‘cancelled cancelled’ not ‘not renewed;’ the classic movie was removed from HBO’s streaming service for depicting racism (now, I think we could all do with a little more literacy when it comes to what stories do and don’t do; that description is not prescription is an important lesson we all need to learn when approaching texts, so that, for example, we don’t adopt King David’s sexual ethic from the pages of the Old Testament).

Conservative Christians have also enjoyed being outraged at woke Twitter’s attempts to cancel J.K Rowling this week too.

We love to hate it when “cancel culture” reveals the unforgiving nature of those who are not us; of course, we wouldn’t remove books when authors are revealed to not live up to our moral standards, or, you know, indulge in a little cancelling of Harry Potter ourselves (when it comes to Christian school libraries).

But, as the world around us seems to be losing its mind, cancelling people and things we love right and centre (and sometimes even on the left), we can breathe a sigh of relief and thank God we’re not like those sinners. Loudly. In 140 characters or less (I know it’s now 280 characters on Twitter… believe me).

But while the world is pushing hard on conservative Christianity (and by this I mean both politically conservative Christianity and theologically conservative Christianity) we’re pretty hard running our own internal cancel culture; circling the wagons and drawing boundary lines and cancelling all those who fail to line up neatly within the corral. Leaving them to either be picked off by the world, or to find shelter

I’ll give some examples on this in the context of my own denomination and tradition below, but what has prompted this post is the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the cancelation of Aimee Byrd.

Aimee Byrd had her wings clipped… or, the Alliance chopped off it’s wings and is now going to hit the ground with a pretty hard thud…

Stephen McAlpine was at his very best on this earlier today and you should read his offering for an Aussie response on the specifics of this particular case.

I’ve got some pretty strong sympathies with Aimee Byrd, theologically, I’m more than halfway through Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and have found it both enlightening, invigorating, and a useful diagnosis not just of the particularities of the American church, but the western church and our obsession with parsing questions about maleness and femaleness through the prism of ‘authority’ and position (or role) in church communities (and how far one should expand that beyond church communities ala the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). I share her concerns about the model of the Trinity used to prop up a particular vision of male/female relationships. I think co-operation and listening and mutuality and love are at the heart of a dynamic way of participating as equals in the body of Christ, and also that there are created differences between men and women and systemic differences in a fallen world exhibiting the patterns of curse (ala ‘the patriarchy’) that give men and women submitting to the Lordship of Jesus different responsibilities when living together in Christian community (the church) and family (marriage). I think our traditional structures, especially those built without critically reflecting on how much of the world is infecting our view of authority (especially positional authority rather than the authority that comes from maturity in Christ) and leadership, and how much we’ve normalised the pattern of curse rather than Jesus and his redemption and new creation of us as divine image bearers transformed into his image. I think we’ve lacked both imagination about how we might structure our communities around the dynamic of the Gospel (and the dynamic nature of love within the Trinity, see Philippians 2 and Ephesians 5), and a solid sense of the imago dei (image of God) as a vocation we participate in in the world, a doing through relationships with God and one another, not simply some inherent value connected to our being.

So I’m here for her critique.

I’m here to listen.

And I think, like many other women who are harnessing the platform offered by the Internet, just as Paul harnessed Roman road networks and the epistle, and Luther the Printing Press, Aimee Byrd has done a fantastic job inviting us to listen to her voice as she’s sought to serve and reform the church.

Maybe you don’t have to be a teaching elder to be a reformer of the institutional church and its practices? I imagine it really helps to be speaking out as one with a voice that is going to get heard by virtue of the ‘yellow wall papery’/patriarchal status quo… but wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to be a bloke to say ‘this is wrong’ and be heard?

Maybe we blokes shouldn’t get our marching orders from the example of the Disciples on resurrection Sunday who laughed off the testimony of the women who came from Jesus’ tomb? Maybe the pattern we’re designed for ‘in the beginning’ is to listen to one another and work in partnership — and Eve’s sin wasn’t speaking but was folly (and maybe wisdom is personified as female for a reason in Proverbs). I think she also did a tremendous job narrowing the scope of her book to what the Gospel might invite us as laypeople — members of the body of Jesus — to share in while up front acknowledging that she wasn’t seeking to overturn how difference between men and women is something upheld by the New Testament even in the organisation of church communities.

But still.

Cancelled.

The ‘yellow wallpaper’ metaphor she used to describe the patriarchy and a failure to make space for women’s voices in church communities became a self fulfilling prophecy.

How many times do a group of unnamed, faceless men (those publishing the questions that Aimee Byrd decided not to answer before her passwords were changed) passive-aggressively playing orthodoxy police (or inquisition) get to silence and exclude the voices of women, while inviting us to repeat the mantra ‘the patriarchy is a marxist myth’ before they think we’ll believe it?

We don’t want to hear voices from the wings at the moment; voices from the margins who might call us to reform.

We, the conservative church, want to complain about cancel culture, and the world not making space for our voice when it disagrees with us, while practicing cancel culture in our own communities.

Now, obviously I think there are boundaries to what’s “Christian” and what isn’t (have you read my stuff on Israel Folau and modalism) — but maybe the answer for us at the moment isn’t to tighten the boundaries and eliminate the wings — those voices who might call us to keep reforming as we look to the words of Scripture — but to hold tightly to the centre. There’s a danger that in our own ‘cancel culture’ we’re setting out to define the boundaries in ways that make the church its own echo chamber.

See, this is part of a broader pattern; it’s not just Aimee Byrd getting her wings clipped. First they came for those in our midst who experience same sex attraction and affirm the Biblical definition of marriage and vision of sexuality (as limited to male and female), those who invited us to reform our views of sexual attraction and the language we used, and lots of us were not same sex attracted, so we didn’t care as the boundaries were tightened… then they came for those who wanted to affirm that “Black Lives Matter”…

You know the pattern.

If it’s not women speaking up about how a toxic culture with a problematic vision of male authority and masculinity is robbing the church of its ability to live the life we’re called to live together, it’ll be some other area where some at the margins of the church, holding the same centre, are asking us to listen.

But we don’t like listening to voices who challenge our uniquely true and right understanding of the boundaries of orthodoxy. We cancel. We exclude. We circle the wagons and create ‘coalitions’ and mark boundaries and replace liberty and grey with black and white new rules as we shore up our institutions.

I was excited about the opportunity for Aimee Byrd to be a conversation partner for my own denomination as we consider how to continue reforming our practice around partnership between men and women. We lack the imagination to have many women in the room when the courts of the church are meeting and deciding; when we could find ways to reform that do not occlude male eldership. It is not a crime to listen to the voice of women in business meetings, or even on issues of how we understand the Gospel (Aimee Byrd reminds us gently that it took her inviting a bloke to contribute a guest post on her blog before anyone took the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) view of CBMW as serious and problematic). I was hoping that because of her obvious orthodoxy and attachment to both the Alliance, and the Mortification of Spin podcast, and her careful unpacking of some problematic theology and practice, that she might get a hearing — and it feels to me like a bunch of blokes in a backroom might have calculated that risk and sought to remove it from any serious consideration by wielding that big, rubber, ‘cancelled’ stamp.

But this will be another in a long line of issues where our denomination pushes for clarity around a big-R Reformed position, rather than taking the opportunity to be the church always reforming; a commitment to “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is fundamentally a commitment to challenging the status quo; and perhaps the best way to truly challenge the status quo is to listen to voices from outside the status quo. Sure, people from the centre might one day realise that they’ve drawn the boundaries wrong, but it’s much more likely for people who hold a shared centre, who come together in dialogue, and listen to one another, to identify problems. The one way to guarantee that we will preserve or conserve ourselves from the hard task of reform is to cancel those who call us to do so…

Our denomination, The Presbyterian Church of Australia, is divided. We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend it’s not. It’s divided between those who want a pure, confessional, Reformed Church, who see a little thing we call ‘The Declaratory Statement’ as a loophole that allows the erosion of truth in the pursuit of liberty from a confessional standard, and those who want to keep using Scripture as our authority so that we question even the traditions of our own magisterium — the framers of the Westminster Confession. The beauty of the Presbyterian Church (and even the Confession itself) is the place it gives to liberty on non essentials.

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. — Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20.2

It’s a document that wants to hold the centre and allow questions from the margins… The ‘Reforming’ wing of our denomination is occasionally viewed by those big-R reformed types as a bunch of compromisers, who are going to pull us in the direction the social gospel/ecumenical movement of the Uniting Church took us in; but maybe a better way of seeing union is not that people wanted to expand the boundaries too far, but that the union was not built on shared convictions about a centre.

The thing about Aimee Byrd is that it’s quite clear, from her book, and her platform over the years, that she shares a theological centre with the Alliance. Her cancellation was absolutely an expression of a boundary marking syndrome; a clipping of the Alliance’s wings to move the fence in closer to the comfort zone of those faceless men. It was an act of anxiety; a failure of nerve.

These faceless men from the Alliance are not alone in leading from a place of anxiety. Anxious leadership (following Edwin Friedmann’s A Failure of Nerve) is displayed on a failure to manage simultaneous differentiation (knowing where your own boundaries are) and ongoing connection (especially with those you disagree with, and perhaps, especially, when they belong to the same system or community as you). Time after time  when contentious issues come up arguments are mounted not from careful exegesis, humility, and charity on areas of Liberty, but on the big-R Reformed position (and the Presbyterian Church of America’s recent paper on sexuality is an example of this, so too the fact that our denomination is even considering whether individual congregations and ministers, might, from good faith convictions, participate in an acknowledgment of country (a marker of respect and listening to Australia’s First Nations peoples), those who speak up against that position are viewed with a suspicion that the Reforming types can’t muster against the ‘Reformed.’ It’s easier in a conservative institution to maintain your location in group if your ‘sin’ looks more like the Pharisees than the theological progressives.

Sometimes that Reformed position gets up (especially with the spectre of ‘liberalism’ and the Uniting Church in the background), other times we remember that we’re at our best when we’re a broad church with a strong shared commitment to the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus, not a narrowing church that exists to eradicate grey with black and white rulings from the courts of the church. Sooner or later our eradication of liberty, the erosion of the Declaratory Statement and its intent, and the replacement of grey with black and white is going to lead us to clip our own wings, and cancel all sorts of people we might not see coming… and we keep bringing it on ourselves. Because we’re anxious, and we’re not well practiced in simultaneous differentiation and connection, or working together from a centre such that we’re comfortable acknowledging a plurality of faithfully Presbyterian views. The Reforming side has a bit to answer on this (myself included). Mea Culpa. I’m guilty of fighting fire with fire; of responding to polemics with polemics (whether about Acknowledgments of Country, or the idea that ‘women’s ministry in our denomination should focus on mothercraft, or how we should approach the same sex marriage debate); but it’s tricky not to do that when what’s at stake is your own cancellation. Just for the record, I don’t want those with opposing views to me on any of these issues — or how men and women might work together in our churches — to be cancelled; but I do want us to be holding on tightly to a centre: the Gospel, the “essential doctrines” contained in the WCF, including the concept of liberty, rather than circling the wagons. I want us all to be less anxious.

In uncertain times so many of us ministers want and keep asking for clarity from the Assembly on tricky conundrums (for example: on giving communion to kids, on whether conditional immortality is a legit view, on the one true understanding of the millennium in Revelation). We need to stop this or we’re going to end up cancelling each other, landing with a very small church exclusively containing the most hardcore Presbyterians we can find; and I like Presbyterians, but nobody wants that. We’re better off not asking for an authoritative ruling from those in the status quo, but genuinely listening to those who hold the same centre we do but feel marginalised. That doesn’t always mean agreement, but I wonder if it does always mean hospitality, generosity, and trying to keep those voices around. This means not seeking to ‘cancel’ those we disagree with.

We need to keep our wings, or we won’t be able to fly.

Let’s not cancel each other.

We can’t complain about the axing of Gone With the Wind, while at the same time saying “gone with the wings…”

Let’s keep listening, and keep reforming ourselves as we’re transformed together into the Body of Christ, the image of Jesus.

,

The Image of Trump or the Image of Jesus: on Trump’s sacrilege and the toppling of idols

In the last two posts I’ve explored how the practice of destroying statues — the damnatio memoraie — is an ancient one, and how public space has always been sacred and contested (and how when Jesus turns up in a contested public space, both sides of the contest joined sides to kill him).

There’s a picture of this for those who would follow Jesus in the book of Revelation; John’s apocalypse. Up front John writes to some churches in the Roman world. He pictures these seven churches as lamp stands. Churches who are meant to bring light to the world as they reflect the glory of Jesus. By the time you get into the ‘apocalyptic’ stuff — the vivid picture of life in this world that John offered, the seven lamp stands are reduced to two. Two faithful churches — witnesses to Jesus — are pictured as martyrs, and we’re told they speak up, and the beastly world kills them, celebrating the sacrilegious erasure of their voice from the public square like first century statue topplers. John says, of these witnesses, “their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt — where also their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8). To follow Jesus in the world is to be treated like Jesus because we act like Jesus because we worship Jesus.

The book of Revelation serves up a picture of beastly worldly power as opposed to God; it ties Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Jerusalem together as pictures of an economically motivated monster opposed to the kingdom of God; in love with the things of this world, and the prince of this world, Satan. The desecration of these faithful churches — these bodies pulled down in the public square is paralleled with the desecration of Jesus, the image of God, in the public square of Jerusalem.

It’s fascinating that the debate about the tearing down of statues — images cast in metal or stone — in public squares around the world — the outpouring of anger of the sort evoked by sacrilege that we’re hearing from one side of the ‘history wars’/’culture wars’ divide because statues-as-history are being destroyed in such a sacrilegious manner, and the outpouring of anger we’re seeing from the other side of the same conflict in the desecrating destruction these of statues happened at the same time that the President of the United States so ‘sacrilegiously’ (or desacrilegiously) set himself up as a pixelated image in a brazen photo opp on the footsteps of a church.

Trump’s photo opp was straight out of the playbook of the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose cultural and religious conquest of Jerusalem was framed by the writer of the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees as “the abomination that causes desolation.”

And perhaps the most distressing part of this scene was not Trump’s following the image-erecting playbook of the idol-kings of the ancient world; it was the way he was cheered on by the faithful — the sort of lamp stands in Revelation who forsook their first love, Jesus, to cosy up with the Beastly Roman empire; the new Babylon, Egypt, and Sodom.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — it’s not pointing to some future moment of cataclysmic end times so much as revealing the cataclysmic results of siding with anybody but God; given that ultimately the victory of Jesus won at the cross will turn the whole world on its head. Revelation talks about the Spiritual reality behind political realities; there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide — everything is religious; every political act is an act of sacrilege or sanctification — an act of elevating some thing or other to holy status, or applying a religious paradigm to the organisation of life in the world, in terms of how we organise communities of people and how we make and enjoy created things. That those kingdoms that set themselves up to oppose Jesus because they love money and the things of this world are collectives of people — systems, structures, cultures — that have rejected Jesus and picked Satan. Instead of being bearers of the divine image — and so being treated like Jesus and executed in the public square; they’re joining with corrupt power in order to reject God’s king and kingdom, and to destroy their own enemies (those who would take from them the things they really love). In Revelation you’ve got the image of Israel as a harlot, jumping on the back of beastly Rome.

1 Maccabees condemns Israel for not being desperately offended by the sacrilegious act of Antiochus Epiphanes; instead of tearing down the idol and seeking to rededicate the Temple to Yahweh (after Antiochus dedicates it to Zeus), “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Maccabees 1:43). Israel’s hearts have been captured by this beastly foreign ruler and his promise of order, and status, and the benefits flowing from belonging to such a powerful empire.

Trump’s photo opp — secured through violent action (this Washington Post composite of smart phone footage and police radio audio puts the idea that he didn’t use tear gas or equivalents squarely in the ‘fake news’ column) — was an act of sacrilege; co-opting the symbols of Christianity — the Kingdom of God — for his own political agenda (so much so that even his military has since distanced itself from the photo opp). This was the digital equivalent of the erection of a statue; a pixelated bust. An image that he hoped might spread frictionlessly around his empire to shore up his rule, and a call to worship his image. In Empire and Communication (1950), Harold Innis argued that empires rose and fell, historically, based on how well and widely they were able to communicate. Statues were an expensive but long lasting way to share an imperial imagery through the landscape an emperor ruled. They were fixed in place, but would last for a long time. They were limited. Trump is the master of harnessing the digital landscape to create imagery and words that spread through the empire; a master of propaganda and pageantry. He doesn’t need statues to spread his image; there is now a permanent picture of Trump with a Bible, in front of a church, engraved in the American pysche. The Roman empire followed other ancient near eastern practice by using coins as propaganda; the emperor’s image was carried in the pockets of the average Roman citizen (see Jesus on coins ‘the image of Caesar’ v ‘the image of God), when Trump wanted his name on the cheques sent out as stimulus to citizens during the Covid-19 lockdown he was again borrowing straight from the ancient playbook.

Just as Revelation depicts a faithful church who stand against the empire and so get slaughtered, 1 Maccabees tells the story that not all in Israel succumbed to Antiochus’ attempts to profane the Temple, while glorifying the image of his gods.

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)”

These were the #NeverTrumpers of the first century B.C.

My observations of peers in the U.S who won’t bend the knee to Trump is that it’s more costly within Christian community to refuse than it is for an NFL player to bend the knee during the anthem. Leader after leader seem to be coming forward to pledge their allegience to the Trump re-election campaign; excited by his fusion of the sword of empire with the sword of God’s word… while ignoring the picture God’s word paints of the empire while telling Christians to submit to its authority — to the point of martyrdom; just as Jesus did. Now, this is complicated of course, and people of God are able to be a faithful presence working for change in idolatrous foreign governments — the guiding principle from Joseph, to Daniel, to Esther, to Nehemiah, to Erastus in Corinth, to the early Christians in the Roman empire — seems to be a refusal to worship at the feet of the emperor because Jesus is their Lord and King — their spiritual and political leader. Daniel, the courtier, was chucked in the lion’s den explicitly for his refusal to bend the knee to the king he served. Serving in the courts of the king isn’t the problem — that’s precisely where God’s people can act as a faithful presence to see actions aligned with God’s kingdom (so when Esther doesn’t mention God, that’s not because God is absent in the story, he’s present through the faithful presence of his people). In Daniel, in case the symbolism needs to be any more overt, Nebuchadnezzar literally becomes beastly as a result of the pride he takes in the size and scope of his power.

“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4:33)

Trump is the embodiment of the worship of the things of this world. He is beastly in every sense of the word, as the Bible describes it. He is the personification of the vice list in Colossians 3 that Christians are told to put off as they are restored in the knowledge of the image of our creator. Find one thing in this list that Trump hasn’t proudly demonstrated in his tweeting, rallies, and photo opps.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices (Colossians 3:5-10)

He is a living, breathing, idol, erecting pixelated statues to himself and inviting all to bend the knee to him (and getting angry when they take a knee to any other god).

But when he stands in front of a church, co-opting it to maintain his position in his empire, church leaders in America aren’t falling in behind the example of the two faithful lamp stands in Revelation 11; they’re the five who left. And it’s appalling. It’s a symptom of a Christian culture that cares more about results and appearance and power than about virtue, and faithfulness, and following the example of a crucified king. It’s the sign of a church who learns nothing from history, because it cares nothing about history; or the role of narrative — both from the Bible, and through history, and its foundational role in shaping character; a church obsessed with technique, coopted by the forms and strategies of the world, because those are the ones that for good and for ill, have provided influence (and, on the whole, less martyrdom).

Christians might ‘bend the knee’ while holding their nose; but there was no space for that in Jerusalem when Antiochus swept to power, and none in Rome in John’s revelation; the faithful church was martyred for its refusal to take a knee. There’s even evidence of this in Pliny’s letter to Trajan. The trial Pliny devised for those accused of being Christians was simple; straight from the pages of Daniel. They were asked to worship an image of the emperor.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Trajan’s response is a model of reasonableness — he doesn’t want a witch hunt; but, if people are accused of being Christians and fail this test, then they are to be punished.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

There’s a whole swathe of Christians failing this test; putting Supreme Court seats, religious freedom, political influence, abortion law reform, and victory in the culture wars against the evil “woke left” as justification for joining in Trump’s profanity. But it’s not just the church of the right co-opted by the empire… by the lure of worldly power — they’re not the only Christians lured by the sides going toe-to-toe in the culture wars and backing their chosen champion to the hilt; not the only ones taking a knee… There’s a whole swathe of Christians also failing this test by becoming political and spiritual progressives who deny the resurrection, reject any created norms in terms of biological sex, sexuality, or sexual morality, where allegiance to the institutions of the left seems to require a particular stance on the lives of the unborn, who take on the more radical ‘deconstruction’ aims of the extremes of the left not only to dismantle oppression but the idea of any construction outside the self-constructed authenticity we all want to pursue as tribes of individuals… The litmus test might not be invoking the gods in words supplied by the agents of the empire, but it sure feels close; the Christian leaders who paraded out in lockstep to praise Trump’s strong and god-annointed leadership, and to celebrate the photo, have something to learn from Daniel, from Esther, from the faithful Israelites in the time of Antiochus, and from the faithful churches in Revelation…

Both the ‘Christian right’ and ‘Christian left’ — when they’re expressions of the culture wars, and the fight to control the empire (at the expense of the other) — have forsaken their first love. And it might seem like this is a world away from Australia, and America’s narrative — especially when it comes to civic religion — is a very different animal to Australia; but the same symptoms are there in Australia’s own version of political Christianity; especially, I think, on the Christian Right, with the Australian Christian Lobby and a variety of similar bodies spearheading the charge. There’s, frankly, not enough calling this out from leaders of the institutional church in Australia because our temptation to idolatry is often aligned with the right; we Christians (apparently) want a government that will make life comfortable for us (religious freedom), that will keep the invocation of God’s name in the parliamentary process (the Lord’s prayer), and who will give conservative Christian voices access to the throne room (even if it means justifying a vote for One Nation).

There’s another interesting dynamic to Antiochus Epiphanes and his abomination that causes desolation. The temple he profanes is empty. It’s a shell. It stopped housing God’s glorious presence in the exile. When Solomon builds the temple in 1 Kings, the glorious presence of God shakes the foundations of heaven and earth, and God speaks, as he comes to dwell in Israel as their God. The Temple is the seat of his political and spiritual rule; his footstool in the earth. The curtain in the temple marks off the ‘holy of holies’ — as a sort of boundary marker between heavens and earth.

The second temple never witnesses God’s glorious presence arriving (well, it might, I’ll get to this below); the Old Testament ends in anticipation of God gloriously dwelling with his people again. Israel, with the help of the rulers of Persia, rebuild and rededicate the Temple.

There’s a sense in Ezra that things just aren’t the same; first, people who remember the original temple mourn the difference as the foundation is laid: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:12), and then, the whole thing launches with a party without any divine intervention.

“Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:16-17)

And that’s it. It goes off with a whimper, rather than a bang. There’s no ground-shaking arrival of God in his house from the thunderclouds. No cloud of glory. The house that Antiochus desecrates has not yet been resanctified; the Day of the Lord has not arrived; Israel is still essentially exiled from God when this house is renovated by Herod, when Jesus turns up as the Messiah and calls it a ‘den of Robbers,’ he turns up as an entirely new temple.

And, just in case you think this is some weird over-reading of a lack of cosmic fireworks in Ezra, the prophets anticipate a future ‘day of the Lord’ when the temple would be restored…

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai also has this change coming with a judgment on beastly empires.

“I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (Haggai 2:22).

The sort of destruction longed for, and promised, in the closing chapters of Revelation. The one that comes when Jesus returns to ‘make all things new’ — the sort of kingdom — political and spiritual — that Christians are now meant to anticipate that allows us to faithfully avoid being co-opted by the empires of this world.

The same Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Washington (the denomination St John’s, the church in Trump’s photo, is part of), Mariann Budd, who said “Mr. Trump used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands,” also said, in a widely quoted (now deleted) blog post “The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.” There’s every chance Trump stood in front of an empty house, just as Antiochus re-dedicated an empty house to Zeus. Denying not just the ‘in the flesh’ nature of the incarnation, but the resurrection, was something John (who by-the-by, I think is the same John who wrote the Gospel, and Revelation) had pretty squarely in mind when he talked about anti-Christs in 1 John (see more on this here).

I’m not here to play the theological witch-hunt game or to be a watch-blogger railing against the wishy-washy world of the Episcopalian Church; the bishop might have had a bad day, and this might be why that post is now deleted and the quote found circulating elsewhere on the interent. As an Aussie Presbyterian, I don’t have a dog in that fight. But the left hand side of the culture wars demands allegiance just like the right does; you get to be part of an empire on that side if you give up the spiritual reality of the Gospel in order to pursue the political vision of justice that was part of Jesus’ kingdom. Christians explicitly taking sides in the culture wars — championing or being championed by visions from the left, or the right, end up doing eschatologically odd things, and aligning themselves with empty temples. You get a pass from the left for championing feelings and desires above the created reality of our bodies, and the ‘feeling of resurrection’ over the embodied reality of resurrection, and the goodness of humanity over the darkness of sin and God’s holiness and so the reality of judgment (and exile from God). You get a pass for the left for sharing its political vision, and so sharing its spiritual vision — because there is no secular/sacred divide. You get a pass for totally over-realising your eschatology; and, just like the right, seeking to build your vision of the kingdom here and now through whatever levers of power are on offer. So you play your own part in the culture wars, and bend your knee to your own alternative gods when you should stand. And yet, again, a caveat — Christians can be faithfully present in the institutions of the left, just as they can in the right, the question, ultimately, is about allegiance (and one of the signs for who your allegiance is to might be in how you make space for Christians on the other side of the political fence).

We followers of Jesus should have no part in sacrilegious abominations that are not the destruction of our own image in the same way that the image of God was destroyed in first century Israel, in the public square of that beastly city. We’re not meant to jump on board with the erection of other images that represent worldly power; not to nail our colours to those masts; not to bow the knee to other emperors — we’re to stand, and die, with the one who stood and died for us. To pick a side in the culture wars is to pick an idol, and to sign up for a particular form of iconoclasm, and a particular form of idol construction. And the Bible consistently calls the people of God away from idols because to participate in such image making conforms us into a particular image… As Psalm 115 puts it, when it comes to idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You lie down with dogs, you get fleas. You side with Antiochus, you get the Pharisees executing Jesus. You side with Satan, and the rulers who rule using his playbook, you become beastly. You follow Trump and suddenly you lose all public credibility when preaching Jesus. You join young Martyn and his political revolution aimed at securing access in the corridors of power through endorsing One Nation, and you get… And here’s the thing, you sign up as a card carrying supporter of Black Lives Matter, the organisation (as opposed to participating in the conversation and using the statement)… well, it’s very likely you’ll be conformed to its view of the world. The trick is figuring out how to be in an empire but not of the empire; to serve in the government of Rome without worshipping the emperor. To work in the public service without campaigning for the leader, which is hard — a lesson a certain general, and stacks of other ex-Trump staffers have learned the hard way: you refuse to be in the photo opp, or facilitate it, you say “no,” you differentiate yourself in words and actions, you speak up clearly and with conviction to call out bad behaviour, you recognise the good and the humanity not just in your own side, but the other, you love your enemy and practice forgiveness, you draw a line and you hold it with integrity, you preach Jesus even rebuking those in power on your own side, when it costs you everything… You stand when you’re called to bow. And look, I get that my friends on the right see that this is an issue with Black Lives Matter TM, and so don’t want to take a knee — but I’d like them to take the same stance when it comes to those idolators on the right, not stay silent when it suits them. You stand against racism and for the plight of the marginalised and oppressed; and you stand for J.K Rowling as she gets cancelled. You do both. 100%, or 50-50, not chucking stones at the other side and its excesses with a caveat about the goodness of their diagnosis of the issue, not defending the excesses of your side with a caveat that Trump is really bad “but”… You use “and” instead of “but” — a pox on both their houses… Both houses are empty.

Revelation 11 gives us a picture of faithful image bearers of Christ, and what that looks like in the public squares of beastly empires.

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

Right and Left, without Jesus, are just beastly versions of the same beastly game of rejecting God in favour of self; both are insidious expressions of and co-opted to a political system that loves money and power and autonomy; both are idolatry.

We might well get thrown to the lions, but not bending the knee, is also how to patiently and faithfully bring about the sort of change and reform that shook the world, it’s also what we do in the hope of real, embodied, resurrection.

Choosing either side of the culture wars has a cost for our faithfulness, and deforms us into false images of false gods… and I’ll explain in a future post why I write so much more about the dangers from the ‘right’ and Trump, than from the left… but for now let me conclude by saying that Trump’s photo opp, like the original ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is the product of the fusion between the political and the spiritual; there’s no secular/sacred divide.

Trump’s photo opp was a profane and idolatrous act as he sought to glorify himself by creating an image to spread through and support his empire; and that should be massively problematic for Christians, and we should faithfully speak out not just in opposition to that, but to testify to the same Jesus who was executed in the public square of a beastly city by religious people who should’ve kept the faith, but whose track record was being the descendants of those who did not oppose Antiochus. How could they do anything but cuddle up to worldly power?

If you’re upset about statues of ancient white dudes being toppled, but not by this old white dude erecting pixel images of himself while surrounded by symbols of Christianity, then I think you need a little more iconoclasm in your diet.

Images are powerful. That’s precisely why not only are those statues ‘powerful’ — but the pictures of statues being toppled get sent around the world.

And if you can’t bring yourself to condemn Trump’s image-building, without qualification, as an act of political beastliness, rather than godliness — I’d ask you to check your motives. Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend. The lesser of two evils is still evil (and may actually be the greater danger if you can’t call it evil). Trump’s image, because we’re now in the digital age, is likely to be harder to remove than a statue. It will be reduplicated and distributed as part of the historical record; unlike a statue, it’s going to be very hard to erase.

When it comes to the culture wars, without a differentiated Christian presence challenging the idol building game, the temples on both sides are empty; devoid of life and the presence of God. A St. John’s without the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, if indeed this is the case, is a profane building already; empty and de-sacred (‘desecrated’). God is present through his Spirit; his Spirit is present in those who recognise and proclaim the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Trump’s digital statue exercise and rededication didn’t significantly change its spiritual state.

Israel’s exile from God didn’t end with her return from exile; the captivity of their hearts continued. The return, and even the building of an inadequate, empty, temple was a precursor to God’s plans to return to his people and re-create us in his image again; to give us new hearts. The day of the Lord required an empty Temple, so that god’s presence might fill his new temple as his spirit created new images.

And that happens with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I think, for some reason I’d always pictured this moment at Pentecost happening in “the upper room” (because the events of Acts 1 happen there). But Luke is at pains to tell us that the disciples practice was to ‘meet daily in the temple courts’ (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). The events of Pentecost happen in front of lots of people — heaps more than you’d expect in an upper room where the disciples met in Acts 1. There’s chronological distance between Acts 1 and Acts 2. So I think the events of Pentecost happen in the empty-of-God’s-presence Temple; the Temple that was judged when the curtain tore, that has no claim on being the dwelling place of God because of the way Israel participated in the ultimate desolating abomination (the destruction of Jesus).

There, in the temple that had been waiting all those years to be renewed by God’s presence coming back, God’s presence comes to those who believe in the resurrection of king Jesus. It comes in the same glorious firey way that God came into the Temple in 1 Kings, only it lands not in the holy of holies, but on God’s holy people. People made holy (sanctified… made ‘sacred’), by the Holy Spirit. Holy just means ‘set apart’ from the beastly people around them. The Holy Spirit is what gives animating life to God’s living, breathing, images — the representatives of his kingdom — as we live in the world as his ambassadors; those who might be present in the corridors of power in different empires, but who won’t support or bow the knee to the elevation of abominations — those who call people to worship something other than the living God. To pick a side in the culture war — to choose an empire with its associated imagery — and to be excited or upset about the image games played by your side (or the other) — is to choose an idol.

One way to avoid the appearance of picking a side — even while seeking to be a faithful presence within an empire and its machinery — is to call out this idolatry, the idolatry of your own particular political ideologies or inclinations, another is to keep faithfully proclaiming the death resurrection of Jesus and seeing his kingdom as one that challenges the beastly regimes of this world so much that they put him to death; such that to follow him means a commitment to a certain sort of martyrdom; to being desecrated by the world.

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:19-21)