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Halloween, Harry Potter, and the Satanic Panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think(ing) of the children

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

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

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

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

Yes. More of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

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

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

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

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

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

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

Presbyopia. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That might sound like an anti-climax.

New glasses.

But these are magic glasses.

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

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

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

But now I know.

And boy, was I missing a lot.

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

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

Now I know I didn’t…

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

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

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

It’s worth seeing the world as it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the pastor drought and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.