Cancelled (by Martyn)

“Those who hate the truth must censor” — Martyn Iles

I’m still trying to navigate that tension of not being sucked into the culture war vortex that some Christian leaders from the hard right want to call us into (and look, I suspect there’s some bias in this Fairfax report about a recent conference here in Brisbane, but probably not that much…), but also calling such leaders who claim to represent Christ to account. Not because I think this is my job in particular — but if a group is going to claim to represent Christians, then I do think they should be prepared to listen to their constituency; and the nature of lots of these movements is that they are a law unto themselves and disconnected from institutions who provide accountability and discipline (so, for example, if I’m out of line, you’re welcome to take that up with the Presbyterian Church, who I am accountable to for my words and actions).

So while I’m trying to avoid ungodly and combative interactions with the likes of Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton on social media, I do see a whole lot of other leaders in the church sit idly by, and talk to many of them in private about shared concerns about the direction these men and their organisations are pulling the church, or at least the public perception of Christians.

So last night when Martyn Iles posted a long (by his standards) rant about the irreverence of just referring to Jesus by his name, Jesus, rather than a host of divine titles also due to him as Lord and Christ, I responded. I suggested he might go to a theological institution and get some training before putting himself in the position of teacher and judge. Accountability is a good thing after all; so is expertise. Then I tagged a prominent Christian social commentator and historian asking for his talks, and that commentator responded by pointing out that young Martyn’s hypothesis seemed misguided when weighed up in the Gospels.

This is the same Martyn Iles who hates cancel culture and who just recently posted this about censorship:

But now, dear reader, after some very mediocre analysis of Martyn’s truth claim; analysis made public, but counter to the view Martyn would have his readers hear, my comments have been censored (removed) — and my ability to comment on Martyn’s wall has been revoked. Or one might say I’ve been “cancelled”…

Now. I’m not a victim here. I am not playing the victim card by making this observation. I’m sure Martyn and whoever gets roped in to run his socials sees my contributions as generally against the mission of the organisation or platform, and I have plenty of platforms where I can exercise my own free speech, and speak both my own mind, legitimate criticism of Martyn and the ACL and the direction they seek to take the church, and even against this sort of censorship. I have plenty of privilege and this isn’t, ultimately, a restriction of my voice. It’s not like Martyn’s wall is a news service (he and the ACL kept posting things through Facebook’s news ban).

I’m also known to block people infrequently on social media, for my own headspace, and, because, at some point I am not obliged to provide a platform for views I don’t agree with. I’m really reluctant to do this, and so comment threads on things I write can get messy and ugly (especially on Facebook). I am not a ‘public square’ — my Facebook presence is a private square that I, in various ways, rent from Facebook (by providing content and getting people to spend time on their site), and my blog is utterly ‘privately owned’ — it receives no funding beyond the dollars I pour into keeping it running. How I choose to use this space, or my ‘rented’ space on Facebook, is up to me as host. That’s fine.

People not wanting to respect the ‘house rules’ is a thing that makes me think more censorship would be a good thing, not to prevent analysis, but because hospitality might sometimes require kicking out guests who want to make everyone else feel unwelcome. This is a thing called the ‘paradox of tolerance’ — and I tend not to pull that lever to censor ideas, but rather to protect relationships.

But it does strike me as interesting. The people who bang on about censorship and cancel culture are so quick to employ it.

And there’s a silver lining here — because I spent most of my morning chatting to people who’d only come across Martyn’s stuff on Facebook because I couldn’t help but comment on it… And now. Well.

Why Conversion Therapy is not a ‘unicorn’ or a ‘wacky pseudo-psychological practice’; but might involve a coercive culture we need to change

Eternity News published a piece from James Macpherson today that’s the latest in a string of articles from white blokes, typically in positions of leadership or influence in the Institutional Church, waxing lyrical about the state of affairs facing Christians in Victoria; specifically the circumstances facing (typically blokes who are) leaders in church communities in Victoria who may transgress the new Change and Suppression (Conversion) Therapy bill in Victoria.

I’ve lost count of how many people disclaim their objections to this Bill by pointing out that they — like everybody else — don’t believe in aversion therapy or electric shock therapy — the archaic forms of clinical practice employed by therapists when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, in the professional field of psychology and psycho therapy (the manual of psychological disorders the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its list of diagnoses in 1973). So here, for example, are a couple of these disclaimers from prominent blokes with institutional influence, starting with the piece from Eternity (which also ran, in an expanded, and more terrible form, at The Spectator; it’s a culture war piece more at home on Caldron Pool):

“We were told that the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill, passed by the Victorian government last month, was to stop archaic practices such as electric shock therapy being used on gay people. The legislation has deliberately sought out voices that insist conversion therapy is not simply some wacky pseudo-psychological practice that has fallen by the wayside, but standard church practice and teaching.”

Or…

“The Bill is so hopelessly sourced, and – despite its claims to be targeting what is ostensibly a unicorn, – namely pseudo-spiritual conversion therapy techniques that are rare and indeed extinct – is intended to fire a shot across the bows of churches that take a traditional and orthodox line when it comes to sexuality matters.”

Or…

“For example, it wasn’t that long ago that aversion therapies were taught at a university here in Melbourne and practiced by doctors. Second, contrary to rhetoric offered by the Government and activist groups, conversion practices (ie aversion therapy) were always rare and unusual in religious settings. These are groups who blindly followed what was considered mainstream science at the time. However, instead of  limiting legislation to banning an archaic practice that everyone agrees is wrong, the Parliament has outlawed praying and even talking with another person about sexuality and gender.”

Or…

“There is nobody who supports or condones the sort of coercive “gay conversion” practices which might have occurred in the context of psychological treatment and some faith communities in the middle of last century.  Such practices are abhorrent.”

Lyle Shelton and Martyn Iles both provide caveats in their public objections to the Bill along these lines too; it’s the almost essential disclaimer because everyone agrees that zapping away the gay is beyond the pale; they just aren’t sure if we should be able to ‘pray away the gay’… But the idea that the Bill is targetting something abhorrent, and slipping in a bunch of ‘normal’ Christian practices (that aren’t harmful at all) is a common objection to the Bill. There’s a sort of widespread incredulity that the government would go after much more nebulous church practices beyond these overtly harmful practices; and there’s often a commitment to small government driving these objections (a suggestion that this is an illegitimate use of power). Whether that small government objection is right or wrong is an interesting question, it’s one I personally have sympathy for — except, that I think we welcome government intervention in areas where we genuinely believe harm is happening, so this objection actually sits on a fundamental belief that run of the mill Christian culture and practices aren’t harmful for Gay people; which is to say, these voices don’t believe the stories behind the Bill, that produced the broad brush approach.

I wrote a piece for Eternity with my student Minister Matthew Ventura (you can read his thoughts about life as a celibate gay Christian at singledout.blog), where we suggested believing the stories of harm would be a great first step for us Christians. In the course of writing this piece, we spoke to a few other friends, including another celibate gay Christian, Tom Pugh, who has been involved in ministry with a conservative evangelical organisation (you can read Tom’s excellent insights at Transparent).

Tom made a point that became a paragraph in our piece, saying:

“There’s something about the theological system and ministerial structure/practice that seems to produce what you might call spiritual codependancy. When taken as a whole, the preaching and practice of a church can, to a certain kind of person, function in a way that is effectively coercive.”

This insight — and Tom is not alone in expressing this view — is, I think, part of the picture that more conservative ‘small government’ Christian figures with institutional influence are missing; and there’s a couple of analogies I’d like to draw in order to plead with my brethren (and it is, so far as I can tell, exclusively blokes who keep making this point); because I think it’s a point that is a product of privilege (both institutional, and from the individual experience of being a cisgendered, heterosexual, bloke).

I wrote recently about an article by Michael Emerson on racism that made the point that white people tend to think individualistically about race, while people of colour tend to think collectively, and further, that: “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination,” while “most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.” This disparity in thinking, I think, is actually a right/left distinction as well as an individual/collective cultural distinction — the ability to think about systems and the power (sometimes oppressive, harmful, or coercive) that systems wield. This maps on to the objections about conversion therapy legislation that broaden the definition from overt acts of conversion therapy to attempts to tackle the harm caused by coercive systems. You could frame it as ‘conservative Christians tend to view conversion therapy as intended individual acts of overt violence and harm,’ while the government (and those reporting stories to them) ‘define conversion therapy quite differently. Conversion therapy is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power…” you see what I’m doing there… it’s the same dynamic. Arguably it also works with feminism and other stuff that forms the whole ‘critical theory’ approach to ‘whiteness’ and ‘wokeness’ and intersectionality; that is, when you’re the beneficiary of an institution or status quo, when you’re ‘the norm,’ you can be blind to the dynamics that don’t directly effect you, but perpetuate your position in that system. Like, you know, the Pope and the church establishment when Luther started trying to bring systemic reform.

There’s no coincidence that this particular objection about the prescriptive definition of conversion therapy being broadened to something nebulous comes from typically right-thinking men who experience institutional influence (also, to be fair, those perhaps most at risk of transgressing the legislation). It comes with a particular understanding of the world; one that may or may not be objectively true; but is, I’d suggest subjectively likely that they will hold that position based on the privileged position they typically occupy in the institutional church. I’m aware that this sort of claim can be quite triggering to conservative blokes, in conservative institutions, who think individually not just systemically, because my default is to be those things.

And here’s the questions I’d put to those mounting this argument against the legislation (whether or not the legislation is good is an entirely different question), and one that I have covered previously.

a) Are you in favour of government intervention in church practices around both systemic issues and particular practices on child safety, especially after the Royal Commission?

b) Do you think steps being taken by governments to legislate against ‘coercive control’ in the context of Domestic Violence are good and necessary?

The reason I think these questions are worth pondering is that I think there’s a direct line between both these questions and Conversion Therapy legislation.

The research supporting the Bill in Victoria involved hearing real stories — it didn’t have the scope, or the national reach, that the Royal Commission had, but the stories of those who had been harmed by practices beyond just ‘archaic unicorn’ therapies were believed; and, even those people still in our church communities, committed to celibacy, would say there is a system or culture at work in the church that is harmful; and that often involves the sort of things that enlightened conservative individuals don’t themselves practice (or that their church communities don’t practice), but do defend (like Margaret Court’s ‘tin ear,’ or Israel Folau’s tweets, or practices that are cultural, rather than individual, around the view of homosexuality or the treatment of LGBTIQA+ people in our communities; I had, for example, an older Christian tell me this week that the country started falling apart when homosexual practice became legal); there’re a bunch of other things our Eternity article points to to fill this out some more.

If these practices do cause harm the legislation might be a clumsy, blunt, overreach, but at least it is trying to tackle something — like child safety — we should’ve been dealing with ourselves. I recognise that there is a push to attack any reasonably orthodox teaching that suggests homosexuality is, like many forms of heterosexuality, impacted by the fall and so both sinful and ‘broken’ (I also note that my own denomination, here in Queensland, believed ‘brokenness’ was too soft when it came to finding language to articulate this, and that those of us who use it had ceded too much).

The research around ‘coercive control’ and family violence demonstrates that abuse is not limited to particular incidents of physical assault, or even of verbal abuse, but that the relationships that can culminate in extreme violence — even murder — involve harmful dynamics that aren’t presently ‘illegal’ or even just ‘particular actions’ but do follow a recognisable pattern. Jessica Hill’s See What You Made Me Do is, I think, required reading on Domestic and Family Violence. I think Hill’s work profoundly and cogently makes the case for some government intervention on coercive control, as nebulous as it is. Even if it’s not currently dealing with acts of physical violence that are currently illegal; this is, in part, because I think trauma is real harm; and that it impacts the body and psyche as profoundly and deeply as physical violence (see, for example, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk).  Hill makes some observations about the dynamics of abusive, coercive, relationships that might also be true of coercive systems, she identifies ‘three primary elements’ at the heart of coercive control: “dependency, debility, and dread.” Now, note that my friend, without making these links, describe Christian culture — particularly life in conservative institutional Christianity — as creating “a spiritual codependency.”

Gay, or Same Sex Attracted, people growing up in Christian communities where the sort of ‘culture’ we typically hear minimised, or marginalised as ‘not what good churches do’ describe developing cognitive dissonance as a survival technique; the sort produced by the dread of being exposed as something other than the Christian norm — or, that if one was outed, this might include being outered — excluded from family or church family life. That dread, in itself, can become coercive and forms the ‘system’ behind conversations that might seem like harmless ‘pastoral’ offers of prayer or support.

The scientist Hill draws on, Albert Biderman, observed the ‘coercive control’ practiced by North Korean soldiers who had imprisoned US Prisoners of War, and suggested their practices included “eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands.”

Now, churches don’t practice all of these when it comes to LGBTIQA+ people in our communities, or families, but some of these line up with real stories from real people, both in the Victorian research behind the Bill, and in stories I hear from my celibate gay Christian friends. In the context of domestic violence, coercive control can include policing things like language and dress, enforcing ‘cultural’ or community standards around language; limiting who people can or can’t see and speak to, controlling how time is spent, and seeking to modify behaviours that someone (the coercive controller) is uncomfortable with. Hill reports that the parallel between coercive control in POW camps and in DV situations has been observed since the 1970s; and in the earliest research making the link “survivors insisted that [physical violence] was not the worst part of the abuse,” the coercive control was more damaging. This might be, by analogy, the case with same sex attracted people in our communities — it may be that the most harm is experienced not in ‘aversion or shock therapy’ (violence), but in the system or culture that leaves them traumatised and having to navigate a culture filled with trauma reminders (or triggers) that compound the damage, and the sense of shame (the opposite of a sense of belonging).

This friend I spoke to, Tom, said the cognitive dissonance he experienced growing up in a church community produced “anxiety and depersonalisation” for him; depersonalisation being a ‘trauma based coping mechanism’. Tom was keen to reiterate that he doesn’t believe the culture he grew up in was operating maliciously, he observes that LGBTIQA+ individuals who grow up in church communities, especially as the broader community becomes more welcoming, can experience trauma, mental health challenges, and a sense of shame that come from navigating a culture or system that coercively ‘suppresses’ or ‘converts’ more of their personhood and experience than is necessary in order for them to faithfully uphold orthodox teachings on sexuality, and belong in traditional church communities.

Now, my point is not to say that standard church practices are a form of coercive control, and thus necessarily abusive — but that the stories shared by LGBTIQA+ people who have been harmed by church environments and practices aren’t being dishonest, and nor are governments, simply because the ‘unicorns’ of aversion or electric shock therapy are no longer practiced. Standard church practices might actually be harmful, and might not be necessary, so it might be legitimate for governments to expand their interest and care beyond ‘violent’ intervention or actions, into systemic and cultural practices; especially post-Royal Commission. Until we grapple with this — especially when we’re talking to left-leaning governments who think in ‘woke’ ways about intersectionality, privilege, and systems — we’re talking past those making the laws.

If our practices are causing actual harm, and we could do better — it’s on us to make the distinction between child safety regulations and conversion therapy regulations; and at the moment just saying ‘but we’re not zapping someone’ isn’t actually engaging in the conversation on its terms; or recognising that harm can come from more than just ‘particular’ actions, but can come from coercive or controlling systems and cultures that dehumanise and dominate.

Don’t be a Macarthur-in-the-closet on religious freedom… come out like Macarthur did

John MacArthur has been in the news quite a bit in the last 12 months. But he’s been a phenomenon on the Christian web for many years. MacArthur’s influence has spawned many of the darkest parts of the Christian internet; watchbloggers, discernment trolls, and theobros out to destroy anybody who disagrees with their spiritual framework (mostly provided by Pastor John) like Jordan Peterson destroys everyone on YouTube. You find a fundamentalist internet outpost and do a word search (or try this one), or click the tag, for John MacArthur, and you’d be forgiven for thinking “Pastor John” is something like the Pope in these (typically) Baptist circles (which is ironic). His infallible reaction to Trump, to Covid (and church closures) and his hardlined, unwavering fundamentalism is admired from pillar to post. Even Pulpit and Pen, who hate everybody, love John MacArthur.

The pile of things I agree with John MacArthur on is outweighed by the mountain that I don’t.

But he’s a conviction pastor, and I can respect that. He names his convictions and he holds them. And that has integrity — and, in a time where prominent church leaders are being exposed for lacking integrity, I’d rather leaders were consistent and not hiding their beliefs behind a veneer of respectability (actual respectability would be next level). I respect MacArthur’s lack of respectability, and his consistency.

The same man who proudly proclaimed that President Donald Trump had called him to thank him for fighting in the courts to keep his megachurch open during a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in his country, has recently come out to proclaim that he doesn’t believe in religious freedom. He said:

“The new administration will uphold religious freedom? I don’t even support religious freedom. Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry, it’s to say I support lies, I support hell, I support the kingdom of darkness. You can’t say that. No Christian with half a brain would say, ‘We support religious freedom.’ We support the truth!”

Religious freedom is the hill to die on for lots of conservative Christians; and it is something that I think is pretty important to uphold in a secular democracy; because genuine religious freedom is what prevents sectarian politics that shoots for a theocracy at the expense of those who disagree. It’s what stops us living in a Catholic, or Muslim, or Presbyterian state (even while, on a technical level, it’s not clear why we in Australia are not an Anglican state, except for systematised pluralism…).

The TL;DR summary of all this is if you’re a MacArthur in the closet, you should come out. Stop pretending religious freedom is your goal, or a good thing, if you don’t believe it, especially if you’re closeted because it is expedient or allows you to push for more worldly power. And if you’re not a MacArthur in the closet, then you’re actually a pluralist (in some form) and you might need to expand your definition of ‘religion’ in order to fully embrace religious freedom as a civic good (while holding your own theological convictions about what is true and good), or be able to describe why you want to limit the freedom of others (and not be limited yourself).

The thing is, in my observation lots of the people who lobby for religious freedom in a country like Australia actually mean ‘Christian Freedom,’ this is true with the exception, I think, of the lobby group Freedom For Faith, who have, in the main, profoundly understood the landscape here, although perhaps have too narrow a definition of what constitutes ‘religious’.

Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites unpacks a little of the problem with some of our thinking about religious freedom, and what ‘religious’ means, when we limit it to institutional religions rather than spiritual commitments and the pursuit of some vision of the good through acts of worship. She suggests that for the emerging generations in the secular, liberal, west, religion functions much more broadly and in a ‘remixed’ way where people harness ‘religiosity’ in their pursuit of an authentic self and self-understanding. She says, for example, that the essence of a religion for these ‘Remixed flocks’ is that it provides “four elements: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.” And that they are “intuitional” rather than “institutional”

“By this, I mean that their sense of meaning is based in narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people’s experiential emotions, what you might call gut instinct.”

This feels true (see what I did there) — and — if our democracy is genuinely secular (that is ‘without an official religion’) and democratic — then our understanding of “religious freedom” and what is being navigated and protected has to navigate the landscape where both institutional and intuitional religious freedoms are protected and balanced. Presbyterians have religious convictions, and so too do those people for whom the pursuit of LGBTIQA+ rights and recognition have taken on those religious characteristics (connected to meaning, purpose, community, and ritual).

Christians, more than anybody, should be seeing these modern communities of meaning and purpose as ‘religious’ because our understanding is that to be human is to worship something; and that the issues with human behaviour is that we’re prone to wander towards idols — worshipping created things, rather than being moved to wonder at God’s glory from the things he has made. That’s Romans 1. Right there. Idolatry, as Pastor John recognises, is religious. And to support religious freedom is to allow idolatry. MacArthur is right. But we might be allowing idolatrous worship in order to allow people to pursue true worship, as we hope to be those who worship in Spirit and in truth.

Religious freedom is a necessary outworking of a commitment to reciprocity — the sort of ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ reciprocity; and an outworking of epistemic humility. If we are all worshippers — and we are all, as Paul says in Athens, created and located so we might ‘reach out for God’ and perhaps find him, and if we are all prone to error in that search, and to idolatry, it is unlikely that any religious expression — including any particular denominational expression — has fully grasped the truth about God.

This isn’t to say that objective truth doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t be pursued — but it is to acknowledge our limitations as finite creatures, even in traditions that stack up the accumulated wisdom of many finite creatures, who are trying to know God through his revelation to us that, in Calvin’s conception, necessarily involves him ‘accommodating’ to our limits. We can’t, and won’t, ever wrap our brains and hearts around the entirety of who God is, or his love, or character — because we have puny human brains that are prone to self-seeking error, and even in the New Creation, with God’s unmediated presence, God will be gloriously, infinitely, overwhelming and we’ll have an eternity to keep knowing more of him.

Pluralism is required to even allow the ongoing presence of denominations other than your own and to recognise that in those theological distinctives, that can be quite substantial, there is simultaneously error and a quest for truth.

To not be a pluralist means to plant your flag in the ground and say “I am totally right, and everyone must agree with me.” To not be a pluralist, with integrity, is to be John MacArthur.

Now, it might be that there are boundaries where, at least for Christians, true belief is demarcated — they might be confessional, traditional, or catholic (in the broadest sense). For me, for example, the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus, plus his life death and resurrection as described in the Gospels — those would be deal breakers where I would say to not hold those is to not be holding on to the essence of Christian belief. I’m also part of an institutional religious tradition where I have sworn to ‘assert, maintain, and defend’ the teachings of an institutional church (albeit one that sees liberty and conscience as important things for pursuing truth from God’s revelation in his word, rather than just human, institutional, traditions as binding). But, for those not holding my belief, I’m not sure the answer is to legislate away their ability to believe something other than what I believe (in fact, I am reasonably convinced that is not the answer). In fact, I’m reasonably convinced the answer is to legislate for the freedom for others to engage in the intutional and institutional quest for meaning, purpose, community and ritual; that is, I think religious freedom is really important and good and broad and essential for pluralism and secularism and democracy.

There is, also, the paradox of tolerance here — some religious convictions are beyond the pale, some are damaging and have no place in a democracy because they dehumanise parts of the ‘demos.’ The Old Testament is full of God’s anger at, for example, Molech worship and the violence, sacrifice of children, dehumanising debauchery and oppression carried out in the name of that god (and especially anger at Israel for jumping into bed with all these diabolical gods).

And our modern secular democracy makes all sorts of decisions about limiting freedoms in pursuit of the common good that we celebrate — the catch is, because we’ve become ‘beyond the pale’ and damaged children in our care, been complicit in violence and oppression — that sort of thing so that ‘limiting’ for the common good is now being applied to us (sometimes justly, like with the imposition, by the government, of new practices and regulations around child safety). It takes a certain sort of consistency to speak against that regulation as an interference of our religious freedom; and that’s not something I’ve seen much of. We also face limits around, say, our practices in a pandemic — and I am starting to see religious freedom type objections to singing restrictions, particularly in New South Wales. Whether those restrictions are ‘common sense’ or not, we’ve generally not been unhappy (unlike MacArthur) to have some of our freedoms restricted for the sake of our neighbour. Our freedoms aren’t totally unrestricted because we give up some rights in order to live responsibly as neighbours, and to care for vulnerable people in our communities — we Aussies also have a very low authority view of church community and membership, and so we aren’t imposing ‘restrictions’ on the religious freedoms of people in our churches (typically) — either through church discipline, or not letting people leave church communities (or change denominations, or convictions) as expressions of ‘religious freedom’…

I think we’d get a lot further in conversations about religious freedom if we were more committed to pluralism, and to extending those freedoms way beyond where we currently do — to gender dysphoric people who don’t share our theological convictions, to same sex couples who’d like to get married, and to various other communities we rail against. It’s a brave Christian in conservative churches who supports the building of mosques, or the rights of a community of Satanists to gather built on the principle of pluralism or religious freedom; but it takes real courage (it seems) to say ‘that gay couple should be allowed to get married as an expression of their convictions that are ultimately religious’ — that’s where our own ‘intuitional’ religion kicks in; where for so many Christians it seems that the thing that gives us meaning, purpose, community and ritual is not our ‘Christian’ practice, but our conservative politics (which isn’t to say that being a Christian is not a political calling; “Jesus is Lord” is a political statement that provides a certain amount of meaning, purpose, community and ritual). We conservative Christians fought the plebiscite like a political culture war — not as people committed to religious freedom as a broad and inclusive good, but as a political fight (where we refused to acknowledge, in the main, the religious convictions driving our own understanding of marriage; there was a deliberate strategy to argue in the secular world as though our definition of marriage was purely ‘natural’ and secular, while those arguing for redefinition were arguing more religiously — along the lines of meaning, purpose, community, ritual and also, I’d say, offering a ‘religious’ vision of the good). And now we fight for religious freedom as though it is purely defined by being able to tell people they can’t do things. Why don’t we try telling people why it is good to follow Jesus; why Jesus brings meaning, purpose, community and ritual as the heart of ‘true religion’ and a guide to the worship we were made for?

But I digress. It’s an important digression because while I don’t respect those who play the ‘religious freedom’ game while paying lip service to a pluralism they don’t practice; I do respect someone who says ‘pluralism is bunkum and religious freedom is promoting idolatry;’ to be a pluralist isn’t to celebrate that those around you who aren’t pursuing true worship — the worship of the triune God made possible by the Holy Spirit being poured out to unite us with Jesus as the Gospel is unleashed; to be a pluralist is to acknowledge that other people are free to choose their gods, and the consequences of that choice. Just like God allows idolatry (see, again, Romans 1). It’s not my job to change someone’s object of worship; it’s my job to worship in Spirit and in truth, and to trust that God will change hearts as the Spirit turns the hearts of people towards God. Once I recognise that this is not my responsibility, I am freed to live beside people, to love them, to serve them, to pray for them, and to enjoy them as good gifts from God in my life who are given life, and breath, and everything by the God who wants them to reach out for him, and perhaps find him (even in a city as full of idols as Athens). Idolatry isn’t cause for celebration; it can be cause for despair — like for Paul in Athens — but Paul doesn’t set about changing the legislation in Athens to forbid idol worship, he introduces Jesus as the way to know the “unknown God” (and, by the by, his speech to the Areopagus, the gatekeepers of the Pantheon, meets the conventions required to officially introduce a god to the plurality of options available in Athens).

Here’s the thing. I think most people who like John MacArthur actually agree with John MacArthur on religious freedom but don’t have the courage to name it.

I think most conservative Christians who are politically active don’t actually want pluralism or even a secular democracy. I think most progressive Christians who are politically active don’t actually want pluralism or a secular democracy either — and that they’d like to eradicate conservatives not just from the public table, but from the denominational tables they belong to (and this is true, too, within conservative denominations). But very few people will name it; because they’re busy ‘coalition building’ in order to support their own (institutional) interests; not in order to practice loving reciprocity that allows others to pursue their own religious intuitions.

This isn’t to say that confessional standards or institutional doctrines and traditions aren’t important — in fact, I suspect that in our intuitional age what should be fairly fixed has become contested and that lots of fights around the ownership of different denominational tables are actually power/property grabs, where it would be better for everybody just to generously schism into a plurality of traditions, or to set up ‘communions’ or denominations that are deliberately broad (ironically, I think the Presbyterians with our declaratory statement, and emphasis on liberty of opinion, are meant to be a much broader evangelical ‘Reforming’ tradition than the Big R Reformed types fighting to run our table would like us to be).

Their animating end game is the ‘city of man’ looking a whole lot like ‘the city of God’ (to use Augustine’s terms); this side of the eschaton. They aren’t particularly interested in the heart change required to see the overlap grow (the sort that would come through exercising our religious freedom in constructive ways that are small, and local, and person by person work from the bottom up, while allowing others to exist whose existence and religion they find offensive), they’re interested in the mechanics of power — the levers that can be pulled to get the results. And taking John MacArthur’s stance is not going to get laws changed in any properly secular democracy. It’s not politically expedient; it has no utility. It has a certain sort of respectable virtue — conviction and integrity — even if it is not necessarily built on wisdom or truth.

MacArthur even explicitly states that he is under no allusion that his stance will be effective; it is simply consistent with his pre-millennial eschatology.

“We don’t win down here, we lose. You ready for that? Oh, you were a post-millennialist, you thought we were just going to go waltzing into the kingdom if you took over the world? No, we lose here — get it. It killed Jesus. It killed all the apostles. We’re all going to be persecuted. … We don’t win. We lose on this battlefield, but we win on the big one, the eternal one… We will proclaim the exclusivity of the gospel, the unique revelation authority of Scripture. We’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion. What kind of nonsense is that? We are in the world to expose all those lies as lies. So this is just part of what’s been on my mind.”

He named it. With admirable clarity, theological consistency, and conviction. And I can respect that; most political Christian voices nail two of those three in any given moment. I once tried to tabulate how theological anthropology, one’s understanding of the Gospel, and one’s eschatology intersect in different political theologies (it’s not the most beautifully structured table ever). MacArthur has consistency all the way down. He’s out of the closet as a government-hating pre-millennialist fundamentalist who believes anybody who doesn’t share his views is an idolater. The only point where he isn’t yet out of the closet and consistent is identifying the point at which he is in fellowship with, or not in fellowship with, other traditions within the church; his theobros and discernment blogging friends put a fair bit of energy into trying to draw those lines for everyone though, based on his teaching being authoritatively ‘the southern baptist tradition’… which again, is ironic.

See, what’s interesting here, again, is that so much of the ‘Christian Right’ operates with a sort of dominionist/post-millennial belief that we are tasked with building the City of God here on earth; not with faithfully being God’s presence in our cities as we wait for ‘the Holy City, the new Jerusalem’ to come down from heaven on Jesus’ return ala Revelation 21. So much ‘Christian lobbying’ is towards that end. But try getting people to unpack their theological vision — their eschatology — and how that lines up with their politics and actions, and you get mud. Partly because there are a plurality of theologies, and eschatological models, out there that all produce different political visions but often the same political action (so we can have a coalition for marriage, religious freedom, or against conversion therapy laws, that includes Catholics and Muslims, or we’ll call a Trinity-denier a Christian because he agrees with our sexual ethic, but we can’t have Christian institutions that make space for progressive Christians (theologically or politically) to work together on common causes like the Environment or anti-bullying programs in schools, or even ‘coalitions’ with the LGBTIQA+ community to work on shared visions of the good, or our Indigenous community to work against systemic racism because that is ‘woke’). As it stands, ‘pluralism’ only works in one direction in the conservative ‘institutional’ religion – it’s to prop up institutional interests; and so often ‘religious freedom’ campaigning is the same (with, admittedly, a desire to see the religious commitments of adherents to these institutions protected in other institutions or workplaces)…

To name those differences though, within the church, especially within the conservative “Christian Right”  would commit us to a certain sort of religious freedom or pluralism that we don’t like to practice outside the church, and, this is also true on the other pole; ‘progressive Christianity,’ but I write as a member of a conservative (theologically and politically) institution, one that, for example, joined the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ and publicly lobbied against conversion therapy laws in Victoria).

We’d have to admit either that those with different positions are welcome at the table of a ‘broad church’, or, that we don’t believe them to be Christians at all, such that we should oppose their speech (and again, MacArthur and his online cronies are more consistent on this front too). And where we share ecumenical fellowship — whether around progressive causes, or through shared coalescing around ‘the Gospel’ across institutional lines, we’d have to acknowledge that we are already practicing pluralism. And we have to acknowledge the tension that creates — that in that practice we maintain a clear sense of what we believe to be the ‘capital T’ truth we’re prepared to die for, but that we’ve managed to engage in pluralism without compromising that sense, although perhaps engaging in pluralism is actually a path to broadening one’s understanding of truth — because it involves listening to others. Then we need to stare down the questions around why if we are happy for Baptists or Catholics, to continue to exist and practice their institutional religiosity (and where we would oppose legislation that sought to limit their existence), we aren’t prepared to advocate for space to be made for more ‘intuitional’ religions — especially as those lines start to get quite murky with emerging intutional/institutional Christianity (ala the emerging church movement, or Pentecostalism).

The beauty of MacArthur coming out like this is that in a secular democracy, the polis now knows where he is coming from and has to decide whether to tolerate or accommodate his views. His intolerance of pluralism is exactly the test that pluralism needs; you’ll see voices from the Christian left trying to denounce and cancel him — not just in the civic space, but the church; you’ll see voices from the intolerant ‘hard secular’ world trying to restrict his freedoms beyond just asking his church not to gather during the pandemic, or to wear masks. Some of his crazier views will be exposed and people will be able to exercise their freedoms to find less crazy popes (or, hey, no pope at all).

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he didn’t exclude the “Culture War”

The New Testament pictures life in this world, for Christians, as a spiritual war, and it also tells us how followers of Jesus should participate in that war.

When Paul writes about ‘the armour of God’ in Ephesians he says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6).

Some part of this spiritual war is played out in the realm of worldly politics. When John writes Revelation he pictures the beastly Roman empire, in league with Satan, going to war with the church on Satan’s behalf. Culture wars, like other wars, can be expressions of this spiritual warfare. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation and Michael Heiser’s work on the Unseen Realm and thinking about the overlap of politics and the ‘powers and principalities’ in the heavenly realms, and how nations outside of Israel might have been given to these other members of the divine court.

In The Unseen Realm, Heiser unpacks Deuteronomy 4 and 32 (and a disputed translation in 32, where english versions choose either ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of Israel’), to suggest:

“As odd as it sounds, the rest of the nations were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council. The other nations were assigned to lesser elohim as a judgment from the Most High, Yahweh.”

Heiser’s work here is fascinating; and, I think, lines up with something Paul says about the church; and the coming together of Jew and gentile in Christ, and what that means not just in earth, but also in the heavenly realm, where he says:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Ephesians 3:10-11

The ‘spiritual war’ playing out in the Bible is a war for our fidelity, as humans, a war for our worship; being fought out by cosmic beings — God, the creator, other ‘gods’ who are given people other than God’s own people to rule, and the sinister figure of Satan pulling the strings behind human empires set up in opposition to God — he’s there in the background in Ephesians, and in Revelation, and is the figure who is the opponent in the spiritual war the Bible describes from Genesis to Revelation; he is the enemy who holds us in sin, death, and destruction — as Paul puts it:

“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.” — Ephesians 2:1-2

It would be naive to suggest Christianity does not involve a war; and that this war doesn’t impact politics. The Bible explicitly links worldly regimes like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome to spiritual forces aligned against the kingdom of God (and has Israel jump on board with each of these regimes at various times, and in various ways).

It would be naive, even, to suggest that the war the Bible describes, being predominantly played out around objects of worship, and the cultures created by these empires to make different gods alluring, or desirable, is not a ‘culture war.’ The ‘cultures’ — or ‘cultic groups’ at war in the Bible are the culture of lesser gods and their glory, and the culture of God’s kingdom; the culture of the nations surrounding Israel — especially what Walter Wink called “domination systems” — cultures driven by the proud, the sword wielding, and the idolatrous seeking their own glory and the culture of a kingdom whose God “opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble,” or “and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.” The Kingdom of God has a ‘culture’ built on the character of God as revealed in the king of God’s kingdom — the crucified Jesus. And, so, the ‘culture war’ we fight is not fought with worldly weapons; or by playing ‘power games’ in a domination system; seeking dominance for our own interests. The ‘culture war’ we fight is with the armour of God; or in weakness and ‘cruciformity’ (living lives shaped by the ethic of the cross). Or, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, after saying his approach to proclaiming God’s kingdom involves ‘renouncing underhanded’ and worldly ways:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

And…

“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

We do not wage culture wars as the world does either. We do not fight culture wars with the weapons of this world. Paul goes on to describe his approach, again, as involving weakness; his scars and floggings and broken body are an embodiment of his message; the message of the cross; where God won his victory over sin, and death, and Satan, or, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

The real ‘culture war’ is a ‘worship war’ — it’s a battle for the love, loyalty, and eternal security of people — a fight to join God’s kingdom and its mission to win people from the clutches of Satan, and the depths of darkness, into the kingdom of light, the presence of God, and union with Jesus via the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life so that they are raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realms as not just his inheritance, but as God’s heirs.

Christian culture warriors who want you to join a political battle and “fight furiously” using domination system games, or the tools of worldly empire, even if they see the spiritual reality behind the culture wars, are signing you up for a mugs game, and potentially to pay a game that leads straight into the enemy’s camp; not as prisoners of war, or infiltrators, but as people who think they’re on the side of the angels but who are actually participating in a kingdom other than the kingdom of God.

Christian culture warriors who see weakness as failure, and not as God’s strength, or wisdom, are not wise. They are worldly. The cross is the wisdom and power of God; not political campaigns, numbers games, lobbying, aggressive arguments, or hit pieces published on propaganda websites.

Christian culture warriors who want to dominate and go to war with ‘the other’ — be they ‘Christian social justice warriors’ or soldiers on the ‘Christian right’ — or the ‘political left’ or the ‘political right’ — are adopting the weapons of this world and so picking an armour or weapon, that does not come from God, or serve God. This is true even if one grants that the empires built by the left, or the right are demonic, idolatrous, domination systems harnessing a variety of dark spiritual forces. The catch is, when we take up worldly weapons and fight in worldly ways — when we play ‘culture warrior’ rather than ‘peace maker,’ we are actively joining the spiritual battle on the wrong side.

And life when the church — or the ‘city of God’ is at work as God’s ‘faithful presence’ in the world, and shaping ‘cities of man’; on both the right and the left; this is complex and variegated. What isn’t complex is the decision about how Christians should participate in the culture war, or the Spiritual battle we find ourselves in that plays out in our politics.

Because Jesus, not the Caldron Pool, gives us our marching orders. And he doesn’t tell us to fight. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He tells us, ultimately, to take up our cross and follow him.

He does not say ‘blessed are the culture warriors, who dominate the other, for they will bring the kingdom of God.’ He doesn’t even say ‘blessed are those who use the Gospel as a worldly power play and try to build a Christian state.’ He doesn’t say “blessed are you when the government makes it easy for you to be a citizen of two kingdoms, so fight for that right,” or even “evangelise for that purpose.” He doesn’t say the government will use ‘the sword’ to protect us, or what’s good — in fact, he seems to expect the government will use a sword to arrest him, and a cross to crucify him, and we are called to take up our cross and follow (by Jesus), and to “submit” to the same crucifying empire by Paul.

Jesus does say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:9-11), and then he goes to make peace between God, and us — though we were enemies in a culture war — by laying down his life on a cross (a symbol of the Roman domination system).

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” — he didn’t just mean for his disciples to remember this when the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, see Jesus as their enemy in a ‘culture war,’ or when Roman soldiers come to arrest him with swords drawn to crucify him, or later when the same regimes conspire to arrest them and crucify them upside down (Peter), or the same Jewish leaders turn on them, and try to put them to death (like Paul in Acts). He didn’t just mean ‘the church shouldn’t go to war against other religious or culture groups’ with swords to secure ‘holy territory’ like in the Crusades, or Christendom… He meant ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ in our culture war, because this is how the spiritual war is fought and won. He meant that love, and giving up our rights, and blessing in response to persecution were the hallmarks of the Kingdom, and the ‘weapons’ God uses to bring an end to enmity between people and himself as they embody the message of the cross.

When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ he was talking about how we, the people of his kingdom, take part in the Culture WarTM — or rather, how we refuse to… When your enemy declares a culture war on you, “do not resist an evil person,” (Jesus, in Matthew 5:39), or as Paul puts it “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” (Romans 12:17-18). When your ‘enemy’ — some ‘other’ — “slaps you on the right cheek,” or tweets about you, “turn to them the other cheek also,” or if they take want to trap you in some legal situation where you have to insist on your rights to fight some good fight, if they sue you for your shirt, “hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:40). He said ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:43-45). When your enemy declares themselves an enemy; love them, “treat others as you would have them treat you.”

He didn’t say ‘use the court system, or political power, to eradicate anybody who does not hold your opinion, or to make laws that destroy worldly kingdoms in opposition to your own. He didn’t say ‘vote for rulers who promise you a seat at the table and political power’ or ‘ask rulers to do things for you in exchange for votes (or give up your birthright for a bowl of soup). He did say “what good is it to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit your soul” right after he says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-26). Paul does say we demolish those strongholds with the Gospel, and that we should proclaim the Gospel by ‘carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies’ as ambassadors for Christ.

Confession: I am not always virtuous in my online interactions

Yesterday, in my anger, I sinned.

I am spending lots of time angry at the moment. I’m angry at the culture wars; and the way the institutional church — especially the one I am part of — is being co-opted into that war and given a position at the centre of the line on the hard right. I’m angry that this mirrors the way the church got in bed with Trump and we can’t see how that damaged our witness.

I’m angry at our tin ear that is produced by seeing every issue as a battlefront in the culture war that we need to fight with gusto. I’m angry that it’s the people in our communities who are most vulnerable who get caught in the cross fire on these culture wars (the ones who have intersecting interests with the causes championed by the other side of the war).

I’m angry at how little thought goes into the positions we take — whether theological reflection, theological anthropology, or theological ethics. I’m angry that we thought sexual orthodoxy was more important than theological orthodoxy (and even nuance) when it came to the Israel Folau saga; that we couldn’t defend him without making him ‘one of us’. I’m angry at our ethics being utilitarian, where any means are justified by the ends of the culture war.

I’m angry that to speak against the hard right — in a conservative denomination is to be, a bit like the ‘never Trump’ Republican, viewed as some sort of ‘Fifth Column’ trying to undermine the culture war agenda.

I’m angry that people call out my ‘lefty responses’ to influential figures in our denomination — like Mark Powell, or his framing of our Moderator’s email — but won’t ever call out the hard right because they’re fighting the good fight. You know whose criticisms of Trump I valued — not the Democrats; but the Lincoln Projects; not the progressive Christians who’d dismissed the authority of the Bible, but faithful never-Trump thinkers like Karen Swallow Prior, or Alan Noble.

I’m angry that we can’t escape the polarising view of the world provided to us by social media and our current socio-political context — and so, that everything I say about that grid gets interpreted as reinforcing that grid — the same goes for critiquing ‘right/left’ politics as expressions of liberalism; if I’m not ‘for’ one side of the culture war, then I must be against that side. It’s exhausting.

I’m angry too, that in fighting against the culture war, and against the hard right, I inevitably become a player in the culture war and the left keep wanting to make me a champion.

A pox on all your houses.

#teammecutio.

Some people have said that ‘where I’m coming from’ is confusing — or, have demonstrably been confused about where I’m coming from, seeing me as a would be champion of ‘the left’ (almost never of ‘the right’). And that makes me angry too.

So here. Let me confess my beliefs, before I move on to confessing some particular sins from this week.

I am not a theological, or political, progressive — I am sympathetic to causes the progressive side of the culture war has decided to pursue, just as I am to causes conservatives have decided to pursue.

I do not want to be a champion of either the theological or political left, co-opted to fight some culture war against the right. But I am not in an institution with people on the theological left, so I devote my energy and my words to trying to bring reform in the communities and institutions that I have signed up to. I believe the oaths I swore when signing up to minister in the Presbyterian Church. I believe this institution should be broad enough to accommodate Mark Powell and me (and people to my left who stay silent because taking on establishment figures like Mark Powell who spend their time platform building and boundary policing is really costly).

I am theologically conservative in that my beliefs are confessional, and creedal — but I am also committed to the spirit of the Reformation, and the belief that human institutions can build traditions in error and so must constantly ask what it is we are ‘conserving’ and seek to move back to the original teaching and tradition — the Scriptures, and especially, Jesus, the exact representation and image of God. I believe Jesus defies categorisation in modern partisan terms, so his church should too.

This is not to say that I do not like people on the political or theological left, or people on the political or theological right. I believe in loving our neighbours, and our enemies.

I am pro-life, #alllifematters.

I am pro-non-government mediating institutions.

I am pro people being able to form communities that pursue shared beliefs about ‘the good.’

I am pro-religious freedom. I believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe we should revise church traditions in response to worldly progressive politics.

I do believe we should revise church traditions where they are not aligned with the word of God, and, especially the way the word of God — the whole counsel of God — is about Jesus.

I do believe that the Bible calls us to love people, and invite them to submit to Jesus, and That people cannot live as though Jesus is Lord, or even as those in the ‘image and likeness’ of God if they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worship created things instead of the creator.

I believe that the Bible calls us to love the marginalised and the oppressed.

I believe God opposes the proud, and the oppressor, and gives grace to the humble; and liberation to the oppressed. I believe that political and physical oppression are visible symptoms of spiritual oppression; and that Jesus didn’t just come to deal with the ‘spiritual’ reality of sin and our status before God, but also with the way sin impacts individual lives, and systems, and nations.

I believe the Bible pictures sin as both personal and systemic, and that we should recognise both. I believe ‘the right’ reduces sin to the personal, or individual, and that ‘the left’ reduces sin to the systemic, especially systems that oppress.

So, for example, I believe that racism is evil, and that it is not just about individual attitudes, but systems set up when individual attitudes were explicitly racist, and where those systems have been perpetuated in ways that advantage ‘the proud’ and the wealthy, and disadvantage the outsider.

I don’t believe people should be cancelled. I believe that speech should be costly — but the cost of speech is ‘ethics’ (ethos); living up to your words with integrity and sacrifice. I don’t believe people holding different opinions, and holding those in communities-of-difference should be inherently harmful. I believe cancellation is typically ‘religiously’ motivated, and that everybody worships — either the true God, or an idol fashioning God into an image of our making.

I believe there’s a spiritual dimension to our reality where political systems reflect the nature of shared ‘national’ gods — and these might actually be real spiritual beings, not just avatars of human desires, and that ‘human empires’ like Babylon, or Rome, are actually expressions of cosmic rebellion against God, and that religious people through history (think Israel) often get swept up into false kingdoms while believing they are worshipping God.

I don’t believe state power should be used to do much more than uphold a civic space in which people and communities can pursue truth, goodness, and relationship, but I believe state power will almost always serve a ‘god’ or collection of gods, and that politics is religious. I believe our politics should be built on the Gospel, and that we should be more concerned about the pastoral than the political, and, because the kingdom of God is not yet universalised, we should uphold pluralism and the religious freedom of others to pursue life on their terms, as we would have them treat us.

I believe our sexed bodies are realities given to us by God to be stewarded. I believe that the fall effects our biology (including that our bodies die). I believe this means Intersex people are real, and gender dysphoria is real, and that it’s possible that if there’s an intersex body there is an intersex brain. I believe that gender is performed, and constructed. And that most ‘progressive’ thinking denies physical realities — and so is gnostic — while most ‘conservative’ thinking denies social dynamics (like construction and performance) and so is materialist. I believe that it’s possible that people who don’t believe our bodies are given to us by God are ‘acting in good faith’ according to their own religious and political convictions when making laws to protect such individuals, or affirm their vision of the good.

I believe sex — and our bodies — and our relationships to other people (families, spouses, children, and especially the church) to be as central to our personhood (or identity) as our ‘personal desires’ and that our ‘performance’ of our gender should reflect those realities not just our desires. I believe that ‘individualism’ as it applies to the modern, post-Christendom west, is a Christian heresy. I believe that marriage isn’t just a ‘natural order’ biological thing about making babies through straight sex; but a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his church. I believe we are called, particularly as Christians, to be people of good character (who thus make decisions from our hearts) — not to do what gets results.

I believe greed, power, and empire are actually more pressing idols shaping the western world than sexual liberty — and that the church turns a blind eye to those (and is swept up in them), while demonising idolatry in the areas of sex, sexuality, and gender to our detriment. I believe often sex and sexuality are actually functions of greedy power games, including ‘self-liberty,’ and we spend more time on symptoms than on the heart of the problem.

There are many other things I believe. But this is a start.

I am angry at how easy it is for positions like this to be forced into a ‘right/left’ grid so that we might dismiss some other.

I am angry that these beliefs lead to some people calling me ‘a wolf’ and ‘everything that is wrong with the church’ and ‘woke’ and ‘a pharisee’. But I’m not really that concerned about how people think about me. I’m angry that the culture war has a crossfire that catches faithful, orthodox, nuanced pastors I admire from the left, and individuals living vulnerably in church communities, while making the church seem unwelcome to anyone to the left of Scott Morrison, from the right. I have thick skin, and bankable skills. I’m not marginalised, or a victim, or oppressed. I am not claiming victim status here. I just don’t want to be a fighter in your stupid wars, and I don’t want our institution to be a significant culture war player held up as an example by the leaders and media platforms of the hard right.

I’m angry at how our ‘tin ear’ could mean that on a day in which international apologist Ravi Zacharias — championed by political and theological conservatives (like Mike Pence and Martyn Iles) was exposed as a serial predator and rapist, and megachurch pastor Carl Lentz was exposed as a narcississtic predator, somehow those urging peace, or nuance, in a culture war are called ‘the biggest danger to the church‘… And let’s face it — Mark might publicly deny that this is about me, but everyone – including Mark — knows that he was writing this about me. But if it’s not — the great sins that article points out — nuance, a desire to be pastorally sensitive, a desire to enforce one’s ecclesiological structures, and a desire to be theologically accurate in our public engagements — are all apparently dangers to the church because they undermine our culture war efforts.

So, I’m angry. And there isn’t much virtue in anger — and, there’s a warning about this in the Bible that doesn’t say anger is inherently wrong.

But it does say: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

And I am guilty of sinning in my anger in the last few days; in ways that undermine all the stuff that makes me angry.

It is clear that to be angry at the culture war — and to try to take no side — can end up just making you some sort of champion for a ‘third way’ of culture warring, or a mercenary who gets pulled from one side to another. And I have no interest in that.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And so. Here are my confessions.

I find it harder to love my brothers and sisters on ‘the right’ — who should be ‘my friends’ — given that I am part of a confessional, theologically conservative, denomination — than I do to love those on ‘the left’ in the culture war. I find the commitment to justice for the marginalised more compelling than commitments to our own institutional power and Christian morality being extended beyond the church. I speak in harsher terms about their positions — especially those within my institution — than I do about those I believe to be in error on the other side. I do a better job of listening to and engaging charitably with the progressive theological and political positions that I agree with than with the conservative ones — in part because I’d like to present conservative positions without ‘culture war’ engagement, and to cut through the messaging that sees something like religious freedom as a culture war battlefront is difficult without differentiation. I believe there are times where this difficulty produces ungodly and immoderate interactions with others (I had several comments on a forum moderated yesterday because I consistently, and deliberately, misspelled the name Caldron Pool). I can do better at this, and am thankful for friends who call me out.

I particularly have difficulty finding a loving way to engage with those pushing a hard culture war agenda, and adopting the tactics of the Christian Right in the U.S. In my humble assessment these are the greater danger to those of us who are theologically conservative than to become theologically progressive.

I have trouble because I see things in fairly integrated ways, with not disentangling that integration. So. On the day Ravi was exposed in the way he was, as, I think, an indictment not just of Ravi, but of the sort of celebrity power-game culture that Christians have bought into and justified via ‘utilitarian’ arguments (eg, the idea Ravi didn’t need scrutiny because of how fruitful he was for the kingdom), I sinned by commenting on a glowing endorsement of Ravi by an Australian culture warrior made on the day of his death — when the accusations against him were public and well known, but dismissed as part of a culture war agenda against this giant of the faith.

This was cheap and unbecoming. There are more constructive ways to make that point.

I have been so swept up in my anger that I have lost a sense of what is righteous, and taken shortcuts around pursuing what is true. So today, I shared and condemned a tweet that I thought was from an American culture warrior that was actually from a parody account. I took a ‘culture war’ side; not because I think the ‘left’ had things right, but because I believe the hard right to be diabolically in error and problematic allies for theological conservatives. I was quick to speak, and quick to anger. I was deceived.

I could do with meditating more on this passage, that I do believe should guide our interactions on social media.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
— James 1:16-21

So. I’m working on my anger. Working on my peacemaking. Working on being constructive in my contribution to discussions about the intersection between Christianity and politics. Working on my contrarian streak that has me acerbically and cynically pushing back on those with whom I have genuine disagreements. This doesn’t mean that everything I’ve posted, said, or done is worthy of the criticism I’ve received, but that criticism does reflect an area of my life and practice that is worth repenting of, and there are areas that I, like any of us, can benefit from the calm correction of brothers and sisters. It’s that sort of calm criticism — rather than dog whistled, culture war driven, labelling of one another as ‘wolves’ that is likely to produce change; and those friends are the voices worth listening to.

I’m working on this stuff — but I won’t always get it right; and nor do I believe that working on this stuff can be done by staying silent on the damage the culture war is doing to our witness to the goodness of the kingdom of Jesus for all people.

I don’t think talking about virtue ethics requires perfection of virtues — but it does require a commitment to becoming more virtuous over time. And I hope to do that.

On Presbyterians preaching ‘the whole counsel of God’ while burning dollar bills

In 1994 the performance art group the K Foundation (aka musicians KLF) burned 1 million quid. They stacked up a bunch of banknotes and set fire to their hard earned dollars — capital they’d built up through years of craftsmanship. Every time I think of the way the church has responded to LGBTIQA+ issues in Australia I picture that burning money. All the social capital we spent years building through establishing schools, hospitals, and charities — advocating for the local and global poor, looking out for those on the margins… set up in flames; a $1 million dollar donation from a prominent Evangelical denomination there, an attempt by a less prominent-but-still-wanting-to-be-significant denomination to exit marriage all together if those others were granted recognition here… smoke and ashes. Gone.

One way I know we haven’t learned is that in the face of the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Therapy Bill passing in Victoria we haven’t been able to recognise that smell of smoke in the air as our own capital burning up. In fact. We’ve doubled down and stoked the fire with whatever small bills we’ve got left.

Now. This isn’t to say the Church shouldn’t be faithful, at cost to itself, in the world. Or that popularity of social capital is the essence of faithful presence in the world (though we are meant to ‘live good lives before the pagans,’ lives that are appealing and notable… but I had hoped we’d burn our social capital speaking against the powerful on behalf of the marginal (or, particularly, not out of our own self interest). Now I know, I know, speaking out for God’s design for sex and marriage and human flourishing is speaking for marginalised people. That’s true.

But when the Government acts because it says we are harming a marginalised people group through our practices, and so many of us are prepared to say ‘yes, those practices did exist in a relatively mainstream way in the past, but they’re unicorns now, but trust us…,’ the additional fuel we have to throw on the fire is this.

We keep insisting on our right to keep harming people.

Publicly.

At least. That’s how it reads. All the nuance in the world about what exactly we’re objecting to isn’t going to cut it so long as people are convinced that our practices and beliefs lead gay young people to suicide. All the world is hearing in our objections to this Bill is that we want to keep hurting people. We might not think we’re saying that, but there’s a big pile of smouldering bank notes sitting behind us just itching for a little more fuel. In the eyes of Joe and Jo Public, The Royal Commission showed our institutions can’t be trusted to have power over vulnerable kids, while the plebiscite showed we aren’t particularly safe for LGBTIQA+ individuals.

If we genuinely, in the interest of our neighbours, want to invite people to know the goodness of submitting one’s whole self — including our sexuality — to loving and worshipping Jesus, and we want that to be persuasive (humanly speaking), we need to rebuild our social capital — perhaps precisely by caring for vulnerable kids and the LGBTIQA+ community (creating some public distance from Andrew Bolt might be wise on that first one). Most churches have outdone themselves in responding to the findings of the Royal Commission — and there’s a vast gap between the credibility of an entire Royal Commission and one Victorian Study interviewing traumatised survivors of church practices — but maybe, just maybe, we could take those survivor’s accounts seriously and respond pastorally. Not just to rebuild our social capital as some appeasement exercise, but because it’s the right thing to do…

The other thing we might do, to take up the task of rebuilding our social capital, is heed the call of the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s Moderator General Peter Barnes to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ in Victoria, and perhaps around the country. Rev Barnes responded to the legislation passing in Victoria by urging Presbyterian ministers around the country to: “preach all that He has revealed to us, whether law or gospel, and to do so in a spirit of love and truth.” Barnes has been praised for his courageous leadership. What the K-Foundation did was courageous too. Burning all that money. Courage isn’t necessarily wisdom.

Now. Rev Barnes was particularly encouraging ministers to clearly proclaim the Bible’s prohibition on same sex sexual intercourse, calling sin sin, that was both the spirit of the email he sent out and the spirit of the glowing feature article written by another Presbyterian Minister over at cess pit Caldron Pool, that site took a break from calling Joe Biden a Communist, to run an article headlined “Presbyterian Church of Australia Set to Defy Gay Conversion Bill”... which is just another way of saying “Presbyterian Church of Australia wants to harm Gay people.” Because the thing is, despite the scare campaign about an (overreaching) Bill, the legislation only kicks in when Christian practices are harmful. Now, harm is a nebulous and utterly subjective concept, to be sure. But. The plain reading of a headline urging defiance of a Bill that prohibits harm, is that this denomination wants to harm people. Another way of framing the article could well have been “Presbyterian Church of Australia set to set fire to $1 million” — only, we probably don’t have the money.

But Rev Barnes is right. We Presbyterians should be prepared to call sin sin. Even if it makes us unpopular. We should preach the whole counsel of God — including the Bible’s design for sexuality and human flourishing — grounded as it is in the relationship not just between man and woman, but Jesus and his bride (the church).

We should preach about greed. About affluence and Aussie comfort. About penalty rates, and the modern banking industry, and negative gearing. We should talk about how the Bible has lots more to say about the idolatry of Greed than the idolatry of sex, and how comfortable the average Aussie is with the notion that greed is good, and economic prosperity should drive our ethical decision making. Greed is sin.

We should preach about systemic racism. About how all people are made to bear the image of God, and how sin gets entrenched in structures to improve the lot of the proud and haughty — nations and systems that rule at the expense of others — and how the Kingdom of God came to reverse these structures because of God’s nature and character, and his love for all humankind. Racism is sin.

We should preach about the environment — about how we were made to be stewards who ruled the world with God, and for his purposes, to bring life and fruitfulness — but how our sin, especially greed, turned our ‘dominion’ with God into ‘domination’ and destruction. Vandalising God’s planet is sin.

We should preach about gender equality and toxic masculinity and the way the same cursed, sinful, relationships that create systems of racial inequality create systems of gender inequality, and create the grounds for things like coercive control and family violence. Sexism is sin. Family violence is sin.

We should preach about how the story of being exiles brought home to God — as gentiles — is a lot like the story of Israel being brought as refugees out of Egypt, and how that story of God’s hospitable welcome to us in Jesus, just like the Exodus for Egypt, should cause us to love and be hospitable to the refugee. Not showing hospitality to vulnerable people — our neighbours — like in the Good Samaritan — that’s sin.

We should preach about the importance of truth in an age of fake news, and hit-piece sites that run polarising attack ads on the repugnant political other. Bearing false witness is sin.

We should preach about Australia’s past; the dispossession of our First Nation’s peoples, and the ongoing systemic disadvantage they now face not just because of the original European settlement, but because of government policy decisions that led to things like massacres, and stolen wages. Murder is sin. Theft is sin. Racism is sin.

We should preach about God’s love for the poor, and the marginalised, and act in ways that led the church for generations before us to invest in building institutions like schools and hospitals not just for our own good, but the good of our neighbours, building credibility for the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus. And we should practice what we preach.

We should preach the whole counsel of God. Both law and Gospel. We should call all these things sin, in a Spirit of love, and truth. And we should offer the same pastoral support to Greedy people, racists, and toxic men.

But we won’t. Or, most of us will do that too — but we don’t get emails from the Moderator General inviting us to do this when laws pass that prop up the destruction of the environment, or support our greed, or continue our track record of racism or the abuse of refugees. We won’t get told to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ when the Close The Gap report gets handed down, or when new statistics about family violence in our country are reported.

We’ll just keep talking about sexual morality — one of the things that was meant to set Christians apart from their neighbours. We’ll keep asking to harm people in Jesus’ name, rather than love them into an encounter with his bride, and body, the church, that makes his love tangible and oh, so worth it.

We’ll just keep adding fuel to the fire.

Maybe we could try not treating LGBTIQA+ people and their allies like the enemy (or, doing what Jesus said to do to our enemies)

Victoria passed its Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill yesterday and the online reaction is predictably polarising.

I’ve written about why I think this was a bad Bill, but also why Christian opposition to the Bill was misguided and doomed to fail previously. I don’t have skin in the game on this fight (though Queensland has its own laws), but, my parents are moving to Melbourne in coming weeks to take up a job with a significant Melbourne Presbyterian Church, so I’m not exactly a disinterested observer either.

This morning the usual culture war champions Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton have come out swinging against ‘Dictator Dan,’ Lyle is busy proclaiming this the death of liberal democracy (he’s also doing his best to disparage his home suburb of West End, in Brisbane, every time he opens a video blog), while young Martyn, when he’s not mansplaining vaccines, or defending Craig Kelly and Israel Folau, is also devoting significant attention to the Bill.

It’s been great that everyone who has spoken out against the Bill — including Lyle — have spoken explicitly against Conversion TherapyTM, the particularly coercive attempts to pressure same sex attracted people into orientation change. But almost every statement I’ve read has followed the condemnation of Conversion Therapy with a disclaimer that this is a unicorn, or phantom, or non existent problem, in order to pivot to smashing the Bill’s overreach.

I also appreciate David Bennett’s reaction to the Bill. David is a ‘Side B’ Christian (same sex attracted and committed to celibacy, read my review of his book A War of Loves here — that could well be a banned book now). He says, in a pretty powerful critique, that this is an attempt from the Victorian Government to ‘colonise queer Christian bodies.’

Look. This is complex. Christians are anxious — and despite the consistent disclaimer that we should be ‘not anxious’ even while reacting against this Bill, the reaction itself is a picture of an anxious response that the disclaimer isn’t overcoming. More than being non-anxious — we should be loving to our neighbours (including our political leaders), perhaps especially to those in our community it now seems needed an act of parliament to be protected from us (while we kept asking to keep being able to do things that apparently harmed them).

But here are three suggestions for a way forward for Christians — whether you’re in Victoria, or in a state yet to legislate in this area.

Show the LGBTIQA+ people in church communities you don’t want to eradicate or ‘colonise’ them

I mentioned David Bennett’s contribution to the discussion around this Bill above — of all the Side B Christians I know, he’s the first I’ve seen publicly respond to this Bill; and he, like others I know, has also given significant energy to carving out space for Side B Christians in theologically conservative churches. There’s a variety of possible positions for same sex attracted, or gay, Christians, and the labels Side B, Side A, and Ex-Gay are prominent options (there’s also a ‘Side Y’). Side A are the people who believe committed gay relationships are within God’s design for sex and marriage, Side B are those who don’t look to ‘change’ or ‘suppress’ their orientation, but redirect their lives and love to Jesus (typically they would be ‘celibate gay Christians’ or Christians in mixed orientation marriages), ex-Gay Christians are those who no longer ‘identify’ as same sex attracted, possibly having experienced therapeutic intervention.

In my observation, being a Side B Christian in conservative Christian institutions (and families) is pretty fraught. You get smashed from all sides:

  • from Side A, because you have decided their conclusions are erroneous and sinful, and they fear you are suppressing something that you require for a flourishing life, even in the church,
  • from Side ex, and lots of heterosexual church leaders because you are not fully ‘mortifying’ your sin and ‘changing your identity’ (and there’s plenty of policing about what label you can or can’t use, and what you should and shouldn’t do — both institutionally, and within families),
  • from the world, because you’re not pursuing the expression of your authentic self based on your natural desires, you are suppressing something, and that is perceived as being harmful.

At the same time this Bill was being debated, church denominations like mine were writing documents that made Side B Christians in our community feel more marginalised; this is common around the world as major conservative evangelical denominations — of the kind most at risk from something like Victoria’s Bill — were busy also policing the identity-marking language used by celibate gay Christians — one denomination said such people shouldn’t call themselves  a ‘Same sex attracted Christian,’ or ‘a ‘gay Christian’ but rather ‘a Christian who experiences same sex attraction’ — this sort of thing, then, gets used in family and church contexts to further marginalise these brothers and sisters; often looking (and feeling) a lot like they are being asked to ‘convert’ or ‘suppress’ something about themselves; and often in ways that are damaging and harmful. Every time I write about things like this I end up with more stories from people.

When we say ‘conversion therapy is a unicorn’ we have to be sensitive to the way our ongoing posture, as an institutional church, is causing harm — there are brothers and sisters so committed to Jesus and his bride, the church, that they remain in our communities despite this harm (and all human relationships involve a modicum of harm). But there are many others who have experienced this sort of policing of their person, our own internal identity politicking, who have left the church feeling harmed or traumatised.

I’m not sure that church experiences alone are ever the entire picture of trauma or harm experienced by gay people — suicidality in LGBTIQA+ communities is also disproportionately large in more liberal and supportive countries than Australia — but we have to own that we do not have a good record, or reputation, for loving LGBTIQA+ people in church communities, let alone those outside the church.

The theological posturing behind our identity politics on this feels a lot like assuming a modernist framework, and one built around renaissance-slash-reformation liberalism, and its emphasis on ‘the individual’ and ‘identity’ — and I’m not sure these are coherent theological categories to use to solve complex questions. This cuts both ways, because I’m not sure ‘gay identity’ is a coherent anthropological category in a totalising way — I’m probably more inclined to see descriptors as experiential rather than ‘ontological’ or to pursue a ‘narrative ontology,’ and one that accommodates the givenness of our bodies, and relationships, as genuine realities, over some sort of personal desire based neo-gnostic thing anyway. But we’re way underdone in our theology around personhood and desire — and until we’re not pumping out Margaret Courts and Israel Folaus without clear differentiation between their positions and ‘orthodox Christianity,’ and indeed, so long as we keep saying these sorts of marginal figures are orthodox simply because we agree with them on orthopraxy (or more literally, how people should use their genitals), we won’t get anywhere good (I mean, Folau doesn’t even embrace the Trinity).

The thing is, it’s our Side B Christians — like David Bennett — who are having to do not just the emotional, but the intellectual, labour on these questions; and rather than colonising them and insisting they align their experiences as closely as possible to ours, maybe we should be listening to them… I don’t just say this as a cheap ‘virtue signal’ thing either — the work of writers like Wesley Hill (and others at Spiritual Friendship), Nate Collins and people in the Revoice team, or Ed Shaw and others at Living Out — is way ahead of heterosexual Christian thought leadership on sexuality, the body, and identity — even as people in each of those groups have theological disagreements. These guys are the ‘desert fathers’ of the modern world; experientially disconnected from the mainstream idolatry of sex and individualism, and so in a position to critique the way the church has been swept up in idolatrous systems.

Show your LGBTIQA+ neighbours you understand the pain caused by Christians (and Christendom) as they celebrate this legal change

There are people in the Australian community genuinely rejoicing today and feeling like a victory has been won — not just the cynical culture warriors who’ve used this as a wedge issue to advance a progressive agenda and score social capital points without tackling deep, complex, structural issues (this is pretty low hanging fruit in a culture war). There are those who have pastored Side A Christians whose experiences of conservative churches have been deeply traumatic, those who’ve seen lives lost to suicide where bad Christian practices have been part of the story, those who are not Christian who see this as part of the ongoing march towards justice for their community-of-identity. In our collective grief and anger it would be easy to marginalise or dismiss that joy — rather than learning from it and asking where we should have reformed our behaviour both in the church, and outside it.

The same political actors who drove the Christian contribution to the culture war on Same Sex Marriage have not learned, and, as they double down not only are we continuing to set fire to our social capital (if we had any left after the plebiscite, or royal commission), they continue to perpetuate the reputation that Christians are homophobes who can’t live civilly in community with people who disagree with them. Fighting against this Bill, with whatever nuance we can muster, against the backdrop of rejecting the extension of participation in a civil institution to people who wanted it broadened to include them, and against harming vulnerable minors in our institutional care, looks a whole lot like Christians insisting on our rights to keep harming minors in our care, especially LGBTIQA+ minors. It was a deck way stacked against us, and the more we speak, the worse we look — we can’t say ‘we don’t like conversion therapy’ and ‘but it’s a unicorn’ while saying ‘let us keep doing what we’re doing’ if the perception is that we do bad things to people. We’d be better off investing in rebuilding our social capital — especially with the LGBTIQA+ community.

We should be signing up for ally training in our workplaces, advocating for improvements in mental health and wellbeing for LGBTIQA+ people, gently engaging with the complexity of the umbrella where the Trans political ideology finds itself at odds with LGB experience (and feminism), listening carefully and responding with love and concern both to individuals and, where possible, pushing for legitimate structural/systemic reform for the good of our neighbours. Pastoral theologian Mark Yarhouse, who is widely published on issues around sexuality and gender and writes from his own perspective as someone holding a traditional Christian sexual ethic, but also as someone who has conducted secular research in this field, co-authored a book in 2020 titled Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth. A friend shared this quote from the book on Facebook:

“If theologically conservative Christians were as committed as politically active LGBTQ+ are to developing and upholding policies that protect all people, including vulnerable transgender people, in matters like bathroom access and workplace violence, perhaps our current polarisation could be attentuated, even if we still experience disagreements about human anthropology and the like.”

Perhaps indeed. It’d be nice to give it a try at least — the old ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ or ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ (not ‘as they treat you’) — you know — what Jesus calls his followers to do. Personally, I’d like my neighbours to respect and allow my ability to gather in community with those I belong to, to freely practice my beliefs, and, inasmuch as possible, to be able to have the government recognise and allow me to practice my sexuality in a committed and safe relationship framework (while recognising that the government has a role in stopping me using my freedoms to hurt others).

Perhaps loving relationships across culture war divides, built on reciprocity and genuine seeking the interest of others is the best defence against Christian teaching meeting the legal threshold for action under this Bill. Harm.

Maybe Christians could do this with people who’ve got other experiences/identities shaping their approach to participation in community — like LGBTIQA+ individuals, but perhaps Christians in Victoria could do this, as well, by, you know, joining the Labor Party. Do some branch stacking of our own — and actually turn up to meetings and participate in political life.

Don’t fight the culture war

The absolute hottest of hot takes on this legislation ignores (or minimises) the face value rationale given for its introduction. LGBTIQA+ rights are definitely a hallmark progressive agenda item — partly because of critical theory, and intersectionality, and the left’s commitment to undoing structural inequality and its connection to patriarchy. But this is complicated — it’s the same ‘intersectionality’ that presents pressing issues for this bill; LGB groups and feminists have issues with trans ideology. Something has to give on that front, which means the ideological basis for this legislation as a piece of virtue signalling is weak — but — there’s also the genuine face value reason given, and that reason is possibly sufficient grounds for a progressive government to act in the interest of its polis. LGBTIQA+ individuals are statistically speaking, more vulnerable — and we don’t know all the factors leading to that vulnerability, but some of those factors are environmental/cultural — and some of that comes from Christendom and its moral frame (the sort of frame that saw homosexuality criminalised), and some of that comes from church practices (the type that has parents ostracising gay kids, with the support of their church community). We didn’t — and don’t seem willing — to get our own house in order on this issue. Maybe the Government actually is genuinely acting because of Christian bigotry, genuine harm, and a legitimate research paper into Christian culture and practices being a contributor. Maybe it’s evidence based — with a dash of ideology thrown in — and maybe it’s the ideology that led to overreach (noting that the Queensland government has already banned conversion therapy in clinical/professional settings and didn’t reach quite so far into the hard left’s bag of tricks).

The hottest of hot takes is that this Bill represents a government that is out to get Christians. That it is the thin end of a wedge — and next they’ll send out right-think manuals for churches, and then they’ll come for our sermons. Ultimately we’ll have to chop Romans 1 out of the Bible.

Let’s assume the premise of this hot take for a moment; that the concept of ‘conversion therapy’ is a phantom — or unicorn — that churches are beautiful and harmless communities committed to the flourishing of gay individuals in our families, and in the broader community, perhaps, then, this really is an attempt by the Victorian Government to eradicate us religious people who are beyond the pale… a crushing blow in the culture war… Perhaps this is the next stop on a ‘slippery slope’ or ‘cultural marxism’s long march through our institutions’ we keep being told about (rather than the ongoing pendulum swing towards leveling the legal/cultural playing field that once treated homosexual sex as illegal, and where there’s still work to go for that community in securing the freedoms it believes it needs to live a flourishing life).

Let’s assume the premise that the other side is fighting a culture war, hell-bent on our destruction; if that’s truly the case, we should respond in a heaven-bent way. The same person who said “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:38-45

Our anxious temptation in the hottest of hot takes is to feel the heat and fight fire with fire. To lobby. To write letters (that in the context sound like we’re asking to keep harming people).

We should, as our Lord says, turn the other cheek. If the government is behaving badly, and there are those who would use this law to bring action against Christians we have a guidebook, and a guide: our crucified King. The answer to others playing a culture war against the church is not for us to play the culture war right back; it’s for us to be peacemakers who are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation because we have been reconciled to God and are now part of his kingdom.

I’m often called naive for minimising the threat of the secular left (where, mostly, I just want to point out the similar threat posed by the secular right). I’m often asked, when I say, ‘don’t fight the culture war’ accused of pushing some sort of quietism, or asked whether I think that will work (whether ‘working’ is changing hearts, or minds, or legislation, or just ‘stopping them hitting us’). To be honest, I don’t assess the rightness of political action based on the results it might produce — but rather, on what it cultivates in me (and would cultivate in others). I do think that, over time, virtuous political action presented in a compelling way can bring positive change (think Wilberforce and slavery, or pretty much the historic impact of Christianity on the western world), but I don’t think it’s a short term silver bullet — and — frankly, I don’t think Christians are meant to pick actions that ‘win’ political fights or produce particular results — I think we’re meant to ‘do good,’ and that this ultimately is about following the example of Jesus, who, remember, was crucified by the state. I think the point of ‘martyrdom’ (that is, actions that testify to a bigger truth) is vindication by God, ultimately, because we have been faithful witnesses to his kingdom.

The good news is that if we respond to those who are seeking to do evil to us (again, still assuming there’s a nefarious agenda at play here, not the charitable surface level read of the motivations of the Victorian government, and those who voted for and advocated for this Bill)… if we respond to their evil with love, that exposes their evil for what it is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:20-21: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Why not try this?

It’s the same school of thinking that, when they were coming for our bakers, said ‘if someone wants to sue you for not making them a cake, bake them a wedding cake and give it to them for free’… We could be surprisingly loving in the face of hostility, rather than defensive and reactive. We could do things that rebuild some social capital, rather than setting it on fire as a beacon to our own self-righteousness. We could be a community of people who have a reputation not for harming LGBTIQA+ people, but pursuing their flourishing, even as we disagree on their theological convictions, in the hope that our love for them might be a plausible picture of the better humanity we find in Jesus and his kingdom.

We could be so loving and nurturing LGBTIQA+ people in our communities that not only are they plausible advocates for the goodness of the Gospel — even at personal cost of sex — not only are those individuals clearly still able to flourish (and not be harmed), but we — the church — become a plausible community for our LGBTIQA+ neighbours to enter while exploring the truth-claims of the Gospel. We can’t do that while also publicly doing things that look committed to their harm instead.

This Bill has enormous capacity for overreach — if, as it is tested in real life, and that is demonstrably the case, there will be opportunities for legislation to be changed and challenged. What this Bill aims to do, though, is undo the damage the church has (and does) do to vulnerable people in our community because we can’t get our posture and message right on sexuality and the call of Jesus for all people who join his kingdom.

What’s ‘best for my kids’ is ‘what’s best for the kingdom’

If we had a family with kids join us for every time a family with kids said “we’re looking for the best church for our kids,” we’d have a really vibrant community of kids (and adults) in our church. If families with kids had stayed with us every time they said “we’re looking for a church that’ll cater for our teens,” we’d have a really vibrant youth group.

And yet, while we have some faithful and committed families who are part of our church, we’re stuck in a position that so many churches of our size find themselves in — a bit like the small town where people finish school and leave for university — we don’t attract families because we don’t already have lots of families. Families create an attractional pull for other families. And we do often hear those two lines when people are investigating our church, or, when people are leaving. Which, as a parent of three primary school aged kids, can be discouraging.

I’m also sure we’re not alone in this as a church — there are lots of small to medium suburban or inner urban churches out there who feel like they have to compete with megachurch kids programs in order to attract kids and families (or, at least, make a consumer driven case that plugging your kids into a small church won’t leave them worse off).

While I do feel a certain sort of professional and emotional weight around this, and it’s true that I’d love some of those families who say they’re ‘doing what’s best for the kids’ to ‘do what’s best for the kingdom’ because modelling that sort of decision making is actually what’s best for their kids — I also think there’s a short sightedness and a consumerism underpinning some of this approach to church community that is ultimately not what is best for the kingdom of God, and thus, not what is best for our kids. And I think what is best for the kingdom of God is what is best for our kids. This is why we, as a family, are slugging it out in a church where some other families don’t join, or go elsewhere. It’s not because I have to, it’s because I genuinely think this is best (and, we love and want to keep connected to those in our community who are similarly committed).

This isn’t to say that joining our church is the best thing for the kingdom of God, all things considered it probably won’t be… unless you’re a very specific sort of person (like, you live in Brisbane, you don’t already go to a church where you’re embedded relationally, where the Gospel is taught faithfully, and you could put up with me preaching a fair whack of the time), but it is to say that people joining churches that don’t have a whizz-bang already established kids program is good for the kingdom, and joining those churches might be neutral (or worse — and, it might also be great, these churches, at least in our theological niche, often grow because they do things well). If you are looking for the church that is ‘best for your kids’ — then go with ‘what’s best for the kingdom,’ and this might (probably) also mean staying where you are, if where you are is, in your best estimation, a faithful community committed to Jesus as Lord, and to being part of God’s church.

Also, parenting is hard. All of it. Christian parenting adds a degree of difficulty. And, ultimately, I’m hoping this encourages you — parent — to make decisions under less pressure not more pressure. And I’m not about using guilt as a motivator (even if you feel guilty) — I’m suggesting, actually, that re-ordering our decision making towards the character of God’s kingdom, and limiting our choices (and the pressure that comes with them) and trusting God to work through his designs and systems is liberating, and good, and it takes the pressure off for us to ‘get things right’ and appropriately places the responsibility for the life of our children in God’s hands as we show them what it looks like to live for his kingdom, where he rules, not our own kingdom where we rule through choice.

So here’s three reasons to think differently about choosing a church family to join as a family, and three things to consider as ‘criteria’ for doing ‘what’s best for the kingdom.’

Three reasons to think differently about ‘what’s best for my kids’

We live in a world that idolises children, and champions ‘right consumer choices’ as the way to sacrifice to that idol — participating in this world, ultimately, sacrifices your kids

We’re used to making consumer decisions about our kids when it comes to things like schooling. Parents instinctively want what’s best for their kids — and no parent wants their kid to be ‘worse off’ than they were — so our instincts lead us, often, to sacrificing our own flourishing in order to elevate theirs. That feels noble, but, I suspect, for a bunch of reasons it’s misguided (so, for example, the best thing you can give your kids is your presence as a healthy and flourishing person who isn’t absent because you’re working to pay for their education).

One of the features of modern western life is that we’ve lost a sense of ‘meaning making’ coming from something supernatural and beyond us, so we assess the parenting challenge in physical ‘here and now’ terms. We’re also not, culturally, great at long term thinking or delayed gratification. And we’re obsessed with technique and technology. Because part of the ‘meaning making’ enterprise is about figuring out what is ultimate, our culture has replaced God (or supernatural things) with natural things that we think are really valuable. Often this means we’ve turned very good things like marriage and family, and specifically our kids, into the ultimate source of meaning and significance in our lives. This is a form of idolatry. We Christians are often ‘syncretists’ — we try to have our supernatural God, but also have little altars to a variety of other gods from our culture (money, sex, marriage, children), we also often bring in the liturgies, or religious practices, of our neighbours with those altars — so Christianity has become just another ‘consumer option’ for us where we can express our authentic individuality and identity by making personal choices (including the choice about what church to belong to — this really is a very new thing in the history of the church, that is both a product of various schisms in church life, mostly after the Reformation (creating lots of choices), and the invention of the car (and later, the internet), so that we don’t have to ‘stay local’ but can find a community that best reflects ‘me’ and ‘what I think already’ and can give me ‘what I want in a church.’

To participate in idolatry — rather than the kingdom — requires sacrifice (the sort you make to deliver your kids ‘their best life,’ whether educationally or in terms of what church you choose. But making church another consumer choice in the quest to give your kids their best life, if it’s part of an idolatry you’ve caught from the world, will ultimately sacrifice your kids as you teach them that the good life is found in consumer choice, and in sacrificing for your kids — rather than in serving in God’s cross-shaped kingdom.

The choice about what church to attend that is ‘best for my kids’ is an expression of lots of what is wrong with the modern world, one way to do what’s best for your kids is not to choose a church based on ‘what’s best for you’ but a church where you can best serve and contribute to the life of the kingdom of God as a family, as you become part of a community. It’s to minimise choice, or taking, and maximise service or giving. In that decision (which is also a choice, though a choice to limit your unfettered individual freedom) you are also modelling something to your kids.

The program driven ‘attractional’ kids ministry feeds that idol, and forms consumers

In the mid 20th century a bloke, Donald McGavran, returned from the mission field in India to his home country, America. He realised the America he left was no more, and that America was now a mission field to be reached by missionaries. Nothing wrong with that. McGavran’s solution was to look to the surrounding culture for tools and techniques that could be used to reach people effectively. He’s the father of the ‘church growth movement’ and the adaptation of corporate practices (and metrics) like marketing and creating programs that ‘attract’ different demographics. The catch with this model is that the forms we use actually form us; the medium is the message. So when we make kids church, or Sunday School, programs that either imitate the school classroom or The Wiggles, or some form of kids entertainment product in order to attract kids (and families) we actually produce a certain type of thinking and action, and thus form our kids into certain types of people. There are as many problems with embracing the form (and pedagogy) of the modern school room as there are with embracing the form of an entertainment program. But if you’re choosing a church because of the program it offers your kids, rather than because of the community you and your children are joining, then I think you’re not actually doing what is best for your kids, or the kingdom, but you are perpetuating a broken system that breaks people.

This isn’t to say churches shouldn’t have kids programs, or be trying to teach content to children — of course they should — but we should be careful in our choices about those programs not to be investing in unhealthy models of church. The catch for many churches is that there’s a ‘keeping up with St. Joneses’ effect that happens here, where, in order to survive (and to be seen as thriving) a church feels like it needs to invest heavily (in energy, time, and money) to build a program people will come to; and they do — because we do.

A ‘big program’ with lots of peers isn’t what produces ‘resilient disciples’

The other trap we fall into is thinking that ‘what’s best for my kids’ is having lots of peers around them (and I’m including me in this, I often despair that there aren’t more kids the age of my kids in our church family). I value my Christian peers in childhood. Having kids my age who were my friends, who I loved, was a big part of the ‘plausibility structure’ for the Gospel for me, at least inasmuch as I can accurately describe my thinking. But having parents who taught and modelled the Gospel was even more important (thanks mum and dad). And, the research suggests (and this research exists, and I’ve written about how our church is grappling with it here) that peers aren’t the best predictor for kids who become ‘resilient disciples’ as adults — and neither are programs — the best predictor is actually relationships and a commitment to formative Spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, serving, and participating in church community. The best thing you can do for your kids is actually connect them to a genuine community of Christians where they are included, where they ‘walk the walk, and talk the talk’ beside others — not just other kids — but adults who are actively involved in their wider (church) family life.

Three things to look for in a church

Adults/mentors who aren’t you (parent) who will invest in and model the Gospel and wisdom to your kids for the long term

We live in a world of instant gratification, where people cut and run from things that are hard, or to choose things that look shinier. We live in a constant state of ‘present shock‘ — that’s the title of a book that describes our present moment as one where “rather than focusing on building a better future, society is primarily concerned with building a worthwhile present.” This thinking — rather than long term thinking — is part of the hunt for silver bullets around church; both for pastors and leaders, and for attendees. It’s a toxic and vicious cycle; and, in the face of this vice, we should rediscover virtue, and the long, hard, slog of character building being what’s at the centre of discipleship. The great commission to ‘make disciples’ is not a command to fire silver bullets to facilitate the instant of conversion — it’s a call to a long hard slog of life in Christian community where we teach one another the truths of the faith, and call one another to follow the example of Jesus. And this is also true for parenting, and discipling children.

Aristotle, one of the founding fathers of ‘virtue ethics’ said things (in his Nicomachean Ethics) like “I say that habit’s but a long practice, friend, And this becomes men’s nature in the end,” or Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethics) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit),” and It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” He also said we need a community of neighbours whose virtuous actions we can observe and contemplate, and a community who will prompt us towards continuous action shaped by a commitment to the good and virtuous, or that “A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good.” There’s something Proverbial about all this — it sounds a lot like ‘train a child in the way they should go, and when they are older they will not depart.’ Character is destiny (as a different Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said).

Aristotle was big on formation of virtue in community — but so is the New Testament. And the best people to train our kids in Christian virtues aren’t peers; and it might not just be parents (though that’s part of parenting), it’s people who are more mature modelling the maturity caught up in the example or way of life of Jesus. The best thing you can give your kids is not a church with a good set of programs, and peers — it’s your example of deep, long term, commitment to Jesus and to his bride, the church. The next best thing is a church community you’re connected to where that example is lived out not in abstraction, but in a way that is connected with your kids and their lives, and that is presented as a good, wise, and compelling.

The book Faith For Exiles, that I dig into in the link where I outline how we’re tackling kids ministry, suggests it’s actually these relationships, in a Gospel soaked community, that produces resilient disciples; and it’s the production of resilient disciples that is what is best for the kingdom (and your kids).

Teaching and communal life shaped by the Gospel that is compelling and engaged in calling out, and deconstructing, alternative stories about ‘the good life’ and counterfeit gods

That series of Aristotle quotes had a point and a payoff beyond that last one — Aristotle made a useful distinction between ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ virtue — think ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ — or ‘right information’ and ‘right action’ — and both are important, and they integrate. For Christians this looks like ‘doctrine’ and ‘life’ being aligned — which is what Paul tells Timothy maturity in the church looks like, and how he’s to be an exemplary leader in the church.

The best thing you can do for your kids is plug them in to a church community that teaches the truths of the Gospel (doctrine) in compelling ways (including ways that connect with how we work as people who process information best as stories, not just factoids, and who have bodies, and emotions, who learn from experience, in relationships, and environments shaped to reinforce beliefs and actions), and a community where this doctrine is put into practice in a compelling and inviting way that (y)our kids want to imitate. If a church isn’t teaching your kids the Gospel, but is just giving moral lessons based on characters in the Old Testament, then it is not best for them, no matter how flash the program is, or how many peers are helping them with that morality (or wisdom). Kids need to be formed by the story of Jesus, not by the law presented by a faux-Blue Wiggle, or a talking carrot. But they also need to be hearing why other religious stories — including morality tales, but also including the ‘counterfeit gospels’ they’re hearing about individual choice and freedom in the schoolyard, or on YouTube — are not good news.

Part of this is a thing Faith For Exiles suggested was important — helping kids develop their cultural engagement muscle in the face of false narratives about life, and false gods. It’s tricky to do that if, in our choices about church community, we’re buying into the kinds of idolatry outlined above. Our forms, or medium, end up undermining our message. The best medium is lives — a community of lives — plausibly living out a better story.

A community that sees kids as part of God’s family and encourages them to actively participate (and serve) as disciples of Jesus

This one is a challenge for our church as much as for any. Kids aren’t just an afterthought. Sunday School (or whatever you call it) isn’t just child minding. Kids are part of the family of God — Paul writes to them in the New Testament with the expectation that the Gospel is shaping their lives (and probably that they’re hearing all the stuff he’s had to say in his letters, not just the bits where he speaks directly to them). When he does, it’s with an expectation that they will act in accordance with the truths of the Gospel (specifically, in Ephesians, for example, it’s an instruction to obey their parents, who, presumably are teaching them the Gospel in word and deed as they ‘submit to one another’).

When Paul says this: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” there’s no reason to think he’s excluding kids from this formative practice — this picture of worship that is then connected to what he says in the next sentence: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

The best way to stop our kids becoming consumers — beyond not being consumers when it comes to the church we choose ‘for their sake’ is to connect to a church that will encourage them in the habit of serving Jesus as part of the body of Christ. Offering themselves as part of the body of Christ, in view of God’s mercy to us, as our ‘spiritual act of worship’. The best thing you can do for your kids is not find a church where they can be catered to with a good product, but lead them in worshipping the king who sacrificed everything for their sake and calls us to take up our cross daily and follow him.

Helping our kids do that is what’s best for them — if the Gospel is true — and what’s best for the kingdom.

On Australia Day

A few years ago I wrote about the complexity of multiple Australian stories converging on Australia Day, and how I was finding January 26 increasingly difficult to navigate as a Christian. I’ve kept listening to people like Aunty Jean Phillips — who I mentioned in that linked post — and to others, be they First Nations voices across the political spectrum, white Aussies, or migrants whose citizenship began on the national holiday.

This year I tuned in to Common Grace’s #changetheheart service (you can read a post on the Common Grace website about why), which you can still view online, and I’d encourage you to do so. You should probably prioritise that over reading what really amounts to another white guy adding noise to a conversation that needs less white guys adding noise. I’m still working out how to ‘pass the mic’ in these conversations so that I don’t just become a whitesplaining bloke who keeps ‘centering’ himself, while also having a corner of the internet where I write and process my own thoughts (while also realising that even using ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘centering’ is so ‘woke’ that I’ve already triggered an overt negative emotional response from some readers).

The difficulty I feel personally around January 26 hasn’t eased in the intervening years, though I’m not at all convinced by arguments, typically — but not exclusively — from white folk that we should keep the national day as January 26 and morph it into a day of mourning and acknowledgment, as well as celebration.

I’m puzzled as to why this question — the date of a national public holiday — has become such a polarising ‘culture war’ battlefront not between people of different ethnicity, or history, but between people of different political affiliation. That is, why we can’t just all say together ‘yeah, it’d be really good to have a national day that wasn’t inherently offensive to people in our community.’ That so many people want to hold on to January 26 while so many people are distressed by it just seems to me to be a failure to be good neighbours. It’s like the house on the street that wants to play their music loud, without considering the family with the unsettled infants, because, ‘freedom rules’…

I’ve noticed in the hyper-polarised discussion this year (see, for eg, News Ltd going to town on the ABC allowing its employees to refer to January 26 as Australia Day or Invasion Day), that the predictor of how one responds to the national day, and the call to national pride or national mourning that comes with it is not necessarily linked to ethnicity, but rather, a predilection to a certain political pole.

There are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the right who want to celebrate the goodness of Australia as a land of opportunity, where individuals can flourish, and there are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the left who want to see deep systemic change in Australia and believe that dealing with our nation’s history, or at least acknowledging it as a source of ongoing inequality, is the first step towards closing the gap. There are also those who want to do both. Simultaneously. On the same day. One thing I’ve noticed when (typically white) people call for a ‘redemption’ of January 26 through holding the tension of lament and celebration is how few Aboriginal Christians seem publicly supportive of the idea.

I’m not convinced this is possible, or good, for a few reasons, but one of them — in particular — is built on a Biblical principle around freedom and disputable matters, and I’ll unpack this below — other reasons are just how recently January 26 became a national Public holiday, what it is that January 26 commemorates, the ongoing injustices created by that date, and that a day of unity is not a day of unity when not everybody wants to come to the table. So long as the day is treated as a front in a culture war between right and left it can never be what those on the right say they want it to be (a day celebrating the unity and goodness of our nation). To achieve that end, the ‘left’ in the culture war would have to be wiped out. Before I get to the Biblical rationale for, at least Christians, supporting a change to the date, I found this essay fascinating and helpful when it comes to understanding how issues around racial equality play out, broadly speaking, along political lines both in the U.S (the context of the article), and I think also in Australia. I found it helpful in trying to unpack how we might transcend political division and work at peacemaking, especially as Christians. The piece was originally looking at how white people and black people in America approached race differently, but I think it’s actually also about how those on the right, and those on the left, approach race differently (including why people on the left accept Critical Race Theory, and the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an oppressive construct in white-dominated western countries). Michael Emerson, a sociologist, wrote The Persistent Problem back in 2010, the introductory thesis statement says:

“While whites tend to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, people of colour tend to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

The essay drills down into how this plays out in areas like how one defines racism — and again, I think the individual/systemic divide is a right/left divide, not (only or exclusively) a white/black divide.

“Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.”

To call a right leaning person a racist, with this definition operating in our heads, shuts down the conversation because the right leaning person says ‘but I do not have hatred in my heart towards a person of colour, nor am I personally prejudiced such that I discriminate’. Emerson observed that this individual emphasis is particularly held by white Christians. Perhaps this is because of the way individualism is a construct of both western thought (and thus ‘white’ thought), and Christian thought, as I unpacked a little while ago.

“Most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.”

We see this definition at work in, say, the Black Lives Matter protests, Critical Theory, and the response to the Australian Prime Minister’s (racist by this definition) statements about the First Fleet this week — that’s a classic expression of the sort of racism this definition describes, even if ScoMo has no personal animosity towards individual Indigenous people (or Indigenous communities). Interestingly it’s probably also why when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ and we want it to be about individual health care, and opportunities for education, and fixing individual behaviours that might cause less individual flourishing around health and education, it’s possible the system (the government) that is responsible for health and education, and that has a straight line institutional responsibility for the historic dispossession of our First Nations people, is doomed to fail.

Some of the gap that needs closing is a product of our nation’s systems — whether its stolen wages, the stolen generation, or the stolen land. All of these government operated policies created intergenerational disadvantage and when a government tries to create equal opportunities, or even reconciliation, against this historic disadvantage, without acknowledging the systemic ramifications of that historic (and ongoing) sin, it is probably not going to work — and yet, it is also true that better health and education outcomes for individuals are an important path to flourishing.

Disagreeing on racism’s definition means not only the potential for more group conflict, but also reduced potential for overcoming it. Different definitions mean groups and people are working to different ends using different means.

Emerson’s essay unpacks the idea of ‘white privilege’ in a useful and clear summary built on the three pillars of ‘white structural advantage’ where most of society’s institutions (public or private) are controlled by white people who benefit from the status quo of the system set up by and for them (an example here in Australia is, for example, that I come from at least three generations of land owners, such that the inherited wealth and stability I am born into allowed me to easily access education and be schooled in a secure environment that allowed me to thrive and pursue even more education, while also receiving good health care, in those generations my family ‘urbanised’ moving from settler status in regional New South Wales to life in inner city suburbia), ‘white normativity,’ where white people don’t have to navigate life in these systems as outsiders society is set up so ‘the way we do things’ is very close to ‘the way things are’ (so, I don’t have to navigate a difference between my ancestral language, music, and culture and the dominant or popular culture and language, plus, my ‘story’ is the ‘typical’ Aussie success story, totally built on ‘opportunity,’ wisdom, and ‘hard work’ but without state-sanctioned tragedy in the mix), and ‘white transparency’ where I don’t have to think about what is or isn’t an expression of ‘whiteness’ (and, beyond ‘whiteness’ I have very little idea about my cultural heritage, and don’t need to — for example, I was a teenager when I found out our ‘Campbellness’ comes, most directly, from Ireland, rather than Scotland).

Emerson makes a useful distinction between a ‘racist’ society — where these structures are overtly prejudiced against the other, and a racialised society where these structures work to systemically advantage those who neatly fall within them, and disadvantage other groups. And, while this is difficult for those of us who are ‘right-leaning’ — systems and especially institutions are a classic building block of small government conservatism so the sort of colour-blind individualism one might find advocated by commentator Gerard Henderson in his Australia Day piece, where ‘group identity’ is out and ‘individual success’ is to be celebrated across ethnic lines, is tricky to mesh with lived reality where one (an individual) receives their success only by successfully navigating and embedding in such institutions (like a university). It assumes a colour blind status quo that simply does not exist given the history and multiple stories interweaving in our nation. Emerson’s piece is, again, U.S centric, but it describes life in Australia in observably real terms.

A racialised society allocates what society values—income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health, life expectancy—unequally along racial lines. Society (its institutions and its people) create racial categories which change over time, as well as the form of racialisation—such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, de facto segregation and inequality. So while its form changes, what does not change is that race matters considerably for people’s identities, whom they know, where they live, whom they marry, and their life chances.

If education and better health outcomes are essential parts of closing the gap in Australia — and if the gap is a genuinely observable phenomena in a way that meets this definition of a ‘racialised’ society — then some changes will need to be systemic, not just the result of heroic individuals overturning the status quo and its disadvantages (though long may those individuals exist and be celebrated). No person is born into the world as an individual though — we are not the authors of our own story — we are born into families and social groups, and places, that we have no control over but that reflect the advantage, or otherwise of the people who have come before us. Again, it’s a fundamentally conservative thing to acknowledge this truth, the political left, and, typically, non western collectivist cultures just make this a bigger deal than our individual/liberal culture. Emerson says:

“We need to focus our attention on undoing our racialised society, on making our organisations fairer places for people of all racial backgrounds, on making our congregations places that do not reinforce racial division, but which instead bring people of all backgrounds together for the common purpose of glorifying God. We would do well to acknowledge that for all the reasons discussed earlier, whites’ tendency will be to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, whereas people of colour’s tendency will be to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

Again, for some purposes ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are interchangable with political ideologies (right, and left) that emphasise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. Although, it’s also true that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are built on the same western liberalism that makes ‘freedom’ the chief good; they have a common foundation, so there might be a ‘western right’ and ‘western left’ or ‘white right’ and ‘white left’ that operate differently to other political cultures from outside western liberal traditions… Part of ‘de-racialising’ might be ‘de-westernising’ or ‘de-whiting’ our society, so that we think corporately or systemically, not just individually.

One must — I think — particularly as a Christian see identity functioning corporately at least a little. For Christians this happens both for Israel (and the nations) in the Old Testament, and for the church and our union with Christ in the New Testament. Sin and blessing work inter-generationally in the Bible as well, with, for example, blessings and curses for Covenant obedience (land v exile) for Israel, and also judgment on the nations who mistreat Israel (and then, the church, in, say, Revelation).

A multi-purpose Australia Day where lament and celebration are held in tension doesn’t actually address the cause of the tension in Australia — it does not close the gap, nor does it address the ‘racialisation’ of our society, or help us develop the sort of language and common purpose that could allow us to start working towards de-racialisation and improvement in our communities. It may be that a mixed day is better than a nationalistic day of what is essentially conservative (or white) pride, but even if that means conservative (right-leaning) indigenous people, or successful individuals who have navigated the pressures of racialised society, feel their story is being celebrated — it does nothing for those people who by either ethnic experience, or political conviction, feel like something token is being offered. It’s not ‘virtue signalling’ to call for a date change to a more inclusive date if inclusivity is the starting point for a de-racialised society any more than it is ‘virtue signalling’ to call for the date to remain the same (for the white/right leaning Australian), or for a mixed occasion (for the person comfortable with tension). Every option put forward for January 26 is a contribution to a conversation about the virtues we want at the heart of our society — be it celebrating individual triumph in a nation we think has everything sorted (right-leaning nationalism), calling for mature holding of tension (typically a ‘centrist’ position from a position of privilege, that wants a more honest appraisal of history, and a maintaining of parts of the status quo worth celebrating), or a call to change the date to a mark a more inclusive and re-constructive occasion (typically a position from the political left).

And here’s why, as a Christian, I think we should throw our lot in with the Change the Date movement (while also pursuing the harder #changetheheart work) — not as an expression of ‘rightness’ or ‘leftness’ but as a path towards actual unity and deconstruction of our own racialisation, so that we operate as ministers of reconciliation — those who have been brought together in Christ — in an unreconciled nation. Nationalism is often a form of idolatry — this was true where the nation state and a religion were perfectly overlapping realities (say, in Ancient Rome, or in modern monarchies where the king or queen rule as divine regents), but it is also true in a secular world where the nation has become the ‘ultimate’ good in a world that has pushed divine or supernatural realities to the margins. One of the reasons the national holiday is so contested in the modern culture wars is that it is a ‘holy day’ — a chance to celebrate what we think should be held sacred (ANZAC Day is another expression of secular nationalistic religiosity). Marking a national holy-day is potentially idolatrous, that isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t ever join in celebrating the good things about our nation, and to be thankful for God’s providence to us, just that we already have reason to be careful — because we are ‘citizens of heaven’ and worshippers of God, serving our Lord and King, Jesus. The Old Testament is full of nationalistic idolatry — just read the book of Daniel — and we should try to navigate life in the public square much like Daniel did. He was a contributor to Babylon’s success (much like Joseph was to Egypt’s), but he did not worship its king in a display of empire-celebration (nor did Esther or Mordecai in Esther). We should approach a national day of celebration as people who live in our country, but whose citizenship is, ultimately, elsewhere — in a way that creates the potential for differentiation from calls to participate in idolatry. Some people in our midst will feel like the line between ‘idolatry’ and ‘not idolatry’ falls in different places — a bit like in the first century ‘food sacrificed to idols’ debate in the early church.

White nationalism is a particular form of idolatry that Christians, especially in the U.S, but not exclusively, are predisposed towards — perhaps because much of what we take for granted as ‘whiteness’ is a product of Christianity’s influence on the modern west and its nations — including our emphasis on the individual. When we are asked to celebrate Australia, what we might think we are being invited to celebrate is a western nation built on ‘judeo-Christian values’ — and so our conservative impulse is to use this as an opportunity to signal the good fruits of Christianity in our nation. Those outside ‘whiteness’ or ‘conservatism’ — whether those committed to a more collectivist outlook because of politics, or culture, or religious convictions might see ‘idolatry,’ or at least a participation in sin caught up much earlier in the celebration or participation in nationalism — right back to the choice of date and what is being ‘celebrated.’ When they are asked to celebrate Australia Day, with a time of lament attached to beginning, it feels a bit like saying grace before chowing down on food from the idol temple up the road. Those peoples consciences are seared to the extent that they are genuinely hurt when other members of the body — people who share their ultimate citizenship — participate without thinking in idolatry. The unity in the Body of Christ is damaged. The analogy isn’t exact, but I don’t think Paul’s ethical principles outlined in Romans and 1 Corinthians are only about food sold in the meat markets in the first century but about the absolute priority of unity in Christ; particularly, when it came to food laws, unity between two ethnic groups — Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ethic was to create a ‘de-racialised community’ built on the absolute truth of our union with Christ. I say it’s not a perfect analogy because Paul thought eating idol meat in your home was not the same as going to the idol temple and eating it in a liturgical BBQ. He definitely did not think Christians could or should participate in overt idolatry — and it’s possible to make a case that Australia Day, and certain forms of Australia Day celebrations, function overtly as holy-days for an idolatrous post-Christian ‘white nationalist’ society, especially given our nation’s history.

So for me, when some members of the body of Christ — our indigenous brothers and sisters — even if it’s not all of our indigenous brothers and sisters — say that they feel a breaking of fellowship when others participate in something — an area of genuine liberty — but one that they can only understand as participation in idolatry, I think we should listen, and respond in love. At least personally that’s where I’m at. I admit it’s hard for me to be convinced that anybody is deeply and ideologically wedded to January 26 as the traditional date, given its reasonably recent history (it’s only been a national holiday since 1994).

Changing the date won’t do everything in terms of de-racialisation, but not changing the date communicates something that keeps us from sharing the table with one another — whether in the church, or in the nation at large. All the fancy lamb ads in the world won’t overcome that divide. Not changing the date, or joining the call to have it changed, will keep some members of our community (whether church or nation) away from the table, and feeling like we’re at (culture) war with one another, rather than trying to make peace.

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul says:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

And that sounds all well and good. We should each be convinced of our own position — whether from our ethnicity or our politics — and yet, he doesn’t end there… does he. Part of the ethical implications of our own individual union with Jesus — our not living for ourselves alone — is that we are also connected to one another… Part of the reason I’m unpacking my thinking here is that I’m not entirely sure this is just a ‘disputable matter’ or an area of total freedom. I do think there’s some idolatry caught up in Australia Day, and nationalism, that moves from ‘area of freedom’ to ‘area of sin’ — and while I’m not Paul, he tried to tread the line between taking an obvious position on a moral issue, upholding freedom and liberty, and making the absolute moral priority our union with Jesus. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t in good conscience celebrate Australia Day as you see fit on January 26, with or without lament — but simply that because I am aware of the distress this causes some of my brothers and sisters, I can’t. Because to do so would be to no longer act in love — even with lament and tension, nor would it be to act towards de-racialisation as effectively as changing the date (whether that’s a token, or not, it’s going to help build trust in the sorts of institutions that provide education and healthcare, rather than perpetuate distrust).

Here’s how Paul concludes his example on idol meat in Romans 14:15-21… applying our union with Jesus to our union with one another. He says we should ‘make every effort’ to do what leads to peace, and the responsibility lies with the person who is not distressed, but who causes distress through the exercise of their freedoms around a Holy Day.

“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Note: I’m using this image here because for some reason when the link gets shared it’s grabbing a picture of Trump holding a Bible from a ‘related post’…

Arnie and his sword won’t save America; but the real king will be back

There’s a limited amount that an Aussie pastor with a blog can contribute to the religio-political situation in the United States right now, and I’ve been reluctant to say much at all with no real skin in the game; content, as I am, just to needle our own emerging ‘Christian rightTM‘ here in Australia (not to be confused with Christians who are conservative politically).

Some insurrectionists carried ‘Jesus saves’ signs into battle, while others carried racially charged Confederate flags, and — including one woman trampled to death — Confederate themed ‘don’t tread on me’ flags. This was, as David French puts it, a “Christian insurrection”

My own non-expert two cents on the situation in America is that Trump is a symptom, not exclusively a cause, that white Christian nationalism is a heresy (and one that might need something like Critical Theory to unpick, and reveal, the heresy and how deeply embedded it is in institutions), that politics has become ‘ultimate’ for everyone in a world where something that ‘transcends’ material issues is no longer the assumed default (and ultimate even for those who believe in some transcendent reality), that we now live in an image based culture where very few people do the deep reflection required to understand the world, or the other, and where people see political action as ‘image making,’ such that we get this ultimate form of political expression…

There are lots of better thinkers than I expressing these ideas elsewhere — Christopher Hedges on the image based culture thing two years ago, Jemar Tisby on white Christian nationalism v Critical Theory, Karen Swallow Prior on how little substantive integrative thinking happens, this is what James K.A Smith was on about in his book Awaiting The King, exploring how politics becomes an ‘ultimate concern’ in a secular age, what Walter Wink was on about when he wrote about ‘domination systems’ and the ‘myth of redemptive violence,’ and what James Davison Hunter warned about both when coining ‘the culture wars’ and talking about the ‘politicisation of everything.’

There’s been lots of fear-mongering by voices from the Christian Right TM that makes even handed engagements with critical theory and the potential overreaches of the progressive side of politics (or ‘the Left’) difficult to parse out and engage with. Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas have metaphorical, if not literal, blood on their hands — Metaxas is being called out, trolled even, by fellow Christian conservative Rod Dreher on Twitter, but Dreher’s own anti-left rhetoric creates grist for this mill (see this Cardus review of his most recent book). There are plenty of voices out there deconstructing this particular political moment, and the best of these offer some alternative vision or ‘political’ way forward for us in our multi-cultural, multi-faith, secular, pluralist, democracies in the west.

These ways forward are problematic because whether one pushes into monotheism (either a Christian theocracy (Christian nationalism)), pluralism (where I think I’d sit short of Jesus’ return), or a sort of ‘polytheistism’ (wokeness/CRT) all the political solutions offered are actually fundamentally ‘religious’ solutions with their own problems, pluralism, for example, has to grapple with the ‘paradox of tolerance,’ while polytheism necessarily exclude some voices from the public table (those being ‘progressed from’).

Who knew that this ‘image based political culture’ would not just produce a barbarian in the Capitol building wearing horns and wielding a flag on a spear, but an altogether more civilised barbarian wielding a sword, surrounded by flags, calling us to a more noble answer. This morning Governor Arnie released a stunning and stirring video in response to the Christian insurrection, drawing on his Catholic heritage, to call for ‘public servant leadership,’ and soul searching and repentance in his Republican Party.

Arnie went from this…

To this…

Now. His contribution, coming, as it does, from a prominent Republican Governor, reflecting, as it does, on his childhood experience in post-Nazi Austria, is being widely hailed as the sort of circuit breaker that America needs. And it is a beautiful and powerful speech.

“I grew up Catholic, I went to church, went to Catholic school, I learned the Bible and my catechisms. And from those days I remember a phrase that is relevant today: a servant’s heart. It means serving something larger than yourself. What we need right now from our elected representatives is a public servant’s heart. We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power, or their own party. We need public servants who will serve higher ideals, the ideals in which this country was founded, the ideals that other countries look up to.”

Now. Arnie ‘grew up Catholic,’ but what he seems to advocate from here on in is the same old American exceptionalism that creates an American civic religion…

When he whips out the sword it’s a picture of his vision of democracy. Tempered by fire. Swords become stronger through ordeals.

“Our democracy is like the steel of this sword. The more it is tempered, the stronger it becomes. Our democracy has been tempered by wars, injustices, and insurrections. I believe, as shaken as we are about the events of recent days, we will come out stronger because we now understand what can be lost.”

Democracy is just another version of the sword. It’s a power game. Democracy, especially American Democracy, is the ideal Arnie is putting his faith in.

We do need public servants who will serve higher ideals. He’s right.

But what?

We’ve all got to serve something, or somebody, and the thing about the word ‘serve,’ is that Biblically, it’s the same as the word ‘worship’ — and what kingdom we serve, or what kingdom our political leaders serve as ultimate is not just a political question, but a religious one. This is why the New Testament speaks of Christians as ‘citizens of heaven’ and ‘citizens of the kingdom,’ which positions us with a view that this world, and its political kingdoms, are not ultimate. We might exist in them as a faithful presence — ambassadors even. We might follow the examples of Daniel, or Esther, or Erastus in Corinth — but we also follow the example, ultimately, of our king, Jesus, who was put to death by the nation state operating ‘the sword’ when he was around.

But, while it nods back to the religious source of his conception of ‘servant hearted leadership,’ it’s an expression of the same secular age politics that treats politics — or rather, in this case, nationalism, as the ultimate concern that will save America from itself. America can’t save America. America can’t fix Christian nationalism if the problem is worship of America… or a vision of it. America doesn’t need a more correct form of Christian inspired nationalism, or a better nationalism, to fix a problem caused by nationalism; as David French argues in his piece, only the church can save the church — but really, only Jesus can save his bride, the church, from the clutches of the dragon.

It’s Jesus who provides the template for servant hearted leadership — not the church — and it’s ultimately reconnecting not just to his example, but his kingdom, that will save Americans (and us). The problem is that a secular state — including Arnie — keep wanting the fruits of Jesus’ impact on the world, after disconnecting from Jesus.

We still want a sword to save us, just one swung by a more benevolent king (or President, or reality TV star), but what we need is a king who rejected the sword and took up his cross.

And the thing about Jesus…

He’ll be back.

And he’ll bring the ultimate kingdom, and yes, judgment.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:5-8

Deconstruction is easy. It’s easy to tear down and diagnose the problems of the other, perhaps especially the ‘political’ or religious other… It’s easy to pull apart the social factors that get us where we are — providing treatments that take root and transform are more difficult, because there’s no silver bullet solution to these problems.

We can’t just make beautiful videos featuring the ultimate counter-punch to a president who governed almost entirely by ‘image,’ in pursuit of ratings. One former host of The Apprentice taking down a previous host of The Apprentice… that doesn’t address the problems facing us, it’s another symptom of these same problems.

So, when it comes to choosing political voices to listen to — those who’ll enable and activate your participation in the political sphere — pick voices who offer constructive visions of what it looks like to live as citizens and ambassadors of that kingdom. Not those who put our hope in the princes of this world — or in the democracies where we all become princes and princesses, but in the king of heaven and earth.

On new beginnings (kinda)

This Friday everything starts again for our family. I’m not one of those ‘new year, new you’ people mostly. I have no great hopes that 2021 will solve the problems of 2020… things are actually substantially changing for us this year on a bunch of fronts…our youngest starts primary school, so all three kids will be at school with one pick up, and one drop off time, so there’s that, and the reconfiguration of our home life that’ll come with this new era, but January 1 marks the beginning of a new chapter for our church family as well.

For the last seven years I’ve been the campus pastor of a campus in a multisite church (Living Church, formerly (and formally) known as Creek Road Presbyterian Church). For a variety of reasons, from the 1st of January 2021, I’ll be the pastor of a new church plant — our campus is becoming its own church — City South Presbyterian Church.

The process of going independent from our mother church, and the multisite model, has been rewarding and challenging, and there are lots of things that are exciting about this move, but it’s also daunting.

I’ve written stacks about church over the last seven years — and when I go back and read things I wrote 7 years ago, I can see the ongoing development of my thinking, produced both by reading and engaging with a variety of voices, and by my experience, both in a ‘church plant’ (starting a new campus) and a large, well resourced church (as part of the ‘multisite organisation’). There’s lots that me-seven-years-ago thought that me-today does not think about the task of being the church in the world, and yet, quite a few convictions that have deepened.

During 2020, a terrible year to try to do anything but hold life together for church communities, our crew was working through the process of articulating our mission, vision, and values. I’m convinced that processes are as important as outcomes, and this has been a really humbling experience, but also a really rich one. If you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that at a crunch point, towards the end of last year, I wrote a ‘manifesto’ — which, I’d do again, because everyone has to once, but which is also a pretty wanky thing to do. I’m pretty convinced that the best form of ‘leadership’ in church is not ‘top down’ vision casting authoritative shot calling, but consultative and collaborative, and this process of coming up with our shared mission, vision, and values has been a process of seeing other people from our community articulate who we are as a church in their own words. The words ‘new eden’ don’t even appear once in the document, but, at the same time, we’re richer for having worked through the process together and it is a document that embodies the sort of values that I’d love to see our church mature in through the next period of our life together.

We’ve chucked our mission, vision, and values up on our website, but it’s not really a ‘public’ document. It’s not a sales pitch. It’s a document that our elders and leaders will be holding us to as a community (and holding me to as an employee).

This next year won’t be without challenges — we’re still a church that draws people from all points of the compass in greater Brisbane; people in our community live up to 40 minutes apart. We still have a desire to be an ‘urban’ church tackling issues in our city in a way that is grounded in, and communicates, the Gospel, and we still don’t have our ‘own’ home. It feels counter-intuitive to try to grow a community that perpetuates this geographic spread, and yet, everything I read about ‘urban’ churches suggests this dynamic is quite normal.

What we do have is a great relationship with a bunch of (mostly) older (elderly) Christians from the Annerley Church of Christ; through a few strange events we found ourselves meeting in their building from about this time last year, and the disruption of 2020 brought us together (it was easier to be Covid safe compliant with one gathering in the building than two). These mostly older Christians have made our ‘value’ of being a multi-generational church a reality, and have been a really tangible picture of the beauty of people who’ve embedded themselves in a church community together for the long haul (but also of the need to keep looking for renewal and intergenerational connections).

We’re working on a kinda ‘classic Christianity with a real world/contemporary twist’ vibe; we’ll be doing the same ‘opening up a bit of the Bible and figuring out how it lands with Jesus’ caper we’ve been doing for years, with the same desire to understand and connect with the world we live in, but rather than being a sort of self-help hype-based thing (with songs) in a multipurpose space (which is not a dig at anybody in particular, just another end of a spectrum of modern church practices), we’re deliberately ‘churchy’ — dipping into old and established historic practices of the church (especially communion every week, and saying the Creed together, and doing things like contemplation and silence where appropriate). Hopefully within a few weeks from now we’ll be doing this with coffee before church, and lunch at the pub across the road afterwards.

So, if you’re the praying type — we’d love your prayers as we get things up and running. The transition from being part of a well oiled machine to running everything on a budget that feels a bit like it’s running on the fumes of an oily rag feels like a challenge up front. It’s possible there’ll be a shuddering gear change that we all experience in the next few weeks (and look, if you’ve enjoyed my writing over the years and want to help pay some bills, we won’t say no to you expressing your appreciation, especially once we’ve got our bank account sorted out).

Our family would love your prayers for a family or two with girls who might join our kids church (we’ve got quite a few boys, but we won’t say no to other families joining us).

If you haven’t been to church for a while, and 2020 has left you with a nagging sense that there’s something missing in your life — whether that’s community, or God, or a sense of meaning and purpose, come along some time.

If you’ve never been to church and want to know what this God stuff is about, and why someone who appears reasonably sane most of the time (maybe) would do this gig, come check us out.

If you’re someone who is moving to Brisbane and looking for a church, we’d love to have you around for a meal, or I’d love to catch up for a coffee or beverage of your choice.

If your church would like to send you along to partner with us in this next stage of our church life, then I’d love to talk to you too. Hit me up with an email, or find me on social media somewhere.

Top 20 for 2020

End of year lists are a cultural phenomenon that everybody loves, and, in what has been a terrible year on so many fronts, there have been things that have given me joy. And I thought I’d write a list of them. Most of these are recommendations for cultural bits and pieces I’ve loved, but I’m using ‘culture’ in a very diverse sense, a bit like the way Andy Crouch uses it in his book Culture Making, and this list isn’t ranked with any particular chronological value built in. These are just things I’ve liked. They aren’t just things that have been released this year, but things I’ve enjoyed.

1. Movie — Pixar’s Onward

You can read my review of this beautiful movie over at my little review site “Like But Better”. I think this is my favourite Pixar outing to date. It is (re)enchanting.

2. TV Show — Ted Lasso.

I wrote a piece about ‘the new sincerity’ and my desire to stop being so cynical and deconstructive in my approach to life, and along came Ted Lasso. A beautiful example of the new sincerity available on Apple TV. You can read a review of this series at Like But Better too.

3. Magazine — Soul Tread

Soul Tread was a kickstarter project I was thrilled to help launch (I got to host a Zoom launch party). The vision of Rachael Lopez, who is now the editor of a very fine print only magazine. The first edition is beautiful, and something I’ll treasure. Buy a subscription for yourself, or a friend, today.

4. Book — Sam Chan’s How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy)

Sam’s ‘pop level’ book on how to winsomely present the good news of Jesus in a world that doesn’t think it needs to hear it is a great addition to his earlier textbook on the same gear. It edges out Stephen McAlpine’s Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus in a World that Says You Shouldn’t on my list of ‘most useful practical books for an Aussie’ this year. I reviewed both Sam’s book and Stephen’s book this year, so check those out to see why you should read them both.

5. TV — Bluey (season 2)

Parents, especially dads, loving Bluey is such a cliche now. But in a year where a significant chunk of time was spent at home trying to cope with children being constantly present, the new season of Bluey was a godsend. Rug Island was my favourite reminder of the value of presence and play with your kids, and Cafe was a beautiful picture of adult friendship (and the way we grow out of making friends easily).

6. TV — The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

Superhero family meets time travel meets exceptional sound track (and fight scene choreography to music), and cinematography. What’s not to love? I also enjoyed Titans.

7. Article/conspiracy theory — The ‘animals are out to get us’ conspiracy theory planted by an old John Jeremiah Sullivan piece The Violence of the Lambs

I discovered this article from 2011 this year, shared it on Facebook, and now I am bombarded with news stories where animals prove the article’s thesis by attacking people in strange ways. What makes this particularly troubling for me, is that it’s not a new obsession. I wrote a college essay on animal attacks in the Bible. John Jeremiah Sullivan also wrote this incredible piece ‘Upon this Rock’ on the Christian rock music scene.

8. Christian Book — Slow Church

We’re in the process of rethinking/recalibrating our church community as we move to independence. I’d already been thinking about how rest and play should form part of the rhythms of our church, and about how to roll out the insights from, say, Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (or a reluctance to buy in to a ‘small target’ Gospel), and my reflections on the way the church growth movement and its practices creates consumers rather than disciples, and this book, Slow Church, came along using the metaphor of slow food (as opposed to fast food) to ask questions about how we might realign our collective practices as Christians. It’s, I think, at least a ‘must contemplate’ idea, especially in a post-covid world after so many of us have been forced to slow down.

9. Tech — Zoom

Imagine 2020 without Zoom.

Imagine if you’d bought shares in Zoom at the end of 2019.

It’s not perfect, it may have been bad for us — distorting our interactions, and leaving us fatigued, and the cost of importing technology made for the boardroom into church life is one we’ll still have to reckon with for a while, but Zoom made life, church, friendship, and work possible this year.

10. Community institution — Holland Park Kindy

At the end of 2019 I put my hand up to be president of our kindy’s parent committee. Who’d have thought that a global pandemic was about to significantly disrupt our year, and that a parent committee would have to help navigate the operations of a play based kindergarten as it shifted to a largely online program. We’ve loved this kindy, and it has been such a life-giving part of our family, and so very good for our kids. This, in large part, is thanks to the director, Leanne, and her ethos/pedagogy. We’ll miss it.

It’s such a beautiful picture of the importance of community institutions in the fabric of civic life, and we’re really glad to have been involved the way we have. Plus, Leanne just gave me a bobble head statue of me.

11. Sporting Team — Village FC

I’ve played football (soccer) pretty much since under 7s. This is, by far, my favourite team to play with in that time. Some good recruiting during the Covid lockdown made us almost unbeatable. We dropped the semi final, but because we’d finished top of the ladder we had a second chance, and ended up taking out the title, winning the Grand Final 4-0, so we’re Div 2 Queensland Baptist League champions. Glory. But really just a lot of fun having a kick around every week with some great blokes.

12. Video Game — Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

I can take or leave some of the broader Assassin’s Creed mythos. I’ve sporadically dipped in to this franchise over the years, and while there’s a sameness to ‘parkour + bladed combat,’ the rendering of different historical periods has improved over the year. This one was special — not just because of the way the exploration of the Greek and Persian world at the time of Socrates was well realised, including the way the gods or a sort of spiritual reality was woven into the fabric of the life of the characters in a sort of ‘magical realism’ that was immersive, but because the landscape and landmarks were put together with attention to detail. It was fun running and jumping around ancient Corinth, and Athens, and Epidaurus; all cities I visited on a study tour while at Bible college. On the whole it was an experience a bit like roaming New York City as Spiderman in terms of ‘re-enchanting’ real space.

13. Physical artefacts — Colour blindness correction glasses

New glasses for my ‘presbyopia’ have been fantastic in helping me see clearly, and be less tired, but the clip on colour correction glasses have blown my mind. I don’t wear them as often as I could because they’re overwhelming, and I feel a bit like Bono, but, just knowing that world is out there, and being able to dip into it at will, is like having a super power.

14. Video Game — Jackbox Games (and Quiplash)

Playing online party games during lockdown was one of our big survival strategies. Laughter is good for the soul. Jackbox’s series of party games were great fun, and I kinda find myself missing Quiplash now that (at least temporarily) lockdown in Queensland is in the distant past.

15. Article — Christian Storytelling and the Upside Down Shadowlands

K.B Hoyle’s piece on stories and the culture war at Christ and Pop Culture is one of those absolute must read pieces that I’ll keep sending people back to over and over again. Karin writes some exceptional pieces, including this one on How to Train Your Dragon and Edenic longing, and this piece on Tiger King, and what its popularity says about us (and does to us).

16. Book — Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton.

This is a book about ‘secular worship’ in a time where the transcendent nature of reality is flatly denied by most people; the idea that there’s a spiritual or supernatural realm is gone, but we’re still worshippers who replace old religions with new ones. It is the first book I’ve read that made me feel old and out of touch with the youth of today and the pace at which sub cultures are forming around common objects of love or worship, secular options in what Charles Taylor describes as the ‘nova effect’ — I bought this book after reading two incredible articles by the author, Tara Isabella Burton, one on ‘bad traditionalism‘ and one on a ‘post-liberal epistemology‘ that are hard going but worth your time. I’ve also grabbed her novel after reading this great piece about a Christian aesthetic.

17. Podcast — The Eucatastrophe

C.S Lewis said “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one!” I haven’t met the gents who host The Eucatastrophe, but we’ve corresponded enough online for me to think we’d probably either hate each other or be friends in the real world. So many of these Lewis like moments as I listen to these guys dissect pop culture, or talk political theology, and plenty of stretching my thinking too. They’re a gift.

Special mention also to the hosts of my other favourite podcast, With All Due Respect, but I have met both of them in real life.

18. TV — The Righteous Gemstones

In a year where I’ve been doing lots of thinking about church, and consumerism, and the dangers of turning church into a consumer product or an event (and ‘pivoting’ to seeing it as a ‘media product’), The Righteous Gemstones was a beautifully prophetic critique of so much that is wrong with modern evangelicalism, both in the States, and anywhere where technique and co-opted business/entertainment principles are imported into the church like a Trojan Horse.

The Righteous Gemstones comes with all sorts of content warnings (sex, nudity, language, etc), but despite its very black humour take on the problems with modern evangelicalism, and hypocrisy of the sorts of leaders who play the platform-building game with a whitewashed public persona, while the inside is dead and dirty, there’s a nice redemptive thread that runs through the season, and some genuinely great moments. 

19. Bookshop — The Little Lost Bookshop/The Wandering Bookseller

I’m more and more convinced that Amazon is Babylon. Or the modern equivalent of it. That its rotten all the way down, but big and bright and efficient and offering the promise of everything you could possibly want to consume at the click of a button. This piece from William Cavanaugh was helpful. I’m attempting to ‘consciously decouple’ at least some of my consumerism from Amazon, and one way I’m doing that is more intentionally supporting Aussie book seller Karl Grice and his team at The Little Lost Bookshop and The Wandering Bookseller. I was inspired, in part, by an episode of Sam Wan and Sam Chan’s podcast Espresso and Earl Grey, where Sam Wan talks about his work with the book shop as a more human form of Amazon’s recommendation algorithm. 

Working in Karl’s book shop, or one like it in Queensland, is my Monday morning day dream. 

20. Book — American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve read lots of fiction this year. Mostly some deep dives into viking historical fiction, or Robin Hood stories, or different books dropped in to long running series throughout the year (Bernard Cornwell’s Uthred of Bebbanburg/Last Kingdom, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher being two notable pop fiction series from this year). But, in terms of sprawling epics, it was American Gods that stuck with me the longest this year. Gaiman is fun; and this deep dive into a variety of mythologies in a world with a fun anthropology (where humans are worshippers, and our worship gives the gods their power) was rewarding. Made more so by this Alan Jacob’s article on fantasy and the buffered self that explores Charles Taylor’s secularisation thesis, and uses Gaiman’s American Gods as a conversation partner.

Bonus list

Outside that 20 things by other people, here’s self-indulgent addition; my favourite things of my own this year.

  1. This piece on Ethiopian Church forests, tying in with the ‘new eden project’ idea I’ve been chewing on since last year.
  2. The Digital Museum of Preacher Gifs on Tumblr.
  3. This review essay of the Amazon Prime show Upload, that was a reworking of a paper I presented at the 2020 ISCAST conference.
  4. The series of posts I wrote around statue toppling, that became this piece published by CPX.
  5. The posts I wrote around Covid’s disruption of church practices, and our sometimes uncritical embrace of media/technology solutions that act like trojan horses, especially how we fall prey to the technological fallacy as Christians.

What did you love in 2020?

On first converting the church (some thoughts on the Conversion Therapy legislation)

A few people have asked my thoughts about Victoria’s Conversion Therapy bill, including how I could imagine a church operating in Melbourne under the conditions the Bill seems to present to those who are theologically conservative on issues of sexuality and gender expression/identification. Conversion Therapy has already been banned in Queensland, though the Act that was brought through parliament before our recent election is narrower in its scope than the Victorian proposal.

I have concerns about the Victorian legislation (I have bigger concerns about the church), but they’re not exactly the sort of concerns I’ve been reading my blogging brethren in theologically (and politically) conservative circles expressing.

My concerns are slightly more obtuse and to do with how a secular government operating with the default assumptions that religious truths and practices have no substantial legal standing can then turn around and legislate about religious truths and practices.

It seems to me that this is a weird blurring of church and state that elevates belonging to a church community, and participating in its beliefs and practices, to something non-voluntary. I’m happy to grant that the legislation is particularly aimed at protecting vulnerable children whose presence in church institutions is often not voluntary, but part of belonging to a family who attend a church, and can see analogies between the sorts of conversion therapy targeted by this bill, and the behaviours of church institutions that led to the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, but I’m concerned that the bill is not limited simply to protecting children from those who would intervene in the development of their sexual or gender identity, but also seems to prevent adults from voluntarily accessing any services that might fall under the Bill’s definition, whether those services are theologically necessary or not. This, to me, is a curious thing for a government to be pursuing.

I’m also not convinced that any intervention in the psycho-sexual development of a child, or young adult is good or necessary; I’ve heard arguments that for a trans-identifying child that to go through puberty and develop biological features that are not in accordance with their preferred identity is traumatic, but technological intervention to guide development seems to me to be its own ‘conversion therapy’ featuring a vulnerable child, and there certainly seem to be a number of post-intervention individuals wishing they’d acted (or been encouraged to act) more slowly, taking less extreme measures. I recognise, obviously, the privileged position I write from here as someone comfortable in my own skin, whose physical, biological, sex lines up with my gender, who is not neuro-divergent, and who is reasonably secure in my sense of self within the communities I’ve belonged to…

This, also, isn’t to say that children shouldn’t have some human agency, just that most of us as adults recognise that our growth and development and ability to act with wisdom, or even to delay gratification, is something that comes not just with experience but with the maturity of our brains and emotions. Sometimes our job as adults is to say ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ and to help people ground their sense of self in something other than their sexuality, or gender, and to model delaying gratification and bearing up under tension and examine our desires, and our environment, rather than grasping hold of every technological solution (whether chemical or surgical) offered to us with the promise it will ease our discomfort. I suspect there might be a bunch of cultural and environmental changes that might take some of the pressure off young people navigating their development, and some of that might even look like challenging the idea of identity itself, or the hyper-sexualised environment we make our kids grow up in, along side a culture built on the absolute need to know who you are and act authentically, and to do so by exercising one’s agency through immediate consumer choice and performance.

The Victorian Government’s landing page for the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 describes the circumstances that gave rise to the Bill as targeting practices that have caused serious damage and trauma. Then boldly states “it aims to ensure that Victorians are able to live their lives authentically with pride, and makes it clear an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not “broken” and do not need to be “fixed.”

The Bill itself says its intent is:

(a)  to denounce and give statutory recognition to the serious harm caused by change or suppression practices; and

(b)  to affirm that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not broken and in need of fixing; and

(c)  to affirm that no sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency or shortcoming; and

(d)  to affirm that change or suppression practices are deceptive and harmful both to the person subject to the change or suppression practices and to the community as a whole.

Now. This is an interesting exercise in public theology from a secular state. And certainly, within the assumed truth and neutrality of a materialist account of personhood — where we are living our best lives when we authentically and pridefully live in such a way that our true self is performed and recognised — an “individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity” are not broken, and don’t need to be fixed (so long as we’re talking about those sexual orientations within the LGBTIQA+ umbrella, or heterosexuality, built on desire for sexual activity between consenting adults). I’m also not convinced that sexual orientation/desires never change (both because fluidity does seem to be a thing in some people’s stories, and because neuroplasticity is a thing), just as I’m not convinced that orientation change is a good or necessary goal for a Christian.

It’s interesting, then, that the Bill, having defined a ‘conversion or suppression’ practice goes on to allow therapeutic support for those seeking to transition their gender (presumably from alignment with biological sex to gender identity, rather than back to biological sex from gender identity). It’s also, I think, problematic that the Bill targets such practices even, explicitly, with an individual’s consent.

I have concerns about the anthropology underlying this bill, the idea that to put a religious conviction above a sexual or gender orientation is ‘suppressing’ one’s true self is an interesting conviction for a secular government to adopt, and elevates the ‘psyche’ above both bodily and spiritual realities (in fact it essentially denies Spiritual realities while targeting spiritual practices as though they are only psychological or physical/material practices). This means I have concerns about its “theology” — this is a Bill that enters into the realm of theologising, coming to particular conclusions not just about the nature of people (and whether there’s a spiritual dimension to our humanity or ‘identity), but about the world itself — because if the material world isn’t all there is, then living in a way that denies spiritual realities, suppressing those or refusing to be changed by them, is also harmful. The government has taken a theological position here, even if not in those terms.

This Bill is not, at that point, “secular” (religion neutral) legislation that enables the sort of pluralism a multi-cultural, multi-faith civic society requires, but “materialist” (and arguably, it’s not materialist, but gnostic, because of the weight it puts on immaterial psychological realities like ‘identity’ over material realities like our bodies and their constituent physical elements). The government may well be right; the material world might be all that exists. We might live in a closed universe with no God, and no spiritual ‘norms’ that we should be seeking to conform to in pursuit of human flourishing. But it’s a bold step for a government to take to push this agenda with a certain amount of certainty when a plurality of beliefs about reality are held in the community it seeks to hold together in a ‘public’ or in a ‘civil’ society. It’s the sort of step that religious groups are tempted to take when they hold the reigns of power; to push for a theocracy, rather than a secular democracy, even if it is a bold step motivated by a genuine desire to protect members of the community from injury or harm.

That said, I have greater concerns about this legislation than ‘what the government is doing’ — my concerns are about the church and our capacity to speak well into this debate, and to conduct ourselves with members of this vulnerable community in the sorts of relationships this legislation is seeking to limit, and particularly in our ability to minimise harm and trauma for those on the margins of our communities.

We’ve got no social capital on this issue. It’s easy to draw a line between conversion therapy practices, the suicide rates in the LGBT community, and both the Royal Commission and the church’s stance on Same Sex Marriage. Whether or not that line bears up under different types of scrutiny, and whether one can infer causation from coincidence or correlation, it certainly bears up in the experience of those lobbying for the law changes whose experiences have often been shaped through first hand experience both of life in Christian communities, and of caring for other members of the LGBT community whose lives have been impacted by church communities. Some of the bits of the ‘line’ one can draw between these socio-cultural phenomena include toxic church leadership and damaging ‘authority’ disparities in Christian relationships where vulnerable people are coerced either by individuals or a culture; and yet, in seeking to eradicate the toxic forms of Christianity in the mix here, there’s a risk it will also target healthy forms of Christianity with a robust understanding of human sinfulness and the need for transformation into Christlikeness for all people, as all of us have our sinful and broken desires (including sexual desires) reordered in and through our relationship with Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As an aside, it’s become trendy in my neck of Christianity to pile on ‘brokenness’ as some sort of woke/liberal/progressive concession to ‘worldly concerns’ — if there’s one way to point out what’s wrong with that trend, it’s to show that ‘brokenness’ is mentioned by the government, while ‘sinfulness’ isn’t…

The Bill is targeting something broader than just ‘therapy’ in a clinical or professional setting — it’s not just after the horrific practices of electroshock or aversion therapies — but any activity aimed at ‘changing’ or ‘suppressing’ a person’s sexual or gender identity (and again, this is why ‘identity’ is a dangerous concept for us to fully buy into to begin with). It is deliberately broad in its scope, so that the behaviours targeted “include, but are not limited to:

(a)  providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;

(b)  carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism;

(c)  giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.

The Bill also requires, for an action to be taken under the proposed law, that the practice caused injury to the person involve; whether there is the possibility for non-injurious practices like prayer or pastoral support is an open question that the Bill does not seem to resolve.

The thing is, so much of our underlying culture in our communities, whether in behaviours encompassed by this very broad definition or not, is already injurious to LGBTIQA+ individuals seeking to reconcile their faith with their experience of the world.

And here’s where making the distinction between ‘Conversion Therapy TM’ and standard conservative Christian teaching, and the experience of being an excluded minority within Christian communities whose ‘identity’ is targeted for eradication is blurrier than we might think; because, in my observation very few churches are practicing or encouraging anything like ‘Conversion Therapy TM,’ but the experience of Same Sex Attracted Christians in our communities — even those who are ‘Side B’ (committed to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, and so mixed orientation marriage or celibacy) — is one that is often described as ‘traumatic,’ and these brothers and sisters who could and should be the voices we elevate in response to bad, overreaching, legislation are so marginalised within our own communities that it’s possible their sympathies are (rightly) directed to those LGBT people who no longer feel safe or loved by the church (and who, indeed, feel the opposite of safe and loved).

To quote Jordan Peterson, before seeking to change the world — or tackle this legislation — maybe we need to tidy our own room up first.

When we respond to legislation like this saying ‘these practices don’t happen’ — with our own dictionary definition of Conversion Therapy in our pockets to back up our assertion — this is typically expressed by people like me, straighties with institutional power, and no experience navigating life in our institutions as somebody on the margins (particularly those margined because of sexuality or gender divergence). A collection of ‘survivors’ from theologically conservative church communities teamed up with Amnesty International to lobby for this legislation.

There’s a petition on Amnesty’s site that spells out what these survivors are asking for, which is where the broadening of the definition of ‘Conversion Therapy’ — beyond our dictionaries, and the archaic behaviours of electric shock, or aversion therapy — is coming from. Here’s what the petition asks for:

We, the undersigned, call on you to protect people from being harmed by LGBTQA+ conversion practices. Successful conversion practices legislation must:

  • Strongly affirm that LGBTQA+ people are not ‘broken’ or ‘disordered’
  • Ban practices in both formal (medical/psychology/counselling) and informal (including pastoral care and religious) settings, whether paid or unpaid
  • Protect adults, children, and people with impaired agency, including prohibition of the removal of children from a jurisdiction for the purpose of conversion practices
  • Target the false, misleading, and pseudoscientific fraudulent claims that drive conversion practices
  • Focus on practitioners’ intent to facilitate change or suppression of a person’s orientation, gender identity or gender expression on the basis of pseudoscientific claims  

The list is longer than this, but these seem like the key bits of data. Amnesty also produced this comic, that was being shared as separate graphics on Facebook over the weekend.

We can deny ‘conversion therapy’ is happening until the cows come home; but the real experiences not just of those who’ve left our communities, but those who’ve stayed in them but on the margins, are speaking volumes. And there are only a few bits in those graphics that I’d say feel like good and necessary forms of support for LGBTIQA+ people looking to pursue faithful union with Jesus in a theologically conservative setting.

We’re very keen, through our social media platforms (see, for example, Martyn Iles’ post about this graphic) to hold up those same sex attracted Christians whose more fluid orientations or experiences have produced ‘orientation change.’ So, for another example, we’ll champion a popular ex-Lesbian author who writes books and blogs for some major outlets, but we’re not so keen to champion the perspectives of those whose orientations seem stubbornly persistent. We are uncomfortable making space for those who aren’t (and don’t need to) hope for their orientation to be ‘changed’ or ‘suppressed,’ but instead are seeking to ‘re-order’ their loves, and lives, and approach to their bodies, sexuality, and even an understanding of what it means to be a person around the love, or worship, of Jesus (especially if they choose to ‘identify’ as a ‘celibate gay Christian’).

I reckon, if you asked around, plenty of LGBT Christians in conservative Christian communities would resonate with the experiences described in that graphic above; plenty of them are actually supportive of this legislation while maintaining a conservative theological position (including the belief, for example, that it will be the work of the Spirit, in concert with the preaching of the word, not therapeutic intervention, that will convict someone about what faith in Jesus calls them to, and the sort of behaviour that obedience to Jesus requires).

If you ask around you might find that these brothers and sisters feel marginalised and misunderstood by the church, and that when the church and its Cis- male spokespeople so bombastically attack the government for trying to protect hurt and traumatised members of the LGBT community they’re left torn between two sides; the church they love, that keeps hurting them, and their fellow humans whose experiences they can relate to and understand.

This stuff matters.

And it matters when conservative denominations like my own are framing our theological commitments to a traditional sexual ethic, and shaping our public, and pastoral, engagements on issues around sexuality and gender.

My observation is that the more we feel like the outside world is hostile to us on this front, the more our faithful LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters in our churches, who share our theological commitments, are feeling caught in the crossfire of a culture war. That was recently brought home to me as I spoke to some Side B Christian friends, including my brother in law, an ordained minister in our denomination, after our denomination revisited its public expression of our theological convictions in a way that left them feeling excluded, both from the conversation and the expression of our shared convictions. This process left these friends not only less likely to speak up, but further hurt and marginalised by life within the institutional church, and so, more empathetic with those left in our wake.

And the catch is, the harder the world pushes against our sexual ethic for being harmful to LGBTIQA+ people, the more we actually need the experience for those brothers and sisters in the church to be one of safety, and love — of being understood and supported in their transformation, not towards heterosexuality, or even gender-conformity to our particular norms, but towards godliness (which will then reshape their humanity and personhood, as it does ours).

We need positive stories from people who haven’t been ‘supressed,’ but instead have found fulness and flourishing in giving their lives, and sexuality, to Jesus, and who have then found love, and support, and understanding in Christian communities. But at the same time that we need these stories, our ‘soft’ conversion therapy practices and barrier erecting, and marginalisation of these brothers and sisters means they are unlikely to speak up in our defence. This feels like when we poured a bunch of social capital (and actual capital) into stopping our same sex attracted neighbours calling their relationships marriage (an expression of a fundamentally religious conviction), and then when we lost, we turned around and asked for our religious freedom to be protected. We live by the sword, we die by the sword.

We’ve still got a long way to go on this. We’re accidentally eradicating those LGBTIQA+ individuals in our midst, trying to hang on to Jesus and live obediently to what they believe he calls them (and us) to, while fighting to clear our name over trying to eradicate the homosexuality in those who’ve left our communities wounded.

Check out this stunning Twitter thread from Grant Hartley, a Side B Christian, yesterday on the way institutions like ours want to have our theological clarity and public statements cake, often involving debates about how such Christians can and should express themselves to exist in our communities on our terms, while then wanting such Christians to carry the weight of pastoral care for vulnerable LGBTIQA+ youth.

Had we been doing the work of ‘cleaning our own room’ first, we might have voices other than heterosexual cis-gendered males with institutional power speaking on this issue, where heterosexual cis-gendered males with institutional power have been precisely the problem in eradicating our social capital in the first place. We might even not have the problem of people being harmed and traumatised by the church, but rather, committed to the goodness of submitting one’s sexual desires to the desire for eternal oneness with Jesus, as his bride, the church.

Until we do the sort of internal reckoning and reform — experiencing the sort of ‘conversion’ — that is required for us to be properly caring for LGBTIQA+ adults voluntarily participating in our communities, and supportively point them to Jesus, and transformation coming through union with him, through loving him above all other loves, we have almost no credibility when it comes to our claims to be caring well for vulnerable youth in our communities, and governments in this secular age is going to keep trying to intervene on their behalf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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