Dear Facebook. Please un-kill Bill.

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

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

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

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

I don’t like cancel culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it comes to ethical questions we should be working from the ‘ends’ or telos, and from the character life towards those ends requires in us, or, as MacIntyre puts it, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Point: The ‘Politics’ of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

there is no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.

 

3 “Do not keep talking so proudly

or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

and by him deeds are weighed.

 

4 “The bows of the warriors are broken,

but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

6 “The Lord brings death and makes alive;

he brings down to the grave and raises up.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

he humbles and he exalts.

8 He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

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

holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

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

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Point: Mapping the Terrain

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

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

“The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors, whether they welcomed it themselves as Christians, or, like Gibbon, deplored it as humanistic unbelievers, a unique, irreversible event. But we have seen the opposite process. Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. The Pagan and Christian ages alike are ages of what Pausanias would call the δρωμενον the externalised and enacted idea; the sacrifice, the games, the triumph, the ritual drama, the Mass, the tournament, the masque, the pageant, the epithalamium, and with them ritual and symbolic costumes, trabea and laticlave, crown of wild olive, royal crown, coronet, judge’s robes, knight’s spurs, herald’s tabard, coat-armour, priestly vestment, religious habit for every rank, trade, or occasion its visible sign.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting “Generous Pluralism” (unpacking a little of my ‘political theology’) — Part 1

The good folk at GIST, my denomination’s think tank (committee) on politics, society and culture contacted me recently to let me know that they’re working on a paper canvassing (and critiquing) various ‘postures’ towards the world and that my “generous pluralism” was one of the positions they were hoping to engage with. After a lengthy email exchange and a long conversation with a friend on the committee, on GIST’s behalf, seeking to clarify my position, I still have concerns that this paper will not adequately represent my views, in ways that might cause some issues – issues I’d like to cut off at the pass.

I appreciate their reaching out, and the opportunity to (for myself) re-examine “generous pluralism” as an articulation of my own political theology (or posture towards the world), both in the light of their critique and as an expression of my thinking from four years ago. One of the nice things about blogging is that one can observe how one’s own thought iterates, or evolves, or expands over time — another good thing about blogging is that every post has a context, a wider body of work (and an author) that give a particular post meaning — a downside is that sometimes people may only see one particular post, or idea and use that to extrapolate or totalise my position. Nobody is going to read everything I write, and I don’t expect people to, and the piecemeal approach to engaging with various articles in my archives, even those I still totally agree with (like this one), runs the risk of interpreting a word, idea, or phenomenon outside the context (and particularly my authorial intent). I do not think ‘generous pluralism’ is a coherent political posture on its own, nor do I think anybody else is articulating or advocating for it (if it is a ‘thing’ at all rather than an aspect of a bigger thing), and so I’d like to unpack that context explicitly over the next two posts.

I do try to work towards being coherent, and integrative in my thinking and writing — and to chart how things expressed in my archives have developed, or remain, so this has given me an occasion in which to do that. I’m also very open to critique or criticism — and I’d genuinely love to know if these views put me outside the Presbyterian camp — but I would like my actual views (in full) to be being critiqued, not one aspect detached from its foundations.

The more immediate context, for me, than the occasions that led to the production of the posts on ‘generous pluralism’ is also the context of the pulled Eternity News piece about polarisation and the hard right, the ongoing attempt to articulate a political strategy of hospitality and seeking to understand and accommodate the ‘other’ (even the theological other within the church), and various opportunities to talk in a more ‘long form way’ on a couple of podcasts — both CPX’s podcast Life and Faith and Freedom For Faith’s podcast Talking Freely — in such a way that I’ve been able to map out some of the integration of various aspects of my thinking. Because it is likely that the new GIST paper will lead to some people engaging with work of mine from 2017, I thought it might be helpful to unpack some of that framework explicitly (with some reference to other things I’ve written).

This might be a long post, but it’s really, I guess, for those seeking to actually understand, engage with, or critique my position within the context outlined above.

Starting Point: My Theological Frame

Political theology — as a theology — is grounded in some understanding of who God is. My political theology is shaped from convictions about God as Triune — that the God we meet in the Bible, and in Jesus, is a generative life-creating God of infinite and eternal love within the Trinity who poured out light and life and love as an expression of His character; that God is the ‘grounds of being’ (the one in whom we live and breathe and have our being), who created all things with a telos (or ‘end’) — for the persons of the godhead to mutually glorify and love each other, and for that glorious love to overflow into creation, and for glory and love to be given back by creation — both ‘what has been made’ (in a material sense — so, Psalm 19, Romans 1, etc), and specifically the people made in God’s image as rulers and representatives of his divine nature and character — ‘sub-creators’ in the world who join in God’s generative purposes for God’s glory as we worship God.

I believe that the persons of the Trinity operate in perichoretic union and perfect co-operation in creation, the sustaining of all things, and the redemption of the world through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus.

I believe that God is Triune, and that the Son, Jesus is both fully divine, and fully human — that he is the perfect revelation of God (the exact representation of his being) to us, and also the image of the perfect image bearing human; that Jesus and the Father join in pouring out the Spirit as an act of re-creation, anticipating the renewal of all things and the joining of heaven and earth (separated by a ‘vault’ or firmament in the Beginning, but not anymore in the end — but we’ll get to that in the ‘cosmic geography’ below).

I believe that the creator God is a loving and hospitable God who desires relationship and provides a good world as a good gift to people in order to reveal his character; that he is Holy and righteous and perfect and defines what is good — but also that while we are made in the image of God, and have our being in him, our ability to grasp the infinite nature of God is limited by our creatureliness before it is limited by our sin — that God has to accommodate himself to us in order to reveal himself to us. I believe that God — the almighty — is the most high God who rules over the heavens and the earth as the rightful ruler, and who is sovereign (sovereign in such a way that places me in the Reformed stream of theology around questions of soteriology). I believe the things said about God in the Westminster Confession — including “To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them,” and so I believe that God is both creator, sustainer, redeemer, and judge of all — and that our task as ‘image bearers’ is not to stand in each of those roles, but in the role he has appointed for us.

I believe the Bible is the word of God — inspired or ‘breathed’ by him (like we humans are), through human authors at various times in history, but that it is a coherent whole where the ‘law, Psalms, and prophets’ are Israel’s Scriptures (the Old Testament), teaching God’s priestly people how to represent him as a kingdom in a political-theological context but that these are primarily fulfilled in Jesus; Jesus was God’s plan a. The lamb was slain before the creation of the world, and the author of life orchestrated history and events to culminate on that wooden cross in Jerusalem as the climactic moment, and fulcrum, of all of history. I believe that most of us approach the Scriptures as gentiles, not under the law, and that our job as Christian interpreters is to understand the Old Testament as Christian Scriptures, recognising how they were also Jewish Scriptures — so that we can’t flatly turn to a law in Deuteronomy or Leviticus and apply it to the life of the church now. I believe Jesus, as fulfilment of the law, is a more perfect law — and a more perfect picture of what the image of God looks like, and what ‘being Holy as God is Holy’ looks like, and that we are called to imitate him and be transformed into his image. I think some categories or distinctions that we Reformed Christians have used to understand and apply the law are arbitrary and artificial, and that a Christ-centered, or Christo-telic, Biblical Theology is an attempt to read Scripture on the terms supplied for us by the Word made flesh.

Second Point: Theological Anthropology

I believe that humans were created by God with a glorious task of bringing his presence into the world — ruling over it and participating in his generative, fruitful, flourishing, life-creating purposes — tasked with spreading his Temple-like presence (Eden) over the face of the earth as his priestly agents.

I believe that the image of God (imago dei in the Latin, tselem Elohim in Hebrew) is not simply a divine imprint in us that gives us dignity and makes human life (and bodies) sacred — but that to be made as ‘tselem Elohim’ is to be given a particular function in the world; to, as his worshipping beings reflecting his glory as our lives are shaped by his presence with us — and that this function is political in that it is about how we believe the world should be ordered (the spreading of God’s presence/kingdom).

I believe that all humanity was made with this function — but that all humanity joins in the rebellious rejection of that function — following the temptation of Satan, the Serpent — and so, we were cast from his presence (exiled) from the Garden. I believe the story of Genesis is the Bible’s cosmic origin story that tells us the purpose not only of Yahweh’s people Israel, but all people — such that Israel were to view their international neighbours as exiled from God’s presence, cursed, and in need of restoration and blessing that they would participate in bringing as God’s priestly people in the land (a new Eden). But to be exiled is to also be under God’s judgment and given over to the consequences of idolatry as we ‘become what we behold’ — so sin has an affect on our individual humanity and our ability to know God and know his world rightly; but it also has a cultural affect on nations with ‘common idols’ — and these nations and cultures have a reinforcing impact, that, under the judgment of God, further darken our hearts and minds. This is sometimes called the ‘noetic effect of sin’ — which has to be held in tension with the idea of ‘common grace’ and the divine imprint on all people as people created ‘to bear God’s image’ (in God’s image) who are not actively ‘bearing God’s image,’ but are becoming ‘the images and likeness of their gods’ (Psalm 115).

I believe the Genesis story interacts with other Ancient Near Eastern stories about the origins of the world, the nature of the gods, the function of humanity, and what a human ‘tselem Elohim’ looks like — particularly with the stories of the beastly (Satanic) dominion machines ruling the surrounding nation; Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome might have looked like much more successful and dominant ‘blessed’ nations — but the story told by the Bible critiques their views about gods, chaos, disorder, war, dominance, and the idea that only the king ‘represented’ the gods as a tselem Elohim. To be made in the image of God is a political task, with an inbuilt political critique of distorted, beastly, sinful forms of humanity.

Sin has not eradicated the image of God in us, but it has stopped us performing our God given function of glorifying him as his representatives; we are like idol statues (that’s literally what a tselem Elohim is) in exile waiting to be re-vivified so that we might represent God again (this is what happens when idol statues are captured in the ancient world and Genesis 2 actually has significant parallels with a ‘vivification’ or ‘revivification’ ceremony where the life of the gods was manifested in a sculpted statue, in an orchard, so that it might represent those gods.

Sin starts with our hearts — and our decision to ‘worship and serve’ creation instead of the creator; to exchange our task as being ‘made in God’s image’ for ‘worshipping images we made’ — we are worshipping beings and we become what we behold; created to reflect and glorify God we de-create ourselves so that we represent other gods, and, eventually, like captured idol statues that are not reclaimed, sin leads to the fiery furnace; the destruction of false cultic images by the victorious God-king.

Every action comes from our hearts — shaped by false worship — this means that every action we make is shaped by our loves; total depravity is not ‘absolute depravity’ and the latent ‘image of God’ in all of us, and our place in God’s world that testifies to his nature means that even ‘captured images’ still look and act a bit like God; we still live, breathe, create life — we still ‘sub-create,’ bringing order and beauty into the world — and yet that order and beauty is, in varying degrees, corrupted by sin. I believe Paul is talking about this experience — humanity ‘in Adam’ in Romans 7, where he talks about ‘knowing what he ought to do’ but his flesh (image of God), being at war with sin. We are in need of rescue — re-creation — the provision of new hearts and God’s Spirit (the new covenant) — which Paul describes in Romans 8, with the coming of the Spirit to re-create us as God’s children, freeing our minds and bodies from bondage to sin (and idolatry) so that we might be transformed into the image of Jesus and glorified — so that we might be God’s presence in the world again as we serve the king who liberated us, and are transformed into his image through the ‘true and proper worship’ of offering ourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), not being conformed to the idolatrous patterns of this world (Romans 12).

People without the Spirit do not have “the mind of Christ” — they have the breathe of life (psyche) from God, but not the Spirit (pneuma). Paul makes a big deal about this in 1 Corinthians to explain why the cross is understood as the power and wisdom of God by those with the Spirit who call Jesus Lord, but is foolishness to those who are perishing. There is an infinite chasm — both an ontological difference and an epistemological difference between those who are being re-created for eternal life by the Spirit, and a functional and telic difference — in that a re-vivified image of Jesus has a heavenly body and is destined to glorify Jesus forever, while an ‘exiled’ in-Adam image is destined for death and dust and judgment (1 Corinthians 15). We are either united to Jesus, and raised and seated with him in the heavenly realm — liberated from all other ‘elohim’ and their imagery, forgiven and re-created by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and so freed from judgment (and not complicit in his rejection and crucifixion, so judged for rejecting God’s king in the ultimate act of rebellious sacrilege), or united to the ‘ruler of this world’ — Satan — and so facing his future for our actions, and our share in his treasonous campaign.

The Great Commission is a new ‘cultural mandate’ — a call to go out and fill the earth with God’s image bearing presence because, through the resurrection, all authority of heaven and earth has been given to Jesus and captured (exiled) humans, previously ‘bound up’ by the rulers of this world, are now able to be liberated and re-created, restored from exile to their image bearing function by the Spirit; called to be part of the kingdom of the crucified king in the face of beastly (Satanic) empires; equipped to be God’s faithful presence in the world. A presence that is subversive, differentiated, and challenging to the powers and principalities because we’re the new creation breaking in to ‘this world’ as a picture of God’s triumph in the heavenly realm through Jesus (Ephesians 2-3).

Third Point: Cosmic Geography

The earthly political order reflects a ‘cosmic’ geography. While I’m still inclined to see ‘Trinitarian’ significance in the plural in Genesis 1 where God says “let us make man in our image,” and to see that flowing into the creation of male and female, when read beside Psalm 8 there’s a sense that we were, perhaps, to be on earth what the angels are in heaven — God’s representatives. There is a ‘heavenly host’ that includes other beings called either ‘sons of God’ (the Nephilim) or ‘elohim’ (see Psalm 82).

When the nations are scattered across the earth in Babel, Deuteronomy 32 (in a textual variant that makes more sense in the context and is better attested than ‘sons of Israel’ — ‘sons of God’) the nations are given to these other divine beings to be ruled by (because of their idolatry). The origin story for this move — the Babel story — shows the nations scattered by Yahweh after humanity had failed to heed his command to spread across the face of the earth, and instead, committed to building a sort of temple-bridge to the heavens for their own glory — the tower — in a story that also seems to engage with and invert Babylon’s creation myth, which pictures the city of Babylon as a place built by the gods so they could party on earth and enslave people (the Bible’s Babylon — Babel —is built by people who want to party on earth and enslave people while also trying to take over heaven).

These heavenly ‘powers and principalities’ appear at various times in the Biblical narrative, but different nation states in the Old Testament are essentially ‘monotheistic’ or ‘polytheistic’ nations where their political order reflects their cosmic mythology, and when Daniel talks about wars he suggests conflicts on earth reflect conflicts between heavenly princes. Political structures in the world are also, in the Old and New Testaments (right up to the divinisation of Caesar), inherently religious and idolatrous — so when gentile converts come into God’s people, because through the victory of Jesus, God has commanded all people from all nations to repent (Acts 17), the re-creation of a foreign person in the new people of God — the kingdom of Jesus — represents a re-ordering in the heavens because all authority really has been given to Jesus; the age of Babel is over and the scattered, exiled, people are now being invited to repent and come home from their idolatry. There’s a tension to wrestle with between the idea that ‘idols are nothing’ — that statues are bits of creation such that to worship them leaves you breathless, dumb, and lifeless — and that there is a cosmic order being reflected in the beastly (Satanic) empires that are at war with God — a political/theological message hammered home by Revelation’s apocalyptic critique not just of Rome as the Beastly power par excellence, who corrupted and co-opted Israel in Satan’s war with God; but in the way Rome is connected thematically to Babylon, and so we have a critique of all religious systems that set themselves up on power, destructive and idolatrous dominion, and rebellion against God’s order. We can take that critique and hold it up against various political structures (or economic structures) operating in the modern world and see ‘Babylon’ still operating as an empire to be resisted, enslaving people to be re-created and liberated through Yahweh’s victory secured by the son, Jesus Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, so that ‘heaven and earth’ are brought together as we become God’s temples — a sort of ‘bridge’ between the heavens and the earth (and this is how Pentecost is a new Babel). Our job as “Citizens of Heaven” is to bring God’s presence into the world as testimonies to his re-creation plan — the “New Eden” Revelation 21 and 22 depict — where heaven and earth are brought together under the absolute reign of God because all enemies have been eternally vanquished through the victory of the cross.

Interim conclusion (stay tuned for part 2).

Any description of my political posture as ‘generous pluralism’ has to be understood against this backdrop (and, as we’ll see in the next installment, has to be significantly modified by my understanding that the primary political call on God’s people is to be citizens and ambassadors of God’s kingdom; his temple and “Faithful Presence” in the world, and by the first step from these conclusions which is to say that faithfulness looks differentiated from Babylonian ways of ‘imaging God’, and specifically looks cruciform. It looks like being the image of Jesus and the ‘body of Christ’ in the world as we take up his pattern for our humanity equipped and empowered by the Spirit.

Why you should want all politicians to bring their religion (or lack of) to the table

Australia’s Opposition leader Anthony Albanese was interviewed this morning by ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly about revelations that Pentecostal Prime Minister Scott Morrison actually practices what his church preaches — even in the workplace.  This follows Peter Van Onselen’s piece in the Australian this week, an excerpt from his book by the ironically named Hachette Media. Van Onselen, at least, sought to understand how Pentecostal theology might inform some of Morrison’s positions — unlike the real hatchet job performed by Fairfax media which in a sort of dog whistly ‘expose’ styled manner, raised the spectre of a deranged PM worrying about how social media might be a tool of the devil, a piece built on a video of Morrison’s appearance at an ACC conference last week, and outlined as much as it possibly could about Morrison’s religious beliefs (without any particular understanding of the significance of his words and actions).

Here’s the transcript in full of the bit about Morrison’s religion from the Radio National interview.

KELLY: Anthony Albanese, can I ask you about the Prime Minister’s faith? Because it’s again a matter of public discourse. A video is out there, it’s emerged, of his address to the Australian Christian Churches National Conference recently where he spoke of how he is doing God’s work and how he sometimes uses the evangelical practice of laying on of hands while embracing people who have suffered trauma or natural disaster. Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice. Are you comfortable with that?
 
ALBANESE: I think you’ve given my answer in some of your question. For me, faith is a personal matter. I respect people’s own spiritual beliefs. But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.
 
KELLY: And do we have that? I mean, the Prime Minister says he doesn’t consider The Bible to be a “policy handbook”. But he also spoke in this speech, or in recent times, of how his pastor told him to use what God has put in your hands, do what God has put in your heart. I mean, I’m not suggesting that speech had any policy content at all. But does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?
 
ALBANESE: Well, I have no intention of making comments on the Prime Minister’s faith. That is a matter for him. I think that the separation of church and state are important. I think that the idea that God is on any politician’s side is no more respectful than the idea that when someone’s sporting team wins it’s because of divine intervention. I think that, for me, that isn’t appropriate. But I’m not going to comment, and have no intention of commenting, on Scott Morrison’s personal faith.

I think it’s worth, as religious people — but also just as Australians — interrogating some of the claims made in that interview and checking where they might lead us.

First, in Kelly’s question (that Albanese says answers her own question) is the claim “Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice.”

Religion has almost never, in the history of the world, been a ‘private matter’ — that it is viewed as such is a product of a particular (and very contestable) understanding of what it means to be a “secular nation.”

Albo describes himself as “culturally religious” — he doesn’t attend church or have any sort of public faith (except when courting the Christian vote). This idea that religion is private has seeped into the fabric of religious conviction in Australia in ways that are profoundly damaging — especially to Christianity. That description alone makes him only marginally equipped to comment on how religion actually works — like a non-driver giving mechanical advice, or a non-coffee drinker who likes the smell of coffee working as a barista. I would hope that Albo, as a non-church goer, does not feel like he needs to pretend to be anything other — or to act without integrity — as he seeks to serve our nation and lead his party in developing its policy platform.

I’ll try to, briefly, make a case against this understanding of religion — particularly Christianity — but there’s plenty I’ve written in the past that makes the case with more substance. Here’s a bullet point summary.

  1. The Bible says humans are made in the image of God — while this has been vital to the development of western democracy and Australian values (as Scott Morrison said in his speech) in a bunch of really helpful ways (this is pretty established history, for an overview/version of this argument see Tom Holland’s Dominion), it’s actually also (more significantly) a description not just of what humans are but what humans are for — we are made to represent and rule over God’s world as reflections of God’s nature and rule in the world. This is, fundamentally, a public function, and a religious one. Religion, for Christians, was never meant to be private.
  2. The Bible makes this claim as the defining understanding of our humanity for the people who believe and live by the Bible in a contested world — the claim in Genesis is especially powerful for God’s people, Israel, when they’re captured and living in exile in Babylon (and also before exile, while they’re hanging out with people from other countries, and even in Rome). Babylon (like Egypt, Assyria, and Rome) has a national mythology that says the king — the ruler — of a military-dominion machine is the only ‘image of God’, and that people from other nations can be treated however you want; the Bible says people from all nations are ‘exiled’ from the life of God and this function as image bearers and so they should be loved and blessed, rather than destroyed.
  3. The civic life of nations for the vast majority of history, and still in many places around the world, is inherently religious, and this religiosity has always been inherently public. A nation’s shared religious framework is part of guaranteeing the social-political order; this is reinforced in architecture (church buildings, temples, political buildings incorporating religious imagery), cultic statues, national mythology and culture. It is a product of the multi-cultural/pluralist/global west — and to some extent the Protestant Reformation, that religious choice exists within nation states giving rise to the ‘separation of church and state’ and the idea of a secular sphere that is not controlled by the gods. .
  4. The Christian — like any other religious believer — is right to challenge the idea of ‘the secular realm’ if to acknowledge a secular realm is to create a space where God (or for other religious people, the gods) are somehow absent — to make such space is actually to deny the fundamental nature of God (the Christian God), or other gods as understood in other religions. Some part of ‘the secular’ is a recognition of the possibility of ‘no god’ or the contest between representatives of various truth claims about God.

To ask a religious person to operate as though ‘faith is private’ is to, essentially, ask them to operate without integrity — either to behave as though their fundamental beliefs about reality are not true or important, or to behave as though that truth depends on the belief and practice of others. The conditions of secularity arose more with an explosion in the number of possible beliefs within a nation — that needed to be accommodated — than the rise of non-belief; and yet the rise in non-belief is also part of the story (this is, in a nutshell, Charles Taylor’s thesis about secularism in its realist sense in A Secular Age (as opposed to the narrow sense in which it is used in this interview. Tom Holland, in Dominion, says secularism itself is a product of the Christian influence on the west; it is, as others have said “a Christian heresy.”

There are better ways to tackle politics in a pluralist/multi-faith secular context than to argue that people should act with no integrity between belief and practice by bifurcating themselves into public and private personas — especially if the very essence of religion — in this case being a ‘practicing Christian’ not just a western, cultural Christian secularist — is public.

If the Prime Minister is Christian I’d want to know about his religious beliefs in order to form a fully realised picture of the man — to get a sense of what integrity should look like for him, and what fruits his beliefs might produce in the public life of our nation as he serves in public office. This isn’t to say I agree with Morrison’s beliefs or practice, simply that he shouldn’t be punished for having them (much like with Folau and his tweets).

While it can be viewed this way — especially in a post-religious society that still has various aspects of previously public religiousity sprinkled through civic life (like the Lord’s Prayer in parliament), religion isn’t just a hat, a crucifix, or a hijab we pop on for special private occasions or when entering a ‘sacred space’ — it isn’t just a checkbox on the census, or a cultural affiliation, or set of private convictions with no bearing on actual life. It’s a prime motivator for behaviour — and thus — for politics, especially because it shapes one’s convictions about truth and goodness.

For people who believe in a God who is “almighty” (pretty rudimentary, credal, Christian belief), the “grounds of being” (pretty rudimentary monotheism), who for Christians is the one “in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being,” and who proclaim a political message that “Jesus is Lord” (by which we mean ruler of the earth and the heavens — every inch), religion touches every aspect of our life, public and private — and we kinda want people to know and understand that about us, and how that might motivate our actions as we seek to represent the God we believe in and worship.

Albo’s answer included the statement: “But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.” 

And yes. This is important. It’s historically been important in western democracies after the Protestant Reformation because of sectarian favouritism, conflict, and competition. The reason we don’t have an established state religion (though our monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), or a religious test for office, is that all religions are equally valid in our state institutions, as is having no religion at all. It is important that we don’t say only those sanctioned by the Pope (Catholic) or the Queen via the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican), or any other religious leader can occupy roles in the government — but that isn’t to say that religious people should not act as religious people when participating in public life.

Kelly’s follow up question is a good one: “does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?” 

I believe Scott Morrison absolutely should be more open and transparent about how he integrates his faith and his policy because I believe this would make the motivations behind his good policy decisions clear, but also open him up to be more accountable (to a higher power perhaps) for policy decisions that don’t represent integrity between his religious beliefs and practice; or, it would at least help us to find religious beliefs and practices that align with our values as we seek to elect leaders who will govern with integrity. Personally, while I acknowledge the scourge of people smuggling, I find Australia’s treatment of refugees under Scott Morrison’s leadership appalling. Refugees are made in the same ‘image of God’ as the rest of us. When Scott Morrison says “It’s so important that we continue to reach out and let every Australian know that they are important, that they are significant. “Because we believe that they are created in the image of God.” — unless he also extends that importance and significance to every person still in detention in various forms, he is operating as more Babylonian than Christian — in that the Babylonians were very unlikely to see non-Babylonians as anything like image bearers of God. Nationalism, limiting the “image of God” to “every Australian” is not Christian — I’m sure Morrison would affirm the image bearing dignity of each refugee; I’m not sure a deterrence policy built on the dehumanising of others aligns with that affirmation though.

I’d love to see a robust application of the belief that all Australians are made in the image of God to our First Nations peoples — especially connected to the idea that God appointed people to be custodians of the land (and more than just lip service in the form of acknowledgements of country like the one he gave in his speech).

I’d like to see us think about how our nation’s natural resources might be used to uphold the dignity of all of us, not just be to accelerate the wealth gap between our richest and poorest people, especially I’d like to see it invested in improving the educational, economic, and health outcomes of our Indigenous population (and to see these changes improve the incarceration rates of Indigenous people, and so lower Indigenous deaths in custody). I have concerns about our role as image-bearing stewards of God’s world and the climate — made to co-create the conditions of life and flourishing.

I am concerned about many areas where I find it hard to reconcile Morrison’s policy platform with the teaching of Jesus and I’d like that to be fair game for critique, or at least engagement and theological disagreement to be expressed from the standpoint of different Christian traditions, rather than Morrison being able to conveniently push those public dimensions of the Kingdom of God into the private sphere — and I’d like people to be able to interrogate the way different theological systems produce different fruit and assess their truth and goodness on that basis.

While Albo wasn’t prepared to comment on Scomo’s faith — I think both of them should be accountable to the God they claim to worship (or religious affiliation or commitment they claim to have); and both of them should be scrutinised around areas of integrity — surely we want leaders whose ‘outer person’ matches the ‘inner person’ — who do lead from the heart and from the head, even while seeking to lead a nation where we all recognise that our government governs for people of many faith traditions, including those who have no faith tradition at all. To insist otherwise is to insist not on ‘secularism’ as the default position of the state, but de facto atheism. And to play that game — as a religious politician (or public) simply reinforces the same misunderstanding driving this series of questions, and objections, to Scott Morrison’s religious faith.

We’ve got to stop playing that game and start seeking to genuinely understand one another while genuinely seeking to live public lives of integrity.

Your Gospel proclamation will only be as rich and magical as your Biblical Theology

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is a kids TV show. My almost six year old loves it. The other day she was watching an episode where Nanny Plum, the resident fairy godmother, was undergoing a test for her magic license. She was confronted with a series of scenarios where she would have to solve a problem with magic — and her answer to every question was “turn them into a frog”.

 It’s a surprisingly effective tool, that adequately solves many of the problems, but it’s a very blunt instrument, and the tester is maybe looking for a little more.

It reminded me of that old ‘little Johnny’ joke where Johnny is asked a Sunday School question about animals who live in trees and eat Eucalyptus leaves, and he says “Miss, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a koala.”

And it reminded me of a little thing I’ve noticed about the relationship between models of Biblical Theology (understanding how the Old and New Testament fit together), and models of the Gospel message (understanding the essence of the good news about Jesus).

Here’s what should be a totally non-controversial thesis: your Biblical theology will only be as rich as your understanding of the Gospel, and your understanding of the Gospel will only be as rich as your Biblical theology.

And the real magic is not in a ‘turn them into a frog’ Biblical theology where the answer to every Old Testament passage is “Jesus” with a particularly narrow understanding of the essence of the Gospel, but one where we embrace the sort of circularity of how the reality of Jesus is given depth and dimension by the Old Testament ‘shadow.’ One of the criticisms of a ‘Christ Centred Biblical Theology’ — often the sort picked up in Reformed Evangelical circles here in Australia is that it ends up with a ‘Jesus bit’ tacked on to a sermon, and, experientially, that Jesus bit feels like a ‘penal substitution’ bit tacked on and that can be legitimate, but it can also be a frog where we could have a prince. There are so many rich categories created by rich and deep reading of the Old Testament narrative — around God’s promise to reign as king, about a re-creating day of the Lord that would return people from exile and give us new hearts, about the defeat of Satan and the powers and principalities so that all nations might belong rightfully to Yahweh, the most high, as a fulfilment of our ‘image bearing’ vocation… and the Gospel is that all those threads, and promises, and more are fulfilled in Jesus. That is a Gospel that is not simply “my personal sins can be forgiven if I repent” but that the cosmos is renewed from the throne room of heaven down and repentance is a recognition not only of my sin, but the goodness of this new reality. One way to challenge this is to move beyond a ‘Christ Centred’ Biblical theology that often is reduced to a ‘penal substitution centred’ theology (and again, I’m not saying this isn’t an aspect of the Gospel built for us by a Biblical theology that incorporates, say, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament), to a broader ‘Christotelic’ reading that doesn’t simply impose a Gospel summary/reduction back into the text, but that allows the text to provide categories (and a story) that Jesus then fulfils.

If your Gospel is simply an aspect of the Gospel — a ‘small Gospel’ — whether that’s Lordship, or cosmic victory, or penal substitution and you flatly impose that meaning when digging back into the Old Testament, a proclamation of the Gospel drawing on the Old Testament will end up sounding like Nanny Plum turning everything into a frog. Sometimes I think that’s what’s happening as people get to a passage in the Old Testament that only leads to penal substitution via the crucifixion, rather than a better category (like kingship, or victory, or new creation) and shoehorn that ‘Jesus bit’ onto the end; it’s the “turn them into a frog”… “I know the answer is Jesus” mentality, and maybe we should be allowing the text to give us richer categories, so that when we’re invited just to proclaim the Gospel we have a richer toolkit at our disposal than just “God saves sinners from Hell”…

You can, if you want to apply a blunt instrument, try to make every Old Testament passage about Jesus and reduce Jesus to the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and it’s probably better than not making the Old Testament about Jesus at all — a surprisingly effective better (in that, I’m surprised, still, by how many modern Christians still have a pretty flat grid that they apply to the Old Testament, seeing it as “Scripture” without recognising our standing as Gentiles, and its standing as Israel’s Scriptures fulfilled in Jesus) — but imagine if you had more tricks in your magic tool kit. Here’s where, as a sidebar, I want to give an obligatory shoutout to The Bible Project, who I think do a great job of expanding our horizon to see more narrative categories and ‘story patterns’ in the Old Testament so that we end up with a richer Gospel.

Imagine if your bigger Gospel — whether that’s in the classically expansive ‘The Gospel is the material contained in the Gospels’ or an integration of atonement models (like kingship, representation, and cosmic victory) — was something you could pull out when digging into Old Testament texts; but also something shaped by the Old Testament texts that give us the categories and messianic/cosmic expectations that Jesus fulfils.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road on a critique like this. I think at times we celebrate frogs — as magic — when there’s a more rich and robust, more enchanting and ‘good’ version of the good news that we should be encouraging one another to pursue. Better a frog magically produced on Q&A than no enchantment at all, and yet, what if we had a real magician?

When the Gospel is proclaimed as penal substitution — that God saves sinners — it can often end up being anthropocentric (that is, it puts us humans at the centre of the Gospel). When, in that context, we talk about repentance it can sound a lot like we’re saying ‘turn from sin because sin is bad and you will face God’s judgment unless you repent’ — and that’s certainly true. But it’s a frog. The deep magic of the Gospel is much bigger than toads being turned into frogs.

The deep magic of the Gospel is not really about ‘me’ at all; it’s about Jesus. The good news about the one who fulfils the Old Testament; the true Israel, the true son of God — the divine and human “son of Man” who through his incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and future return, has begun God’s recreating act by launching his new kingdom; who invites us to ‘repent’ by turning from the old, to the new, which involves receiving God’s Spirit as an act of re-creation and being united with God. There’s so much more magic than just ‘forgiveness of sins’ — though forgiveness of sins is part of our restoration and resurrection; our move from death to life, darkness to light and the kingdom of the now defeated Satan, into the kingdom of heaven… and even that the resurrection is not just a ‘pie in the sky’ heavenly future for our souls, but physical life in God’s kingdom in a renewed heavens and earth, so that our lives now are an expression of the kingdom because we are ambassadors of this future reality and citizens of the kingdom of God now.

There is, of course, some C.S Lewis in the background of this reference to “deeper magic” — and in The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe (and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia), the ‘deeper magic’ includes penal substitution — but it stretches out to new creation; it includes the effects of being faithfully caught up in that magic on mice like Reepicheep. Here’s Aslan, from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

The deep magic is more than simply one dying in the place of another, it’s the new life that flows from that act. In Prince Caspian the mouse Reepicheep loses his tail in battle, and Aslan restores it, moved by his commitment to Aslan’s kingdom, and as an act of love. The deep magic of the Gospel involves death working backwards as new creation works in — not just sins being forgiven, but restoration to new life found in the kingdom and its king.

“Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

So magic tricks — Gospel proclamation — that looks like ‘here’s a frog’ are all well and good; better than no magic. But what if we do the work of digging deeper into the book of tricks — expanding our understanding of the whole counsel of God, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the victorious saviour and king as its culmination — then maybe our ‘Gospel proclamation’ would do more than just see Jesus as the one who calls us to repent and dies to take our punishment; it might see Jesus as the one who brings a new pattern for life in this world by restoring us to the life and presence of God.

I, for one, am committed to serving up more than frogs in my attempts to do the magical and enchanting work of telling God’s good news story.

A big table and the paradox of tolerance

There’s a popular meme that circulates on social media from time to time; one of those sort of epigrams for our age — “when you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher fence” — it’s always struck me as an interesting quote as someone whose denomination talks of my role in administering the sacraments as involving “fencing the table,” and it strikes me too that much commentary around the direction of Eternity News playing out on social media is grappling with whether Eternity should be a big table, or whether it should erect some fences.

I have massive sympathy for what Eternity News is trying to achieve in its opinion section, and while it pains me to see the culture wars fought out in a publication I love, and one that I’ve invested time, energy, and words into contributing to and promoting over the years, and to have been part of the war of words, I do believe Eternity’s vision to provide a forum for conversations for those who’ll share eternity together is good and necessary, and that it requires a diversity of political and theological positions to be gathered around one table.

This week Eternity ran a pro-Israel Folau/ACL campaign piece by David Pellowe, and then, for balance, ran a piece critical of that campaign. I do fear John Sandeman’s approach of pursuing ‘balance’ in the opinion section by posing opposing views rather than views that seek to discern the truth (ie classic news/feature writing) ends up fuelling the division rather than bridging the gap — especially because of how the Caldron Pool reacted to the two part series in this piece by Mark Powell (that seems to have no sense of the existence of the Pellowe piece). There’s also an irony here in that Mark Powell, in a 2019 interview with the then Bible Society CEO, asked a question that implied correct views on the Trinity should be a deal breaker for their platform, but he and his mates are quite keen to promote Israel Folau’s orthodoxy.

The Caldron Pool piece was, predictably, shared by the union of figures I’d named in my now deleted article. They don’t like that Eternity will feature voices critical of their political theology and practice. Curiously, the editor of Caldron Pool, who’ll write pieces against cancel culture, will, without irony, seek legal advice and complain to church courts if anyone has the temerity to criticise his publication in public. The Caldron Pool is not a ‘broad table’ — it has, clearly, different aims to Eternity, though its unclear who they believe will share the eternal table with them. One might ask at what point their accusations of ‘wolflike’ behaviour for those ‘woke pastors’ and woke platforms represent an act of discernment that these people fall outside the kingdom?

The table is such a profound and powerful Christian image; for many Christian traditions the table is the centre of the church gathering — around communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharistic meal (depending on one’s theology or tradition). At the table we Bible believing Christians do the work Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 11 of ‘discerning the body.’ Now, part of this is surely to do with how one understands the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, but, in the context of 1 Corinthians 12, and the bad table manners Paul is correcting in 1 Corinthians 11, this act of discernment includes recognising that our union with Christ and the church, by the one Spirit, draws together people from all corners of society to this one ‘gathering’ (what ‘the church’ is) as one body.

Jesus spent lots of time at the table in the Gospels; sometimes these were tables managed by religious leaders who were out to get him, often he ate with sinners and tax collectors; some of the most beautiful moments are when he brings the judgmental religious people to the table with those people searching for the kingdom who were on the margins of society to reveal something of the character of God and his love for the outsider. Jesus didn’t stop eating with the people who were out to get him — right up until the Last Supper he’s eating at a table in the presence of his enemies. In that meal, as he gave us the model for our meals together that Paul draws on in 1 Corinthians, Jesus speaks about the eternal table; the heavenly banquet, such that his act of hospitality as he breaks bread and pours out the wine is not just a picture of his coming death, but of eternity.

In Luke’s account, Jesus talks about the nature of his kingdom — that the table won’t run in his kingdom like it does in the kingdom of the Gentiles, where rulers lord it over others and the seats at the table are allocated in some sort of status game (that’s the Corinthian problem), instead, he says he is at the table as “one who serves” and greatness, or indeed “the kingdom” is defined differently for those who Jesus says will “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus also talked about how people in this kingdom should participate in other tables — not as fence builders or power grabbers, but as guests. Guests who do not seek the places of honour, or to have their status boosted and their voices heard by all at the table, but as those who sit in the lowly places, he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and then pivots to providing hospitality advice for when we run tables around the same ethic. He says don’t just invite the powerful; the high status — those who’ll make you look good and give you a boost in the world. That’s the gentile power-game. Instead make space for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

This advice should guide how those of us who’ll spend Eternity together might use our tables — whether those are literal, in our churches and homes – or metaphorical, our digital places of hospitality and dialogue. It’s not that such spaces should exclude the powerful necessarily, Jesus eats with Pharisees and religious leaders, as well as sinners and tax collectors, it’s just that we Christians should recognise the dynamics here (and our own tendency to act more like Pharisees and religious leaders than sinners, tax collectors, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” When Eternity is at its best it is sharing stories — making space at the table — for the outsiders in our church communities; when it is at its worst it has religious leaders like me sparring with others in the opinion section. My own contributions have ranged from lofty heights — working beside marginalised voices in the broader church, to the lows — writing a piece so inflammatory it was pulled after an outpouring of anger, and some legal posturing.

While I, and other church leaders, often bear a responsibility to administer a table as we lead our communities in the sacraments, and while this might mean ‘discerning the body’ and ‘fencing the table’ from some we believe fall outside the kingdom based on our doctrine and practice, Eternity is a deliberately broad table, crossing denominational and local boundaries. Those of us who run narrower tables — in denominations, or local tables — in local churches — need such ‘broad tables’ to remind us that the kingdom of God and the body of Christ exist outside our particular tribes and communities. Eternity invites us to sit at the table, discern the body, and enter conversation and perhaps even communion with those saints we will join with for Eternity. We need voices from outside our local bubbles or theological grids to offer gentle critique, encouragement, and opportunities to listen to other ideas as we humbly remember that all our human institutions are the product of humans who are simultaneously justified and sinful (at least for Protestants that’s part of the package). Institutions like Eternity, and their big table, remind us of our union with Christ unites us with loads of people who think and live differently to us (and might encourage us to practice hospitality when it comes to how the tables in our churches or homes operate).

After my controversial anti-culture war piece (that became a culture war piece) — one that ended with a call for peace-making across very real divides, David Pellowe, host of the Good Sauce, convener of the Church and State Summit, and now, it seems, Eternity columnist, who I’d specifically named in my piece, reached out across the divide and invited me to break bread with him, and subsequently, he invited me onto his YouTube program, Pellowe Talk, where I sat at the table (or desk) in his studio and we had a conversation. I’m reasonably convinced that David Pellowe thinks we’ll be spending Eternity together, even if his most recent piece describes positions I hold — positions on core, orthodox Christian doctrine (like the Trinity being foundational) as making me a “progressive believer.” If that’s progressive, count me in. David’s hospitality and this act of peacemaking helped both of us ‘discern the body’ in such a way that while I still believe his politics, and those shared by others on the Christian Right are dangerous to both the church and society, I would not ‘fence the table’ if he attended our church gathering, nor would I keep him from my dining table; I’m not, by extension, concerned that Eternity makes space for him at the table of public discourse. I do recognise that it creates a genuine expression of ‘the paradox of tolerance.’

In a nutshell, this paradox, coined by Karl Popper, says that for a tolerant society — or table — to operate, it has to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, as my friend Cameron puts it “you can’t invite people to the table if their express goal is to set the table on fire.” The trick here is that even if fellows like Pellowe, and other new Eternity columnists are committed to a ‘broad table’ — and even if Eternity itself is — at some point a broad table becomes unsafe, and not just for the ‘leftists’ or whoever the target of intolerance is.

Quite a few of my Eternity columnist stablemates have been in conversation over the rightward lurch in the opinion section, concerned about this new direction, in part because it seems to us that some of these new writers are not interested in tolerance, or pluralism (and indeed, many from the Christian Right turned to language of boycotts and cancellation when Eternity ran pieces critical of the hard right), the catch is, some of the gentler voices in the Eternity stable are also grappling with the goodness or wisdom of sharing a table with the intolerant. Meanwhile, John Sandeman, Eternity’s editor has been doing the rounds of conservative Christian media outlets (including Pellowe’s show, and Jonathan Cole’s The Political Animals) to cast his vision for a broad table as an invitational act of peacemaking (in part managing the fallout from my piece, and one of his own), and to court the addition of gentler conservative contributions.

I am not inclined to boycott Eternity, or its opinion section, because of these new voices being included. I love Eternity, and I find John’s vision compelling — but this is, perhaps, a product of my privilege and my place at the table.

I don’t want the answer to be fencing the table from conservative religious leaders with significant status, but, at the same time, it is true that sometimes particularly aggressive sheep can bite like wolves and be a danger to the flock, and just as my role in our church community — with other elders and leaders in our church — is to shepherd the flock in the way of the good shepherd, Eternity, as a “Christian institution,” even a broad table, has some pastoral responsibility here too. One that might look like a firmer editorial hand, or clearer parameters around acceptable voice or tone that defines the sort of conversation one might be invited to enter at the table; some agreed upon Eternity table manners. I was the first to admit that my pulled article was ill-mannered (that, rather than ‘untruth’ was why it was pulled). Eternity did not ‘cancel me’ or my piece, though some people I wrote about did — and are continuing to push for my cancellation in other spheres I operate in, in response to the piece. John and I made the call in consultation, and John’s hand was forced into that consultation because I publicly apologised for the tone of my piece and distanced myself from that tone, while Eternity was still expected to host it. I’m seeking to learn from that experience as a contributor, but I wonder if there is space for Eternity to apply some learnings from that piece and the fallout across the board, beyond just that it’s hard to be a place where iron sharpens iron. Sometimes sharp iron, and flecks of iron thrown off in the process can do real damage to people.

My concern about the current editorial direction of Eternity is not only that seeking loud mouth institutional voices (like mine) to engage in traffic driving ‘iron-sharpens-iron’ tit-for-tats in the opinion section, and the comments on Eternity’s Facebook page drowns out the experience of the lost, the last, and the least — the sinner and tax collector, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — those we should be hosting at our tables, but also that some recent articles are inhospitable to those we should be including.

Want to find a community of ‘sinners and tax collectors’ or the downtrodden and oppressed, who need Jesus in our modern western world — there are plenty of candidates, from members of the LGBTIQA+ community, to those whose experiences sit outside the ‘male, middle class, and white’ norm of Australian institutions (like the church), including women (whose voices were drowned out in Eternity’s own stories on International Women’s Day by a boisterous boys club push-and-shove).

The catch is that for many in those communities — if you pay attention to the comments on social media, these new voices introduced to the comments section are pictures of intolerance and exclusion of their own voices and experience, not only by virtue of arguments, but because of trauma responses because religious institutions, and their tables, have not always been shaped by the way of Jesus.

Some of these more recent opinion pieces have an intolerant tone — not a tone that is hospitable to “the other,” but that is dangerous to those who’ve been hurt by wolves or biting sheep in the past. Even if these writers are fellow guests; fellow sheep; fellow members of the body — such words, and the way they are spoken, can produce an atmosphere of condemnation, or produce traumatic responses in the vulnerable or hurting, or can lead to others feeling unwelcome not only at Eternity’s table, but at God’s eternal table. Some, believe this new tone — and also the words being said — have made Eternity a less hospitable table. This is not the case for bull-headed people like me who are prepared to go charging into any conversation without fear for my own safety. This lack of hospitality is not something I tend to feel in the ‘Christian bubble’ as a religious leader with status, education, and a degree of wealth, status, and security. It’s precisely people like me who should be challenged by the words of Jesus about his table — and how Christian spaces operate, and precisely those others — who feel a sense of inhospitality — who Jesus called his kingdom to be hospitable to. It’s this change that others who have been part of the Eternity stable but are feeling uncomfortable are reacting to. Eternity has become a hospitable place for religious leaders to play power and status games, and an inhospitable place for those who are, or have been, outsiders and victims in those games.

I’d love to see their vision of a big heavenly table involve a broadening of the voices (including perspectives, practices and experiences) they platform, and correspondingly, some of us prominent blokes with institutional power dialling down our participation in culture war bunfights to make space for that — for the richness of the body of Christ to be on display we must decrease so they might increase.

I’d love to see the ethics of that heavenly table shape the tone of voice Eternity allows at its table, not just the broad spectrum of political views invited to speak.

The paradox of tolerance is real, it is impossible to run a broad table when some of your guests are telling others they aren’t welcome, and while this might go both ways, the way of Jesus is clear — the religious leaders who believed they were the righteous ones, who had power and status, and were used to running the table — they were able to stick around so long as they were listening to the Lord of hosts, through his chosen king, even when he spoke pointedly to condemn them, and the lost, the last, and the least — those were the people who have priority at the tables of the kingdom. It’s possible that creating safe tables for those others — whether through calling for change in existing institutions (like churches and publications), or starting new ones is the work of the kingdom here; and it’s possible that such pressure might be applied by refusing to share a table with those trying to burn down your table, or who want to build big fences.

The challenge for committed pluralists like me is to take up invitations to be a guest at hostile tables, to provide hospitality through the tables I serve at, especially to those we’re called to love and serve by Jesus

#QandA is more like Pokemon than Poker: a review of Martyn Iles’ appearance

Martyn Iles did well on Q&A last night. He articulated some deep Christian truths, the Gospel even, with his feet held to the metaphorical fire. And he did it with a degree of grace.
Here’s a snippet from the transcript:
“Alain, thank you for the question, and it’s important, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer it in front of you and others who are watching. There was a word in the question which I’d like to address first, and then I’ll address Israel Folau, if that’s OK. The first word I’d like to address is the word ‘hate’. ‘Hate’ is a word that is thrown around a lot. I see it every day thrown at me. It’s a very, very serious word. It refers to somebody’s motive. It’s an attitude of heart that would like to see someone else come into harm. Jesus said, effectively, that if you hate your brother, then you’ve murdered him in your heart. It’s a very serious thing. For a Christian to hate is a bad sin. The reality is this – a Christian never looks fundamentally at another person as an enemy to be destroyed. And that’s the danger of politics – that we can get sucked into that. We never look at the other person as somebody who we would like harm to befall. We only ever… And I cannot say this strongly enough. We only ever look at people as souls to be saved, and that includes me, and so…”
Now. I’d say Christians see people as people to be saved, and that this includes bodily life both now and into eternity, not just souls, but I’m not sure Martyn was espousing a sort of platonic dualism in that last bit… But this was helpful. So was his presentation of Jesus’ universal call to repent.
I have some quibbles around his defence of antivaxxers (because nobody asked him to do that), and his ongoing conflation of trans/gender diverse people with a political agenda (ie an approach to the people and questions that is political rather than pastoral).
But he played a tough hand well.
The thing is, Q&A is not poker. It’s more like Pokémon. You bring your deck with you. And Martyn’s deck is stacked, by Martyn.
The tough hand is a hand of his making.
Imagine a Christian at that table with a different hand.
Imagine a Christian, even one with conservative sexual ethics, who represents an organisation that had invested time and energy into loving the LGBTIQA+ community and seeking their inclusion and representation in our democracy, from an organisation known for love and service. Imagine a call to repent in a relational context of love rather than one of perceived self-interest.
Imagine an organisation with a track record of advocating for First Nations peoples, around deaths in custody (last night’s most powerful segment). Imagine if that organisation was known for pushing for the application of the recommendations of a 30 year old Royal Commission, rather than to extend the playing career of a 32 year old millionaire footballer (with heretical views on the Trinity… only Biblical sexual orthodoxy counts).
We shouldn’t have to imagine this. Churches, church run institutions, and church members — Christians — navigate issues across the political spectrum/divide all the time.
Martyn’s statement last night that there are lots of Christian charities addressing poverty and inequality is true.
They are not called ‘Australian Christians against poverty’ though. If it is true that the ACL is focused on the political realm on behalf of Christians then surely racial reconciliation and poverty are issues that have structural and political changes that need making and the ACL, like the church, could walk and chew gum here.
Here’s what Martyn said on this:

“I think everybody would love it if the ACL did exactly what they wanted us to do. The fact is that the top 25 charities in this country, I think 23 of them actually had a faith basis and they work on alleviating poverty. And I say, wonderful work. More power to them. I myself was involved in youth work for a period of six years with disadvantaged kids. There is a huge wealth of Christian charity in that regard.ACL has a certain area that we focus on, which is the political realm, and the reason… I mean, we spent that much money on that ad. I’m here to tell you, we spend many times that on defending Margaret from Blacktown, Patricia from Sydney, Jason from Perth, Byron and Keira from Perth, who are no longer foster-parents, who are no longer medical professionals…”

The issue is that the ACL serves a constituency; it has a narrow political agenda, and that’s fine, but a broad name, and that’s not so fine.
So long as the ACL serves a narrow political agenda, and one that alienated many Christians in its narrowness, when Martyn goes on TV and preaches the Gospel he will align the Gospel with that narrow agenda in the minds of the audience (or public).
And that’s great for those who share his politics, but not so great for those who share his Gospel.

A question for Martyn about #lethimplay

Israel Folau is a multimillionaire footballer who secured a multimillion dollar settlement from the Australian Rugby Union after a dispute around his sharing of a meme that targeted homosexuals and other sinners with a hatefully twisted quote from the Bible.

Israel Folau is on the record rejecting the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Israel Folau is unwanted by any NRL club, there are no attempts to register him as a player.

It’s quite possible to believe that Folau was hard done by, that religious freedom should be extended to non-Christian cult-like members who use social media to preach hate; no matter the commercial risks involved. It is possible, even, to believe that at least some part of the response to Folau’s tweet was not only religiously intolerant and confused, but a little racist. It is possible to believe those things and be horrified by the ACL’s #lethimplay campaign.

The ACL is spending donor dollars, and resources, to run a campaign that literally nobody is asking for — Folau hasn’t asked (according to the ACL), no club is asking (according to the NRL). But, the ACL in its wisdom, is running this campaign despite Martyn Iles, in the past, suggesting that a lack of resources is what keeps the organisation from broadening its platform beyond pleasing a conservative/right-wing constituency. Iles said:

“When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do.

“The reality is I am spent in my abilities and capacity to do what we are doing. My staff are spent and we are doing the best [we] can.

“I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith.

“The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.”

He said something similar in a recent interview on the podcast The Political Animals. This is his go to excuse for a small platform — limited resources.

Now, to justify spending dollars on this campaign:

“The purpose of the ads is to connect more people with the campaign, and anybody who wants to have a say has the opportunity to do so.”

It turns out their niche now extends to getting jobs for millionaire footballers past their prime, with clubs that don’t want him.

It turns out you don’t need extensive ‘resources’ for political lobbying; you just need a platform and a team of willing voices who’ll use it. It shouldn’t be that hard for the ACL to set up similar campaigns for all those issues they are too stretched to pursue. Maybe they could help people — passionate Christian people — have a say about these other issues too?

Next time the ACL says they don’t have the resources to pursue an issue remember they spent dollars on a full page advertisement in a News Ltd paper to get a multi-millionaire a job that nobody wants to give him.

Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’Landys said:

“This Christian Lobby with their full-page ads basically are wasting their resources and money because there is no application. There are a lot more things in life that they could be lobbying for, like [an end to] poverty and inequality and all those sort of things, rather than this.”

Martyn is on Q&A this week. Someone might care to ask him about this. They might also ask how getting a non-Christian millionaire a job in a sporting competition is remotely Christian, and whether they might consider becoming registered sports agents and leaving public Christianity to people not committed to playing culture war games. Here’s the question I sent to Q&A:

I am a Presbyterian minister in Queensland. I have long been puzzled by the ACL’s approach — but have found Martyn’s leadership increasingly baffling in terms of both the policy platform and the approach to politics as a ‘culture war’ — which seems inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus.

Martyn. You have said the ACL’s policy platform is limited by resources — that you don’t lobby on issues like refugees, racial justice, and poverty because the ACL is limited in what it can focus on. This week you’re campaigning to secure employment for a multimillionaire footballer no NRL team wants to employ, who publicly denies the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Would these resources not be better offered somewhere like ARL chairman Peter V’landys suggested — to dealing with poverty or inequality, would that not be more consistent with the way of Jesus?

Sex in the prayer room; and when ‘thin places’ become thick

There’s lots that can (and must) be said about the present crisis in Australia around toxic sexuality (as an expression of toxic masculinity and rape culture). Lots is being said about the relationship between institutional Christianity, purity culture, and this crisis both outside the church (in the church shaped western world), and inside the church. I’m working with a brilliant friend who is a scholar on the Song of Songs to piece together a helpful response both for my own church community, and beyond.

But I was struck by reports emerging about videos and stories of bad sexuality in parliament house; and particularly struck by the location identified as home base for perhaps the worst of the depravity.

The prayer room.

If parliament house were meant to be a sort of temple to Christendom this is the sort of thing that would have Jesus flipping over the tables; it certainly reveals the hollowness (rather than hallowedness) of our parliamentarians praying “The Lord’s Prayer” at the start of the day (and of campaigns to keep that in place).

When Jesus flips the tables in the temple in Jerusalem it’s part of a wider act of judgement against those running the show; a judgment that culminates with the curtain temple tearing at his death, and with his Spirit not coming to the holy of holies in the temple, but into the hearts of those who recognise him as Lord. The church. The house — a place that once was the meeting place between God and humanity — is left desolate; and Jesus’ judgment is that this is the case because “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

In 2012, a travel writer from the New York Times, Eric Weiner, wrote a piece that popularised the concept of thin places, places in nature, but perhaps even places of human architecture, where ‘heaven and earth’ come closer together.

“No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

The Temple was meant to be a ‘thin space’ — where the boundaries of heaven and earth were less obvious; a place that threw worshippers towards the transcendent realm; the heavens. Where the supernatural and natural overlapped. A house of prayer; but it had been corrupted by the idolatry and materialism of its day; the attempts to secure meaning and goodness not through relationship with God, but in material realities, like money and power.

There’s a corresponding story to Jesus judging the Temple in the New Testament to God’s judgment on ‘thin places’ (which are often ‘high places’ in the OT, if you want to trace this as an interesting and legitimate thread); particularly the judgment brought on those who are meant to be stewarding the Tabernacle; the ‘tent of meeting’ or dwelling place of God at the start of 1 Samuel. There’s an old priest, Eli, whose two sons are corrupt and corrupting not only the meeting tent — the thin place — but the whole nation of Israel. They’re extorting people, stealing food, and sleeping with the women allocated to serve in that thin place — abusing their power in pursuit of pleasure. And God steps in to judge this family because of their failure to represent God as his priestly people, presenting his house as a meeting place between God and the world.

Parliament house is built like an ancient temple. It has columns and courtyards and a pillar that reaches towards the heavens. It sits on the hill overlooking the capital. It’s a monument to our values and is meant to be an expression of our heart; our commitment to democracy; the equality of all people in the law, and perhaps, under God.

Whether or not it was ever meant to be a ‘house of prayer’ — leaders in western democracies; landscapes shaped by Christendom; were meant to be doing the work of God for us; leading ‘under God’; and the house and its prayer room and the Lord’s Prayer are all vestiges of that sort of vision.

If Parliament House was meant to be one of these ‘thin spaces’ — how much more the prayer room: a room where people go to connect with the divine; a sacred space; profaned. Desecrated.

When the apostle Paul writes about sexual ethics for married couples — upholding the goodness of the one flesh union of husband and wife as a created gift from God to be enjoyed together, he says the one thing that might keep them apart is their devotion to God, they might prioritise prayer “for a time” over sex; our parliamentarians have turned all that on its head; both the sexual ethic of the mutuality, commitment, and intimacy of marriage — where the parties belong to one another and are bound up in love and communion — but the idea that prayer might be a priority.

But these news stories — that MPs would use the prayer room — a thin space — for such thick purposes; worldly purposes far removed from the heavens — reveal something about our modern gods, our modern pursuit of goodness (and even perhaps echoes of transcendence not through prayer, or religiosity, but through the liturgy of sex and orgasm), and perhaps, for just a table-flipping moment, just how toxic and damaging these new gods are to us, and to our leaders.

Want to know why we’ve got no social changes or political will around rape culture — look at the heart of our nation and how deeply embedded this poison is.

The Lord’s Prayer opens by acknowledging the nature of reality and the heavenly realm; “our father,” it says “who is in heaven”… it acknowledges that God’s kingdom represents the overlap between this realm and the earthly realm — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — parliamentarians prayed this because the idea was their actions were meant to be part of the answer to this prayer. They’re clearly not. And should stop pretending.

Someone should flip some tables.

The kicker in the Lord’s Prayer here — when it comes to Jerusalem and its thin-place-become-thick, or Canberra and its thin-place-become-thick, is in the opening “hallowed be your name” — God’s name was attached to his temple, and his people. The way they lived and acted was to be an expression of the God they worshipped and a reflection on his reputation; it could either bring glory, or desecration. And desecration of God’s name brought consequences. Table flipping. Judgment. Jerusalem no longer the centre of, or vehicle of, God’s kingdom. Their temple, and nation, declared no longer a ‘thin space’ where heavenly realities are realised; but thick, and dead, and disgusting. This isn’t to say these things about the Jewish people; Jesus was Jewish, the vast majority of the ‘new temple’ were Jewish people, including those at Pentecost who had been spread into the distant corners of the globe, but about the hollowed out rather than hallowed religion of those operating the Temple in pursuit of false gods; perverting the name of the God they served.

Parliament House isn’t a ‘thin place’ — it’s become thick, or perhaps it is a ‘thin place’ like the corrupted Temple in Jerusalem, a place that reveals who we have become. In the NY Times piece that function of a thin place is meant to be good and life-giving, as it pushes us towards a greater sense of reality, but perhaps it can push in another direction too; exposing us like Jesus exposed the politcal-religious leaders of his day (and the prevailing culture that enabled them, and that they perpetuated)? So the Times piece says:

“Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Parliament house, like the temple, has been unmasked — and the essential selves revealed by this mirror, or this revelation, are not pretty. Parliament House, and these leaders — or this institution, won’t bring the sort of liberation from idolatry and the destructive nature of dehumanising toxic sexuality that is rampant in our culture; because it can’t. Instead, while this toxic heart beats — where sexual pleasure with no regard for another person is God — it’s just going to push us further and deeper into that pit. Unless someone flips the tables… unless a new heart is dropped in.

And yet, at the same time there is something revealing about the approach to sex in a ‘thick world’ in all this; we’ve replaced God and the presence of the divine — even the idea of ‘thin places’ we might travel to; with sex. With pleasure. With ‘created things, instead of the creator’ as Romans 1 puts it…

Sex is one of those ‘thin experiences’ that might push us towards the idea of something divine; a God out there who made goodness, and sensuality, and put us in this world so that we might seek him, and perhaps find him, with the help of all these good things that reveal his divine nature and character. Thin places and thin experiences are meant to push us towards the transcendent. Our issue, at heart, is that we keep exchanging the truth about God for a lie; we’ve put sex in the place of God, instead of sex being something that throws us towards the overlap between heaven and earth.

And so maybe the prayer room is the right place to take that search for meaning and significance; even if in doing so we’re opening ourselves up for judgement; turning what is meant to be a ‘house or prayer’ into a temple to toxic sexuality.

Maybe in this moment of judgement and exposure we might start to ask questions about the sort of culture we’re building when we make this exchange.

Maybe, though we’re quick to throw stones at the ‘Temple’ or thin space in Canberra, we might also — those of us who are Christians — seek to get our own houses in order; asking if they — whether our church spaces and communities, or our own homes — are built on the same hollowed out sexual idolatry and damaging, dehumanising practices — or are spaces committed to the coming of God’s kingdom and the hallowing of God’s name; lest the tables be turned on us.

On my Eternity News story being pulled

It is difficult to draw attention to the culture wars, and the danger they present, without being drawn into the culture wars as a combatant. I have watched in horror this week as the conversations about my piece spiralled further and further away from its conclusion; entrenching division rather than bringing people to the table in peace.

John and I have listened to the concerns raised by those I spoke about, and in the comments at Eternity, and around social media, and sought to clarify the link I attempted to draw between jokes about violence and potential acts of violence. In further consultation we have come to the position that this piece was simply best retracted, so that a slower, gentler conversation might take place about the significant issues here.

I accept that Dave Pellowe and Martyn Iles were joking and do not want to see a violent revolution (and have never doubted this), but I believe jokes and language about conflict and violence normalise conflict and violence, and worse, normalise seeing the ‘other’ as an opponent, not a neighbour.

I believe there is a link that can be drawn between jokes about violence, ‘war language,’ and potential acts of violence — a link that is clearly attested to in the United States. Many commentators in America — including conservatives Rod Dreher and David French made exactly these links around the January 6. 

It has saddened me to see this piece close off the opportunity for conversation with those advocating a ‘culture war’ agenda, and I must own that this is my responsibility for how I presented the piece — both in not being clear around the issues I took with the joke, not being clear to distinguish the point being made about the Church and State Summit, and the people on the platform at the summit who have a history of using such terminology, and not moderating my own ‘jokes’ that were lost in print. I must also own that there is a context in which my own words are interpreted, and that I have been critical of this approach to politics, and the engagement of the Australian Christian Lobby in particular for some time. My description of Martyn Iles as a golden-haired boy was a reference to the idiom of a figure, in a community, who can do no wrong. I bear Martyn no malice, and do not doubt the sincerity of his faith, or the faith of others mentioned.

My piece, though it spoke of Church and State, was prompted more by James Macpherson’s recent article and the heightened culture war posture and rhetoric of the site Caldron Pool. The Church and State Summit, and the reported comments, occurred against this background, with parallels to the CPAC conference held coincidentally in the United States.

One ‘good’ thing to have come from the conversation sparked by my post was fellow Brisbane resident Dave Pellowe taking up the challenge of my piece’s conclusion, and reaching across the divide to form a friendship and to have face to face conversation. We met yesterday and hope to publish further reflections on our meeting soon. After I met with Dave, and heard how my comment about Martyn (which are part of a pattern of my comments about Martyn when writing about his public persona) was received, and how it undermined my piece, I posted a public apology yesterday on my own Facebook profile. I make that apology again here, and now. Not for the overall substance of my piece, but for the way I spoke jokingly, or idiomatically, about a brother in Christ. I will endeavour to do better, while maintaining my conviction that pragmatism, or a utilitarian approach to power-based politics, when coupled with a hard-right agenda and a ‘culture war’ narrative is dangerous to both society, and our witness as the church.

In the meantime, I am happy for my piece to be pulled from Eternity’s pages in order to encourage more peace and reconciliation within the body of Christ, and more robust conversations about genuine political convictions, and the dangers of warlike metaphors in more relational environments where tone is not lost, and the humanity of the other is inescapable. Eternity will be publishing its own statement shortly.

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).

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