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

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

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

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

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

The documentary opens with the line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a good review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Powell says:

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

I’ll just put this here.

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

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

Mark says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On wonder women and platforms

When are blokes going to learn?

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

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

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

Men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be a conversation. Two way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are, of course, ethical implications for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m here for her critique.

I’m here to listen.

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

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

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

But still.

Cancelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know the pattern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s not cancel each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

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

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Why would your people kill Jesus? On statues, culture wars, and modern day politics as religion

When Jesus was executed by crucifixion there were some particularly interesting political dynamics at play. The Pharisees who hated Roman occupation almost as much as the zealots; or pretended to; cuddled up to the Roman empire and got Pilate and co to get their hands dirty in a state sanctioned murder where both sides had political justifications; in Luke’s Gospel we even hear that the execution of Jesus brought Pilate — Rome’s official presence in the region — and Herod — a kind of vassal king — together as friends, where previously they had been ‘enemies’.

It’s funny what a common enemy can do for us, in terms of getting us on the same page.

And so I’m wondering — what would it be about Jesus that would lead your side in the culture war, your politics, to kill him — as a natural extension of what you’re holding dear, or seeing as ultimate? What standard would he offend that would see you join a mob baying for his blood and pulling him down in an act of desecration?

The culture wars that we’re seeing played out in recent times; amplified by race rallies, the destruction of public idols statues, and figures from the right coming out against “Cultural Marxism” and the ‘long march of the left’ through our civic institutions, feel like something out of the pages of the first century A.D, and even before.

The contest of ideas has, almost forever, been fought out in public space. Public space is an interesting phenomenon in the battle between left and right — the question of who owns such space; the public, private enterprise (and its outdoor advertising), the government (on behalf of ‘the public’ at large, or its ideology), is an interesting one, and we’ve very much lost the idea of the commons; but in the past, public space was also contested, and explicitly religious. Now it’s contested and implicitly religious; it has the same function, but we want to pretend that graven icons have suddenly lost their function as permanent visions; images of the good life and our story etched into our public psyche.

The erection and destruction of statues has always been both political and religious, because almost all politics (if not all politics) is actually religious, in that it comes from a vision not just of ‘the good,’ but the relationship of ‘the good’ to ‘the gods.’ In the ancient world we see this in, say, statues of Gudea, a Sumerian king (circa 2100BC) who became a god through his propagation of statues — literally “images of God” — to spread his rule and influence. He was a king (politics) whose reign was justified by ‘the gods’ (religion) who became a god (religion) by spreading statues throughout public spaces in his empire (religion and politics). Here’s a sample of one of his statues and its inscription. This became a pretty solid move in the political playbook in the ancient world; but it wasn’t just rulers-as-gods that propped up empires; an empire’s gods and how widely and well represented they were (partly in public space) propped up political regimes too. So you get, for example Esarhaddon, king of Neo-Assyria (680ish BC), who plays games of ‘capture the flag’ with idols from the surrounding nation; such that we have inscriptions about revivifying god statues that have previously been captured, but returned to life, prominence, and public space, through conquest. In an inscription, Essarhaddon boasts about the restoration of statues in Babylon. An expression of political achievement or dominion over his enemies; and a justification of his reign as ‘beloved by the gods.’

“I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. “

Esarhaddon boasts that his public statues to the gods legitimise his reign; they form part of the story or myth that justifies his political position.

Before Gudea and Esarhaddon, we have Dagon, the “Lord of Canaan.” Dagon emerges in the historical record from around 2500 BC. He’s a reasonably constant visual presence in the public spaces of the Ancient Near East until he pops up in the story of the Bible (he’s around after that for a little while too). Dagon is the god of the Philistines; who play their own political-religious game of ‘capture the flag’ when they capture Israel’s Ark of the Covenant and treat it like an idol. They pop it in their temple (the same temple they later pop chopped up bits of King Saul, a king who does politics like the nations around Israel).

There’s a political-religious critique going on in this story captured in 1 Samuel; and it’s part of the same story that made Israel politically different from the nations; Israel was a country built on a different sort of public architecture; it had architecture that supported its belief; absolutely — the Temple, and its adornments — all of them — told a story in public space. But it had no political or theological statues; no idols (just altars, and the politicisation of altars for personal gain became problematic, again, see King Saul). Israel’s lack of statues was a novelty; but also a profound critique of the surrounding nations. Israel’s God could not be reduced to dead images; Israel’s God was not just represented by one king who was the living image of God; Israel’s God had a whole nation of living images; not a “priest-king” whose reign was justified by the gods, but a “priest-nation”…

Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” — 1 Samuel 5:2-4

Israel was meant to engage in a purging of public spaces; a toppling of statues — because public space, and how we order it, is inherently religious, not just political. Because Israel was to be a monotheistic public space with a story testifying to the one true God, their public spaces — their commons — were not to be pluralistic; they were to destroy all statues (and certainly they weren’t to build their own, see Golden Calf, The).

‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’ — Numbers 33:51-53

They weren’t meant to be worried about preserving history, or ‘preserving the story’ of these other political/religious systems. That was the point; to keep these statues around was to keep these religions alive. To legitimise the story. To be captivated and captured by the gods they were meant to be removing. They were to not make statues or images of living things, or people, and give them religious significance; but they were to seek God by being people shaped by his story and his presence with them, first through the Tabernacle, and then the Temple. They were the images. The promised land was to be their new Eden; where they would be God’s priestly presence to the world. Their use of space was meant to tell that story. In Deuteronomy 4 the Exodus is described as being like the fire used to make statues or images, on Israel as a nation, while they’re told not to make their own images in these fires. And then we get the 10 Commandments restated in Deuteronomy 5 (because remember how well that went last time, see Golden Calf, The).

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” — Deuteronomy 5:8-9

While we’re on public space, it’s interesting to see how the ‘architecture of belief’ is a factor that Deuteronomy raises for Israel; there aren’t really neutral uses of public space, it has to be approached in connection with a story. So Israel will find itself with a new architecture: “a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12), and they’ll be tempted to forget God, the God without statues, and his story, and so be shaped instead by these things (and maybe, any statues they don’t knock down). To help this memory exercise; to help public spaces (and private spaces) testify to their place in the world, Israel was to: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 7:5-6).

Public space matters; statues aren’t neutral or simply ‘political’ — they’re religious. They’re also not simply ‘religious’ — they’re political. They shape our stories and our shared vision of life together.

In the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Israelites have been returned (like a captured flag) from exile in Babylon (then Persia); they’ve rebuilt a temple (see Ezra-Nehemiah (as the separate books in the Old Testament) under Persian rule, but then they’ve been smashed again and occupied. The “Second Temple” built by Ezra and crew (in the 400s BC) has been radically renovated by the Herod family (specifically Herod the Great, in the late first century BC). Before this rebuild the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, learning from the playbook of the ancient world and the religious/political use of public space, has, in an invasion of Jerusalem, set up idol statues on the altar in Israel’s temple, rededicating it as a Temple to Zeus. The book of 1 Maccabees tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world as they knew it, and Antiochus Epiphanes succeeding him as king of the Greek empire; including Israel. It’s here that the writers of the Maccabees see this as the fulfilment of a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a future ‘Abomination that causes desolation’ or a ‘desolating sacrilege’:

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah.” — 1 Maccabees 1:41-54

Here’s a foreign king practicing Deuteronomy style conquest on Israel.

Here’s a foreign king altering (altaring) the public architecture of Israel to change its religion and politics.

Here’s a foreign king conducting the ‘desolating sacrilege’ of altering a people’s public religion by putting up statues.

In the ancient world, politics was sacred business.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t true today. History unfolded religiously, and continues to; the church played a part in this as the Roman empire Christianised. The Medieval period was one where rulers continued to be viewed as those appointed by God to rule (ala Romans 13); the Reformation survived and thrived thanks to the political protection of rulers and movements won over by its theological (and political) vision. In Dominion, Tom Holland argues that even the secularity of the modern west is a fruit of religious convictions (specifically, Christian ones). While our public landscape in the late, secular, west isn’t as explicitly Christian in its architecture (you won’t find many statues of Dagon, Gudea, or Zeus), our public spaces are still surrounded by the architecture of modern religion — city halls, clock towers, sky scrapers, casinos, banks, and statues. Statues of people because modern political-religion in a particularly secular form is not pluralist — we don’t recognise that our culture is one where many religions come together in both contest and tension — it’s humanist, our civic religion doesn’t happen in a contest of “transcendent” visions of the good, where our statues throw us beyond ourselves to a vision of the good that comes from the gods; in our secular vision we are the gods, and these figures from history serve our political agenda; we just forget that our politics is inherently, still, an expression of our religion.

The statues Antiochus Epiphanes erected in Jersualem are part of the city’s history — but they were rightly torn down as its history continued. The tearing down of the statues of Zeus were also a form of desacration — a denial of the sacred vision of the Greek empire; all tearing down of statues is religious and desecrating; because public space is actually sacred space; it’s just our vision of the sacred has collapsed to ‘the political’ not ‘the political as an expression of the religious’… This is a slightly different view of the distinction between secular and sacred offered by, for example, Mirsolav Volf in his critique of those rejoicing that Donald Trump conducted his own desolating sacrilege recently, with his Bible-in-hand photo opp (the criticism that the church he’s standing in front of has long abandoned traditional Christian teaching about the literal resurrection of Jesus is, in itself, another desecration).

Volf says (on Facebook):

“Some evangelicals think that public religious gestures (e.g. Trump’s holding the Bible) will halt secularization. They won’t. They ENACT SECULARIZATION: they put the sacred to profane use that’s contrary to the character of the sacred. That’s desecration and secularization.” 

There’s something to this critique; but it does reinforce a secular-sacred divide that just isn’t actually there. Trump’s act was explicitly political and religious — it just wasn’t Christian. It was more like Gudea, and the conquering God-kings of the ancient world, than Jesus. His act in public space, for an image-opp — creating a statue-like moment in the form of pixels — like the tearing down of statues — was both desecration of a religious view (in his case, Christianity, rather than “secularism”), and its own expression of a view of the sacred. The ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ — locked in a culture war, are actually locked in a religious-political war; a war built on acts of desecration of the other’s religious architecture and attempts to replace those icons with one’s own. Modern expressions of the ancient game of capture the flag; modern attempts to create the most egregiously offensive or “triggering” acts (photo opps or statue destruction) to both demoralise the other and radicalise one’s own base. ISIS has been playing the same game in its destruction of what are now seen as only religious symbols (and only from history) — rather than political and religious symbols of previous regimes; at least they’re being theologically (and historically) consistent.

And so I wonder, if Jesus were to walk onto the battle field of the culture war, would both sides unite to execute him all over again.

Because that’s what happened in Israel.

The side who were all about religious and moral purity and the Temple (but who had turned the temple into a house of robbers; desecrating it) conspired with the side who had built the Temple to secure political power, while killing any from Israel who would oppose him (Herod and family put to death those opposed to their rule on the basis that they were Idumeans, Herod the Great’s son Archelus, erected a statue of an eagle on the temple, killed those who took it down, then massacred 3,000 people in the following riots in the Temple, and then cancelled Passover), conspired with the Romans (who were busy deifying Caesar, installing images of Julius and Augustus all over the empire) and had Jesus executed for political and religious reasons.

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Caesar did too, and the Jews knew he was claiming to be divine, in that claim; a threat to their religious and political status quo.

Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews. Caesar and Herod did too. This was the charge brought to Pilate, who had no choice under Roman law but to crucify someone committing this sort of treason, to make them a public image of what happened to opponents of Rome; a sacred statement, not just a political one, and for the leaders of Israel an act of desecration to remove any sacred claims Jesus was making.

Here’s the thing.

In the Gospels, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple; the ultimate desecration of God’s sacred presence in the world. In John’s Gospel we get the explicit interpretive guide that he isn’t talking about what Rome will do in 70AD, but what Rome, and Israel, will do to him in 33AD. That he is the Temple. That the crucifixion then is the ultimate act of desecration; an ultimate political and religious expression. Perhaps when Jesus, after talking about the ‘destruction of the Temple’ in Matthew 24, says:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand…”

He’s not talking about a new Antiochus, dedicating the Temple to Zeus. He’s not talking about Nero rolling through Jerusalem with his armies in 30 years… He’s talking about the sacrilegious destruction of God’s most sacred image.

He’s not talking about Trump with a Bible.

He’s not talking about the tearing down of statues in public spaces.

He’s talking about the destruction of God’s divine image, orchestrated in the place that is meant to be his presence in the world; by those whose job it is to manage his house, the Temple.

The crucifixion is the abomination of desolation. It is the ultimate statue toppling act. A political and religious statement.

A profound treatment of a religious image — one that has ultimate significance not just to those who worship him; but to God — “the image of the invisible God” — the one true priestly representative of God, the “exact representation of his being”… To follow Jesus and enter his kingdom is both a religious and political act. And the political systems of this world — that aren’t the kingdom of God — are geared up for his execution.

And maybe, just maybe, our politics — as people who claim to follow Jesus — should be shaped by how we treat images of God, and where how we do politics and religion as those made and given the vocation of being images of God; and maybe as our politics gets distorted so that we see other image bearers of God as enemies in a “culture war” so that we get caught up in games of capture the flag or ‘desecrate their idols’ (like those excited at pulling down statues of dead humans) or ‘defend out idols’ (like those excited to keep statues in public spaces to prop up an idolatrous civic religion), while ‘making our own idols’ or defending those who make them (like those excited about Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church and the ‘Christianisation of space’) — maybe we’re just becoming those people who wouldn’t recognise Jesus if he looked us in the eye; but would kill him instead. And maybe that’s what actually unites those people playing culture war politics games, politicising religion — a rejection of the kingdom of Jesus, in favour of little man made gods. It was stupid when it was Gudea; stupid when Antiochus Epiphanes did it; and it’s stupid now.

It’s interesting to ask what political or religious idolatry would lead those on your ‘side’ of politics — of the culture wars — if that’s the game you’re playing — to kill Jesus? Because all the sides of the first century’s culture war suddenly agreed on that being the absolute best thing to do in the moment; so they could go back to fighting each other undisrupted.

You might want to pretend that Jesus plays the culture war for the right team, or the left team. But that’s to create a Jesus in your image. There were ‘righties’ and ‘lefties’ in Jesus’ day too; and the idea that your side has exclusive access to the truth and an exclusive mandate to conduct divine political and religious business here in the world, by building an empire, well… that gets to some ugly places fast in history — and it’s tricky to maintain when other followers of Jesus have different politics to yours.

Maybe our call isn’t to play the game of ‘idol building’ or ‘idol destroying’ but pointing to the one God raised up? Maybe we should trust this to hollow out the value of other idols? Maybe we should see this as the task of building our own alternative polis, in and through the church (as a people).

Maybe we should look to Paul in Athens; who didn’t come in to a public square saturated with political and religious imagery with a sledgehammer; but seeking to understand why they’d carved the things they’d carved out of stone; what good might be affirmed in the quest for truth he saw in their political and religious systems, so that he could connect the good with the search for God, and maybe we could help people meet the unknown God behind their religiousity, their politics, their pursuit of the good, in ‘the man God has appointed’ through his resurrection, so that we might find the God we’re reaching for. Maybe we’re not meant to be culture warriors — because that’s a path to killing a Jesus who doesn’t line up with our cultural expectations — maybe we’re meant to be peacemakers, who follow Jesus and so make space for others. Paul introduces a new God to the Athenian landscape, not by building a temple, but by being an image bearer of that God who speaks in a way that heralds his truth, and tells his story.

When he gets to Ephesus (a couple of chapters later) he disrupts the statue making economy of Ephesus — a city built on a more monotheistic love for one particular God — by, again — proclaiming the one true God. The city riots. He doesn’t smash Artemis statues down, and melt them in the fire, he pronounces a better, more loving, God — the God we meet in Jesus. Public space occupies a profoundly interesting place in the narratives in Acts, and Paul introduces Jesus to crowded and contested public space not by knocking other gods down, but by hollowing out their value, and pointing the hearts that find meaning in alternative religions and political systems to Jesus and his kingdom. By joining, by affirming, but also by differentiating, and offering a better story — not just hard opposition — and he doesn’t even get out the sledgehammer when his (right) methods fail to see others take up the sledgehammer.

He is not a cultural warrior; he’s an ambassador for the crucified king.

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Memories be damned: On the modern hunt for the perfect image of humanity

Scenes of protestors tearing down statues of figures from history around the world this week have prompted conversations here in Australia about what to do with our monuments to people with stories, that from our perspective here in the future have become problematised. If the conversations aren’t happening already around the names of some of our universities — James Cook, Deakin, and Macquarie — then you can be sure they will be soon. When the moral code of the present is applied to towering figures of the past — especially those memorialised as statues in public places; held up as examples to us all, cultural and architectural reminders of our story — it becomes clear those figures have feet of clay. A new story for our cultural moment means a hunt for new icons from past and present.

History is an important teacher, and while erasing these figures from our national, or international, stories might help us forget some sordid aspects of our racist past here in the west, their removal will not necessarily guarantee a better future. It will also remove, with the clay feet, those good deeds that these figures performed; as Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. One photo of a plaque to Winston Churchill, defaced with the word “racist,” that I saw this week on Twitter was framed with the statement “wait till they hear about the other guy.”

In the Roman world statues were a popular form of propaganda; those looking to gain favour with the empire would commission and build statues of the imperial household, and these statues would become icons that dictated fashion, even hairstyles, throughout the Roman world. The Greco-Roman world were no stranger to a good old fashioned statue toppling either; an orator named Favorinus had so pleased the people of Corinth that they erected a statue to him, putting him on a pedestal in the city’s library, as an example of the sort of oratorical skill and thoughtfulness they hoped their city might aspire to. In a speech Favorinus gave to the Corinthians about this honour he said they placed his image “where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.” This quote comes in a speech Favorinus gives to the Corinthians having returned to the city to discover his statue — a monument to him as an icon — is no longer standing; he accuses the Corinthians of a personal attack.

There was a common practice in the ancient world of ‘damnatio memoriae,’ a latinism with a meaning not so difficult to decipher in English; the eradication of a person from memory via the destruction of their icon; a collective refusal to view a person as an icon or image from whom a culture seeks inspiration or example. This, of course, was an expensive practice when statues were carved of marble, by artisans, so such damnation could include the defacing of an inscription, or the reuse of marble slabs in promenades; a toppled statue could literally be trodden into the ground. Another Roman practice tied to this sort of cultural iconography, and perhaps to save on costs, was the practice of producing statue bodies with removable heads; people could check in on who was trending (and what fashion to adopt), knowing the statues and their iconography would keep pace with the political and cultural times.

Recent iconoclastic rallies are, rightly, asking questions about whose images should be used to inspire today’s youth (and the not so young). What human from history (or the present) is fit to serve as an inspiration for ‘the good’? Selecting someone to semi-immortalise in a more concrete form than the flesh is difficult in the present, and made almost impossible with the benefit of hindsight and progress. Sporting figures being celebrated for their sporting prowess seem safe, after all, King Wally is still the king of Lang Park; and yet, while ‘image rights’ are an increasingly valuable commodity in the sporting world, if there’s one thing media coverage of the off field exploits of many of today’s athletes tells us, it’s that athletic prowess should not qualify someone as an icon or example. It’s better for companies to celebrate athletes in pixel and print, than in stone or bronze.

Part of the question about making a statue (or tearing one down) is a question of who should represent us; who should present an image to us of the ideal person, who should we aspire to be? But another function of images is that they serve as objects in a cultural architecture, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘a social imaginary,’ they help frame our beliefs, values, and understanding of virtue. It seems right to be careful about whose visage or name we memorialise, and right to be prepared to damn some icons or even tred them into the ground; but another question we might ask ourselves is what this realisation that even our heroes in history had feet of clay, is perhaps we should be asking ourselves about the danger of iconography to begin with. The anger we feel when an icon; or an ideal; disappoints; that anger might be because these icons have become idols. In the ancient world the line between icon and idol was a fairly blurry one; the same images on street corners of the imperial family could also be found in imperial temples dedicated to the worship of the Caesars, alongside the Roman pantheon. Perhaps these objects are actually occupying a ‘sacred’ space in a modern civic religion; one where we’ve pushed out the old gods, or God, and turned to people to fill a place previously occupied by something transcendent. Perhaps what we’re seeing in the toppling of these statues is an act of desecration; a deliberate renunciation of previous forms of worship, or religion, or visions of the good life, so that we might replace the religious symbols of the past, and their representation with a previous story, with images that we, in the present, wish to create.

And maybe here there is some wisdom in those ancient words that are, sometimes themselves, erected as stone monuments near civic institutions; the ‘Ten Commandments’ — God’s commands, through Moses, to the people of Israel. Commandment number two is a prohibition against making and worshipping ‘graven images,’ this is part of what was meant to be an Israelite commitment to monotheism; a rejection of the icons and gods of the surrounding nations, based on a wholehearted commitment to worshipping the God who could not be reduced to an image. The God of the Bible is a living, breathing, creating God who gives life to his own living, breathing, images (or icons in the Greek text of the Old Testament). Part of the prohibition of icons and idols is that people — typically ancient rulers — will never properly represent the goodness of God or a truly good pattern of humanity; to worship them, or an image of any other thing, is to commit yourself, to aspire, to becoming like them. You become what you worship. The choice about what to immortalise in bronze or stone is an important one — and in the moral vision of the Bible, we’re better off not making that choice at all; remembering that humans are humans who will disappoint, who will be capable of good and right choices, but who will — in the Bible’s vision — always be ‘dust’ infused with divine breath; with feet of clay, and hearts capable of leading us to both goodness and evil.

In the story of the Bible there is one true image of the good human life; one true icon who should be imitated. Jesus, who the apostle Paul describes as “the image of the Invisible God,” the one good man. As statues and icons are toppled in modern damnatio memoriae, the image of Jesus remains the image of a human who did no wrong, who stood for the oppressed rather than the oppressor, who because all people are made in the image of God, offered his life to secure life for us, who loved and forgave his enemies and taught us to do likewise, even as the powerful rulers of his day, those busy building statues of themselves, created a system that was used to put him to death; crucifixion was a certain sort of damnatiomemoriae in the Roman world, and yet it is Jesus, not Caesar, whose memory stands the test of time, and who stands as one hero from history whose example is worth turning to even now.

On Cultural Marxism, Capitalism and Christianity as a third way

There’s what seems like a coordinated push from hard-right Christian media and social media outlets this week to raise awareness about the dangers of ‘cultural Marxism.’ Here, for example, is a quote from the ACL’s Martyn Iles in his third post linking “Black Lives Matter” to cultural Marxism.

“Black Lives Matter: not what it says on the tin.

It is so important to exercise discernment – a virtue mentioned dozens of times in scripture, essential to living wisely.

There are many labels doing the rounds at present – Black Lives Matter, Safe Schools, Extinction Rebellion, Liberation Theology… and others.

Each of these attractive labels has a surface appeal, but masks what lies within. They are fronts for Cultural Marxism.

The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.

These deceptions alarm people.

They recruit people’s emotional support for an anti-Christ political cause.”

Now. Before I go much further, I think it’s worth making a distinction in our conversations around race issues between Black Lives MatterTM (@blklivesmatter), and “Black lives matter” the statement, and #blacklivesmatter the hashtag. One way to imagine the distinction would look like:

“Because black lives matter that we should rally against systemic racism, and also because #blacklivesmatter, we should ask @blklivesmatter to reconsider its position on abortion.”

This would, as an example, use the phrase to affirm a truth: black lives do matter. Connect the use of that phrase to a conversation on Twitter, where #blacklivesmatter works as a hashtag, and address a concern that one might have with the Black Lives Matter organisation and its vision of the good. One might stand with @blklivesmatter on its diagnosis of the problems in our western society, and the way white privilege works systemically to disenfranchise non-white people, and see how historic injustices like slavery or dispossession continue to work themselves out today (so they’re not really history) without sharing @blklivesmatter’s solutions to the problem.

Others, like my friend David Ould have a principled disagreement (along the lines of avoiding association with evil) that I think is both an example of the sort of prescriptive v descriptive word games I’ve mentioned before, and too much of a concession around terminology (rather than entering a contest) to one party in a conversation. If the meaning of words is contested, rather than fixed, more people are able to enter a conversation, bringing more perspectives and richness to the commons. Objections to participating in the Black Lives Matter cause or conversation tend to, at one level, conflate entity, statement, and hashtag and treat them as a monolithic identity marking thing — and then some, like Iles, jump from that monolith to this idea of “cultural marxism.”

It’s not just Iles who’s on the warpath against “cultural Marxism” — you can find articles in The Spectator from the Presbyterian Church’s very own Mark Powell titled ‘Cultural Marxism’s War On Freedom‘ (and if one was to play Presbyterian assembly bingo you can tick off that box on your sheet just about every time Mark speaks about a social issue), you can follow the dirt sheets at Caldron Pool where, for example, young Ben Davis says “Cultural Marxism is a poison eroding the West from within and we need to know how to identify it,” the definition this piece offers is:

“One of the ways in which relativism has influenced society is through Cultural Marxism, or “Social Justice”. Like Classical Marxism, Cultural Marxism is an inherently divisive ideology. Where Classical Marxism was concerned with class warfare between the wealthy and the working class, Cultural Marxism shifts the focus to imagined conflicts between the privileged oppressive majority and the disadvanced oppressed minorities.

Which category a person falls into is determined by certain aspects of that individual’s identity, such as gender, skin colour, sexual preferences, family, ethnicity, culture, and religion.”

The “Canberra Declaration” an obtuse right-wing Christian thinktank, defines Cultural Marxism as “a secular philosophy that views all of life through the lens of a power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor,” where:

“The oppressor is usually an aspect of traditional Western society such as the family, capitalism, democracy, or Christianity. The oppressed is anyone who is or who feels marginalised by these institutions, depending on the cultural and political debates of the moment.”

Using word or hashtags (like ‘privilege’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘systemic injustice’ or ‘patriarchy’) — even to acknowledge those as categories — can trigger an avalanche of despair from anti-social justice warriors who want to stamp cultural marxism out of the system; and certainly want to prevent anything like “cultural marxism” slipping into the church; in doing so these political activists end up setting up a boundary marker around the Gospel such that anyone to their left is either a ‘woke panderer,’ or partnering with an anti-Christ, or both. Here’s Iles again:

“I condemn Black Lives Matter because they are a Marxist movement.

Marxism is anti-Christ.

They substitute sin with power.

They substitute the individual with the tribe, imputing guilt, innocence, and judgement to collective groups, not responsible people.

They absolve guilt, not by repentance, but by claiming victim status. Sin is justified for some tribes.

They do not absolve guilt for all. It cannot be absolved for the wrong tribes.

They exist to agitate, tear down, create chaos, divide, and destroy. That is the cultural Marxist objective – wreck the joint; destroy the system; do it violently.”

“Anti-Christ” is very loaded and evocative terminology in Christian circles; it draws on beastly satanic imagery (and eschatological conspiracies about end times); and it is pretty much the ultimate statement of anathema. Thing is, the Bible is quite careful to describe the term:

“Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” — 1 John 2:18-23

Now, this isn’t to say that the Bible doesn’t speak about political systems and structures to condemn them; it does; it tends towards describing those structures as beastly, animalistic, following in the footsteps of that dragon/serpent Satan. Revelation is loaded with this sort of imagery with the finger pointed squarely at worldly power. But more on that below…

What it uses the term ‘antichrist’ for is for those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, those that “deny the Father and the Son,” those who were once part of the people of God, who have “gone out from us” — for John this is probably people returning to Judaism denying that Jesus has been raised from the dead (see this post to flesh this out a bit). To be antichrist is to deny substantial and fundamentally important truths about Jesus; it is not to subscribe to a particular political system, or to use terminology to enter discussion with those subscribed to a particular political system.

But interestingly, each of the figures I mention above — Iles, Powell, and the writers of Caldron Pool — have, in the last 12 months, very carefully and closely aligned themselves with one who fits this bill: a Trinity denying modalist who denies that Jesus, the son, came in the flesh, denying father and son (by saying only the father, named Jesus Christ, exists). Iles in particular did his very best to position this figure as a Christian for the sake of his politics and fundraising, despite being given substantial evidence for this person’s theology.

But back to “Cultural Marxism”…

One of the problems I have with the attack on cultural marxism is that part of the critique is a critique of the idea of systemic sin, built on an argument that there is systemic sin at play in our institutions. What the noise about cultural marxism really boils down to is a feeling amongst a subset of conservatives that they are losing the culture war because they’ve lost control of cultural institutions.

If the so-called left, including the “black lives matter” conversation, is suggesting that systemic racism is a problem, and that part of the problem is with a ‘hegemony’ consisting of white people (typically males) who control political, economic, and cultural institutions, and so set patterns of behaviour in order to hold on to the status quo of wealth and power, at the exclusion and expense of others; and if this is “cultural marxism” — then the so-called right is responding by suggesting a conspiracy  where a system of leftists (the cultural marxists) are conducting a long march through the institutions. This leftist system now apparently seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct public belief, behaviour, and discourse. It’s actually “systemic set of sins A” v “systemic set of sins B” — and Christians should have issues siding with either. We have our own kingdom, with our own king.

While I’m happy enough for ‘cultural marxism’ to be a contested descriptor of a certain element of the left, I think it’s dangerous to use it prescriptively, to label and dismiss a group of people (and I’m struck by how often the same people not happy to use Black Lives Matter because of its political association are happy to use “cultural marxism” with no regard to its political associations). I don’t use it as a label or to open up discussions with those on the so-called left because it’s not a description they would typically apply to themselves, and it is a term with troubling origins. Aussie scholar Rob Smith has a long article on Cultural Marxism and its origins as a school of thought in Themelios that concludes:

“Given the existence of conspiratorial explanations of the nature and goals of Cultural Marxism, is there a case for avoiding the term and using an alternative (e.g., neo-Marxism or Critical Theory)? In my view, there is no inherent problem with the label, but Christians ought to be careful with how (and to whom) it is applied. It really can function as a kind of “weaponised narrative” that paints anyone who gets tagged with it as being “beyond the pale of rational discourse.” It can even be a way of dismissing fellow believers who display a concern for justice or environmental issues or who are mildly optimistic about the possibilities of cultural transformation. We should certainly discuss and debate such matters, but Carl Trueman is right: “Bandying terms like ‘cultural Marxist’ … around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.”

One might then ask if the Caldron Pool, Canberra Declaration, Spectator articles and Martyn Iles’ recent Facebook posts manage to clear the jump of ‘avoiding real argument’ and bandying the term around to create a boogeyman, and dismiss other perspectives from fellow Christians.

I was convinced by Christian friends with some Marxist sympathies (especially because of the Marxist critique of capitalism), that ‘cultural marxism’ is an unhelpful pejorative, or snarl, that shuts down dialogue between Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians on the so-called left, so I don’t use it. I was probably more convinced by an analysis of the phrase “cultural marxism” from the guys at The Eucatastrophe (here’s part 1) than I was by Smith’s take. I do use other ‘contested’ terms in order to open up dialogue with those same groups, and I’m increasingly aware that this closes down dialogue with those on the so-called Christian right, either because my use of terminology makes me a ‘woke panderer’ or because my descriptive use of language (and post-modernism) is an affront to their modernist prescriptivism. I’m yet to be convinced that ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ aren’t essentially Biblical terms that align with the Biblical picture of sin. That’s an area for me to consider carefully. I do think the dominant Christian voices in my tradition tend to conflate ‘Christian’ and ‘right wing’ in ways that exclude those on the left so my bias is towards including or embracing those who might otherwise feel excluded by default.

If I were ‘code switching’ and speaking to my friends on the Christian right, or just secular conservatives, I’d be acknowledging a particular agenda from the left wrapped up in deconstruction, and cancel culture, and attacks on free speech, religious freedom (in some forms) and occasional attempts to enshrine a particularly gnostic view of sexuality and gender that denies the reality of bodily sex in favour of feelings. I’d acknowledge that there are certain expressions of marxism, and certainly its solutions beyond the toppling of capitalism and oppressive power structures, that are just as evil.

I’d reject the idea that it might be ‘better the devil we know’ and suggest a Christian approach to politics might be one that seeks to obey Jesus, and for Christians to be people of virtue who practice the “golden rule” while taking up our cross rather than our sword. I’d acknowledge that the secular left is unforgiving, and weaponises shame, having watched cancel culture attack a prominent Aussie barista this week, and J.K Rowling. I’d suggest it’s odd that “the left” wants to pit Donald Trump (the big evil) against Martin Luther King (the big good) in this present moment, while ignoring significant evidence that MLK should’ve been “cancelled” because #himtoo. I’d acknowledge that culture wars and politics as a zero sum game are destructive to civility, pluralism, the ability to coexist, democracy as an acknowledgment of the equality of all (rather than the victory of the winners), and ultimately to our ability to love our neighbour.

These figures on the so-called “Christian right” might pretend to be acting neutrally, but by supporting a status quo (especially a capitalist one as opposed to a Marxist one, as though there are only binary options for our economics) are identifying their own version of systemic or structural sin to condemn the identification of structural sin as antichrist.

What might be true of a leftist conspiracy, where a system is developed to fight a culture war could also be just as true of a rightist conspiracy. The right’s antithesis to cultural marxism, where the so called ‘free market,’ and individual autonomy and the right to own property (including, as Locke put it, the idea that an individual person is a property in their own right) is just as systemic. And ultimately the market is actually controlled by a group of people (those who decide the rules of the game and serve as gatekeepers), and the whole game is rigged to benefit people who fit with, and perpetuate, the status quo (we might call these people ‘the privileged,’ and these people might include me). If the left enshrines various ‘identities’ as idols, the right enshrines money, property, and personal autonomy.

There is nothing sub-Biblical about the idea that sin and curse are enshrined in structures that oppress. This is a thoroughly Biblical idea — and it’s a double edged sword. It cuts down the utopian eschatology of both the left, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if we get rid of some bourgeois class of oppressor and their oppressive structures (especially capitalism), and the right, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if individuals are free to own and accumulate property and wealth according to their ability (with no acknowledgment of the way this might play out intergenerationally, and that greed might occur and massively distort the market at the expense of those without that same intergenerational cachet). Both ideologies are beastly without Jesus, and neither totally align with the kingdom of God as we see it revealed in Jesus in his death, resurrection, ascension, pouring out of the Spirit, and his eventual return to make all things new.

Christians should not be surprised that sinful people form communities (and political visions) around idols, and that as we do this, our sin becomes enculturated and forms the structures and norms of life together.

This is precisely what idolatry does to the nations around Israel, and precisely what happens to Israel when they become like the nations and choose to worship created things instead of the creator. Our common objects of love — and whether we’re in lefty sub culture or righty sub culture — our common political visions — will form and deform us, and they don’t simply do this internally but as we build societies, cultural artefacts, relationships, and systems to pursue these (idolatrous) visions of the good. To suggest that this sort of system is never built along racial lines is to ignore the testimony of the Old Testament; but these systems are also built along ‘market’ or economic lines too.

The Bible is not neutral about questions of power; specifically about questions of dominion, and the abuse of power where instead of cooperating in spreading God’s dominion over the face of the earth as his image bearing gardeners, we turn to seek domination over one another and enshrine that in nation v nation, or culture v culture contests. Ultimately the Bible pits God’s kingdom as revealed in the crucified, resurrected, exalted, spirit-giving, and returning Christ against the beastly kingdoms of this world.

Systemic racism is a feature of the Old Testament; peoples who, by virtue of belonging to one nation, oppress outsiders, is a feature of the Biblical narrative. The answer is not political revolution from one idol to another; the answer is Jesus. Now, Iles wants to acknowledge this too; but his Jesus has nothing to say to those oppressed in this world by power structures, because his system somehow wants to deny that power structures can be oppressive. And this, ultimately, is sub-Biblical — especially in that if fails to grapple with the way “Babylon” and beastliness work in the narrative of the Bible from beginning to end (and Egypt before it). Babylon becomes a cypher for Rome in the New Testament; but it really is just any empire that makes power and dominion — a kind of ‘might is right, take what you want’ mentality its fundamental way of life; it shouldn’t be hard to recognise ‘take what you want’ as one of the most basic pictures of sin (think Adam and Eve in the garden), but here’s a little primer on how all this works; and how the Bible is not just concerned about freedom from slavery to Satan, but about the creation of a world where Satan’s pattern of behaviour does not infiltrate and influence human government (whether in the guise of right or left).

In the Bible’s creation account, God’s image bearing people are given this task of exercising power as God’s agents in the world (Genesis 1:27); they are to use this in life giving ways that allow humanity to flourish and multiply; to ‘fill the earth’ — the picture we get of what a filled earth should look like is in Eden. People were made to cooperate with one another as God’s agents, in partnership with God, working in this garden like world, taking natural resources (Gen 2 mentions gold, etc) to spread the conditions of a good and flourishing life. There’s no sense of private home ownership (or even total self-autonomy here, as Adam and Eve belong to each other); there is a sense of God’s ownership and our stewardship. When Adam and Eve desire and take the fruit; when they usurp God’s rule, part of the curse is that their cooperation is broken, and their relationship will now be marked and marred by how power is used (Genesis 3:16). Later, when humans conspire to build Babel — a towering monument to human achievement — God scatters people into lots of nations so that they might not seek this glory and autonomy again. This is an archetypal storyline about the human condition and our relationship with God as creator; the attempt to build Babel is a particularly obvious example of ‘structural sin’ — of people working together to enshrine particular sins as both a very visible ‘norm’ and an architectural feature that would’ve testified and enshrined a particular story about human achievement, power, and dominion.

We’ll come back to the Biblical storyline in a moment — it’s just worth noting some parallel stories from the ancient world; especially in Babylon (the relationship between ‘Babel’ and ‘Babylon’ is not a coincidence). The Biblical story has an interesting relationship with Babylon’s alternative story — its vision of the good life. The Babylonian story does not have a hospitable God who makes a garden and tasks people with fruitful multiplication; in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian gods are gods of chaos and dominion. The earth is created out of the dead body of a god after a god-v-god war; the winner and chief god, Marduk, gets to build a monument to himself; Babel is ultimately his city, and people are made as servants of this hungry god of power and conquest. This is the story that shapes the life of Babylonian people in the ancient world, and defines their picture of kingship. Those who are outside of this god’s particular people; outside his city; are to be oppressed and conquered and put to work for the people who work for the god. This is based on race. It creates an oppressive group of people and an oppressed group of people. This is before Marx. Obviously.

In the Genesis story, God makes people and eventually these people want to build a stairway to heaven to ascend and take God’s glorious place in the sky; only to have the ‘Babel project’ — their empire — frustrated by God. In the Babylonian world, the gods fashion people but also build Babylon as the city where they descend from the heavens to feast on the earth, enjoying the slave labor of the people they’ve made. The Enuma Elish has Marduk describing his building of the great city of Babylon as a stairway between heaven and earth:

“Beneath the celestial parts, whose floor I made firm,
I will build a house to be my luxurious abode.
Within it I will establish its shrine,
I will found my chamber and establish my kingship.
When you come up from the Apsû to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
When you descend from heaven to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
I shall call its name ‘Babylon’, “The Homes of the Great Gods”

There’s lots of scholarship out there suggesting that the Tower of Babel is meant to be pictured as a ‘Ziggurat’ — a building functioning as a resting place for the gods, and a stairway between heaven and earth; the Biblical story offers a critique of the sort of worldly power and empire of Babylon right from the beginning (including its vision of ‘images of God’ — who is, and isn’t, an image bearer, and how images are made).

God’s people are not to be “Babylonian” — and part of what defines Babylon is the systemic oppression of those who are not Babylonians. Babylon, as the ultimate destination of Israel’s exile from God, is foreshadowed in Egypt. Egypt is its own oppressive system — a system built on structural or systemic racism. Hebrews are made slaves in Egypt by virtue of their ethnicity. They are oppressed. A system of sin and opposition to God is established that enslaves God’s people; and God cares not just about their pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die spiritual salvation from sin; but a fully embodied emancipation from slavery and systems of oppression; and Israel is specifically not to become an oppressive system; remembering how they were treated in, and saved from, Egypt.

Babylon gives was to Persia, gives way to Greece, gives way to Rome — each of these empires is a human empire built on dominion, and power, and systemic/structural institutionalisation of sin via stories about what it means to be human, the nature of the gods, and why their particular culture is superior to all others (as justification for conquest). Empires in the Bible are systematised sin built around idolatrous worship of things other than God. Empires in the Bible oppress and create victims. God’s people — Adam and Eve, Israel, the church — are called out of empire, out of these systems of sin, and into the people of God so that we become citizens of heaven and ambassadors of Jesus, being transformed into his image. While the so called ‘left’ might envisage an empire built on the destruction of a variety of institutions it deems oppressive, and progress through a reconstruction or redistribution of power from the oppressor to the oppressed — the so called ‘right’ envisages an empire built on power, dominion, and money. It wants to conserve an idolatrous status quo.

Babylon never really disappears; as I mentioned above the book of Revelation equates Babylon with the prosperous market-driven, military powered, dominion of worldly kingdoms — specifically those kingdoms that set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of God. Those on the Christian right are quick to point the finger at Marxism for its hostility to Christianity (viewed as an oppressor, post Christendom), but very slow to point the finger at the right’s coopting of Christianity for its own power games (*cough* Trump *cough*), or to deny that the status quo in the west could possibly share anything in common with Rome, or Babylon, and be oppressive in its unfettered pursuit of wealth and the good life here and now. Greed is idolatry. Idolatry is inherently destructive. Politically enshrined idolatry is oppressive and destructive to those ‘outside the kingdom.’

Marxism, “cultural” or otherwise, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Capitalism, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Marxism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct capitalism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

Capitalism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of Marxism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct marxism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

To deny that human systems enslave and create victims, oppressor and oppressed, or to suggest Jesus does nothing but automatically save us and provide the good life, is to preach a Gospel that simply enshrines the political status quo, rather than critiquing it through the lens of the Gospel. It is to promote a gnostic Gospel that is only concerned about the Spiritual dimension of life; not a Gospel where Jesus came to offer a different political vision, to create an alternative polis where power is used quite differently.

And this is exactly what Martyn Iles, in his crusade against “Cultural Marxism” is doing; propping up the status quo — capitalism — by spiritualising the Gospel and denying the presence of “victims” or “the oppressed”… Here he is again:

“You don’t need a skin colour to fall into the victim trap. Every one of us can find a way, because every one of us has disadvantages and setbacks in life. That’s the human condition.

But so long as Jesus lives, you are no victim. Not only do you have all the blessings of God’s common grace each day, but He offers you everything, no matter who you are, when you deserved nothing, no matter who you are.

Like I keep saying, the God of the universe offers each one of us the greatest equality in the world. All of us need to get out of our seat in the dust and realise that.”

Iles does not acknowledge the way sin is not just a spiritual reality affecting our relationship with God, but a reality affecting our treatment of one another; that sin affects the experience of people in the world, and that this clearly affects some people disproportionally (think the Hebrews in Egypt). Faith in Jesus does not automatically end oppression; the return of Jesus to make all things new does; a world free of sin, and curse, and beastly governments. Iles ends up preaching an incomplete Gospel because he has a narrow view of sin, and so a small Jesus. He says of the anti-christ left:

“The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.”

I’d say Iles himself ends up with a Gospel that minimises the importance of the divinity of Jesus and the Triune character of God by elevating the political; with a Jesus more concerned about righteousness, natural order, and sexual purity than those oppressed by injustice the abuse of power, denying the impact of sin on the physical world (whether the environment or human relationships), and a Jesus who is only interested in some disembodied heavenly future. A Jesus you don’t find in, say, Luke’s Gospel.

A Jesus who arrives on the scene as Caesar Augustus is flexing his muscles and measuring his empire with a census; a Jesus whose arrival is announced as an expression of God’s character, the God who, in Mary’s song:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.” — Luke 1:52-53

Who launches his ministry in Luke by announcing Jubilee; freedom for the oppressed, who then sets about contrasting his kingdom to the kingdom of Herod, Caesar, and Satan.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

There’s certainly a spiritual dimension to Jesus’ announcement; he is announcing the end of exile. But there’s also a physical dimension to his announcement; he is announcing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t news to Martyn; the ACL’s whole schtick is attempting to enshrine and create a certain vision of the kingdom of God here on earth, in part through worldly institutions, it’s just this kingdom looks a lot like ‘the right’… and a lot like victory over ‘the left’…

In the meantime, Christians have an alternative political vision to both Marxism and Capitalism; both left and right, and are also free to adopt the critiques of worldly power (and language) from those critiques in order to make the Gospel known. There will be Christians who, because of experience or observations of the world will be particularly attuned to the beastliness of capitalism and the worship of money and power, just as there will be Christians who will be attuned to the beastliness of ‘woke’ marxism and its deconstruction campaign. It serves nobody to label one side of that equation “antichrist” — so long as they’re not denying Father and Son in their politics.

If those on the right feel free to throw around “Cultural Marxism” as the greatest evil, they shouldn’t be surprised if those on the left throw around “Capitalism,” “systemic sin,” “systemic racism” or “black lives matter” in response. There’s a better way than the culture wars, inside or outside the church… The way of Jesus. Who calls us from all forms of idolatry, to have relationships redefined by a new form of worship and a new politics.

,

On #BlackLivesMatter, colour blindness, centering, and Aboriginal deaths in custody

I’m still learning lots about Australia’s racism problem.

You see, I’m white, I haven’t experienced racism, either overtly, or through my interactions with the structures and institutions that form part of Australian society — and even within the structures of the Australian church.

I’ve had position, and forms of power, given to me through my education, my employment, and my family’s relative prosperity, secured through generations of free education, inherited wealth and social capital, and through my own efforts in securing an education — primary, secondary, tertiary, and post graduate. I am an ordained member of an institutional church in Australia that requires people in my position to have a certain amount of privilege; the type that enables access to and success in an academic context. My denomination only affords this particular positional privilege to men. Its structures are rigid and built on tradition, as well as doctrine. One doesn’t have to be white to be a Presbyterian minister, in fact there are many non-white ministers and elders in our denomination, but it sure seems to help. One does have to be educated, and adhere to certain social and cultural norms. It’s hard for one to not conform to the parts of our culture that look pretty institutionalised and based on credentials that require a certain sort of privilege; the sort that often seems to limit the pool drawn from (you know, like judges and other positions draw from the same milieu, but also the same schools and suburbs).

It’s easy for people in our particular context, where once one has a platform, and so a voice, one assumes a degree of being there by merit, or calling, to assume there’s a sort of ‘colour blindness’ that should mark our interactions within this institution, and then to extrapolate that as a norm we’d like to see in a sort of post-racial society.

We might even project colourblindness on to God; arguing that this is the default way we’re called to see and treat one another, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile; we are all one in Christ Jesus. And yet, our oneness in Christ Jesus does not eradicate our difference — it’s a paradox, or tension, we are called to hold that is held up as part of the Bible’s own vision of the kingdom of God.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9

The Gospel of Jesus and our union with him does not eradicate distinction and difference, it unifies us across difference in our created purpose — loving God and enjoying him forever.

Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles made two mistakes in this area; one, suggesting that God is colour blind, the second, suggesting that because the organisation registered as BlackLivesMatter has a radical vision for the end of oppressive structures that might go beyond a Christian desire to see such structures (like family) redeemed and reconciled in Christ, that all use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag supports the boogeyman of marxism. His post fundamentally commits a kind of reverse ‘genetic fallacy’ in that it links a hashtag that emerged on Twitter, with an organisation that developed around the hashtag and the conversation it linked. Hashtags on social media are a way of participating in linked conversations in a democratised way; and these links can give rise to different movements; but to use a hashtag is to participate in a conversation, and to affirm a truth, it is not to affirm a movement, or an organisation.

I am actually colour blind. Red-green. Just, not on issues of race. A few years ago I was invited by Common Grace and Aunty Jean Phillips to speak at a seminar in Brisbane, and there I repented of the idea that to be a follower of Jesus is a call to be colour blind on issues of race. You can read the talk, which drew on the super-powered Mantis Shrimp, an animal that sees a much greater spectrum of colour than I do, to suggest that we are more aligned with God, and the kingdom re-imaged and re-imagined by Jesus, when we see colour (and ethnicity) than when we pretend not to. But here’s a passage from it…

“I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of Indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the way we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have Aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.”

In my ongoing process of confessing, and listening, and learning, I’ve continued to journey with Aunty Jean Phillips, and with Brooke Prentis, who is now the CEO of Common Grace; Aboriginal Christian leaders who have worked hard to draw the Australian church’s attention to racism at work in our nation and in our churches.

I find myself facing a dilemma now, because the more I listen and learn, the more aware I am of the privilege afforded to me; as one occupying a position ‘at the centre’ of power and influence in my denomination, with some platform in the wider church (because apparently some people read stuff). I enjoyed one of my institutional colleagues’ reflections on white privilege on Eternity News a couple of days ago, James Snare wrote:

“What I’m suggesting is that the ethical imperatives of Christ, the growing awareness of my own privilege and seeing the consequences of not addressing racism and sexism in culture – and in the church – has led me to believe that people like me can’t let our privilege go unused for others any longer.”

I feel similarly. And yet I’m increasingly aware of the challenges facing people like me, with platforms, occupying positions close to the centre, that speaking up, even attempting to use one’s privilege for the sake of others, can be a form of what is now being called ‘centering’ — it can be a tool that people like me, at the centre, use to keep ourselves at the centre beyond an awakening. We can, in exercising our voices, continue to de-centre the voices of others. I’m aware of how tempted I am to speak up before listening, and how much that speech, even well intended, can be hurtful. I’m also aware that black Christian friends are often commodified as a sort of ‘resource’ in times like this; those we turn to only when it’s convenient and we feel there’s mileage to be made in centering activities; or those we only reach out to when it’s popular to do so.

It’s a fraught space to step into, especially if it is perceived as coming at the cost of those from the margins who have had to work for a platform, or to be listened to, in ways I can’t imagine — whether they are women, or from minorities, or in this particular case, women who are Aboriginal Christian leaders; those whose counsel I’ve sought, who have taught me as I’ve been on the journey with them.

Last week Aunty Jean Phillips phoned me about a rally being held in Brisbane over the weekend; a rally reported as a #BlackLivesMatter rally. She told me she would be attending, and she wanted to draw it to my attention. I didn’t go, partly as a result of my privilege — where I was still trying to decide on the efficacy of rallies, partly because life with small kids, in ministry, in this weird semi-lockdown age is confusing enough, life in ministry is challenging in this season, and for a whole bunch of other reasons that as I spoke to my friend Brooke today, just sounded a whole lot like the excuses I can make as a result of privilege, and only being indirectly effected by structural racism, and by Aboriginal deaths in custody. I admit that another large reason for not attending, for me, on Saturday, is that I think practicing social distancing is still the right thing to do; which is why I’m also not campaigning for restrictions to be lifted faster when it comes to church gatherings. And yet, Aunty Jean went. She’s in two significant risk categories. But how could she not? How can I not?

What I did promise Aunty Jean is that I was working on a letter about Aboriginal deaths in custody; following the urging of Brooke on the Common Grace website (there’s even a template). Brooke has been asking Australian Christians to pay attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody for years now. I’ve been to several #ChangeTheHeart services around January 26 where this is one of the key calls for prayer and action, alongside other initiatives that might close the gap. Brooke consistently urges us to listen, to learn three stories of Aboriginal Australians who have died in custody. This sort of listening is an act of de-centering; so to is acknowledging that listening is something you have been led to by those leaders who have been speaking up against racism in society and the church for years.

So I’m hesitantly offering this letter that I sent as an act of using my privilege for the sake of others, but also as an act of being on the journey with Aboriginal Christians; of listening, of seeking to not put my voice at the centre but to amplify others. Because Black lives do matter, and Australia still has structural issues that are the ongoing result of a time where nobody even paid lip service to that idea. We can’t jump from there to being colour blind; repentance and reconciliation are a process where we do have to examine the institutions, laws, cultural expectations, and practices — and the results they produce — that are the fruits of racism, whether that examination is in the church or society at large, and we must keep committing ourselves to reforming these structures.

I produced this letter because I told Aunty Jean I would, and I wrote it in consultation with Brooke — having asked her first if she, as an Aboriginal Christian Leader, was happy for me to not use the template (she was, so long as it rightly acknowledged a connection to a request from Common Grace, in connection to hearing first nations voices), and if she was happy to give advice as a first nations person — which she is, because to blunder in without such advice perpetuates a marginalisation of Aboriginal voices, and because part of ‘being on the journey’ together is a commitment to relationship and listening, and she gave me great advice on non-centering — particularly that always acknowledging those who have taught you is a good way of not making yourself the centre of attention.

Having witnessed, on Twitter, occasions where transgressions around centering behaviour and feeling the weight of the dilemma, I am thankful for the way that Christian leaders, powered by the Gospel, practice forgiveness around the bumbling efforts of privileged white blokes like me to escape the blinkers of colour blindness and privilege. Brooke and Aunty Jean are both consistently gracious in their responses to me, and others, in a way that without the unity we share in Jesus would be, evidently from Twitter, much more difficult. As Aunty Jean often says, there is no hope for reconciliation or a different Australia around these areas without the cross of Jesus.

Before you read my letter, can I encourage you to do six things:

  1. Commit yourself to listening to Aboriginal Christian leaders, not just privileged white blokes like me and Martyn Iles. There are good resources on the Common Grace website.
  2. Learn the stories of three Aboriginal deaths in custody — like Brooke has been urging us to for years. Here’s a starter on the issue.
  3. Write your own letter, using the template as a starting point, and ask for help from Brooke at Common Grace — join the journey (before you ask, Brooke has put plenty of resources for you to read on the website over the years. Read them first).
  4. Follow the example and call of Brooke, and Aunty Jean, and pray for our nation in this area.
  5. Don’t make this an issue of culture war/social justice ‘woke Christians’ v conservatives; make it an issue of seeking to learn our nation’s history and seeing the ongoing effects of that history, and committing yourself to act as someone shaped not by our nation’s story, but by the Gospel.
  6. Consider donating to the Common Grace 20 for Twenty campaign to employ an Aboriginal Christian Leader to work in this space.

To the Hon Mark Ryan MP, Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, and Corrective Services,

CC: The Hon Craig Crawford MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, The Hon Daniel Purdie MP, Shadow Minister for Police and Counter-Terrorism, and Corrective Services, the Hon Christian Rowan MP, the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

My name is Nathan Campbell. I live in Upper Mount Gravatt, in the Bonner Electorate. I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and my parish meets in Annerley, in the Moreton electorate. My parishioners come from across the greater Brisbane area.

For a few years now I have been “on the journey” with Aboriginal Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips — that’s what she calls it when white blokes like me are prepared to sit with her and to listen. Her generosity in thanking me for being “on the journey” as I listen blows my mind, because I feel like I am powerless to change much at all when it comes to structural inequality and its experience here in Australia. I often feel like I’m doing nothing. Common Grace, a movement led by CEO and Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis has invited Christians to speak up, particularly about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

As a Christian I believe that each human, regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation, is made in the image of God; that our lives should reflect his goodness and love in the world, but also that each person has a dignity bestowed upon them by something beyond the self. This dignity cannot be taken away — but we humans can be good at not seeing it in ourselves, or in others. For too long, our western society has claimed to be developed from this idea that each person has inherent dignity, that each person is created equal, while not considering how an inter-generational failure to recognise that dignity in the other has become embedded in our structures, and in the experience of those at the margins of our society.

In recent weeks, as we marked Reconciliation Week, and witnessed the Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, we have all been reminded that one way this failure to recognise dignity, equality, and even the humanity of our first nations peoples manifests is in the ‘gap’ that is yet to be closed here in our country. We have also been reminded about the supreme goodness and necessity of genuine reconciliation, and our desire for it — another bedrock of any society that has been influenced by the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and new life together built on love. We are in need of deep, structural, repentance in Australia; in need of turning from an old way to something new, and we must, as we make these changes seek reconciliation with, and forgiveness from those we continue to wrong, our First Nations peoples.

While the Black Lives Matters movement gained momentum because of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police; the arms of government; we have our own very similar issues here in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1991 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that began in 1987 delivered its findings on 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody. 99 Australian Australian ‘George Floyds,’ with their own names, and stories. Since the Commission handed down its findings there have been hundreds more Aboriginal deaths in custody; many harrowingly similar to George Floyd’s death. Brooke Prentis and Aunty Jean Phillips challenged those on the journey to reconciliation with them to learn just three names and stories of first nations people who have died in custody. I wonder if you might be able to name three? Or whether you might learn three stories?

So I remember Trevor King, a 39 year old man from Townsville, who couldn’t breathe after officers spear tackled him into the ground, whose wife had called police because Trevor was talking about self-harm. Who died in the ambulance police called in 2018.

I remember Shaun Charles Coolwell, a 33 year old from Kingston, who, during his arrest was pinned, handcuffed, and injected with a sedative, before he had breathing problems. He died in hospital a few hours after his arrest in 2015.

I remember NRR, a 37 year old from Cairns, who was pinned to the ground by six neighbours after a violent altercation, and restrained face down with zip ties. By the time police arrived the Coroner’s Report says that Mr Reading was unconscious, and no longer a threat, however police handcuffed him and shortly afterwards his breathing stopped, he was unable to be resuscitated.

The idea of custody is an interesting one; that those who were the traditional custodians of our land, responsible for stewarding this part of God’s good creation are dying in what should be our nation’s care is a profound problem that should lead us to consider, for example, whether our police should be a “force” or a “service.” The Royal Commission’s report in 1991 made many recommendations that have not yet been implemented, including many that would have resulted in a different approach to policing in these three stories; recommendations about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness (recommendation 79), and of arrest being a last resort in situations like the ones in these stories (recommendation 87a). The report also recommends that officers should receive training that involves listening to Aboriginal people in “appropriate training and development program, designed to explain contemporary Aboriginal society, customs and traditions. Such programs should emphasise the historical and social factors which contribute to the disadvantaged position of many Aboriginal people today and to the nature of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities today. The Commission further recommends that such persons should wherever possible participate in discussion with members of the Aboriginal community in an informal way in order to improve cross-cultural understanding” (Recommendation 96).

As the Minister for both the Police, and Corrective Services departments here in Queensland, I urge you to consider the urgent adoption of these recommendations. There have been 28 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Queensland since 2008, many in situations paralleling George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Implementing many of these recommendations would require the sort of partnership between states, territories, parties, and the Federal government that we have seen displayed in the recent efforts to combat Covid-19 here in Australia; we now know such action in response to a health crisis is possible, and so I call on you to exercise the same leadership of our nation in this area by listening to the voices of First Nations people, and the Royal Commission, and ensuring we do not see another George Floyd, or TK, or Shaun Charles Coolwell, or NRR, here in Queensland.

I would love a reply to my letter outlining how the Government intends to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody, and where it stands in the ongoing process of implementing the recommendations of a Royal Commission that concluded 29 years ago.

I will continue to uphold you and other members of the Queensland Parliament in prayer as you seek to lead us in listening and seeking reconciliation with our First Nations people. I would be happy to arrange contact with Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis should you wish to join us on the journey.

Yours Faithfully,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Why your digital Bible could be part of a broader ecology

In a recent Gospel Coalition Australia article ‘Why You Should Ditch Your Digital Bible,’ Matt Smith made a compelling case for the priority of paper Bibles over the modern technological solution; the digital Bibles we now carry around in our pockets on the screens of our smart phones or tablets.

Smith concludes:

But, in consistently choosing them over paper Bibles, we are inadvertently robbing ourselves of the opportunity to store up God’s precious and life-giving word in our hearts, contenting ourselves to sip from the fountain when we could be drinking deeply from it.”

His piece was a thoughtful engagement with an academic discipline sometimes called ‘media ecology.’ Media ecology is the idea that our tools — as part of the physical world (or ecology) we engage with — form us as people, it was pioneered by Marshall McLuhan.

Before the digital explosion, McLuhan predicted that electronic communication would collapse the barriers of space and time and create a “global village.” McLuhan drew on the insights of another scholar, Harold Innis, and his  book Empire and Communications. Innis described how empires through history rose and fell based, in part, on how well rulers communicated their imperial vision and so formed their citizens; he saw lots of this boiling down to the technological choices these rulers made.

In the ancient world, you could choose between your messages travelling a long way across space, or lasting for a long time. A statue or inscription was permanently embedded in a place; whereas a verbal messenger could carry a memorised message from one place to another, but if that message was not written down, it lasted for just a short time. Writing on various transportable mediums (papyrus, for example) became a game changing technology, because messages could be carried a lot more easily than big stone tablets, from one end of an empire to another. McLuhan drew on Innis to argue that in communication, content matters, but so does the form we receive it in (“the medium is the message,” he said). Communication choices are ecological; the technology we introduce into our lives forms us.

McLuhan also recognised technological choices actually occur before questions about carving words into rock, or writing in ink on papyrus; writing, even the alphabet, is a technology. When writing was introduced, producing a shift from oral to written transmission of information, people then observed it would have the effects Smith identifies digital bibles have on us moderns. So Plato, quotes Socrates on the danger of writing in Phaedrus:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Smith joins a long line of people concerned about the impact technology will have on us as people; and asks good questions about how the forms and things we introduce into our reflections on God’s word, might shape how we receive and are transformed by God’s word. Tim Challies wrote a book on this titled The Next Story, back in 2011, while Nicholas Carr wrote a more generic look at how technology is affecting our ability to think reflectively, and to remember things, in his 2010 work titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

In the present Covid-19 age, we’re learning, perhaps more than ever, that technology disrupts. That our technologies aren’t ‘neutral tools’ but that they shape us as we shape our world with them; zoom fatigue is real, disembodied church mediated to us by screens is different, our ability to have side conversations and monitor body language and make eye contact properly with others limits our ability to connect. Thinking about how we shape the ecosystem that shapes us is an important part of thinking about our formation as people, and for followers of Jesus, how we are shaped as disciples. Our technology habits are part of the disciplines that will disciples us; and as Faith For Exiles a recent book on discipleship in ‘digital Babylon,’ by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock puts it “screens disciple.”

Screens also disenchant. There’s a romance to tactile and tangible objects; like books, with their paper selection and typesetting, and smells, part of the ‘form’ that forms us as people (even if we don’t notice it). Technologist David Rose wrote a book a few years back titled Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, where he pitted two visions of the future against one another; a vision where the world is overtaken by interactive black glass services that serve up whatever content we desire; a kind of global village where space and time (and all human limits) are eradicated as we ‘plug in’ — versus a world where tangible objects are given ‘tech powers’ to make them function like tools from the pages of a fantasy novel. He suggested one is more ‘human’ and more aligned with our desires and our embodied interactions with the world. He remembered growing up with a grandfather who had an array of woodworking tools in his shed; one for every occasion, and bemoaned the rise of the one size fits all tool; in part, because of the ecological impact such changes might have on us as people.

I have strong sympathies with his concerns. I read digital books on a kindle rather than an iThing, and I prefer public Bible readings in church from a paper Bible, while I use my phone when in the pew. But this is an area for us to pursue wisdom, not prescription, and not a silver bullet piece of theologically endorsed technology (whether pixel, or ink).

And yet, Smith’s arguments about the reduction of God’s word to pixels on screens — that it enables distraction, limits context, and limits retention — can also be made about every other publishing decision made around God’s word. The way to counter the impacts he observes might not simply be about the best technology, technique, or medium, but the ecology around those mediums.

His argument about context can also be mounted in a different direction about the decision to compile the Bible, a library of books, into one book — which emphasises the coherent whole at the expense of the 66 individual books. Then there’s the question of ‘which context’ one brings to a passage. Smith defaults to the surrounding passages, but our interpretive context is bigger (and one we bring to page or screen), whether the individual book, or the narrative unity of the whole Bible; centred on Jesus as the Messiah who fulfils the Old Testament in his death, resurrection, and pouring out of the Spirit. It is good to ask how our media decisions frame our reading in any direction, so we might push against that. It’s possible that a hyperlinked Bible connecting you to the Bible’s 63,000 inter-textual references might actually help you appreciate the context better than one that keeps you rooted in one passage.

Martin Luther harnessed the power of the printing press to kickstart the Reformation. He was deliberate in its use; recognising its power remove the authoritative gatekeeper role of a priesthood that kept the word obscure in part by medium decisions. The church kept the Scriptures bound up in hand-transcribed Latin copies. The Reformation was supported by its ecological and technological approach. Printing the Bible, in the vernacular, supported the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Luther chose a technology that supported the re-formation he was hoping to see in people and the church. He chose forms that were not as limited by space and time as those he replaced, and so spread both the Gospel, and the message of the Reformation further and faster than the Catholic church could (and had it adopted the same technology, doing so would undermine its theology). Luther also cared about the physical form of his publications, in a letter complaining that “John the printer is still the same old Johnny,” he says “they print it so poorly, carelessly, and confusedly, to say nothing about the bad types and paper.”

The printed word has a certain sort of formative effect, and part of that comes from a connection to the physical world; part of a decision to read from a paper Bible is an act of resistance, or disruptive witness, against the world of black glass and instant gratification; and we should embrace that to push back against the formative power of screens. But screens — and digital communication — also collapse the limits of space and time; like the alphabet, paper, good Roman roads, and the printing press, they allow the message of the Gospel to be transmitted further and wider and faster than ever before. Smith makes the case that a printed Bible a formative tool. It is. But if we bring an ecological framework to the question of how we access and share the text of the Bible, it’s not our only tool, or always the best one.

The trick with our ecology is to remember that the Bible itself, from start to finish, is not meant to operate in an ecological vacuum. As a communicative act from the divine; an act of Revelation from God, the Bible is relational and is to form part of a broader ecology. For Israel, the Old Testament was received by a community, and created a community with a particular sort of formative ecology; a community that enacted a series of festivals, and liturgical practices, that ate together, that memorised its words, that prayed and sacrificed, that dressed differently to the people on the outside; an interpretive community that lived out the distinctives the Bible called for, and so became a formative community. Operating as a priestly nation; God’s image bearing people revealing his nature and character to the world; God’s images aren’t statues rooted in one part of the empire; they live, breathe, speak, and love.

The New Testament continues this trajectory; but marks an even more substantial act of Revelation. In the New Testament the word that spoke the world into being becomes flesh, and makes his dwelling among us. In the New Testament, authors take advantage of new communication technologies that are available to transmit the message of this word becoming flesh, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, as far across the world as they can; and as people believe the message, it creates a new interpretive community; a new community of people in relationship enacting the message they receive. The church. Whatever form the words of the Bible take in our lives, whether digital or printed or spoken, as we receive them, they come with a broader ecology that forms us. John, who wrote about the word becoming flesh at the start of his Gospels, often, in his written work — a medium decision — acknowledges the limits of that medium because they aren’t fully enfleshed. He says on two occasions “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink,” he desires to be there in person.

Perhaps the answer Smith is seeking as he employs a hard copy Bible when sitting down to read with students, and encouraging them to do likewise, is not simply in the medium decision he makes about a paper Bible versus a digital one, but in the decision he’s also making to share not only the Gospel, but his life as well, as he reads with others.

Perhaps the biggest problem screens and i-devices contributes to is not the disconnection from the word Smith identifies, but a disconnection from others — perhaps screens serve to individualise us, where the message of the Bible is one that draws us together as a community of priests, called to let the message of Jesus dwell among us richly. But books can do that too.

NOTE: A shorter version of this may or may not appear on the TGC Australia page later this week.

NOTE 2: Check out an old hot take I wrote on a similar argument from someone else. I think the building blocks of my response are the same, but I’m much more sympathetic to the argument about paper now than I once was…

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Upload: the digital good place?

Upload dropped on Amazon Prime this week. It’s like The Good Place, only there’s no twist. Really, it’s not that like The Good Place at all, except that it deals with life after death in a universe where God is mostly absent. Belief in a spiritual afterlife is a quaint hope held by some “Ludds” (from Luddites) pitted against the very real virtual hope peddled in Upload‘s universe — our universe, just in 2033.

There’s some interesting dynamics right up front with this program being on Amazon Prime; Amazon’s end game might look very much like the in show company, called Horizon. Amazon’s smile logo can be found on packaging within the show, but their push into cloud computing, digital media, and Jeff Bezos’ ‘end game’ (not to mention his exorbitant personal wealth — no seriously, click that, spend a few minutes scrolling it, and then come back) make them prime candidates for attempting to produce something like this for reals. It won’t be Elon Musk who does it; probably; he believes we’re already in this future; already characters in a computer program indistinguishable from reality. You can trust Amazon to find ways to keep making money from your consumption after you die.

In Upload, Horizon is the company responsible for the richest afterlife experience (an afterlife experience for the rich, where you have to keep paying for room service and minibar items by swiping left for your virtual pleasures. Horizon’s prime afterlife location is called Lakeview. Residents pay big bucks to have their consciousness digitised and uploaded; stored on servers, so that their lives can continue not in the clouds with harps (like some poor Ludds believe), but in ‘the cloud.’

As far as reviews go, we watched the whole first season over two nights. It’s a fascinating (but not Good Place esque) dig into some philosophical questions about what it means to be human; leaning into Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to suggest that so long as a person’s mind is still active, no matter what happens to their body, the person still is; and later probing whether a soul exists as a thing apart from a mind. We’re in a sort of new gnostic territory most of the time, except that scientists are also working on synthetic bodies that can host a download of the individual’s upload. There’s a hint of the unnaturalness of life without a body, but even the Luddite hope of heaven is the hope of a disembodied soul in the sky when you die (where salvation, and immortality, is not secured so much by wealth, but simply by death).

The show’s main upload, Nathan Brown, is hanging out for the availability of a download because he knows, deep down in his soul, that to exist as a person, a human, is to have a body. He’s also died in a freak self-drive car accident (or was it), and lost some vital memories in the upload that also make him less than him. Uploaded beings are served by ‘angels’ — employees of the ultimate surveillance capitalism firm, who are voice activated. Unlike Siri and Alexa, these are real humans sitting at computers waiting for voice commands from now-digital beings. And so we meet Nora, Nathan’s angel.

The show also has some fun pictures of technology in the not so distant future; including consent cameras for kicking off sexual encounters largely curated via Nitely, a future version of Tinder. The show handles sex and bodies in a fascinating way; the boundaries between the digital afterlife and the real world are almost totally porous, any avatar can cross over and connect in virtual reality, which means your loved one is never truly gone — even if they stop aging (so long as you don’t pay for age up updates). Sex is excarnated, rather than incarnating — though for those on the meaty side of reality, feelings are reproduced by a frankly kinda creepy VR suit. When Charles Taylor observed that the ‘disenchanted’ world we now live in is an ‘excarnated’ world — he was describing a world that pushes us out of being enfleshed in bodies, and into ‘being’ in our heads. Where sex may once have been ‘enchanting’ — sacramental almost — as a good gift from God, in the disenchanted, excarnate, world it is simply transactional.

At one point in A Secular Age, Taylor notes that the more intimately connected we are with a person the less worried we are about cross contamination — we’ll share a spoon with those we kiss — he suggests sex is the ultimate expression of such intimacy, that “love making itself is a mixing of fluids with abandon” — it’s a bit gross; but as we become excarnate, culturally, our approach to intimacy gets a bit blurry, when our bodies don’t matter anymore, we’ll mix fluids with anybody. And yet, the VR ‘sex suit’ proves too much for Nathan’s girlfriend, stuck in embodied life, because she sees them being cleaned in the hire shop — and hears all about the fluids they have to wash out — the suits are also used for people hugging dead grandparents; so there’s a cocktail of snot, vomit, sweat, and other things. Gross. Bodies are gross. And yet, sex-as-intimacy, for two embodied people, can also be sacramental; Nathan’s girlfriend, Ingrid, is prepared to overcome the ick factor because she “misses their intimacy.” Touch matters. Bodies are essential to that, and while our approach to sex (think pornography, hookup apps, consent video cameras, VR suits etc) can ‘excarnate’ — we can push ourselves away from our bodies and into our brains, sex, like other embodied pleasures, has the capacity to re-incarnate us. To remind us of the goodness of our bodies, and even of something enchanted or transcendent; something meaningful. Taylor calls this ‘haunting’ we sometimes experience in the real world — the reminder of something beyond us a ‘frisson’ (sometimes called “skin orgasms“) — that’s the little thrill you get sometimes that makes your neck hairs stand up and your skin get goosebumps. That power of touch — even in the afterlife — gets explored too.

The fundamental question in season 1 of Upload is can a human be a human without a body; what are we? While the eschatological hope served up by Amazon Horizon is frictionless consumption in a digital eternity controlled by a corporation that exists to serve your every whim with a voice command (“Alexa…” I mean “Angel…”), the question Upload asks is just how satisfying such a future can be; and whether a download into an eternal body might not be a more desirable, human, outcome.

Those in the digital world have lost all the limitations of embodiment; there is no longer any mourning, nor crying, nor pain… it’s a world made new. Digitally.

Except, you can pay to be sick — because after a stack of time in the digital afterlife, your yearning for a bodily existence leaves you wanting the feeling of pain or sickness, just to feel alive. So, you can pay to have a headcold…

_______

Zach: “Having a cold is no fun”

Nathan: “Why are you paying extra for this, isn’t it like a dollar a minute”

Zach: “When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll see that having no fun can be kinda fun. My nose is actually stuffed up. Just like real life.”

_______

The conversation pauses here because a new afterlife experience pops up; it’s pay to play, remember.

Trust Amazon Horizon to figure out a way to monetise a sneeze.

One of the more depressing sub-plots (and there are a couple, if you push too hard), is the story of Luke. Luke is a war veteran whose body was broken in conflict; he lost his legs, and rather than suffer life in the body, with no legs, he chooses to ‘upload’ early, and spends his digital life chasing experiences from the other parts of his body he gave up (mostly sex and food). Life without a body isn’t all its cracked up to be in Lakeview. But he’s also just a bloke desperately looking for connection. The show wants love to be enough for him, and for him to find compensation for the other bits, but it also leaves open the idea that life without a body just won’t be enough.

There’s a great dialogue between Nathan, and Dave, the Luddite father of his angel (it’s complicated) about the nature of the person, the soul, the afterlife, and hope.

_______

Dave: “You see Nathan, when you died, your soul went to real heaven, so whatever simulation I’m talking to now has no soul. It’s an abomination.”

Nathan: “Ok, or, there is no soul. And there never was, and in a sense both of our consciousnesses are simulations. Mine on a silicon computer and yours on a computer made of meat. Your brain.”

_______

Dave’s hope is a tangible future where he might hold his wife in his arms again; an embodied resurrection even, but Nathan, like many good moderns, can’t conceive of heaven as anything more than disembodied consciousness; eternal life for the soul, but not for the body. Like in the finale of the Good Place, the message from episode 1, to the end of episode 10, is that heaven is other people; the chance to spend eternity (or as much time as possible) with the people you love. God isn’t in the picture — even in Dave’s heaven — heaven is other people. For Horizon/Amazon — that’s an opportunity to make some money…

There’s an open source alternative to Horizon weaving its way through the storyline of Upload; the good guys who want heaven to be ad free. That might be the truly ‘good place’ — and Nathan hopes to be able to bring some of that open source goodness to Horizon; to hack away some of the overreach of his corporate overlords. Whether or not a ‘good’ digital afterlife is possible, Upload reminds us that we really want bodies for most of the stuff we love; which fits with the Christian understanding of the person. We are not souls in a meatsack — that’s gnosticism or Platonism — we are people who have bodies. The Christian hope is a resurrected body; a body made imperishable because God’s Spirit works not just with our soul, but on our body, to make us heavenly and immortal (1 Corinthians 15).

And while the show is billed as ‘science fiction,’ there are actually people out there seriously contemplating what such a digital afterlife could or should look like. Let me remind you again, Elon Musk thinks this is it; that the digital afterlife, where we exist not as people with flesh and blood, but as 0s and 1s in someone else’s program (with Covid-19 a really weird glitch in the software; a virus even). This was also, taken in a more dystopian direction, the plot for The Matrix.

There’s a question about what a good digital afterlife might look like, if the tech was available. We humans love the idea of being in control of our own end game; being able to work towards an eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’) where we, collectively (or corporately) are gods who can select our afterlife of choice and then consume our way to bliss. That fits the secular narrative pretty neatly. Amazon is a master of that narrative; a master of frictionless consumption and seemingly limitless consumer choice; which makes its involvement with the production of this program quite bizarre to unpack. Is being sucked into Amazon’s mainframe a good death? A good afterlife?

In Greek, the letters ‘eu’ at the start of a word work as a prefix for ‘good’ — so ‘euthanasia’ is a “good death.” In 1993, tech-philosopher David Porush published a journal article titled ‘Voyage to Eudoxia.’ It was an article exploring a potential escape to cyberspace; a good cyberspace. He suggested an obsession with cyberspace emerged earlier than he was writing (almost 30 years ago), after space exploration became a little passe. The next big tech things would be computers. Games were just starting to become ‘immersive’ (though nothing like they are now). He wrote then:

“Eventually, in the far-flung future perhaps, we may all emigrate, at least part time, to this new and gleaming electronic suburb, there to revel in an excess of sensory stimulation that today’s cinema or MTV can only hint at.”

He called this future place ‘Eudoxia,’ after Eudoxos of Knidos, and an invisible city in the work of an author he liked, Italo Calvino who wrote Cybernetic fiction. Porush used the term ‘cybernetic’ to describe a future “Cybernetic Age” where technology might enable us to capture (and maybe understand) the mind and how it works. Porush described a genre of science fiction exploring this potential as “cybernetic (or even better, “anti-cybernetic”)” — Upload joins a long line of stories, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, exploring the potential that technology might free us from our bodies. Calvino, and Porush use the word ‘Eudoxia’ to describe the ability to write and create virtual worlds, or cities, built on ‘good discourse.’

“We now have a word for a magic technology that will create a complete sensorium or virtual reality on a cybernetic platform; cyberspace, an accessible, self-referential, genre-destroying hyperspace, a soaring sensorium that will imitate, model, and link to its mirror image, the human brain.”

Porush believed such a future technology, or place, Eudoxia, would render the story — TV or fairy tale — impoverished.

Lakeview, the ‘heaven’ in Upload, is a picture of a Eudoxia. And it turns out, people still want their bodies. That the mind itself is not enough; and that the sort of ‘transcendence’ Porush dreamed of, where we push out of our bodies and into our brains, is actually disenchanting rather than magical.

In a follow up piece, Hacking the Brainstem, published in 1994, Porush argued that (even then) our “centuries-long romance with technology” where we used technology to, for example, achieve intimacy with others, “has already cyberspatialised us,” preparing the way for us to experience ‘sensuous information bodilessly’ — he breathlessly hoped that cyberspace would help us transcend our bodies. He said in the sort of science fiction that anticipated cyberspace — this cybernetic fiction — “Cyberspace already transcends the physical “meat” body by creating a simulated “meta” body in the brain and communicating with it directly via electrical implants.” He said:

“Eudoxia is presently enacted in video games and cybernetic fiction, which will find their ultimate material marriage in the computer’s cyberspace.”

Whether or not this future can, or will, happen is immaterial. It’s clearly a future that we like to imagine happening; an escape from the meat of our bodies into the meta. Life forever; freed from pain and suffering, beyond death.

That a company like Amazon is going to be best placed to deliver such a future is a scary thought Upload presents us with; but its story, like other anti-cybernetic stories, should cause us to pause and ask if this is the best good place we can imagine.

Porush describes the promise of cyberspace peddled in such stories in this reasonably long passage, it’s worth it though…

______

The imminence of the cyborg is not a matter of speculation, it is a matter of reporting the news, a matter of postmodern sociology and introspection. We are already experiencing the reflux from a time twenty seconds into the future when our own media technologies will physically transcribe themselves onto our bodies, re-creating the human in their own images, forcing our evolution into the posthuman through a combination of mechanistic and genetic manipulations… yberspace will renovate human relations; it will unite art and technology; it will represent an altogether new and radical domain for improved social, psychic, and perceptual transactions. Bypassing the infirmities of the body, cyberspace will free the cripple and liberate the paralytic. Enabling multimedia and sensory access to the entire wealth of world data, cyberspace will deliver a universal education. Through its anonymity, cyberspace will invite the construction of a more ethical code and create norms for human interaction that strip distinctions of gender, class, race, and power. Cyberspace will provide a playspace for the imagination to roam free, liberating the mind from its inevitably neurotic relationship to the body. Cyberspace therefore has untold psychotherapeutic possibilities. Yet cyberspace will incapacitate destructive urges and consequences by removing our bodies. Cyberspace will create the means for a pure and perfect democracy and universal suffrage in which everyone can vote immediately on any issue. Cyberspace will present the possibilities for “virtual communities.” Cyberspace will reconstruct the nature of the relationship between labor and time and labor and space and will reconstruct authoritarian technics as they are manifested in the workplace —although one wonders who is going to empty the garbage and build the roads after we have all emigrated to this new virtual suburb. While cyberspace will undoubtedly present new opportunities for criminality, rape and physical assault will become impossible. Cyberspace will present a new opportunity for our manifest destiny, a new frontier. Cyberspace will make war obsolete by turning it into a Desert Storm videogame. Cyberspace will create a totalized hypertextual platform that will cure what ails American higher education. We will become immortal there. It will enable us to combine work and play in a new way. Even the music will be better there. Cyberspace will be the new, clean, virtual Eden to which we will all emigrate when this physical world becomes an unlivable ecodisaster. In cyberspace we will finally perfect the academic’s dream of sex: we will be able to indulge lust without the involving of our bodies (perhaps I should have said “the dream of sex that’s academic”). The New World, World Without End, amen.”

______

Cyberspace in Porush’ vision, is the cyberspace on offer in Upload. A world built by Horizon Amazon.

In Hacking the Brainstem, Porush makes a pretty interesting point about ‘utopian visions’ served up in our stories; eschatologies, even. He suggests we create utopias, culturally, by ‘modelling our view of human nature rationally and then inventing a technology to control or direct that model’ — by ‘technology’ he says he means “systems that seek and project perfect control” — so when a human is placed in the system the system encourages the “best part and controls the worst part of human nature” while the human maintains the system by their participation. This is particularly interesting when one considers Upload’s utopian vision; a digital world where the technology pictures the ideal human life as one of unfettered consumption in the pursuit of goodness and pleasure, surrounded by those people you love (such that you might consume them too).

The world we live in is one where corporations want that to be our utopian vision; because it’s what keeps them profitable.

The corporate world wants to keep us disenchanted and placing our hope in a technological future — a eudoxia — because if we put our hope in some transcendent otherworld, heaven — clouds outside the cloud — then they lose us now. We no longer want to play in their system.

There’s a reason there’s no God in Upload — that the priest for hire at the funeral parlour offers up factoids about Nathan that he’s gleaned from wikipedia, and no comfort beyond his digital avatar being there on the big screen behind him. God upsets the apple cart of these apple vendors.

Like in The Good Place, the ‘eudoxia’ of Upload — Lakeviewis in need of a good eucatastrophe. A “good catastrophe” — the term coined by Tolkien for the fantastic moment in a fairy story where the failure of our attempts to build our own utopian visions; craft our own ending to the story, our own ‘afterlife’ is met by an interruption; a good catastrophe. Tolkien’s ‘best catastrophe’ — the one that means I’d be banking on fantasy novels outlasting cybernetic fiction — is the enchanting story; the story that reminds us that reality is not all there is; that the physical world points to a supernatural world; that sex in bodies is, like other experiences in our bodies, meant to throw us towards something ‘enchanted’ rather than excarnated, and to remind us that our bodies are fundamental to our personhood. Tolkien’s best version of the good catastrophe is, of course, the version where the story of Jesus is true; where the heavenly future he offers is not disembodied life in the cloud(s), but an embodied life in a re-created and renovated world; this world; not a digital world; not a world fuelled by consumption and the pursuit of pleasure through choice where you have to keep paying a corporation; but a transformed world centred on the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for God and for one another. This is our hope. The real new eden — not the digital one.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:4-5

Who needs a Lakeview when you can have a river view anyway…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. 

Revelation 22:1-3
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How the comfort offered by companies is pig slop, and why the church should stop lying down with pigs

Once upon a time there was a boy. He believed the bright lights of the big city and the experiences on offer there would allow him to be truer to himself than the life he had been born into.

He was born to a farmer, all his life to this point he’d been playing out the role he was born into. He found that role stifling. Sure, it involved the promise of one day owning a share in the farm — its success was his success. Sure, it involved security, and family life, and knowing who he was… but the order the lack of choice. This life was oppressive and he had to get out. He had to be free to choose his own destiny. His own identity. So he cashed in his shares from the farm and followed the lure of the bright lights; the city lifestyle he’d seen in advertisements that offered him more than he could imagine. So much choice. The ability not just to experience pleasures previously denied; this wasn’t just about hedonism, but freedom. He could be his own man. He could make choices. He could buy what he wanted, spend time with who he wanted. He was an heroic individual escaping a tired regime, aided by the voices of those who would help him be free as he made his informed consumer decisions to express himself as he fulfilled his every desire.

But then, the money ran out. When that happened he found that the companies that had promised so much — promised to be there for him — were no longer interested. He was no longer in the thick of the action in the big city. And even if he had the money to satisfy his desires, that had all proved less lasting — less good — even, than he imagined. He’d found himself addicted to the fast life; addicted to expressing himself and experiencing momentary pleasure; and he’d ended up essentially giving his whole life, everything he’d worked for, in pursuit of this pleasure to these companies that had promised so much, but delivered nothing.

The fast food and fast women he’d enjoyed with his money didn’t just disappear. In hindsight, the choices he made and the disappointment he felt when they didn’t satisfy left this boy questioning whether they tasted that good at all; they certainly were insubstantial and the flavours had nothing on the flavours that came from a home cooked meal served for him by a family that loved him. The fast food from the big city had an emptiness about it; no nutritional value; nothing lasting. As the city rejected him the boy found himself at its margins; unable to be ‘truly human’ on its terms because he now no longer had power, the boy started tending to the animals that would one day be slaughtered to serve up with eggs. He was once the image of success; an image he projected for himself; now he was beastly. Feeding the pigs and desperate to eat of their food; to become beastly, only, he already had, as a piece in the machine that fattened up pigs for market he was already no longer a free person exercising choice. He was a slave. Robotic. A part of the system.

The boy wished he’d never bought into the hype. Those companies didn’t love him. Their success — and the success of those who owned them, with their big houses and lavish lifestyles, didn’t want him to succeed, they wanted him to be a consumer so that they could consume him. Suck the marrow from his bones, while he ate swill.

This, of course, is something like a parable Jesus told. But it’s a parable for modern times too.

Watch this.

Get the message. These companies have ‘always been there’ for you. On your side. It’s corporations that take care of people — families — as we consume our way to the good life. In times like these, these ‘uncertain times’ — this pandemic — it’s companies who are there for us. In our homes. We can consume even while social distancing. Because these companies are here for us. As they have been for decades… We can count on them to help us get through this. Apple’s ad was, I thought, particularly inspired, and kinda beautiful, even if a picture of how much technology has ingratiated itself into our modern lives.

It’s Apple’s products, of course, that promise to bring us together, much like Telstra suggests it does in its magic of technology ads.

These companies offer the lure of bright lights and pleasure and security and all the tools one needs to survive and thrive as we consume our way to pleasure and express the real us in the midst of this pandemic.

Alongside Arundhati Roy’s optimistic dreams that this pandemic might bring with it a ‘new creation’ where people are kinder and gentler to each other; the sort that requires significant disruption to the status quo (and a ‘probably impossible without a shared grand narrative’ end of the culture wars), I read this piece about those forces — the status quo — that don’t want disruption, and how the manipulation required to stop disruption happening is going to begin with ads just like these from companies who do not want your individual consumer behaviour to change; because they want to keep you desiring things and pursuing the fulfilment of those desires through consumption as they sell you pig swill dressed up as a banquet. The article, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, says:

Billions of dollars will be spent on advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make you feel comfortable again. It will come in the traditional forms — a billboard here, a hundred commercials there — and in new-media forms: a 2020–2021 generation of memes to remind you that what you want again is normalcy. In truth, you want the feeling of normalcy, and we all want it. We want desperately to feel good again, to get back to the routines of life, to not lie in bed at night wondering how we’re going to afford our rent and bills, to not wake to an endless scroll of human tragedy on our phones, to have a cup of perfectly brewed coffee and simply leave the house for work. The need for comfort will be real, and it will be strong. And every brand in America will come to your rescue, dear consumer, to help take away that darkness and get life back to the way it was before the crisis. I urge you to be well aware of what is coming.

For the last hundred years, the multibillion-dollar advertising business has operated based on this cardinal principle: Find the consumer’s problem and fix it with your product.

These ads are the precursor for this project. Peddling the idea that consumption of products — participating in ‘the economy’ — is going to fix our problems.

Look, here’s a disclaimer, I worked in a marketing adjacent role (public relations). I loved it. I believed in what I promoted. Not all marketing is bad. Some products and services are good for you and it is good for you to know about them; but, on the whole, advertising and marketing are the prophecy and evangelism arms of a greedy consumerism that is bad for your soul. It’s possible not to sell or destroy your soul in a capitalist world, it’s just really hard (camel through the eye of the needle hard). Marketing and advertising can be used for good, but as a Christian I want to note that there’s a hint of advertising in Genesis 1, where God declares things ‘good,’ and more than a hint of advertising in Genesis 3, where the serpent creates a desire and sells a product to Adam and Eve.

It’s interesting for me, as an employee in the institution that once occupied this place in the cultural landscape, or the collective psyche, the place that offered comfort and hope in a crisis; and the stability of having been around for a long time… to see companies now jostling for the position the church once occupied. This fits neatly with Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age thesis,’ as I’ll outline below. The nutshell of Taylor’s thesis is that one of the social changes that produced secularism is the explosion of options we have post what he calls ‘the nova’ — options we have to pursue our own authentic self, freed from traditional power structures (and being ‘born into’ a particular station) we now define who we are; we choose our own identity, and we often express this through consumption of the things that we believe are good and true to ourselves. Corporations then play the role of priest, and shops function as temples, advertising becomes prophetic.

There are three take homes for me from this ad.

One, it reveals not a lack of imagination on behalf of the advertising industry; it’s a sign that the corporate world is on message. And its message stinks because it is selling slops not really fit for pigs, let alone humans, designed to fatten you up, so this little piggy can go to market. They’re trying to convince you, in essence, that the little piggy goes to market to buy stuff, which is a naive reading of that nursery rhyme, rather than to be slaughtered and turned into ham. The whole enterprise of finding meaning through consumption of products aided by corporations is hollow and rotten. People have turned from the church in the west for good and understandable reasons; but to turn to consumption and the pursuit of individual authenticity and freedom through consumer choice — that’s made a bit ridiculous when we see what looks like a smorgasbord of options is just the same swill served up in different packaging. There is nothing truly satisfying on offer from the ‘big city’ with its bright lights, desire creation, and consumption.

Second, these companies are part of an economic status quo that will do its best not to be disrupted by this pandemic; they’ll be pouring resources into advertisements and lobbying to get us consuming once again. Because the way the world was set up pre-pandemic relies on these companies occupying a particular place in the landscape. They’ll keep dressing up pig swill as a gourmet meal (the same one over and over again), but it will still be pig swill, and this is an opportunity for disruption.

Third, it’s a mistake for us in the church to think that the way back to relevance for the church is to play the consumer game; to offer ourselves as another option in the pig pen. Our job is to disrupt by playing an entirely different game; not the game where we’re pigs fattened for market to be killed, but children loved so much the father sacrifices a lamb to welcome us home. This comes with an entirely different pattern and pace of living and a different framework for understanding goodness and satisfaction.

Consumer life in the Secular City

Taylor describes the basis for the secular age we now live in as the ‘immanent frame’ — that is, a view of reality that excludes the transcendent (the realm of gods or spirits or non material reality). This is a relatively new thing (which is why it’s interesting to hear companies in the video proclaiming how long they’ve been serving the community, and the oldest you get is ‘over a hundred years.’

In this immanent frame, the previous social and religious ordering that gave rise to meaning, especially the sort of meaning that might help you through a crisis (whether superstitious, or pagan, or Christian, or a combo of all three), are gone and we are left to make meaning for ourselves. We’re cut off from God or gods, freed(ish) from inherited social obligations, free to make our own choices and choose our own adventure. Basically, the immanent frame makes us all like the boy in our story, cashed up with an inheritance from a previous social order, and able to decide what to do next to make meaning for ourselves without dad (or God) telling us what we have to do now. Taylor calls the individual in this situation ‘the buffered self’ — the self shielded from external, coercive, forces.

This isn’t just about individual selfishness. Taylor suggests that for a society wide change in belief and behaviour to take place it has to be motivated by a shifting shared sense of what is good for people; and the shift is a shift against oppressive structures. Some of this is legit. I don’t want to live, for example, in a Feudal society where my station and my professional options are pre-determined by the family I am born into, or a caste system (which isn’t to say our society isn’t structured in similar ways within the rules of the game as the companies we’re talking about want us to play it; enslaved, rather than freed, by personal choice and consumption and only allowed to succeed if we play the game by rules determined by some other).

Taylor suggests our society has turned to authenticity and expressing our true self as the cardinal virtues, and that we use consumer decisions to both discover who we really are, and then to perform and project that identity into the world in order to be recognised.

The post-war era (the time frame that most of those companies in the ad launched) brought with it an ‘affluence’ and a concentration on “private space” where we had the means to fill our own spaces; our castles and our lives; with “the ever-growing gamut of new goods and services on offer, from washing machines to packaged holidays.” Taylor says “the pursuit of happiness” became linked to consumer lifestyles expressing one’s “own needs and affinities, as only the rich had been able to do in previous eras.” Children born after this period became a new youth market, targetted by advertisers as ‘natives’ to this consumer culture; those who would, by default, express ourselves by expressive consumer choice.

The ‘good’ of authenticity was mashed up with a culture of expressive individualism in a framework provided where consumption was the way to discover and reveal your true self. Taylor sees this particularly playing out in the realm of fashion; particularly when an individual makes a consumer choice to express themselves and their identity as belonging to some thing or other that is greater than themselves (a bit like social media likes and posts also work as the performance of one’s authentic self). This effect of shared expression through shared fashion — be it a hat, or Nike shoes (or an Apple product) — is amplified in public places like concerts (band t-shirts) and sporting events (jerseys) which provide additional meaning for our actions and expression, these expressions of solidarity in public spaces are important in the secular world; because they are essentially religious experiences. Where once we might have conducted such meaning making activities in pilgrimages or religious festivals, now we do so in an immanent frame, and it’s our shared consumer decisions (buying the same shirt, for example) that produce this impact. Such moments ‘wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves,’ such that our consumer choices can sometimes in replacing what the transcendent once did for us (in terms of meaning making and connection) give us a haunting sense of what has been lost.

Experiencing this haunting, this sense of connection, those glimpses of the transcendent, may also be what fuels our consumption — and it’s kinda no surprise when those responsible for driving our consumption — advertisers — tap into that, with imagery (or iconography) and the sort of language and purpose you might once have reserved for religious organisations. Taylor says the result of all this is that:

Commodities become vehicles of individual expression, even the self-definition of identity. But however this may be ideologically presented, this doesn’t amount to some declaration of real individual autonomy. The language of self-definition is defined in the spaces of mutual display, which have now gone meta-topical; they relate us to prestigious centres of style-creation, usually in rich and powerful nations and milieux. And this language is the object of constant attempted manipulation by large corporations.

So we’ll either consume as an expression of tribalism where we can mutually display our belonging (like wearing a band shirt to their concert, or the shirt of our local football team), or with an eye to the life we wish we were living (like wearing a luxury brand, or a shirt bearing the logo of a company whose values and prestige we aspire to… and companies will fuel this dissatisfaction in us by seeking to create desires that only their product can fulfill (which is marketing 101).

Tech in the City

You can stack Taylor’s observations against the behaviour of companies a decade after he wrote A Secular Age (so, now). And start to bring in some observations here from other thinkers, especially about the role technology companies play in facilitating modern life. We can now perform our identities online, not just in the public square; which is what telcos are offering us (especially in a time of social distancing), what social media companies facilitate (via your ‘profile’ and your ‘feed,’ and what tech companies (like Apple) provide us with tools for (like phones with cameras). These companies, as much or more than bricks and mortar stores in public places, and large scale public gatherings (especially right now) are providing the ‘social imaginary’ for us, as well as providing the space for us to ‘be ourselves.’ Which is a problem if part of the ‘corporate status quo’ that is making a stack of money off helping us ‘express our true selves’ (and so enslaving us to their own oppressive system) is a sort of ‘Babylonian’ technocracy. I mentioned the ‘technocracy’ idea in yesterday’s post, where I linked to Alan Jacob’s piece about the over-promising made by the technocratic regime about the satisfaction technology might bring us. Neil Postman actually (I think) coined the term in Technopoly, where he described the way tools work in connection to our symbolic performance of things that give meaning. Postman said:

“In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”

Postman, Technopoly

He sees tools — our technology — pushing into the vacuum Taylor observes in A Secular Age, the search for meaning in an ‘immanent frame,’ to become ‘the culture.’

That quote is startling to read alongside the Apple ad above, given what it depicts and what it promises, but unsurprising… because commentators have long observed the religious function of Apple and its mythmaking engine. Marshall McLuhan (writing before Apple was a thing) suggested technology, especially communication technology that embeds itself in our ecosystems and our individual lives, functions religiously, that is, in a technopoly our technologies become idols. And these idols end up enslaving us.

“The concept of “idol” for the Hebrew Psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them. “They that make them shall be like unto them… By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions… Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.”    

McLuhan, Understanding Media

McLuhan also believed escaping this status quo will prove very difficult because of how embedded technology and consumption is in our modern life — and how much they reinforce one another until we become these robotic ‘servomechanisms’ — thoughtless consumers who can’t escape, and probably don’t want to…

“For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their lives by waiting on machines, listening to much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods.”

McLuhan, Mechanical Bride

Scott Galloway, a tech pioneer, entrepreneur, and business academic wrote a book titled The Four, examining the big four tech companies that dominate our ecosystem: Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. He viewed them all through a religious prism, and (following some stuff a while back by Martin Lindstrom around the brain activity of Apple users while interacting with its products mirroring the brain activity of religious people while practicing their religions), Galloway said:

“[Apple] mimics religion with its own belief system, objects of veneration, cult following, and Christ figure,” … “Objects are often considered holy or sacred if they are used for spiritual purposes, such as the worship of gods. Steve Jobs became the innovation economy’s Jesus—and his shining achievement, the iPhone, became the conduit for his worship, elevated above other material items or technologies.“

Scott Galloway, The Four

A call to (secular) worship

These ads aren’t just neutral. They aren’t just designed to keep the economy afloat and people in jobs. They are a call to worship. A call to not be disrupted. To keep eating the pigswill dreaming of a time when you might be at the centre of the city, not its margins, and telling you that it’s consumption that’s going to get you there as a consumer.

David Foster Wallace talks about this status quo in his famous speech This Is Water. He said this pattern of consumption; of worship; is the ‘so-called real world’ — our default settings. He said:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. 

It was this siren call, the idea that he was missing out on the good life, that pulled the boy in our story from his father’s garden-farm to the bright lights of the big city. The call to fast food, fast women, and parties was an invitation to worship at a different sort of temple (and, you know, those activities were actually stock in trade for first century pagan temples). The boy in our story is invited to worship other gods, and they end up treating him the way the gods of other pagan nations, especially Babylon, treat people; as a slave.

Disrupting hollow gods

Our boy found himself feeding the pigs, on the outskirts of the big city.

One day, as he looked at the muck around him, as he noticed the slop looked a lot like the leftovers of the meals he came to the city to eat… he realised he’d been sold a lie. All it took was a momentary break; that moment where he pictured himself on his knees tucking in with the pigs. He new. He knew the city was turning him into an animal. In that moment, the emperor had no clothes. The bright lights of the city were flashy and distracting — just the right amount of visual noise and trickery to keep you from seeing the city’s ugly underbelly. He began to daydream; imagining himself back at home on the farm. The clean air. The clean living. The clean eating. Feasting with his family. Better to be a servant there, in a life giving system, than a slave here, on the path to being chewed up and spit out, he thought. So he hit the road. On his way out the billboards by the road started crowding out his vision; promising fast food; fast women; fast money; fast satisfaction. Doing all it could to claw him back. To gobble him up. He ran.

All he needed was a little disruption. And he was gone.

The city promised our boy freedom, only it didn’t offer real freedom, but a certain sort of slavery. This is the same deal our advertisers offer us now; it’s the same city. The same world.

This is a world that doesn’t want disruption.

This is a world whose gods are hollow; a world that tries to dress pig slop up on a big white plate as a gourmet meal. It’s a bit like Ephesus in the book of Acts — a world that pursues wealth and flourishing from making, marketing, and selling, silver idol statues; that feels very threatened when the hollowness of those gods is revealed by a God that actually offers satisfaction.

My favourite part of This Is Water is not the bit about how ‘everybody worships’ or the diagnosis of what flows from the worship of false gods (dissatisfaction). It’s that all these false forms of worship of things from within what Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’ — the decision to, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship created things rather than the creator — leave us with a ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing,’ but also, that anything immanent we worship, and worshipping anything not transcendent will, in Wallace’s words “eat you alive.” Take that piggy.

Taylor describes this too; he says the turn to expressive individualism — to performing our ‘authentic self’ via consumption actually leaves us hungry. The promises of advertisers and their corporate masters do not satisfy our hunger; they are hollow. This is what the ad compilation reveals. The utter hollowness of the promises of the corporate world; the hollowness of the idea that companies and their products can be ‘there for us’ in a pandemic when we are fearing for our health and our lives, the emptiness of meaning that this turn from the transcendent to the immanent can provide… Taylor says this leaves us haunted and with a sense of lack; not just in those times were previously we’d have turned to religion to help us make meaning (key markers like births, marriages, and death) but “in the everyday” — and actually, it’s in the everyday where we might notice it most. It’s the idea that we feel the lack not just when we’re feeding the pigs from the margins; but right there with the bright lights, in the big city. The emptiness of what we’ve replaced God with bites just as hard as the hunger pangs in the pig pen. Taylor says:

But we can also just feel the lack in the everyday. This can be where it most hurts. This seems to be felt particularly by people of some leisure and culture. For instance, some people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape.

Taylor, A Secular Age

Taylor says this is one of the things that keeps us from defaulting to unbelief in the immanent frame; there’s a contest, and it’s both the haunting — the sense there might be something more — and the hollowness — the “nagging dissatisfactions” and the rapid wearing out of the utopian visions the prophets of the immanent frame cast. It’s precisely moments like this ad montage that pull back the curtain and throw some of us towards faith in something other than consumption.

Stopping to see the cost of the status quo — the price it makes us pay as little piggies — has the capacity to disrupt us. That’s the point of the gaslighting article linked above, and the quick pivot to advertisements announcing that companies are “here to help.” To keep us blind.

Big business is going to want us to forget the almost immediate impact on our natural environment that our scaling back consumption has had. And it’s not just the environment that has felt some of that oppression lift. I’m seeing lots of appreciation for the way this crisis has pushed us towards local relationships. Kids playing on the street. A return of the neighbourhood or village. Taylor saw the ‘nova’ — this explosion of possible choices — produced by technology and cultural changes that allowed us to escape the village. “The village community disintegrates,” first through the “age of mobilisation” and then the “nova” as people are able work and live in different locations, or as people uproot for sea-changes or to pursue employment wherever they choose (again, not all of what he calls the ‘age of mobilisation’ or the ‘nova’ is negative, but our ability to ‘choose’ previously unthinkable options does produce change to village life).

They’re going to want to keep us from finding meaning in village and communal life, so that we’re back stocking up our private castles. Apple can’t make money from me talking to my neighbours. They’re going to want us to slip back into the pursuit of meaning and desire-fulfilment that their machinery creates in order to satisfy its own hunger. It’s not relationships that satisfy, but relationships-completed-by-products that satisfy…

The ‘status quo’ that makes money and gains power from the system staying the same is under threat; disrupted by a pandemic. The cracks are showing, so they’re returning to what they and we know. Inviting us to consume our way to comfort. Reminding us that “they” are there for us (I mean, Lexus has a TV ad inviting me to call them if I want a chat — although this is probably just for people who own a Lexus)… And we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

And more than that, we, the church, should not participate in this system as another product to be consumed, but as disruptors. Like Paul in Ephesus.

Lots of the stuff I’ve been trying to articulate in my last few posts about our need to resist the siren call of technology has been a call to be disrupted by Covid-19 so that we can become disruptors in this manner.

We can’t be like the advertisers offering up Christianity as just another form of pig food, or fodder from a food truck in the big city the prodigal ran to (prodigal means ‘wasteful’ not ‘runaway’ by the way).

We can’t think the way to be an ambassador for home style farm life is to become card carrying citizens of the system; not from home. We’re the farmers coming to town for a farmer’s market, in our farm gear, with our country pace — not salespeople trying to compete ‘like for like’ with McDonalds. We’re trying to pull people out of the immanent frame, not playing in it as though that’s where satisfaction and the good life is to be found.

We must be people who take the opportunity to expose the hollowness of false gods and their noisy prophets. Prophets who without getting together to plan, all produced messages from the same boring song book. These ads are a stark reminder of the emptiness of what expressive individualism based on consumption offers. A haunting moment.

We must be people who point to the redemptive power and value of a home cooked meal with the God who loves us; people who point beyond the immanent frame our neighbours want to live in to the transcendent reality; that there is a God who is not just our creator, but our loving father who wants us to share in his task of cultivating life and goodness in the world.

The problem is, for much of the period the companies in the ad above have been operating (so not for very long — that is, in the post-war period) the church has positioned itself as just another consumer choice in a world where our identity is chosen and performed, rather than as an entirely different way of being. Church has been treated by just one other consumer option, and we’ve jumped in to play that game.

We’ve served church up on the buffet next to other consumer decisions, and so cultivate the idea that we’re just another attraction alongside the bright lights in the big city, and so have become a slightly more nutritious form of pig food; more fodder that just reaffirms that the good life is found in expressive individualism performed by consumer decisions.

Taylor describes this step that kicks in once religious life is approached in these terms:

“The expressivist outlook takes this a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable.”

We treat church like a product, culturally, and so churches start acting like products — or like corporations. Imagine what happens there when church starts to be advertised like every other product. Imagine if you were presenting your online church services in much the same way that products are selling themselves during Covid-19.

Our church has been around for x years. In good times and in bad. We’ve always been here for you and your family. Now more than ever. We might be socially distanced, but you can enjoy God, and our live streamed services, from the safety and comfort of your home… press like to come home. God will see you through these hard times, and will be there still when we get back to normal… we’re here to help…

Applause

Pig slop.

Or at least indistinguishable from pig slop; even it it’s all true. It’s certainly not disruptive; it buys into the idea that church is a consumer decision that will allow you to be your true self. And I reckon I’ve seen a bunch of variations of this theme. People seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity to reproduce the status quo; just digitally.

This is especially true for those churches that have bought into the “technocracy” and the age of expressive individualism and so gone to market to shape church as a desirable big city option, rather than a taste of home on the farm with the father.

The church growth movement and the sort of toxic churchianity that it produces, which then leads us, in a time of crisis, to turn our services into shows that can be consumed using the same technology we use to binge entertainment, buy stuff, and satisfy all sorts of other desires at the click of a link is disrupted church rather than a disrupting church. A church shaped by the ‘nova’ and playing in the immanent frame trying to win consumers. Taylor says this approach produces a spirituality that is individualised, superficial, undemanding, self-indulgent and flaccid.

This is not who we are; at least it’s not who we are meant to be. The whole expressive individualism via consumption enterprise is not who we were meant to be; and that’s part of what we’re experiencing now. The best application of Taylor’s A Secular Age to today’s technocracy that I’ve read is Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness. It’s a call to a thicker, non-consumer oriented, practice of Christian witness in an age where the good life is thought to be caught up in ‘authenticity’ and expressive individualism through consumer choice, and where the church has too often pandered to that framework. He suggests a series of disruptive practices we might adopt, but one of his main points is to stop playing the game of approaching our witness like marketers selling a product. He thinks at the very least a deliberate stepping away from the methodologies of the church will protect our witness so we might disrupt some lives. He said:

“As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths.”

What I found interesting when digging back into the book today, was that his criteria for widespread disruption might just be being met (and this might be why the gaslighting article is worth heeding).

“If history is any indication, the distracted, secular age can only be uprooted by a tremendous historical event that reorders society, technology, and our entire conception of ourselves as individuals: something like the invention of the printing press, the protestant Reformation, or a global war — a paradigm shifting event. But trying to correct the effects of secularism and distraction through some massive event is quixotic at best and mad scientist-is at worst. This leaves us in a difficult position. There is no reasonable, society wide, solution. Which is not to say that we can’t ameliorate the problem through policies and community practices.”

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

There is an opportunity here for us to be disruptors rather than disrupted.

If your church’s response to Covid-19 is to produce anything that looks like these ads, or that plays in the same frame that they do, then you’re doing it wrong.

Our response to Covid-19 can’t be to think ‘how will I turn this into an opportunity to sell my product to people who are scared,’ our response isn’t to get people to add Christianity to their array of consumer choices in the city, a city that wants to fatten them up as piggies going to market, but to invite them to run back to their heavenly father, who loves them, who waits with open arms, who’ll kill the fattened calf (or the lamb) to bring them home.

The boy had been walking for some time. Finally the landscapes around him were familiar. It was getting dark; but that was ok, darkness actually meant the bright lights of ‘sin city’ were a long way behind him. He already felt human again. He found he had no desire to eat pig food. Progress, he thought. His speech for when he came face to face with the father he’d abandoned was running through his head. To take his inheritance and squander it, ‘the prodigal,’ was to say to his dad ‘I wish you were dead,’ he was sorry. He set the bar low; “I’d rather be a servant than a pig being fattened for slaughter” he thought.

The father had been sitting on his front step each day since his son left. Waiting for his son to return; hoping that the light and life and love of home would be enough to bring his son home; knowing that the city talked a good game but that it only offered emptiness; hoping his son had not been destroyed by the endless pursuit of more. He looked up, and saw a figure on the horizon. It’s my son, he thought. The city hasn’t been kind to him. He called to a servant to butcher a calf in the field, and to start preparing a feast. Then ran to his son. Embracing him before he could speak a word.

The boy was home.

The Gospel is not pig slop. We should stop treating it like it is.

,

The Technological fallacy: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you ought (Lessons from Jurassic Park, and some more thoughts about church and technology in a Covid-19 world)

“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fàfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

I’ve decided I want to be a dinosaur.

The more I watch technology be uncritically embraced — not simply by the church in Covid-19 lockdown, or even by society at large, but by myself, the more I wonder what we’re inviting into our lives in the name of progress.

I fitted multiple rooms in our house with Google Homes, and that wasn’t enough. We have Alexa devices in the kids room to read them bedtime stories. I spend hours staring at backlit black glass. I’ve been blogging for longer than I’ve been married, and on Facebook for almost as long. I registered domain names for my kids when they were born. I’m not quite a digital native, but I’m very close… I love technology. And yet. I’m convinced there’s a dark side to technology — that we become what we behold, that technology is not neutral. Marshall McLuhan once said:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

McLuhan, Understanding Media

Neil Postman, a student of McLuhan’s, suggested that unless we can see the impact technology has had on society and culture in the past, we shouldn’t be allowed to set rules for adopting new technologies — or to assess their potential.

“A sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.”

Neil Postman, ‘Five Things We Need To Know About Technological Change.’

I wonder how many churches who have jumped to livestreaming broadcast media style services (rather than social media services, or gatherings) have thought about the impact the clock had on the human psyche, or the printing press (let alone the alphabet). I wonder how many people have paused before Zooming off into livestream meetings. And how many of us, then, are surprised by the developing phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’ and the interesting reminders it provides, as we assess that phenomenon, that we’re actually creatures created to live in time and space, not be broken up into pixels like Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and beamed across space to be put together in tiny pieces on someone else’s screen? Curt Thompson has a great piece on how to push ourselves back into our bodies for those struggling with this phenomenon.

I’ve seen lots of conversations from church leaders about technology; what to buy, how to solve issues, how to engage those checking out your service with technological follow up… questions about technique, that all assume we’re doing what we should be doing by jumping to technology to extend us from one space to another, without asking what happens as communications technology annihilates space and time the way C.S Lewis described the car ‘annihilating space’ — and bemoaned its impact on village (and church) life as suddenly we were empowered by the choice not to go to our local church, but to find other options, including the option of not going to church at all. How much more is this true of our incredible capacity to drop in on a seemingly infinite number of churches from around the world through their digital platforms; never having to physically visit in order to consume church. And look. We don’t have much choice at the moment; technology has to be part of our solution if we want to love our neighbours and obey our government.

I read one piece that suggested churches have, or are now needing to, reinvent themselves; where once we were ‘event organisations’ suddenly we’re ‘media organisations’ — what happened to community organisations, or relationship networks, or any other descriptor that might provide a different approach to how we be the church in this time; this pivot expresses the way that we uncritically participate in what Jacques Ellul described as the technological society, where we solve problems by finding the best technique using the technological tools at our disposal; because thats’ what we think we ‘ought’ to do.

Maybe one of the things that makes me want to be a dinosaur is that I spend a significant amount of time playing the augmented reality game Jurassic World Alive, think Pokemon Go but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are great.

The thing about every Jurassic Park movie ever is that it explores a particular question about our relationship with technology. Sure. Dinosaurs are awesome. But just because we can do something with technology, doesn’t mean we ought, no matter how awesome we might think the results are or could be, there are always unforeseen circumstances that come from unleashing the raptors, or in the case of Jurassic Park, the T-Rex.

There’s an old fallacy — the naturalistic fallacy — that says you can’t infer an ought from an is, just because something is the way it is, doesn’t mean it ought to be that way. Think about, perhaps, a human propensity to dishonesty or violence — just because those come naturally, doesn’t mean we ought to enshrine them as virtues or the basis of our society. The technological fallacy we’re too quick to fall for in our desire to see all progress as good progress is that because we can do something with technology, we ought to. I think we’re seeing an outwork of this technology in the way the Aussie church is responding to Covid-19 with some ‘technological advances’ — just because you can bring TV style production to your church service, or make your kids church a TV show that can be watched from the lounge room at any time, doesn’t mean you ought. Just because you can create algorithms that generate a more accurate understanding of a person’s desires and behaviours than a person’s spouse has of them (and this was in 2015) doesn’t mean you ought, just because you can deploy meme generating tweet bots to skew elections or opinions in favour of your perspective, even if you believe that perspective is good and true, doesn’t mean you ought. A Philosopher of Technology, Robin K. Hill, has dubbed our propensity to take an ‘ought’ from a ‘can’ as the Artificialistic Fallacy. It’s not necessary that any use of tech is the result of the fallacy; but any assumption that technology will necessarily solve our current situation or make things better, is a fallacy. I wonder if we’re better off, as the church, now because we have technological solutions that weren’t around during the Spanish Flu, our countless other crises and pandemics, than the church living through those times were; or than the New Testament church that got by in various forms of danger or isolation with a few letters from the Apostles (letters themselves being a technology that their own writers acknowledged were limitations — like John saying he’d rather be face to face in two of his letters, and Paul expressing the same idea frequently).

We have a problem with technology and technique as moderns. We accept it, and its extensions of our personhood, almost uncritically — or we don’t engage our critical faculties until it is too late, and the technology has already been incorporated into our ecosystem. Like dinosaurs escaping their enclosures in a dinosaur zoo. Loose, hungry, and destructive.

Here’s a fun fact. I wrote some of this post and left it open in a tab in my browser. I have not typed the phrase dinosaurs are awesome anywhere but in this tab. This morning when I opened Facebook I had some new ads in my feed.

I’m not sure a framed picture of our family as dinosaurs is going to cut it for Mother’s Day, but it’s creepy that Facebook’s algorithm either knows me well enough to coincidentally decide that this is something I’m into, or that my as yet unpublished text in a browser has given them more data to mine in order to sell me a solution. This is what has been called ‘surveillance capitalism’ — the sort of economic world we buy into through our uncritical participation in technology; our falling for the fallacy that just because we can (and companies can), we should (and they should).

Much as I love technology, and much as its introduction into our ecosystem is hard to keep safe, and much as uncaging the beast causes massive changes to our safety and day to day lives; I do want to be a dinosaur. Maybe this is part of Tolkien’s “desire for dragons” — maybe I want to live in a world of enchantment, a purer world where technology isn’t linked up with the Babylonian impulse to dominate the natural world, and other people, to secure prosperity for me (or the companies that are part of the fabric of this technology shaped society). Maybe I want to live in a world where it’s easier to sense the presence of God because the way our idolatry has seeped into the construction of our society makes it harder; it’s not that there was an age free from systemic corruption because of sin (see Babel, and then Babylon, and then Rome)… it’s just that it’s hardest to see that in our own age, because idols blind us; and technology plays part of that role in our lives now.

I want to try to reclaim some of what life was like before technology impacted the way we live and relate; and I’m certainly cautious about what sort of devastating impact unleashing the technology dinosaurs into the mix (and the very mixed metaphors) of Covid-19 and family life, and church life, and my own life. Much as I might seek escape into the world of augmented dinosaur battles on Jurassic World Alive, exploring a map littered with digital beasties to capture — I’m in real danger of being conformed in the image of a digital beasty myself.

C.S Lewis, in his inaugural speech at Cambridge, De Descriptione Temporum, suggested that technology — specifically the introduction of the machine — was the major contributing factor in a move from an enchanted to a disenchanted world; the thing that pushed the de-Christianisation of the west faster than any other phenomena. He says our belief in progress — specifically the good of technological advance and our ability to do new things by taking new technology and chucking old stuff, basically forms what Charles Taylor would later describe as our “social imaginary” — the building blocks of our imagination, especially how we understand life in the universe and so how to approach living in the universe. This image of ‘the good’ being ‘technological progress’ means that we often uncritically adopt new technologies and turf old ones. Lewis says this is bigger for our belief in progress, even, than Darwin’s theory of evolution… this is what he calls our ‘new archetypal image’ of how life works.

“It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage.”

C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

He ended his speech with a note of apology to his students; knowing, even then, that he was speaking to those in post-machine world as a non-native. The man didn’t even use a typewriter because of the impact he thought its machine like rhythms would have on his writing. He said people in a tech-obsessed world should listen to him like they’d listen to a freak — because his critique — from a different world to theirs — might help them look with fresh perspective on their relationship with technology. His approach to medieval literature and the idea that there was an image of the universe in the medieval world closer to the truth than the image we replaced it with when we discarded enchantment (the subject of his academic work The Discarded Image) allowed him, he believed, to see the dangers of the present age differently, even if it meant his students might have to view him as a dinosaur. He was prepared to embrace being a dinosaur.

I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

— C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

Interestingly, his intro essay to Athanasius On The Incarnation encouraged people to read old books — not just books from our time — because their concerns would reveal some of the folly of our concerns and practices. There’s a way to become a dinosaur that doesn’t involve virtual reality, but digging in to old books from the past. In Surprised By Joy he talks about the sort of chronological snobbery that helps us jump from the naturalistic fallacy to the artificialistic fallacy via our changed imaginations; we think technology is good and necessary and that we ought do what it allows us simply because we think we’re much more sensible than those who came before us; we’re more highly evolved and have made progress in all areas. Lewis calls this ‘Chronological snobbery.’ Avoiding that might require being a dinosaur, or at least walking with them…

Maybe we need more human dinosaurs before we unleash the technological dinosaurs on our ecosystems anew. Charles Taylor saw ‘excarnation’ working alongside ‘disenchantment’ as the causes of secularity in the modern west. He said this was produced, historically (via the Reformation and its emphasis on the brain/knowledge rather than embodied practice) by “the steady disembodying of spiritual life.” How much faster is that happening via technology? Alan Jacobs, in this fantastic piece Fantasy and the Buffered Self, talks about technology as ‘Janus faced’ — he says our economic and cultural structures are produced by a ‘technocracy’ (the sort of structures present in telco and techno companies and their advertising right now), and this technocracy, through its various institutions, “speaks dark words of disenchantment with one mouth, and the bright promise of re-enchantment with the other.” Technology offers itself as the man made solution, from within a disenchanted frame — a world without God — and we buy it because it lets us be gods, even while it becomes a new god for us; an idol.

Whether we buy the pessimism about the potential danger of letting the T-Rex of Tech loose in in our church ecosystems, or we think we can put the tyrant back in his cage once this pandemic passes, we need to be aware that our jumping in to swim with the tide of technology puts us in a stream that has an ‘end point,’ and connects us with artefacts (technology) that aren’t neutral because they carry their own myth, their own anthropology, and their own eschatology. I’ve been struck, for example, by how much television advertising in night time pandemic viewing has pivoted to telcos and tech companies showing the ‘magic’ of technology; the way technology has transcended space and time to bring us together and keep us creating in this moment.

Amazon Prime is now advertising the show Upload, an alternative Good Place, that looks like it has humanity escaping to the cloud; not the heavenly one with angels, but the digital one. Becoming one with the machine (and hey, Elon Musk reckons we’re already there. That we are digital figments existing in some strange computer game). There’s a whole cultural apparatus pushing us to the idea that the future is digital; the eternal future even. Like the gnostics of old, they see technology freeing us from the meatflesh existence of our bodies (think cyberpunk fiction like Gibson’s Neuromancer). The idea that we might be saved from our bodies and from death and decay by becoming one with the machine is one legitimately explored and advocated by technologists; and celebrated in our advertising (like Telstra’s ‘magic of technology’ ad).

This all follows a trajectory identified by Lewis way back in his first speech in his role at Cambridge, and by Jacques Ellul in the same year, 1954, with his publication of The Technological Society. Ellul was both pessimistic and prophetic about the impacts of technology, and the belief in technique as the path to the good, on our humanity (in the same way McLuhan was later).

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

— Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1954

It’s really hard to step back from the impact technology has on us — to unwind its impact on the deepest recesses of our humanity. To undo the ecological impact technology has on us where, in the words of another of McLuhan’s students, “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” The egg can’t be totally unscrambled. And the making of technology is a deeply human task — part of our call to ‘cultivate’ the earth as God’s image bearing people who can imagine and create artefacts; but just because we can doesn’t mean we ought and sometimes we need human, biological, dinosaurs to step back and point out the impact artificial dinosaurs are having on the world we live in; lest we be eaten while on the toilet, or participating in the life of the church.

My hunch is that one of the ways back is less time in man made worlds that rely on technology, and that we interact with using technologies and techniques honed for us by the technocracy, and more time rediscovering the enchanted world we live in; the view those ‘dinosaurs’ from pre-modern times had, and part of that might be walking through the same forests, or looking at the same stars, that they did, or engaging art and stories that throw us into fantasy worlds away from ‘augmented reality’ — the stuff Jacobs advocates in the piece linked above, or Tolkien in On Fairy Stories, the thinking that helped Lewis produce Narnia.

I wish clever technology could do that for me more (and perhaps it can if the tools we create are extensions of our life as creatures created by a creator and we receive them with thanksgiving as gifts from God (1 Timothy 4), the technocracy works to blind us to that ‘enchanted’ dimension of technology; and technology as idol often pulls us away from, rather than towards God… Augmented reality dinosaurs, where my fantasy world, created by clever programmers (who want me to spend money), is mediated to me by a screen, in a way that makes me beastly, don’t do for my imagination or “desire for dragons” what imagining the trees in the bushland up the road from me as living, breathing things that speak to the goodness of my creator does… and yet, that’s what trees are for (Romans 1:20).

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — C.S Lewis

The Church and presence: Spiritual, Physical, and Virtual? (doing some ecclesiology in a pandemic)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 John 12

There’s lots of fun new debate in the realms of ecclesiology happening right now. Ecclesiology is our understanding of the ‘ecclesia’ — which is the New Testament word from which we get the word ‘church.’ It’s a word that means gathering. Part of this debate manifests itself in the question of whether what’s happening on Sundays right now is actually church — a gathering — (or just virtually approximates it), and then whether it would be appropriate to participate in the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist depending on your theological tradition).

There has always been a tension in how we Christians understand the nature of ‘gathering’ and what the ‘church’ is. Revelation (also, I believe, written by the same John who wrote the above, though I acknowledge this position is contested) has pictures of a heavenly gathering of all those who belong to Jesus; and this heavenly gathering is one that happens by the Spirit uniting us to Jesus. John records Jesus’ prayer about the church in his Gospel, which includes this bit:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

John 17:20-24

Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ in the world; parts of a body gathered by the work of the Spirit. The church is a spiritual reality; and because metaphors work in a particular way (metaphors are concrete smaller things that point to a bigger thing, or they are exaggerations), the reality of this gathering of the church as the body is a reality in some ways realer than the physical unity of the parts of our own bodies.

The spiritual is real.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

He later says (linking this concept of the ‘body of Christ’ to ‘the church’ in what he writes to a particular church):

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

This is true of the global, universal, eternal church. I, as a Christian in the modern west, am connected by the Spirit of God to Jesus — one with him — but I am also united with brothers and sisters across time and space. This reality is a profound comfort — especially in uncertain moments like this when I can remember that not only Jesus, but those others I am united to, have been through worse than this and yet the church survives and even thrives. And yet Paul also opens his letter to Christians in the city of Corinth by saying:

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours”

1 Corinthians 1:2

There’s a certain sort of exegetical gymnastics some Christian traditions do based on a word study of ‘ecclesia’ to suggest that church is only church when physically gathered; that Paul writes here to an ‘event’ where his letter is read, rather than the people who will read this letter in different physical gatherings — gymnastics that produce a phenomenon known as the ‘Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology’ which is popular amongst a subset of evangelicalism in Australia (specifically those trained through Moore College who are convinced by the ecclesiology taught there, and largely practiced in the diocese). But I think this is essentially an over-reliance on a word study, rather than an observation on the way this letter might have been received within a community in Corinth, and the theology of God’s gathered people and how that spiritual gathering is expressed in communities that are connected to one another in order to carry out the functions of the body that evidently operate on more than just Sundays, and in contexts wider than the Sunday event. In most reconstructions of the church in Corinth from Acts, and Paul’s letters (including the ending of Romans, written in Corinth) he writes to a church that met together in several houses, but also came together as a “whole church” on occasions — Paul mentions that Gaius offers hospitality to the whole church in Corinth in Romans 16:23). I don’t think Paul’s statement about God placing a range of people in “the church” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 can bear the particularity placed on the word by the Knox-Robinson model that sees ‘church’ only happening in the event of gathering. But, criticisms of the Knox-Robinson theology notwithstanding, Paul certainly has a category for church not simply being the universal gathered people of God, but particular people who meet together as an expression of the body of Christ in particular places and times (so he can write to ‘the church in Corinth’ but also to ‘the church that meets in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house’ (Romans 16:5), and he can say ‘all the churches of Christ’ (plural) send their greetings (Romans 16:16). My argument is that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to refer to the ‘gathered people’ (those connected by the same Spirit, as one body), not simply to the ‘gatherings of the gathered people,’ but also he often limits his use of the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) to those who make a practice of physically coming together as one body.

In 1 Corintihans 11 Paul describes this community he is writing to (“the church of God in Corinth”) coming together “as a church.” He writes: “I hear that when you come together as a church…” the ‘come together’ (συνερχομένων) would seem to be redundant if the ecclesia itself is the ‘coming together,’ but what they are doing physically gathering together is an expression of their existence as a particular church.

The physical gathering matters for our understanding of a certain expression of church (those gathered by the Spirit to express their unity as the body of Christ in the world). A local church is an expression of the global, universal, church (those gathered by the Spirit). My particular theological tradition makes a distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church for this reason — to distinguish physical, local, expressions of the gathered people of God — those members of the body directly connected to each other who express that unity by gathering. This distinction is also helpful because not everyone who joins our visible, physical, gatherings is a member of the universal church; not everyone present is a member of the Body, with the Spirit. Which for Paul has implications for how the physical gathering participates in the Lord’s Supper.

I think for John, in the quotes highlighted above, the physical nature of our relationships as Christians is an important expression of our oneness in Christ, by the Spirit, but also of the nature of the incarnation — that Jesus came into the world visibly as a body, a body who dwelled, and that we followers of Jesus are sent into the world in the same way Jesus was. Writing — our disembodied presence — doesn’t cut it. It’s a useful tool, but it is incomplete. Though we might be spiritually connected and virtually present to one another, and this connection might be remembered in disembodied ways, physical presence really matters. We are still the church whether gathered in the flesh or not, but our virtual gatherings, recognising our spiritual unity, are lacking. And I think can only be described as expressions of the visible church, rather than the invisible one if they are reflections of a body that gathers in the flesh. Physically.

Paul explores the ‘presence/absence’ paradigm in 2 Corinthians 10 (it’s also interesting that he often appeals, in writing, to people’s experience of him and his example in the flesh).

“His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.”

2 Corinthians 10:10-11

Something of Paul is absent when he is not physically present; and it isn’t simply that he is not face to face with them; that they are lacking his non-verbal communications (though I think Paul would’ve loved video calls if they’d been around). It’s that physical presence is actually where life together happens. Life together in community as the body; not attending an event.

When Paul writes to “the church” in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1) he describes his life among them, exercising the role of an apostle (you know, the types God gave the church in 1 Corinthians 12), and this makes it seem pretty difficult to justify the idea that the church is just the church when the whole body gathers for an event.

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-6

And then:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

1 Thessalonians 2:8-10

Here he appeals to their experience of his example while physically present amongst them, and then he’ll go on to talk about how much he longs to be with them again, though that desire has been thwarted. He says:

But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 

1 Thessalonians 2:17-18

Would a video call in this moment have cut the mustard for Paul? Would a video call constitute in person, or hover somewhere between ‘in thought,’ ‘in writing’ and ‘in person’?

I don’t think we can argue that virtual presence is presence in a way meaningful enough to make virtual gatherings ‘church’ — but virtual gatherings can be an expression of a church community (not ‘church as an event’). I think this is part of what reveals the hollowness of the Knox-Robinson ecclesiology; if church is just an event then that event can happen online with a tangible, but different, sense of loss. If church is a community, then that community can stay in touch online, but like John and Paul, might see such measures as temporary impositions and expressions of community that prevent our physical gathering for a time but do not stop us being ‘church.’ Online church is not “church,” not because online church is only virtual, but because church is not an event, it’s a community of people who meet together as a discernible ‘body of Christ’ in a place and time, as an expression of the universal, spiritual, union of all believers to Jesus. Online church cannot replace physical church beyond this moment (or even act as a replacement for it any more than a letter replaces face to face embodied presence) because we are sent into the world, by Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, as those who gather physically in life together as an expression of the Gospel that has saved us; that God’s word became flesh and made its dwelling among us, so that we might dwell with him for eternity.

I do think there are implications for the importance of the physical on the question of how the Lord’s Supper might happen during this time. I think it’s clear that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to describe the universal church (to whom God gave apostles, teachers, etc), the local church that comes together as a whole in Corinth, and communities that meet in houses as a sort of household. I believe that the ‘whole church’ in Corinth was several, connected, house churches. I think the example in Acts 2 is of Christians meeting as households (physically) sharing in the physical reminders of the Gospel instituted by Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Different traditions differ on the nature of the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Most modern protestant evangelicals are functionally Zwinglian and so see the Lord’s Supper mostly as being about remembering the body and blood of Jesus, where a more traditional Reformed take sees Jesus as spiritually present in the physical elements of the sacrament, while the Catholic tradition has the elements actually physically become the body and blood of Jesus. The further you are on the spectrum of thinking that the physical elements matter, the less likely you are (I think, at least if you’re being consistent) to think the sacrament can function virtually. The more Zwinglian you are, the more flexible you are. I’m moving from a fairly Zwinglian position to a more Reformed one (partly in recognition that my Christian faith and practice has been thoroughly disenchanted by how wedded we are to the secular age mentality). I’m suspicious of technological solutions to ‘enchantment’ issues because I think technology actually serves to push us away from enchantment by replacing spiritual realities with human endeavour/our ability to pull the right levers of technique and technology. I think technology claims to make disconnected people present to one another, and like a letter, it kinda does, but I think at the same time technology does what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘excarnation’ — it pulls us out of our bodies, out of the physical (enchanted) world, and in to the disembodied (virtual) world. And it doesn’t equip us to navigate the difference between virtual connection fostered by technology or a medium, and spiritual connection. It claims to make us present to one another while at the same time pushing us away from our own bodies (and bodily presence with one another). It’s a terrible analogy, but church via video is in some ways to church in the flesh what pornography is to sex, and what sex is to the consummation of the new creation (you can read my essay on Charles Taylor, enchantment, technology, and sexuality here).

One thing Paul calls the church to do as it gathers as the church and celebrates the Lord’s Supper is to ‘discern the body’ — I don’t believe we can do this virtually; I think it’s actually a task on physical presence with one another, as a community, in more than just the moment that one shares in the meal. And I believe he’s deliberately theologically polyvalent (rather than ambivalent) on his use of the word ‘body’ here, given the context. I think he’s talking about discerning the body of Christ in the bread being broken and in the people physically present to feast on it. Paul says:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

And then:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

So where I land on the Lord’s Supper in this time is that we shouldn’t be doing it virtually where everyone rolls their own elements — BYO bread and wine — in part because I don’t think we can discern the body of Christ virtually; I think that’s centred on a physical expression of a spiritual reality. Like the elements; and like the church community. But then, because of the “priesthood of all believers,” households should ‘break bread’ together participating in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with one another. This is a position different to that of the Westminster Confession, though the Presbyterian Church of Australia has already amended its understanding of this bit because the exceptional circumstances of a world war meant ministers weren’t as available to oversee the administration of the sacrament). For an alternative version of why it might be ok to shift our practices around the Lord’s Supper from institutional to something else, this Twitter thread is pretty great. I think this moment simultaneously reveals the weakness of our ecclesiologies, and the weakness of a society that has flattened ‘households’ (those who live together) into biological, nuclear, families, and one of the best things churches could be doing right now is facilitating shared living arrangements to last this 6 month period.

I think, in this time, we functionally have a collection of house churches (households who meet together physically) within churches (communities that typically would meet together physically) within the universal church (those who will meet together for eternity) in this period. We can express any of these spiritual relationships virtually, but the virtual never truly replaces the physical (there’s another soapbox I could get on about how our approach to this present crisis reveals how Platonic we all actually are when it comes to diminishing the importance of the physical, but I think that critique is assumed in just about everything I’ve written already).

These are confusing times, and every church leader out there is making the best of this situation sometimes coherently based on ecclesiological or missiological principles, and the Spirit of this post isn’t to beat people up with correct theology, but, like my last one on disruption, to keep talking about what we’re doing at the level of principles. My favourite verse about an ecclesia in the whole Bible is this one (note: it’s not a church, it’s an event; a gathering of idol worshippers in Ephesus after the Gospel has disrupted their technological practices and worship, which is the opposite of technology disrupting the practices and worship produced by the Gospel), I just want us to be a little less like this group, and a little more like the throne room of heaven.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

Acts 19:32