Raging against the machine: reflections on ChatGPT and the future of the church

If you haven’t read my last post, which unpacked a church in a box created by OpenAI’s ChatGPT tool, then, this latest one isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense.

I’m not the only church leader type playing around with this new technology, or demonstrating how it can be used in the life of a church — some people I know are using ChatGPT as a research and writing assistant to streamline some of the more menial and ‘paint by numbers’ aspects of church life. You can, for example, pump out a generic welcome announcement with a conversation starter like this:

Welcome to our church service this week! We are so glad that you have joined us in worship today. After the service, we invite you to stick around for a cup of coffee and some lunch. Not only is this a great opportunity to catch up with friends and meet new people, but it also helps us to build a strong sense of community within our church.

We especially want to extend a warm welcome to any newcomers who are visiting us for the first time. We understand that visiting a new church can be intimidating, but we want to assure you that you will be received with open arms and that we are here to support you in any way we can. If you have any questions or would like to know more about our church, please feel free to speak to one of our members after the service or visit our website. We hope you enjoy the service and look forward to getting to know you better.

And, those mini-sermons that worship leaders (or ‘song leaders’ in Sydney Anglican inspired churches) give before a song — well, ChatGPT’s got your piety covered as well, here’s an intro to the song Shout to the Lord.

“It’s time to lift our voices high And sing out to the Lord With all our hearts and all our might We have come here to worship And give our King the praise He deserves So, put your hands together, And let’s sing out loud The song of victory, the song of salvation The song that reminds us of the power of our God It’s time to Shout to the Lord! This song is a powerful reminder of the love and grace of our Lord and savior, let’s sing it with all our hearts and give him all the glory, honour and praise he deserves. Let’s sing it together, Shout to the Lord!”

You know you’ve heard that song intro before. And that’s kinda the point.

Now, the other thing I was thinking, was “who better to predict the future of the church than the technology so many church folks (and tech futurist types) are seeing as part of the future?”

So I asked ChatGPT to predict (and even suggest) ways that churches could incorporate emerging technologies like machine learning, virtual reality, and interactive glass surfaces into their rhythms and spaces. And here’s what the machine suggests.

Some examples of emerging technologies that could potentially be used in a church setting in the future include:

  • Artificial intelligence: This could be used to create personalized recommendations for biblical studies or spiritual growth, or to provide answers to frequently asked questions.
  • Virtual and augmented reality: These technologies could be used to create immersive experiences for worship, Bible study, or other events. For example, a church could use virtual reality to take members on a virtual tour of biblical sites, or to create a simulated gathering space for virtual services.
  • Blockchain: This technology could be used to securely track donations, manage membership records, or facilitate online transactions.
  • 3D printing: This could be used to create physical copies of biblical artifacts or other objects for use in worship or educational settings.

Here are a few ideas for integrating traditional rituals, spiritual disciplines, and practices with new and emerging technologies:

  • create personalized devotional materials, such as daily emails or notifications with Bible verses or prayers that are tailored to an individual’s specific needs or interests.
  • create personalized spiritual growth plans or tracks, which could include resources such as Bible readings, prayers, and other spiritual practices that are tailored to an individual’s specific goals and needs.
  • Using virtual or augmented reality to create immersive experiences for sacraments, such as baptism or communion. For example, a church could create a virtual reality experience that allows members to participate in a simulated baptism ceremony.
  • facilitate online retreats or spiritual retreats that incorporate both virtual and in-person elements. This could allow members to participate in retreats from the comfort of their own homes, while still being able to connect with others and engage in spiritual practices.
  • create interactive prayer or meditation spaces, such as virtual prayer walls or chat rooms where members can share their prayers and connect with others in real-time.
  • create virtual reality experiences that allow members to visit and learn about historical or biblical sites, such as the Holy Land or ancient churches.
  • Using virtual or augmented reality to create immersive worship experiences, such as virtual reality simulations of ancient worship practices or events from the Bible.
  • facilitate online or virtual services, such as by live-streaming services or offering virtual worship experiences that can be accessed remotely.
  • create interactive resources for worship, such as online quizzes or assessments that help individuals reflect on the themes of a service or identify areas for spiritual growth.
  • facilitate online prayer or meditation groups, such as through social media or messaging apps, which could allow individuals to connect with others and share their prayers in real-time.

Lots of these aren’t rocket science — there’re plenty of suggestions here that churches have embraced already, even before the pandemic — and some (blockchain anyone) that I can’t see churches embracing any time soon — but, having worked in a church that sent a media team to sites from the New Testament, it seems a small jump from that to creating VR experiences. Some of the more far-fetched stuff isn’t, when you’ve been part of a church community with a million dollar budget and a need to ‘produce’ content or measurable outputs to justify that giving. I’ll write more about this vision of the church in a future post, but for now, let’s consider what happens if we embrace the machine — and machine-like predictability in the way we speak about, and experience, church.

Predictably predictable… like a machine

ChatGPT is super brilliant, but it’s also — as a function of its technology — exceptionally derivative. One way to sum up what this technology does is to think of it as a prediction model that, given any given word in a sentence, will try — based on all the words its scanned and all the relationships it has mapped out between words — to match the next word in a sentence with the most predictable sausage.

Sausage obviously isn’t the word that naturally goes there — that’s just something I’ve put in so you know a bot hasn’t written this post. See, ChatGPT describes the way it works this way:

Me: Finish this sentence: ChatGPT’s language prediction model works by…

GPT: using a neural network architecture called a transformer, which is trained on a large dataset of text, to generate responses based on the input it receives. The model uses patterns and relationships it has learned from the training data to make predictions about what words or phrases are likely to come next in a given context. Additionally, the model has been fine-tuned to understand the specific language and conventions of the domain it is being used in, such as conversation, literature, or code.

ChatGPT is a prediction machine, it has built a pretty comprehensive pattern of how words are used in order to guess (rather than understand) the best relationship between certain words in a given category or genre. This means that rather than being a magic wand, that is totally generating new and beautiful art — what Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the magic of elves, this tool ends up being more like a tool someone in Mordor might come up with. It’s derivative, and built from extracting value from existing material. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes about the human capacity to create new worlds with words — once we can imagine a green sun, or mix any unpredictable adjective with a predictable noun — all GPT does, even if you ask for something unpredictable, even if you try to play the game the way I do, trying to come up with novel uses for the platform — like a kids book about a ninja duck with nun-chucks named Quacker-Whacker, whose brother Waddle-Twaddle reads Kafka and helps him break a cycle of violence with a cat named Scratch, propped up by an oppressive bureaucratic system of swans, all the model does is built on predictions based on past behaviours. The real capacity for creativity with ChatGPT lies in the creativity of the human managing the inputs, mashing up predictable outcomes in unpredictable ways, rather than in the machine.

Tolkien believed our ability to sub-create was a function of being made in the image of a God who makes; ChatGPT is a machine that at best replicates images made by images of God, and at worst, amplifies the parts of our creativity and our expression that have become commonplace enough to be predictable. In a letter he writes to a potential publisher in 1951, Tolkien makes a distinction between ‘magic’, in his stories — which was meant to evoke ‘the machine’ in our minds — the sort of will to power on display in Mordor — and the artful, generative, creativity of the elves and Gandalf. He defines this will to power as a desire to “make the will more effective,” and so much of the hype I’ve heard (and felt) about machine learning technologies is around the area of improved efficacy. For Tolkien, the elves use of magic is different to the way fallen (and mortal) humans pursue power; the elves are there to demonstrate something different. He says some things, of the elves, that I think are profound when we apply them to this new technology:

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. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem : that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others.”

Nobody is making machine learning technologies — and pursuing efficiencies through this technology — with a profound desire to cause harm. It’ll be interesting to see what harm is unleashed in the name of benefiting others, and who exactly the “others” are… who can forget Google’s “don’t be evil” mission statement back before the days of surveillance capitalism, and SEO witchcraft, and algorithmic power being wielded in pursuit of profits; tech commentator Cory Doctorow wrote a fascinating article this week about a dynamic he calls enshitification that’s embedded in the rise and fall cycle of big tech products that’s worth reflecting on here, a shift from ‘user focus’ to ‘delivering for shareholders’ that every platform goes through).

It’s also interesting that Tolkien sees the elves being able to produce ‘art’ rather than mechanical-dominion-magic because they’re both unfallen and immortal — not caught up in trying to grab as much as they can in the little time they have in order to hold suffering at bay. It does raise the question of whether fallen, mortal, humans can create art — or if we’re doomed to make disenchanting dominion-machines of destruction. Because Tolkien would love this so much (by which I mean, he’d hate absolutely everything about it, the image accompanying this post is Ian McKellen as Gandalf interacting with an enchanted touch screen).

I wonder if Nick Cave’s essay about ChatGPT’s songwriting capacity gives us a path towards art-creation built from human limits. Nick Cave described a song ChatGPT wrote “in the style of Nick Cave” as “the fire of hell in his eyes” — this extended quote from Cave suggests that maybe our capacity for enchantment is born from facing our limits; and our mortality (and our suffering) rather than trying to deny them by grasping and destroying, or embracing something mechanical.

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

Just note that last bit — we humans can offer the “transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings,” while the machine can only mimic. Machines have no body; no experience of suffering — or of longing — no vision of the transcendent, they are creations within what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” — and so they are disenchantment engines. They don’t throw us towards the transcendent, but ground us in predictions about the immanent. It’s interesting, I think, that the paradox at the heart of the Gospel — the transcendent and immortal God who becomes human in order to suffer and die — plays in this magical and enchanting tension in ways both Cave and Tolkien find compelling.

I think it’s fair to say that mechanical ‘church in a box’ techniques that employ machine-like magic — technological artificers — are disenchanting, rather than magical in either an Elvish way or a ‘stare suffering in the face’ way. I’m not sure either the Elves, or Nick Cave, would write about a “vibrant church community” the way our church promotion machine seems to want us to, or the myriad other cliches we employ chasing some sort of magical spell or silver bullet that will grow our churches as someone reads our websites.

A magic mirror held up to our ‘vibrant’ communities

Here’s my thesis about a prediction engine that produces text that has that machine-like feel, that feels quite similar to the sort of text that humans writing to predictable cultural scripts might produce… we’ve already embraced the machine. Long before ChatGPT.

ChatGPT serves as a mirror; its predictive capacity reveals our machine like predictability. Its soullessness, its lack of originality and enchantment is matched by our own.

That Radiance Church could be so profoundly unboxed by ChatGPT in ways that feel plausible says something about the church marketing machine that produces pablum and calls it ‘copy’. Here’s a little exercise. Google the name of your city or town, the word church, and the word vibrant. How many results come up?

Did you catch the description ChatGPT adopted of the church growth consultant it imitated for me in producing Radiance Church — ““My focus is on practical and effective strategies for building and growing a church community that is well equipped to thrive in a modern world. I will emphasize the importance of technology and innovation in building a vibrant and relevant church community that is able to connect with people in the community,” or in the vision statement “To be a vibrant and growing community of believers…” or in the description of the sort of hero image that should be used as a hero image online “a beautiful, vibrant, and dynamic image that captures the essence of the church’s mission and vision,” or the description of Radiance Church it developed for the home page: “Welcome to Radiance Church! We are a vibrant and growing community of believers, passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people. Our mission is to glorify God by shining the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts and sharing it with the world through worship, fellowship, and service.

What does vibrant even mean to someone who has never been to church? For churchy types it’s maybe code for “we have some people under the age of 80” (some of the most vibrant Christians I know are aged 80+ though). It’s such a predictable cliche — it’s so predictable a machine can predict and reproduce it. Some predictability is ok though — right — some of what ChatGPT does offer is the ability to drum out predictable stuff that we’d just be reproducing week on week anyway (or generating content that follows particular established forms, including code). But cliches can also be dead and disenchanting and robotic where we could be working for something more human; imbued with the “human genius,” displayed in “the transcendent journey of the artist” grappling with suffering and existence in a body, shot through with aches and longings for something other than what is, and what has been, utterly predictable.

The word cliche comes from the world of typeset printing — from the printing press — its French, the English word with the same meaning is “stereotype” — it described a word or phrase so commonly used by printers that instead of the word being formed letter by letter it’d be stuck together on a metal plate; the same would happen for mass produced documents where you’d make an entire mould to reproduce a whole page on demand. ChatGPT is a cliche producer — it predicts what it has been fed — and so Radiance Church is not ‘the apocalypse’ in the way we might think, we’re not staring into the fire of hell in some distant (or not as distant as we’d like) future; Radiance Church is an apocalypse because it reveals something about how the machine-Church already exists. And how it already disenchants.

ChatGPT’s Radiance Church in a box holds a bit of a mirror up to how we present ourselves — and the sort of repeated grunt-work we’ve brought into the life of the modern church that doesn’t offer the enchantment of embodied liturgies directing us towards heaven — the ‘stay with us for coffee’ benediction, and the ‘welcome to our vibrant community’ call to worship, or the pietistic and cliched one size fits all song intros (and perhaps sermons).

And I guess the question isn’t “is it a magic mirror,” so much as “are we Snow White, or the wicked witch?” Are we actually beautiful and without guile, or relying on deceitful enchantments to prop up our areas of lack?

Could a person reading your church’s website tell it was written by a human? Does it function as art, or part of the machine? And what about our communities — and our approach to life together?

Have we so embraced technology, and technique, and repetition of cliches that we’ve become machine-like and disenchanting — like robots writing Nick Cave songs — or are we using our creative capacity to generate art — or an art-like approach to our language and imagery — that is true and beautiful, that is grounded in our suffering, our mortality, and our desire for transcendence (and that desire being answered in Jesus) so that we present our life together built on the Gospel as something that speaks to these experiences, and our longings for something other than just “vibrant community”.

Future Church — Church-in-an-AI-Box

One of my criticisms of the current approach to church, particularly church growth, in the scenes I’m part of is that it ends up being a little machine like — leadership guides (in the forms of blogs, podcasts, and conferences) all seem to be embedded in our technological society — the world of technology and technique described by the philosopher Jacques Ellul back in the 1950s. If this technological society is part of what disenchants, and so, secularises, then, well, ChatGPT reckons there are some risks:

“The church’s use of technology could lead to feelings of disenchantment among some members, particularly those who prefer a more traditional or immersive worship experience. This could lead to a decline in attendance and participation, and ultimately, a decline in the church’s growth.

There is also a possibility that the church’s embrace of technology can lead to a sense of disconnection, superficial engagement and shallow understanding of the faith, this could lead to a lack of commitment and meaningful engagement with the faith, which could be reflected in the lack of growth or even decline of the church.”

ChatGPT is a reasonably recent machine learning, or AI, large language model. It’s a clever piece of technology — and you can find all sorts of church leadership types opining on how to use the technology (and tweeting about ways to unlock its power, or how you ‘just aren’t using it right’ without their help) if you browse Twitter. One of the fun features of ChatGPT that can “unlock its power” is that within a conversation you can refine results by asking it more questions, and you can assign it a persona that it will attempt to create on the basis of its ‘learning.’ People disappointed with the results it produces might not have really pushed into this feature of the tool. ChatGPT develops original content in the same way Hollywood does (or in the same way any artist does, really), it remixes and borrows and creates a derivative pastiche using the language, imagery, colours, metaphors and other elements of written communication available to it. This means when you ask ChatGPT to engage in a conversation as a church leadership guru, its advice is not novel, it is, in fact, derived from the countless words of leadership advice already uploaded to the machine (or the cloud).

What happens then, if you ask ChatGPT to function as a consultant for a new church plant in modern Australia? What vision for church does it offer? Well. Let me introduce you to Radiance Church. A church for Australia’s future imagined by the machine. I asked ChatGPT to answer my questions using the personality of a church leadership guru. ChatGPT’s summary of its adopted persona is:

“My focus is on practical and effective strategies for building and growing a church community that is well equipped to thrive in a modern world. I will emphasize the importance of technology and innovation in building a vibrant and relevant church community that is able to connect with people in the community.”

In the next couple of posts I’ll be building a sort of ‘proof of concept’ use of this technology, and using it to generate a vision of how churches might adapt to our changing world and these emerging technologies, then I’ll be using this exercise to critique not just the use of this technology to produce some fairly easy and amazing results with minimal effort, but the church system/culture this technological miracle emerges from… the learned responses of the machine reveal something about the machinery of the modern church.

It turns out it’s fairly easy for ChatGPT to produce ‘church in a box’ (whether its a good church, or just something generically ‘vibrant’ is kinda the point). Everything in italics in this post was produced by ChatGPT in response to the questions from me.

Church Names

Me: give me ten different one word names with Bible references in a rationale for the name.

GPT Church Guru:

“Empower” Church – based on Ephesians 3:20, which says “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” The name “Empower” Church emphasizes the idea that God’s power is at work within us, giving us the ability to do great things in His name.

“Resurrection” Church – based on Romans 6:4, which says “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” The name “Resurrection” Church emphasizes the idea of a new life through Jesus Christ, symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that believers receive through faith in Him.

“Radiance” Church – based on 2 Corinthians 4:6, which says “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” The name “Radiance” Church emphasizes the idea of the light of Christ shining in our hearts, illuminating our path and guiding us to the glory of God.

“Hope” Church – based on Romans 15:13, which says “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The name “Hope” Church emphasizes the idea that through faith in God, we can have hope and joy, even in difficult times.

“Victory” Church – based on 1 Corinthians 15:57, which says “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The name “Victory” Church emphasizes the idea that through Jesus Christ, we have victory over sin and death, and ultimately eternal life.

“Redeemer” Church – based on Isaiah 43:3, which says “For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” The name “Redeemer” Church emphasizes the idea of God as our savior who redeems us from our sins through Jesus Christ.

“Exalt” Church – based on Psalm 34:3, which says “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” The name “Exalt” Church emphasizes the idea of exalting and glorifying God’s name, through worship and praise.

“Blessed” Church – based on Matthew 5:3, which says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The name “Blessed” Church emphasizes the idea of being blessed by God, through faith in Jesus Christ and living a life of righteousness.

“Eternity” Church – based on John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The name “Eternity” Church emphasizes the idea of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, and the eternal nature of God’s love for us.

“Salvation” Church – based on Romans 10:9, which says “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The name “Salvation” Church emphasizes the idea of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Mission, Vision, Values

Me: Write me a mission statement, a dynamic vision statement, and a set of values for Radiance Church.

GPTGuru:

Mission Statement:
“Radiance Church exists to glorify God by shining the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts and sharing it with the world through worship, fellowship, and service.”

Vision Statement:
“To be a vibrant and growing community of believers, passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people, and to empower them to live a life of purpose and fulfillment, in the light of God’s glory.”

Values:

Worship: We value the importance of worshiping God in spirit and truth, and to exalt his name together. (John 4:23-24)
Fellowship: We value the importance of building meaningful relationships with one another, through fellowship and support. (Acts 2:42-47)
Service: We value the importance of serving others, through acts of kindness and compassion. (Matthew 25:40)
Discipleship: We value the importance of making and multiplying disciples, by teaching and mentoring others in the ways of Christ. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Holiness: We value the importance of living a life of holiness, and to be a shining example of righteousness. (1 Peter 1:15-16)
Evangelism: We value the importance of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, and to make Jesus known to the world. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Prayer: We value the importance of prayer, and to make it a central part of our daily lives. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Stewardship: We value the importance of managing our resources, time, and talents for the glory of God. (Matthew 25:14-30)
Unity: We value the importance of unity and to maintain the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)
Growth: We value the importance of personal and spiritual growth, and to be transformed into the image of Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

A church for the modern age needs a visual/branding guide, and ChatGPT is here to handle all your creative needs.

Me: Write me a style and brand guide for Radiance church, including colour scheme, description of branding elements, voice and style of copy writing.

GPTGuru:

Style and Brand Guide for Radiance Church

Colour Scheme:

Primary: Gold #FDB813
Secondary: Dark blue #1B1C20
Accent: Light blue #B5E3F4
The primary color of Radiance Church is gold, representing the light and glory of God. The secondary color is a dark blue, representing the steadfastness and stability of God. The accent color is a light blue, representing the hope and peace of God.

Branding Elements:

Logo:

The logo for Radiance Church features a stylized depiction of a lightbulb, with the word “Radiance” written in a bold and modern font. The lightbulb represents the light of Jesus Christ shining in our hearts, and the word “Radiance” represents the glory of God.

Typography:

The primary font for Radiance Church is “Montserrat”, a modern and clean sans-serif font. The secondary font is “Open Sans”, a friendly and approachable font.

Photography and Imagery:

The photography and imagery used in Radiance Church should be bright, positive, and inspiring. They should depict people of all ages and backgrounds, and should reflect the diversity of the community.

Voice and Style of Copy Writing:

  • The tone of voice should be positive, uplifting, and friendly.
  • The language should be inclusive and welcoming to all.
  • The copy should be clear, concise, and easy to understand.
  • Use of biblical references, metaphors, and storytelling are encouraged to communicate the message of the church in a relatable and engaging way.
  • Use of humor, anecdotes and personal stories are encouraged, to make the message more relatable and engaging.
  • Overall, the style and brand of Radiance Church should reflect the positivity, hope, and light of Jesus Christ, and should be inviting and accessible to all. The branding should align with the mission and values of the church, and should be easily recognizable and memorable to the community.

Me: Write me an image use guide for radiance church publications and marketing, including reference to lighting.

GPTGuru:

Image Use Guide for Radiance Church Publications and Marketing

  1. Lighting: Lighting is an important aspect of imagery used in Radiance Church publications and marketing. Images should be well-lit and bright, to reflect the light and glory of God. Avoid using images that are dark or shadowy, as they do not align with the message of the church.
  2. Composition: Images should be composed in a way that is visually appealing and easy to understand. The subject of the image should be clearly visible and the background should not be too busy or distracting.
  3. People: Images of people should be used in Radiance Church publications and marketing, as they help to create a sense of community and belonging. People of all ages, genders, and ethnicities should be represented in images, to reflect the diversity of the community.
  4. Action: Images should depict people engaging in activities, such as worship, fellowship, or service, as they reflect the mission and values of the church.
  5. Branding: All images used in Radiance Church publications and marketing should include the Radiance Church logo and/or website address.
  6. Photography: All images used in Radiance Church publications and marketing should be high-resolution and professional-quality photographs. Stock photos are allowed but it is encouraged to use original photographs if possible.
  7. File types: All images should be in JPEG or PNG format.
  8. Attribution: If using stock images or images from other sources, ensure that they are properly credited and have the necessary permissions.
  9. Avoid: Avoid using images that depict violence, drug or alcohol use, or any other subject matter that is not appropriate for a church setting.

In summary, the imagery used in Radiance Church publications and marketing should be bright, positive, and inspiring, and should align with the mission and values of the church. They should depict people of all ages and backgrounds, and should reflect the light, glory and diversity of God. The images should be composed in a visually appealing way, and should include the Radiance Church logo and/or website address.

Web Design and Development

Me: Write me website copy for the home page with a compelling description of the church consistent with its mission and vision.

GPTGuru:

Welcome to Radiance Church! We are a vibrant and growing community of believers, passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people. Our mission is to glorify God by shining the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts and sharing it with the world through worship, fellowship, and service.

At Radiance Church, we believe in the power of worship to bring us closer to God, in the importance of fellowship to build meaningful relationships, and in the call to serve others through acts of kindness and compassion. We also believe in the importance of making and multiplying disciples, by teaching and mentoring others in the ways of Christ.

We invite you to join us for one of our worship services, where you will experience uplifting music, inspiring messages, and a warm and welcoming community. We also offer a variety of ministry programs, including youth, adult, and outreach programs, to help you grow in your faith and make a difference in the world.

Thank you for visiting our website, and we hope to see you soon at Radiance Church!

Me: Describe a hero image to be used on the website.

GPTGuru: A good hero image for the website of Radiance Church could feature a beautiful, vibrant, and dynamic image that captures the essence of the church’s mission and vision. The image should be high quality, bright, and have a clear focal point. The lighting and composition should be used to create a sense of positivity, hope, and inspiration.

One idea could be an image of a group of people, gathered together in a beautiful outdoor setting, with the sun shining down on them and creating a warm and inviting atmosphere. The group could be seen praying, singing, or simply enjoying each other’s company, with the focal point being the radiant light shining down on them. This image would convey the message of the church as a warm, welcoming and inclusive community where people can gather together in the light of God’s glory and find hope, peace and joy.

This is where things get more technical (and seriously time saving).

Me: write me a css file for the radiant church website incorporating the brand guide.

ChatGPT produced a page of working CSS code.

Me: write me an html template, incorporating the css from above, and the home page text, for a home page for radiant church. Include a header, where a hero image will be displayed, a one column body for the text, and a three column footer. At first it gave me an HTML page with the CSS style file linked, so I asked it to make me a version with the CSS embedded instead.

You can see the website it wrote for me here, including a hero image generated on Midjourney according to the style guide here. It’s super basic. But I want to remind you that every word of the HTML file was produced via three sentences I fed into a machine.

Content Strategy

Now, a website isn’t enough. We need a content strategy covering preaching, blog posts, and social media marketing.

Me: If I do four main teaching series a year, what are series titles, books of the Bible to cover, and sermon topics for the first year of Radiance Church that will be consistent with its vision, and our desire to grow our reach in the community?

GPTGuru:

1st series: “Discovering Radiance”
Books of the Bible: John
Sermon topics: The light of the world, The radiance of God’s love, The path to true life, The power of forgiveness, The promise of eternal life.

2nd series: “Radiance in Community”
Books of the Bible: Acts
Sermon topics: The birth of the church, The power of unity, The importance of fellowship, The role of the Holy Spirit, The mission of the church.

3rd series: “Radiant Living”
Books of the Bible: Colossians
Sermon topics: The new self, Living in Christ, The fullness of God, The importance of gratitude, The power of forgiveness.

4th series: “Radiance in the World”
Books of the Bible: Matthew
Sermon topics: The Great Commission, Loving your neighbor, The importance of service, The challenge of living for Christ in the world, The hope of the second coming.

By focusing on the themes of light, community, and living a radiant life, these series will align with the vision of Radiance Church and encourage growth in reach and impact in the community.

Ok. Now we need an online content generation strategy.

Me: What are 15 killer blog article ideas that will build our reach and virality, while serving our mission? Provide a thesis sentence for each, and Bible passage to refer to in each article.

GPTGuru:

“Why Worship is Essential for Glorifying God: A Study of Psalm 96”
Thesis: Worship is an essential aspect of our relationship with God, and by understanding the power and purpose of worship, we can deepen our connection to Him and glorify His name.

“The Power of Fellowship: How Community Builds Us Up and Sends Us Out”
Thesis: Fellowship is crucial for our spiritual growth and mission as the Church. By understanding the importance of community and actively participating in it, we can grow together and accomplish great things for God’s kingdom.

“Radiant Living: How to Reflect Christ in Your Daily Life”
Thesis: Living a radiant life means reflecting the light of Christ in our actions, words and attitudes. By understanding the principles of Colossians 3:12-17, we can put on the new self and live a life that brings glory to God and inspires others.

“The Great Commission: Understanding and Fulfilling Christ’s Mission”
Thesis: The Great Commission is a call to all believers to share the gospel with the world. By understanding and living out the principles of Matthew 28:18-20, we can fulfill Christ’s mission and make a difference in the world.

“The Importance of Service: How to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”
Thesis: Service is an essential aspect of our faith in Jesus Christ. By understanding the principles of Mark 12:28-31 and actively serving our neighbors, we can love others as ourselves and bring glory to God.

“A Radiance Mindset: How to Think Positively and Overcome Negative Thoughts”
Thesis: A positive mindset is crucial for living a radiant life. By understanding the principles of Philippians 4:8-9 and actively renewing our mind, we can overcome negative thoughts and bring glory to God.

“The Challenge of Living for Christ in the World”
Thesis: Living for Christ in a secular world can be challenging, but by understanding the principles of 1 Peter 2:11-12 and actively living as aliens and strangers, we can overcome the challenges and bring glory to God.

“The Promise of Eternal Life: The Hope of the Second Coming”
Thesis: The promise of eternal life gives us hope and motivation to live for Christ. By understanding the principles of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and actively living in light of Christ’s return, we can bring glory to God and inspire others.

“The Power of Forgiveness: How to Let Go and Move On”
Thesis: Forgiveness is crucial for our spiritual growth and well-being. By understanding the principles of Ephesians 4:31-32 and actively forgiving others, we can let go of bitterness and resentment and bring glory to God.

“The New Self: How to Put On the Image of Christ”
Thesis: Putting on the new self means living like Christ. By understanding the principles of Colossians 3:9-11 and actively putting on the image of Christ, we can bring glory to God and inspire others.

“The Path to True Life: How to Follow Jesus”
Thesis: Following Jesus is the path to true life. By understanding the principles of John 14:6 and actively following Jesus, we can bring glory to God and inspire others.

“The Light of the World: How to Shine for Jesus”
Thesis: Jesus is the light of the world, and by understanding the principles of John 8:12 and actively shining for Jesus, we can bring glory
to God.

“The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Church: Understanding and Embracing the Power of the Spirit”
Thesis: The Holy Spirit is essential for the growth and mission of the Church. By understanding the principles of Acts 2:1-4 and actively embracing the power of the Spirit, we can experience the fullness of God and accomplish great things for His kingdom.

“The Birth of the Church: Understanding the Early Church and Its Impact on Today”
Thesis: The early church serves as a model for the Church today. By understanding the principles of Acts 2:42-47 and actively following the example of the early church, we can grow together and accomplish great things for God’s kingdom.

“The Mission of the Church: Understanding and Fulfilling the Purpose of the Church”
Thesis: The mission of the Church is to glorify God and make disciples. By understanding the principles of Matthew 28:18-20 and actively fulfilling the mission of the Church, we can make a difference in the world and bring glory to God.

Now we need some marketing buzz.

Me: Write me 5 Facebook posts to promote Radiance church. Include a design brief for images accompanying each post that are consistent with the style guide.

GPTGuru:

  1. “Join us this Sunday at Radiance Church as we come together to worship, fellowship, and grow in our faith. Our services start at 9:00am and 11:00am, and childcare is provided. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to connect with a loving and supportive community. #RadianceChurch #Worship #Community”

Design Brief: The image accompanying this post should feature a group of people gathered together in a warm and inviting setting, such as a sanctuary or community center. The image should be well-lit, with a focus on the radiant light shining down on the group. The image should be consistent with the brand guide’s color scheme, and it should capture the sense of community and inclusivity that is central to Radiance Church’s mission.

  1. “Are you looking for a way to get involved and make a difference in your community? Radiance Church offers a wide range of outreach and mission opportunities, including volunteering at local shelters, feeding the homeless, and supporting local schools. #RadianceChurch #Outreach #CommunityService”

Design Brief: The image accompanying this post should feature people of different ages and backgrounds working together to serve their community. The image should be well-lit, with a focus on the radiant light shining down on the group. The image should be consistent with the brand guide’s color scheme, and it should capture the sense of compassion and service that is central to Radiance Church’s mission.

  1. “Are you looking for a place to grow in your faith and connect with other believers? Radiance Church offers a variety of adult and youth programs, including Bible studies, mentoring, and small groups. Join us today and take your next step on your faith journey. #RadianceChurch #FaithJourney #Community”

Design Brief: The image accompanying this post should feature a group of people gathered together in a warm and inviting setting, such as a sanctuary or community center. The image should be well-lit, with a focus on the radiant light shining down on the group. The image should be consistent with the brand guide’s color scheme, and it should capture the sense of community and inclusivity that is central to Radiance Church’s mission.

  1. “Radiance Church is excited to announce our new online platform, where you can live stream our services, catch up on past messages, and connect with our community. No matter where you are, you can now be a part of our vibrant and growing church. #RadianceChurch #OnlineCommunity #LiveStream”

Design Brief: The image accompanying this post should feature a person using a computer or mobile device to access the online platform, with a bright and radiant background. The image should be consistent with the brand guide’s color scheme and should capture the sense of innovation and connection that is central to Radiance Church’s mission.

  1. “Radiance Church is excited to announce our upcoming events and programs. Join us for our annual Christmas concert, community fair, and much more. Stay tuned for more details. #RadianceChurch #CommunityEvents #Fun”

Design Brief: The image accompanying this post should feature a group of people having fun together at an event, like a concert or fair, with bright and vibrant colors. The image should be consistent with the brand guide’s color scheme, and it should capture the sense of community and fun that is central to Radiance Church’s mission.

We’re also going to need a playlist of worship songs that are bangers.

Me: Give me a list of 20 contemporary worship songs that are bangers that will make a good set list for our worship team and will link in with our mission and values. Explain each choice in a sentence.

GPTGuru:

  1. “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United – This song’s lyrics express the belief in God’s faithfulness even when we cannot understand or see His plan.
  2. “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship – This song’s lyrics express the power and wonder of the name of Jesus and its ability to change lives.
  3. “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons and Daughters – This song expresses the belief in the power and sovereignty of God, and acknowledges Him as the source of all things.
  4. “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin – This song expresses the belief in God as a loving and compassionate Father.
  5. “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury – This song expresses the belief in God’s boundless love for us, despite our flaws and mistakes.
  6. “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong Worship – This song expresses the belief in our identity being found in Christ, and how He sees us.
  7. “Build My Life” by Housefires – This song expresses the desire to make our lives a living sacrifice to God and to build our lives on Him.
  8. “Gracefully Broken” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard – This song expresses the belief in God’s grace and mercy to heal and restore us.
  9. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” by Chris Tomlin – This song expresses the belief in the power of God’s grace to set us free from our sins.
  10. “You Are Good” by Bethel Music – This song expresses the belief in God’s goodness and faithfulness despite life’s difficulties.
  11. “Raise a Hallelujah” by Bethel Music – This song expresses the belief in joy and victory in God’s presence and His power to overcome any obstacles.
  12. “Great Things” by Phil Wickham – This song expresses the belief in God’s power to do great things and how nothing is impossible for Him.
  13. “King of My Heart” by Bethel Music – This song expresses the belief in making Jesus the King of our hearts and how He is the one who satisfies our deepest desires.
  14. “God You’re So Good” by Passion – This song expresses the belief in God’s goodness and how He is always good.
  15. “Healing Is Here” by Jesus Culture – This song expresses the belief in God’s power to heal and bring hope to the broken-hearted.
  16. “Eagle’s Wings” by Hillsong – This song expresses the belief in the protection and guidance of God, like the wings of an eagle.
  17. “Ever Be” by Kalley Heiligenthal – This song expresses the belief in God’s faithfulness and the permanence of His love.
  18. “Step by Step” by Rich Mullins – This song expresses the belief in God’s guidance and provision in life, step by step.
  19. “I Give You My Heart” by Hillsong – This song expresses the belief in surrendering our hearts to God and making Him the Lord of our lives.
  20. “I Will Rise” by Chris Tomlin – This song expresses the belief in the resurrection power of Jesus and our hope in eternal life.

And a theme song for the church…

Me: Is there a contemporary worship song that best expresses the mission, vision, and values of Radiance Church?

GPTGuru: It’s difficult to say that there is one specific contemporary worship song that best expresses the mission, vision, and values of Radiance Church, as different songs will resonate with different people and different aspects of the church’s message. However, one song that could align with the church’s mission to glorify God by shining the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts and sharing it with the world through worship, fellowship, and service is “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship. The lyrics express the power and wonder of the name of Jesus and its ability to change lives, which aligns with the church’s mission to share the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people.

Venue and Capital Expenditure

Now we just need a venue, and to think about our start-up technology.

Me: What sort of venue should radiance church meet in, and what would the technology needs be to fulfil its mission, vision, and values?

GPTGuru:

The venue for Radiance Church should align with the church’s mission, vision, and values, as well as the needs of its community. In terms of location, it should be easily accessible for members of the community, preferably in a central area or easily accessible by public transportation. In terms of design, the space should be flexible to accommodate different activities, such as worship services, fellowship gatherings, and ministry programs. It should also be visually appealing, consistent with the church’s branding, and promote a welcoming and uplifting atmosphere.

In terms of technology, the church should have a high-quality audio and visual system, including a sound system, lighting, and projection equipment, to enhance the worship experience. The church should also have a reliable internet connection and website to support online streaming of services and other virtual events. Interactive technologies such as touchscreens, digital kiosks, and digital signage could also be used to provide information and resources to visitors and members.

Additional technology that could be useful in fulfilling Radiance Church’s mission, vision, and values include video conferencing equipment, to connect members and leaders in different locations, and machine learning and AI to support personalization of content and resources for members, and to identify areas of growth and improvement in the church’s activities.

Building the Core

Now we just need to build our core group. So. Why should you join Radiance Church?

Me: Why should someone join Radiance Church?

GPTGuru:

  • A desire to be part of a vibrant and growing community of believers who are passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people.
  • A belief in the power of worship to bring us closer to God, and an appreciation for the uplifting music and inspiring messages that are a part of Radiance Church’s worship services.
  • A desire to build meaningful relationships and grow in faith through fellowship with other believers.
  • A desire to serve others through acts of kindness and compassion, and a belief in the importance of making and multiplying disciples.
  • An appreciation for the variety of ministry programs offered at Radiance Church, including youth, adult, and outreach programs, that provide opportunities for personal growth and making a difference in the world.
  • A desire to be part of a church that is innovative and incorporates cutting edge and emerging technologies to reach out to the community and to enhance the church experience.

Ultimately, the decision to join Radiance Church should be based on a sense of alignment with the church’s mission, vision, and values, and a belief that being part of the church community will be beneficial for the individual’s personal and spiritual growth.

I don’t know about you, but I think we’re ready to go. What other things would you ask a Church Leadership guru?

The Machine and the Massage

I’m aware that some of the stuff I write this year is going to make me sound like a Luddite.

You might not know what a Luddite is — to save you googling, here’s me asking ChatGPT a couple of pertinent questions.

Me: who were the Luddites?

ChatGPT: The Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery, which they believed would cause unemployment and lower wages. The Luddites were known for destroying these machines as a form of protest.

Me: What might they say about AI systems and machine learning?

ChatGPT: If the Luddites were around today, they might have similar concerns about the impact of AI systems and machine learning on employment and wages. They might argue that these technologies will lead to widespread job loss, as machines and algorithms replace human workers. They also may be concern that the new system will be controlled by a small group of people or big companies, leading to a concentration of power and wealth.

Me: How would modern day luddites destroy machine learning systems?

ChatGPT: It is difficult to say exactly how modern-day Luddites would go about destroying machine learning systems, as the technology and infrastructure for these systems is quite different from the textile machinery that the historical Luddites protested against. However, some possible ways that they might attempt to disrupt or destroy machine learning systems include:

  • Physically damaging or vandalizing the data centers and server farms where machine learning models are trained and run.
  • Sabotaging or hacking into the networks and computers that run machine learning systems, with the goal of corrupting or destroying the data or code that makes the system function.
  • Launching denial-of-service (DoS) attacks on the websites and applications that use machine learning models, in order to overload and shut down the system.
  • Spreading misinformation or propaganda in order to discredit the technology and create public opposition to its use.
  • Lobbying for laws and regulations that would limit or prohibit the development and use of machine learning systems.

It is important to note that these actions will be illegal and potentially harmful to others, and the Luddite movement was mostly a peaceful protest, so those actions are highly unlikely.

I want to lay my cards on the table and declare that I am not. I’m the son of an early adopter, who, by a quirk of history (after writing a book on the Vic-20) became an award winning tech journalist (that was a side hustle — he’s also a Presbyterian minister). I have grown up around new and emerging technology. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. My greatest regret in a renovation project on our house a couple of years ago is that my smart lights (“ok Google, turn on my lights”) were replaced with dumb lights. I’ve enjoyed being able to voice operate my coffee machine. I’ve been blogging for longer than I’ve been married (16 years this year), or a pastor (10 years this year).

I’m not a hater.

I’ve been using Midjourney to generate graphics for my church since mid 2022, and playing with ChatGPT since its public launch — those who’re connected to me on Facebook will’ve seen my playing around with generating warrior dogs. Like this… Here’s an early dog paired with one generated by a later iteration of the technology (using a prompt generated by ChatGPT).

More recently I’ve been asking chatGPT to write me poetry for (and about) my wife, and prompts to generate more imagery.

Here’s a poem ChatGPT wrote about my wife using obscure metaphors and similies:

My wife, you are like a quark,
Small and elusive, with a beauty all your own,

Your smile is like a cosmic string,
Vibrating with energy, and never alone.

Your laugh is like a black hole,
Sucking me in, with a force that I can’t resist,

Your eyes are like dark matter,
Mysterious and hidden, with a depth that I can’t comprehend.

Your touch is like a supernova,
Exploding with passion, and lighting up the night,

Your kiss is like a neutron star,
Compact and dense, with a heat that burns so bright.

My wife, you are like a universe,
Endless and vast, with a beauty that astounds,

I am lucky to be a part of your world,
And to have you as my companion, my love, and my queen,
Forever and always, until the end of time.

This was the most exquisite scene ChatGPT could describe, as rendered by Midjourney.

ChatGPT even developed me a new sport — Sky Diving Racing. This was back before ChatGPT would save an archive of your conversations.

Pictured here by Midjourney.

I spent the first few days of a holiday road trip this year refining a movie concept for a post-robot apocalypse showdown between the Yakuza and a Samurai brotherhood in dystopian Tokyo that was entirely generated by ChatGPT — including synopsis, setting description, character names and descriptions, and a script for five acts — and then feeding the descriptions into Midjourney to create characters and scenery.

Also, here’s the AI-generated portrait of Tim Keller in plate mail picture that you did not know you needed until today.

I love playing with this new technology — and my schtick has been trying to engage these tools creatively by providing inputs that I hope are unique and playful. Midjourney has been transformative for visual design stuff connected to my work. I’m not a designer, we don’t have budget to pay one, but here’s what I can cobble together with Pixelmator (an Apple photoshop equivalent, and visuals developed by Midjourney).

I do wonder a bit what the availability of this technology — and its incorporation into my life and my rhythms (and relationships)— is going to do for me, and at what point the Luddites were maybe on to something. Nobody’s going to reduce their human-to-human relationships to AI generated scripting and direction. Yet. But what if it gets better at managing my relationships — and scripting my dialogue — than I am now? What if I could interact with my wife purely in phrases developed by a bot channeling Shakespeare or some great lover or poet from history? What if the outcomes of those actions were better than the outcomes of being me? What would that mean for the nature of our relationship?

And what about if I applied this to the life of our church — and I could generate sermons in the style of Keller, but based on my needs — I could even get the armour made, I guess. Would I be robbing my church community of something if I could give them Keller 2.0, but chose just to give them me in the flesh? Or would I be giving them something? What would it do for their spiritual formation if they knew they were getting me augmented by a machine? Aren’t people always getting humans augmented — massaged — by machines (and other people) anyway?

The technology isn’t quite good enough to provide a template for all my human-to-human interactions, or to write my sermons (or blog posts) yet — but it learns fast. It’s possible already to feed raw data — like recorded sermons, and written scripts (or blog posts) into machine learning products and have new audio and text generated in your voice. This kind of technology will only get better as more of us interact with it and it maps more kinds of interactions.

Every time a new technology is created — right back to the written alphabet — people complain about the changes wrought on the human by the new technology; and, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the massage” — that’s not a typo (he also said the medium is the message, more famously). His point is that new technologies mould and shape us as we use them to engage content. This impact is inevitable, and, for McLuhan, was built profoundly on the Biblical idea that we become what we behold. The challenge is to hold onto and behold the right stuff, or grab onto technologies and communication mediums that’ll shape us in directions that we want to take. The people of God have always faced this challenge — Israel’s relationship with gold, and golden artefacts, is a prime example — the Gold plundered from Egypt could be fashioned into a golden idol (bad), or the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the priestly garb (good). Followers of Jesus could employ written words recording “gospels” and epistles on paper, to be shot around the empire on Roman roads (good) while their Imperial counterparts could send their own gospels about Caesar’s victories on the same roads calling people to worship the deified emperor (bad). Sometimes our use of mediums can be deliberately subversive to the original designers (Roman roads and Gospels), other times they can be exactly the same and destructive (idol statues); sometimes the people of God can — as image bearers — create tools and technologies to be used for worship that become models for communication in the world around us. These tools and technologies are never just neutral though, and they’ll always shape us as we use them (as they shape our rituals and rhythms, and our bodies (think about your relationship with your smartphone), and at a deeper level — our brains (in the realm of neuroplasticity), and our imaginations (as, for example, new types of metaphors and imagery we have access to — like imagining your brain as a clock, or computer — you can’t do that without clocks or computers). These tools are never just neutral though (and there’s always an impact).

This massage works us over as individuals, and — when technologies are embraced in communities of practice — groups of people whose lives are being simultaneously massaged, or deliberately in the rhythms and practices of existing communities — like churches — the massage becomes a systemic thing that individuals within a system either conform to, or work against. This massage is, surely part of what Paul’s talking about when he invites followers of Jesus who now have the Spirit of God and are brought as individuals into a ‘singular’ living sacrifice — the body of Jesus — in our worship — and he urges us not to “conform to the patterns of this world,” but instead to be “transformed” — the patterns of this world conform us as we behold, and hold, things that deform us towards their own ends and purposes. We become what we behold; what we worship.

So what’s going to happen as these new technologies — AI generated text and imagery (including videos) become part of the fabric of modern life? What end do the developers and providers of these technologies have in mind that aren’t just being encoded in us via the ‘massage’ of the technology itself as we engage with it — but what’s going to be written in to these platforms to guide our usage — or to shape the algorithm? Microsoft’s early foray into this sort of tech with its chatbot, Tay, that learned from Twitter interactions, produced a racist and antisemitic digital persona that had to be shut down within a day.

What if the myth of the machine — at the heart of the modern world’s pursuit of progress and domination — doesn’t just cause ‘secularisation’ and the death of our concept of God (and anything supernatural), but actively puts us in the clutches of something dark and deadly? What if the animating power of these machines isn’t just algorithms and electricity — but something more Babylonian — something Spiritual and sinister, connected to the powers and principalities described in the Bible as connected to empires and their wealth creating military industrial complexes; what if both the human heart and the things we build as individuals and communities without God’s Spirit are ‘perpetual factories of idols’ because we’ve been corrupted not just by sin as some human creation, but by something beastly and dehumanising?

What impact will this sort of technology have on the life of our church communities — and on us as individuals — if it is true that technology disenchants? What sort of use of this technology might take us towards true human ends — towards being image bearers of the God who is love, whose character is on display in generativity, in light, in life, in abundance and hospitality in the creation story? How will we approach these tools shaped by the subversive story of a Gospel of a crucified king who comes to bring a kingdom, recreating image bearers by pouring out the Holy Spirit so that we no longer conform to dark and destructive patterns of death we see in the world?

How will we stop ourselves incorporating the power of this technology into our lives — and submitting to its massage — by asking abstract questions about principles and theories in the face of the efficiencies such new technology will absolutely produce for us? In a culture enamoured with technology and technique and the hunt for disenchanting machine-like efficiency, how will we resist?

What are the good and delightful uses of these technologies — perhaps subversive ones — that will help us be renewed and transformed into the image of Jesus, by his Spirit — as individuals and communities tasked with representing the life and character of our maker?

These are the questions I’m grappling with in my writing here in this season.

In the next post I’m going to explore the visions of future church offered by (or incorporating) some of this new technology, unpacking some of the theory that technology can either disenchant or re-enchant and pondering the implications this has for how we create and occupy spaces.

Future Church (and future blogging)

As I dip my toes back into more regular blogging this year I’m hoping to be a little more proactive (and less reactive) with my writing. I’m planning to write a little less ‘deconstructive’ commentary on the church in the modern world, and a little more forward thinking ‘constructive’ material exploring the shifting landscape the church is operating in in Australia and possible implications for the shape of disciple making in our context.

I will, in the next little while, unpack some reflections on the last ten years — and my time in full time church ministry over this decade, and how that shapes where I think things maybe should go in the Aussie church, and some of that may feel less constructive, but I’m hoping to take that experience somewhere worthwhile (at least for me, and the community and denomination I find myself embedded in).

I’m particularly interested in exploring the role technology and technique play in how we adapt (and how the culture around us is adapting), and especially how these intersect with cultural changes around us. I’m not hoping to position myself as a ‘thought leader,’ I’m more thinking out loud from an evolving base of experience and research, hoping to participate in conversations that are happening both inside the church, and just in this cultural moment about the future shape of both church communities and society at large.

Basically, if you want to read someone who’s thinking about implications for churches, individual Christians, and society at large of machine learning or Artificial Intelligence, and its application in ChatGPT style content generation, or imagery and video using platforms like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, or Dall-E, that’s what I’m going to be playing around with (mostly) this year.

The image for this post was generated by Midjourney when I asked it for a picture of the church of the future.

As this new chapter starts out, here are 6 principles that’ll be driving some of my reflections. Long time readers will have seen me bang these drums before, and you could, of course, simply read Neil Postman’s essay 5 Things to know about Technology to find someone who says some’ve this stuff better and more predictively prophetically (both he and Marshall McLuhan were way ahead of the curve).

Technology is not neutral (it’s ecological).

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.” I think he was right. Not just about this. One of his students, Father John Culkin said “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us” — when we introduce a bunch of new tools into our lives the impact on our lives as we use these tools reshapes us in ways we don’t always see. This’s true in our individual lives, in our homes and families, and in our churches. I wrote a little about this at the start of the pandemic as churches rushed towards technological solutions to the challenges restrictions presented to the shape and rhythms of our communities.

Technology is mythic (tending towards idolatry).

Another way that technology isn’t neutral is that it’s always created for a reason, by people operating with a vision of the good life (and problems to be solved or capacities to be extended). We might think we can simply pick up a tool and use it separate from this purpose, but that’s particularly difficult the more a technology is connected to a ‘mythology’ — an organising story about the world and life in it (and the more that mythology is embedded in the technology in the form of ‘operating systems’/software/algorithms to carry the values and vision of the maker). Technology often comes with an anthropology (an understanding of what it means to be human) and an eschatology (an understanding of the future horizon it pushes us towards), these anthropologies and eschatologies are often quasi-religious (or explicitly religious) in nature.

In his essay (linked above), Postman says: “every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards,” and “our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute.”

Technology-making is human, and can be oriented towards right uses of creation.

The command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and to ‘fill the earth and subdue it,’ followed by the story where the archetypal humans in the heaven-on-earth space are placed in a garden to ‘cultivate and keep it,’ where we’re told about all the goodness and beauty in the surrounding earth, lends itself to the idea that humans aren’t meant to just work with their bare hands, but we’re to make tools. Tools that would shape the world, and re-shape us. The first genealogy after the garden tells us about people making tools, instruments, and cultivating the land. Throughout the Old Testament artisans and makers are said to have God’s Spirit of wisdom, these’re the folks who make the furnishings for the Tabernacle and Temple, and build those heaven on earth spaces (that look like Eden). No all technology is evil; imagining and making technology to reshape ourselves, and the world, towards a true human telos (our created function/purpose) is a profoundly good thing to do and is part of being made in the image of a maker. The catch is we’re people who live with hearts turned in on ourselves, and away from God, and so our technology tends to amplify that nature as it takes on mythic (and idolatrous) qualities. The Babylonians get pretty good at making technology (and cities and towers and stuff). For more on this idea check out my piece on the brilliant Bluey episode, Flatpack.

Image-making particularly amplifies these dynamics, in part by shaping our imaginations as we produce artefacts and art.

We are images who make images — just as God was able to conceive of a world and fashion it into being — via his word, and with humans in the garden, by breathing his life into a human he crafted from the ground, we are able to imagine worlds and bring them into being (in our stories) and to craft things with our hands. Images are particularly powerful ‘imagination-primers’ which is, in part, why God commanded Israel not to make images of himself, or other gods, who would corrupt their imaginations and so their actions in the world with false imaginings of God and of the sort of lives we should go making with our hands. Our ability to now generate and manipulate digital imagery has extended this capacity to new, and sometimes terrifying, levels.

Cultural change doesn’t simply happen ‘top down’ via ideas and images, but bottom up through ‘things’ that shape our lives (like cameras)

Lots of our theories and fears around cultural change — and the stories we tell about how we got to where we are — focus on the ideas (often the ideas of “great men” in history, or on the ideological takeover of institutions that educate and form people). This is partly because we’re conditioned to imagine ourselves as brains on a stick (or our brains as computers) who operate in response to data/information.

History is full of big ideas — it’s quite possible that the ones that stick are the ones that are coupled best with technologies and artefacts that embed the ideas in the actual lives of people (this isn’t to say that these ideas can’t also be true). So, for example, the Protestant Reformation took hold in part not just because the printing press emerged as a technology, but because it supported the ideas of the Reformation (that information shouldn’t be restricted to a priesthood), and got books written in the vernacular (a new technology) into the hands of the masses. This sort of change via technology (and the ecological change it brings, and mythology it creates) is observable throughout history and so when we think about social and cultural changes it’s insufficient just to think about ideas, we have to think about tools and techniques and the practices they embed in our lives as they re-shape us (individually and collectively) as well (and we need to think about who supplies the tools, to what end, and how they benefit as well). And when it comes to digital/electronic technology we need to examine the practices created as we interact with both hardware (like a mobile phone) and software (like an algorithm deciding what content we see).

Technology causes secularisation.

I’ve put this one last, because it’s the biggest — and it’s probably the most cautionary point of all the above; it’s also an outworking of the previous points. There are lots of theories about what enables secularisation — what it is that disenchants our vision of reality, or kills G0d (or gods) in our imaginations, our image making, and the lives we live in the world with any sense of plausibility — these often focus heavily on shifts in thinking, or in practices (around things like sex). My friend Stephen McAlpine writes a lot about the sexular age; linking our modern western approach to sexuality, identity and transcendence to how we approach sex.

Here’s me coining the Techular Age.

Technology causes secularisation — new technologies like clocks and computers changed the way we conceived of God, and the world, and our life in it — and when we’re faced with problems that once seemed insurmountable, or with suffering and death, it’s technology we often turn to for hope and that gives us a vision of the future. Technology even enabled the sexual revolution through things like the pill, and continues to shape the way we approach sexuality as ‘expressive individuals’ as we engage in relationships (or just sex) facilitated by apps (with algorithms) on our phones (that serve up imagery), or through imagination-shaping digital images (like pornography) that teach humans how to interact with one another (with not great consequences). I’ll unpack this more in future posts, but it’s this last point that makes me want to tread more carefully than all the others when it comes to imagining the future shape of church communities and the role technology plays in our life together.

Even if ChatGPT thinks the church of 2050 will need to incorporate emerging technologies. Here’s what it suggested when I asked how churches might incorporate emerging technologies in the next thirty years.

“There are many possibilities for how emerging technologies could be used in a church setting, depending on the specific technologies and social trends that are present at the time. Some examples of emerging technologies that could potentially be used in a church setting in the future include:

  • Artificial intelligence: This could be used to create personalized recommendations for biblical studies or spiritual growth, or to provide answers to frequently asked questions.
  • Virtual and augmented reality: These technologies could be used to create immersive experiences for worship, Bible study, or other events. For example, a church could use virtual reality to take members on a virtual tour of biblical sites, or to create a simulated gathering space for virtual services.
  • Blockchain: This technology could be used to securely track donations, manage membership records, or facilitate online transactions.
  • 3D printing: This could be used to create physical copies of biblical artifacts or other objects for use in worship or educational settings.

In terms of social trends, it is likely that churches will continue to embrace the use of technology to reach and connect with members, particularly as more people become comfortable with using technology in their daily lives. Some churches may also focus on creating more inclusive and diverse communities, and may use technology to facilitate this by providing translation services or creating virtual gathering spaces for underrepresented groups.”

Be good for winsomeness sake

The winsomeness discussion continues rolling on, with Stephen McAlpine declaring it the “Christian word of the year” for 2022. It’s a post worth reading and engaging with even if the debate over a virtue continues to confound me (I’m very much in the “winsomeness is a stance, not a strategy” camp).

“The big take away for 2022 is how Christians can engage in the public square in a way that is winsome. And if that is even possible. And of course the big question: Is winsome a strategy or a stance? We haven’t decided yet. We haven’t decided what winsome actually means. Does it mean speaking the truth in love? And when we’re told that certain truths that Christians hold can’t be loving in the first place, then we’re being told that we’re masking hate in love language. Where does winsome land in all of that?”

I want to offer a two-pronged rejoinder to Stephen’s post — and to the discussion. First up, you’d be forgiven if joining the current discussion around the word “winsome” for thinking it’s a totally new appellation for a strategy Christians have never had to embrace before the culture turned hostile.

Stephen asks:

“As the culture wars roll on, (and on and on) and Christians find themselves in the firing line on ethical matters, is winsome is our ticket out of this? That’s a great question to ask, if only we could decide what winsome actually looks like.”

It is a great question to ask — but it begs a couple of questions, first, are people advocating winsomeness seeing it as a “ticket out of this” firing line (or simply obedience to the Messiah who was met with the equivalent of a first century firing squad), and second, is winsomeness such a new concept we can’t actually understand what it means?

I’m sure some people are seeing winsomeness in utilitarian terms; thinking it’ll soften the blow if we’re nice — Stephen kinda assumes that’s why people do it when he unpacks the response to Tish Harrison Warren’s New York Times piece advocating pluralism that was hammered by an intolerant web-commentariat. But there’s a long history of arguing that winsomeness is a catchall heading for a Christlike virtuous life that seeks to make the Gospel beautiful; that it’s a way to describe a life shaped by the fruit of the Spirit, or cruciformity, in a crucifying world. And I’m not sure how helpful it is to simply assume the debate can be reframed away from the historical context that gave rise to the word.

I also think we have bigger fish to fry — and that’s the second prong of my rejoinder.

The first wave of winsomeness

I was keen to dig in, a little bit, to the history of usage of the word “winsome” — so I used Google ngram to get a sense of when, exactly, it became a part of published discourse. We’re not even at peak winsome — we’re in the midst of a second wave.

It does turn out that lots of the early usage is connected to some Scottish poem, reprinted a number of times over the years, and others seem to be connected to romance novels. But I’ve found some compelling evidence that winsome was being used before the culture wars — back in the 1950s at least — to describe a stance (not a strategy).

In this book Winsome Christianity by Henry Durbanville, published in 1952. Here’s the preface. Notice its emphasis on character.

Character is consolidated habit and is ever tending to permanence,” says Joseph Cook; and the saying is one of the greatest that has fallen from the lips of man. The traits of character that are spoken of in this little book are those which, if they be diligently cultivated and assiduously practised,. will ennoble the humblest life, filling it with radiant gladness and making it eminently useful. Thus refreshed and enriched, Christian men and women will, as they journey through this world to the ” Land that is fairer than day “, become true and effective witnesses to the grace of the Lord Jesus: like Abraham of old they will themselves be blessed and be a blessing to others.

And, here’s a screenshot of the table of contents.

If these character traits were the right thing to do (virtue) back in 1952, in the ‘golden days’ of modernist Christendom then they’re still the right thing to do today; to suggest these character traits were simply a strategy — or are a failed strategy — because the cultural context has changed is to assess character on the basis of utility rather than virtue (or our telos as bearers of the divine image). But I reckon this also suggests the “winsomeness” thing isn’t a fad, it’s a word that has been used to encompass these virtues (and the fruit of the Spirit) for at least 70 years.

Durbanville spends time in his Christlikeness chapter encouraging believers to develop a roselike fragrance of Christlikeness that is consistent in every sphere of life (it’s a stance, not a strategy, or perhaps more than a ‘stance’ that one adopts; it’s meant to be character so embedded in our lives that to present ourselves with integrity is to have these qualities on display in our lives). Christians — whether in public or private — should probably have integrity such that the character of Jesus is on display in us whether that’s a great stance or strategy, and regardless of the audience.

Our King has promised not only to visit us, but also to abide with us (John 14. 23). Is the fragrance of His presence diffused from us day by day ? If so, we shall be following in the footsteps of Paul who said : ” For to me to live is Christ “… There is one other thing which we would do well to note, namely, that a fragrance is the same everywhere. “He makes my life a constant pageant of triumph in Christ, diffusing the perfume of His knowledge everywhere by me” (2nd Corinthians 4, Moffatt). A rose smells as sweetly in the kitchen as in the drawing room; in the house of business as in the prayer meeting; on the playground as in the sanctuary.”

And earlier…

In March 1918, during World War 1, in the journal, The Congregationalist and Advance, in a section titled “In the Congregational Circle,” there’s a prayer recorded that says:

“O God, who in all times hast touched human lives with thoughts of thy kingdom of love, who even in the moments when that vision faded in defeat hast sustained those for whom it appeared, thou who wast in Jesus reconciling our world of error and sin with thy great glory and love suffer us not to forsake the hopes and visions of thy kingdom. Today when many would conclude that the kingdom which Jesus saw will never come, when followers of Jesus are entering into his own experience of defeat and of hope denied, grant us his steady confidence, his faith. Give us the grace to continue winsome and cheery, able still to bear light and love to all who have waited overlong. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

How curious to pray that Christians might continue bearing witness in a world marked by suffering. That’s a modern fad. Of course.

We can go further back. To 1906. To a journal called The Religious Telescope.

On page 75, in an editorial, there’s a paragraph that reads:

“Winsome Christians are a godsend to a church. There are too many sour-faced, solemn Christians in the Church. Fault finding, evil speaking, criticism — these are the shadows that creep over a congregation, embittering the pastor’s heart. Be a winsome Christian in the church circle. Say nice things about people. Talk up the church work and workers. Tell the pastor that his sermon helped you. Give people credit for what they are trying to do. Winsomeness is contagious. It catches like a smile and passes from one to another. The church is too funereal in its services and arrangements. It needs more sunshine and song. Be winsome in church work.”

Winsome Christianity in the 1800s

Working further back… I’m a bit hesitant to share this one, because so many of the ‘anti-winsome’ brigade are against the ‘feminisation’ of Christianity, or ‘beta males’ or whatever, and I’ve got problems with the reduction of women’s ministry to ‘mothercraft,’ but in the magazine Lutheran Witness, in 1893, in a section titled “Christian Motherhood,” you can read this paragraph.

“You may fancy that the play-house is a safe school of morals and that the ball room is a safe school of refinement of manners; but if your daughters shall have learned quite too many things in those schools how will you like the apparel that you made for them? Remember that you are making the coat of character for your children. If you fashion it after a worldly pattern, then they may be poisoned with worldliness; but if you devoutly seek first for them the kingdom of Christ and his righteousness, and if you draw them by the powerful traction of a lovable, winsome Christian example, then you may hope to see them arrayed in the beauty of holiness.”

Again, winsomeness is being presented as a virtue — not a strategy (though, again, what you win people with, you win them to. Virtue is our strategy).

We can go further back, again, to a book, Winsome Christianity, published in 1882 by Richard Glover. It’s digitised on Google Books, and here’s its table of contents.

Again, a list of character traits, grounded in his observations about the character of God, in part as revealed in the person of Christ.

In his opening chapter Glover says:

“I do not mean by the title of this book to discuss so much the abstract beauty of Christianity, as the beauty of it when it is worthily embodied in the lives and character of Christians. In itself, of course, Christianity must be the most lovely and winsome thing the world has ever seen or ever will see. It is the highest and most perfect of all the works that God has created and made, and the lowest of which he pronounced very good. It is the flower or the fruit of all that has gone before.”

He goes on to say, of this beauty, that there are two chief ways it is made manifest in the world:

“One is by preaching, and the other is by the practical exhibition of it in the lives of its professors and disciples.”

And, subsequently:

“It will now be perceived then that what we mean by “Winsome Christianity” is the practical exhibition of Christianity before the world in an attractive and winning form. We do not intend to suggest by such a title “any other gospel than that we have received;” nor that the latter should be denuded of its essentials so as to accommodate it to man’s vaunted moral sense, as so many are attempting to do in our day.

Neither have we any wish to rob it of any of those elements which tend to make it more or less repugnant to sinful men, nor even to keep these in the background in the way of compromise to any human prejudice… when we adopt such a title, we have in our eye those ugly accretions that gather around it through human infirmity, which hide its true and essential beauty, and bring it into an unpopularity that it does not deserve.”

Glover’s aim was to appeal to Christians themselves:

“to point out to them certain defects of character and conduct which tend to make Christianity needlessly repulsive; to urge upon them the solemn duty of trying to correct these, or removing stumbling-blocks and causes of offence, and of putting on the more attractive ornaments of grace.”

The last bit of his intro relevant to conversations about winsomeness almost 150 years later, says “we must never forget that Christianity is in itself essentially repugnant to the unconverted or natural man. This is lamentably forgotten by the advocates of what is called “genial Christianity.” They seem to think that if Christianity be only fairly put before men they will fall in love with it at once. They think the whole fault is in the mode of presentation, and they take no account of the condition of the eye that beholds it. But this is a fatal mistake.”

Winsomeness used to be the word for people who recognised exactly what critics of winsomeness are now saying the ‘winsomeness brigade’ misses — there was already a word for this in historic debates — “genial” Christianity. I’m not suggesting modern bloggers should have read these potentially obscure 150 year old books — but, I don’t think we’re well served by thinking any posture is emerging in a vacuum in our present moment. There’s a long history of using winsomeness exactly the way I argued it should be used and understood in my previous post, and plenty of people using it the same way currently even if others — mostly those shooting at “genial Christianity” want to redefine it in order to police the term.

I’ve quoted these documents at length to make two points: firstly, the use of the word “winsome” has a pretty thick and rich history, we’re not left trying to define it with nothing but etymology and present usage (though someone had a crack at an etymological approach and a history of usage a decade ago). Second, people using the word “winsome” to describe a set of characteristics that “adorn the Gospel” are standing in a tradition that’s at least 150 years old, and not simply a reaction to the modern secular west.

There are plenty more examples from before the advent of the blogosphere and the Christian thought leader. I haven’t found many not making the case for winsomeness as a virtue — even if they link the virtue to how people might respond.

Now, I’m not denying that people are less inclined to respond to our winsome character in the public square in the modern west. I’m making the case that how others respond is not a reason to choose not to be winsome — again, because character matters when it comes to integrity, the Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of people who’re called to ‘bear the death of Jesus in our body so that the life of Jesus might be made known,” and, again, because what you win them with you win them to. I don’t want to win people to Christianity with manipulation, aggression, or a culture war (and neither did the Apostle Paul), but by sharing the Gospel and our lives shaped by the Gospel as well…

What if we’re actually the bad guys for a reason

I think there’s more to it than just ‘the culture is changing so winsomeness won’t cut it’ — and I think Stephen McAlpine’s book title (Being the Bad Guys) offers a prognosis (and a treatment plan), but not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of how we got where we are.

Firstly, if the case that the modern west is still essentially Christian in a whole bunch of ways (including our moral framework) then the standards applied to find us wanting — or to position us as “the bad guys” are essentially Christian. This’s a case well made by Tom Holland, Glen Scrivener, and Mark Sayers in a variety of works — I’m not going to reproduce it here.

We’re being found wanting based on standards we helped build — and perhaps it’s not simply because we disagree with the sexual ethics of our neighbour, but, perhaps because lots of us have settled on pluralism as a strategy a bit like closing the gate after the horse has bolted; after years of using whatever social capital and political power we had to not accommodate the other. Perhaps people aren’t prepared to offer us pluralism now — as the losers in a war, because we wanted the war, and weren’t prepared to offer pluralism as a good and loving option then.

The article Stephen quotes from the New York Times makes a commendable case for pluralism — after Obergefell in the States (and the Plebiscite here), but, to beat my own drum a little — some of us were making a case for a generous pluralism, on the basis of virtue rather than utility, before the law changed, and were shouted down (some good folks even went so far a to label me a heretic and a false teacher).

We’ve been found wanting here — and, without genuine repentance for the way we used power against the interests of those we disagreed with, how can we ask them not to use that power against us, when they have it? Especially if reciprocity (treating others as we would have them treat us) is not just a command of Jesus, but a virtue.

If our neighbours genuinely believe that to not fully affirm and embrace a person’s sexual identity is harmful, what we’ve modelled for them is to use every lever or power at our disposal to stop other people causing that harm despite their personal convictions or experience. And that’s outside Christian community — when I speak to friends whose experience situates them under the LGBTIQA+ umbrella who’re also Christians, who’re also committed to a Biblical sexual ethic as historically understood, I think it’s fair to say that every one of them carries hurt or trauma inflicted on them by the church. When Glover wrote of the “ugly accretions that gather around the Gospel” — this is surely one of them. Brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, who hold to a Biblical position on marriage and sex, can even find themselves excluded from their biological families who claim to be Christian over culture war shibboleths.

We aren’t always the good guys getting the bad treatment that we think we are. Sometimes we’re reaping the whirlwind, and the appropriate posture isn’t simply winsomeness, but a winsome modelling of true repentance seeking reconciliation.

What if we’ve given up on goodness for goodness sake.

The second part of my critique is basically that winsomeness is probably not a cardinal virtue; or, if it’s something we do in public, when presenting the Gospel, it needs to be matched commensurately with the virtue of goodness. We’ll only not be hypocrites so long as people’s experience of our goodness and love makes our words about the goodness and love of God resonate. And that’s just not happening. I think there are two ways that segments of the modern evangelical church — and perception is reality here, really, we’re all part of this church, so I’ll use we — we have abandoned the kind of behaviour that led to the church shaping the west. Let’s call it two ways to die.

The first way is the way of the culture war, let’s call this ACL Christianity, in the Australian context, or Caldron Pool bolshiness, where we attempt to hold on to the power we have accreted, at all costs (and the expense of others).

Our use of power (and influence) has produced great good, historically, but also great harm and confusion about the nature of the Kingdom of God. We’ve failed to do something Glover warned about back in 1882 — we’ve attempted in our approach to politics to clear “away that hedge that makes God’s true people a separated people… a people called out and separated from the world — that is, from those who will not have Christ to reign over them, but who live to self and who serve their own pleasures and their own sins.” That’s a basis of pluralism, actually, recognising that the Gospel — and the power of the Spirit — actually creates a new humanity and a new people who’re defined by separation from the patterns of this world. The pursuit of the reign of Jesus via the means of the state, not the means of grace — sometimes through a post-millenial eschatology — has caused substantial damage to our ability to be seen to be doing good as ambassadors for Christ, rather than as would-be Caesars.

The second way to die is, perhaps ironically, a function (at least in our corner of Australian evangelicalism) of the folks that brought us Two Ways to Live, and a reduction — whether intentional or otherwise, of the Gospel to personal salvation for a pie in the sky future through right belief, rather than being brought into a kingdom through believing loyalty and oriented to spirit-filled action as a redeemed creation. Let’s call the second way to die “Two Ways to Live Christianity”.

This reductionist shift included a turn to pragmatism (what tool’s going to save the most people), and a sort of utilitarian thinking that expands into how we construct church communities, and a turn against good works being “the work of the Lord.” This was, in part, a reaction against the Gospel-denying liberalism of some expressions of the social Gospel. The same thinkers who bring you Two Ways To Live Christianity also tend to insist that ‘the work of the Lord’ describes preaching, or word, ministry in the context of the local church. It’s interesting this then neglects the second way Glover suggested winsomeness happens back in 1882, through the “practical exhibition of the Gospel in the lives of believers.”

When we do the two step of reducing the Gospel to Two Ways to Live, which doesn’t have much of a doctrine of creation (beyond “God made the world”). There’s nothing in the first box about what he made it, or us, for, or a vocational sense of what we’re created to do as image bearers with creation, and then nothing in box six about what we’re re-created to do as people who’re now new creations by the Spirit, except to get to heaven. This, plus reducing the work of the Lord to preaching this Gospel, means we end up with an approach to the Christian life where winsomeness is only important if it helps us get converts, and where good works are somehow secondary to, rather than integrated with, the mission of (and proclamation of) the Gospel. By having a small target Gospel, and a small vision of the work of the Lord, we’ve minimised goodness as part of our witness (and as a quality that someone, or some communities, who publicly (re)present the Gospel should be known for… I made a longer version of this argument, with receipts, in Soul Tread magazine’s most recent edition.

The tl:dr; for this last section is that by reducing the Gospel to just words, and faith(fulness) to ‘belief in those words,’ and the speaking of those words, we’ve lost the impetus that led the historic church to live such good lives that they changed the world by making, humanly speaking, the Gospel more beautiful — by living winsome lives that meant even their crunchy words came with a backdrop of a community of people committed to loving and serving their most marginalised neighbours. Neither of these two ways to die give us the tools to make ‘winsomeness’ an effective strategy, and winsomeness, as historically defined, is an alternative way to live and present the Gospel to these two stances.

We’re told Christians should have a good reputation amongst outsiders, and now our reputation is for being the oppressor of those typically held to be the most marginalised neighbours in our community (though the tide is turning, and the power dynamics have shifted fast, such that we’re now the minority asking not to be oppressed). What are we to do?

I think the answer is the very New Testament idea of ‘living such good lives among the pagans…’ So this’s my argument here — prior to figuring out what it means to be winsome, and what place that has in public speaking about Christianity, we need to get our ethos in order — we need to rediscover what it means to be good; to live lives that guide the interpretation of our winsome words towards positive ends. We obviously can’t control that — to some the message (and way of life) of the Gospel carries the stench of death, to others it is the aroma of life.

As a Reformed Christian I’m pretty convinced, like Glover, that nobody comes to faith in Jesus without the Spirit making a person receptive to the Gospel anyway, and so in all this argy bargy about the changing world and our strategy/stance I’m much more interested in how our lives represent the character of God, and the so-called ‘audience of one,’ than about how we are received, and yet, there’re a few bits of the New Testament I reckon we could take more seriously when it comes to both the stance and strategy we adopt, and where we’re happy to be positioned in society.

There’s lots of people willing to say the church should be militant and aggressive, no matter who we destroy, in order to be faithful to Jesus — but at some point those actions aren’t an expression of faithfulness to Jesus, but faithfulness in the rhetorical equivalent of the sword, and our own strength wielding it. It also strikes me that when public Christianity is coming from Christian leaders, maybe more of us could consider this bit of Paul’s list of qualifications for elders, remembering that he’s opened chapter 2 with a reference to the ruling authorities, and that, in the context, he’s talking about the very same power-hungry idolatrous empire that crucified Jesus and persecuted Christians on and off until Constantine.

“He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” — 1 Timothy 3:7

We’ve kinda tossed this one, haven’t we, except when it comes to “reputation management” when things come unstuck? But by then it’s too late, and it’s reactive, rather than pro-active. For Paul, this’s about how people see an elder prior to and during that appointment, not simply when they’re facing the court of public opinion (where, one wonders how you have a good reputation without something like the winsomeness described through history). We’re now quite happy to have elders and ministers who’re warriors positioned against the outside, with no regard to their reputation, and we’re seeing prominent pastor after prominent pastor fall into disgrace.

How exactly, I wonder, do we see such a reputation developing in a world where the institutional church is on the nose for our handling of abuse (of various kinds), where we’ve often played ‘reputation management’ games rather repenting, changing, and upholding the dignity of victims, and all those in our care? How do we rebuild a shattered relationship while also trampling on LGBTIQA+ people outside the church, let alone those in it, let alone those in it who’re committed to a traditional, Biblical, orthodox, sexual ethic?

Building that sort of reputation requires a commitment to reputation building, not just reputation management or spin, but actually the long hard work the church did for many years that’s left the modern western citizen “wanting the kingdom without the king” as Mark Sayers puts it.

I fear that in all the winsomeness discussion that focuses on how much we Christians’re being crunched in the public sphere — especially on questions around sexuality and particularly those in the LGBTIQA+ community, and their supporters and allies — kinda misses a big part of the point. And we’d be better off working out how to regain a good reputation amongst those neighbours, while living quiet lives respecting and praying for those in authority over us, in order to position ourselves for the winsomeness produced by God’s Spirit at work in us to shine through our words and actions.

Be winsome for goodness sake

Every time a Christian finds themselves publicly crucified in the mainstream — or online — media a debate rages about what posture said Christian should adopt in their engagement with the public.

Its been interesting, for me, to watch the American blogosphere trying to understand the Essendon saga, and City On A Hill pastor Guy Mason’s subsequent Sunrise appearance. One reformed writer opened his piece with:

“I do not follow Australian rules football, the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie but, a month ago, they collided on Australian television”

He’d actually first said:

“I do not follow Australian football (soccer), the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie…”

But someone corrected him in the comments without alerting him to the fact that, to my knowledge, Guy Mason did not collide with anybody named Ryan Kochie. It’s interesting to watch non-sports fans trying to talk about sportsball, but also, it’s worth noting (as we’ll see again below) that some conservative culture war thought leaders looking to drum up angst in their base aren’t going to let a quick fact check, or getting the name of a person or platform right, get in the way of a good story (I am astounded by the number of people who simply can’t get the name City on a Hill right).

Simon Kennedy, an Aussie academic who isn’t a culture warrior with no fact checking capacity, wrote a piece for Mere Orthodoxy — one that echoed Aaron Renn’s ‘The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism’ from First Things back in February, and James Wood’s subsequent rejection of Tim Keller’s model of “winsomeness” also from First Things (I wrote an article on both these articles in an edition of Soul Tread).

The thesis of Renn’s piece is basically that once (pre-1994) the west was positively disposed towards Christianity, as a general rule, then it was neutral (1994-2014), and now, since 2014 “Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity,” and “Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences,” like losing your CEO gig in a commercial sporting team.

Now. I don’t think Thorburn should’ve lost his job. I don’t think woke capitalism and the contracting out of every aspect of one’s life to one’s employer is a good thing (and the left celebrating this turn to capitalist levers for exercising social power is bizarre), I’m also not particularly interested in disputing that the world is negatively disposed towards us; it clearly is — my point has always been that given we Christians (and our institutions) basically shaped the west (and we keep wanting to claim credit for the good bits), we have to recognise that moral condemnation of Christians, by western folks, is coming from people whose moral frame is shaped by Christianity, but we also have to recognise that where genuine injustice (and evil) has occurred in the west, we’ve been, previously, either holding the wheel, or we’ve had means to stop it. Part of the shift to a negative world is actually on us, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to gay rights. Not many of these thought pieces grapple with these twin realities; what they are often doing is serving up a political strategy to regain the wheel (on a spectrum that finishes up with Christian Nationalism, or Trump voting, at one extreme). Renn and Wood were both, essentially, justifying a pro-Trump stance in the American church for strategic reasons.

The thing about strategies is that they’re almost always coming with a consequentialist, or even utilitarian, ethical framework — emphasising results, or output, rather than character, or input in the ethical decision making schema. You can, we’re told, justify aligning with the devil, or just Trump, if the outcomes make it worthwhile (it seems to me that the devil often invites people to control big kingdoms, while forfeiting their soul in exchange for bending the knee to him). So, for example, Renn frames the ‘strategy’ in the ‘neutral world’ as “cultural engagement,” where he says:

“The neutral-world cultural engagers were in many ways the opposite of the culture warriors: Rather than fighting against the culture, they were explicitly positive toward it. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms… the cultural-engagement strategy is an evangelicalism that takes its cues from the secular elite consensus.”

He suggests,

“Under pressure, this group has turned away from engagement with and toward synchronization with secular elite culture, particularly around matters such as race and immigration. Their rhetoric in these areas is increasingly strident and ­ever more aligned with secular political positions. Meanwhile, they have further softened their stance and rhetoric on flashpoint social issues. They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb. While holding to ­traditional teachings on sexuality, they tend to speak less about Christianity’s moral prohibitions and more about how the church should be a welcoming place for “sexual minorities,” emphasizing the church’s past failures in this regard.” 

Now, it’s worth noting here that his assumption is that what’s driving the “cultural engagement” folks (he names quite a few) is the end goal of maintaining a place at the secular table and having respectability. With respect, I think this is a cynical reduction of peoples motives away from virtue/character and towards outcomes, and it predisposes the conversation to treat people as sellouts. The dice when it comes to conversations about how we present ourselves in public are loaded as soon as our posture is about securing an outcome (even a good one), rather than about faithfully transmitting a message in a manner where our medium (our presentation) matches the message. I’m genuinely convinced that the New Testament’s guide for communicating the Gospel calls for us to bring our medium (ourselves as image bearers of Jesus) into alignment with the message we preach (one of God’s victory and model for life in his kingdom centering on the life and love of Jesus displayed at the cross, where the ‘negative world’ puts him to death horrifically). I wrote my thesis on this, you can read it if you want. We can’t, for example, match the message of the cross (foolishness to the world), with the waxy-chested sophistry that was popular in Corinth and was all about speaking with human power — Paul says a whole lot of stuff about the shape of his persuasive ministry — how it’s embedded in the nature of his message, before he talks about becoming all things to all people, and then he calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus. I suspect many cultural engagement folk are embodying their understanding of the Gospel, and, I think, inevitably all models of public engagement (communication modes) form an understanding of the message of the Gospel for both the communicator and the recipient; the more one embraces power-based, or results driven, strategies the more one is conforming their understanding of the Gospel, and the way God works in the world, to their communication medium — especially if they hit their metrics and gain the promised kingdom.

In his follow up to Renn’s piece, James Wood wrote:

“Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today’s world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings and his views on how Christians should engage politics.”

Notice, again, his assessment of Keller’s “winsome” approach is built on metrics (how effective it was in evangelism), and then he builds what I would suggest is a category error separating politics and evangelism; at least as far as the Gospel is concerned. For starters, it’s called ‘winsomeness’ not ‘winallness’ — the New Testament doesn’t seem to set up any expectation that our public witness will convert everybody — or even a majority — it does seem to suggest, in, say, the book of Acts, that faithful representations of the Gospel will bear fruit and lead to a whole heap of people wanting to get rid of you. Secondly, the evangel is, by nature, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that he came to bring God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection, and to invite us to become citizens of heaven who are no longer exiled from God because of sin and death (and Satan), but who now have God’s Spirit dwelling in us so we are united in life and death (and resurrection) to Jesus; so that we’re raised and seated with him in the throne room of heaven, and functioning as ambassadors of that kingdom now; ambassadors and heralds (‘keryx,’ the word for preachers or heralds) were the people who’d carry gospels (evangels), announcements of royal victories, around with them in the ancient world. The separation of pastoral and evangelistic communication is a modern distinction built more off our weird separation of religion and politics (or the secular and sacred, or the immanent and transcendent) in the modern protestant imagination. It’s not a separation that makes much sense outside a particular historical context, and it’s certainly not one you’ll find in either the Old or New Testament.

One way to frame this soft criticism of Keller is that he wants to win people to Jesus as an outcome of his public engagement — whether political or otherwise — which seems to me to be a fair and charitable enough description of the desired outcome of ‘winsomeness,’ when coupled with the idea that a public Christian is hoping to represent the character of Jesus well (perhaps the fruit of the Spirit), and the nature of the Gospel (the announcement of a crucified king who calls us to take up our cross and follow him if we’re going to be his disciples) in their engagement with the world. My contention is that too often this sort of debate about winsomeness only views it through the lens of metrics connected to results — specifically around political influence and outcomes, a place at the public table — without assessing its faithfulness or virtue or the integrity (and ethos) being displayed in a manner aligned with the message we are communicating as Christians.

Wood describes his shift from anti-Trump to Trump justifying through his piece, with little quotes like “Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing,” and “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?”

I’m suggesting these quotes are revealing these problematic assumptions that ‘winsomeness’ is about securing a ‘favourable hearing’. How people respond to our communication is, ultimately, going to rest on them — and it’ll largely be about their heart — our responsibility as public Christians is to represent Jesus well, not to persuade (though not ignoring that persuasion is a good outcome that might come through faithful communication). The kind of persuaded person formed by our presentation of the Gospel will reflect our manner as well; the well-known axiom “what you win them with, you win them to” is true. There’s a reason, I suspect, that churches that have embraced a culture war posture and a certain vision for masculinity (and politics) are growing, but I question whether the people being won by that methodology (or message) are being won to the Jesus who preaches not just judgment on the world, but the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount as descriptions of the way of life in his kingdom. Results are no guarantee of faithfulness; and they’re a terrible way to decide how to be faithful.

Wood notes that “Public witness” most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” I find this interesting. I suspect it is true that I ‘punch right’ so to speak, more than I ‘punch left,’ though I personally tend to punch ‘inside the church’ rather than ‘outside the church’ with my writing and I’m much more profoundly concerned, in my context, with the influence of the secular right (the Aussie equivalents of Trump, and the promise of a kingdom of the earth if we just bend the knee a little) than the secular left.  

All of that serves as background for the renewed debate about winsomeness in the wake of the City on a Hill/Essendon saga.

Kennedy declared “Negative World Arrives in Australia,” as though we’re only just on the pointy end of the secularisation now facing the U.S; or as though this particular interview was a watershed moment… not the Folau stuff, or the Manly Seven, or myriad other moments. Is it really when a white bloke can’t be CEO of a corporation that we recognise that the negative world has arrived? That’s a question less about Simon’s piece, which was a fine response to events, and more about how much our perception of where we sit in society is about what happens at the elite level; there’s a class thing here (not distinctly a race thing), that probably even harks back to Australian settlement where the establishment class was “Christian,” while converts and settlers were at best nominally so, unless they were Catholic rather than Anglican. It’s probably also true that secularisation bites in different ways outside the elite layer of society (or doesn’t really at all in some communities). Personally, I don’t recognise the not-negative Australia (in terms of the public’s approach to the claims of Christianity) as having really been operating in my lifetime — certainly not with my peers — though maybe this’s cause I lived the unsheltered life of a public school educated son of a preacher-man so my faith was always public, and contested (and insulted), for as long as I can remember. I thought acknowledging the ‘negative world’ was the whole point of having (often elite) Christian schools and universities (the same schools now under fire in the negative world context)… so that people could avoid engaging in a public sphere they didn’t control… but I digress.

Kennedy’s take home on the Mason interview is basically:

“What Mason and others need to realize is that in this Negative World public Christianity will by definition be abrasive and possibly combative. It can still be “winsome,” whilst simultaneously being ready to stand firm. If Mason and others aren’t prepared for that, it may be better to not do the interview because the message of “life and love” won’t be heard.

Thorburn’s resignation and Mason’s interview demonstrate that the church needs to face this hard truth: the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it. No amount of “life and love” will change the fact that, in Australia at least, we’ve entered Negative World proper.”

Being ‘nice’ and ‘relevant’ isn’t going to cut it; ‘conciliatory cultural engagement’ has had its day; in other circles — just as in the Wood piece Kennedy links, this’s a reasonable summary of how people’ve positioned the idea of “winsomeness.” As someone who has perhaps encouraged a ‘winsome’ approach to public engagement — though not to the same degree, or with anything like the influence, that Keller has — I don’t think this represents how I, or others in my ‘camp’ might understand what we’re advocating.

Keller also chimed in on the Essendon saga, responding to Kennedy on Mere Orthodoxy (there’s another good piece there on the issue from Jake Meador, and another from Kirsten Sanders and Matt Shedden, responding to Keller, in a way that lands close to this piece). Keller suggests our goal should be to engage with a threefold posture of “a spirit of humility and love (what I will call ‘Affection’),” “Culturally compelling arguments (what I will call ‘Persuasion’)” and “A quiet, courageous confidence in the truth of God’s Word (what I will call ‘Resolution’).” He proposes “that, using Paul’s exhortation, we can find ways of combining the three elements of Affection, Resolution, and Persuasion in our public discourse in a way that many secular people will find moving and some secular people will find convincing.” “Affection” and “persuasion” are probably the bits that get critiqued as “winsomeness,” and to the extent that “persuasion” is about the impact on the listener (rather than one’s intent), I agree with the Sanders and Shedden call for the category of ‘witness’ to be at the fore; but that witness still needs what Keller calls “affection” in order to be faithful, and it’s that posture of humility and gentleness — love for one’s enemy — treating the other as you would have them treat you — that is, I think, what ‘winsomeness’ is.

I am happy to concede that winsomeness, so defined, in our present cultural moment, has little to commend it in terms of metrics — if I was output focused and wanted to be maximally effective politically, or even in terms of bums on seats in a church — I would embrace the culture war and the levers of power.  

I’m also keen to point out that utilitarianism is a sub-Christian ethical framework, and that what we’re called to be in the New Testament is faithful witnesses to the work of God in the world through Jesus, in his life and teaching, his death (at the hands of a beastly Satanic empire) for his people, his resurrection, his ascension, and his joining the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit to give his life to his people in the world. The word “witnesses” in Greek is “martyrs” — we’re called to represent the story we live in by embodying that story; and bringing our bodies and stories into the public square — as our means of persuasion — in the hope that God will vindicate us, and he might even use the way we are received to not just bring him glory, but turn hearts to him through the power of the Gospel being displayed.

Now, I don’t want to centre myself in this story. I’m a pastor with a blog, and a small church. I haven’t written much in the last 12 months for a bunch of reasons that I’ll unpack in coming months. I’m a bit player in the scheme of things, I’m not saying this as an exercise in false humility — or humility at all — it’s just a thing. It’s very possible that in my attempts to suggest that the ‘winsomeness’ position is being misrepresented here, I’m misrepresenting the positions of others — or, that, indeed, there are many who embrace winsome cultural engagement for utilitarian reasons rather than virtuous ones. However, in my observation, there’s a stream of hard right Christian commentators who’re critical of ‘winsomeness’ and ‘niceness’ who’re advocating for a more aggressive form of public engagement to the point that I think the mediums they’re advocating for the Gospel message (or Christian politics) are distorting the message and forming something other than disciples of Jesus who take up their cross and live generative lives that display the fruit of the Spirit. There’re those who suggest ‘winsomeness’ is selling out to the culture who’re embracing a culture war posture that comes from the beastly empire, rather than the kingdom of the crucified king — that looks more like the sword, than the cross — and that will link sword and cross in unhelpful ways, but not totally new ways. This is a perennial problem of the relationship between Christians and empire.

There’re also those who in their bid to commend courageous truth-speaking, neglect love, and those who in their dismissal of ‘niceness’ dismiss ‘gentleness,’ and other fruit of the Spirit — and plenty of other ethical imperatives from the New Testament that guide how we ought conduct ourselves.

I think there are two misfires driving these positions — the first is in our (particularly modernist protestant) decoupling of word (logos) from character (ethos), or medium from message, in our public presentation, such that one can somehow faithfully present the Gospel in a manner just by forcefully speaking truth, in a vacuum disconnected from the embodied witness of our individual and collective lives, that leaves its impact resting on human power, not God’s power. The second is that we’ve embraced an ethical system from the world (especially the realms of politics and business) that measures the goodness of an action in terms of its results, rather than its inherent goodness (or virtue). If we think ‘faithfulness’ is, in any way, tied to establishing a Christian nation, or controlling the levers of power, through our work, then, “winsomeness” is foolish appeasement, that’s true too if our metric is just a place at the table and people not hating us.

There’re also those somewhere in the middle between ‘cultural engagement’ and ‘culture war’ — perhaps like Wood and Renn — or like my friend Stephen McAlpine locally – who’re trying to guide us towards a model of public engagement for our time, one that recognises the ground is shifting.

My suggestion is that our model of public engagement is actually, essentially, timeless; that our job is not so much to be winsome, but to be Christlike, and that obedience to Jesus, and to God’s word, does in fact include considering our reputation amongst outsiders, doing good, responding to evil with good, living such good lives among the pagans, and turning the other cheek responding to curse with blessing — that sort of stuff — when we’re engaged in public Christianity. Further, my contention is that as we live these good lives, some, even those who ‘bear the sword’ as those appointed by God to govern, will crucify us — whether metaphorically or literally, and this is a possible outcome of faithfulness rather than simply bad communication strategy and being misunderstood.

In the fallout of the Mason interview, my friend Stephen McAlpine and I were interviewed by Glen Scrivener, an Aussie living in England, on his show SpeakLife (the name is important). We approached the events through our paradigms — as most people who speak, and write, and think, do. And I think the interview’s worth a watch, even months after the event.

For good or for ill, this interview demonstrates that I find myself in the cross hairs of people in Australia championing the anti-winsomeness approach to public Christianity; those who reckon I’m a capitulator who just wants a seat at the public table. I do, for the record, want a politically engaged public Christianity that is evangelistic and pastoral in nature — but most of what gets interpreted as ‘capitulation’ by these folks is actually more about me wanting to keep carving out space for those already following Jesus — at great cost — to have a space at our table in the church, and to wonder aloud what people we’re excluding through our practices (especially where they align with oppressive and exclusive practices in the world outside the church).

A pastor local to me, Tom Foord, didn’t love our interview. You can watch his 18 minute hit piece on my position here, but, to save you the trouble, here’s a couple of quotes. This first sentence demonstrates again how little interest guys like this actually have in representing truth, or seeking understanding.

“So we’re going over to this Youtube interview that a bloke on Real Life, or Real Talk, or something, a YouTube interview, where he grabbed two not ideal but popular Christian evangelical cultural commentators. Stephen McAlpine and Nathan Campbell. Neither of whom I would agree largely on this whole situation around homosexuality and what not. Campbell’s pretty well known for tolerating same sex attracted pastors, which is a huge issue, he should not be a pastor for even having that position. Anyway, this guy’s asking them a few questions on what they thought about the Guy Mason interview and largely what their read is on the cultural situation in Australia. I thought we’d listen to them say some stuff and take another case study on how this is wrong, and why it’s wrong, and how it’s going to effect your witness…”

He goes on to spear my suggestion that “winsomeness, if it’s Christlikeness, it’s not just a stance, it is a strategy and a victory is actually some form of crucifixion.”

Tom didn’t like this. He says:

“This sounds super holy and pietistic, this’s literally what every failure of a person says, “I’ve failed, let’s redefine what failure looks like. Jesus failed because he died. Maybe failure is kind of an upside down victory. Doesn’t that feel and smell like the Gospel.”

He went on to take my description of another person’s description of a debate he hadn’t watched (the debate, and a transcript, are readily available online), where I said “the best review on Twitter was it was like watching a gentle crucifixion,” and then he used it to attack that other person, in an absolutely specious way. He even says:

“In other words, this dude got his rear end handed to him. I haven’t watched the debate, but if these guys think he lost I think he would’ve been buried. He was crucified, dead and buried, never to rise again…”

Then he goes on — not having engaged at all with the content of the debate — to suggest it failed to convey the content of the Gospel. And then, throws another blow my way.

“This’s the sheer idiocy that cowardice produces. When you have weak men who tolerate homosexuality in the pulpit, who probably entertain homosexual tendencies, when you have weak men who seem more like women, then you start getting them into the pulpits and into the blogs, and into the authorship, and onto the interviews, and they redefine, literally, the commands of God. The ability to convince the people of God that failing to obey the commands of God is in fact how you be Christlike is nothing short of mind control. They failed, call it a failure, he lost the debate, he couldn’t defend the truth. That sucks. Christians are supposed to be able to do that, don’t now turn around in this limp wristed way and say “well, doesn’t it feel like a crucifixion,” no, that’s gay. You lost. The whole posture is in fact a blasphemy to the cross.”

That last bit came with a snide accent that was, frankly, immature and awful, then he takes issue with my saying “we should seek to be obedient to Jesus, and represent him well, by embodying the way of the cross.” He says:

“I’m going to disagree with him, because he’s using Christianish words, but what he means by that is failing to give a good and bold clarity, like clarity about the Gospel message about sin, and the law of God, and justification in Christ, and the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation… that’s not what he means by embodying the way of the cross even to the point of them killing us. He’s saying not doing that and being looked on by people like bully old Tom Foord who’d look at you and say “you failed to do that,” and he would say “I know, wasn’t it like a crucifixion?” No, no cultural enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ, nobody out there is going to look at him and ever think that this dude, or any of us that embody what Nathan Campbell is saying, no one will look at you and think “you’re a threat to the kingdom of darkness,” Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like Nathan Campbell filling pulpits and calling his little community a church. It’s a sham.”

Just notice that last bit — not the attack on an entire community of faithful Christians — but this idea that Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like me. Wow.

Now. Tom Foord is going to feature on Caldron Pool’s podcast tonight (Nov 28). He’s an emerging voice on the conservative platform that has poured more energy than any other in Australia into the anti-winsomeness/anti-niceness crusade, and, more recently, an explicit pursuit of Christian nationalism. It’d be easy to dismiss these guys as fringe — but Caldron Pool is connected to an emerging network of what you might call “Christian Nationalists” here in Australia; ‘thought leaders’ and people connected to Christian political action groups, think tanks, and the publishing arms of established denominations (including my own); these’re folks taking their lead from American commentators like Doug Wilson and Stephen Wolfe (whose new book, with its problematic racism is currently blowing up Christian Twitter).

These folks, and their churches, are increasingly attracting disenfranchised politically conservative young men; radicalising them with a purpose in a culture war; from all the reports I’ve heard from people who’ve known Tom for years, Tom’s a guy who himself has been radicalised to this point from keen and passionate evangelist to angry zealot. This isn’t a guy you want to be following; follow Jesus.

I’ve been inundated with messages from people whose ministries are being upended by folks radicalised at Tom’s church, or those who’ve left it, or who’ve known Tom from previous churches, who’re deeply concerned about the direction he’s going in. I think it’s clear from his words that he’s not particularly interested in niceness, gentleness, respect, or love — whether that’s within the church, or outside it, but with a strong and persuasive presentation of the truth as he understands it, with all the viciousness (vice) he feels is necessary to muster to secure his desired outcomes. It’s clear to me from his interpretation of my words, but more, from his failure to even watch the debate he banged on about for the better part of 10 minutes (where the Gospel was preached in a compelling way in a hostile room), or even to get the name of the show he was talking about right, that Tom’s not a reliable witness to small truths, but I’m also concerned his approach to both preaching and public Christianity — his ethos — ultimately undermines the Gospel and will win people to a false vision of Christianity, and so, with whatever little platform or influence I have, I’m offering an alternative approach to public communication to Tom, to Caldron Pool, and perhaps to all those who want to throw out ‘winsomeness’ because it no longer seems to produce the desired outcomes.

I understand the desire for our speech to be persuasive; for evangelism that produces results; I can understand why, with all the best intentions, someone might want to do what is most effective for the kingdom; but faithfulness to Jesus isn’t about the volume of fruit you produce — God produces the real fruit — faithfulness to Jesus is about obedience to him; it’s about finding life in his kingdom and his example. We are called to be good; good in a way that is noticeable — in contrast — to the world (and to the way we’re treated). What is ‘winsomeness’ if not seeking to be good, not for the sake of persuading people, but for goodness sake; even for the sake of obedience to God.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-18, 21

Whatever public engagement built on these words looks like; that’s what we’re called to do.

And I reckon if there’re those who think that “sounds gay,” then I’d rather be numbered with my gay brothers and sisters taking up their cross daily, denying themselves, and following Jesus, than the blokes who reach for the sword, or the microphone, to stab other Christians.

On Being Human (and not writing much)

Things’ve been quiet in these parts. I hope to get back to writing soonish. I’ve found it trickier, in the last 12 months, to split the sort of stuff I’d normally write about here from what I’ve been preaching through at church. To be honest, writing is a fun thing that I love, but preaching and pastoring is actually my job, and this’s been a little consuming, not just of my time and attention — but of my interest and excitement.

If you’re the sort of sucker for punishment who’d like to fill the void of long blog posts with audio, then, here’s the podcast version of my sermon from week one of a ten week series on Being Human I just wrapped up this morning.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Image credit: Nordacius

I was speaking to a friend yesterday who is both gay, and Christian (and who, for clarity’s sake, is committed to what we would both see as the Biblical sexual ethic). I had the overwhelming sense that this image summed up how he’s felt this week — even as he’s read my own forays into writing about the unfolding story at my beloved Sea Eagles.

My friend pointed out that it’s uncomfortable for him to both have the corporate world co-opt a symbol that used to indicate a degree of relational safety when someone voluntarily chose to present themselves as safe, and to have straight blokes like me might declare open season on ‘subverting the meaning of the rainbow’. I note, also, that TGC ran a piece today basically saying Christians should never embrace the rainbow. So. Whatever. If you want to weaken your conscience you should go read that.

But, given my friend’s response to my previous post, I thought it’d be worth unpacking a little more what I mean when I talk about “subverting the rainbow.”

What I actually have in mind here is not the idea that straight white men should appropriate the symbol of the rainbow to make it mean something entirely different to its meaning; that wouldn’t be subversive so much as aggressively colonial or something; what I have in mind is an amalgam of the African Bishop Augustine’s idea that we should “spoil Egypt, and preach Christ” — that we should take good and true things from the world and show how their goodness and truth is actually oriented towards the divine Logos, the word made flesh — Jesus, and that we should recognise that our moral intuitions around inclusion are, I trust, intuitions for the good refracted towards merely human ends, that can and should be oriented towards our human telos. I’ll put a disclaimer here that I’ll pick up below to say it’s probably not straight men who are best positioned to do the creative subversion required to make the re-orientation happen. It could actually be quite subversive for us just to listen for a bit (and I’m well aware of the irony of my writing about listening as a straight bloke).

I also have in mind the way the early Christians, operating from a very minority position, joined God’s movement in the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and essentially subverted not only the divine titles used already to declare the absolute majesty of Caesar, or the word Gospel — a word used to announce the good news of either Caesar’s enthronement, or victory in battle — but the cross itself; that was a powerful symbol of Roman power and the subjugation of its enemies; the Christians, operating first from the margins, utterly upended what those words and that symbol meant such that we still have crosses on public buildings in Australia.

When I picture subversion of the rainbow symbol — or its orientation towards the good — I’m not picturing me appropriating, co-opting, or redirecting the meaning of the symbol; nor am I thinking about reclaiming its symbolic meaning from Genesis after the flood (where, my same friend pointed out, the shape — like a war bow — is fundamental to its symbolism, not just the colours). What I’m picturing is the way gay Christians who’re committed to a traditional sexual ethic use the rainbow in various ways, publicly, to express solidarity with the minority experiences of other LGBTIQA+ people, while asking for that solidarity to be recognised under the rainbow umbrella.

This usage necessarily subverts the idea that the rainbow is always and only a celebration of gay sex — or, as the TGC article described its inherent meaning: “It is, and will always be, a symbol of gay pride. It represents being proud of and celebrating sexual diversity outside of heterosexual desire and sexual activity. And “pride” is the word that is specifically used to reject any sense of shame or guilt or sin associated with homosexual sex.”

Well. Someone ought to tell, say, Wesley Hill, who describing his experience at the first Revoice Conference — a conference for LGBTIQA+ Christians committed to not having homosexual sex, said: “Rainbow bracelets and body piercings abounded (one friend of mine sported rainbow-colored shoelaces to match the rainbow Ichthus pendant on his lapel).” Here the rainbow was functioning as a sort of coding of one’s experience as an LGBTIQA+ Christian while definitively not carrying the meaning that the TGC piece insists the symbol “always” will have. Hill’s piece is about how he, a Celibate Gay Christian, needed to have the conversation in church circles shift from “you can’t be that” or “you can’t do that” to “here is your vocation” — a move from always hearing “no” to hearing a “yes” — Yes. God loves you. Yes. God calls you. Yes. God has a design for your life. Yes. God is good.

I believe we all need to hear this — not just our LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters, or neighbours — we don’t just need to be told to mortify sin, but what vivified life in a Spirit-filled body looks like.

To me the debate around the rainbow symbol is very much like the debate around the use of the word gay. It’s driven from the same circles (often, but not always, driven by straight men), it offers a prescriptive meaning for words and symbols (committing the etymological fallacy), and a fairly rigid and inflexible approach to communication where all that needs to happen for Christians to stop talking is for Egypt to start using the words or symbols we want to use.

The subversion I have in mind is not driven by straight white men reclaiming the rainbow to be about something other than the inclusion of LGBTIQA+ people, but rather to point to the truth that ultimate inclusion of all people — including LGBTIQA+ is found in the inclusive love of Jesus. It’s a subversion where the symbols and intuitions behind them are used to point us to Jesus. And this shouldn’t come at the expense of efforts — using the rainbow — to make LGBTIQA+ people feel included in the life of a pluralist culture and its public spaces (even if the woke-capitalist highjacking of the rainbow symbol threatens to make all spaces ‘non-spaces’ rather than clearly safe for minority groups).

The subversion I was attempting to articulate is a subversion both in the minds of the Christian and the Gay person; both of whom seem confounded by the existence of celibate gay Christians who’re committed to following Jesus so much that they commit to using their bodies, and stewarding their desires accordingly.

It’s a subversion already being led by those at the intersection of Christianity and the gay experience. I’m just asking us straightees to shut up for a bit and watch how our brothers and sisters are already navigating this space; rather than policing them. And then to find ways to join in that aren’t just another form of woke-capitalism but in a church market. I’ve mentioned the rainbow cake in our church family in the past, and the furore that created when I voiced my encouragement about what that cake had represented to the people who had the cake and ate it too. It’s significant to me that I, as a straight bloke, didn’t bake the cake; I didn’t put up a rainbow banner on our fence; I didn’t even have a coherent picture of what a rainbow might mean at the time; but I listened, I reflected, and I offered my support to those in my community who’re taking up the challenge — and risk — of publicly navigating this space caught between the church, and those outside it who share their experiences navigating life as an LGBTIQA+ person. And then I shared being whacked by (more) conservative (than me) folks who were offended by the use of what they considered to be an immutably idolatrous symbol.

Folks from the Side B community have been using rainbows, symbolically and publicly, for quite a while now. I’m not sure it’s for me to tell them what they mean, but, as a straight Christian if/when asked to wear a rainbow, I think I’d be wanting to wear it in ways that make my support clear to those brothers and sisters, and that encourage any definition of ‘inclusivity’ in shared public spaces to include LGBTIQA+ people across the spectrum, including the Christian ones, and even including Christian people (and muslims) who won’t wear the rainbow because of their own take on what it means.

One of the stranger parts of the discussion around the jersey has been those who want to insist that symbols are immutable; that the rainbow can only ever mean the thing it originally meant. I want to give a few little bits of pushback on this idea.

First. Back in the Israel Folau saga I did some digging and established that Folau’s symbolic act; the meme he shared (memes are literally transmitted symbols); came from a hate group in the United States. When I shared this it was (more) conservative (than me) white men who argued that the origin of that meme was not determinative of what Folau meant when he used it; I tend to agree, but my argument is that if you want to use that meme it has a context, and it’s on you to make clear how you’re not representing that original meaning because the reasonable assumption is that you are; and yet, it must be possible in the minds of these folks for Folau to’ve escaped being a hateful bigot such that his meme was just “quoting the Bible” (it was also misquoting the Bible).

Second. This is a bit like when those same (more) conservative (than me) folks criticise celibate gay Chrisitans for using the word “gay” because it always means what they say it means, and Christians should never identify as gay because that’s adopting a sinful identity and our identity is in Christ; these same Christians are totally unconvinced when one mounts an etymological and social account of the way the word identity has emerged as a feature of modern western expressive individualism. Apparently the meaning of the word identity is flexible, while the meaning of the word gay is not.

Third. The rainbow flag itself is argued to have an immutable meaning — ala the TGC piece — where it inevitably represents a prideful celebration of sin; according to the people who are said to have given it the meaning, and the (more) conservative (than me) men who want to only ever interpret its semiotic function according to that usage. What’s also odd is that the people arguing for this particular function (affirmation of sin) are particularly vexed because of the way not embracing the symbol also has an immutable meaning. In the words of one person on Facebook; to not embrace the rainbow is to express hatred for the LGBTIQA+ community; this, too, is now an immutable symbol being weaponised against our consciences to create a moral dilemma.

I put it to you that this is no dilemma at all.

Mostly, because symbols aren’t immutable — and we all employ words and symbols to make meaning in the context of our lives as individuals, and in communities — we have lots of opportunities to make our use, or non-use, of the rainbow meaningful in ways that are oriented towards the flourishing of the person through their full inclusion in the life of Jesus (ie union with Christ). It just requires imagination and lives that are credibly communicating what our use of words and symbols will also communicate.

But also, I put it to you if you are faced with a choice between communicating, on the one hand, some sort of affirmation and inclusion of the dignity of an LGBTIQA+ person, and their full inclusion in public spaces that are demonstrably meant to be plural rather than sectarian (like a football team), there is ample opportunity to communicate God’s desire to embrace such people in the love he reveals to the world in Jesus, and God’s views of what our bodies are for and where sex fits in that picture; and you, as a Christian person, should be living the sort of life that makes that message understandable, and communicating, on the other hand, that you hate your neighbour… and if these symbols are immutable (as we keep being told they are). Well. Then. I think we’re not in the area of conscience, but in an area where there’s a clear principle to be upheld in such a moment…

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. — Matt 5:21-22, 38-45

Given the option between a symbolic act that communicates love, albeit imperfectly, and one that communicates hate, albeit imperfectly — I’m not sure we’re just in the realm of the conscience — I’m not sure we can conscientiously choose to act in a way that immutably means we hate LGBTIQA+ people, in their eyes and the eyes of the world, and call that obedience. How can it be obedient to knowingly communicate hatred to a neighbour? Even if there’re forces at work seeking to treat us Christians as their enemies, maybe we should not just give our cloaks (in a game of shirts v skins), but take the jersey and trust that God knows our hearts, and that we can use many other symbols and words to communicate his heart clearly.

Why are we happy to advocate choosing a message that says “I hate you” — the apparently immutable symbolic meaning of not donning the rainbow — for the sake of our conscience, rather than a message that says “you are loved”, maybe at the expense of our conscience a little?

Giving my cloak to a robber would surely offend my conscience and my convictions around the nature of personal property, and yet, sometimes embodying the way of the crucified king involves a willing violation of myself out of love for God, and for my neighbour.

What this really actually communicates, like the arguments over the meaning of words like “gay” and “identity” is that this whole position around the prescriptive immutable meaning of words and symbols is a nonsense. This nonsense won’t just give the devil all the good music, but all our ability to intelligibly say good and true things about God as well. If Egypt or Babylon take up a symbol, or give meaning to a word (like Gospel, or the Cross) we’d just let ’em have it; and yet, the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. And he made us so that we might seek him and perhaps find him — and even our idolatrous altars are an expression of that search (Acts 17). If all that the Devil needs to do to convince the world that we’re racist is have Babylon say “black lives matter,” so that we won’t say it too, then we’re in a lot of trouble — and it’s the same with our ability to speak about love and inclusion for LGBTIQA+ people, whether that’s in the life of the Babylonian City around us, or the City of God — the church. And if we were seen to be advocating for the former, we might adopt an invitational posture that invites people to find their citizenship in the latter.

We are actually free, as communicating creatures made in the image of the communicating God and worshipping the incarnating word, to communicate about God as creatures embedded in the world, in the hope that by doing so we might ‘win some’.

In the meantime, I’m going to take heed of my friends advice, and stop kicking this political football, at the risk of kicking beloved bearers of the image of God, and instead have a mood-dampened weekend after watching a third string Manly side get belted tonight.

Everyone in (a) League (of their own)

Stephen McAlpine — an Irish sandgroper — has chimed in on the controversy engulfing Rugby League this week. Before I respond to his piece (and its interaction with my piece), I’m keen to make a point made by Paul Gallen — that it’s a travesty that in a week devoted to Women in League, across the NRL, Manly has — like a blokey think piece on International Women’s Day — change the conversation and the focus. If we were playing the sort of round ball game most at home in Ireland (football, or Gaelic, Stephen will have to let me know), this in itself would be an own goal.

Stephen’s a little critical of my conflation of the two issues — greed and homosexuality — being represented on the Manly jersey tomorrow night. He says:

“It is a false dichotomy to declare that the seven Manly players who are refusing to wear the Pride jersey this week for their National Rugby League match (thereby scrubbing them from playing), are being hypocritical because they have had no problems wearing betting and alcohol logos on the same jersey.”

Others have pushed back on my article arguing that gambling, in itself, is not a sin. I thought I might address both these points briefly before moving on to the more interesting critique of my position in Stephen’s article.

I made the point that the gambling industry — as it exists in Australia — is insidiously greedy; it is predatory — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that gambling itself is not greed — you can have a bet with mates to raise the stakes or whatever, or budget a certain amount of dollars for a bet; it might not be great stewardship, and maybe you should spend that money on something better to get your thrills, but yeah, no specific prescription exists to put gambling in the ‘always immoral’ category. But I want to make two analogies for how poorly we think about sin, and how instinctively we western Christians look to individual actions when asking a question about sin, rather than systems of predatory (beastly) evil.

Owning assault rifles is not a sin. The Bible says nothing to condemn owning assault rifles; or swords. I think most Australians would look across the world to the U.S and see what assault rifles now do to people, and what they symbolise, and reach the conclusion that there is an idolatry caught up in the ownership of assault rifles that would make us a little uncomfortable about the predatory manufacturers of weapons who put them in the hands of a culture who’ve got a chronically unhealthy idolatrous relationship with the gun.

Sex is not a sin. It’s an amazing gift from God that is meant to teach us about love, and oneness, and the ‘divine nature and character of God.’ And yet, the pornography industry has commercialised sex, and, in the process, desecrated image bearers and co-opted their images for the lusting eyes and hearts of people around the world.

The gambling industry in Australia is to guns what the weapons industry is in America; a purveyor of idols designed to make money no matter the cost in lives. And sure. Guns can be fun, and they can be useful. But the whole nature of the gun lobby in the U.S is corrupted by an idolatry. Gambling isn’t prohibited in the Bible, but do you think it’s a coincidence that as Jesus is executed, the same crew who’ve pierced his hands, and who’re going to stab his side with a spear, are also gambling for his clothes beneath the cross; there is something beastly about what is being described there, rather than prescribed, that should give us pause before we give the gambling industry a free pass, and treat it like something different to, say, the porn industry.

Because greed is idolatry. Idolatry is a pretty big deal in the Bible; in the New Testament it’s actually idolatry that produces sexual activity contrary to God’s design — the decision to worship and serve created things, rather than the creator — to make gods in our own image, or in the image of our desires, and turn to them in ways that desecrate our humanity and our function as bearers of the divine image.

And the thing is — it’s not a weird dichotomy to say we should treat greed the same way those who take the Bible seriously treat homosexual sex; find me a list in the New Testament that when it lists homosexual sex doesn’t include both?

Romans 1, for example, says: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” (Rom 1:29), 1 Corinthians 6 says “nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” right after it talks about men who have sex with men. 1 Timothy talks about “the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” in chapter 1, and then famously declares “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Greed and homosexuality are not so easy to thematically separate in the New Testament — they might look like a ‘false dichotomy’ to a western Christian whose bought the mantra that ‘greed is good’ long ago; so we don’t look much different at all to our neighbours when it comes to our love of money and material things; but the link is that greed, like homosexuality, is idolatry — and the way Christians stand, or kneel, or fall when it comes to idolatry is a big deal.

Which brings me to the more interesting substance of Stephen’s critique (and one shared by others). He says:

And I disagree with Nathan that somehow to wear the Pride jersey would be a sign of solidarity with others for the sake of winning them to the gospel. Here’s the problem with that: the Pride jersey is promoting a gospel already. Slipping it over your head is not conceding that “Yes, alcohol can wreck lives and yes, betting can cause financial ruin and family damage”, it’s saying ‘I believe in this. In fact I’m proud of it”.

I want to say straight up that the rainbow symbol, as used by plenty of people, is a symbol of idolatry every bit as desecrating of the human as the gun, or the trappings of the gambling industry. Our culture, as Stephen likes to put it, has embraced the worship of self, pleasure, and sex (the “sexular age” he calls it, very clever). I don’t disagree. I disagree with treating one idolater or idolatry as though it is substantially worse than others; especially when there is no observable difference between our behaviour with money, or our behaviour with sex (except the sex or gender of who we’d like to be sexular with). We’re not so different from the western world when it comes to sex either; purity culture is just the flip side of porn culture, designed to treat and view women as objects of male desire, and we have a pretty sketchy and idolatrous view of marriage and sex in terms of personal pleasure and fulfilment; I reckon. It’s just the LGBTIQA+ community we seem to want to substantially differentiate ourselves from; and that is hypocrisy. Absolutely. I’ll call it how I see it.

The rainbow can absolutely be a symbol of an idolatrous vision of the human; in fact, it doesn’t take a mind deeply schooled in the Bible to know that pride, itself, is a form of idolatry of the self, and so even to somehow turn pride into a virtue is a problematic part of our modern schema. It can also be a picture of liberation from a certain sort of persecution (not just limited to the west) that has not only been aimed at ‘those who practice homosexuality’ but anybody who experiences non-straight sexual desire. It can be a statement that someone does share a degree of experiential solidarity with others who have experienced the marginalisation, exclusion, and pain that comes from a minority experience in a world where we don’t always love our neighbours as we love our selves. It can represent a whole host of things — and not — as some of my friendly critics from within broader Aussie Presbyterianism might say be “always an idolatrous celebration of gay sex” — it certainly includes people who have gay sex under that umbrella, but there are plenty of gay Christians committed to a traditional sexual ethic, while navigating relationships of solidarity within the LGBTIQA+ community who’ll tell you the rainbow means something to them as well. The idea that symbols are prescriptive in meaning puts a fascinating and inconsistent amount of weight on us all to navigate the construction of our personhood from forces way outside ourselves, rather than liberating us to act with personal integrity and enter into friendships (or sporting teams) with people who’re different to us. It’s quite similar to the arguments around Halal certified chocolate; the sort of stance we take on these issues is going to impact whose hospitality we can enjoy, and who we can receive as guests, which for Paul is a pretty big part of eating idol meat freely.

I also believe that idolatrous symbols can be subverted, or, if you make it clear what your engagement with an idolatrous world does and doesn’t mean, can be participated in for the sake of the Gospel; consider, for example, food sacrificed to idols in the New Testament world; Paul doesn’t want believers to ask questions about the meaning of the meat they buy in the market; the meat could be an idol symbol, and most naturally is probably assumed to be one — but he says “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” basically, and says “eat it,” and “eat it with your neighbour for the sake of the Gospel” unless your neighbour assume the act of eating it is an act of idolatrous solidarity where you share their gods. Now. If only there was a way for a Christian to wear a pride jersey and make it clear what they believe, and how much they love their image bearing neighbours, and what it is that is driving them to both wear the jersey and differentiate themselves. If only there were some sort of media platform where a player could say “hey guys, I’m a Christian, I believe the Bible says this, but I love my gay neighbour so much and I recognise that they still face so much exclusion from families, from sports with a blokey culture like League, and in the form of stigma that adversely effects their mental health outcomes that I just want to show my love for them.”

You might say “but Folau tried this and look where it got him” — he didn’t. Firstly, he didn’t believe in the Trinity (no idea if he does now). He wasn’t a Christian. Secondly. He said hell awaits homosexuals, and shared a meme from a hate group in the U.S that deliberately excluded greed from the list of sins. Thirdly, he didn’t do it in the context where he was being asked to wear a rainbow striped jersey, he just did it.

There’s another precedent for how people in the Bible can co-exist in idolatrous systems while maintaining their integrity (and knowing and guarding their own hearts). Sometimes it’s going to mean not taking the knee, or wearing the jersey. If there was no avenue for these players to explain what the wearing of the jersey actually represents, if it was all given to them by the powers that be, and they were just compelled to kneel, then, we’re in Daniel territory. Stand up. Be counted. Daniel was, however, an office bearer in a pretty idolatrous regime. He was keen to maintain his integrity in a kingdom that worshipped Marduk and a whole pantheon of violent gods, while keeping the trains running on time (so to speak) as a faithful presence.

But there’s maybe a better example for us in all this; I do think it’s a slight category error to jump straight from Jewish characters in the Old Testament to the modern Christian experience; like we want to be David, and never imagine ourselves as those liberated from having lined up behind Goliath by the grace of God extended to gentiles. Navigating life as a citizen of Israel in Babylon is not the same as navigating life in Babylon as a Babylonian worshipper of Yahweh. I’ve already touched on how a gentile citizen of Corinth might navigate idolatrous Corinth as a Corinthian Christian, but as he is wont to do, Stephen’s piece is about life in modern Babylon.

There’s a bloke in the Old Testament from Aram — that’s Syria, the other nation that ultimately takes Israel (the northern kingdom) into captivity. His name is Naaman. Like Daniel, he’s an official in the empire; unlike Daniel, he’s a native to that empire. He’s a gentile. He has a skin disease. His Israelite slave suggests he should visit Israel and seek healing from her God; he goes. Some interesting stuff goes down where his whole view of the world is challenged, and, having been healed, he makes a request on his departure, he says:

“Please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”

Naaman is going to, in certain moments in the Temple of Rimmon, look a whole lot like he is giving his body, and his heart, to the gods of Assyria; but he has promised his heart — like any Christian has too — to the Lord of Israel. He’s so committed to worshipping God that he’s carting dirt from Israel to set up his own little embassy space in the heart of Assyria; I wonder if he carried the earth in his pockets into that temple to keep reminding himself to worship Yahweh with integrity.

If we’re not going to object to the symbolism of Pointsbet, which is part of an insidious idolatrous industry that destroys lives in the name of greed, then, it is hypocritical to object to the symbolism of the rainbow. If we can reconcile wearing a Pointsbet jersey (and I own one) with ‘not endorsing or celebrating greed’ and can differentiate ourselves by speaking out, such that we maintain our integrity — why is that not possible with a rainbow? Especially if there’s such an obvious path to loving hospitality that might win some to Jesus in doing so?

If we make the wearing of the jersey mean whatever we’ve decided others make it mean, we actually bypass the heart, and the integrity of the individuals involved. We set up an impossible rule where we cannot participate at all in a sexually immoral world and its systems — we will not be able to wear clothes from any company that uses sex to sell a product, or any brand that exploits its workers, without being seen to endorse exactly what we’re told that symbol represents by some agent external to us; like meat in the marketplace. We will lose our ability to subversively and creatively take created things and not worship them, but turn them towards the faithful worship of the creator, or use them as connections between the desires of the human heart and the God who made our hearts who wants us to direct them to him. I think there’s a path to do that for Christians invited to mark pride month, or “wear it purple,” or eat a rainbow cake as an expression of love and solidarity with our human neighbours, and an act of faithfulness to God, with more than a piece of Israel in our pockets; because we have the peace of the Spirit of God dwelling in our hearts.

Proud Manly men

I have been a die hard supporter of the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles for longer than I have been just about anything in my life. I’ve been through some glorious moments (the mid 90s), some dark days (the Northern Beagles), and loved to love the team that others love to hate. The Sea Eagles played a do or die semi-final on my wedding night; and you’d better believe that our honeymoon location had a television (they did lose a crushing grand final a week later only to vanquish the hated Melbourne Storm the following year). My passion — my pride — for that particular maroon and white jersey runs deep (much deeper than my passion for either blue, or green and gold). My mood rises and falls with the fate of my team every weekend.

My passion for my team has been tempered in recent years; not because success on the field has been a little slower than in previous decades — but because my Spiritual home ground, Brookvale Oval, was sacrilegiously renamed “Lottoland,” and those beautiful priestly garments blazoned with the word “Pointsbet” in a shocking testament to gambling greed (which is idolatry). I detest the way the gambling industry has infiltrated the game I love.

I was less than impressed, also, with our roster management and a series of decisions where it was clear we Sea Eagles believed in the power of redemption so much that we were prepared not to enforce the ‘no d***heads’ policy that other teams have embrace to ensure a positive culture; instead choosing to sign, and keep signed, various players with domestic violence convictions.

Where, I wonder, is the line at which I would withdraw my love and my loyalty; my devotion? Where would I respect a player choosing not to don the jersey in principled protest (or worse, where would I respect a decision by someone to flee the Eagles nest and trod the now well-worn path to the Parramatta Eels (honestly, Choc Watmough)).

It turns out the line for up to seven of our players is the decision by the club to be the first team to introduce a Pride Jersey.

Oh how I wish we Christians were consistent.

How I wish it’d been the promotion of unfettered greed — that adorns the jersey on a weekly basis, or the renaming of the stadium — that had pricked the conscience of these players. Pointsbet. No thanks.

But also how I wish we would grapple with just how complex inclusion actually is; and the extent to which genuine inclusion requires people to be able to take the field in brotherhood or mateship as an expression of unity across various things that might otherwise tear us apart; and yet I fear this will not go well. And the story will be told as archaic Christian types having an issue with the LGBTIQA+ community, rather than questions being asked about just how far a modern sporting industry will go in a world of ‘woke capitalism’ to earn a dollar by taking a stand.

My two favourite players in the mid 90s were Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies, and the tough as nails Ian Roberts. Roberts was the first (and to date only) publicly gay NRL footballer. Manly has modelled inclusion in ways that matter, but this token gesture now runs the risk of exclusion of others. I would love more Christians to ask questions about what it would look like to be so loving to our LGBTIQA+ neighbours or teammates that token gestures are unnecessary. I would love us to take a principled stand against areas the Bible calls sin — like the love of money, or those who take money from the poor to feed the rich — I would love us to not give a free pass to perpetrators of family violence. I would love there to be a line on those ethical issues; but we have so capitulated to capitalism that we look identical to those standing with us in any given scrum.

It’s now over a year since the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia sent out an email to members of church communities around the country referring to my decision to celebrate someone in my congregation publicly coming out as gay (and Christian, and committed to a traditional sexual ethic). The email started with the statement that “heresies do not appear as mushrooms overnight,” and spoke about “cakes… flaunting self-dramatisation… rainbows,” it was pretty pointed.

That friend marked their coming out with a rainbow cake. And, despite this objection from “the Moderator’s Desk”, I believe this sort of gesture towards inclusivity can be important, and doesn’t necessarily mean a Christian has to violate their personal integrity or commitment to an alternative vision of sex, sexuality, and identity. Inclusivity might require taking the sporting field, or working in an office, or being in a family, or even a church community, with people you disagree with so you might, together, pursue a goal — whether that’s the truth about God, and humanity, or sporting success. It would be a shame if an expression of that sort of desire was enough for Christians to ‘take a knee’ or not enter the field.

And yet, it would be a shame if a push for one sort of inclusivity excluded others. This is now well-trodden territory; it’s the Israel Folau saga making its way into the ethnically and religiously diverse minefield that is modern professional sports. It’ll be a test for the game’s decision makers at a club and competition level and will no doubt see angst voiced, and think pieces churned out. I offer my thoughts here tentatively, having nailed my colours to the mast — I am proudly a Manly man; if I could bleed maroon and white I would.

A few weeks ago the National Rugby League competition paused for Representative Round. In that round we didn’t just enjoy a standalone Sunday State of Origin match, we enjoyed games between Tonga and New Zealand, Samoa and the Cook Islands, and Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It was a bit of a triumph for the development of the game in these Pacific Island nations; as I suggested as the Folau situation was really gathering speed, there was a clash of cultures going on in that event where players from these Island nations are operating with different religious convictions to us Aussies, and unless we grapple with those convictions we’re not actually asking real questions about inclusivity. At the time I wrote about how we couldn’t both celebrate the incredible hymn the Fijian national team sang at the Rugby League World Cup while asking those players to leave their religious convictions behind at other times. For the record, after the Fiji v PNG game in the representative round, both teams joined in a haunting on field hymn and prayer session.

We have overcome; they sang.

As a Christian, and a proud Manly man, I hope my fellow Christians might overcome their thoughts of not taking the field this week and seek a sort of inclusivity that points their teammates to the hope that we have in Jesus; who took the field with sinners in order to transform us all — or that they might continue drawing the line, and not take the field next weekend as well so we might finally send Pointsbet the way of Lottoland.

Preaching from the hyper-linked Bible

Have you ever seen this image?

It’s a stunning representation of the cross-references in the Bible from a guy named Chris Harrison. There’s a similar visual aiming to highlight contradictions in the Bible (most of those don’t stand up to much scrutiny). It’s not new, I first posted about it back in 2010, but it serves as an illustration of my point here.

I’ve been thinking a bit about preaching — and just to be clear, I’m not wanting to position myself as a master of the craft here. Not at all. But I have a growing set of pebbles in my shoe regarding the way we tend to see the task of preaching within churches who claim we’re shaped by the Bible. These pebbles include the assumptions we bring to the task of interpreting the text (exegesis), to the speech-act of transmitting the text, and to how we see it as a living and active word within the life of a church community shaped both by the text, and by the God who speaks through it, while shaping us as receivers of his word by his Spirit. I’ve written about my issues with the sacred cow of expository preaching — especially when it is reduced to transmitting content (locution) rather than speaking in a way that aims for the text’s persuasive intent (perlocution).

As I ponder the task of preaching, and its place in the life of the plausibility structure — the community — that is the church, I see a huge part of the task of the preacher in the modern church as giving people back their Bibles, in the hope that our communities will become what Stanley Hauerwas described as a “community of interpretation” or a “community of character” — one that puts flesh on the bones of the story of the Bible as it rehearses and performs it together in the world.

Why giving people back their Bibles? Well, because I reckon the modern Protestant church, for all its original protestations against the Catholic Latin Mass has been systematically removing the Bible from the hands of its people — both reducing it from narrative (and ancient literature) into a series of propositions and axioms that fit a modern grid, and by using it as a weapon to justify a range of abusive behaviours; from domestic violence, to abuse, to cover ups, to racism, to the mistreatment of people whose experiences see them operate as sexual minorities — the Bible has been used to prop up worldly power structures, even literally, as a prop weapon wielded by Donald Trump on the steps of a church after his militarised security personnel tear gassed a bunch of divine image bearers.

So often the word of God hasn’t been used as a sword to cut us — including, and perhaps especially, the powerful — to the heart and cause us to repent by turning to God and finding life in his kingdom, but as a weapon wielded by powerful people with sinister agendas. Recent decisions by ‘courts of the church’ in conservative denominations in the United States — and no doubt, upcoming decisions in our own denominational settings — have effectively undermined the Bible’s goodness, and its function as God’s living and active word. And the progressive arm of the church has not helped here, in its attempts to deconstruct the power of these oppressors it has often deconstructed the power of the Bible itself, through critical scholarship that secularises the process and content of the Bible, or fragments the unity we see in the visual above, and through various models of interpretation that don’t simply prioritise the perspectives of marginalised communities in the modern world, but risk colonising the text through the eyes of just a different ‘enlightened, capitalist, liberal’ western viewer.

And whatever side of the conservative/progressive spectrum one comes from — there’s an overwhelming cacophony of information out there seeking to debunk, prove, or educate the reader — it’s not uncommon for me to have a member of my congregation fact checking my sermons on wikipedia, or via a sneaky google, in real time.

This stuff isn’t just ‘out there’ — the debates aren’t just happening in the abstracted ivory towers of the academia, or on Twitter. These descriptions of the modern world aren’t just things I’ve read about, but realities I have to grapple with every time I open the Bible to teach from it. Maybe this speaks more to my context, but I’m preaching every week to people who had overbearing or abusive fathers, who’ve experienced family violence justified by Biblical texts, who’ve been in spiritually abusive contexts or constructs and are trying to recover, rather than deconstruct, women who’ve been subject to various forms of purity culture or the patriarchal sense that they are lesser, or that faithfulness looks like “mothercraft,” and sexual minorities who’re trying to pursue faithful obedience to God in church settings where God’s word has been used to justify their parents cutting them off from their family, to attack their choice of language to describe their experience and attempts to faithfully steward their hearts, minds, and bodies in obedience to Jesus, and their choice of cake colour.

The Bible has been used as a weapon, and this has often been a function of people not grasping the richness, complexity, and unity of the Bible’s story. It’s often done through ‘clobber passages’ or proof texting in ways that produce trauma, and a variety of trauma responses when someone with institutional authority says ‘the Bible says’…

I don’t know if other preachers are grappling with this dynamic, or if it’s just that I’m woke or whatever. But trauma is real; and if you haven’t had someone shaking or crying in the middle of a talk, or even walking out, because of something triggered by a particular verse or phrase, then maybe it’s because your church community already bears the hallmarks of a place that isn’t safe for people with the experiences I describe here. When I’m preaching — aiming to ‘give people back their Bibles’ — I’d love to see these folks recover a love for the Bible not as a weapon used to destroy them, but to cut away the things that are destroying them so they might find life in the presence and love of God as his children. I’d love to equip them to fight back against the weaponisation of the Bible by knowing how the Bible actually works.

I also see my task as giving people their hyper linked Bible. The Bible on display in this infographic. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it looks like to preach the Bible in an age of hyperlinks — and where most people are going to interact with the Bible digitally rather than in paper and ink form. I’m not one for suggesting that technology change is something we should uncritically embrace as Christians — in fact, quite the reverse. And I’m totally down with the idea that digital devices (like writing before them, thanks Plato) have damaged our ability to internalise information. We process information in a pretty weird and distracted way, thanks to the hyperlink (and tabbed browsing), and yet, the beauty of something like Wikipedia is that it demonstrates how conceptually linked and integrative information is — hyperlinks can create hyper-distraction, sure, but can also help us push into intricacies and perhaps even reveal the artistry of God; the author of life, and the divine author of both the story that climaxes in Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in history, and the description of that story in the 66 books that make up our Bibles.

I’ve also been motivated by my friend Arthur once inviting me to imagine a generation of Christians brought up on the Bible Project, and just how wonderful the resources our hyper-linked communities have to be digging into the Bible outside the context of the Sunday sermon — the question ‘if stuff that good is out there, and wildly (and widely) accessible, how can I link my community to it’ is part of the thinking here for me. How do I turn the hyper-linked ‘fact checking’ from a bug into a feature and augment the teaching of the Bible that way?

This means, in my preaching, I’ve moved away from a few sacred cows, and I’m exploring what it looks like to preach to a generation of people I hope will be treating the Bible as a rich hyperlinked text — cause it is — worthy of deep meditation and that it also is compelling and beautiful and divine and human because of the unity of the story it tells, that lands us

Firstly, expository preaching tied to one passage. At some point in my training as a preacher I was actively discouraged from hopping around the Bible (and, I agree one can perform all sorts of textual gymnastics and tangents if one doesn’t do this carefully), and yet, whatever the passage you open the pages of your Bible to, or more likely, you flick to on an app, the passage has a literary context — it sits within an illocution within an argument, within a book (or letter), within a corpus, within a Testament, within a library (the Bible), within a narrative. I don’t think we can reduce our sense of the ‘locution’ — the message of a particular text — to the sentence, or words, before us — because the Bible is hyperlinked, and the whole context frames our understanding of the concepts the words used evoke, and the narrative that frames it. The obvious way to do this is to not simply go to the New Testament, from the Old, to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, but to the Old Testament, from the New, to show the same. There are often direct quotes of the Old, in the New, that make this straightforward — the trick is to find not just quotes but allusions; imagery and evocative themes — geography even (ask my church family about my current obsession with mountains). In the past 12 months we’ve covered the narrative of the Bible from the starting point of Revelation — from creation (there’s lots of Edenic imagery in there), to fall (there’s lots of Babylon imagery in there), to the prophets (there’s plenty of Daniel and Ezekiel), to the victory of Jesus over sin, and death, and Satan, to the New Creation — and from the starting point of Genesis 1-12, tracing similar threads. I’m not sure I could conceive of preaching either Genesis 1-12 or Revelation without following the threads that are woven together in these texts.

Secondly, preaching small passages. Picking a manageably small discreet unit of text is one of the necessary implications of verse-by-verse exposition, or even ‘big idea’ preaching where a preacher has to demonstrate how a big idea is faithfully derived from the text. I’m not saying I’ll never do this again — different genres and books lend themselves to this sort of preaching (like in an epistle). I’m struck by how much intertextuality becomes more obvious if you give it a little more rope — so, for example, we worked through Matthew’s Gospel in the first quarter of this year and it was only by preaching on a three chapter chunk that I noticed how the parable of the sower, that ends with a listener to the word producing an abundant harvest of grain was in a sequence of parables about wheat, wheat, bread, bread, and fish — and then a narrative about Jesus — the model of the good soil — producing abundant wheat (and fish) in the feeding of the 5,000.

Thirdly, connecting a passage to the ‘design patterns’ it resonates with from the big story. I love the work the Bible Project does on how the Bible is a ‘unified story that leads to Jesus’ — but this has absolutely been my bread and butter my whole life; it was the milk I was nourished on by my parents, and the churches I have been part of since infancy. We can assume this context as preachers, and just preach the text in front of us, or we can open our communities up to the rich intricacies of the Biblical text in ways that make proof texting without this context much more difficult — and arguably make our understanding of the actual text we might build a community around richer and less distorted by reductionism. It’s definitely harder work, but, at least so far as I can tell, humanly speaking, it has been a comforting experience for those processing various Bible-related trauma.

Fourthly, prescriptive application. This is a step I’ve taken for a couple of reasons — it is not because I don’t know how I think people should live (it is, in part, because I don’t know that I’m an infallible enough guide to avoid lumping people with my own prescriptive hobby horses). The abuse of the Bible by people in authority, wielding the text as a sword, shows how fraught prescription is — and how it leads to the abuse of the flock preachers are tasked to feed. Application in sermons often takes the form of reducing description — whether in a narrative (for eg David and Bathsheba), or in the Bible’s narrative (for eg the Old Testament laws about bacon) — to principled prescription, whether general or specific. I’m struck by how often our applications are prescriptions for individuals as well, rather than about what a community that plausibly lives this narrative might look like, but that’s for another post. There are times when the Bible itself offers prescriptions — and in those times, where the prescriptions (the imperative) is grounded in the narrative (the indicative), I’m reasonably confident offering a prescription, but I’m struck also by how often those apparent ‘prescriptions’ are descriptive — like when we’re called to love one another, and then pointed to the example of Jesus, but not given an exhaustive set of specific behaviours. Even then I find myself moving towards description, or not being specific at all but letting the story itself, and the space we make around it as a community to have it sink into our bones and imaginations might actually be what produces the changed lives. I’m also hesitant because in a diverse church community I wonder if descriptive application, or simply the telling of the story or unpacking the meaning of the text and inviting people to find life not just in the narrative in one passage, but in the metanarrative that narrative belongs in.

We are people shaped by stories — whether a trauma story, a family system story, the stories we try to author for our own lives, or the ones told to us by culture — and we have a pretty good hyperlinked story to immerse ourselves in as individuals, and as a ‘community of character’ where we are being formed as participants in the story, and the body of Christ.

If you’re interested in what any of this looks like as I play with this idea — and sometimes it works better than others — you can find my preaching in podcast form here, I reckon this particular sermon is a decent example of the principles. I’m sure I could preach better. I’m sure. In terms of oratory, I have preached better (and sometimes shorter) in the past, when I was giving TED talk styled sermons with lots of illustrations, and cultural commentary, and without notes. I’m not claiming to be the finished product, but articulating a shift I’m trying to make both built out of a conviction about the nature of the Bible itself, and the task of caring for the people I’ve been tasked to care for.

I’m aware, too, that there are other ‘speaking roles’ in the life of the church that aren’t simply preaching/teaching — that encouragement, prophecy, exhortation, rebuke — are all types of speech that are grounded, too, in the Scriptures and part of using it. I’m sure the public speaking bits of a Sunday service can, and should, include those types of speech — just as I’m also sure that some of these types of speech need to be grounded in people having been given a hyper-linked Bible and the wonder at the one who inspired it first, and can happen in the context of safe and secure relationships — within a community, with the person doing the speaking, and with God. I’ve had much more profound and fruitful pastoral conversations with people dealing with the sorts of traumas I’ve described above, where the Bible has been open on the table, as a result of this framework than I might have had if I’d simply yelled clobber passages at them from the pulpit (or even just carefully expounded a series of propositions from one particular passage).

The one sacred cow I’ve picked up as part of this process — and, in part because the circumstances of our church community have changed such that we’re sharing a space, and a gathering, with people from a Church of Christ — is weekly communion and the tying of the ministry of the word to the ministry of the sacraments (or, as should be the case ‘the ministry of the word and sacrament’) — where communion itself is an invitation to participate in the application of the text, and the community shaped by the text, and where, a couple of times, joining together in making promises around a baptism has been the application too. Each sermon essentially culminates in an invitation to see ourselves as partakers in the story through our union with Jesus brought about through his death, resurrection, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit to unite us with him and each other. It’s not a silver bullet, but it has been a good discipline for me to make sure my sermons from a hyper-linked Bible are linked to the Gospel, and to our practice of remembering and proclaiming the Gospel to one another as we gather.

A storied tribute to Eternity News

My association with Eternity News, such as it was, began in 2009 (Tuesday the 4th of August to be precise — I keep all my emails thanks to the wonders of gmail). On this auspicious date the founding editor (and founder) John Sandeman emailed me to tell me someone’d suggested I’d be moderately “good at collecting off the wall internet stuff at least vaguely about Christianity.”

I wrote back: “Sounds good. Count me in.”

That was basically the core business of one of the earliest iterations of my blog, and I must’ve given it a go at least once, because, right here in the Obadiah Slope column from Eternity’s second print edition I’m named as Eternity’s “net spy,” that was right about the time the gossip column in the local paper in North Queensland (the Townsville Bulletin) had called me a “PR Spin Twit” in a hatchet job on my CEO, so “net spy” was quite flattering and an association that would last over a decade was born. Here’s a PDF proof John sent me of my first cameo in the paper.

In our email back and forth, as John sounded me out on what sort of correspondent I might be, he outlined his vision for Eternity (as well as being a proper print news outlet), and why I might get on board sharing stories from the far reaches of Queensland. He said:

“We need to report on what God is doing in Queensland. Occasionally we will have to report a church split or something negative, but we really want to dig out the good things that are going on. People stories, new movements, old churches stirring, reconciliation, church plants, Christians campaigning for social justice, and against bad stuff.”

I believed then — and I still believe now — that a news outlet reporting on these stories not just in Queensland, but around Australia, is a good thing for the church. At various times in Eternity’s history I was a Queensland correspondent for a locally focused section of the print edition, where I was even described as “Eternity’s Nathan Campbell” — an upgrade from “net spy.”

I’ve waxed lyrical about Eternity’s broad table approach to reporting — and opinion columning — in the polarised church and media landscape we find ourselves in, and was a supporter of a shift in content strategy towards sharing ‘seriously good news’ they made after a review in around 2015 (see John’s comment on this post of mine, I had a great phone conversation with the review team, that I still remember, standing in the carpark of a hospital in Brisbane). I said then what I’ll say now — the Aussie Christian media landscape needs less echo chambers that draw boundaries, and more platforms that host conversations between people who disagree. I recognise that its table was not as big or inclusive as people in the progressive arm of the church would like it to have been (the comments section on any Eternity article on Facebook made this clear, so did the boycotts, typically from friends of mine on the Christian left). I recognise too that the decision to include voices from the Christian right in recent years, while excluding the left (with a boundary drawn around sexual orthopraxy rather than creedal orthodoxy), caused significant controversy.

The recently announced change in direction at Eternity saddens me for a whole host of reasons. Australia is not a huge media landscape in itself, but the Christian publishing section of the market is even smaller. And I’d love us to have institutions like Eternity to report on the sorts of things John had Eternity reporting on from its earliest days. I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter (and contributor) to Soul Tread, a print only Christian publication (that has recently published edition 7) for exactly this reason. I was struck by the editorial review of my first piece for Soul Tread, where the editor pointed out that much of my writing online is given to deconstruction, and analysis, of problems in the church while she’d love me to articulate a constructive vision for an alternative. I love a good editor. And John, and his team at Eternity have been that for me. Eternity has offered a platform for seriously good news, and for both deconstruction and construction.

I have made much of my early association with Eternity above, but I was never as connected to the project as I’d have liked — it’s not my day job after all, and I have three young children who rightly demand my attention. And at this point I want to insert a disclaimer, cause, right now, I’m going to engage in some of that deconstruction I’ve just mentioned above. And I want to make it clear that this is speculation from a passionately interested, and kinda connected, outsider — writing as a blogger — rather than inside knowledge backed up by investigation and evidence. It is opinion. It comes from someone who wants to see story telling organisations like Eternity succeed as something more than the advertising arm of a Christian institution (no matter how noble that institution — seriously, I’m not here to paint the Bible Society as the bad guy in this story).

I’m thankful, for the team’s investigative skills and courage and the way they’ve tackled significant stories in the life of the church, and for John’s stewardship of a section of the public conversation about the church in Australia. If you look at my ‘author’ page on Eternity (screenshot below), I’m thankful for the mix of articles of mine they chose to publish over the years (they’re not all here, cause some were in the print era). I think they were bold to publish some of them, and, to some extent, I was probably the most progressive columnist in their network — right back from when they published my list of reasons I would not tell people how to vote in the plebiscite. John has rightly always been keen to point out my conservative credentials too — I remain an ordained minister in one of the most theologically conservative denominations in the country.

I believe the decision at Eternity to broaden the table from centre-to-centre-right to include voices from the hard right was made, so far as I can discern, as the beginning of the end of what, in newsrooms, is called “the separation of church and state” — commercial imperatives (the state) should be kept at arms length from reporting content (the church). There was obvious pressure being exerted on the Bible Society, and so on Eternity because certain groups in the Aussie landscape perceived, in its centrism, a ‘woke bias’ — while, at the same time, my friends on the left were boycotting Eternity over stories around race and sexuality. This, I believe, led to the inclusion of new columnists as proof that Eternity was not a lefty rag devoted to fomenting woke politics and the social Gospel. I am aware of the consternation this caused the existing stable of contributors to Eternity — because I was one, and because of group chats. I believe it placed the ‘church’ part of Eternity in an invidious position, and the pressure they were placed under from the Christian left and the Christian right is, I think, proof that the newsroom was fulfilling a ‘mediatorial’ role of sorts. There was a certain sort of integrity that meant the same invitation to contribute opinion columns was not extended further to the left — something John discussed in an editorial — but, here’s my speculation — let’s call it me being a ‘net spy’ again — I wonder if the push to include voices from the hard right was a test of integrity that the newsroom could not bear as the ‘state’ started exerting more pressure. If Eternity is a victim of the very culture war it gave space to report — and to call out.

The evidence that sends me towards this hunch rests on the article I wrote for Eternity that you will not find on my author page. In early March 2021, as Eternity began platforming conservative writers like James Macpherson (March 2), and as these group chats between contributors exploded with concern that the nature of the platform might be shifting under this pressure, I pitched and contributed a piece to Eternity with the aim of proving the ‘big table’ vision had legs, and that maintaining a connection and challenging presence in response to the pieces by Macpherson, that courted a market further to the right, was a better response than a boycott. My piece came off the back of the Church and State conference in Queensland last year, and the associated media coverage.

It named, and linked, speakers platformed on that conference to a hard right movement — connecting the dots to institutions (like the conference and Caldron Pool), it suggested that in the fallout of January 6, hard right voices in Australia calling for revolution and joking about violence in the context of a “war” against ideological opponents were not offering a helpful Christian contribution to our political life, and, it invited those I named to the table, and to conversation, rather than to the fight. I named names because there was a piece in the Caldron Pool about ‘wolves in the Presbyterian denomination” that had been written about me, but where the author (another Presbyterian minister, who I named in the piece) refused to actually say he was talking about me. I don’t believe the sorts of conversations that are life-giving and transformative should operate without speaking truthfully and directly. I took that risk. I sourced my info. I framed what was opinion as opinion. And John backed me — he published the piece — because Eternity had a commitment to not being an echo chamber, and to hosting a conversation John believed was important for the good of the church — whether he agreed with me or not, who can say.

It’s fair to say that the reaction to the piece was not, in the main, people from across the aisle joining me at the table (I did sit down for breakfast with Church and State’s Dave Pellowe). Instead, it lead to threats of lawsuits against Eternity, and me, especially from Caldron Pool’s founder Ben Davis; to pressure being put on the ‘church’ part of Eternity by the State, and so, after a conversation with John, I decided to apologise — not for the content of the post, which, as I say, was meticulously sourced and still represents my opinion (since born out in Caldron Pool’s involvement with Freedom Rallies) — but for some of my bombastic tone, and for the way it fed the very polarisation it was attempting to name, and we decided to withdraw my piece rather than rewrite it, as an olive branch. Maybe we caved. Maybe we modelled something good that the piece itself invited in an attempt to get people across a divide to the table. In the end it didn’t appease the critics. It turns out those who are most outspoken in favour of “courage culture” and against “cancel culture” are some of the quickest to threaten to bring in the lawyers.

The decision to pull my piece caused a mini-outcry on the Christian left, and I saw several posts (and received messages) arguing that John should have backed me harder. John is not, in my estimation, one to shy away from a fight — I apologised publicly, and maybe too quickly, and left him on the hook for what he’d published in my name. I want to make it clear that I jumped first, and left John holding the grenade. And I regret that now. I even published my apology/retraction here on St. Eutychus while waiting for John to get back to me on a joint apology because of how quickly the situation was escalating. I recognise that caused him an awkward and vaguely frustrating conundrum in the difficult internal landscape Eternity was navigating. The apology and withdrawal was at my initiative, and I’m convinced that the furore created by my piece publicly was echoed privately, in the church-state relationship at Bible Society (I have some other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle here from people adjacent to Eternity that lead me to suspect this).

If my piece was in any way a lightning rod, a part of, or a catalyst for the trajectory that sees the Bible Society take these steps to make Eternity a promo-mag for its activities, then I’ll feel the weight of that. I don’t want to overstate the way this episode is maybe a microcosm of what I’m speculating caused this step, but I do recognise that platforms and agendas much bigger than mine have been exerting much greater pressure on the ‘state side’ of the business (see, for example, this piece from Caldron Pool by the Presbyterian pastor my piece named asking “When did the Bible Society Lose Sight of Eternity“). Let me engage in a little more speculation here — this sort of pressure — negative press — was hardly likely to help the Bible Society achieve its mission to a much broader table than Eternity’s readership and editorial agenda was reaching (and was likely to do it harm by making it a political football). And again, getting the Bible into the hands of people across the political spectrum, and any cultural divides, is a significant and important mission of eternal significance — the link with Eternity’s mission, and its willingness to host controversial conversations and highlight stories of failure was never a good fit. The state was always going to have to put at least equal and opposite pressure on the church…

Now, I might be wrong about all the behind the scenes stuff here, but there’s plenty of public commentary about the move that suggests others — on the right and left — are interpreting the decision through a similar lens.

There’s a couple of old sayings that gets bandied about for journalism students: “the media is a mirror,” and “we get the media we deserve.” These are increasingly axiomatic in an age of poll driven publications trying to remain viable in a diversified/fragmented market, where publications now ‘give the readers what they want’ rather than stewarding a role in the public conversation where they give us what is true, and oriented towards the public good. I’m also scared that with Eternity’s shift into advertorial we, in the church, are getting the media we deserve — that this shows we aren’t mature enough to have nice things. That our tribalism, conflict, and culture wars have overwhelmed a beautiful vision from an old school media man who wanted to “dig out the good things going on” and tell the stories about the work God is doing in Australia, through his people.

For now I’m thankful for Eternity’s role in the story of the Australian church; and its telling of stories from the Australian church. I’m thankful for the team of editors, writers, and outside contributors who caught the vision, and I’m praying those who’ve taken redundancies as a result of this shift find alternative channels for their gifts. I want to honour the contributions of those I’ve worked with, and especially, John’s vision.

I’m prayerfully hopeful that something good might emerge from the death of Eternity; that we’re not simply going to be left with a fragmented Christian media landscape of 2-bit bloggers (like me), echo chambers, and blokes hurling grenades from self-constructed bully pulpits. Friends have issued a couple of ‘watch this space’ messages that have whet my appetite here, with nods to a news outlet operating with an even broader table than Eternity’s.

Eternity has a special place in my heart. And it, like everything God has made, was beautiful in its time.

Caldron Pool founder goes the full Nelson

Nelson Muntz is Springfield’s resident bully. Famous for offering nothing to the town’s public square more enlightening than a little ‘hee hawing’ like a donkey — or ass — at the misfortune of others, and a few punches here and there.

The Caldron Pool is a deep dark corner of the internet here in Australia that likes to throw rocks at people and host a good old ‘hee haw’ session about everyone who isn’t aligned with them. It must be exhausting believing that you alone have the words of eternal life. Founder, Ben Davis, whose background is in illustration, is a full Nelson, an illustrating bully who runs the risk of becoming a cartoon caritcature.

A full nelson in wrestling is an attack from behind — a stranglehold. Ben — and his loyal troop of Caldron Poolers — don’t attack from in front, or go toe to toe with critics; they love to strangle any voice who dares raise concerns with threats of legal action, or letters to one’s employers (that’s what he did with me when I dared raise a criticism of the platform in an Eternity Article now deleted because Ben claimed he’d send in the lawyers). My understanding, from his own comments in another angry cesspit — the Unofficial Presbyterian group on Facebook — is that a lack of disciplinary action applied to me by my denomination caused him to leave the Presbyterian Church. For an angry mob who talk lots about free speech and cancel culture, they sure don’t like it when anyone dares call them out for their bullying behaviour. And look — people need to stand up to bullies, to not do so enables their behaviour and turns us all into victims. The Caldron Pool hasn’t just become ugly, they’ve just started taking that ugliness further and further towards the moderate right, or anybody who doesn’t align with their views — they’ve published hatchet jobs of many people within the Australian church — including voices more conservative than me like Murray Campbell and David Ould — because those blokes dared to criticise the platform and the myth being peddled by the founder.

In a now deleted parody site I set up (Ben Davis hated this more than anything else), I made the point that in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Caldron Pool is the tributary that sends living water into Narnia; it’s also where Shift the Ape convinces Puzzle, the donkey, to dress up as a fake Aslan. Caldron Pool is a bunch of asses acting like lions. Much of my radio silence in these parts lately has been an attempt to stay above this fray, but I’m sensing that others are starting to understand just how insidious this form of the Christian right is, and how, left unchecked, they represent a danger to the mission of Jesus.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where, through misadventure, Bart Simpson decks Nelson. We find out the punchy bully has a glass jaw; he runs home in tears calling out for his mother. Bart does his best to not become the new bully in town; but the cheering crowd want nothing more than for a new bully to maintain a certain sort of social order. Principal Skinner even gives Bart the ‘school bully’ parking spot.

Caldron Pool is full of glass-jawed full Nelsons; all clamouring to be the bully for the day hee-hawing about whoever they want to send the mob after on a given day. In recent times this has been the Gospel Coalition, and particularly an article by Amy Isham. I know Amy a bit from the online world, she is lovely and seeks to sensitively engage with people who don’t share her view of the world. For this, and for calling for a posture like this when engaging with the LGBTQIA+ community — Caldron Pool’s favourite whipping community — they love nothing more than a hee-haw at sexual minorities — Amy was the subject of an awful hatchet piece. I find myself in this weird position where I think TGC is too conservative, theologically and politically — though I love many of the contributors and board, and have written for them at times in the past, but for Caldron Pool they are beyond the pale (just like Eternity). TGC must be doing something right to be garnering enemies like this…

Stephen McAlpine is more politically conservative than I am, and has spent years establishing himself as a sharp cultural/political/Christian commentator with a readership that leans conservative. He and I, perhaps not despite, but because of our disagreements, are friends. I respect and admire him greatly. He has backbone. He has a track record of speaking up against abusive systems, and people, at cost to himself. I’ve especially admired the way he has called out conservative men for mistreating Christian women who speak up about issues that we men might be unable to see. His defence of Aimee Byrd when she was deplatformed by her podcast cohosts and thrown to the wolves online; an equivalent group of people to the Caldron Pool/Unofficial Presbyterian in the U.S (and there were posts about Byrd from the usual suspects here), was particularly notable. Stephen is a good man. He is not a coward. He has form at confronting bullies head on. He is not the type to embrace a full nelson or a coward punch. He dared to speak against the Caldron Pool piece about Amy. And the angry mob came for him. The angry mob hides a man with thin skin and a glass jaw. An ass in a lion skin they’ve been tricked into following. Perhaps they aren’t sure how to back out and so they double down in their support, and so they’re sent into the fray by a bully who can’t stand being called out.

He must be called out. Bullies must be faced. Not with violence, but with truth and love.

The really significant thing about Nelson Muntz is that he’s deeply insecure and hurting. He needs love, not punching. He needs connection. It feels like someone, somewhere, hurt him badly and now he lashes out as a means of self-protection. There is something deeply troubling about his response to criticism and how quickly he both plays the victim and engages in behaviours like DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). It doesn’t take a specialist to recognise something deeply unhealthy in his approach to people, and yet so many are happy not only to enable but champion him through this misguided sense that courage without wisdom or love is a virtue; that what we need in this moment is any ass prepared to be a lion. Ben doesn’t need a good punching to sort him out, he needs those who will turn the other cheek. He needs to meet Jesus — or Aslan — through people embodying the way of Jesus. In the meantime his reactions — and those of Caldron Pool — to anybody who speaks up to criticise their approach will be an unveiling; they’ll pull the lion skin off and reveal a puzzled ass underneath.

In the Last Battle the Caldron Pool is not a cesspit; and it’s not just the tributary that feeds living water into Narnia. It is the gateway into the new creation. In the last chapter in the whole series the followers of Aslan make their way, with Puzzle, further up and further in into a new creation.

“Now they saw before them Caldron Pool and beyond the Pool, the high unclimbable cliffs and, pouring down the cliffs, thousands of tons of water every second, flashing like diamonds in some places and dark, glassy green in others, the Great Waterfall; and already the thunder of it was in their ears. “Don’t stop! Further up and further in,” called Farsight, tilting his flight a little upwards. “It’s all very well for him,” said Eustace, but Jewel also cried out: “Don’t stop. Further up and further in! Take it in your stride.” His voice could only just be heard above the roar of the water but next moment everyone saw that he had plunged into the Pool. And helter-skelter behind him, with splash after splash, all the others did the same. The water was not bitingly cold as all of them (and especially Puzzle) expected, but of a delicious foamy coolness. They all found they were swimming straight for the Waterfall itself.”

The Caldron Pool is living water one climbs into the heavenlies; not some hatchet job site hee-hawing like a donkey at anyone who’ll listen. But Lewis understood the Gospel, and so Puzzle the ass-lion is redeemed when he meets Aslan and is given grace.

The light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-coloured cliffs led up in front of them like a giant’s staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty. And the very first person whom Aslan called to him was Puzzle the Donkey. You never saw a donkey look feebler and sillier than Puzzle did as he walked up to Aslan; and he looked, beside Aslan, as small as a kitten looks beside a St. Bernard. The Lion bowed down his head and whispered something to Puzzle at which his long ears went down; but then he said something else at which the ears perked up again.

The crucified and risen Jesus who ‘turned the other cheek’ and responded to mistreatment with blessing (as he commands us to) makes me look small and kitten like; he exposes human bullies for what they are. And when we act the same way, it has a similar effect.

I’m not perfect in any of this — I’ve lashed out plenty of times responding to my own mistreatment — but I’m thankful for the grace under fire I’ve seen modelled by others this week. And I won’t stay silent while people like Amy and Stephen are attacked, because I didn’t love it when people stayed silent when the mob came for me. I need to keep seeing Jesus in the response of those who respond to hate with love.

When Ben sees this he’ll almost certainly come at me; there’ll be a mob calling me out as some sort of chinless liberal (that’s what they called Stephen though, and I’m definitely more to the left politically than he is). He’ll wave his arms and threaten legal action and try to silence those who speak out; but bullies operate using fear and an angry mob. And I am not afraid of Ben. I just hope somehow, sometime, he meets Jesus and repents.

A minority (or majority) report on the Presbyterian Assembly about vaccine passports

First there was the dress.

Then there was Laurel/Yanny.

Now there’s the decision of the Special Assembly of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly of Australia that met yesterday to discuss vaccines and public worship.

Eternity News has reported a version of events (and the decision) from yesterday’s meeting that does not align with my perception of the meeting, or its decision, in a variety of ways, and nor does it align with the perception of others. And yet, there can be no doubt that all the parties left the meeting yesterday perceiving the object of the meeting in different ways — such that we all left reasonably satisfied, and committed to the courses of action and positions we took into the meeting.

I’ve been in contact with the editor of Eternity, and am aware that the source quoted in the piece, one of the movers of the original motions voted on, is likely to have been his interpretive guide regarding the decision of the Assembly and its implications.

So. To set the record straighter, inasmuch as that was possible with Laurel and the blue dress…

Here’s my understanding of the meeting, the decision, and its implications. General Assemblies of Australia are conducted in open court, unless otherwise determined, and so the substance of this meeting is public.

As Eternity reports, Mark Powell and Darren Middleton brought what is called an ‘overture’ to a special assembly that was called by a group of ministers and elders from around the country. It should be acknowledged that both these gentlemen are fully vaccinated, believe the vaccines to be a reasonable response to the Covid pandemic, believe the pandemic to be serious enough to require government interventions (including social distancing), and are more concerned about the prospect of excluding healthy (though unvaccinated) people from a community gathering when those people do not pose a risk to the vaccinated but to other unvaccinated people (and where the vaccinated people who might carry non-symptomatic Covid are a risk to the unvaccinated). Their point was that risk management responsibilities are complex, and our general principle should be not to exclude healthy people from worship services and their original motions were supportive of the idea that unwell people should continue to be excluded from the gathering.

The first step in proceedings was establishing that the Moderator of the GAA had competently called a meeting — under the Basis of Union of our federated church, the GAA is responsible for matters of doctrine and public worship. It was the contention of the movers of the overture that this matter relates to both doctrine (around areas of church and state and Christian liberty) and public worship (questions of who should be included in gatherings around word and sacrament). Others had doubts about the competency of the motion and whether the question was one of doctrine and worship — where there is broad agreement on the principles — or governance and wisdom/prudence at a local level (best left in the hands of the State Assemblies and local sessions and Committees of Management (bodies of elders and managers). Because the movers of the motion were determined to keep the question at the ‘principial’ level rather than mandating particular actions/requirements for state and local bodies (noting that different states will have different legal frameworks and health situations), the assembly voted that it did indeed have capacity to make declarations at the general principal level — but whether it would’ve been competent to be more directive to local congregations was not on the table (and would, I suspect, have been an area of more contention).

The original overture from the movers used language that concerned many of us — and that was the subject of revision and debate. There is no doubt that for some of the people in the Zoom, the implications of the language being used were those suggested in the Eternity piece, but such implications were not for this court to decide, nor could the court make such decisions under its remit/authority (nor could it given that every state will have different legislative frameworks to navigate).

Some of the preamble to the Overture read:

  • “It would appear to be inevitable that, when lockdowns are lifted, unvaccinated persons, both Presbyterians and visitors, will seek to join in public worship and other church activities.
  • Vaccine certificates (passports) are now being considered by governments and business operators so that access to services, buildings or public places may be granted or denied depending on a person’s vaccination status, raising the potential for societal segregation.
  • As people struggle to maintain both liberty and love, the unequal treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated people and the implications of vaccine passports may become divisive and threaten the unity of the Church, especially if State governments require vaccine certificates (passports) for attendance at religious gatherings.

Some of the arguments around the exclusion of unvaccinated people made this not so much an issue of conscience but of two classes of people — like the Jew/Gentile distinction in the first century church, where Jesus did indeed remove the dividing wall of hostility. I am not convinced by that line of argument, personally, and think that if there’s a New Testament principle to apply it’s the stronger/weaker brother principle around food sacrificed to idols (and other matters Paul applies this principle to); and I’m not convinced that all vaccine hesitancy is equal; some of it is the result of diabolical twisting of scriptures and misinformation campaigns — and we’re meant to be people of truth (see, for example, the way people are making comparisons between vaccine passports and the mark of the beast in Revelation). That said, I do think there is a conscience issue here that is worth grappling with in the context of our spiritual union with Christ and the way we express that in gathering as people.

The three original points of the Overture read:

  1. Exhort all members and ministers to work hard at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, treating issues of vaccination as a matter of liberty of conscience not determined by church law (Rom. 14:22, 15:4; WCF chapter 20).
  2. Declare that in light of the Bible’s teaching on the free offer of the gospel and the unity of the Church that no Presbyterian Church should deny entry to unvaccinated people for the public worship of God (Matt. 28:19-20; Gal.3:28; Jas.2:1-3; John 17:21-23).
  3. Remind all leaders and members of our churches of their obligation to love their neighbours and therefore, voluntarily and willingly, to use all reasonable methods of preventing the spread of disease, including self-isolating for the appropriate period if they show any symptoms of an infectious disease or have a positive COVID result, even if asymptomatic.

The original language was so concerning to many members of the virtual (or Spiritual) house that an alternative notice of motion was prepared. The process in our courts is that the Overture is stated, and received — in order to be debated — and then the court of the church will determine its mind.

I had incredibly strong reservations about clause 2 in the overture — specifically around the language of ‘declare’ (which is a technical word that actually carries less weight than other imperatives, like “instruct”) and “no church should” which again, was framed as weaker language than “must not”…), even if the discussion was designed to be at the ‘principial level’ rather than at the ground level around mandating of certain behaviours. I was quite uncomfortable with this language, and was (evidently) not alone.

The overture was received in order to be debated — as the Eternity report indicates this was by a strong majority. This does not mean that a strong majority supported it in this form, but that the Assembly decided it was worth discussing not simply dismissing. The vast majority of the house seemed to think this was a good idea, although, this was perhaps because an alternative set of motions had been circulated and it was anticipated these might be adopted as ‘counter motions’ that better expressed the will of the house — and expressed a view consistent with a reformed understanding of Government; where we understand that the Government is provided by God and that public health is within the ‘sphere’ that governments are responsible for such that their public health orders are legitimate expressions of God given authority.

The alternative option presented in the documents for the Assembly (but not ultimately debated or voted on) was going to ask the GAA to:

Acknowledge that:

  1. public health is a proper function of the civil authority;
  2. churches are to submit to the civil authorities established by God, and to resist such authority is to resist what God has appointed and to be liable to judgment (Romans 13:1-2), unless submission to the civil authority intrudes upon the spiritual independence of the church and the obedience otherwise due to God;
  3. vaccination policy and vaccine passports are public health matters under the jurisdiction of the civil authority;
  4. according to expert health advice, vaccinated persons are less likely than unvaccinated persons to contract COVID-19 themselves or to transmit it;
  5. the sixth commandment requires all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life and the lives of others, therefore congregations are obligated to ensure, as far as practicable, the safety of all who assemble for corporate worship and other church activities.

Encourage the State Churches to:

  1. cooperate with their respective State governments by observing their lawful directions in regard to COVID- Safe measures, including the use of vaccine passports;
  2. negotiate with their respective State governments with a view to obtaining alternatives to vaccination that would allow persons who should not be vaccinated for medical reasons or those who for, reasons of conscience, are unwilling to be vaccinated, to join with vaccinated congregants in worship;
  3. assure their members who for reasons of conscience are unwilling to be vaccinated at this time that their right to defer or reject vaccination is respected;
  4. encourage their congregations to foster the unity and peace of the church by seeking to make appropriate provision for both vaccinated and unvaccinated congregants to join in church activities, including corporate worship, without breaching public health orders.

Given the choice between the two options — the Overture and the counter motion, I have some sympathies with the desire to include those who are vaccine hesitant, recognise the issues of conscience/freedom are important principles to maintain, and some sympathies with the government’s responsibilities to protect the vulnerable and manage a complex public health system (and economy), and note that almost no government that I can see thinks vaccine passports are a long term solution in Australia (but are part of protecting/managing the health system through the pandemic), so it’s probably I’d have voted for the second option had the motions in the overture not been substantially altered. The Queensland Government advised a heads of churches meeting last week that it has no intention of introducing anything like vaccine passports for church services, which certainly was both a comfort to me as I considered my response, and perhaps serves as an indication that some of the fears around vaccine passports are a product of fake news and scare campaigns (I’m looking at you Caldron Pool). I recognise that the landscape is different in Victoria, and to some extent, in New South Wales.

I was concerned that clause 2 of the original overture might provide a pathway to civil disobedience should state assemblies, or local churches, decide that government restrictions were an overreach on their sphere sovereignty — so found myself more in agreement with the political theology expressed in the second.

Personally, my absolute preference would’ve been for the GAA not to feel like it needed to say anything at all here, but rather to trust that our doctrines are clear and that states and local congregations are best positioned to shepherd their own communities through this situation. Part of the ‘politicisation of everything’ has left us feeling that we need official ‘black and white’ statements of law to guide us through decision making; I’m not sure that allows us to be nuanced or nimble enough to operate in these times. I think we also run the risk of being caught up in political posturing and polarised agendas of our day in ways that suck us in to ways of thinking and operating in the world that are unhelpful — whether that’s putting all our eggs in the ‘individual freedom’ basket of the right, or in the ‘systemic/public health’ thinking of the left. I’m inclined to think that vaccine hesitant people need to spend more time thinking about public health concerns and systems of relationships (systems thinking stuff), while people on the right need to think more about risk management and government overreach.

As it panned out the counter motions were not needed because a series of amendments deliberately left the original overture with a fairly weak ‘motherhood and apple pie’ principial expression. Attempts to shift the language back to firmer more imperative language than ‘desire’ — even the word ‘intend’ — were rejected by the house, which ultimately adopted an altered version of clause 2 of the overture and used the mechanism to ‘move the previous question’ to eradicate all expressions of the proposed clause 3 (after some discussion about whether we might include vaccination as a legitimate measure for limiting the spread of Covid 19 — something that the movers of the Overture were happy to support (and that I believe was sensible). Basically the court served to turn the overture into a statement that everyone walked away agreeing with because it says basically nothing substantial that can be applied in any particular direction in this pandemic. Of course we all desire that people be able to attend church, that is, of course, our core business — inviting people to worship Jesus as we gather together to proclaim the Gospel.

Here’s the final wording of what was adopted:

  • Exhort all members and ministers to work hard at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, treating issues of vaccination as a matter of liberty of conscience not determined by church law (Rom. 14:22, 15:4; WCF chapter 20).
  • Affirm that in light of the Bible’s teaching on the free offer of the gospel and the unity of the Church, the Presbyterian Church of Australia does not desire anyone [to] be denied entry for the public worship of God on the grounds of vaccination status.”

It’s evident that this is the case because once the amended wording of the overture was adopted, the movers of the alternative no longer saw their motions as necessary.

The reporting in Eternity represents one view of the outcome — a legitimate view because the outcome is so open to interpretation, but not, in any sense, a definitive view of the implications of the principles decided — and some of the suggested implications are only ‘a’ potential implication rather than ‘the’ necessary (or even likely) implication of the principles agreed by all.

And so: the dress is blue (seriously, use a colour dropper tool in photo shop), the word is laurel, and Presbyterians remain Presbyterian in all our beautiful dysfunction.

A line by line explanation of why the Australian Parliament should not pray the Lord’s Prayer (because they don’t mean it).

Peta Credlin just shared a letter from Victorian Liberal MP, Matt Bach, celebrating that the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten had been unsuccessful in her attempt to remove the Lord’s Prayer from Victorian parliamentary proceedings.

This was, of course, one of the key ‘how to vote’ issues that saw the ACL endorse One Nation, in Federal Parliament, but it’s a campaign I’ve never understood, because, in modern, secular Australia the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in any Parliament House seems to be not just implicitly contrary to the content of the Lord’s Prayer, but explicitly against the instructions given by Jesus as he taught his disciples how to pray.

Christians should not be excited that the Lord’s Prayer is being attached to the work of our politicians in a Federal Parliament House that uses the (multifaith) prayer room for sexual trysts between staffers, or that it is being prayed in a parliament that has introduced bills that, in some pastoral contexts, would make praying “your will be done” punishable by a prison sentence.

We should not be excited about people opening their work praying words that they then set about undermining with their decisions; especially decisions built on the greed and dominion building projects of our nation. To celebrate the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in this context is to undermine both the commands of the Lord Jesus and his teaching on prayer, and what is being prayed for in the Lord’s Prayer; those who pray it, who aren’t committed to the Lord’s Prayer being answered in their conduct and decision making are precisely the people Jesus is warning people about.

I was struck, too, by Mr Bach’s reasons for celebrating this (temporary) victory in the state of Victoria, he said “it is also a marker of the long Westminster Parliamentary Tradition, and a reflection of the core tenets of our Judeao Christian Heritage, like individualism and the rule of law” (emphasis mine). He also had a shot at the “radical left” and their “woke agenda” which leaves them despising Christians and western civilisation (“many from the radical left despise not only Christians, but all Western Civilisation, and are currently embarked on a woke agenda to destroy it. They must be resisted”. I suspect that Jesus would be shocked to discover the words of his prayer being used in a Right v Left culture war within the confines of modern liberalism when his kingdom project (the one we pray for) is altogether more interesting and revolutionary; challenging both the liberal left and the liberal right, but also, if the radical left — represented by Premier Daniel Andrews and his government — is as bad as Bach says, surely we don’t want them associating their agenda with the kingdom of God, or requesting divine assistance in bringing it about? It’s like Trump holding the Bible. It’s a hollow icon being employed as propaganda in order to ‘own the libs’ (or in this case, because Australian politics is confusing and the Liberals are the conservatives, the ‘leftists’).

It’s not just Victoria where this is an issue though; this will no doubt be raised in the Federal context, and in the federated context (state by state). So here’s why politicians committed to the liberal economic order that now dominates the western political landscape should not be praying the Lord’s Prayer.

The Federal parliament uses the following version of the Lord’s Prayer (and the Victorian Government’s committee appointed to make a recommendation on this present debate used the Federal Government’s Standing Orders in its findings).

Our Father, which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the version you’ll find in the King James translation of Matthew’s Gospel. Let’s deal with what the prayer means, line by line, and why it’s inappropriate for our governments to be praying it if they don’t mean it.

For starters, in context, Jesus’ teaching on prayer is particularly a teaching against religious hypocrisy — and the sort of hypocrites who pray in public to be seen by others. The argument that the Lord’s Prayer is a tradition and that it should open public sittings not because our collective hearts are in it, but because it’s part of the shared fabric of our parliamentary system seems to me to be both open to the accusation of hypocrisy that might come from saying empty words, and Jesus’ critique of performative prayer conducted not in relationship with God, but to present oneself in a particular way to others.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” — Matthew 6:5-7

It’s hard for me to see the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament as an expression of fidelity to God, or even an expression of Christian values, when the practice runs counter to the commands of Christ about how to pray. Especially when the praying of the prayer is co-opted into not only the liberal political agenda, but the right wing side of a right-left culture war. There’s something pagan about the idea that the Lord’s Prayer serves as some sort of invocation or ritual that can be performed by people who are not praying to “their Father who is unseen” but to TV cameras as an expression of the traditions of our liberal, western ancestors.

It gets worse when we get into the content. While Parliament prays a slightly amended version of the KJV, I’ll quote from the slightly more modern sounding NIV below.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name”

This is not an expression that God’s personal name is “hallowed” but, rather, an expression of a desire that God’s name would be set apart as holy — that our Father in heaven, the Lord of hosts and God most high, would be recognised as the rightful ruler of the cosmos and our lives. The opposite of God’s name being hallowed is God’s name being sullied or taken in vain. The commandment in the 10 Commandments about not taking God’s name in vain is not about using “God” or “Jesus” as swear words; but about attaching God’s name to your actions (and empire) and then dragging it through the dirt. The problem the nation of Israel found itself facing in the Old Testament was that they took God’s name and trashed it, and so, faced judgement and exile. Consider these words from God in the book of Ezekiel:

“So I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.” — Ezekiel 36:18-21

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer prayed by Israel’s Messiah; the one who came to restore God’s kingdom and create a new people who would live for God’s name (and not take it in vain). It’s a prayer that followers of Jesus — children of God — might live with God as their heavenly Father, and so bring honour to his name.

You can’t pray these words and then commit to dishonouring God through disobedience without being exactly like Israel. A nation that in the Old Testament claimed that its political leaders were acting for God’s will, when it was clear from their actions and their idolatry that they were not.

I don’t think any modern political party in Australia can claim to be pursuing government in a way that wholeheartedly seeks to honour God.

The other catch is, in Ezekiel, that the new people who would carry God’s name again needed new hearts, so that they could be a new kingdom. And this happens (and the Lord’s Prayer is answered) in the coming of God’s kingdom as Jesus ascends to rule beside his Father, and, together, they pour out God’s Spirit on a people to make us new, and to make us the “kingdom of God”…

If we don’t mean that God’s name should be restored to its glory by his intervention in history through the man he appointed as Lord, saviour, and judge, the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus, whose obedience was an example of life lived in accord with God’s will, for his glory, then we shouldn’t say these words.

Which leads me to this next bit…

“your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is a prayer not just for earthly political revolution — parliaments who might pray this prayer for reasons of human tradition — but for human transformation from above; for the heavens breaking in to earth so that people are able to do God’s will (unlike those described in Ezekiel). This prayer that God’s will be done — by people — in God’s kingdom — is a prayer for people re-created by God’s Spirit; for these words to be prayed devoid of this context — to become a prayer that the kingdom of Australia might increase, or some earthly kingdom built on individualism and the rule of Law, not on whole-hearted obedience to God enabled by his Spirit, misses what it is that Jesus is asking his followers to prayerfully look forward to (and to participate in as they pray).

When we read a Gospel narrative, like Matthew, and these words of Jesus — it’s worth noticing the positioning of the elements of the story. This lesson on prayer happens in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pulls back the curtains to reveal what God’s law has always required — perfect holiness — and what the nature of his kingdom has always been (the beatitudes, in contrast to human systems built on sinful grasping, violence, and dominion). The prayer of Jesus is matched with the ethical teaching of Jesus; they are linked — but they also come as the culmination of Israel’s story as Israel’s king is on his way to launch God’s promised kingdom at the cross, and through the pouring out of God’s Spirit.

Jesus is encouraging us to pray for systemic revolution — a kingdom where he is king of kings — and individual transformation, lives where we are able to do God’s will because God’s Spirit is alive in us because we have received salvation from Jesus through faith in him. The Victorian government has shown little interest in either (this is also true of the Federal Government).

If we don’t want something like Christendom — the kingdom of Jesus being coterminous with the kingdom of Australia — then we should not ask our political leaders to pray these words. God’s kingdom comes with every heart brought to life by his Spirit through faith in Jesus.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer and meaning something other than what the Lord meant is a fast path to the sort of hypocrisy he warned us about. And then there’s this stuff…

Give us today our daily bread.

This seems like a straight up request for provision from God, the creator, for his people — and there’s an element where that is legitimate; especially in Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, we should expect God to supply our material needs. There’s a sort of hat tip to Israel’s time in the wilderness here, where God provided Israel manna (bread) from heaven. In that story Israelites were not to store up bread beyond their actual immediate needs; the provision was predicated on recognising providence and was meant to limit greedy over-consumption. It’s hard for me to see that ethic at the heart of Australia, or Victoria’s economic approach, and yet, there’s again more to this than meets the eye.

In Luke, Jesus says “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” He sees the Lord’s Prayer, and our trust in God to provide, as grounded in his much bigger provision — the gift of the Holy Spirit — who is poured out for those who are children of God and part of his kingdom at Pentecost, the festival or bread. And the literal translation of the Greek in Matthew’s Gospel is “the bread of tomorrow today” — it’s a request for ‘eschatological bread’ — the heavenly provision of eternal life that Jesus brings (bread is a pretty significant metaphor in the Gospels, right?).

If our politicians are not asking God to provide his Spirit — and so, because he is our Heavenly father — to also meet not our long term economic needs, but to provide daily provision for us — then we shouldn’t ask them to pray these words.

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

The ethic of forgiveness is, of course, at the heart of Christianity — and the heart of the kingdom. The kingdom is launched through the ultimate act of forgiveness. Jesus himself will provide the mechanism for forgiveness through the cross — to pray this prayer without relying on the atoning work of Jesus — asking God to forgive — is empty. It’s like sacrificing sheep on a hill in Jerusalem because you haven’t recognised that forgiveness of sin (our debt to God) is secured only in and through the death of Jesus.

And the idea that we “have forgiven our debtors” while we’re putting out culture war garbage calling for the destruction, defeat, or resistance of the other again fails to practice the sort of ‘forgiveness of debtors’ Jesus preaches about in the surrounding chapters of the Sermon on the Mount.

If our political leaders are not seeking forgiveness through Jesus, or offering forgiveness to their enemies in the way Jesus models at the cross, and teaches, then we should not let them get away with praying these words. That’s hypocrisy.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

I find it hard to take it seriously that politicians in a late modern capitalism that champions liberalism at a market and personal level can say “lead us not into temptation” with a straight face; our economic prosperity is built on leading people into temptation and having them work to pay money to satisfy desires cultivated by culture. The idea, also, that the evil one does not use the trappings of empire to capture the hearts and minds of people, via idolatry, simply because our politicians pay lip service to our Christian heritage in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, while utterly ignoring (and outright rejecting) the exclusivity of the Lordship of Jesus and the glory his victory over evil brings to his Father (the answer to the prayer) is risible.

It’s also particularly laughable to have politicians in our Federal Parliament pray these words while facing accusations of sexual assault, a grasping culture where people use power to coerce and abuse others, and where a cultural review is taking place because self-control and love for others are foreign virtues in that place.

There’s no doubt that Christians seeking God’s kingdom in the past — or even in the present, in our various parliaments — have profoundly shaped the western world and its political institutions for the good; but, we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Oz. We’re in 21st century Aus. Those politicians should do that work as a faithful presence in our community, but I would suggest that if they get a morale boost from a bunch of hypocrites praying the Lord’s Prayer next to them as they pray it in earnest, that they have something badly wrong.

In my estimation, short of a miraculous work of God secured through the proclamation of the Gospel and a move of God in the hearts not only of our leaders, but the people, the ongoing commitment to the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament is not bringing glory to God, or securing his support for Australian politics through some formulaic invocation, instead, it is the very form of hypocrisy that Jesus was teaching against as he taught his followers how to pray as his followers, and the sort of blasphemous use of God’s name that Israel was exiled for, rather than a hallowing of his name.

And so, I think Christians — including Christian politicians who may well pray the Lord’s Prayer as they seek to act as representatives of God’s kingdom in and through their public service — shouldn’t be campaigning to keep the last trappings of Christendom in the halls of buildings where God’s name is treated with contempt (and not just as a swear word, but in the policies enacted, and the lives lived by our leaders), to do so is to risk being complicit in attaching God’s name not only to the wrong side of a culture war, but the wrong side of a spiritual war. The same war Jesus came to expose, between the evil one and God, fought out using human puppets and empires, when the government of his day nailed him to a cross.

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