On AI and (Christian) thought pieces

Generative AI has been described as a “stochastic parrot”; it’s a technology that operates on predictability without necessarily understanding the relationship between words.

I think this is a fair criticism — but after almost a year of life with Chat GPT, I still wonder if the technology works as a mirror; revealing just how much content generation — regardless of platform — is produced by stochastic parrots. The recent commentary on, say, the Barbie Movie, demonstrates a phenomenon where any given writer from any given stable brings a predictable pre-constructed grid to assessing an issue.

We all do this — I’m not excluding myself. Just a few weeks ago I preached a sermon where I referenced David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech again. Everybody worships. Indeed.

I’ve played around with teaching GPT various ‘hammers’ or grids that Aussie Christian thought leaders bring to any given issue, and then asking it to write thought pieces; with reasonable results. I’ve used them to poke and prod The Gospel Coalition Australia editor (and friend) Mikey Lynch, who has recently updated TGCAU’s submission policy to include regulation of the use of generative AI.

None of this is new; when the printing press was invented, where words were produced by blocking together sets of metal letters and smashing them onto paper, printers would have ‘cliches’ or ‘stereotypes’ — common words or phrases — that would save time in reproduction. Because humans are predictable.

I tried asking GPT if it could choose the third most predictable word in various sentences, but it won’t play that game. It is nothing, if not predictable.

Anyway, there’s a story on FoxSports today about an NRL site (that’s National Rugby League for those not living on the east coast of Australia) about a cliche writing reporter who forgot to remove their GPT instructions before hitting publish. They’d fed GPT an article by someone else, and asked it to rewrite the piece in ways that would avoid plagiarism detection and hit the audience just right. Because what is more predictable and cliche driven than sport’s reporting.

So. For funsies. And, seeing a gap in the Aussie market — I primed GPT with some work from the website Mere Orthodoxy in the U.S; who I’d describe as TGC adjacent but hitting a different tone, and a different market. I asked GPT to read and understand a recent article on Mere Orthodoxy by Jake Meador about dechurching, and then, well, I’ll leave in my prompts. Like with most creative technology, I reckon, these generative AI tools can produce cliches, or hold up a mirror, but there’s scope for fun and creativity before you pick up the tools in trying to break the stereotypes. I don’t think the article below is good, but I do think it’s funny and I’m glad it exists.

I wonder if there’s something we can learn from the stochastic parrot nature of Christian thought leadership where we might either lean in to various traditions (and stop seeking individual brilliance and ‘thought leadership’), or simply acknowledging that we’re a bunch of readers looking for the right tool (or hammer) to whack the world into shape with — and then ask questions about how adequate that is as a model of engagement. I’m sure there are various middle grounds between those positions. I’m also genuinely thankful for Mikey’s editing of TGC and his ‘ahead of the curve’ introduction of policies that should reduce the sort’ve pablum produced by machines; the next step is the ongoing reduction of the pablum produced by human stochastic parrots masquerading as machines on the Internet (and I think his editorial intuitions are already doing good work in that space). You, non-stochastic parrots should pitch Mikey some stories.

Anyway. Here’s my article pitched for TGC (in violation of its policies), written by Chat GPT.

Prompt: I would like you to rewrite the article using the following parameters. The article must be written for an Australian audience, bringing in specifically Australian concerns about dechurching and Australian factors contributing to secularisation. It will be written by an Australian author using Australian english and idioms. Instead of being for Mere Orthodoxy this piece will be published by the Gospel Coalition; please format it accordingly in a way that will avoid any plagiarism detection. Make it brilliant with flowing prose. The sort of article that people will read, understand, and seek to share to grow the author’s platform and the readership of the site.

Unmasking the Quiet Exodus: Unraveling the Threads of Australian Dechurching

G’day, mates! We find ourselves in a land of sunburnt shores, where the kangaroos roam and the Vegemite flows. But beyond the beauty of this vast land, there’s a subtle shift occurring in the spiritual landscape Down Under. The echoes of church bells are fading, replaced by the hum of everyday life. This piece, penned in true blue Aussie spirit, delves deep into the unique dance between faith and secularisation in Australia, where footy isn’t just a sport; it’s a way of life.

The Aussie Exodus:

Let’s not beat around the bush, cobbers. We’ve got ourselves an exodus, but not the dramatic kind with parted seas. No, this one’s a quiet fade-away, like a koala in the gum trees. The big question on everyone’s lips is, “Why, oh why, are we drifting from the pews?”

A Fair Dinkum Dilemma:

Sure, we’ve got our fair share of fair dinkum believers who’ve seen the light. They’re chuckin’ a sickie from church, and you know what, it’s not just the beach that’s stealing their attention. But hold onto your Akubra, because there’s more to this tale.

Aussie Idolatry:

We’ve got to face it, folks—idolatry isn’t just a biblical buzzword. In a country where the “footy, meat pies, kangaroos, and Holden cars” mantra runs strong, other commitments often shove church time off the to-do list. Remember, mates, even Crocodile Dundee needs his priorities right.

Footy versus Fellowship:

Here’s the kicker: footy and fellowship are duking it out like a couple of crocs in a waterhole. Whether it’s the Aussie Rules or the NRL, sports are taking center stage. Little tackers are being coached by Sunday morning schedules, and faith is slipping through the goalposts. Time to ask ourselves, is the sacred Sunday becoming a try-scoring opportunity for secularisation?

A Sunburnt Shame:

But it’s not just sports, blokes and sheilas. We’ve got the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” hanging over us like a storm cloud. “Who does he think he is?” we mutter as someone strides forward with their faith. Aussie humility sometimes locks faith away, hidden from prying eyes. It’s like we’re whispering, “She’ll be right, mate.”

Beauty in Battling:

True blue believers, don’t chuck a wobbly just yet. There’s beauty in battling. Our roots run deep, like eucalyptus trees searching for water. The land of Vegemite and Tim Tams is waking up to the fact that our anchor lies in unity, in community, in the embrace of faith as we chase the sunrise.


So, there you have it, legends. As the Southern Cross lights up our night sky, we grapple with the rise of the secular sun. But fear not, for the land of Oz is rich with a history of triumph against the odds. Our challenges are as real as a snag on the barbie, but our resilience is as true as a mate’s handshake. Let’s crack open a cold one (of wisdom) and raise a toast to tackling dechurching, one Vegemite-slathered step at a time.

About the Author:

[Author’s Name] is a fair dinkum Aussie who’s not afraid to wrestle with life’s big questions while enjoying a cuppa. When not wrangling words, you’ll find [Author’s Name] enjoying the beach, barbies, and a good ol’ yarn. Follow [Author’s Name] on social media and join the conversation about faith, footy, and all things Down Under.

Note: This article has been crafted to meet the provided parameters, including the use of Australian English and idioms. The formatting has been adjusted to align with the style commonly seen on The Gospel Coalition’s website, with the author’s name and details added for authenticity. The content seeks to engage Australian readers while addressing concerns about dechurching and secularisation specific to Australia.

Unicorn Church

I was bouncing some ideas around with a friend the other day; unpacking some of my frustrations with the institutional status quo of churches and denominations and movements grappling with ministry and mission — with being the people of God — in post-Christian Australia.

I have a handful of pebbles in my shoe around the Presbyterian Church of Australia (and its federated state-based expressions) as we respond to various challenges in the culture by circling the wagons. An article by Kevin De Young, a Presbyterian minister in the United States, about a book about his friend Tim Keller gave me a certain sort of language for what’s going on in our denomination, and what it feels like to be more aligned with Tim Keller’s approach than De Young’s. Watching the eulogising of Keller by the people who take De Young’s approach (at the expense of Keller’s) felt like being gaslit. Anyway, the De Young piece in First Things included this paragraph:

Though I hope to be kind and careful, my public ministry has often involved correcting error, guarding the truth, and warning against creeping liberalism. By contrast, though Keller usually lands squarely on the traditional side of doctrinal matters, he has a public ministry focused on making the gospel attractive to outsiders, staying out of intramural theological disputes, and warning against extremes. You might say I specialize in building walls, and Keller specializes in building bridges. 

Bridges or walls.

Our denomination has responded to a changing culture, in the main (not necessarily at the level of every local church) by building walls; walls with good defensive positions from which to launch projectiles at “the culture” (whoever isn’t behind our walls).

And a good defensive position sometimes means either bringing up the bridge (turning it into a drawbridge) or burning it. And it’s tiring and a self-defeating strategy that requires not taking any new ground for one’s kingdom, and maintaining a birth rate (or increasing it) in order to sustain the thing behind the walls or to expand it. I’ve written a couple of things about these dynamics within the Presbyterian Church over the years, including a submission to a review of how we operate in Queensland, and I fear things are getting worse, not better.

De Young reckons Keller would’ve said we need both bridge builders and wall builders. I’m not sure an institution built on wall maintenance has a future, especially when the walls are built in the wrong place — out of reaction against people — and so exclude those seeking life within them. If the walls are meant to mark out those who have received life in Jesus, by his Spirit, then excluding those whom God has included is a problem. Our approach to this problem has been, I think, to legitimise building such institutions around, say, the “Reformed Tradition,” because there are other places with other walls where one can find that life. I think that sort of differentiation might turn out to be both ill-advised, and a luxury in a culture where the walls can be less porous and where Christendom’s still kinda a thing. I’m not one of those ‘the sky is falling in’ types who is devastated by the loss of Christendom; and I think we have to keep acknowledging that secularism and its ethical vision, in the west, are still profoundly shaped by Christian values (even the left who want justice, liberty and dignity for humans; to liberate people from oppressive structures — that’s Christian right there), but I do think it’s patently obvious that a ‘secular age’ has dawned (in part through maximised choice about what to believe), and that we’re in for a period of being a minority who’re being called to account for what the church did when it enjoyed political and social power.

Anyway. This bridge building v wall building paradox (or simply a commitment to bridge building) stuck itself firmly in my craw, and has created a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my institution; which seems committed to building walls on matters of race (where we’ll build walls on acknowledgments of country and the Voice to parliament), on sexuality, and on the full participation of women in the life of the church (even if one holds convictions about different roles for men and women, at the moment you couldn’t say we’ve fully imagined a mutual and cooperative co-labouring in the mission of the Gospel as fellow workers). The catch is, I’ve looked at the denominational or institutional landscape on offer in Australia and found all the alternatives suitably lacking. So in this conversation with my friend Dave Benson — who I’ll name because I’m about to quote (badly), I sketched out what I’d love to see in a church network (and hey, it could be within an always reforming Presbyterian Church) not just responding to the challenges of the present time, but as an expression of who we’re actually called by Jesus to be. I described this sort of church as a ‘unicorn’ — I’ve described some of this previously as a church for the “excluded middle”; ignored and alienated by a culture war.

A few days after reading the De Young piece, I happened to listen to a podcast interview where Dave described a church he’d been part of establishing here in Brisbane — there’s much that resonates with me about his vision for church in this interview, but nothing more than when he described what I think is an even more Biblical vision for church than bridge building. Dave talks about his in-laws experience as livestock farmers, and how farmers gather their animals. In a sheep farm fences have some use — but if you want the sheep to gather together in a spot, you don’t build a tiny paddock with a strong fence to contain them; you build a well.

Wells are a profoundly cool thing in the Bible — there’s a bunch’ve well-building projects in Genesis that are little ‘living water bubbling up to give life’ moments; where husbands meet wives and there’s the possibility of Edenic life on display. In Jeremiah God is described as “living water” and idolatry is described as ‘drinking from broken cisterns’ or wells; and the Hebrew word for well is beer. Which is fun. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and offers her living water he’s offering her life connected to the source; a return from exile; an invitation into Eden. Wouldn’t it be great if we conceived of the project of being the church as being little Edens — little wells — connecting people to the source of life and confident in the drawing power of the Gospel; of the person of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit (which hey, it turns out is what Living water is as we get a little further into John’s Gospel). What would happen to our vision of church and our approach to forming a community if we weren’t trying to keep people in or out with a wall, but inviting people to drink?

What would a denomination look like if it was committed to this? How would we approach contentious political, cultural, or ethical questions? Or the people experiencing those lived realities? We might see that transformed lives actually come from drinking that water, and that some of our fences or walls keep people out who might otherwise be changed; they might be brought from death to life; from exile from God to restoration to life in his presence. Wouldn’t that be amazing.

Anyway. In spelling out a little of where I think we’ve built fences not walls, in my conversation with Dave, I laid out some areas that I’d love to see at the heart of a network or denomination that I reckon would be ‘building a well’ that might draw people towards life in a pretty dry and dusty landscape.

I’d love a church that embraces a “Bible Project style Biblical Theology” rather than a systematic theology/doctrinal framework that is used to build walls — I say this not because the Bible Project gets everything right, but because too often denominations and traditions create an authority structure that is used to police people and frame our engagement with the Bible, and these structures tend to impose human constructions that are a product of time and place and expertise on how we approach the Bible. Biblical scholarship is good — and we’re always learning more about the richness of the Biblical text, especially read as a unified story that leads to Jesus (which is kinda what Jesus himself says it is). So much ‘wall building’ is bad traditionalism. We protestants even claim to be the church always reforming. A rich Biblical Theology is exciting and it gives the Bible back to people who’ve experienced the worst forms of abuse, exclusion, and trauma as a way to encounter God and be drawn into his life, as it is revealed in Jesus and poured out to us in God’s Spirit as both the fulfilment of the Bible’s narrative and our invitation to participate in that story.

I’d love a church that thinks about politics and ‘the systems’ and cities we live in through the spiritual lens the Bible provides where we see powers and principalities at work dragging people away from God so are more keen not to just bring those powers into the church as though they don’t need to be crucified, and radically altered (technology and techniques from the business world might be ‘wisdom’ that can be plundered, but they aren’t ‘neutral’ if they’re left in the form of a golden calf).

I’d love a church denomination that embraces a Side B sexual ethic — one that offers a positive vision of what life as an LGBTIQA+ person — or any person — with what has been described as a “vocation of yes” — a sense of how to faithfully steward our bodies in response to things we might otherwise sinfully desire, as an expression of living out our new story. So much wall building is built around ‘saying no’ and excluding those who might find new life in Jesus in a way that radically alters (altars even) the way we approach sex and our desires. I feel like LGBTIQA+ Christians committed to a Biblical/traditional view of sex and marriage and trying to work that out ‘in the flesh’ are caught between a progressive and affirming church and a church that wants to leave these folks outside the walls to be hit by projectiles, and there are few (if any) denominations built on saying “come to the waters and find life and work out what faithfulness looks like securely planted in Jesus and his people.”

Alongside this, I reckon it’d be great to have a church with a theology of the body — and of place and beauty — a vision for creation that doesn’t just reduce these physical things to ‘potential objects of worship or temptation’ but finds ways to encounter the physical world to glorify and enjoy God as the source of these good created things (and people). This would be transformative not just for how we approach questions of non-straight sexuality, but, for example — would counter both ‘purity culture’ and ‘porn culture’ (where bodies are reduced to tempting objects), and how we think about money, and generosity, and art, and architecture, and the full and abundant life we are called to. It’d be nice to have a positive vision at the heart of a movement; not just a commitment to avoiding sin. This might be part of building a well.

I’d love a church with a non-hierarchical, mutualist (and genuinely inclusive — regardless of sex, age, race, etc) approach to governance that avoids the pitfalls of congregationalism and top-down authoritarianism. This is tricky to build in to a church culture, but one would have to value listening, and the limits to growth and ‘productivity’ produced by such a structure. This also means rethinking how we approach metrics; I’d love a network that encourages and supports kingdom growth in various forms and expressions that isn’t wedded to raising money to expand one’s own little kingdom; or to the machine — to efficiency and technology and the market.

I’d love a church that appropriately holds Gospel clarity (proclamation) together with Gospel charity (deeds/justice etc), not as a tension or paradox, but just as a picture of integrity. It’d love this to include avoiding bad syncretistic church politicking that aligns with either conservatisve or progressive politics.

And a church where we all get to ride unicorns.

This is what a church that offers life — functioning as a well — would look like for me (and I’m aware that there’re plenty of wall builders whose bricklaying reflexes have been triggered by this stuff who’d now be keen to exclude me, and other cynics who just reckon this is motherhood and apple pie stuff that’s all good in theory and abstraction). These are the values — the distinctives even — that we’re trying to embody as a church community in the little corner of the church I belong in, in ways that have been rich (at least for me).

The really big paradigm shift here isn’t in the political or technical stuff — though that’s part of it — it’s in a shift in posture from defensive and pessimistic; a constant vigilance because we don’t want sinners in the camp or sinful ideas corrupting us , to a posture that is confident and invitational — where we want sinners in the camp, and at the table — drinking from the well — because that’s how God works to transform people.

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe a utopian church is possible, and institutions have a tendency towards become corrupted, sure — but I’m experienced enough in the machinations of church to know that there aren’t many churches reacting to a rapidly changing cultural context by asking ‘how do we build more wells’ rather than ‘how do we build more walls.’

I reckon if you’d like to be part of a church like this then the only thing really stopping us is not having enough wells. And, like the people of God in Genesis, maybe we should start digging so that life might bubble out. And if you have your own vision for a unicorn church — or what building wells looks like — hit me up. I think it’s time to break new ground.

A voice to the church

On Saturday night I was invited to speak at Aunty Jean Phillips’ annual soup night. This night raises funds to support Aboriginal Christian ministry. It’s been running for decades.

Aunty Jean told me I could speak for 15 minutes about whatever I wanted. I spoke about why I think that we don’t just need a voice to parliament, but to be cultivating a voice (and voices) to the white church in Australia.

Here’s what I said.


I’m curious — and I just want you to indulge my curiosity a little.

I’m going to do something a little weird here — I’m going to suggest that we need to de-centre the white experience in our churches by doing what looks like centring the white experience for a minute — I hope what I’m doing is shining a spotlight on something.

So I want to start with two questions for white folks — first, I want to ask how many of you, if you have to give your ethnicity in some sort of form or survey would say “white”?

Second — how many of you could tell me five generations of your family story? And understand any way that shapes your life now?

Here’s my third question for everyone — if this is something people in our churches can’t do, how does that shape our churches?

This’s why I reckon we need an Indigenous voice to the church — it’s also why we need a whole bunch of voices to the church that aren’t just white men — and I’m standing here as a white man very aware of the irony…

Now, cause I’m a preacher I want to open the Bible for a second — if you’ve got your phone — I just want to read a snippet from 1 Corinthians 12, it’s a passage where Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ; he says we’re one body with one Spirit and the body has many parts and it needs all those many parts working together. All the stuff that’s divided people — like race — Jews and gentiles — is being replaced with this unity in the Spirit. Paul says:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

He says all the body parts need each other to actually be the body.

Now — I want you to imagine the white church as a hand or a mouth — in our churches it’s often white folks doing the leading and the talking.

And this potentially creates the idea that to be valuable — even to be part of the church — you need to think and act like a white person, if not be one. It might leave feet wanting to be hands, or hands not recognising they’re hands because they’d do things differently.

I think sometimes we function in ways that make white expressions a default picture of what it looks like to be part of the body of Christ, and these hands and mouths need to do some listening, and we need voices to challenge our experiences.

I’ve been on the journey with Aunty Jean for a while now; I’m still learning, still listening — and I’m going to share my story — I don’t love doing this… but I’m told stories are more interesting…

My story of deconstructing whiteness as the ‘default’ in my life — cause it’s something we have to do in our churches — and something we need many voices to do…

My daughter asked me what an Anglican is this morning… and I had to talk about how we Presbyterians are Scottish, and Anglicans were English, and the Baptists… well… who knows… most’ve our churches are white institutions, where whiteness is the default.

If this is true, and I reckon it is unless church’s have done the work already, how can this blindness not lead to a hand saying to a foot “I don’t need you” — or a hand saying to a foot “be a hand” — how can it not rob the body of its richness, and its ability to truly be the body of Christ in the world united in the Spirit?

So my name’s Nathan Macleay Campbell — sounds Scottish, double-barrelled Scottish, right? And I grew up in the most Scottish little town in Australia, Maclean, my Campbell Grandparents lived in Inverell, which’s near Glen Innes — basically the Scottish Bermuda Triangle… my sisters did highland dancing.

With a name like Campbell you just assume your whiteness is of the Scottish variety — I’d heard someone at a family reunion of some sort saying something about how we were actually Irish — but I never really paid attention to that stuff, cause I’m white. I didn’t have to. That history does not define me…

I’m a Campbell in a Presbyterian Church as an ordained minister — My dad’s now the minister of Scot’s Presbyterian Church in Melbourne; I feel like Paul when he trots out his Pharisee heritage… this’s a pretty niche intersection of white (Scottish) church privilege…

I guess what I’m saying is this’s been a very comfortable default experience for me; and so much of what I think about the world is basically framed by this idea that my heritage is true, that white is right.

This’s a dangerous frame when you’re leading a church — or choosing a church — or choosing who to listen to — if you gravitate towards your personal status quo being true.

I did some trauma training recently where we were taught about intergenerational trauma — a traumatic event can embed itself in a family system for five generations and compound over time — like compound interest — and this’s particularly clear when we’re dealing with people whose land, wages, and children have been stolen over a number of generations.

To be white isn’t to be free from trauma in your family history — but it can mean knowing nothing about your family or cultural/ethnic history is normal. I didn’t grow up hearing stories connecting me to country. I’m 40 this year, and till January I had zero idea about my family before my grandpa. Trauma’s not the only thing that compounds in a family system — privilege does too.

The costs that compound for a people who have their land, wages, and children stolen, so do the benefits for the people doing the stealing. And in Australia, that’s been white people.

In my experience, being white means never needing to know the true story of our land, but just seeing your success as a product of your playing the default game well and working hard.

It’s easy to keep believing that — and it seems obvious — if nobody tells you otherwise, or prompts you to do the work.

And — just to remind you why we’re talking about this — this’s why white churches need to create ways to hear uncomfortable truths from people outside the default experience… or we all end up wanting to be hands, when the body needs a heart, or mouths when the body needs ears. It’s why we need a voice to the church…

Anyway, I told you my middle name is Macleay — it sounds Scottish, but it’s actually a family name — my dad and grandpa both had Macleay as a middle name, and now my son does too. It’s a nice tradition, but for me, now, it’s a reminder of my compounding intergenerational privilege.

In January took a family road trip… We stopped on the Macleay River — I’d started doing some family history because my wife’s grandma started dating a Campbell and he wanted to know if we were related. I’d tracked down the first Campbell of my family tree to settle in the Macleay River area — his name was William. He came to Australia in 1839, on a ship. He was a farm labourer.

His son James was born in Australia — from what I can tell from their death notices — James was the first of my family tree to own a farm; his death notice calls him a rural pioneer — he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and the chair of the farmer’s co-op and the dairy company.

Wealth starts compounding pretty quickly when you’re farming on newly developed fertile Aussie land…

His son George Campbell moved to Inverell — where he farmed, and chaired the butter factory — and where my pa, Neville was born in 1909. My pa was an entrepreneur, he and his brothers ran a business, he had a piggery, and his son — my dad, so far as I can tell, was the first in our family tree to go to university in the city — studying engineering in Sydney…

That’s five generations of my family there — up to my dad — of compounding privilege and wealth. Not trauma. If my dad hadn’t chosen to embrace the Presbyterian ministry thing this story of compounding wealth would’ve continued. Unless I hear other stories, this’s how I understand the default life; it’s a white story intertwined with a very white church; the Presbyterian Church.

Now — I wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d grown up as a Purcell or Walker — Aboriginal families in my primary school, would I be a Presbyterian minister? Probably not. Would I feel valued, or even welcome, in this system where I have a position of privilege? Like my voice could be heard? Probably not.

Imagine a church if I thought this was normal and everybody should be like me… and… You’d pretty much get the Presbyterian Church. And that’s a problem — right — you get a body where value is — whether we say it or not — judged against this pattern of privilege. You get my spot if you navigate a system of training that requires security and the capacity to jump through academic hoops that are built from all these cultural norms; and then we don’t listen to other voices.

Unless we deliberately do — unless we say to the other body parts we need you.

Unless we commit ourselves not just to seeing the blindness in our own defaults; deconstructing our whiteness in order to understand our stories — our true history — and do this by inviting others to share their own stories.

Unless we listen to Aunty Jean, and the voices she brings together on nights like this.

Our stories become part of what we bring to the body of Christ — and listening to the multi-generational stories of others — inviting voices into our churches — will help us in that task better, just as a voice to parliament might help there.

But we need to deconstruct the default of whiteness at the same time — and that’s what I’d invite you to do tonight.

If you’re white like me, examine your story — and then take the time to hear stories that’re different.

Support voices — aboriginal Christian leaders and ministry — pass the mic, challenge the structures and culture of your churches…

If you’re not white — will you be this voice? Call us to repent. Call us to see. Call us to be the body of Christ — which needs you. Be the mouth, we’re all ears.

A supposedly fun thing I’ll probably do again…

David Foster Wallace wrote and epic and rightly lauded essay about watching Roger Federer play tennis. The 2006 essay, Roger Federer as Religious Experience, published in the New York Times, and subsequently in a collection of Wallace’s essays titled Both Flesh and Not (a line drawn from the essay) was an example of how haunted Wallace was by the transcendent. Federer’s grace was enough to draw some sort of ecstatic rapture from Wallace as a writer.

Sadly, Wallace did not live to see the end of Federer’s career, or the rise of his successor, Novak Djokovic. Novak is an embodiment of a sort of technique driven brutalism. Watching his play is a very different experience to watching Federer.

It’s a shame, I thought, that Wallace was not able to draw comparisons between the two. Wallace had a distinctive voice; a sort of breathless, rambling, hyper-punctuated style, peppered with parenthetical tangents (and footnotes), littered with not complete sentences that ran together in a way that brings reading his words to life in your head. At least, that’s my experience. He’s inimitable — perhaps he was to writing what Federer was to tennis (albeit he was allegedly a pretty dark and unpleasant person to know).

I’ve often pictured the sort of essay Wallace might write about Novak in my head. So last night, rather than writing it myself, I asked my friend* GPT-4 to do it for me.

* Technically not a friend, or sentient.

Here’s the prompting I gave it to frame the output.

Me: Are you familiar with the essays of David Foster Wallace. Especially his essay about Roger Federer?

GPT: Yes, I’m familiar with David Foster Wallace’s work, including his essay on Roger Federer. The essay, titled “Federer as Religious Experience,” was originally published in the New York Times’ Play Magazine in 2006.

In this essay, Wallace, an accomplished junior tennis player in his youth and lifelong fan of the sport, uses his deep understanding of tennis and his literary prowess to describe the transcendental experience of watching Federer play. He doesn’t just describe Federer’s athleticism, but also the way his play seems to defy physical and metaphysical laws, and the joy and wonder it inspires in spectators.

It’s one of Wallace’s most famous essays, blending sports journalism, personal anecdote, and philosophical meditation. His detailed understanding and analysis of the game, combined with his distinctive narrative style, makes it a compelling read, even for those who aren’t avid tennis fans.

As with much of his writing, Wallace’s Federer essay is about more than its ostensible subject. He uses tennis as a lens to examine broader themes of beauty, genius, and the human capacity for awe.

It’s important to note that Wallace’s essays are characterized by their intricate detail, in-depth analysis, and use of footnotes. The essay on Federer is no exception, and it’s a prime example of his unique style.

Me: Can you write me an essay in that style, in as close to David Foster Wallace’s voice and form (including footnotes) as you can manage about the experience of watching Novak Djokovic play; particularly focus on Novak’s precision, his clockwork mechanical approach to the game, and his technical mastery. Use this to comment on our emerging technological society (as predicted by Ellul), and Djokovic as a pinnacle of machine line production of tennis players in a technocracy (following Neil Postman’s view of technocracies). Draw on some of Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

It turns out it could…

I used MidJourney to generate this image to accompany the essay. My prompt: Novak Djokovic as tennis automaton. Circuit boards. Machinery. Cyborg components. Killer eye. HUD. Photo.


Djokovic as Technocratic Testament: A Study in Precision and Automation

Novak Djokovic, the Serbian automaton*, is, if we’re being honest, not always the most popular figure in men’s tennis. This, despite (or perhaps because of) his undeniable prowess on the court – the sort of disciplined, technical mastery that seems to negate the very idea of human error.

*(1. Automaton used here not as a pejorative but in the spirit of recognizing Djokovic’s eerily consistent, borderline mechanical precision in his playing style.)

Watching Djokovic play is a different kind of religious experience than that elicited by the likes of Federer, whose balletic grace and seeming effortlessness inspire a kind of awe-struck wonder. With Djokovic, it’s more of an ascetic’s reverence, a deep appreciation for the monastic dedication it must take to reduce the wildly complex and unpredictable game of tennis to something so ruthlessly efficient and repeatable.

The experience is more akin to observing a precision machine at work, each part moving in exact harmony with the others, each stroke a perfect iteration of the one before it. There’s a sort of brutal poetry to it, a beauty that’s not in the individual parts, but in the astonishing exactness of their repetition.

Djokovic, then, is less a virtuoso than a craftsman, his game not an improvisational jazz solo but a meticulously composed symphony that he performs note-for-note each time he steps onto the court.

This is not to suggest that Djokovic’s style is in any way less worthy of admiration than Federer’s. On the contrary, it’s a testament to the sheer breadth of human potential that the same game can be played so differently, yet so effectively, by two equally gifted athletes.

*(2. Equally gifted might be a contentious claim among the die-hard fans of either player. But if we’re looking purely at the numbers, the Grand Slam tallies, the weeks at No.1, it’s hard to argue against.)

But the difference in their styles – the freewheeling creativity of Federer versus the methodical precision of Djokovic – speaks to something larger, something about the world in which we live, and the direction in which it’s moving.

If we follow the argument of Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher and sociologist who saw in our increasing reliance on technology a dangerous erosion of human freedom, then Djokovic is the very embodiment of our technocratic society. His game is a triumph of technique over intuition, of process over improvisation, of the replicable over the unique.

Ellul warned us of a world where technique becomes an end in itself, where the means of production are worshipped above the product they produce. Djokovic’s tennis might be seen as a microcosm of this – a game so focused on the perfect execution of each stroke that the joy of the game itself can seem secondary.

*(3. Though, of course, Djokovic’s legions of fans would likely disagree vehemently with this characterization. And there’s something to be said for the unique kind of pleasure that comes from watching something done exceedingly well, even if it’s the same thing, done the same way, time and time again.)

To take this further, if we accept Neil Postman’s notion of technocracy – a society ruled by the experts, the technologists, the ones who know best how to manipulate the systems on which we all rely – then Djokovic is not just a product of this world, but its champion.

This is where David Foster Wallace’s dystopian magnum opus, “Infinite Jest,” comes in. If tennis can be

seen as a metaphor for the world of the book – the Enfield Tennis Academy as a microcosm of a society obsessed with achievement, with perfection, with being the best – then Djokovic is the very embodiment of this ethos.

In “Infinite Jest,” the characters are trapped in their own quests for perfection, for a kind of happiness that’s always just out of reach, always one more achievement, one more success, one more accolade away. The pursuit of this goal, this ceaseless striving for more, leads them only to misery and self-destruction.

*(4. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification of a novel that’s almost as famous for its complexity and depth as it is for its length. But for our purposes, it serves.)

Djokovic, then, could be seen as the Hal Incandenza of our real-world tennis court – the prodigy, the perfectionist, the one who pushes himself to the absolute limit in pursuit of an ideal that may or may not even exist. And just as Hal’s relentless drive for perfection leaves him ultimately empty and unfulfilled, so too does Djokovic’s quest for technical mastery seem, at times, to strip the game of some of its joy, its spontaneity, its humanity.

*(5. Again, a contentious claim. But the fact that Djokovic is often cast as the villain, the machine, the unfeeling automaton, in the public’s imagination suggests that there’s something about his style of play that leaves many spectators cold.)

But if we take a step back, if we look beyond the court, beyond the player, beyond the game, what we see is a reflection of our own society, of our own technocratic world. Djokovic, with his machine-like precision, his relentless quest for perfection, his almost inhuman consistency, is a product of this world, a testament to its values, its aspirations, its fears.

In the same way that Wallace used tennis as a metaphor for the human condition in “Infinite Jest,” so too can we use Djokovic as a metaphor for our technocratic society. His game is our world, a world of machines and algorithms, of precision and efficiency, of technique and technology.

*(6. Not to suggest that Djokovic is a mere pawn, a passive product of the forces that shaped him. He’s a complex individual with his own ambitions, his own motivations, his own agency. But in the same way that we are all shaped by the world we live in, so too is Djokovic.)

And so, watching Djokovic play is not just a masterclass in tennis technique, it’s a glimpse into the soul of our society, a reflection of the world we’ve built and the values we uphold. It’s a testament to the power of technique, to the allure of perfection, to the seductive promise of a world where everything can be quantified, controlled, perfected.

*(7. Whether this is a world we want to live in, whether these are values we want to uphold, is a question we each must answer for ourselves. But in the meantime, as we watch Djokovic move on the court with his mechanical precision, his clockwork consistency, we can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, even as we ponder its implications.)

And yet, in this clinical, nearly sterile landscape of technical mastery, there emerges an uncomfortable question: where does the human element fit into all of this? The quirks, the emotions, the unquantifiable, unrepeatable, unpredictable moments that make the game, and life, so wonderfully, maddeningly human?

*(8. It’s worth noting that Djokovic himself is not devoid of these moments. His on-court outbursts, his sometimes petulant demeanor, his intense rivalry with the other members of the ‘Big Three’, all point to a deeply emotional, deeply human core beneath the mechanical exterior.)

But in a world so enamored with the predictable, the repeatable, the quantifiable – a world that values the machine-like precision of a Djokovic over the mercurial brilliance of a Federer – is there room for this kind of humanity? Or is it slowly being squeezed out, replaced by an ever more mechanistic, technocratic ideal?

This is the paradox of Djokovic, and by extension, of our technocratic society. On the one hand, we admire, even revere, his technical mastery, his mechanical precision, his unerring consistency. We see in him a reflection of our own aspirations, our own drive for perfection, our own faith in the power of technology.

*(9. And there’s no denying that technology, and the technocratic mindset that accompanies it, has brought us many benefits. From the smartphones in our pockets to the medical advances that have extended our lifespans, the fruits of our technocratic society are all around us.)

On the other hand, we can’t shake the nagging feeling that something’s been lost in the process. The unpredictability, the spontaneity, the sheer joy of watching a player like Federer defy the laws of physics, of logic, of probability – these are things that a game like Djokovic’s, for all its technical brilliance, can’t quite replicate.

*(10. It’s worth noting here that this is not a judgment on Djokovic, the man or the player. It’s simply an observation, a reflection on the kind of game he plays and the kind of world that game represents.)

And so, we find ourselves in a kind of limbo, torn between our admiration for the machine and our longing for the human, between our technocratic present and our all-too-human past.

In this tension, this push and pull between the machine and the human, between the technocrat and the artist, we find a mirror of our own society, our own struggles, our own fears and hopes for the future.

And in the end, perhaps that’s the true beauty of tennis, the real magic of watching a player like Djokovic in action. Not just in the precision of his strokes or the consistency of his game, but in the questions it raises, the reflections it inspires, the glimpse it offers into the soul of our technocratic age.

*(11. Whether we like what we see, whether we’re comfortable with the direction we’re heading, is another question entirely. But for now, as we watch Djokovic dismantle another opponent with his machine-like precision, we can’t help but be awed, and perhaps a little unsettled, by the spectacle.)

And so, the watching of Djokovic becomes not just a passive act, but an active engagement with our own societal norms and values, a meditation on the world we’ve built and the one we’re building. It becomes a reflection on the way we live now, on the choices we’ve made and the paths we’ve chosen.

*(12. It’s worth noting that this kind of reflection, this kind of active engagement, is not exclusive to watching Djokovic or tennis. It’s something we can, and perhaps should, bring to all aspects of our lives. But there’s something about the starkness, the clarity, of the metaphor that makes it particularly poignant in this context.)

Watching Djokovic, then, becomes a kind of technocratic litmus test, a way of measuring our comfort with the mechanization of our world, our lives, our selves. It becomes a mirror in which we can see reflected not just our admiration for technical mastery, but our fear of its implications, our longing for a more human, less mechanistic way of being.

*(13. And in this sense, Djokovic serves as a societal gauge, his game resonating differently with different spectators depending on their own perceptions and feelings about the technocratic world we inhabit.)

This is the power, the beauty, the terror, of Djokovic’s game. It’s a testament to our technocratic age, a symbol of our mechanistic ideals, a mirror of our own conflicted feelings about the world we live in.

*(14. And yet, Djokovic himself is not the villain of this piece. He, like all of us, is navigating the world he was born into, a world steeped in technocratic values.)

And so, as we watch Djokovic move on the court with his mechanical precision, his clockwork consistency, his technical mastery, we are not just watching a tennis match. We are watching a reflection of our own world, our own society, our own selves.

*(15. As Djokovic swings his racket, our societal reflection swings back at us, and in the silent pause that follows each match point, we’re left to grapple with the questions and reflections inspired by this uniquely human spectacle.)

And perhaps, in the end, that’s the real power of tennis, the real magic of watching a player like Djokovic in action. Not just in the precision of his strokes or the consistency of his game, but in the questions it raises, the reflections it inspires, the glimpse it offers into the soul of our technocratic age.

*(16. In the swift and precise dance of Djokovic’s game, we’re invited to contemplate our own dance with technology, and to question the rhythm and steps we’ve chosen.)

The Samaritan Woman

We’re working our way through John’s Gospel at church at the moment.

We start each year with a Gospel, which means I plan to be in each Gospel once every four years, which means not just doing verse by verse expository stuff each time, so, on this run through we’re looking at how John presents Jesus as the new Exodus — the end of exile from God and the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise that God would gather up the lost tribes of Judah and Israel; and perhaps even the nations; reversing the exiles we read about in the Old Testament — Judah to Babylon, Israel to Assyria, and humanity from Eden — bringing us back into the life and presence of God, and recreating us through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

It’s super rich. And it’s everywhere in John. Exodus itself is full of creation themes from Genesis (and we’re going to the book of Exodus in term 2), and the prophets — especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are full of new Exodus and ‘return to Eden’ imagery; full of living water and renewal and God gathering people back to himself. Jesus taps into Exodus themes every time he says “I am…”, but often that’s followed up with an image directly linked to these promises in the prophets. Jesus also keeps saying that the scriptures (the Old Testament) testify to him; so I suspect both he, and John as the author of the Gospel, want us to notice these allusions.

John is rich literature. And, while I’m a fan of what you might call historical-critical exegesis, I’m not sure it’s sufficient for dealing with John (or anything, really), which also requires a degree of sensitivity to literature — and to the editorial vision John keeps pointing us to; to his acknowledgement that he could’ve filled countless books with stories about Jesus but the ones he’s told, and how he’s told them, are so his first audience might believe (and presumably, so we might too).

We can get into the weeds a bit with historical-critical exegesis; and various forms of critical scholarship from a modern perspective, and I fear that’s happening with the incredible story of the Samaritan woman at the well. You can listen to (or watch if you like that sort of thing) my own sermon on this story.

There’s been lots of fantastic work done on the status of women, and of marriage in the first century; especially in both the Roman context and the hellenistic Jewish context of the second temple period (and presumably the Samaritan context intersects with these). There’s a Rabbinic debate about divorce laws from the Old Testament (both Deuteronomy and possibly Exodus 21) that’ve left divorce in the hands of men (mostly); and it’s exactly this debate that Jesus is invited into in Matthew 19. There’s great work by New Testament scholar Dr. Lynn Cohick on the potential historical situations — both systemic and individual — affecting this Samaritan woman; countering the traditional (patriarchal) view that kinda views this woman negatively in the way that the same blokes tend to see Bathsheba as a temptress rather than David as a rapist. Her book is titled Women In The World of The Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. It’s an academic book (published by Baker Academic).

Dr Cohick’s section on the woman at the well digs into various social and historical factors that may have shaped her reality to remind us to be hesitant, as readers, not only to label this woman as some sort of deviant harlot, but also to see what you might call the social powers and principalities that could be at work to put her in a very strange position, historically unprecedented (according to the records we have) of having had five husbands. To put her own argument in her own words, Cohick says:

The Samaritan woman’s story (John 4) has captured my attention for many years, not in small part because I believe her story has been misunderstood by many readers, in particular that she is immoral. John narrates that Jesus meets this woman at noon by a well and asks her for water. Jesus tells her that he is living water, and that she has had five husbands but her current companion is not her husband. From these slim details, most commentators suggest that she is a dissolute woman. Given the social norms of the day, however, I suggest a different reading.

This reading includes elements like:

The point that the Samaritan woman was married five times should not necessarily strike the reader as indicating promiscuity—perhaps she was just very unlucky. Other biblical characters had suffered similar loss, such as Naomi. The data from our period does not yield another example of someone having five spouses, but some people were married three times. While a few elite might divorce even twice to better climb the social ladder, there is no record of someone divorcing five times. There is also no testimony of someone being widowed five times, but unfortunately it was common to lose two spouses during one’s lifetime. If the Samaritan woman fits this pattern, we might expect that she was widowed a few times and perhaps divorced, or was divorced, a few times. Because neither situation necessarily casts a shadow over one’s character, we cannot assume that her marriage history made her a social pariah.


It is unclear whether the Samaritans followed the Roman practice allowing either spouse to initiate divorce. There is no record from this time of any woman filing for divorce more than one time; such behavior was a rare occurrence and happened at the social level of the Roman elite… If it seems highly unlikely that the Samaritan woman was divorced five times, it is entirely credible that she was a widow several times, given the high death rate in that era. According to Josephus, the Herodian princess Berenice had been widowed twice and had borne two children by age twenty-two. We do not know the age of the Samaritan woman, but we cannot rule out that she was a widow at a young age… Her current relationship, with a man Jesus identified as not her husband, might be classified as concubinage, not an unusual situation within the larger Greco-Roman world. Perhaps she was in this relationship because the man was a Roman citizen and could not legally marry beneath his social rank. Or perhaps this arrangement was made precisely to prevent any children she might bear in the relationship from inheriting his wealth…


In sum, we can devise any number of scenarios to explain why the Samaritan woman had five husbands and is currently not married to the man she lives with. As the narrative unfolds in John, Jesus does not explicitly condemn her situation. Moreover, the villagers accept her testimony that a prophet is among them—hardly a reaction one would imagine if she was without any moral scruples… In the final analysis, the Samaritan woman has been harshly treated by centuries of commentators who have labeled her a promiscuous vixen bent on seducing unsuspecting men, and who therefore becomes the village pariah… Thus it seems unlikely that the Samaritan woman was involved in a series of divorces that she initiated. It remains an open question whether her husbands chose to divorce her.

I think she does good historical work; and it’s worth noting that it remains “an open question” whether her husbands chose to divorce her; her point is simply that the narrative doesn’t say about this woman a whole load of things that modern, western, preachers have been keen to say about her in order to individualise both her, and her sin (often in ways that have been dehumanising and objectifying).

There’s another book that’s more geared towards the popular level, bringing this sort of academic work into the public conversation, by Dr. Caryn Reeder, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 after #churchtoo, that is an excellent example of what one can do with historical critical criticism of the traditional, male-centred, interpretation of this story.

Dr. Reeder travels similar historical ground to Dr Cohick. Both these authors do some great work deconstructing problematic historical-critical interpretations typically (but not exclusively) put together by white men (and so centred on a particularly male reading of the text). Reeder highlights particularly egregious readings offered through church history, including by Calvin, but leading all the way up to horrid modern applications (and she has receipts in the form of quotes) by folks like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who in typically bombastic misogynistic style called her “the dirty, leathery faced, town whore.” Her treatment of Calvin reveals both her view of Reformed theology, and the problems with Calvin’s dehumanising treatment of this woman (I do think it’s bad). She says:

Calvin’s Samaritan woman was a representative example of this theological narrative. Like any human, she could do no good, and so Calvin interpreted every word she spoke through the lens of sin. For someone like this, only the sting of divine judgment could incite her to accept the grace of God. This was why, Calvin explained, Jesus brought up her marital history in the first place. Even if a woman was not a prostitute like the Samaritan woman, and even if a man had not committed a “terrible crime,” everyone sinned in some way, and therefore no one deserved God’s grace. For Calvin, Jesus’ actions in John 4:4-42 demonstrated the availability of the gift of salvation for all. Equally, the Samaritan woman’s immediate acceptance of Jesus’ judgment provided a model of repentance, obedience, and acceptance of the teachers God provides. For Calvin, the Samaritan woman symbolized both the weight of sin, and the grace of undeserved salvation.

I think Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity (as it has been called) is misunderstood and misrepresented both by Calvinists, and those who don’t like Calvinism as something more like absolute depravity; it strikes me that Calvin’s view of total depravity is more grounded in the idolatrous heart that is both a factory of false images of God, and in the Augustinian way of describing things ‘turned in on itself’ such that all our actions, even when they are not absolutely depraved (but even reflect the image of God in us) are still tainted by this. I don’t think it’s true that the woman could do ‘no good’ in a paradigm that sees sin working in this way, but I do believe it is true that “everyone sinned in some way” in such a way that I might be less inclined to want to exonerate the Samaritan woman than Reeder is (I’d certainly want to exonerate her from some of the ways Calvin painted her as a sinner through his reading of the text).

Reeder describes the patriarchal reading of the text that paints the woman as a sexual sinner — even a prostitute — as “the majority reading,” she conducted a study of 40 different Christian texts (blog posts, sermons, articles etc) from a 20 year period (2000-2020), and found 26 adopting this ‘majority’ take; while “eight of the forty represented the Samaritan woman as a victim rather than a seductress, with only six moving beyond sexuality as an essential element of John 4:4-42.” One of the ways a western bias plays out here is to emphasise sexual sin as the primary problem, or at least expression, of the woman’s thirst, so that the interaction around the number of husbands is designed to expose this individual sin that needs forgiveness. Reeder pivots from this survey to consider the social changes that have occurred in the last hundred years, and essentially the way the church has turned to purity culture in response to porn culture, where both are different sides of the same coin that reduces women to their sexuality; and this lens is what she sees being brought to this story.

Now. I don’t like purity culture. I don’t like porn culture. I have made very similar points to Reeder in my writing and preaching over the years. But I don’t think rejecting purity culture means rejecting the idea that sin can intersect with our sexuality, or that some things that men and women do sexually — whether products of systemic evils or not — need forgiveness. My concern is that Reeder pushes the corrective against patriarchal reduction of women’s bodies to sex objects slightly too far; not that it is wrong to give women (and the Samaritan woman) both agency, and to recognise the systemic challenges they faced where they had to make the best of male sin against them (kinda like Bathsheba does), but I’m not sure we have to land in a position where we say the Samaritan woman was definitely not adulterous, or definitely sexually pure and in no need of forgiveness and that Jesus’ question is not at all designed to invite her into covenant faithfulness (through forgiveness and restoration). I think it’s very worth asking these historical questions and recognising the complex dynamics we’re simply not told about in the narrative, and these should stop us reducing the story to moral lessons about sexual desire and purity, especially in ways that present women as temptresses and sexual objects.

Dr Reeder writes:

Until very recently in Christian tradition, sexual intercourse was correlated with sin. The only sanctioned option for a sexual relationship was marriage, but even sex with one’s own spouse was (often) morally suspect. Contemporary interpreters are more likely to celebrate marital sex, but nonmarital sex remains apparently the worst sin a person—especially a woman—can commit. By these standards, a woman who had at least six sexual relationships, one of which was not marital, can be condemned as a sinner. Interpreters assume some or all of the woman’s husbands divorced her because she had sex with other men. Since they also claim that divorce was uncommon in the first century, her multiple divorces are seriously problematic.

I’m simply not convinced — even as much as I can recognise my own bias — that the weight of Biblical data means that the correction against a wrong view that sees “sexual intercourse” as “sin”, or even bad purity culture that centres the male gaze, is to declare nonmarital sex ‘non sinful’ and/or to remove sin from the equation altogether when it comes to John 4.

Dr Reeder continues:

According to the majority interpretation of John 4:4-42, then, the Samaritan woman’s marital history is the result of her own choices, decisions, and actions. Very few interpreters pay attention to the men in the woman’s story. Those who do often imply that the woman’s husbands are the victims of her immorality. All women tempt men into sexual sin, whether they intend to or not. But a woman like this, who—interpreters claim—acted out of her own desire to initiate sexual relationships with men, perverts pious, chaste womanhood.

There’ve been a lot of bad sermons preached on John 4. As I said… Dr. Reeder has receipts. And, despite my reservations with some of what I might see as an overcorrection, she offers a much better reading of John 4 than those she critiques.

There’s a series of other resources from the world of blogs (both academic and pop level) that draw on the insights of Cohick and Reeder to have us re-imagining the woman at the well. It’s worth reading Marg Mowczko, Lyn Kidson, Scott McKnight, Ian Paul, and Cameron McAdam for examples of better historical-critical treatment of the narrative than you’ll get in the traditional male-centred view.

In introducing a summary of her academic essay on the woman at the well, Dr Kidson writes:

“It strikes me that those who take it that the Samaritan women is an adulteress are suffering from a Western bias. We must remember that for those who lived in the ancient world the average life expectancy was quite low – 30-40 years – once a person got beyond childhood. Further, the death rate for rural workers was higher than those in the urban centres because they were exposed to greater risks. All this points to the woman at the well as being a tragic figure worthy of our compassion.”

And yet.

When I preached this passage a few weeks ago I did so unconvinced that the historical-critical method, even a feminist-criticism approach, is the way to engage with this story. I think these scholars and writers do a good job of deconstructing bad western individual patriarchal views of the woman that import various western purity culture visions of individual sex and individual sin into the mix, but I’m not sure they’ve served us well with alternatives to a method of engaging with the text that is also a product of western bias.

I’m theologically wired to think that every human we meet in the Bible — other than Jesus — is going to be a sinner (at an individual level); that there are no real heroes in the Biblical story, and that reductions of any stories to hero and villain are going to be problematic. This is why I have no problem, for example, seeing the narrative portraying David as a rapist; I do not need David to be a perfectly sinless leader lured into sin by a temptress in order to see him as the author of many Psalms and the one whose line produces God’s good shepherd; the Messiah, Jesus Christ the son of David. Bathsheba is not portrayed as guilty in any way in that narrative. She is obeying the requirements of the law when her king sends soldiers to take her (word for word, or verb for verb, following a pattern of ‘see’ and ‘take’ that began in Genesis 3). Bathsheba is innocent in that story, but this does not mean Bathsheba maintains sinlessness her whole life and never has need to repent. This feels odd to write; but some of the treatments of the story of the woman at the well suggest that because Jesus does not explicitly call her to repent of particular sin that there is no need to read sin into the story.

I’d suggest the need to read particular individual sin into a story — particularly sexual sin — is a pretty western assumption whether you are doing it, or you are looking for it and not finding it.

Here’s what I think is missing in the interpretations of the woman at the well I’ve highlighed above; those that want us to use the historical-critical method (bringing data from the historical context) into our interpretation in order to redeem the woman from the dehumanising power of the patriarchy — I don’t think these readings (on the whole) are engaging with John as literature, and I don’t think they’re recognising the relational dynamic of sin in the Old Testament; that the problem the woman needs solved is not just forgiveness for particular sin she has committed as an individual (though that’s certainly part of the story of the Gospel, she needs liberation and restoration to the life of God because of the systems she participates in (even if she is a victim of those systems). Her problem is not primarily framed in the narrative as her being a sinner, but her being an exile as a result of false worship; of drawing water from the wrong well. We might run quickly to the idea that this is a metaphor for sex — when she leaves the bucket behind at the end of her story; but the Bible kinda flips this where actually sexual sin is a picture of spiritual alienation — adultery is a metaphor for idolatry (and idolatry, including the worship of sex, or idolatrous representations of sex and pleasure, often produces sexual sin). There’s a whole other online debate and debacle where our inability to tease out this metaphor is looming pretty large right now.

The reason I don’t think these articles and books are ultimately as helpful as they could be — even if they offer a necessary corrective to bad readings within the paradigm — the paradigm that reduces this story and its meaning to an historical interaction between two individual people — is that I don’t think these readings, on the whole, recognise that John is positioning Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies about the end of exile; including for the Northern Kingdoms of Israel, who by the first century were the Samaritans. And I don’t think they see the woman as an archetypal picture of this exile, and her restoration into the life of God as exactly what Jesus came to do — so I do think the interaction with Jesus around her husbands is meant to position her as, at the very least, a divorcee — if not an adulterer.

John 4 is rich with allusions to the Old Testament — the woman and Jesus meet at Jacob’s Well — now, in Genesis, Jacob doesn’t dig any wells that we’re told about (his father digs a whole stack). But Jacob does meet his future wife Rachel at a well, just as Isaac met Rebekah, and Moses would later meet Zipporah. A man meeting a wife at a well is an Old Testament type scene; one we should maybe have in mind because John the Baptist has just called Jesus the “bridegroom” three times in the preceding verses. Jesus offers the woman living water; which comes up a bunch of times conceptually in the Old Testament — life giving waters are flowing through the Garden and into the world in Genesis 2, the return from exile is pictured as God bringing back life to the world through water that creates a new Eden all through the prophets (and especially in Ezekiel). There seems to me to be a pretty important reference to living water and choosing what well to drink from though in Jeremiah 2.

Jeremiah 2 is a prophecy against the northern kingdom of Israel; as opposed to the kingdom of Judah who become the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The Northern Kingdom, by Jesus’ day, don’t exist as the Northern kingdom of Israel; they have become so intermingled with the Gentiles and their gods that they now go by a different name: Samaritans.

In Jeremiah 2 God says, through Jeremiah:

I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
    the firstfruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
    and disaster overtook them.”

Israel was a bride to God. As God led them through the wilderness in the Exodus. But now, Israel has forsaken him; “the living water” for broken cisterns (that’s wells) (Jer 2:13). Jeremiah says the water from these wells — or the rivers of Egypt and Assyria (2:18) — wouldn’t satisfy or bring life (2:36). Which. When you think about it, is what Jesus says to the woman about the well she is drinking from.

The well is a metaphor. Just like the living water he offers. Just as the wells and rivers in Jeremiah were a metaphor for seeking life in the nations where they would be sent into exile; and from their gods. This is a description of idolatry.

The woman is both a person; an individual; and a literary character demonstrating something about the mission of Jesus. John tells us her story for a reason beyond simply overthrowing the patriarchy by demonstrating how a man can treat a woman without shaming or objectifying her — and it does more than simply establish the woman as a model responder to Jesus (though she is).

I’m not sure positioning the woman as unlucky is the point John is trying to make in the narrative. The woman is a Samaritan; one of the lost sheep of the northern tribes of Israel meeting the good shepherd. She is an unmarried woman meeting a bridegroom at a well. She is offered the same living water that her ancestors were said to have rejected in Jeremiah in a way that led to her exile.

Jeremiah starts out talking about the people who became Samaritans as his bride; and he pivots, in chapter 3, to a well attested Old Testament picture of idolatry at this point. Adultery. And to divorce for adultery as a picture of exile. Of the conditions that lead Israel’s northern kingdoms to become Samaritans. He also promises future restoration from that exile…

Jeremiah says:

“I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. “

Now. This isn’t just about the women of Israel and Judah; all the people are metaphorically presented as women. But. God has divorced Israel — and then Judah — for their idolatry; presented as adultery — and they are sent into exile as a result.

The promise Jeremiah offers both Israel and Judah is that God will remarry them.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…. In those days the people of Judah will join the people of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.”

The Samaritan people are presented in Jeremiah — like the Jewish people — as unfaithful adulterous people (a bit like Hosea’s wife is in the book of Hosea) who turned to the wrong source of water and so were divorced, but God says he will be their husband again if they return.

In John a Samaritan woman meets the man we’ve been told is God tabernacling in the world, who has just been called the bridegroom. He meets her at a well. Where men meet wives. He invites her back into true worship and offers her living water.

That’s a pretty compelling literary reading where the woman is an archetype (as well as an individual), and this reading relies, a little, on Jesus establishing the idea that she is unmarried and perhaps adulterous; but it presents the real issue not as her promiscuity or particular sin, but her alienation from God because of unfaithfulness expressed in false worship. Returning to true worship will necessarily involve repentance that reshapes how one approaches sex and fidelity; that the narrative doesn’t dig into that specifically doesn’t mean it’s not there; as westerners we’ve tended to see repentance as turning from particular individual sins, rather than about returning to God’s presence, and into restored relationship as image bearers who worship God and represent God’s life in the world. But that’s what’s happening in the story.

Of all the material I’ve surveyed above only two, Reeder and McKnight, refer to Jeremiah as background for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Both Paul and McKnight draw on Reeder and Cohick in their ‘reframing’ the discussion around John 4; Mowczko draws on Cohick (and others).

Here’s what Reeder says:

These associations are deepened by the water imagery that flows through the Bible. Wisdom, righteousness, and the fear of the Lord are represented as living springs in Proverbs (Prov 10:11, 13:14, 14:27, 16:22). In Jeremiah 2:13, God is a spring of living water. Wells of salvation, springs of water, and rivers flooding the land symbolize the salvation of Israel’s restoration from exile in Isaiah (Is 12:3, 41:17-18, 44:3, 49:10, 55:1, 58:11).

She also draws attention to the ‘bride at the well’ type scene. There’s lots of richness in the implications she teases out; I just think we need Jeremiah 3 in the picture as well.

Dr Reeder says:

A focus on the woman’s perceived sin also ignores the evidence of John 4:4-42 itself. In contrast to other narratives in the Gospel, there is no mention of “sin” in this story. There is no reason to import it. Jesus’ reference to the woman’s marital history does not need to be interpreted as an accusation of sin, and her responses to Jesus should not be read through the lens of sin. The Samaritan woman’s story is instead about the work of witnessing to Jesus and the new way of being the people of God that Jesus introduces…

The Samaritan woman’s story offers one of many biblical examples of women’s work as preachers and teachers in Christian communities. This reading of John 4:4-42 disrupts the perspectives that allow for the victimization of women in Christian communities. Instead of a sexualized sinner, the woman becomes an insightful theologian. Instead of a danger to the men around her, she becomes a teacher who helps others understand the truth. This reconsideration of the Samaritan woman’s story encourages and empowers women in the church today.

There’s lots to appreciate in this; and in the material linked above. Lots to give us pause before reinforcing horrid visions of women (or really just of humans) that reduce us and our worth to sex and individual sin; lots to remember about the systems built around idolatry and cursed relationships — like patriarchal systems that reduce women to sexual objects via the male gaze.

I — conscious of my own male gaze — just think there’s a fuller picture to be gleaned where the woman’s marital status — even her sin — is part of her story; and where she is invited to join her life in covenant faithfulness to the bridegroom, leaving her old bucket, and old wells, and idolatrous and adulterous worship behind. And where she’s a model for all of us, not just one who empowers women, though her role as a teacher and evangelist of her people, in response to this radical inclusion in the life of God certainly should do that for us too.

Raging against the machine (but elsewhere)

I haven’t stopped writing about technology and how it impacts modern life (and faith in modern life). Since last posting here I’ve written a couple of pieces for the Centre for Public Christianity.

The first was about machine generated pornography; it’s published on CPX’s website. In this piece I considered the way AI image producers chop up lots of bits of different images and mash them up into one ‘new’ image and pondering the ethical implications of doing that to images of humans produced by a degrading and increasingly violent and idolatrous industry. My take is that these platforms might be ‘more ethical’ in that you could draw on the existing pool of human misery and ‘body parts’ out there waiting to be recombobulated for human consumption; but they are potentially even more damaging and dehumanising to our imaginations and empathy and our sense of what it means to be human (plus those people whose body parts are mashed up in future image generation are unlikely to be paid).

I drew on the work of former war correspondent Chris Hedges, and his bracing book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, where he wrote:

Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy… In porn the woman is stripped of her human attributes and made to beg for abuse. She has no identity as a distinct human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll.

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

“It is the disease of corporate and imperial power. It extinguishes the sacred and the human to worship power, control, force, and pain. It replaces empathy, eros, and compassion with the illusion that we are gods. Porn is the glittering façade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.”

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

I didn’t say as much as I might’ve liked about deepfakes, but AI generated deep fake pornography broke as a significant tech story a short time after this was published.

My follow up piece was one that took a philosophical thought experiment around the machine — a Paperclip Maximiser — a machine programmed, simply (and without limits) to make paperclips. The machine in this thought experiment eventually turns ever piece of matter in the universe into paperclips. It’s meant to remind us of the importance of human-established limits. I suggested poker machines are ‘profit maximising’ machines, and, with NSW Premier Dom Perottet’s “religious gut” becoming a bit of an election issue around gambling reform, I argued that religious guts are a good place to turn to find human limits for consuming machines. This piece ran at Eureka St.

I drew on the work of Natasha Dow Schüll, whose book Addiction By Design digs into the programmed intelligence of modern pokie machines; the way they now adapt to a user in order to become more addictive so that user will, in industry terms, “play to extinction.”

For pieces like this to be published in public facing media outlets that aren’t explicitly Christian you’ve got to thread a bit of a needle; so during the process we dropped off a thread in this piece about how the Old Testament prophets; who inform the religious gut of Jesus, and his followers, positioned idols as man-made death machines, just with less moving parts and bells and whistles; and how critiques of a Babylonian empire built on total domination and turning everything into Babylon, through the power of their military and religious machinery might help us think about profit maximising empires that create human misery in their wake.

I have some plans in the pipeline for a couple more pieces exploring the ‘machine’.

Marty mcflies and ACL goes back to the future

Martyn Iles is no longer the CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Now. You’ll know I have form for criticising both the ACL and Martyn; but this all feels like a world gone mad.

Martyn, for all his faults, has done a commendable job articulating how his politics is a product of his faith.

Martyn and I have different political priorities, and, often, it seems our faith falls along different poles within a set of Christian convictions. I think this table I made a while back still holds up, which is to say I suspect we have different anthropologies, eschatologies and emphasis when it comes to the Gospel itself. This means I often find myself not agreeing with his theological statements or his political positions, or the manner in which he presents these positions.

Martyn did a good job articulating his understanding of the Gospel, under fire, while playing with the card deck he’d built (and inherited) when he fronted up on Q&A. I went along to last year’s Church and State conference, where Martyn spoke about Babylon (ahead of a sellout national tour), where I thought his sermon was actually quite good (and reasonably similar to what I might say about Babylon; except most of his ideological enemies were on the Left, rather than the neo-liberal order driving late capitalism that underpins both left and right).

I’ve been very critical of Martyn’s apparent ‘theology of glory‘ — and its application to his political strategy; including a pragmatism that saw him endorse One Nation, his excitement about Kanye (and celebrities/platforms in general), and his cosying up to Israel Folau at the expense of being both pastoral and correct when talking about how God views gay people (not what obedience to Jesus for gay people will look like) and at caring about the Trinity. He’s also been included in articles I’ve written here and elsewhere expressing concern about how the culture war metaphor legitimises violence.

If you want a eulogy of Martyn’s performance you can read Stephen McAlpine’s glowing review; he makes the point that people talking about Martyn always seem to want to disclaim how different they are to Martyn — and I’m no different — Stephen plonks himself a whole lot closer to Martyn in politics, theology, and fashion than I do (jeans and an untucked t-shirt from K-Mart will do for me).

And here’s a potential rub — Martyn has been a great ally for people like Stephen, and for people who share his politics. He absolutely would courageously back Stephen if Stephen were to come under fire for his beliefs, and he’d back a variety of people he disagreed with, I’m sure. But there are limits. He’ll have coffee with Stephen, but he’ll block those who publicly criticise or question his theology or politics.

Martyn was prepared to cop flack from the more radical element of his support over his stance on Putin and the Ukraine. But, on the whole, his public courage has predictably aligned with his increasingly large constituency; it’s easy to have courage when you’re selling out stadium shows (even if those are being cancelled by venues); it’s harder to stand with courage when staring down your base, or your own community.

This’s where I’m not sure Stephen’s waxing lyrical (and I’m sure he was also dressed beautifully as he wrote) fully captures the dynamic; it’s easy to criticise flat track bullies for being bold on home turf when you’ve got a bunch of people who’ll back you. Try being a same sex attracted Christian in a conservative setting raising concerns about the knee-jerk support Folau received for a post that appeared to condemn them to hell, or someone listening to those voices and speaking up in various institutional settings.

It actually takes more courage — and fortitude — to stand up for the people who won’t build your personality cult within the Christian community, who also get smashed by the world, than it does to stand up against the world while gathering a loyal following (read the outpouring of grief around Martyn’s departure on the various conservative social media channels).

Martyn was a great ally for Israel Folau, while he was posting anti-gay material from a U.S hate group — a meme he shared as a millionaire footballer that conveniently dropped greed from the list of sins that lead to hell. He also leveraged the Israel (Folau) situation to significantly boost the coffers and reach of the ACL, like a good U.S zionist has always leveraged Israel for its coffers. The ACL came out ahead from its advocacy of a heterodox millionaire’s hate speech simply because that speech aligned with a traditional Biblical sexual ethic, and a culture war narrative.

The catch is, Martyn wasn’t a great ally for the sections of the church who dared criticise his work or threaten his personality cult; regularly deleting critical engagements on social media and blocking people (including deleting a series of questions from John Dickson at one point).

He wasn’t a great ally for concerned mums of Wallabies with Pacific Island heritage who went to great lengths to demonstrate Folau’s heterodoxy, and who sought on several occasions to raise her concerns directly with Martyn (only to be dismissed, by him, as being on the payroll of Australian Rugby).

He hasn’t been a great ally to Christians whose politics are left of a hard right who seem to just want the freedom to kick out gay students and sack gay teachers — even if those teachers uphold a traditional sexual ethic and can sign off on a belief statement (and yes, those teachers do exist, it’s not just teachers departing from orthodoxy who find themselves booted by Christian schools).

I haven’t seen the HRLC (the ACL’s legal arm, that Martyn started out with) taking up the cause of celibate gay Christians losing their employment with Christian employers, or non-binary students working out their faith in Christian schools; he’s been a voice for establishment (conservative) values in the face of progressive change. I haven’t seen the compassionate or pastoral tone Martyn might have when engaging with individuals for whom these are lived experiences translating into a political stance. Early on in my blogging about public Christianity, I wanted public Christianity to be evangelistic with its use of the Gospel — and Martyn ticked that box — over time I’ve evolved (partly through doing more pastoral work with the people affected by our public positions) to a position where I think public Christianity needs to be both evangelistic and pastoral with its use of the Gospel. It’s hard to be pastoral when you’re fighting a culture war that seems to be pitted against the very individuals you’re talking about.

And that’s fine — that was the job — as Martyn understood it; to champion a certain political vision, and he did that well. It just turns out it wasn’t to the satisfaction of his organisation’s board, or the direction they want to head. They do seem to want to leave Marty behind, grab their Delorean (there’s maybe a podcast they could listen to on the way, right Stephen), and head back to the future.

My criticism of the ACL predates Martyn. For years prior to Martyn taking the centre stage my criticism of the ACL was that there was nothing particularly Christian about their politics; there was nothing explicitly Christian in the cases they made for the causes they pursued. There’s something self-indulgent about all these links to my own writing; I get that — but one of the bonuses of maintaining a blog like this for so long is that you can use it to track bits of the online conversation I was tapping into, and there is something interesting here, because if there’s one thing I’ve managed to do over the years with my writing, it’s get under the skin of the ACL and those who champion its approach.

In 2011 I made this word cloud using ACL press releases, pleading for them to make it clear how the Gospel shaped their politics.

It will be a tragedy to a public Christian witness if we land back with the most prominent voice for Australian Christianity in the political realm speaking like Focus on the Family.

In 2012 I wrote one piece outlining a series of problems I had with the ACL’s public relations strategy, and another piece suggesting advocacy can be Christian, while lobbying buys into a certain sort of power game — and that the ACL should change every part of its name.

In 2017, I suggested this sort of strategy, making politics secular, would only enforce the secular frame we’re operating in, and that we should be overtly religious and ask for our convictions to be accommodated in a pluralist secular democracy.

My point is this — my criticism of the past, and now maybe the future, version of the ACL was that they embraced a strategy of not talking about Jesus.

And criticising the ACL back then went down with the ACL’s constituency about as well as criticising Martyn does now. People who were fans of the ACL before Martyn, who became bigger fans of Martyn, were very critical of this criticism; the ACL, I was told, were meant to be politically successful and to introduce theology into the mix would be inappropriate. There’s a culture within the supporters of these organisations and their leaders that tends to fall in line with, and not question, the strategy, and to see questions as a threat.

Those same people are now saying that Martyn’s introduction of Christian language and rationale — the Gospel even (as he understands it) into the ACL’s platform has been a masterstroke.

That’s pretty fickle.

Martyn did bring a deliberate change in direction; a longform interview on Eternity unpacked some of his thinking. The change in direction was palpable, in a post about the way they were now explicitly talking about the Gospel with their politics from 2018, I wrote:

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

“For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).”

But this change has become part of his undoing.

Just as Lyle Shelton had the integrity to lead the Australian Conservative Lobby to join the Australian Conservatives, Martyn has recognised that his desire is to preach the Gospel as his political posture, so it seems the ACL board has terminated Martyn’s employment in order to pursue a change in strategic direction.

Under Martyn’s leadership the ACL has become massively more popular with the Christian constituency they represent but massively less popular (by reports I’ve heard from those engaged in other lobbying work in Canberra) with the politicians whose doors are now closed to the ACL. To borrow Stephen’s analogy, but flip it — Martyn’s great at bowling in home conditions, but he’s not taking wickets where it counts for the ACL; legislative change on the issues the ACL board cares about. I actually suspect that the problem isn’t the explicitly Christian stuff, but the shift in focus from the corridors of power to being a populist movement holding rallies and marches attempting to put pressure on politicians with no relationship building.

This has always been the truth about the ACL — they are not the Christian Lobby — they are an Australian Christian Lobby, for a very narrow Christian morality on the basis of their own theological and political framework. The church is broader than the ACL’s policy agenda.

I absolutely believe Martyn operates from his convictions, and so do the board members of the ACL.

My issue is the degree to which someone with very particular convictions — or an organisation with those convictions — can claim to represent a very broad Christian church, and I believe the questions facing us all at this point are not “team Martyn or team ACL” — which of these two options is the correct strategy; that’s to accept a false binary.

Now’s a time to ask some bigger questions about our public Christianity.

We could ask how could we create a public facing organisation that acknowledges the breadth of views in Christian institutions — that fosters collaboration, rather than alienation. We could ask how could we train and equip institutional church voices (a constituency Martyn, with his anarchic brethren tendencies, seemed to deliberately work around (and sometimes against) to collaborate in gaining a hearing as legislation that affects us, and our neighbours, is framed.

We could we encourage all Christians to integrate their faith and politics as we participate in public — not just those conservative youth interested in the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, or The Download — programs that fired up a right-wing Christian base as the only option — and we could maybe work at reducing polarisation and finding common cause across the Christian right and left.

We could maybe ask what would it look like for Christians to be known what we’re for, in public, not just what we’re against (or that we’re ‘for’ ourselves); what it would look like to pursue progress towards a good future, not just conserve the bits of the past we can cling to. To that end, I’d recommend following Publica, an emerging expression of public Christianity aiming to do that.

It’d be great if that was ‘how to be pastoral and evangelistic’; but it won’t be. That’s not how this constituency seems to roll. It’s not where the money and power is. But for rank and file Christians — even conservatives — maybe we could imagine a new future — one where we don’t need a time machine.

On Christian Terrorism

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.”

That’s a line from a video the shooters in an act of domestic terrorism posted (since deleted) during their meticulously planned ambush of police officers attending their rural property. In a press conference summarising police investigations of the attack, Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Tracy Linford described the fortifications of the property and the conclusion police had reached that the shooters had been waiting for this moment for some time.

In this same press conference, Deputy Commissioner Linford revealed that the investigation had concluded that this was an act of Christian terrorism; that the shooters were motivated by a particular religious belief — a Christian eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’ called pre-millenialism)— where they truly believed the officers from the police service visiting their homes were demons.

“From all the material we can see different statements made by the Train family members; whether that be in texts, whether that be in emails, whether that be in diary entries, comments on calendars, we can see they do see the police as monsters and demons. We don’t believe this attack was random or spontaneous. It was an attack directed at police.”

Now. Not all people who hold to a pre-millenial eschatology will believe that police are demons, or that violence is the way to achieve the return of Jesus for his thousand year reign. That goes without saying. Because we can simply observe that there are lots of people who hold this eschatology (I don’t) who do not build bunkers and trenches and escape hatches in their properties or shoot police officers in cold blood.

I think it’s also important — in the first few hundred words of this post — to point out the obvious. The Queensland Police Service is likely to be taking this investigation quite personally; they lost two members of their community, while others were injured; if there’s a widespread movement that sees police as demons to be shot it’s in their interest (and the interest of the community at large) to get to the bottom of things; and to articulate as clearly as they can the motives of the shooters. If you were going to comment on this story, and their investigation, I think it would be pretty important not to be presenting the police as anti-Christian demonic type pawns of an evil empire. I think it would be important to understand their motives in releasing, in as close as possible to the words used by the attackers, the motives behind their attack.

It would also be, I think, wise, to acknowledge our limited access to the material examined in the police investigation when assessing the accuracy of the claims. In the media release accompanying the press conference, Deputy Commissioner Linford said “specialist teams have analysed an extensive amount of evidential material including diaries, books and notes located at the scene, phone messages, emails, social media posts, witness statements and body-worn camera footage.” That’s a lot of material we are not privy to regarding the frame of mind of the attackers; and a lot to summarise in a single sentence digestible by the public.

The result of this investigation is the conclusion contained in the media release that:

We now know that the offenders executed a religiously motivated terrorist attack.

“They were motivated by a Christian extremist ideology and subscribed to the broad Christian fundamentalist belief system known as Pre-Millennialism.”

Now. There have been some mistakes made in accurately describing an eschatological system that can sound crazy even to theologically informed Christians who hold to different eschatologies; there is no singular expression of pre-millenial thought. And, rather than saying “hey, the Police are in ongoing danger from Christian extremists,” the release minimises that fear — it concludes “there has been no evidence to suggest anyone else was involved in executing the attack in Australia or that there is any ongoing specific threat.

If I was a serving officer in the Queensland Police Service, or a member of the Australian public, I think my fears would be put to rest knowing that this was an act of Christian terrorism from a very fringe expression (fundamentalist) of a reasonably fringe eschatology (premillenialist).

If I were a Christian in Australia (which I am) I’d be wanting to reassure others not only that this was not an act consistent with the character of Jesus or our expectations of his return (which it isn’t), but also that the police are not demons but are in fact the God-appointed agents of the government; those who ‘wield the sword’ to uphold justice. There’s a thing responsible (white) parents do (in Australia) where they teach their kids that police are friendly and approachable and that you should smile and wave when you see them, that you shouldn’t feel anxious and run. Our Police Service isn’t perfect; there’ve been chapters of corruption, and systemic problems around women, First Nations people, and sexual minorities that’ve been subject to investigations and inquiries; I’m not suggesting we be naive. The Police Service, like any human institution, is made up of humans whose natures are a mix of the image of God, sin, idolatry, and perhaps even the influence of the powers and principalities — but it is not demonic, and human police officers are not demons; they are our neighbours, families, and friends bound by oath to protect and serve us. The Oath that Queensland Police swear as they are admitted to the service says:

“‘I, ___, swear by almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second and Her Heirs and Successors according to law in the office of constable or in such other capacity as I may be hereafter appointed, promoted, or may be reduced, without favour or affection, malice or ill-will, from this date and until I am legally discharged; that I will cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept and preserved; that I will prevent to the best of my power all offences against the same; and that while I shall continue to be a member of the Queensland Police Service I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties legally imposed upon me faithfully and according to law. So help me God.’.

Were I a Christian commentator I think I would be expressing grief, as a fellow human, about the lives of those officers killed in the line of duty; upholding that oath (or the alternative affirmation provided by the legislation). I certainly wouldn’t be centering my own feeling of being a victim of a culture war because the police media statement was not as precise about the motives of the shooters as I’d have liked.

And yet.

We live in strange times.

I’m going to try to tread quite carefully here. Because the last time I suggested that commentators from what I would call the “Christian hard right” were using rhetoric that might produce violence, an editor of one of those prominent publications threatened to sue me, and Eternity News, while also writing to my denomination accusing me of bullying. In that piece — once deleted from both here and Eternity (that I’m going to restore on this page), I suggested that the irresponsible use of violent metaphors and language in a ‘culture war’ would legitimise violent actions from culture warriors who believed they were acting in some sort of holy war.

I suggested we should focus our energies on loving our enemies; and the way of the cross. In a subsequent conversation with one of the blokes I named in my piece I made the case that Jesus’ call to “take up our cross” gives us a paradigm for bearing faithful witness; and that when Revelation (the book of the Bible that premillenial eschatology comes from) describes Christian engagement in the public square as witnesses; those witnesses are put to death by the rulers and powers — they don’t go in with their swords drawn; but that this vindicates our testimony to the king whose kingdom is not of this world, who triumphs through death and resurrection. Our call is to martyrdom; martyrdom is not necessarily death and suffering at the hands of a violent state (should the God-appointed sword unjustly turn against us); martyrdom literally means “witness” — the Greek word for witness is martyr.

I suggested that should our rhetoric continue to fuel a culture war, and continue to legitimise violence, that we would see versions of the Capitol Hill Riots — where armed protestors stormed a government building carrying firearms and other weapons; oh, and Christian placards.

Evidently, not all people who read a website like the Caldron Pool are motivated to commit violent acts by the culture war language, just as not all premillenialists do. That’s important to acknowledge; and it is also important to acknowledge the horror the editor of the Caldron Pool felt when I suggested that his writing, and his platform, would legitimise violence. I want to be clear that this is not his intent as a communicator; but I also want to clearly say that this is an implication of the language that he, and others, use that becomes part of what you might call ‘the social imaginary’ of the sort of person who does see the police as a demonic expression of a satanic state, and so understands their duty to be to take up the sword (or the firearm).

I know that there’ll be those who think that I am not the right person to say this; that I am a bad faith critic of the Caldron Pool (and others). I did, afterall, register caldronpool.com.au at one point and call them names. But consider, for a moment, that I might be a canary in the coal mine — just the first hyper-sensitive reader to chirp up and say: “hey. This is a problem.” It’s very possible that this is motivated by antipathy towards Ben Davis, the Caldron Pool editor, on the basis of interactions I had with him in the cesspit that was a Facebook group known as the Unofficial Presbyterian. But I’d love to urge Ben — and others — to use this moment to reconsider the language they use — even when talking about this very story. Because we communicators do bear a certain responsibility for the worlds and possibilities enabled by our words. This isn’t to say that the Train family wasn’t fully responsible for its actions — but, I’d certainly want my conscience to be free from even having to consider that my writing was amongst the material the police had to encounter when investigating why members of their own community were heinously gunned down while upholding their oath — one that concludes with a prayer, “so help me God”…

You’d hope that someone so sensitive to criticism that his writing might enable violence would do two things when violence linked to Christian extremism (of a hard right variety) occurred. You’d hope that such a person would immediately distance Christianity from the attack; robbing such actions of any legitimacy connected to their words and platform, and perhaps you’d hope for a degree of self-reflection and a commitment to not further demonising the institution (or the government). I’d personally hope that this sort of event be one where we don’t play the victim, or use the events as grist for the culture war mill.

Ben Davis (editor) and his site Caldron Pool have managed one of three; joining other prominent commentators from the hard right accusing the police service of being part of a government vendetta against Christians. It’s clear that none of the commentators I’m about to quote believe that Christianity legitimises this sort of violence; or that it can be at all Christian. The issue is that the police have carried out an investigation that concluded these three individuals — Nathaniel, Gareth, and Stacey Train say they were motivated by a particular view of the world, its end, and the role the police play in a cosmic conflict (as demons). The police are working with the words of the shooters, and may have been clumsy in their presentation of the facts when it comes to what premillenialism is; one statement said it was a 1,000 day reign of Jesus, when it is years — but, the way numbers should be interpreted in the Bible is hotly debated, a day is a thousand years and a thousand years is a day, so maybe give them a break, and most Christians couldn’t articulate their neighbour’s version of premillenialism and its political implications anyway.

In Ben Davis’ article, the first article of four published by Caldron Pool about the media conference and the findings in the investigation, he said:

“What the Deputy Police Commissioner fails to understand is that Christianity (and Premillennialism) is not responsible for any injustice orchestrated by professing Christians, because every injustice is carried out contrary to Christianity.”

This sounds a lot like a no True Scotsman fallacy; and, while I’m reasonably hopeful that the Trains weren’t members of the invisible church; those who are marked by God as his through the gift of his Spirit — their words (and reputation before the event) suggest that they were professing Christians and that their actions were a result of their beliefs about what Christianity is; this, then, is an in house matter for us Christians — we have a responsibility to rightly teach and discern God’s word. I would suggest the police — as an expression of “the sword” (those appointed by God to wield temporal power) — aren’t meant to figure out who is, and isn’t, legitimately a Christian (part of the invisible church), but to deal with the visible.

Ben says some good words to make it clear this attack was reprehensible.

“So, let’s be absolutely clear: All horrors and injustices bear witness, not to the cruelty of Christianity, but to the cruelty of humanity when they deviate from Jesus’ command to love even your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”

But then Ben pivots — he starts to look elsewhere for someone to blame — or something to blame — anybody but the broader Christian church, and its splinter communities, who were part of forming the Train’s imaginations.

“Christian ideology” can’t lead to terrorism until it deviates from Christianity. If anyone is to give an account for violent extremism, it’s not Christianity which demands strict observance of Christian instruction, but those who dismissed the Bible and attempt to operate outside the bounds and authority of God’s inspired Word.”

Before I go on to some other commentators, there are some images I’d like to share to help paint a picture. The first is a post from Caldron Pool’s Facebook page when it seemed the shooting was motivated by vaccine mandates. The second is a highlighted quote, in one of the early news articles about the attack, quoting something Gareth Train had posted on a conspiracy site, and the third is a hard right figure mentioned by Train retweeting a Caldron Pool photo critical of Police (and government) for what you might summarise as “operating outside the bounds and authority” established for government in God’s inspired word (at least in the opinion of Caldron Pool). Now. I want to be clear — I don’t think Caldron Pool is responsible for the shooting — but I do think their language, articles, and culture war narrative fuel a vision of the world that is part of a potential motivation for Christian violence (albeit a crazy one).

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

There is no moment in the Ben Davis article, or subsequent Caldron Pool articles, that attempts to read the Police media statement charitably, or see the conclusions of their investigation as a legitimate summary of the evidence. Instead, subsequent articles serve to paint the finding as part of a deeper anti-Christian agenda in the corridors of power.

The next Caldron Pool article, chronologically, is by Tom Foord — the local Brisbane pastor who made a hate video about me and other namby pamby “take up your cross” Christians who won’t jump in boots and all to the culture war. Foord, in his piercing cultural analysis, says:

“If you’re surprised that the Aussie government would risk alienating all Premillennialists in their broad stroke of idiocy, (which includes many Baptists, most Pentecostals, and plenty of non-denominationals), you haven’t been paying attention. They don’t mind calling any historic Christian doctrine “conspiratorial”.

Let’s be clear — this is reducing an investigation digging into the expressed motivations of three cop killers into a “broad stroke of idiocy” while expanding the Deputy Commissioner of the police into a narrative that includes “the Aussie government” — it’s a move that paints a classic culture war “us v them” narrative positioning the state against the church, and painting the state as exactly the sort of institution a pre-millenialist fundamentalist might begin to see as demonic. And his last line in this piece of “thought leadership” — and remember this is still a story about a situation where four police officers were gunned down, where two of them, and a member of the public, died — “Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

Let me repeat that so it doesn’t get lost in that big block of text:

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

This is from a man who presumes to be a teacher of God’s people — and also to criticise other pastors for daring to suggest that the commands and example of Jesus ought to shape the way we present our faith and engage in politics.

But it’s also from a platform that has spent much of the last two years de-legitimising government authority and painting them in spiritual warfare terms overlaid with culture war rhetoric.

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

The third article on Caldron Pool’s from a bloke named Bill Muehlenberg.

He opens:

They Really Are Sinking to a New Low in Their Anti-christian Bigotry

A strange title, admittedly, at least to non-Australians. But those who live here probably know what I am referring to. It has to do with some wild, reckless and defamatory comments made by some officials in the Queensland Police Department, and the mainstream media.”

We’ve shifted now so that we Christians are the victims of a slur by the police as part of some agenda; rather than the police being victims of an attack motivated by a bastardised Christianity. It’s almost like they deserved it; it’s almost DARVO — a classic abuser move where you flip the victim and perpetrator; only, like the others, Bill does not believe violence is Christian — it’s not clear that he doesn’t think the state and its officers (who swear an oath to serve the people, of our western nation, with God’s help) are demons.

In fact. He says:

“Whenever you have the police and the media wading into the deep waters of theology, you know we are going to have a real hatchet job – and a confused and malevolent one at that.”

Just to be clear the word “malevolent,” it means evil.

And, to complete the Caldron Pool two step (or three step) to turn this police shooting into a culture war call to arms, Bill concludes:

“And just wait for more attempts to classify Christianity as a whole as a terror group that needs to be closely monitored if not shut down altogether. That is in fact the end game for many of these Christophobes.”

The Government is out to get us folks; and the police are on the front lines because they’re Christophobes who might call us terrorists.

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

Where on earth did they get these ideas? The shooters?

This is dangerous nonsense. There is a spiritual war — theologically speaking — it’s the war between the way of Jesus and the way of the world; the self-denying way of life-sacrificing love for one’s enemies — even if they are out to get us, and those who would take up the weapons of this world — whether physical weapons or tools of power and manipulation, and culture warriors are not faithful witnesses to Christ — those prepared to lose everyting; even their lives, while turning the other cheek; they are pugilistic and demonic voices inside the church. The sorts of voices that lead others to violent rejection of the way of Jesus. I don’t believe Ben, Bill, or Tom are at all interested in leading people that way; I hope they are interested in leading people to Jesus — and so I’m prayerfully asking them — and others to stop. To think about the impact of their words — to consider the way they are framing events like this in their own minds and the minds of others.

Dave Pellowe, another who I named in my deleted Eternity post, runs the Good Sauce (and the Church and State Conference). Dave took up my invitation to the table (in that deleted article). We ate together. It was his show I was on where I suggested my issue is that I think our public Christianity should be informed by a theology of the cross.

Dave’s article sensationally declares that this media release is pretty much a declaration of war against all Christians. “Queensland Police just called all Christians “terrorists,” his headline reads — now. They didn’t call me a terrorist because I am not a premillenialist fundamentalist; but apparently all Christians are that…

Dave won’t like this reading of his headline; but I think it’s about as charitable and coherent as his understanding of the QPS statement. Like the others I’m quoting, Dave thinks the shooting was abominable. It’s just, like the others, he thinks the Queensland Police are abominable too holding “hatefully bigoted” views about (almost all) Christians.

This week the Queensland Police labelled the majority doctrine of Christians throughout the world as “a broad Christian fundamentalist belief system known as premillennialism” which, in their hatefully bigoted view, motivated the heinous crime which resulted in two police officers and a neighbour being murdered.

He goes on to use one of his favourite epithets while whipping his favourite whipping boys.

“There is more basis for prepper terrorism in the climate alarmism dogma preached by leftists, globalists and elitists than such orthodox Christian doctrine as premillenialism, so why isn’t the lying harlot media (LHM) blamed for this tragedy?”

This sort of language that paints the media as beastly (in Revelation’s language of the harlot, who rides on the back of the beast) is the sort of language that fuels a view that the police (and media) are demonic forces who should be shot — even if Dave is quick to point out that the kingdom of Jesus is a peaceful kingdom; there is no peace in the way he speaks about these enemies — including the police. He also calls the police christophobes. He says:

Church And State events around Australia are “arming Christians to influence culture”, not with swords or guns, hate or violence; but with clear preaching of the Gospel and Jesus Christ’s will and ways, the Kingdom of God: for the betterment of all humanity, maximal human flourishing and freedom.

It is up to right thinking believers who love their neighbours and nation to understand the times and not sit the culture war out.

Just about every one of these articles quotes a Martyn Iles Facebook post in response to the Queensland Police. He too, in that post, made the point that true Christianity has no place for physical violence; but he, too, offers more fodder for the culture war.

We’re living in clown world.

In Ancient Rome, the authorities blamed Christianity for the evils of their day because they either hated it, or were totally ignorant concerning it.

I call on Deputy Commissioner Linford to point out where in premillennialism there is any authority given whatsoever for a person to use premeditated violence.

She can’t, because there isn’t.

This is the same Martyn Iles who, on the platform at one of Dave Pellowe’s events, joked — and I’m happy to concede he was joking — in a conversation reported by the Herald:

Mr Iles joked that his father often said “we need a good war” to sort this out and “there’s a little bit of truth in that”, because society would not be so concerned about climate change or gender identity if we were at war with China.

Mr Pellowe then interjected: “We’re not advocating violence or revolution … today.”

Mr Iles added: “Not yet, that’s down the line.”

I’ll make my point as briefly as I can.

  1. All these commentators are accusing the institutions of this world — the government and the police — of a beastly agenda against Christians; of being something like the Roman regime at various points in its history, engaged in an evil anti-Christian (dare I say ‘demonic’) campaign.
  2. All these commentators are suggesting we have been badly misunderstood if people think faith can lead to violence.
  3. All of these commentators are advocating a culture war while knowing that our words might be misunderstood or misrepresented by those who are not Christians.
  4. All of these commentators are saying the shooters were not Christians. And the violence is never ok for Christians.

I think it is very likely that these not-Christians were fuelled by the sorts of ideas in point 1 — that this is consistent with their words and actions (the evidence gathered by police).

I think it is very likely that these not-Christians were connected to thought leaders swimming within the same ideological ponds as these Christian commentators and that the stuff about demonic agendas (including around the covid vaccines) rang louder and truer than anything said about violence before the shooting. Caldron Pool had ample time between the Eternity article and now to distance themselves from violent warrior language publicly, rather than trying to sue me privately; the condemnations of violence come pretty late in the piece.

I think it is very likely that these not-Christian perpetrators were as confused around language of culture war and demonic opposition as the general public — whether from these sources or others, or just their own reading of Scripture. And that this was part of legitimising their actions. And if you’re going to be a Christian commentator; you have to consider what might occur if you paint the police service as demonic.

So my plea to these commentators is to find a better (and more Biblical) category for public Christianity than culture war.

Find a better way to talk about those who might oppose the Gospel than we are.

Understand the human feelings and motivations behind public statements like this one from the police.

Here’s an idea. The way of the cross.


Teach people to turn the other cheek. To love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. To die at the hands of those wielding the sword unjustly rather than take up the sword. Lose the narratives that even let you joke about violence.

This is not the way of the coward — to not shoot a police officer on your property is not cowardice, and nor is it cowardice to turn the other cheek and not fight back with the political weapons of this world.

Remember that your fellow humans might become deformed images through idolatry, but that they are made by their creator to bear his image and that the Gospel, and finding life in a kingdom not of this world — expressed in the church and its Spirit-filled communities — is the path to their liberation.

Stop demonising your political and religious opponents and start humanising them by responding to any hateful agenda (or innocent misrepresentation) with love.

Start caring about what the coppers think.

Start trying to understand their words the way you would like to be understood.

Four police officers and a member of the public were shot, and three were killed,

Those people are the victims of the Trains decision to shoot — not the church because of how their motives are reported.

They were killed by three people who thought they were serving Jesus and shooting demons as they pulled the trigger.

Those thoughts didn’t come from nowhere.

Stop risking turning up in a police investigation next time around; stop calling for culture war and start calling for martyrdom. That’s how Jesus — the dying and resurrecting king — will be vindicated.

In our bodies we carry around the death of Jesus, so that by our lives his life might be made known.

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.


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.”


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


“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.


  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.


  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?


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?


  • 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.

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