For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to tell people about Jesus as a job. I mean, I also wanted to be a sports journalist, I am quite idealistic about what the press might be and what journalism is, and I enjoyed my time working in public relations. But there has been a deep and abiding desire in my bones (and my genes) to see lives transformed by Jesus as people have their hearts and imaginations fired up by the way of life he offers, that is described in the story of the Bible. This new way of life that involves us being pulled from death and destruction — an old way of life that destroys others — as an act of forgiveness, grace and love from God, where we are given new life with God forever. I love that the pattern of the cross and the hope of resurrection could transform the world for better now, and that I believe it will, ultimately, for eternity. Christianity makes intellectual and emotional sense for me in a way that nothing else does; it lines up with how I think people and societies work (or should work), and offers a profound critique of the alternatives. It answers big questions, and gives bigger ones to explore. It is full of tensions, or mysteries, or paradoxes, that reward curiosity. The Bible is great literature that tells an amazingly integrated story (spanning genres, and millenia), centred on the heroic victory of Jesus through sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and now rule. A story that we can tell, but that we can also live. I can’t comprehend a more valuable use of my time and energy than contributing to God’s mission in the world. I love the church. I love the way that God calls a bunch of weird people to follow Jesus and pours his Spirit into us to unite us in something bigger than ourselves.
I’ve been blessed to be supported by many people in the last six years (and four years before that as a student) who’ve given money to free me to do this as a full time job; who’ve loved and supported Robyn and I as we’ve supported others, and started our little family. I’ve worked alongside many others, paid and not, who are committed to this cause. We’ve seen lives transformed by the Gospel. This is my life.
But I can’t do “this” anymore.
At least not in the way “this” is happening.
This morning I had to console my four year old daughter because several of her favourite people are leaving our church community. I had to console her because she asked why we were so sad. Why I struggled to get out of bed this morning. Why I don’t want to do “this” anymore. Robyn and I have spent the last few weeks reeling from conversation after conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ who, for various reasons, won’t be continuing in fellowship with us. And each one of these conversations feels like an amputation.
None of us should experience the sort of phantom limb feeling of looking around one week for the members of our body who were there last week with no idea where those members have gone. None of us should be cutting ourselves off from the body we belong to and are connected to. No parent should have to explain why their big sister in Christ, or their little brother in Christ, is not going to be part of their life any more. I recognise that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that the visible church is a complex and variegated reality; but we could, perhaps, attempt to be a little more idealistic in our execution of what church is meant to be, rather than simply accepting the status quo. Especially if that status quo is deadly and at odds with what the church is meant to be. As a church we’ve chopped off far too many pieces of ourself (or had too many pieces chopped off) over the last few years for that loss not to be dramatically and significantly felt. The job of the pastor seems to me to be a giving of one’s self over an over again, in all sorts of relationships, only for those relationships to suddenly disappear by the autonomous decision of an other; and this isn’t just true for those in ministry; it’s true for any member who stays connected to a body. Staying in church, belonging, often hurts. It can feel like people are wielding their scalpels with one another as we bump into each other, sometimes pruning one another, sometimes chopping into bits that feel more essential, and sometimes causing deep wounds that hurt; but healing and growth actually come through that pain, through wounds being bound up, hurts being forgiven, and blood or an organ or two being donated. Amputation is a terrible and drastic step that alters both the body as a whole, and the body part; even if that part is grafted elsewhere. Sometimes healthy transplants can be vital and life giving to other bodies though, but never without cost.
Our church is in a period of transition; you may have read my manifesto. Part of that transition involves a changing of place, time, and philosophy of ministry, and we’ve invited people to use this moment as an opportunity to commit with us, or look elsewhere. Every time we have made major changes in the structure of our church, people have left us. Some have told us, some have ghosted. I feel like each person who has left our church in the last six years has taken a piece of me with them. Sometimes we have sent people to other churches with our blessing, as an act of Gospel partnership. Some people have left fellowship with us because they’ve left Brisbane. Some have broken fellowship with us over theological disagreements. Some have tried really hard to stay and ultimately felt called to leave for a variety of reasons. There are good ways and bad ways to leave a church; but whether good or bad, each leaving is a cutting away at a unity that is meant to be greater than the unity we experience in the fibres of our embodied being. Paul uses the metaphor of the body to describe the church; it’s one of his favourites. The thing about metaphors is that the reality they point to is always ‘greater’ than the analogy we use to describe them. Metaphors are visual reductions of a concept to make it easier to grasp. The connection we enjoy to one another by the Spirit that dwells in us and units us to Christ is greater than any other connection between people — if Jesus is to be believed as he calls people to leave their family networks to follow him this connection is greater than our biological connection to family.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
I can’t do this anymore because what we do in the west is not church. We’ve commodified the body of Christ so it’s something you can leave without being sent. We’ve individualised our spirituality so that our decisions around church are based on ‘choice’ and ‘personal growth.’ We’ve fragmented community life so that most of us are driving past a variety of churches to attend the community of our preference, and when our preferences change, or our stage of life changes, we change our community. C.S Lewis and Marshall McLuhan both wrote about the damage the automobile (literally ‘self’ mobile) did to village life, but beyond the combustion engine technology continues to wreak havoc on our shared life, fragmenting space and time and the rhythms of our life and freeing us to be autonomous authors of our own destiny and communities in ways that mean we don’t do the hard work of face to face life with people we don’t like, but who we are called to love. I’m not a Luddite, so not suggesting that we should stop driving to churches to be with those we are called to be in fellowship with; those whom we are united with by the Spirit, but I am suggesting that we should recognise the costs of our patterns of life, and the way that “Babylon” and its values keep infecting the church.
Babylon is a metaphor in the Bible. One the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation, picks up to describe the human empire opposed to God in favour of self. Its roots go back to the tower of Babel, where people rather than going into the world to generously and abundantly spread God’s flourishing vision for humanity, decide to ‘make a name’ for themselves. In Revelation, Babylon is depicted as a city built on power and commerce; on grasping hold of the things of this world to build one’s own security. Babylon comes crumbling down. Ultimately. And yet we still, as Christians whose future in the “New Jerusalem” is secure, keep turning back to Babylon for our patterns of life, in ways that shape our patterns of church. Babylon, as the empire that took Israel into captivity in the exile, offered a very different narrative about the good human life to Israel’s narrative, a story that came with very different patterns of behaviour, forging a very different character in its people.
Lots of Old Testament scholars argue that the Biblical creation narrative, where God brings life and order and makes us in his image, is in such stark contrast to the Babylonian narrative (The Enuma Elish) that it must have had a particular significance in counter-forming Israel during the exile. Some believe the parallels between the Genesis story and the Enuma Elish (and other ancient creation stories) are so strong that you should read them as polemics or correctives of the sort of Babylonian story that Israel might have been tempted to be ‘re-created’ by during the exile. The Enuma Elish depicts only the king as the ‘image of God,’ and the gods of Babylon as chaotic, destructive, self-interested figures who are obsessed with conquest and its spoils. This story was used to justify Babylonian military expansion around the ancient near east, but also shaped a certain approach to human life, where people are objects, with no inherent dignity, to be used to secure pleasure and prosperity; for the gods, and those who were most ‘godlike’ in their position in society. To be Babylonian was to approach life as a consumer; a consumer of the world, and a consumer of others. To flourish in Babylon one had to climb the hierarchy to become as close to the gods as possible; we see an interesting hint of this in the book of Daniel in those within the Babylonian court who do all in their power, in a dog-eat-dog world, to entrap Daniel and remove him from influence.
In his book Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, scholar Brian Walsh says our situation is very like Israel’s in exile in Babylon:
“We live in Babylon. Babylonian definitions of reality; Babylonian patterns of life, Babylonian views of labour, and Babylonian economic structures dominate our waking and our sleeping. And, like the exiled Jews, we find it very tempting to think that all of this is normal…
If our presence in this culture is to be Christian we must recognise with Christian insight the profound abnormality of it all. This means that we cannot allow our experience of exile to define reality for us. We must not allow the Babylonian economistic worldview so to captivate our imaginations that its patterns, its views, and its priorities become normal for us. This was also the central problem for the exiled Jews in Babylon. One of the ways in which they dealt with this problem was by constantly reminding each other of who they really were. In the face of Babylonian stories and myths, Jews told and retold their own stories. In fact, it was most likely at this time that they first wrote down one of their most foundational stories—the creation story.”
The difference is, unlike Israel, we are no longer exiled from God. It is clear what our story is; because in baptism and the pouring out of the Spirit we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus; our hearts have been made new as we are united to Jesus, caught up in the life of God, and marked out as children of God in the world. We are home. Not exiled. Babylon is a foreign land to us because we belong to a new kingdom with a new creation story. We have a new Adam. Jesus. We are new creations. Babylon’s days are numbered (see Revelation 18).
The Enuma Elish had its own tower of Babel story. Scholars have long suggested Babel was what’s called a ‘ziggurat’ — a stairway to the heavens; a stairway that would allow people to ascend to the heavens as those in the Babel story wanted, but that would also bring the gods down to earth. In the Enuma Elish the city of Babylon is founded as a ziggurat. In the Babylonian version of the story the tower isn’t built by people who want to be godlike, but by the god, Marduk. He announces his plan:
“Beneath the celestial parts, whose floor I made firm,
I will build a house to be my luxurious abode.
Within it I will establish its shrine,
I will found my chamber and establish my kingship.
When you come up from the Apsû to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
When you descend from heaven to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
I shall call its name ‘Babylon’, “The Homes of the Great Gods”,
Within it we will hold a festival: that will be the evening festival.
The Babel story, in its ancient near eastern context, is the Bible’s story of the creation of Babylon; a temple-city opposed to God. A story of people wanting to be godlike; of wanting to be like Marduk; of wanting to rule on earth and in the heavens. It is a story of a certain sort of autonomy; of self-rule. A story of people being like Marduk, the Babylonian god of war and destruction and consumption. So much of our approach to church in the west is Babel like; it’s Babylonian. Our New Eden story offers a stunning alternative picture to Marduk; Marduk who descends from the heavens so that his people-slaves will serve and entertain him…
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:3-6
This new Jerusalem is our future; not the new Babylon.
We are new creations in Christ living with this new creation as our end; our ‘telos’ — our vision of the good, flourishing, life. We are not to be caught up in Babylon because Babylon will be destroyed. Violently.
Babylon is consumerism.
Babylon is a pattern of self-rule.
Babylon is seeing others, and communities, as things that serve you, rather than a body that is held together by love.
Babylon is the pattern of this world that produces digital disembodiment in platforms driven by a sinister ‘surveillance capitalism’ that harvests us digitally like we’re some sort of organ farm, and sells our desires and whims to the highest bidder; platforms that exert soft power influence on us reshaping how we see the world in ways we don’t even notice as we uncritically embrace technology (like the car, or the smartphone, or new social media patterns of behaviour) that subtly deforms our practices, our imaginations, and our desires, and so re-casts the image we live in the world. We end up bearing the images of the gods of Babylon. Babylon comes with rulers who become more and more ‘godlike’ at your expense; whether digital platforms that know more about you than you know about yourself, or their owners who become obscenely rich selling what they know to people who are going to sell you stuff, or a vision of life that will subtly change the way you interact with the world and others. Babylon comes with the story that says ‘the most important person in this world is you’ and ‘freedom is autonomous individual choice in the pursuit of your authentic inner self.’ Babylon comes with the story that says people and relationships are disposable. That community exists to serve your needs. That relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ can be severed by your autonomous wielding of the surgeon’s knife without concern for the impact that cut causes on anyone but you. The pattern of Babylon has us thinking about our immediate pleasure and needs; recalibrating our hearts via the ticking of the second hand of the clock, not the hour hand or the eon hand. It has us making decisions without the ability to hold a preferred picture of the future in view; relationships become interchangeable and disposable because we want quick fixes not the transformation that comes via a patient plodding along with the same people, in the same direction, for twenty years — and the requisite making of sacrifices here and now to secure a future end. Babylon has us obsessed with short term results against metrics that are ephemeral — like wealth and power — rather than long term results. Babylon is what causes a climate catastrophe and leaves us ill equipped to do the sort of planning or sacrificing now to avert a diabolical future. But Babylon’s own future is secure precisely because Babylon is diabolical. It is the Devil’s way of life.
Church is the opposite. The Gospel — our new creation story — says that your neighbours — your brothers and sisters in Christ — are united to you by something stronger than the biological tie of blood; it says that you exist to serve one another as you are transformed by the Spirit to love and serve and build up each other. It says that we should not give up the habit of meeting together with people, that we are to forgive and forbear and maintain connection to one another and that growth as the body comes through the bond of love, and peace, and fellowship, as we let the message of Christ dwell among us richly. It says church is not a product that we buy, or discard, but a community of people we belong to, marked out by a shared story, that comes with shared experiences, and a shared vision of the future. Our story is not that we build a stairway to the heavens to dwell with the Gods, but that God in Jesus descended from the heavens, to a cross, in order that God might dwell in us by his Spirit — uniting us to each other — and that ultimately he will dwell with us for eternity. Our story is that our gatherings now, face to face, are gatherings where we reject autonomy and automobility and ‘freedom via authentic selfishness’ — where we resist Babylon — in order to be shaped in the image of Christ through belonging to one another as the body of Christ; God’s living temple in the world.
The church is life giving. It unites people. It holds us together. It should be impossible to leave a church without being sent out (the pattern in the New Testament, I reckon), so long as those you gather with are your brothers and sisters. Churches grow — not numerically, but that too — when people stay connected to each other for the long haul, even when it appears your particular needs aren’t being met as well as they might be elsewhere. Churches grow when people work hard at loving each other imperfectly, through the ups and downs, over an extended period of time. The best results for church aren’t immediate but are long term. Church is like marriage; or family.It is not meant to be disposable.
Babylonian church — an attempt to live the story of Babylon at the same time as living the story of the Gospel — attempting to synthesise its patterns with the patterns of Jesus and his body — is costly and destructive; and the bodies pile up.
And I can’t do “this” any more. I won’t.
I can’t be part of a church that people leave easily; a church that is as disposable of a pair of worn out running shoes; where obsolescence is built in to keep you buying more (and where those shoes are increasingly made of cheap materials put together by cheaper labour).
The church can’t afford to do this any more. Firstly, because this, more than anything else I suspect, is going to burn out leaders of churches more than any other factor; either as they play the Babylonian game and try to grow churches through transfer growth from disenfranchised consumer Christians, or as they chop of piece after piece of themselves; seeing those they’ve poured love and time and energy into walk out the door and into some other community. That old sexual purity scare tactic where we were once told that sex is like sticky tape is a terrible way to promote the true, created, purpose and goodness of sex, but the oneness we experience in the body of Christ, brought into oneness by the Spirit, is, at least for Paul in 1 Corinthians, part of the same extended metaphor he uses to talk about sex and the oneness two bodies experience in sex. We are one body. We are meant to be a community built on communion with God, via the Spirit (expressed at a shared table), not a consumity.
Secondly, the church can’t afford to do this any more because Babylon’s destiny will be our destiny if we operate as Babylonian church. The patterns of this world are Babylonian and are geared towards making church fail because they are shaped by a profoundly different creation story to the church; they are shaped by the anti-Gospel; new forms of the Enuma Elish that turn us into gods and technology and consumption into the key for us having power and dominion and a godlike ability to fight against the limits put upon us by space and time.
I can’t do Babylonian church anymore.
Part of the New Eden Project was a recognition that we have, for years, perpetuated consumer Christianity in our practices as a church; and there’s been a live by the sword, die by the sword reality at play as some people have left us for greener pastures, rather than engaging in the difficult business of sticking it out in the body of Christ and working for the good of all. Some of this being complicit has been caught up in limiting the ability for different parts of the body to operate for the benefit of all.
I met with a friend recently, another pastor, who has launched a new church plant in the last few years relentlessly committed to being anti-consumer. For this other church this looks like changing how gatherings happen so that every member is involved, changing the expectations around time and community so that church isn’t just an event you turn up to and consume in as short a time period as possible, so that you can get right back to Babylon, but an event where everybody participates, and one that lingers.
We so desperately need to change how we approach church; and by ‘we’ I might first mean our family, and our church community, but the project is so much bigger than that. Babylon will be destroyed. Don’t conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Don’t get caught up in Babel projects; instead find a community that longs and lives for the new Eden; God’s presence with us, one for us and given to us in Jesus, and through the pouring out of the Spirit that brings life, and unites us to each other.
Please, if you catch this vision, if you share this frustration with the status quo; don’t leave your church. You might get sent by your church one day to be part of some new thing. But don’t leave your church. Stay. Commit. For the long haul. Plod away. Resist Babylon.