Nathan Campbell

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

Why the problem with the church is the “church” (not with the people who leave)

I’ve appreciated the conversations that happened off the back of my “I can’t do this any more” — many friends have reached out to express concern about what might prompt such a raw post, some pastors have contacted me because I hit on a shared experience, but mostly I’ve appreciated the pushback (even from those who suggest it sounds like I want to authoritatively lead some sort of cult). The pushback I’ve most appreciated is from those who fear a message like this, from a pastor figure who has some authority might bind people who’ve been abused or traumatised to churches that will then continue that traumatising or that abuse.

That’s a legitimate concern to be raised in this sort of conversation; especially if I’m essentially arguing that our covenant commitment to one another in the church — the “bride of Christ” — is similar to the covenant commitment we make in marriage. 

I want to say, like a pastor might say ‘marriage is a fantastic thing that God has made for the joining together of two people as one, and its value is ultimately not in ‘feelings’ or what it does ‘for me’, but in a lifelong commitment to love one another in sickness and in health; for better and for worse, as a picture of Jesus’ love for the church (Ephesians 5). I also want to say as I teach on marriage, that divorce is a necessary provision in a fallen world for the protection of people from abuse, and to provide a way to escape trauma when a covenant is broken. 

So I want to say that belonging to a church is a fantastic thing that God has given us, as a gift, by uniting us to Jesus and one another by the Spirit; that belonging to ‘the church’ is expressed by belonging to ‘a church;’ and that the value of that relationship comes through covenant commitment to unity with one another. This commitment is expressed and lived out through forgiving and forbearing; through love as an act of sacrificing self interest for the sake of others; and for being in relationship for the long term on the basis of the covenant commitments we make to one another at certain junctures (like baptism, membership, and even sharing ‘communion’ or ‘the Lord’s supper’ with one another). In 1 Corinthians, Paul builds the metaphor of the body and our belonging to one another in marriage, to explain why believers should not unite themselves to others in sexual immorality; he argues that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; and then in 1 Corinthians 12 that same Spirit is uniting the members of the church to one another so that we also belong to each other. This sort of belonging is as open to abuse as Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5. I am certain that these verses can be used to force people into submission to church authority. 

But, just as there are grounds for divorce in marriages that do not reflect the Gospel, but ‘Babylonian’ narratives about self, and power, and domination of others, so too there are grounds to leave a church. I think the duty of a believer in such circumstances is, perhaps, similar to the duty of a Christian spouse leaving a marriage where both partners have made a covenant with one another on the basis of a shared faith. I think sin should be rebuked, repentance and reconciliation sought, other parties involved, and the rights, safety and wellbeing of the victim protected above those of the perpetrator.

To be clear, the bone I’m picking in my recent post is not with people who leave the church; it’s with a church that perpetuates a view of itself that makes leaving the most normal course of action for someone as an expression of the free market and individual choice. Our problem is that we’ve perpetuated a thin view of church where church is a product; but also that our churches have essentially been Babylonian and so doing real harm to people without a path to restore relationships or reform the church; pastors and leaders of the institution of the church are to blame for this, because who else is shaping the culture, understanding and practices of the church and thus how we experience and understand church? My call is not for people to be more committed to bad models of church, to express that commitment by putting up with more — it’s for all of us to change how we conceive of church. If people have been traumatised by churches they should not stay in ways that perpetuate the trauma; but the church (as an institution) has a responsibility to consider why we’ve caused trauma and how we play a part in healing. But it’s also true, I think, that our conception of the church (or a church) as a thing we can just ‘leave’ is the result of a false picture of church that we have perpetuated (and one that is probably more inclined to traumatise people than a more Biblical, less Babylonian, church).

And, mea culpa, there are people who have left our church because of my failures as a leader. Some have perhaps been traumatised by my bad decisions, or my words, or my actions; or by our culture, our practices, and our environment. We have fed a culture of consumerism, and so consumed and burned out people by suggesting that godliness looks like doing more. I am imperfect and inexperienced. I have been Babylonian in my approach, at times. Lots of this is self critique and a desire to approach church differently. I am the leader of a church that is still working out how leadership and authority are worked out, and where elements of our practice have been more Babylonian than shaped by the Gospel. The thing that haunts me about these leavings, more than my guilt about my own failures (though that is real), is the lack of reconciliation — both because when someone leaves it removes some of the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness, but also because the break of fellowship removes the capacity for the healing that comes from forgiveness, forbearance, peacemaking, and ongoing love and unity. 

The more Babylonian a church is in its structures and practice — including the authority given to the pastor and how much they are perceived as being the primary ‘image of God’ (remember the Babylonian creation story where the king was the image bearer) — the more likely it is to be abusive and traumatic. Don’t stay in Babylon; just don’t leave without challenging Babylon and giving those in leadership the chance to repent and be reconciled. Recent history is full of Babylonian, abusive, church leaders who fail to genuinely repent in those circumstances (there’s some well documented examples in the U.S, and probably some not so well documented examples in Australia with the current conversations about bullying within church ministry teams happening online), so the path towards this sort of leaving well is also fraught with danger. A hint will be if in such a conversation a leader appeals to his or her authority and refuses to let you go. But I suspect lots of the literature around domestic violence, narcissm, and abusive relationships will also help spot traumatising church systems and leaders. To say we shouldn’t work through that difficulty is a bit like saying that domestic violence is a reason to stop encouraging people to get married and pursue covenant faithfulness when times are tough. 

Churches abuse. Churches traumatise. Pastors abuse. Pastors traumatise. Church members abuse and traumatise each other; where those churches, pastors, and members, are genuinely living the Gospel story those moments of sin that cause trauma are opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, and forbearance; and in those processes it will become more or less clear if the abusers are Babylonian wolves who should either be run out of town, or run from… but if that’s the case then your brothers and sisters in those churches should leave too, not be left behind. And the processes of church discipline that our western churches have departed from (because when you try to discipline someone — whether a pastor or an individual — they tend to just leave one church and go to, or start, another) were perhaps an essential part of a less individualistic church and its ability to be what the church is called to be in the world.  A lack of accountability to anybody but yourself; and your sense of where the Spirit might be guiding you is a recipe for Babylon. God gives us a community, who we’re united to by the Spirit, to discern where the Spirit might be leading us together. It’s hard for me to believe that the Spirit who unites us will also lead you away from the people he has united you to without any opportunity for you to talk through that leading with those people. But 99% of the people I see leaving churches have done that without speaking to anybody (except perhaps, the leaders of the church recruiting them to their ‘better’ show), and most of the conversations I’ve had have been with people who have already decided to leave (and so lost some of the capacity to be sent well to another church). Where people have left us because of trauma — or my failures to love and leave well — they have left without the conflict being truly resolved or any opportunity for reconciliation and ongoing fellowship and unity to be experienced by either party; this is the loss of an opportunity to experience the Gospel; the love of Jesus; in the midst of our sinfulness, but also in our new, non-Babylonian, relationships. It might very well be that in those circumstances the trust in a relationship is broken to the extent that forgiveness and reconciliation is possible, but full restoration is not. I’m not arguing people should never leave a church; or that the pastor alone should dictate when — Paul’s picture of the church has the pastor playing some sort of shepherding role, absolutely, but has the members belonging to each other; not the pastor as the image bearing king.  The trick is also that in church communities (as opposed to marriages) the absolute best thing for an abuser; a Babylonian; is to belong to a church — they may need to be sent to a different church to protect their victim, but connection to the body of Christ is the best context for repentance, forgiveness, and genuine reconciliation; for dealing with sin in a way that breaks a vicious cycle. 

The point isn’t that churches or marriages should be built on rules, or even on vows. It’s that our vows reflect the story we are participating in (both in marriages and the church), and more than that, that we come together united in love; and love that expresses itself through deep, lifelong, commitment that does come at a cost, but also comes with benefits. It’s no coincidence that Paul lands his teaching on the oneness of the church, as one body, with a passage that gets read ad nauseum in weddings.

And yet I will show you the most excellent way. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

‭‭1 Corinthians 12:31-‬13:1-8‬ ‭

A church built on this version of love won’t feel like Babylon; it won’t abuse or traumatise; it will deal well with sin and hurt. It might feel like a cult, but it will also be a place where the love and example of Jesus, and the story of the Gospel — of sins being forgiven, relationships reconciled, new lives being given — is lived and experienced by all those members of his body, and those who might come amongst us.

Medevac and the Good Samaritan: My letter to Scott Morrison (and maybe those who think the Medevac repeal is a good political move)

To the Prime Minister, the Hon Scott Morrison MP,
CC: The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton MP

Re: The Medevac Bill and our ongoing politicisation of asylum seekers

Mr Prime Minister, I recently had the pleasure of meeting you in Dalby, and introducing you to my kids; a photo opp not all of them appreciated at the time, but that provided significant opportunities for us as a family to talk about civic service and politics and the strange calling and vocation you find yourself in. I was thrilled for the opportunity to explain to them that you can be in politics, and be a Christian (I’m a Presbyterian minister as well as a father… which isn’t to say we’re political as Presbyterians, but rather that I want my kids to see how faith and political action are intertwined).

I did explain that this is a particular hard calling especially the more senior your role in a party, but that we should pray for you and celebrate when Christians are able to bring a faithful presence into the “corridors of power” because the western world we live in has been profoundly shaped by Christians using the levers of government from soft hearts and convictions shaped by the Lord Jesus.

These leaders have often operated from convictions, whether on the right or left, that are both especially Christian in that they reflect a Christian belief that all human life is valuable because all people are made in the image of God, and they have been made by leaders whose character, convictions and relationships with people (and so politics) are shaped by having the mind of Christ. These are Christian politicians who have, because of their Christianity, been given to humble service sacrificing personal ambition for the sake of their neighbour (Philippians 2), and to practicing the commands of Jesus. Especially the commands to love God, and love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Matthew 22), to treat others as we would have them treat us, and even to love our enemies (Matthew 5). I urge you, as our Christian political leader, to rediscover and conserve these values that have helped shape the western world, as we in the west have been profoundly influenced by the teaching, example, and life-giving work of the Lord Jesus particularly as it applies to how our nation treats Asylum Seekers.

Seeing our enemies as human has had a profound impact on the western world (particularly as we practice war, and seek justice) as I’m sure you’re aware; but so too has seeing foreigners as neighbours. Jesus makes it particularly, explicitly, clear that to be a neighbour to someone is not to leave them in a ditch after criminals have taken advantage of them; it’s certainly not to leave someone with wounds unbound as a deterrent to future criminals. I am, of course, referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells when someone, looking for a loophole, asks “who is my neighbour” (Luke 10). The Good Samaritan, of course, is the model neighbour in the story. Jesus describes his actions as costly, humanising, love — seeing the humanity of the man in the ditch who was his ideological enemy. Here’s a picture of neighbourly love:

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The good neighbour binds up the wounds of the broken; those broken by criminals. The good neighbour does not perpetuate the results of the criminals, or compound their behaviour, in order to deter the criminals or to teach them that their victims are indeed less than human.

And here, Mr Prime Minister, is where I as a pastor, and father, and neighbour, am struggling to reconcile the picture of you meeting my kids and what I’ve told them about leadership and faithful presence, with what must surely be a demand placed on you by your Lord that is complicated to navigate in the context of the Australian policy landscape; a policy landscape on refugees and asylum seekers that you have helped create.

I’d urge you to read the theologian and political theorist James Davison Hunter, who coined the phrase “the culture war” and wrote about how a faithful Christian presence in the corridors of power might change the world, precisely because it has done so historically. One of the points he makes is that our western world tends to politicise everything; to view humans through the lens of political problems, which ends up dehumanising people for the sake of political outcomes. I believe our approach, as a nation, to the complex question of asylum seekers and refugees, including those who arrive by boat, has become so politicised that is has not just dehumanised those who should be our neighbours, but has also dehumanised us as we fail to act as neighbours. This is no longer conservative, but rather destructive to our humanity, and the values that have profoundly shaped the western world.

A dear friend of mine was involved in detention centre operations around the time our nation resolved to use off shore detention as a deterrent to prevent people smuggling. A policy that has existed for some time, and that has, according to reports and the trophy in your office, been instrumental in stopping the boats. Stopping the boats seems a noble and reasonable political goal, especially when paired with the way the story of the good samaritan has infected our national ethos through the faithful presence of many Christians such that we have a generous refugee settlement program (though I think many Christians, myself included, would love to help do more if we depoliticised the refugee problem and its solutions and allowed institutions like the church to be involved in the process more directly). People smugglers are no doubt like the thieves in the story of the Good Samaritan; those who are prepared to see their victims as less than human; who are prepared to take money from those reduced to something, in their imagination, like cattle in a live export ship rather than fully human neighbours. They leave these fellow humans in a ditch; our choice as a nation then is both how we respond to the existence of these thieves and how we bind up the wounds of those they abuse. It does not punish the thieves to leave their victims in a ditch; it certainly does not punish the thieves to leave their victims with wounds unbound, especially if we have the means and capacity to treat those wounds. The deterrent policy looks nothing like the neighbourly actions described in the parable of the good samaritan. It is a departure from the theological vision that shaped the western world; the one conservative governments like yours should seek to conserve in order to both live up to your name and conserve things of great value.

Jesus showed us what neighbourliness and kingship look like in the world that God made; in a world where people are valuable to God, by stepping in to a complex mess — the ditch, where criminals throw their victims — when he died on the cross. He did this as the archetypal version of neighbourly love; one where he became despised like a Samaritan, to not just rescue us from the ditch, but to be beaten, and flogged on our behalf so that we might walk free. He took not only the penalty for our sin — whether we were like the criminals or the victims — but he turned us from his enemies into his beloved neighbours. He saw humankind as human, and valuable. He did this to bind up the wounds of the broken and the oppressed. He did this in a way that profoundly changed and challenged the kingdoms of worldly power that produce violent robbers (and people smugglers). Christianity hollowed out the market for people smuggling in the Roman empire, and the slave trade both then and later in Europe, by reminding the smugglers that their cargo were human; perhaps we might try that approach by treating their victims as human rather than continuing to treat them like cattle? At the very least what virtue and the teaching and example of Christ require of us is to see those afflicted by criminals as our neighbours and so bind up their wounds as we can.

I note that in the same week our government repealed the Medevac laws, under your leadership, to continue our policy of deterrence, and keep the boats stopped, new details emerged about the violence of the Iranian government. I have many friends who fled to Australia, through people smugglers, from Iran. Many who have met neighbours here in our community who care for them; but many who fled and were wounded not just by their government, or by the smugglers, but by us — we aren’t, as a nation, just like the religious people who walk past the man in the ditch in Jesus’ story; we have become like the robbers in order to deter the robbers; our deterent model seems to be built on the idea that we are to be less appealing than both smugglers and the Iranian government.

How do I explain this to my children?

I’ll continue to teach my kids how wonderful it might be for them to love Jesus and serve people in our civic institutions; even if our oldest is only eight and most of this goes over their heads still (now about that education funding I mentioned in Dalby…). And I will continue to pray for you and the government you lead. You have a difficult task made more difficult, not less, by your faith in the crucified Lord Jesus; but Mr Prime Minister — Mr Chief Servant (for that is what minister means) — please lead us towards conserving the things that have made the western world great; an absolute commitment to the value and dignity of each human life. Lives so valuable to God that he entered the ditch to die for us, to bind up our wounds, heal, and restore us to life at great cost; because the cost of not being a neighbour, on our humanity and society, will always be greater than the price of neighbourliness, even if neighbourliness is very expensive indeed.

In Christ,
Rev. Nathan Campbell

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Why Christians must never acknowledge an altar to an unknown god

Mark Powell has responded to the responses to his piece about why Christians shouldn’t conduct acknowledgments of country. He’s responded, especially to Fr Daryl McCullough’s piece with the classic ‘double down.’

Mark confuses description from some quarters with prescription for all quarters on a couple of occasions; citing examples that back up his claims about pantheism and smoking ceremonies, and then drawing a long bow and shooting arrows into all versions of acknowledgments of country and symbolic uses of smoke. One hopes that he will consistently extend his logic to suggesting we shut down fellowship with the Anglican Church over its use of incense, and stop Presbyterian churches participating in ANZAC Day ceremonies, which are overtly religious and nationalist and just a tiny bit pagan in their remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors. Mark must, of course, be worried about the sort of syncretism that saw the discussion he mentions that happened at our General Assembly happening in a building decked out with the trappings of the ANZAC cult. Pretty much every charge Mark levels at acknowledgments of country can also be levelled at dawn services — so he might, for consistency’s sake, have to reject those syncretistic symbols.

Mark also thinks I called him white in my last post. Having known Mark since I was a kid, and having heard him describe his heritage and his family’s connection to the South Sea Islands during the Assembly, it would be very odd for me to assert that he was white. I didn’t. I said the courts of our church are typically white. I said his impulse to read indigenous practices through a western individualistic political lens was part of the colonial impulse. I hope that clears things up.

Needless to say, I don’t find Mark’s response to the responses very convincing (he has another drive by shot at me over suggesting that there’s a ‘sacramental’ element to nature; to be clear, I don’t think going to the beach is a ‘sacrament’ in the way that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are; but I do believe nature is oriented towards grace; and that the purpose of the natural world is to throw us towards the presence of God in all times and places as the creator who sustains all things by his powerful word. I don’t believe in a secular/sacred divide when it comes to time or place (1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 11:36). If all time and space is sacred, then recognising this, that the transcendent and immanent realities are always overlapping; not bifurcated; is very similar to what we do in the sacraments though those are particularly oriented to the saving work of Jesus (in the same way I’d say marriage is ‘sacramental’ but not a sacrament).

Anyway. My real beef is this.

Mark insists that acknowledgments of country are a protocol that is always inherently religious; particularly because of the claims made by one source on indigenous spirituality. He says this idolatry disqualifies Christians from using the forms of the protocols because to do so is to invite judgment on our heads.

Someone shoulda told Paul.

Eating food sacrificed to idols or acknowledging that unknown God in Athens are the worst forms of idolatrous syncretism Mark can imagine.

There’s two places one might go to engage with Mark’s argument here; one is in Paul’s treatment of food that had been sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy 4; in 1 Corinthians he says ‘the idols are nothing,’ and ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (he does warn about sharing in the cup of demons in 1 Corinthians 10:14-19). Now. If Mark is right and an acknowledgment of country is always idolatrous such that to participate in a prescribed form is to participate in idolatry, then the cup of demons paradigm might apply. If an acknowledgment of country is always to partake at the table of pantheistic indigenous theology (and if all indigenous theology is pantheistic), then we cannot participate. For Mark this idolatry seems to take the form both of indigenous spirituality and the woke, progressive, lefty politics he hates so much… and the same rule probably applies, if participating in a civic protocol is necessarily to be a woke, progressive, lefty, and so cause division in the church with those who don’t share that ideology, then Christians shouldn’t do it for the sake of Christian unity.

But Mark is self-evidently wrong because he admits that the protocol for an acknowledgment of country is not really established; that the first one was a quasi-spiritual welcome put together by Ernie Dingo; and this is exactly what aboriginal Christian leaders are saying — there is no recipe for a welcome to country; no particular spirituality to be ticked; no formula in the words used for the speech-act to have taken place; the fundamental element of an acknowledgment of country is truth telling about our nation’s past (Mark seems to keep wanting to offer an alternative narrative here with his doubling down on wave theory, but we’ll leave that for now). That some acknowledgments of country are idolatrous does not make all acknowledgments of country idolatrous; and that some are idolatrous does not prevent Christians adopting and adapting the forms to align them with Biblical truths.

Mark seems to believe that all the meaning of a protocol is caught up in one particular form, and one particular sort of content, and that you can’t adapt those forms. Which would be news to the Israelites who melted down gold from Egypt to furnish the temple; and Solomon as he copied and pasted a bunch of Egyptian proverbs bracketing them with the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’… both the gold, and the proverbs, had particular idolatrous meanings before Israel co-opted them; just as meat did in Corinth.

An acknowledgment of country, because it can mean something different at each different table where it is offered, by each different host, seems to be much more like idol meat — sure, there might be idolatry involved in some of the application of the protocols (and this is also true of smoke ceremonies), the question is whether the symbolism might be re-appropriated and used to preach something true (like ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’) that invites us to love and serve our neighbour. When Paul writes to Timothy about people wanting to forbid different foods, or practices, on the basis of idolatry, he gives this principle for dealing with created things (particularly things created by God), and their redemption.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-5

But wait… you might say… this is about food and marriage; things that God created. Sure, it’s obvious that we can redeem those by consecrating them (a sacramental approach to created things if ever there was one) and receiving them with thanksgiving… and acknowledgments of country were created as a civic protocol, not by God. There is a spirituality attached to some versions of both acknowledgments and welcomes to country, and smoking ceremonies (just as there is idolatry attached to Anzac ceremonies, and a political mythology too). The question is whether that spirituality is definitive, and inherent to the practice, or whether they might be re-framed by Christians to bridge the gap to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now. If only we had some example of man made, civic, religiosity, being redeemed, and reframed, to connect people to their creator.

Mark seems to believe that any adaptation and reframing of an idolatrous activity or ‘cultural text,’ such as a smoking ceremony necessarily leads to syncretism. So. I’d like to introduce you to the Bible’s chief syncretist. The Apostle Paul.

Mark says “Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are clearly spiritual in nature. Their goal is to explicitly ward off evil spirits.” I’d suggest this is equally true of the altar Paul found on the streets of Athens to “an Unknown God” — an altar the Athenians used to cover all their spiritual bases and explicitly avoid offending any god they’d accidentally missed. A piece of religious superstition; clearly spiritual in nature. Paul, of course, as a Pharisee, knew what idols were — abominable departures from the truth about God; that when Israel occupied the promised land they were meant to destroy. And yet Paul, in Athens, does not pull out the sledgehammer and condemn the Athenians for their misplaced spirituality; he uses that spirituality, and that altar, to build a connection to the God he knows. The God who created all people; even the Greeks, and who appointed them (and those before them) to live in and occupy their lands. Mark doesn’t believe simply conducting a smoking ceremony — using the burning of a created thing as a picture of God’s goodness — in worship ‘sanctifies’ the act of burning; he says “Just because they are done in the context of Christian worship doesn’t sanctify them.” I’d suggest the reframing offered in the context of Christian worship might explicitly be the sort of ‘consecration’ that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy. Mark also rejects the idea that we might use our indigenous neighbours’ previous beliefs about an ‘All father’ Creator Spirit’ to proclaim the God of the Bible, because that would be ‘precisely what syncretism is’… the problem is Paul’s explicit example in Athens. Now. Mark will appeal to the regulative principle and the nature of Christian worship here, perhaps, but I’m in a slightly more maximalist camp on the question of worship than Mark within our denomination (Romans 12:1). And the issue here is that nobody in our denomination is currently suggesting Acknowledgments of Country happen in worship (ie between a call to worship and a benediction in a Sunday service); the question has been whether we can conduct them at all as Presbyterians. Mark objects to any reframing of the civic protocol because he believes all versions of the protocol are idolatrous syncretism, what he defines as the “fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices!”

Someone should tell Paul that he got it wrong. I mentioned in my last piece that this section at the Areopagus also involves Paul deliberately following the conventions of that court for introducing a new God into the life of Athens. Syncretism. He also favourably quotes their religious philosophers, he, for example, alludes to Zeno the Stoic, who said that the true God doesn’t dwell in a temple, and directly quotes Epimenedes Cretica, a hymn to Zeus, when he says “For in you we live and move and have our being.” Syncretism baby. Pure syncretism. Paul takes the content from a hymn to an idolatrous God, and uses it to proclaim truths about the God of the Bible who reveals himself in Jesus. Syncretism! Or… Pure Gospel proclamation using created things and the humanity of the people he is seeking to reach with the good news.

 “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

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

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:22-31

How could Paul get it so wrong. Doesn’t he know he is inviting God’s judgment on himself by affirming truths that he found with pagan roots?

The test for whether or not acknowledgments of, or welcomes to, country are ‘pagan’ or idolatrous or not is not ‘what are their origins’ but ‘are we speaking God’s truth,’ and the benefits are ‘are we speaking such truth in a way that invites people to know the God who is just, and a father of all nations, who invites us to come home to him through Jesus; the resurrected king.

I can’t do “this” any more (and I’d invite you not to either)

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.

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Why Aussie churches should acknowledge country

We Presbyterians are, next time our General Assembly meets in three years, deciding whether or not Presbyterians should conduct acknowledgments of country, or facilitate welcomes to country, in Presbyterian Church events.

I think it’s a no brainer. Others, including the Reverend Mark Powell, disagree. Mark has rehashed his arguments against acknowledgments of country in a public forum over on Eternity News.

I vehemently disagree with Mark on this issue; which won’t surprise him because we disagree on most things. I think his piece in Eternity is the worst form of religious culture war propaganda (up there with his columns in the Spectator, which are typically just culture war fodder, rather than being explicitly religious). While there’s an ‘opposite’ position already published on Eternity, and while I’d love to hear from Aboriginal Christian Leaders like Brooke Prentis (who Mark names in his piece) and Aunty Jean Phillips (who has been exceptionally helpful to me in ways you can read about here), there is, I think, a place for a fellow Presbyterian Minister to respond (so someone who is definitely a university educated male, and highly likely to be white). I don’t think being male, middle class, educated, and white prohibits someone from having an opinion, or from being right, or from speaking — but I do think when a room of decision makers, like our assembly, is made up almost exclusively of one type of people (men), with a fairly homogenous (though not exclusively western) cultural background, the onus is on us to listen well to those not in the room, not just to each other. I remain optimistic that our denomination will land somewhere good on this issue. I find myself feeling like there’s a similar dynamic going on here that was at play in the same sex marriage debate, where the ‘political ends’ shape our engagement with others rather than pastoral and evangelistic ends; like Mark I believe politics is also a form of love, and an outworking of the Gospel, but I believe our politics are meant to be pastoral and evangelistic as we are ambassadors of Jesus, through whom God makes his appeal for all people to be reconciled to him. There’s a consistency between this Eternity article and what you’ll find in Mark’s pieces on the Spectator; there’s a fusion of a certain form of western individual liberalism, a syncretism even, with Christian theology. I often feel that Mark’s positions are more concerned about politics and winning a culture war (or converting people to a syncretised western individualism and an individualised Gospel), than they are about bringing people into the kingdom; there’s a degree to which to accept Mark’s vision of the truth you must accept his late modern political assumptions (that late modern politics has to some extent been shaped by a protestant form of Christianity is not lost on me).

Here are my arguments against Mark Powell’s arguments.

  1. For Aboriginal Christian Leaders, acknowledgments of country and welcomes to country mean nothing like what Powell insists they mean. Powell reads the culture, and these ‘cultural texts’ through a prism of Western individualism (that comes through in his argument), and an idiosyncratic theological grid. To impose either that social or theological grid on others without listening to them is the very worst of the colonial impulse. Mark would do well to listen to people like Brooke, or even those indigenous men and women serving in our denomination before telling indigenous people what these aspects of their culture actually means or represents. I’ll include an Acknowledgment of Country I wrote, in consultation with Brooke, for a wedding for someone from our church at the end.
  2. The Bible consistently connects identity to land; and has God appointing the boundaries in which different people live and are connected to land. Think Adam and Eve in the garden as ‘gardening’ stewards, Israel in the ‘promised land’ — whose fortunes were intertwined so that blessing would flow from the land to Israel if they were obedient and worshipped God, while the land would become harsh and unlivable if they worshipped idols. But also, this is a point Paul explicitly makes in Acts 17: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Mark makes a very strange argument from the work of Manning Clark to refute this, but regardless of who the original custodians of this country were, Mark’s version of the history of European settlement is a troubling one that seems in part to be based on recognising that to make reparations would be expensive for individuals (who benefit from the historic dispossession of the occupants of this land), and institutions (though Mark’s western individualism is consistently applied here). The Bible consistently recognises the intergenerational cost of sin; from the ground being cursed because of Adam, to Israel in exile, to Pilate’s words about the blood of Jesus being on the heads of those who killed him and on futute generations. The Old Testament jubilee laws recognise an historic ‘birthright’ connection to country, and a corporate identity, closer to indigenous beliefs about connection to country than a western individual liberalism that turns land into something that individuals and corporations can own for perpetuity (not to mention foreign investment).
  3. The Bible has a sacramental, though not idolatrous, view of creation. To make all sacramental approaches to nature idolatrous is to throw out a whole bunch of baby with the bathwater; or to avoid the “abusus non tollit usum” principle (wrong use does not negate right use). If the divine nature and character of God are revealed from what has been made, and if the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, and if the Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by human hands but put people all over the world so that we might seek him; then those places that are recognised as beautiful, that thrust us towards the transcendent as they take our breath away are truly sacred, but also we should not be surprised that such places become ‘sacred’ in idolatrous systems. Regarding Mark’s treatment of Brooke in his piece, Brooke (who was recently appointed as the CEO of Common Grace) says she was drawing on Stan Grant’s observation that ‘the sporting field’ is the most sacred place in Australian culture; she wasn’t even making the theological point that I am.
  4. Acknowledgments of Country, or Welcomes to Country, especially those conducted by Christians, do not deny that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ — in fact they acknowledge that, and the role God gave humanity as stewards or custodians.
  5. Even if there are idolatrous forms of an Acknowledgment of Country or a Welcome to Country, and that is quite possible, there are lots of other idolatrous forms of things we westerners embrace; the Presbyterian Assembly, for example, took place in a church building with a metal archway entrance bearing the words ‘Lest We Forget’ with flagpoles carrying the Union Jack and the Australian flag (but no Indigenous flag).
  6. Even if there are idolatrous beliefs associated with traditional indigenous religion, as there are with every non Christian belief, it is possible for us, as Christians, to hear the existential cry of those practices and show how it is answered in the Gospel by participating in adapted forms of the cultural text or artefact. This, for example, is what Paul does in Athens as he introduces a new foreign God to a place searching for meaning through connection to the transcendent; Paul does this by following the cultural conventions for introducing a new God to the Areopagus in Athens (there’s a paper by Rev. Dr Bruce Winter that makes this case about the structure and content of Paul’s speech in Athens).
  7. There is, perhaps, very good reason historically, but also presently, that Presbyterian Churches are not known for having Indigenous membership that reflects the breakdown of the population in any given area. Many of these are structural — both around building design (our buildings feel ‘institutional’ (the ANZAC arch being a great example), and because of our forms of worship being quite western and structured. But our failure to listen, and indeed, our baptising of ‘not listening’ as something sacred where we came bringing the light of the Gospel such that we should not listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who bridge that cultural gap, insist that people leave their aboriginality behind to become Christians (while not leaving our western individualism and conservative culture war politics behind), seems to me to be a significant blocker to our ongoing witness in partnership with our indigenous brethren, and it stops us acknowledging the historic injustice that so many of out Aussie neighbours are now prepared to acknowledge. Plus, in a week where we’re seeing more ongoing horrific institutional abuse, including deaths in custody, it’s just massively tone deaf to be making such an argument now. It’s possible for us to walk and chew gum; so I’d love to see Mark make some acknowledgment that embodied practices of sin, by individuals and communities and institutions end up affecting systems so that we can speak of systemic sin and its implications on different groups of people within our community. I’d love to hear him explain how deaths in custody emerged as a problem ex nihilo.
  8. Conducting theologically thoughtful acknowledgments of country that articulate Biblical truths is not ‘syncretism’ but an invitation for our community to connect its desire for justice, a connection to country, and a desire for reconciliation to the one in whom God is reconciling all things. The Lord Jesus. We don’t lose anything by taking a form of communication that is not inherently idolatrous, and like Israel with Egyptian gold, and Augustine with oratory, using that gold to preach truth about Christ. An acknowledgment of country is not a golden calf, but a sometimes idolatrous expression of our humanity, that can also be used to connect people with the truth about our creator; as some of our own indigenous poets have said… (Which is, of course, how Paul engages with Stoic philosophy while in Athens).

It’s not that hard to do this. Here’s the wording of an acknowledgment of country I put together listening to Brooke Prentis, reproduced with her permission. I’d love to hear more about how this is awful pagan syncretism… or actually, I wouldn’t.

“We would like to acknowledge the ____ people who are those appointed by God as the traditional custodians of this land — both within the area called ______, which we know as _____, and of this nation.

We would like to pay our respect to Elders past and present of the _____ nation for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, and we extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and those future generations who we pray will continue this task, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.“

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How Jesus met a pagan fascist through Facebook

“I’m done with Christianity, thank the gods.”

This was my first interaction with Steven Pidgeon, then going by Sigurd, or Vidar, Pidgeon depending on the social media account he was logged into at the time. He posted this response to an Easter advertisement from our church that we had pushed out via Facebook advertising in 2017.

My own personal Facebook policy, for our church’s online presence, is that you should always feed the trolls. So I clicked through to his profile, where I found a man who had apparently recently converted to paganism, sharing memes from the TV show Vikings, and discussing participating in online ‘blots’ — a Norse ritual — with other Norse pagans from around the world. I also found a series of troubling posts about Hitler, and race. Steven, or Sigurd (named for the legendary hero of Norse mythology), turned out to be an interesting man obsessed with Tolkien, white purity, fascist politics, and religion. I noticed that he was based near me, in Brisbane.

“I’ve never met a legit pagan before, I find this fascinating, I see you’re in Brisbane, I’d love to grab a beer and hear your story.”

I posted in this in response.

Steven sent me a friend request. I’ve since learned that Steven loves social media and building connections with all sorts of people from around the world. In our virtual conversations I learned that his back story was even more complicated than I imagined. He’d spent the last 17 years living in a religious community in the Blue Mountains, the infamous Twelve Tribes, a community with a particular view of the end times seeking to recreate twelve tribes, faithful and pure communities, of Christians who will bring about the end times. Before this, Steven had been, as a teenager, a Pentecostal, and then a Mormon. Steven rose through the ranks in the Twelve Tribes. His IQ is off the charts. He learned Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and made trips to the United States to ‘prophet school;’ often acting as a teacher in the community. At some point in the years leading up to his departure Steven became suspicious of Israel as a political entity, and began reading anti-Semitic literature, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He found the politics of national socialism intriguing. He also smuggled a phone into the community — which exists cut off from the outside world except through their businesses (like the Yellow Deli café in the Blue Mountains), and their missionary activities. At some point, his interest in politics, and his reading, led him to start his own political party, the Australian Freedom Party. He started to connect with people on social media, and questioning the teachings of the community. The more he knew, the more they unravelled, eventually he decided to exit this group who were like a family to him for most of his adult life. His exit wasn’t straightforward, nor was it straight into paganism, or fascism.

Steven is a convinced theist; his approach to testing truth claims of different religions is ‘full immersion’ — not baptism, though his Pentecostal, Mormon, and Twelve Tribes history mean he’s chalked up double digits for baptisms — he invests himself deeply into the plausibility structures for beliefs; the communities of believers. Steven spent some time in a Buddhist community in the Blue Mountains, and then moved into a Mosque in Sydney. He spent a period of time as a Muslim “revert,” grappling with the text of the Koran, while living in community with Muslim friends, who eventually organised for him to move to Brisbane where he found employment in a kebab shop, and enrolled in a Business degree at Griffith University. His experiences in Christianity, the Twelve Tribes, and Islam, and his interests in politics, and particular, the political vision of national socialist movement Order15, led him to explore and embrace white nationalism, and Odinism as a ‘white’ religion, disconnected from any religion with Jewish heritage. He began to embrace this identity; wearing a Mjolnir hammer around his neck, immersing himself in Norse Mythology, and participating in message boards, and social media groups with other pagans who were embracing the old religion as part of a commitment to ethnic purity. In embracing this identity Steven, who doesn’t do things by halves, adopted a racist persona, and expressed racist sentiments consistent with Naziism and white supremacy, while disconnecting from the Islamic community who had moved him to Brisbane. This extraction process was not without complications — his employment and housing were both connected to Brisbane’s Muslim community. Steven packed all his belongings into a backpack and bought a tent; prepared to embrace life as a wanderer, like those in the epic tales he loved — whether Norse, or from Tolkien. He eventually found a share house, but found himself in a city a long way from family, and friends, only connecting to his new ‘community’ online.

Then Easter happened.

We’d, by chance, themed our Easter series around Tolkien’s view of the Gospels as an epic true fairy story; a theme explored in his On Fairy Stories, where the Gospel and its joyful resolution in the resurrection is the ultimate ‘eucatastrophe’ — the sudden, joyous, turn that gives fairy tales their mythic constitution and quality. Steven and I were able to share a mutual appreciation for Tolkien. He shared my invitation with his pagan friends on Facebook, asking for their advice. Given that we’d become Facebook friends I was able to see, and participate, in this conversation where pagans from around the world suggested he ‘bring an axe’ and ‘be prepared to go full Lindisfarne’ on this Christian priest (Lindisfarne is the site of a famous massacre where Viking pagans put Christian monks to the sword and plundered their relics). Steven was lonely, he loves speaking to people about politics and faith, so he accepted my invitation to share a beer at the pub.

Here he is waiting for our first meeting; not knowing the twist his adventure would take.

I was genuinely fascinated to hear his story; I’d seen John Safran’s segment on modern pagans in John Safran Vs God years before, and despite Steven’s apparent racism and the risk of being smote by an axe, it was obvious that he was an intelligent man with an interesting journey. I committed to sharing a beer with Steven in a safe, and public, space; and I listened to his story. I asked questions. I didn’t, in our first meeting, push back on anything in particular except the idea that the Christianity he rejected looked nothing like orthodox Christian belief. We parted agreeing to keep in touch. I found the experience fascinating, because Steven’s story is truly remarkable. About a month later my wife and I were returning by bus from a football game, and we happened to bump into Steven at the bus stop; he’s not one to believe in coincidence. We chatted briefly at the bus stop, and then a few weeks later he sent me a message. His New Guard movement — a local fascist group — was meeting in the city in a couple of weeks, some of the members of the fascist movement were churchgoers who were planning to go to church after their meeting, but he had decided to come along to our gathering instead. He thought he might try it out this coming weekend to get his head around transport logistics in Brisbane.

His first Sunday was a perfect week for a racist fascist with a history in a community trying to live out the vision of the church in Acts 2 to visit our community. We were in the middle of a Bible overview series, and his visit coincided with our look at Pentecost, and the way the pouring out of the Spirit was the beginning of God’s kingdom expanding to include people of every tribe and tongue and nation. As if to highlight the contrast, the Bible was read that Sunday by a member of our community who is of Indian heritage, and we incorporated the baptism of two Iranian converts into the sermon. Steven hasn’t missed many weeks of church since that day.

Our church shares lunch together after our service, and introducing your multi-ethnic community to a pagan, racist, facist, is an interesting challenge. As a community we have long cherished the idea that people belong before they believe, and can come into our community as they are. We believe that conversation and connection, and the experience of Christian hospitality and love make the Gospel plausible, and that the Gospel has the power to change lives. So Steven was welcomed; he shared lunch with us, and I directed him to one of our members who happens to be a professor in Old Testament (whose Hebrew is much better than mine — but then, so is Steven’s). This member of our church was a safe pair of hands, who again listened to Steven and answered some of his questions about orthodox Christian belief. That day, when Steven went home, he went home questioning whether the Christianity he was ‘done with’ was really Christianity at all; I sent him works by Augustine, Athanasius, and C.S Lewis. He spent the next two weeks watching the entire back catalogue of our church’s sermons that were available online. Over time, as he explored the Reformed theological outlook, Christianity became the lens through which he saw the world. His racist Facebook posts didn’t stop straight away, there was a period of transition. He threw himself into a community of Christians on campus at Griffith (where he was blowing his studies out of the park, recording the highest mark ever given in one subject, and achieving exceptional academic results across the board). Steven was a 37 year old who had never handled money for himself; who had been withdrawn from society for 18 years, missing most pop culture, and plenty of news. He was readjusting to life in the real world, outside the intense communal life of the Twelve Tribes. A couple of months later, in a conversation we were having, Steven and I both realised he had become a Christian; that not only did he believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that Jesus was his Lord and we were seeing the fruit of that in his life, his changed view of others, and his evolving political convictions. Steven had repented; we recognised that to do this and to be able to truly say “Jesus is Lord” was an act of the Holy Spirit. Steven, despite his journey taking him to all corners of the religious globe, had come home. Steven is now my friend. He has been a much-loved member of our church family ever since, and, if not for his desire to own his past and acknowledge his mistakes and the way his journey has developed, almost nobody in our community would know about the darkest chapter in his story. Steven Pidgeon, the online Nazi pagan, has become Steven Pidgeon, our servant hearted, genius, brother in Christ, a man who desires that people from every tribe and tongue and nation meet Jesus, and that he might use his gifts, and the degrees he earns through his study, to serve his neighbours around the globe, in some ways making amends for the horrid views he held for a short period of time.

He now devotes himself to his studies, and his social media posts are much more likely to be about very obscure questions around Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions (where our Old Testament lecturer’s PhD work on Akkadian language came in handy), reflections on what he is hearing at church, or his experiences as a Law Student at university. This reflects how he spends his time and energy in real life.

This week a group of Antifa (anti-fascist) activists unearthed the archives of IronMarch, a web portal for Nazis and fascists that Steven contributed to up until 2017. He was named and shamed as an Australian neo-Nazi. Those doing the shaming were not prepared to accept that transformation is possible, and reached out to different groups and institutions Steven has connected to since repudiating paganism, and the Nazi, or ‘Alt-Right’ movement. I’m sharing this story now because Steven has genuinely changed, and is genuinely a member of a church community committed to a cause that is fundamentally opposed to fascism. I share Antifa’s issues with fascism, and Naziism, in all its forms; but it might be that there are better methods for changing hearts and minds; it might be that the Gospel of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring about an amazing transformation in someone’s politics, and this doesn’t happen by exposing, “doxxing,” or attacking a person you’ve never met on the internet, but by meeting them face to face, connecting, understanding, and loving your ideological enemy, and inviting them to experience a community living out a thoroughly different politics. Maybe our world needs more people sitting down for a beer with those we oppose, rather than entering a vicious cycle of trolling and insults.

Maybe Easter changes everything.

Fame does not qualify you to be a preacher

There’s a worrying trend developing amidst the church around a desperate bid for us to be ‘relevant’ and ‘change the culture’ of the world. A trend that is having the opposite effect of changing the culture of the church.

This trend is a through line that runs in the U.S evangelical church’s obsession with Trump, the Aussie church’s obsession with Israel Folau (until this week), and everybody’s new obsession with Kanye West. We want to be noticed and normal. We want to restrain the excesses of our society and we’re so used to the levers of power and cultural influence ‘from above’ — from ‘influencers’ being pulled, that when an influencer becomes a Christian we thrust them off their pedestal and behind a pulpit as soon as we can. We also keep building pedestals and pulpits for fame adjacent Christians — like CEOs of lobby groups who build political platforms for their video “preaching” — but neither being famous, nor fame adjacent, qualifies a person as a preacher or teacher.

Both Israel Folau and Kanye West have pivoted from very public expressions of their Christian faith to the pulpit. Both are now operating as teachers in communities; neither is qualified in any way to do so. The apostle Paul says teaching, or being an overseer, is a noble task but is not for recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6)… or lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3).  Both Folau and Kanye run the risk of damaging the witness of the Gospel if they keep functioning as preachers without being trained or qualified, and we run the risk of damaging the witness of the church to the crucified king if we keep treating celebrity itself as a virtue and so trading on celebrity for our own relevance, or the proclamation of the Gospel.

Character, gifting, and calling qualify a person as a preacher. The ability to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ qualifies a person to be a preacher. Unfortunately it seems that neither Izzy, nor Kanye, nor Martyn Iles (or the Australian Christian Lobby) are equipped to lead the church theologically, as teachers or preachers. And this matters — because both our politics and our witness to the Gospel are actually profoundly theological exercises. We evangelicals, in our desire to win people to Jesus (and to follow Paul in ‘becoming all things to all people’) have somehow baptised pragmatism — the getting of ‘results’ — measured in converts, over the substance of the Gospel message and the way it produces a certain ethos, or virtues, that are to be part and parcel with Gospel preaching.

There’s a deep irony that some of the justification for cultural engagement comes from 1 Corinthians, where Paul starts by outlining how the content of his message is the foolishness of the cross of Jesus, which is the power of God — not worldly power or status. The city of Corinth was obsessed with fame; especially with famous orators; sophists. People who valued style over substance and ability and results over character and conviction. Paul smashes this. He comes to the Corinthians embodying the Gospel of the crucified Jesus; when he writes to them again about their obsession with the ‘super apostles’ in 2 Corinthians, he gives a long list of his foolishness and suffering and being unimpressive as the resume for a Gospel preacher. When he describes himself in 1 Corinthians and his social position as a preacher he says:

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

This is him imitating his crucified king. The one who died a humiliating death reserved for slaves; the scum of the earth, to show God’s upside down world altering kingdom. The power of God is not found in fame. Being famous is not a qualification for being a preacher; our bizarre desire for famous Christians to represent Christianity publicly as though they are preachers, and to not call out the problems that come from that public representation turning into occupying a pulpit and so, potentially, speaking the word of God to his people and the world is a reprehensible departure from the Gospel that mirrors the situation Paul addresses in Corinth.

Stop it.

I understand Kanye’s desire to preach about the grace that it appears has been given to him. But there is no way he is ready for the task of preaching yet.

I understand Izzy’s passion to save people from God’s wrath; but he is not just unqualified as a preacher of the Gospel, he is disqualified because he explicitly rejects the Trinity.

And yet preacher after preacher, for who knows what reason beyond — rejoicing that Christ is preached by a celebrity — have joined the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles in lionising these two figures. Martyn Iles even doubled down on Folau’s faithfulness this week when everybody else in the world was realising that Folau’s brand of religion is a long way removed from the Gospel of Jesus. He did this just weeks after celebrating Kanye’s conversion. The same Kanye who in an interview last week said he’s considering changing his name to “Christian Genius Billionaire West,” and running for president — hardly the response modelled by Zaccheus and promoted in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus explicitly says “you cannot love both God and money.” This week he appeared at Joel Osteen’s church proclaiming himself the “greatest artist God has created” and saying that God now has him on his side. His sermonettes that you can watch online are mostly expressions about him, and the influence he will now bring because he is on God’s side. None of this means Kanye is not a Christian; what it does mean is that Kanye is not qualified to be a preacher of the Gospel, especially not simply on the basis of fame… The rapid endorsement of these famous people as preachers might mean that there are lots of preachers out there whose qualifications need some renewing.

Perhaps the only thing worse than famous people who become Christians who have the task of preaching thrust upon them by a celebrity-infatuated church, is those who cynically resort to the tools of fame and power to build some sort of preaching or teaching ministry. The only thing worse than preachers or leaders getting photo opps with celebrities (think Osteen and Kanye, or Iles and Folau), are preachers who seem to just perpetually post glamour shots of themselves or photos accompanied by pull quotes from Sunday’s sermon. These are the antithesis of the Gospel and the ministry it should produce as we follow the example of Jesus.

We could do worse than looking to the example of Paul as he followed the example of the crucified king. Who was careful to ensure that the ‘noble task’ of leading and teaching be passed on to those recognised by the church communities they taught as ‘reliable people’ who were ‘qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 3:1-3), who charged Timothy to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction,” and to do this because “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

Those teachers might just be celebrities who say that the Gospel is just about personal salvation from hell, or about political victory over the immoral leaders of the ‘gay agenda,’ or about all manner of things that we give a pass simply because it seems good to us that “Christ is preached.” This Washington Post piece on how Kanye, like Trump, has embedded a certain form of ‘evangelicalism’ that focuses on individual salvation and self-improvement, in the black Gospel music tradition, is worth considering. Kanye’s conversion, so far, certainly hasn’t looked like doing anything but switching the market he sells his clothing line and music to — and talking an awful lot about having met Jesus. Our hope for Kanye is not that he might make the Gospel relevant by converting lots more celebrities to bring a revival (as he’s expressed his mission), but that he might be surrounded by faithful witnesses who model humility and the power of the crucifixion to him such that his future suggestions about name changes don’t run completely at odds with the virtues that come from a life led imitating Jesus.

We’ve got to stop expecting celebrities to jump on the celebrity preaching circuit; how much greater a witness to the crucified king would it be for Kanye, or Izzy, to submit to years of training in interpreting the text of the Bible, and years of character formation reflecting on the character of Jesus and keeping in step with the Spirit (as Paul puts it in Galatians 5), before opening the mouth. Silence from Kanye right now would speak volumes; it would perhaps speak louder than his brash, enthusiastic, embrace of the Gospel.

In all this I’m reminded of the strength of the testimony of another celebrity convert. Aussie actress Anna McGahan. McGahan has just, after years reflecting on the experience of meeting Jesus as Lord, released a book called Metanoia — which is the Greek word for repentance. The absolute change in one’s life that happens when we turn from the dead ends of relevance, fame, power, and personal glory, to worship the crucified and living God. McGahan writes beautifully. She has been a faithful member of a church community for years, she has turned down the sorts of roles and trajectories her acting career had her on before her conversion and devoted herself to imitating Jesus in ways she describes in her book. She is qualified, in these ways, to be a trusted witness to the Gospel. A preacher. And her book (and her online writing) are a powerful testimony of one who has rejected fame for the sake of the name of Jesus. McGahan does, by conviction, have a ministry with creative people — some of who are famous — she describes the ethos in her book as: “Fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus.” She describes how this emerged out of realising that she wasn’t whole as a celebrity, out of being broken and remade by Jesus, not just having her fame baptised and turned towards the ends of making Jesus known, but having her life turned upside down because she is now known by Jesus.

We could do lots to learn from at least one Christian who has experienced fame, and experienced the call of the Gospel, so that we stop acting as though fame qualifies someone to preach the Gospel. The results of our pursuit of relevance through Kanye and Izzy will keep coming home to roost if we don’t.

The New Eden Project: What shape might this take for a church community

I’ve posted a preamble, and manifesto, about this New Eden Project thing yesterday. And it’s all nice in theory, right? But what might it look like in practice?

The TL:DR; version is: the New Eden Project is about revitalising and renewing the spaces churches already occupy, and reclaiming other spaces, for communities of up to 150 people, that duplicate and spread into other spaces, while not relying on any ‘one’ particular church leader. Its practices are built around re-narrating life around God’s Jesus-oriented story, as we are re-created by his Spirit, to resist the patterns of the world, while living lives in communities that anticipate and testify to the renewal of all things, re-imagining the status quo in our church communities, but also for our neighbours.

I mentioned that this project is prompted by our experience as a church meeting in rented venues for the last six years, and in the context of a denomination where lots of buildings seem to be being ‘consolidated’ or whatever corporate euphemism you want to use for selling up properties. We’ve been part of that; our first few years hire costs were covered from the sale of an old church building. The church buildings around our city that aren’t built for massive communities (and we have a few of those), typically have physical limits for how many people they can accommodate (and carpark limits) of around 150-200. There’s a sociological number (the Dunbar number) that suggests 150 is about the size of a group (or tribe) where the members feel safe and so there’s a natural limit there. So, as we ponder the future we’re exploring the possibility of meeting in a suburban church building — and such buildings are typically a bit older and built prioritising function over form. So if this whole ‘project’ is going to go anywhere there are some fundamental convictions about what buildings should look and feel like, and what they should be used for, driving things; but also, cards on the table, I think there’s stacks out there about growing churches through the 150 or 200 barrier and the systemic changes you need to make to make that happen, and I’ve been increasingly thinking we’re actually better off creating healthy churches of 150ish that are trying to duplicate.

Our church growth models that are often built on an exceptional leader/preacher are problematic because we don’t have heaps of those around (sorry other leaders), and because when we do, those churches tend to grow at the expense of other churches around them; and that’s fine, big churches are in a position to do great things for the kingdom, but this is part of why we’ve got empty buildings and pastors burning out all over the shop (this is also fed by a consumer mentality where people last in a small church until there’s an ‘essential program’ missing and so drive to the next suburb over to a different church). If I’m going to lead a church, I don’t want to lead a church of 500, I want to train and equip people in my church community to occupy another building and grow a church of 150-200 that duplicates.

We’re also in a weird position as a community where because we have been a city church we have people driving to us from all over the greater Brisbane area; and our challenge is that we want people to be building relationships with the people they work, live, and play near (we’re pretty keen on Sam Chan’s Everyday Evangelism gear from his book (see review)). Being a city church has been fun, and I love the people who live a long way away from me, but we need some structural changes in how we meet on Sundays, and in small groups, so that our community can get involved in ‘team style’ evangelism (see that review), where people are naturally building good relationships and connections; not expecting non-Christians to travel across the city to come to a Sunday church service (though some might).

Here’s a shape for church life that I’m pitching; it’s a mix of semi-traditional church structures (with a few tweaks), small groups, and ‘fresh expressions’ of service/participation in the kingdom/New Eden Project, and of informal church structures (that can be a bit more of a movable feast/less tied to a physical ‘hub’). This is the bit where I’m really picking up and playing with the model Rory and Stephen from Providence in Perth have been developing (I think). So credit where it’s due, but they can, of course, distance themselves from the bits that they see ending somewhere bad…

Once again, after you have a read over this, I’d love your reflections.

Hub and Spoke Network

The New Eden Project values space and seeks to reclaim and renew it; ordering the physical space’s form (aesthetics) and function (architecture) towards the Bible’s story. Physical spaces aren’t just rain shelters. Habitats shape habits. The trend to prioritise function over form in church spaces, especially around AV requirements or turning churches into ‘multi-use’ space with an eye to commercial imperatives has led to church buildings being ‘non-places.’ Since spaces tell stories (and the medium is the message) this has served to tell a competing story to the Christian story; there’s no ‘neutral’ story or space, really. There are ways to create desirable common spaces that are organised towards a ‘telos’ or a story, that might still benefit the community outside of church activities. But a neutral aesthetic or layout is not neutral at all; for too long the church growth movement has sought to grow the church by ‘adapting’ worldly forms for the proclamation of the Gospel; but those forms actually adapt or colonise the content of the Gospel message. When we’re trying to dig into the problems of a consumer mentality in church communities and we’re not asking questions about how our ‘commercialisation’ of space is contributing then we’re missing the link between architecture and practices and belief.

Buildings are hubs for this New Eden Project; whether church spaces, homes, or, potentially, commercial spaces reclaimed for social enterprise type activities. Revitalising churches must necessarily include revitalising our physical spaces — even though the church is absolutely the people, not the building, habitats shape habits.

Houses where Gospel Communities or Growth Groups meet are part of the ‘spokes’ in this network; but they’re also an engine room for church planting or duplication, and a key part of how leaders are trained. Where these groups meet is likely to overlap with any future ‘hubs’ emerging. The goal of a healthy small group is to be part of some sort of local church renewal.

In terms of how this project might kick off in a church building, homes, and public space, a week might look something like this (taking up the practices from the manifesto).

Sunday Mornings (Hub)

Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-imagine // Re-enchant

  • The church community gathers to be formed by God’s story in spaces cultivated and kept as ‘tastes of Eden’… gathered around God’s word as it is read, preached, sung, and practiced (prayer, spiritual disciplines, sacraments, liturgy, etc). Minimal technology. Relaxed vibe.
  • The preaching would be shaped by our theological anthropology (how we think people work and are transformed), our theology of the church (that we are the body of Christ and each one of us has a part to play for the sake of the other), our Biblical theology (that we think the Bible is one “Eden-to-New-Eden” story fulfilled in Jesus), and our understanding of different types of speech going on in the New Testament church (preaching, teaching, prophecy, etc). Biblical exposition is some, but not all of the diet in these terms (and, for example, penal substitution is some not all of the substance of the Gospel). Faithful preaching could involve story telling, performance, a time of sharing, encouragement, etc, with the agenda set by not just the content of a passage of the Bible, but ‘media’ questions like its form (you don’t find many expository talks given in the talks recorded in the Bible, sometimes the epistles we preach on are shorter than the sermons we preach on them, the original recipients of the New Testament writings weren’t actually literate so sometimes simply reading scripture out and discussing it together might be enough, etc).
  • The application of talks to the real world is not carried out solely by a male preacher operating as an authoritative priest (though I do still think there are roles in church that are determined, in part, by gender), but by the community via Q&A, a panel of members of the church (or guests), or in discussion groups. So our diet includes men and women offering Godly wisdom and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to one another, and listening to each other. Whatever ‘male leadership’ looks like in a world marked by the patriarchal power structures of the Genesis 3 curse, it has to look like men using our privilege and strength to cultivate ‘Eden like’ space for partnership with women who feel safe; some part of male leadership/eldership (which I think the Bible establishes), I believe, is providing such space, hearing, and elevating the voices of women. I get that some people will dismiss this as a sort of ‘benevolent patriarchy’ — but I think the first Eden and the picture of the New Eden are places where males and females come together in genuine cooperation, rather than one holding a particular position of dominance over the other.
  • Kids program. Play based. Mix of outdoor and indoor time. I’d love to have a kids church curriculum integrate with the adult program but featuring lots of Duplo (ages 2-4) and Lego (ages 4-99+) where the imagination is being engaged around God’s story and how whatever part of the Bible we’re digging into fits into that story.
  • Eating together. Both taking part in communion (or as we Presbyterians call it the Lord’s Supper), and a shared meal.

Sunday afternoons — Gospel Communities ‘in action’ (Spoke)

Re-create // Re-sist // Re-plant // Re-enchant

If Sunday is a day people are setting aside, at least partly, for church, it’d be good to see church not just as time spent in a building with other Christians, but as a time to participate in Jesus’ mission of renewal. This wouldn’t be an every week activity for everyone; but would be planned activities with buy-in and encouragement from the leaders of the community. These groups would be prayed for and ‘sent’ by the morning gathering; with an invitation for anyone to join (the church community is a plausibility structure for the Gospel so we want people to belong before they believe, and belonging involves some sort of participation in church life). These activities would be more geographically scattered (ie not just near the church building, but closer to where people live/Gospel Communities meet).

These activities could include renewal projects like tree planting or acts of service in the community; resistance projects like political action; rest or play together as a community (re-creation), but involve opportunities for groups to discuss the day’s passage or service side by side. They ideally are activities that include children as participants not bystanders.

Sunday Nights — Dinner Church (Hub)

Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-create

Over time we’ll be looking for opportunities to invite non-believers to experience a taste of the Gospel, and of the rhythms of life in church community. This may or may not work best in ‘church’ space (it probably needs to have had a pattern of moving from ‘public space’ to ‘private space’ as relationships have developed — see Sam Chan’s stuff on “Coffee, Dinner, Gospel” and moving from the “front yard” to the “back yard.” and Mary Douglas’ Deciphering a Meal).

These would look like a stripped back gathering around a meal. Dinner church is a thing. It might meet in a home, or a community hall rented for a shorter period of time. These would involve a short talk, a Q&A or panel, and discussions (and maybe some singing). Coming to a ‘dinner church’ gathering would be a legitimate expression of participating in church life; it’s not a ‘come to everything’ operation.

Midweek : Growth Groups/Gospel Communities (Spoke)

Re-claim // Re-sist // Re-narrate
Midweek our small groups commit to spending time in community with each other, and embedding in a more ‘local’ context. These groups involve a commitment amongst members to meet one-to-one to read the Bible and pray together. The groups themselves are outwards focused — looking for opportunities to ‘merge universes’ (as Sam Chan describes it). But the regular rhythms of the group are eating together, reading the Bible (using a stripped back, resource-light approach — either the Swedish Method or the Uncover method AFES has developed, or other approaches that are big on digging in to the text). These groups meet in places we see as outposts for mission; homes or third spaces. They can be a movable feast, but hospitality involves being hospitable guests who partner in this work, not just capacity to host. A group might commit itself to the physical renewal of the places they meet in (spending time side by side working on projects in each others homes).

These ‘Gospel communities’ are open to outsiders as a first step towards Sundays. The church calendar is deliberately uncluttered outside Sundays to allow these communities to shape the rhythm of life together.

Midweek — Community Dinner

Resist // Re-claim // Re-create
Where a ‘hub’ type building exists we use it to host community meals and/or food pantries to provide a taste of Eden. These are for the marginalised, but also for those in our neighbourhood seeking community. These would be a great gateway to something like a Dinner Church series on the “Gospel in Four Meals” (a great evangelism course from Providence). Community meals could also happen before local Gospel communities meet (ie dinner at 6, the group meeting at 7:30) to provide a natural avenue for invitations into those groups (my friends at Village Church here in Brisbane have been doing something like this). Our Creek Road campus of Living Church does a great Friday night community meal for families after the afternoon kids club, and before the night time youth program.

The New Eden Project: Manifesto

Manifestos are cool. Here’s a bit of a primer on what this is for in the form of a preamble. I did not follow the convention on Manifestos that I said I would back in 2011. Sorry.

The New Eden Project

 “Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.” — Tolkien

Why the “New Eden Project”

The story of the Bible anticipates a re-creation; what was lost in the beginning is ultimately restored and renovated; what was a garden created for God’s image bearing people to “cultivate and keep” is, in the end, spread across the face of the earth. The last page of the Bible describes the scene this way:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. — Revelation 22:1-3

The prophet Ezekiel describes the end of exile from God as a return to Eden — a re-creation and restoration of humanity from the inside out, and a return to God’s presence. Ezekiel chapters 36 and 37 are full of vivid language, prophecies, describing this renewal. Ezekiel promises God’s scattered people, Israel, will be returned and restored, and through this, God’s promise to bless all nations will also be fulfilled. Israel’s return from exile makes return to Eden possible for all of us…

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27

Jesus, the son of God and the new Adam, comes to lead Israel home, and all nations back to Eden. It is Jesus who, in Revelation, “makes all things new.” It is Jesus in whom “all things are reconciled.” Jesus, the image of the invisible God, is the new image that we God’s people are transformed into by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus who pours out the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises to restore and recreate God’s people. When Jesus enters the world as ‘God with us’ and then, with the father, pours out the Holy Spirit, our exile from God ends; the new Eden project begins.

The liberation of creation begins with Jesus, and his kingdom of resurrected people living lives filled with the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the church in Rome the Apostle, Paul talks about the whole creation being under bondage to the curse of sin; subject to decay; he says the creation waits for the ‘revelation’ or literally the apocalypse of the children of God for its liberation. He says the Spirit marks us out as God’s children (Romans 8:16-17), and in the Spirit, we have the ‘firstfruits’ of this renewal.

This revelation and renewal ultimately happens in the new creation; the world is still broken; suffering because of sin, death, and curse, still marks our reality. We’re still waiting for the total renewal of all things. We wait eagerly for this future; but we do not wait idly. We are invited to testify to the future re-ordering of all things by re-ordering some things.

We are new creations in Christ. For us the “old is gone” and the “new has come.” We are already united to the resurrected Jesus whose new Eden project is already underway. We live in the ‘now and not yet’ of his kingdom. Our lives, our bodies (as temples of the Spirit), and the places we occupy, are part of the New Eden Project. The longing for the end of exile, for Eden, that Tolkien identified is fulfilled by Jesus but we are invited to provide a taste of Eden here and now.

What is the New Eden Project

The New Eden Project is Jesus’ mission — the mission to “seek and save the lost” and the re-creation and reconciliation of all things. The “Great Commission” to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28) is a renewing and renovating of the commission to the first people, in Genesis 1, to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” — to spread the conditions of Eden.

The New Eden Project is our project as a community of people gathered by Jesus and called to make disciples; to invite people to be transformed into the image of Jesus as they receive the Holy Spirit and become citizens of the New Eden. We go knowing that “Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age” — our exile from God’s presence is over. God is with us, he dwells in us by his Spirit.

A project is action — it is action pursuing some sort of future. Our project is to act in a way that pursues and participates in the New Eden described when Jesus returns to make everything new.

The New Eden has some continuity with the Old Eden; what humanity was created for before sin and death entered the world is what we are re-created for in Christ. We were created, male and female, to be God’s image bearing people in the world, to be like God, to imagine and create, to be “fruitful and multiply” — to expand God’s life-giving, hospitable, loving kingdom — his presence — over the face of the earth as we ruled for him. In Eden, Adam was given the job of “cultivating and keeping” the garden, a task he couldn’t complete alone. Eve was created as Adam’s ally — his partner — in this task. Taken together, Genesis 1 and 2 give us the picture that humans — male and female — are created to co-operate in the task of spreading Eden, God’s temple-like dwelling place where he is present with his people across the face of the earth, a result we finally see in Jesus’ work in the New Eden.

Genesis teaches us that God made the world and made us to partner with him in stewarding it. The Bible also consistently describes the world as part of how we know God (Psalm 19, Romans 1). Eden, like the Temple that later is an echo of Eden, is the high point of the world fulfilling its function. Sin means we’re kicked out of Eden, and also that we don’t see the world according to God’s purposes for it, but rather our own. We have our own little kingdom building projects that lead to death and destruction because really they’re Satan’s building projects.

Our tasks, as children of God, in this New Eden Project, in a world exiled from God but haunted by a longing for Eden, are to:

  • Re-narrate the world and our lives in it. The New Eden Project is shaped by the Eden to New Eden story of the Bible. The Bible is God’s word — it is also God’s story. This is the story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins and his pouring out of the Spirit to re-create and restore us, ending our exile from God replacing our sinful nature with something new. Our lives, our words, our songs, and our actions retell God’s story of salvation in Jesus; they tell not just of the forgiveness of our sins and a pie in the sky future, but our union in the life and love of God so that we become the ‘body of Christ’ in the world. We are a people who live with Jesus as our king and the mission of renewal as our mission. Though we know this mission is ultimately fulfilled in his return and we know that the world and our lives are still marked by sin, suffering, death and curse, we live as those raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly realm. We reject idolatry and grasping self-gratification and seek to bring all things, including our own lives, towards their ultimate ends (or purposes). We live bringing a taste of the resurrected new creation, living now in our persons and our community even in our suffering. We invite people to taste and see that God is good in our lives and spaces as we tell this story.
  • Be Re-created by God’s Spirit, as we move from the patterns of this world, the pattern of Adam and Eve in the fall, to the pattern — or image — of Jesus, and so re-create our lives and the world in alignment with Jesus’ New Eden Project. Eden was a place of work and rest and play; it was a place of ‘re-creation’ as we people, made in God’s image, were to take up the task of ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden using our God given imaginations and his good gifts to make life and culture (the conditions and creations that flow from pursuing life in God’s presence with him as our God). We work and ‘re-create’ (both rest and re-creation) with the goal of bringing the life and beauty and order of the God of the Bible into the world. We adopt habits consistent with this story and pursue transformation through a renewed mind as we let it dwell among us richly. We do this as people being re-created, in Jesus, by the Spirit, to be people of his eternal kingdom, anticipating the new creation, the new Eden. By the Spirit we are new creations now.
  • Re-enchant our understanding of space, time, and our lives because God has “broken in” to this world in Jesus (a cool place to notice this is in the tearing of the sky at the start of Mark, and the Temple curtain at its end), and through the pouring out of the Spirit, we reject the secular/sacred or natural/supernatural divide and see every moment as holy and the world as enchanted. We see creation as a gift from God and the proper use of creation as “revealing his divine nature and character of God” as we enjoy it and cultivate it with him present in our lives. We see work and rest and play as Spiritual practices that proclaim the kingdom we belong to and shape us in the image of the God we worship. We worship the God revealed in Jesus and serve him as our good and loving king. We seek to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, living lives in his kingdom, participating in his renewing and reconciling mission, a mission that culminates in the New Eden.
  • Re-sist the patterns of this world — by deliberately rejecting the pull of idolatry and by deliberately counter-forming ourselves through different practices. The nations of people exiled from God are often depicted after the Old Testament as ‘Babylon’ — this is particularly the case in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Babylon has the power to capture the hearts of the people brought into its power, and its stories. We resist Babylon through deliberate acts of counter-formation and resistance (including cultural critique and protest or political action). We have our own distinct aesthetic and practices rather than imitating the world and its forms. This could be in something as radical as hospitality and sabbath, or as mundane as protest or tree planting. The catch is, there is no mundane because every part of our life is marked by the sacred.
  • Re-imagine our relationships as we re-image our humanity in the image of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. We, as males and females, are invited to co-operate in Jesus’ project. The first witnesses to the resurrection — in the garden, where Jesus appears like a gardener, are women. We still, though anticipating a new Eden, live in a world whose patterns are shaped by the curse of Genesis 3, where men have used their strength to grasp for power and control.
  • Re-claim space, time, and our bodies as ‘spaces’ where the New Eden is being anticipated and presented in the world as a taste of what is to come. We recognise our bodies as fundamental to our nature as image-bearing creatures. We are not just souls or minds waiting for some ‘disembodied’ future. How we use our bodies shapes our hearts and souls. We seek to love and serve Jesus as embodied people who belong to Jesus’ New Eden Project. We use our spaces — those we share, occupy, and own — to provide a taste of the sanctuary of Eden, both old and new. They are places of beauty and hospitality. Places where God is glorified and where we recognise his presence and provision. They are places of life and light and water.
  • Re-plant ‘Eden’ in our homes, shared public spaces, and community spaces. There are lots of old buildings dedicated to worshipping God that have, at times, become too close to Babylon or that need new life. We commit to re-claiming and re-creating whatever space possible, ‘church building’ or otherwise, to be used towards the ends of God’s kingdom, bringing a taste of the New Eden and God’s presence in the world by whatever means possible. We are committed to ‘renewing’ (and so also renewables, recycling, and up-cycling). We also commit, in our resistance of Babylon, to re-plant natural spaces — to be ‘gardeners’ and stewards who ‘cultivate and keep’ the world God made — so that they reveal his divine nature and character, rather than our ravenous idolatry. We recognise that as humans sinfully degrade the planet this is evident in the natural world; and so we commit to an alternative pattern of life that stewards and re-creates the life-giving conditions of Eden wherever possible, from community gardens to tree-planting to our own backyards.

I have some ideas what a church community shaped by this sort of manifesto might look like. Do you? I’d love to hear them. I’ll share mine in a future post. If this sort of vision for church excites you, I’d love to hear that too. Also, if it leaves you cold and you think this is a diabolically bad idea, please tell me.

New Eden Project Manifesto: Preamble

We’re in a position as a church, and as a family, where a bunch of unsettled and up-in-the-air realities are about to come crashing down into some new sort of normal. This year we’ve been out of our house while replacing deadly asbestos with normal plasterboard (we’re hoping to be in our renewed home by Christmas). My boss (and friend) resigned from his position unexpectedly, which has thrown church life into chaos for us. The building we’re currently meeting in is up for sale and our lease expires in two months. And our church community has the opportunity to recalibrate as we find a new place to meet; each time we’ve moved from non-stable venue to non-stable venue our numbers have been decimated and the sense of being rootless has not been great for us. So I’ve been thinking about the next chapter of church life for me, as a pastor, for us, as a family, and for those in our church as a community. I signed up for ministry with the Presbyterian Church because my theology and understanding of polity line up with Presbyterianism, but also because our denomination is one that puts the Gospel at the centre of what we do and is in a situation where new ideas or fresh expressions of church might bring renewal to a bunch of communities and buildings around Queensland; we’ve been a nomadic church plant for almost six years, which, while ‘new’ and sometimes ‘fresh’ hasn’t really been easy, or what got me on the Presbyterian bus to begin with. I’ve got great respect for those church planters who spend years meeting in schools or other public spaces for hire; but I’m not convinced that’s the most effective use of resources or the best model for the church in Australia long term (imagine, for a moment, that state schools decided overnight to no longer lease buildings to churches).

I’ve written quite a bit over the years sketching out some areas where I think church could and should change — from a set of ‘theses’ to mark the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, to some ideas about how church might function in a post-Christian, secular, culture, then how we might re-capture our story, to a thing about zombies and the “Benedict Option,” to sketching out an aesthetic that might support the telling and living of the Christian story as a sort of architecture of belief, pieces on rest, and play, and finally a sort of theological vision for how we should live as Christians in a world facing climate catastrophe. In that last post I used the phrase “the New Eden Project” so many times that it became a brain worm for me. And thus, bringing all those threads together, an idea for a model of church was born. This model owes quite a bit to a subject I took at QTC with Rory Shiner and Stephen McAlpine on “Ministry and Mission in A Secular Age,” and in some ways is an adaptation of their model (as I understood it).

This is a long pre-amble for my next post — which will sketch out a picture of church community and life in Jesus’ kingdom that I’m calling “The New Eden Project.”

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The climate apocalypse is real, and here’s why we need a different sort of climate apocalypse that begins with Jesus (and us Christians)

11,000 scientists from around the globe have joined forces this week to declare a climate emergency, signing a paper warning of catastrophic threat to humanity. It’s a pretty apocalyptic sort of vision.

Are you listening?

I’m not a scientist, so I tend to leave science to scientists. Which means I am listening.

I am open to questioning the worldview or default assumptions underpinning some science — in that, as someone who is a Christian I do also believe in a supernatural realm and a God ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ and I’m skeptical of scientific overreach where conclusions are drawn about the legitimacy of such a being because of ‘science.’ As a quick tangent — science as we know it is born out of theism — Christianity specifically in the western world, and Islam in other parts of the world. For Christians, from the Bible (for eg Romans 1:20), through Augustine, the Bacons, and other pioneers of the scientific method science was a way to study the cosmos as ‘God’s second book’ — understanding God from what has been made. When we observe natural operations and order in the cosmos (like mathematics and natural laws) we are seeing God’s handiwork. Part of the problem, in the Bible, is that we can’t always get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ because we humans are so busy writing our own stories into the fabric of the universe as we build and break, but also there’s this dynamic right from the first pages of the Bible where that good order is thrown into ‘disorder’ or decay, frustration, and curse as a result of human sin. Plus, a sensitive reading of Genesis 1-2 suggests there are bits of creation that are less than perfectly ordered in that the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are meant to “cultivate and keep” this garden, so probably to expand it over the earth as they “be fruitful and multiply.” The Garden, Eden, does not yet cover the whole earth. There’s space for some chaos existing outside the garden in a plain reading of the text of Genesis.

Christians have typically understood God’s first book — the Bible — as the primary authority in a way that shapes (and underpins) the scientific endeavour. If there appears to be a conflict we’re either reading one (the Bible or the science) or both books (the Bible and the science) the wrong way. When they line up we can be pretty confident, as Christians, that there’s something to pay attention to. We don’t need to reject or be suspicious of science simply because it is ‘science’; or to conform every bit of what we believe to be true about the universe to what scientists tell us (or the conclusions that naturalistic scientists then might seek to draw from the data).

So when 11,000 scientists — and plenty of Christian scientists — tell me that the world is heading towards catastrophic change, and I can see a pretty direct link to individual and systemic sin — particularly greed or selfishness or our culture of instant gratification and taking what we want from the world rather than stewarding it sustainably as an act of love for God the creator, and our neighbour — as a cause then I’m happy to take note. I’m not, for the record, a Young Earth Creationist TM  so I’m not inclined to reject science simply because it is science, but I do take Genesis very seriously as a text that informs my position on this question. I’ve been puzzled for a while about an apparent link between young earth creationism and rejecting anthropomorphic climate change because it seems to me that a plain, literal, reading of the text of Genesis directly links the state of the planet to human action (the subsequent promise not to wipe out humanity with another flood in the Noah narrative notwithstanding). Here’s what God says to Adam about sin and the climate. The fall itself is a sinful, self-serving, grasping, pillaging approach to the created world — the taking of the fruit God had forbidden to use for Adam and Eve’s own ends.

“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

This seems to be a big deal for Paul in the book of Romans, who spends a bunch of time showing that Jesus is a new Adam, who brings a new pattern for humanity (a new image of God to be conformed to), where we become the ‘children of God’ that the creation itself is longing for. Or, as Paul puts it:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. — Romans 8:20-22

The command for humanity to ‘be fruitful and multiply, rule the earth and subdue it’ is not a command to rape and pillage the creation, but to interact with the created world as image bearers of the life giving, life creating, God who makes things good and hospitable; it’s a call to cultivate Eden across the face of the earth not strip mine it to build little palaces for ourselves that mitigate the harsh conditions we find ourselves living in. The post-fall, cursed, world is the reality we exist in and have to figure out our ethics from. We don’t pretend the creation is not cursed or frustrated as a result of the fall of God’s image bearing rulers (we’re certainly not universally pursuing fruitfulness and the sanctuary where God dwells with his people post Genesis 3). We also can’t totally pull the conditions of the new creation — described in Revelation 21-22 back into the present. We should expect fallen people to be producing cursed conditions rather than life-giving ones as they depart from bearing God’s image in the world. This is one of the things that was most beautiful about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie a few years ago; the way it showed how the sinfulness of the generation God wiped out in the flood expressed itself in the treatment of the world; it’s what is beautiful about Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the way that Mordor is a picture of the destruction of the planet through the idolatrous pursuit of control, wealth and power (this link is to a great piece exploring this dynamic, but also check out the Eucatastrophe’s episode on why they’re called The Eucatastrophe for more on this). Human sinfulness damages the world, and you don’t have to be an expert on ecology to know that there are cycles in nature that can be thrown into different patterns as we tinker with or destroy the natural order — it shouldn’t surprise us that pumping anything into the air that wasn’t there in the same volume before has an impact (I mean, it’s obvious with air pollution and air quality in cities right? And in water quality when we pump stuff into rivers or oceans).

The Noah promise that I’ve seen politically conservative Christians rely on to reject climate change is one piece of Biblical data pulled out of the context of the rest of the Biblical narrative. You don’t even have to leave the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, a literary unit of which Genesis and the Noah story is a part) to find evidence supporting a relationship between human sinfulness and the state of the climate. What’s going on in God’s “never again will I curse the ground” with Noah is clearly not a return to Eden, and clearly not a restoration of a universal image bearing people — the children of God — who will live rightly with creation. It doesn’t prevent human intervention in messing up the world. God’s sovereignty doesn’t ever seem to totally try to wipe out the human impact on the world except at the flood. Maybe that’s significant in our interpretation… in fact, from this point onwards, fruitful, blessed creation where the conditions for human flourishing are most present in the world (not withstanding God sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous) are promised benefits for people living in harmony with God again — whether that’s Israel and the promised land (eg Deuteronomy 28:1-11), the promise that the land will become hostile to life if Israel becomes hostile to God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), and restored if they return to God (Deuteronomy 30:1-11), Ezekiel’s description of the barren land produced by Israel’s profaning God’s name and subsequent exile, and the promise of a new Eden when God re-creates a new image bearing people who serve him from the heart… the conditions of the world are, from Genesis on always linked to whether or not the people living in the environment are in relationship with God or not; when they aren’t, curse and destruction follows.

The Bible’s approach to the natural world and its hospitality for life is anthropomorphic not simply about God’s sovereignty; though God’s sovereignty plays out in blessing and curse. Here’s a sample from Deuteronomy 28, which comes, of course, after the Genesis 9:11 passage that climate change skeptics love to quote. This is the sort of doom and gloom apocalyptic vision we now hear from scientists — talk about uninhabitable for human life…

“The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” — Deuteronomy 28:22-24

Oh, and there’s this cheery bit in Deuteronomy 29…

The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” — Deuteronomy 29:23-28

If God, in his sovereignty, says this is how he will respond to sin — and sin often expresses itself in a failure to steward creation or to seek the flourishing of others (selfishness/self-gratification/pillaging) — then who are we to insist that climate change is not a result of human behaviour and not consistent with God’s sovereignty?

Now, these curses are just promises to Israel, God’s people — and it’s not a great principle to extrapolate from such a curse to a universal principle; but nor can we use the words in Genesis 9 to establish a universal principle that Deuteronomy 28 explicitly rejects. Especially when Romans 8 seems to still see a universal frustration of creation linked to humanity not universally being Adam-like children of God who bring fruitfulness. There’s also, in Genesis 12, the promise that God’s blessing on the nations — their flourishing — is connected to Israel. We see a slice of that in Joseph’s relationship with Egypt, but more with Solomon’s international relations (not the marriage bits, their coming to him for wisdom on how to live in the natural world (you know, the world he compiled proverbs about)). But this promise to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (which is where Paul goes in Romans 9), so that real blessing and the real people of God who really start unravelling curse is found in those united to Jesus as the new Israel; the people of God who bring life and relate to the world differently because we have the Spirit (which is the fulfilment of the prophecies in Ezekiel that start the new Eden project).

Jesus is the new Adam, the New Israel, who is faithful — whose heart is inclined to God so that the restoration promised in the Old Testament is possible. As a cool bonus detail, in his resurrection appearance he appears as a ‘gardener’ a new Adam bringing a new image of fruitfulness and, ultimately, the liberation of creation from sin and curse (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22). His obedience means that he and the father pour out the Spirit and re-create people who are children of God.  People who are called not to conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed (Romans 12). People who are part of a liberating project that will ultimately be fulfilled in the return of Jesus and the complete revelation of the children of God.

Here’s a fun fact about Romans 8:19, which says “for the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” That revealed word is ‘apocalypse’ — apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — but creation is waiting for the apocalyptic children of God. People who will help creation meet its ‘end’ or fulfilment (as the children of God are revealed) and live in a new beginning for the created world too. The point of Romans is that the apocalypse doesn’t just arrive with the return of Jesus but with the coming of the Spirit into his people. We live in this apocalyptic, revealing, age pointing to the ultimate end (both purpose and future) for creation — and to where creation goes when we humans use it for our own godless ends.

Some Christian political visions do pretty odd stuff with Revelation as a text; Revelation is a pretty odd text. But Revelation is an ‘apocalyptic’ text (again, that word). It reveals true things about the world as it is; not just as it will be. It is a profoundly political text; a rejection of the beastly human empires that kill God’s children, including his son, Jesus, and who use God’s creation for selfish gain. It’s a text that offers a similar commentary on reality to the Lord of the Rings; especially in the first century. If you want more on this, check out Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation. He’s got an interesting chapter on Revelation 18 and its economic/apocalyptic significance in a book called Image of Empire (though I think a better reading of Revelation than he offers has Rome as the beast, and idolatrous Israel who sold her soul to Rome and conspired with it to execute Jesus as the harlot).

Here’s an interesting promise, from God, about the nations and the climate… 

‘Come out of her, my people,’
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
    pay her back double for what she has done.
    Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
    as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
    I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
    death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. — Revelation 18:4-8

Sound familiar? Now, people have all sorts of positions on when this will happen (or has happened) — the ‘apocalyptic times’ — but the point of Romans and Revelation is that the apocalyptic times are now. This is life now because it is life opposed to God. John in Revelation describes the cargoes of all the merchants who belong to Rome/Babylon — they get rich from the things they dig up and produce from the world; things specifically mentioned in Eden in Genesis, but also recalibrated to give glory to God in the vision of the new Eden and new temple in Revelation 21. Revelation is a condemnation of the empires that set themselves up grasping and destroying the world and living for self and self-gratification and the moment, rather than living for God with eternal fruitfulness and the kingdom of Jesus in view. The message of Revelation is that kingdoms — lives — built on pillaging and destruction and greed and the rejection of God — the kind of lives it describes as belonging to Babylon — the nation that took God’s people into exile — will not last. Lives that seek to control the frustrated creation by building human comfort through making ourselves little gods, and through the robbery and misery of others will be destroyed… and that Jesus will make all things new. Jesus will, ultimately, fix the climate. And when this is our story, the lives we live now — and our interaction with and understanding of the natural world — will look different to Babylon; and we’ll expect Babylon and its sin to have an impact on the world.

The vision that is to animate Christians against the beastly Babylonian backdrop the first Christians found themselves operating in in Rome, and that we find ourselves operating in today (which includes economic and political powers that destroy the planet); is the vision of a new Eden; a new Eden requires a world that is broken by sin and curse — by human actions and God’s punishment for our sin — a world longing to be renewed.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

Those of us who are Christians now live in these ‘apocalyptic’ times differently. We live as those restored from exile from God — the exile that began for humanity in the loss of Eden, and for Israel in Babylon. We live as people with God’s Spirit in us; people living in the dawn of an ‘apocalyptic’ end times age. People knowing where things are going; but our neighbours don’t. And the world is still frustrated and will still be messed up by ‘Babylonian sin’ — by those exiled from God who aren’t bearing his image, but the image of the destructive idols we pursue instead. Those who don’t fruitfully multiply by cultivating the earth, but bring death and destruction by pillaging it. We live as a kingdom called to be different, with our vision of the future shaping how we live now, and the kind of solution or apocalypse we proclaim as we ‘garden’ and serve the resurrected gardener. Our apocalyptic vision is the new eden project.

When scientists say ‘we’re heading towards climate catastrophe’ and the reasons we get look a lot like us taking creation and trying to be God with it from sinful, selfish, hearts — then we Christians are pretty well positioned to say “amen” and offer a solution that isn’t just human-driven salvation, but a return from being exiled from the creator to being the image bearing gardeners we were created to be, who in partnership with God, spread the conditions of life through the planet again; that’s one way Christians might bear witness not just to the creation but to the new creation we see depicted in Revelation; where Jesus returns to make ‘all things new’ — until that happens, in a Romans 8 sense, we have the job of being ‘children of God’ who are mini pictures of the returning Jesus, being transformed into his image by the Spirit because we have faith that he is our Lord and king and the pattern for our humanity. Maybe we need to re-read or re-watch the Lord of the Rings and commit ourselves to a certain sort of heroism; maybe fantasy might help us see nature as part of a cosmic battle between God’s design and the patterns of the evil one. We can bring little pockets of life-giving liberation and resistance in those parts of creation we occupy and cultivate. We can commit ourselves to stewarding creation for our neighbours, and their children, as an act of worship. A friend of mine from church has launched a project aiming to live a carbon positive life; he’s blogging his way through it. Another friend is blogging through her own journey in stopping what I’d call ‘Babylonian’ practices and starting ‘Eden’ ones. We can do our bit to resist the systemic and individual patterns of life that bring destruction. We can do this while preaching the Gospel, proclaiming that the resurrected Jesus brings new life, and launched the new Eden project, that is the ultimate solution to human sinfulness and its impact on the world, and the end of God’s curse.

We need to embrace a different sort of apocalyptic way of life, one that sees the world and its patterns as they are, a source of death and curse, and Jesus and his patterns as they are, a source of life and blessing.

Jesus is Lord and the danger of fame adjacent Christianity

I spent the day today listening to Kanye West’s new album Jesus is King and watching its social media mentions go gangbusters amongst a subset of my social media feed; typically these were male, members of the clergy, and seeking to share the good news that yes, Jesus is King, but also, yes, it appears that Kanye West has come to put his faith in Jesus as his king.

I don’t want to sell this short; it is a miracle that Kanye West has become a Christian. Or at least that by the sorts of external measures we use to assess a conversion he has; he’s provided a credible public testimony and his new album certainly articulates the content of the Gospel. That Jesus is both Lord and Saviour — it’s hardly a theological treatise that covers the full substance of Christian belief; but it is still a miracle.

Not because nobody converts to Christianity in this hard, secular, frame we live in. People do. Lots of them. Still.

Not because Kanye is rich and famous — though Jesus did say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Not because Kanye, and his wife, Kim Kardashian, have operated and promoted lifestyles that seem like the antithesis of the Christian life.

Not because Kanye as a very powerful and influential celebrity will have an incredible platform to promote the Gospel to others as though he’s some sort of Gospel mule we can use to smuggle Jesus into the houses of those who only listen to rap from the most famous rappers in the world.

It’s a miracle because any time any body — rich and famous, or poor and downtrodden — puts their faith in Jesus Christ we are witnessing early onset resurrection. A person who puts their faith in Jesus moves from death to life, a person who trusts in Jesus receives God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in them where God’s Holy Spirit did not previously dwell. A person receiving the good news, believing the Gospel, is good news precisely because it is a miracle. And I’m thankful for what appears to be, for Kanye, a genuine transformation (his interview with Jimmy Kimmel is a good place to get this sense).

This is a miracle. His album, though not an amazing piece of musicology or theology contains some beauty, some truth, and no doubt will be on rotation on church spotify playlists.

The last track on his album, the title track, Jesus Is Lord, is a pretty straight forward articulation of the most basic articulation of the miraculous, life-giving, message of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord

Every knee shall bow
Every tongue confess
Jesus is Lord
Jesus is Lord
Every knee shall bow
Every tongue confess
Jesus is Lord
Jesus is Lord

In Romans, the apostle Paul says: “ If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Kanye seems very much to be making such a declaration; and I have no reason to believe he’s not believing in the resurrection; he’s certainly been enforcing a Christian moral code on those working on his album and documentary, and seeking to uphold similar standards in his home life (with less ability to influence proceedings, according to his wife Kim). This sort of lip-service is not a guarantee that Kanye is a Christian (though my point here is not to rain on that parade). Jesus himself said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). It’s great that Kanye now sees himself working for God, that he’s not just a Christian musician but a “Christian everything” and that this is transforming how he lives and does business, and let’s pray it continues… 

What might not be so great is a sort of ‘celebrity adjacent Christianity’ that plays out on social media. There’s a challenge for us Christians to walk a line when the rich and powerful put their trust in the crucified king who brings an upside down kingdom, we’re so attracted by the idea of not being totally removed from the centre of power, hipness or hopness (look, that sentence pretty much guarantees I’m not those things…)… we might, for instance, celebrate that Kanye has apparently come home to Jesus and neglect to celebrate the miraculous in our own communities, and we might do this justifying it because we can leverage his coming home for the Gospel and market Jesus by promoting Kanye as a picture of miraculous repentance and the resurrecting life of Jesus… we might think that credibility for the Gospel comes from pointing people to the lyrics of the track God Is (which are great)… we might think Jesus needs the street-cred Kanye offers (or that, in this secular frame, we need that street cred), and we might even ironically disavow such street-cred as a way of building our own at the expense of those who seem to crave it (and this post is now walking a very fine line, I know). It’s so easy for us Christians in a celebrity obsessed age to want a fame adjacent Christianity; if not a Christianity that allows us to actually be famous (and there’s, of course, the Christian celebrity machine of pastors and bloggers and podcasters and worship leaders and contemporary Christian artists building platforms and reputation). It’s easy for us to want to leverage Kanye’s fame for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel, as if that works better with a celebrity endorsement. A “church communications” group I’m in has a thread trying to work out how to capitalise on the “POSITIVE WORLD WIDE publicity” that comes from Kanye’s album dropping.

This is a bad idea.

For starters, in Australia McCrindle Research studied the factors that make Christianity attractive or repellant for non-churched Australians, and one of their top ten most ineffective methods for promoting the Gospel was celebrity endorsements. 70% of Australians are repelled by celebrity Christian endorsements (source).

It’s also a bad idea because Jesus doesn’t need celebrity to be compelling. And celebrity itself, wealth and power, in Jesus’ own words, don’t necessarily line up with the kingdom of God; the kingdom where our king is famous for being executed in a humiliating way by the rich and the famous. They go together like camels and needles; which means, when a rich and famous person does come to put their faith and trust in Jesus it is a miracle, but also, that it’d be a mistake to make something exceptional seem normal or appealing.

But it’s also a bad idea because there’s always been a problem with God’s name being attached to representatives who take it up for personal gain and then drag it through the mud.

It’s so easy for us to feel legitimised by someone famous for something else being also famously Christian. I remember collecting basketball cards as a kid (never having watched an NBA game in my life, and being semi-obsessed with collecting cards featuring the Spurs’ David Robinson, because he was a Christian (he even appeared in a sports star Bible I enjoyed for a while). Now I just wikipediad him and it turns out he’s still a pretty all-round decent guy… but just imagine I’d been obsessed with, say, Jarryd Hayne as a young teenager in the last ten years, or Israel Folau as a middle aged, white, politically conservative pastor (you knew that was coming). The danger of attaching Christianity, or worse, Jesus to some celebrity brand is the same danger that comes for companies who attach their names to toxic celebrities (and we do a good enough job in house, as the church, of trashing the reputation of Jesus).

In 2016 Jarryd Hayne proclaimed publicly that his Christian faith shaped him; he became a Christian almost ten years earlier through his time with the Fijian Rugby League team. He said his faith helped him cope with the ups and downs of his career and the criticism he wore from the media, especially after he returned to Australia from his NFL adventure in the U.S.

He definitely read the Bible; he even proclaimed Jesus in this article: “You do read articles and you get upset and you want to get fired up but when you read the bible you realise, everyone hated Jesus, so you’ve got to put that into perspective as well and realise how much he stood up and was still him.’

This was also after some questionable sexual ethics saw Hayne become a father for the first time. What wasn’t public when this article went to print was that Hayne, in 2015, has allegedly (in a case now settled) sexually assaulted a Christian woman in the U.S, during his time there. In 2017 Jarryd Hayne was baptised in the Jordan river in Jerusalem (apparently rich and famous people don’t get baptised in the church community they belong to), by now, Christians weren’t trotting him out as a poster boy, which was probably a good thing given he’d then be faced with very similar accusations and charges back here in Australia. The upside to this story is that, while awaiting a trial, Hayne is studying at Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Bible College in Perth. Celebrities disappoint; all the people who got excited — whether teenage boys, or Christians on social media who love a good high profile Christian — were disappointed by Jarryd Hayne’s public expression of his faith. If he’d been put on any posters for any presentation of the Gospel (or social media posts), those posting might want to distance themselves from him in order to distance him from Christianity. Celebrities can drag down the cause, and probably do that disproportionately to their ability to lift the cause.

Look, like Kanye, Hayne is redeemable, he is not beyond the reach of the resurrecting king. Whether or not he’s a follower of Jesus who just, because of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, doesn’t do a particularly good job of doing the will of his father in heaven, while calling Jesus Lord, is not for me to judge — nor is it for me to judge whether Kanye is a Christian or not. That’s ultimately up to God. It is, however, up to us Christians to get it right when it comes whose name gets attached to whose…

We don’t need to ride the Kanye wave and post links to his music and lyrics on Facebook to attract people to Jesus; or point people to the miracle of his conversion.

We don’t need Israel Folau to champion the cause of religious people. Or to have him, with his heterodox views, sharing the platform with us to make our political cause relevant.

We don’t need Jarryd Hayne as the poster boy of Christianity.

We don’t need to be celebrity adjacent as Christians for Christianity to be miraculous or life changing good news. We don’t need wealth and power and a platform for Jesus to be Lord.

Fame adjacent Christianity can quickly pull us away from Jesus and towards the world; away from the cross and towards glory. Away from representing God’s name, and towards representing our own name.

We need Jesus.

Jesus is Lord; and the miracle of the Gospel is not that we attach our name to his as an extension of his brand — a way to make him popular in the world as we leverage our influence; it’s that in the Gospel he attaches his name to us, and he stands before God in heaven and intercedes for us saying ‘this one is mine.’ We do, in this process, become his image bearers in the world again; his representatives in the world — but that representation has to be shaped by the story of the Bible, a story of failed representatives who got a bit too close to the sun (literally in the case of Babel, where the people building the tower wanted to make their own names great, rather than God’s). Israel was meant to honour and uphold God’s name in the nations, not take it in vain and drag it through the mud. They wanted to be like the rich and powerful nations around them, they were too attracted to the ancient equivalent of celebrity, both their own kings (like Saul) and the kings and princes of the nations around them.

The story of the Bible is the story that Jesus is Lord. Jesus the new, true, Adam, and the new, true, Israel. It’s the story that God is represented by an image — the image of the invisible God — who reveals the nature of God when he is crucified and then raised from the dead. Not in celebrity, not with an album launch, but on a cross. When Kanye has demonstrated, from a lifetime of being shaped by the cross (rather than telling Jimmy Kimmel that Christianity has his business growing, and that he’s a billionaire) then maybe he’ll be worth holding up as an example. Until then I’ll heed the words of this ancient song, and join Kanye saying “Jesus is Lord…” and celebrating that he sets prisoners free.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free. — Psalm 146:3-7

Image Source: Pitchfork story about a golden statue of Kanye called “False Idol” that appeared in Hollywood a few years ago.

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Returning to the table: on being the church, and disagreement, in an inhospitable age

There’s a beautiful metaphor of unity in the Gospels.

The table.

This is a particular thread in Luke’s Gospel where we witness Jesus going as a guest into the house of sinners, feeding people abundantly, and eating with his disciples and offering bread and wine as a picture of our participation in his death and resurrection and being made children of God who can eat at his heavenly table. The table, and who has access to it, has been a powerful picture of belonging in church history — different church traditions have different approaches to the table, some open it to all, as an invitation to be part of God’s family — an altar call of sorts, others ‘fence’ it, offering it to those members of the community the leaders of the community know to be Christians — taking seriously Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about ‘discerning the body’ in the meal (and understanding that both being about discerning the body of Jesus in the bread, and the body of Jesus being the community one shares the meal with — believing a person must be able to do both to truly be celebrating unity with Christ and his people).

There’s a backstory to this idea of sharing at the table that goes right back to the Garden at the start of the story of the Bible; the Garden where God as host declared all the fruit of the trees he’d put in the garden ‘good for food’ — except for one tree — and Adam and Eve decided that despite God’s prohibition, despite God being the good and generous host of an abundant table, they would declare what he called evil “good for food,” and they took it, and they ate it, and they were expelled from the table. God’s abundant provision of hospitality and a feast was celebrated through Israel’s history in various ways, including at the temple and through feasts and festivals, and Psalm 23 is a poetic picture of God’s abundant, overflowing, hospitality that must surely have had Israel salivating when they too found themselves cut off from God’s table during exile. Jesus restoring people to God’s table is a big deal; a deal the tables we operate in our churches points to — a return from being banished from the garden and exiled from God.

The table is a powerful picture of God’s hospitality to his family. But it’s also a powerful picture of relationships where difference is acknowledged. The tables Jesus eats at in Luke — those of the pharisees and tax collectors — are not the table Jesus operates as host. His presence there does not make the people he eats with part of God’s family, but it makes them people he loves and wants to eat with in order to love his neighbours and his enemies and invite them to the greater feast. This culminates, of course, with Zacchaeus, the lost tax collector who comes home to God as he invites Jesus to eat at his table. This difference is a really significant feature; we Christians sit at tables with different people at different times and express different things in that sitting; the table I eat with my church family and the table I share with my family in our home, and the tables I host with my friends, and the tables I am hosted at in public place, or the tables in the homes of other people all mean different things, and I occupy a different seat and a different role each time. To invite someone into my home, or to share in the Lord’s Supper (or communion) in church, is to invite people into the life of my family or the family of God, and the latter is in a different way to the way we might invite people to share dinner with us at church.

I wrote a few things during the debate about same sex marriage in Australia, and around the position the church was occupying as scandals around church abuse and domestic violence broke in the media to make the point that Christians now don’t occupy the place of honour at the public table we might have once assumed. We need to relearn the art of receiving hospitality in the Australian community, and indeed, it’s possible we’re now so on the nose, and that our social capital is so low, that we might need to learn what it looks like to be excluded from that table all together; it’s not a table that operates with the same grace that our Lord’s table operates with, we actually might need to earn our place at the ‘public table’ in the public square.

The table also has some interesting dynamics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church beyond how Christians treat the table when it comes to sharing dinner and sharing the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist, depending on your theological tradition) (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The sorts of tables Christians eat at as guests matter; how joining a table is perceived and what it represents to others, and for themselves, matters.

Christians are not to eat in idol temples or share at tables of idol temples in Corinth because they belong to God and his kingdom; to eat at an idol’s table is to unite yourself, to commune, with that idol — or to be seen to by others, whether the idol is nothing (which is why Paul is happy to eat meat bought in the markets that had been sacrificed to idols), or there is something more substantial going on (which is why Paul says not to ‘share in the cup of demons’ in the idol temple). Christians shouldn’t participate in the hospitality of other gods, and eat at their tables — both because of whatever Spiritual reality is at play, and the perception that would create about the exclusivity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-21) — but they should enjoy the hospitality of those who follow other gods, their neighbours. We’re also to put the unity experienced at God’s table above all other forms of unity — his table shapes our approach to all other tables. We’re not to eat at tables we might feel free to if it destroys the conscience of the members of the body of Christ who share God’s table with us (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). So Paul expects Corinthian Christians to eat in the homes of their neighbours as guests and do so freely until their host tries to make the table a table belonging to an idol, so that to eat is to participate in idolatry, or express a ‘belonging’ to that god’s table (1 Corinthians 10:27-28). We’re not, with our table manners or our eating to call evil “good” with our actions, but nor should we call what God has declared good “evil.” This is the line Jesus trod so artfully as he ate with sinners, despite the Pharisees believing that ‘bad company’ corrupted. Israel had some pretty intense table fellowship laws that ruled out ever eating with gentiles and especially ever eating ‘unclean’ or idol food.

David Fitch has this really great picture of three types of table we Christians participate in as individuals, that maps nicely onto a corporate metaphor of the table — how we run tables, and participate at them in a more ‘institutional’ way. In his book Faithful Presence: Seven habits that will shape your church for mission, He talks about this in terms of ‘circles’

The first table

He talks about our churches operating the table where the Lord’s Supper is served as a practice that forms us as Christians, where we invite people to put their trust in Jesus, return from exile from God, and receive his hospitality as children. It’s like Jesus holding the Last Supper with his people, those who belonged to him who share in his body and blood and will share in the heavenly table. There’s a picture in the Gospel of someone who is grumpy at just how far the invitation to this first table extends — the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who grumbles that the father will let anybody who comes home and is recognised as part of the family eat, no matter how far into the world of exile they’ve wandered (partying it up in gentile cities and then wanting to eat pig food is about as far from Eden or the promised land as it gets).

The second table

This formative practice of sharing at what is essentially God’s table, where we extend his hospitality, then shapes how we operate the tables in our homes, or the meals we conduct as hosts. We get caught up in the hospitality of God and generously invite all comers to our tables, not just those who might give us something (like increased status — which was a sort of Roman hospitality practice the Corinthians were falling into), but those who can’t, and not just those who belong to our household or family (another Corinthian practice) but those who don’t. This table though doesn’t mark out the people of God; it marks out the people we extend love to and invite; it’s perhaps more like Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a picture of being the good shepherd who ends exile. It isn’t really just our neighbours either, the great act of Christian love is that we, like Jesus, invite our enemies to the table with us, to practice hospitality at this table is to invite all comers, to not draw lines or boundaries, to not exclude but to welcome, include, and to feed. There’s a picture in Luke’s Gospel of the sort of person who refuses to share this sort of table with others who belong — the Pharisees who mutter and complain that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, or that he lets an immoral woman wash his feet. They don’t want this sort of relationship building with others to happen. This doesn’t mean turning our guests into co-hosts though, that’s a different sort of table.

Everybody worships; everybody has a ‘temple,’ but not every table is a temple; not every meal is an ‘idol feast’ — not every one of our meals is ‘the Lord’s supper’ — we are called to share a table with all sorts of people. Like Jesus did.

The third table

Fitch says our practices at these first two tables also shape how we operate in situations where we are guests — and I’d suggest where we are co-hosts (those times where it is not so clear that hospitality is being extended, but where participation at a table is mutual). When we eat as guests, with our neighbours, like Jesus with both the Pharisees and the tax collectors, our eating does not signify that we belong to their ways of seeing the world, we eat as those who belong to another table, bringing the virtues and values shaped by experiencing that love and hospitality, and being prepared to lovingly challenge the sin of those we eat with, but also to invite them to enjoy a taste of God’s hospitality at the other two tables.

The tables and the institutional church

When it comes to public, institutional, Christianity. Church institutions or organisations decide who and how the first table operates — whether it is open to all without prior expression of faith and an indication of belonging to God’s people, or fenced normally requiring baptism or membership in a particular community. Church institutions, through their leadership and history (depending on the structure of the church), “discern the body” and decide what marks out someone as ‘included’ in the body or not — this can be justified along the lines of the church having the keys to the kingdom, or the table, and if we’re to have any sort of institutional church, which has arisen as the church has developed through history, someone or some set of rules, ends up holding those keys. Different church communities, and different denominations, apply all sorts of different standards on who is seen to be part of the body — the line is drawn through discernment. This seems to be a totally normal function of our creaturely limits and church history. There are significant disagreements within the church — amongst Christians — around significant questions such that some churches would not let me share at their table, while I am given (by ‘ordination’) the ability to decide who gets to participate at this table in our community. The first table, Biblically, is one that it is right to limit to Christians because of what we participate in as we eat (but I think it is legitimate to invite people to express their trust in Jesus and participation in the Gospel by sharing in the Lord’s supper as a first step, and to wrap baptism up in this sacramental package). This means that churches have to decide who they believe is a part of the body, and who isn’t. Again, different churches have different ways of drawing this line — different understandings of the Gospel and the way it works to unite people to Jesus, and different understandings of the sort of maturity required before one participates in the sacraments (so lots of Christians don’t baptise infants, and don’t invite them to participate at the table for various theological reasons). Those I am prepared to share at this first table with are those I consider to be Christians eating at the Lord’s table, not idolaters sharing in idol worship. This, too, requires discernment. My Presbyterian tradition (and the broader Protestant tradition) considered the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Eucharist to be in the latter category; if I were to visit an Anglican, Pentecostal, or Baptist church while communion were being taken, and I was invited, I would participate, just as I invite people from traditions outside of Presbyterianism to participate, based on an articulation of the Gospel, if they come to our table.

The church also participates in ‘second tables’ — and where it gets tricky is that we participate at second tables with each other, through ecumenical partnerships in politics, mission, or just seeking to acknowledge unity in the Gospel that might be expressed in something other than the table we run in our churches. To host, or participate at, a ‘second table’ doesn’t say anything substantial about the faith of the other, or whether they belong to God’s table or not. Such a table should be, if it is shaped by the Gospel, broad and inclusive. We don’t do anything to fence the dinners we host at our church every week; we invite all comers — we show that we are ‘hosts’ though by giving thanks to God for the food we receive and share. When I’m eating, and praying with, my friends who pastor Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches in Brisbane’s city I don’t lose my Presbyterian distinctives nor do I insist they become like me; there is differentiation and there is a pluralism at play in such gatherings that is not present when I invite people to table 1 at church. If we were jointly operating a ‘table 1’ type deal in some sort of combined service we could only do that (I think) if we agreed on some of the parameters; some parts of the ecumenical movement, historically, have — I think — failed because they failed to realise that these commonalities couldn’t be assumed and were legitimate distinctives. To that extent I think ecumenical cross-denominational boundaries fellowship should operate at ‘table 2’ acknowledging the capacity for many of us to share relationships at table 1 in different circumstances. We can also share table 2 with people who are not Christians at all — and indeed we should, but our operation of table 2 as hosts which is alway shaped by our table 1 practice should also have table 1 as its telos; we should want people joining with us in union with God. The ultimate expression of Table 1 is not in the church gathering, but in the heavenly feast those gatherings anticipate.

The institutional church can still sometimes participate in ‘third tables’ — examples are when institutional leaders speak ‘institutionally’ into public discussions, like contributions to debates about political issues. Sometimes third party groups — like lobby groups — represent a sort of ‘table 2’ Christianity; whether that’s a good idea or not depends on how deep the unity is, and how much such a contribution inevitably eradicates important distinctions and ends up pretending there’s a table 1 unity on political or social or moral issues where there is not (and where there isn’t even a table 2 type unity). Churches, and Christians, can sometimes even host third tables and invite other churches, and other neighbours, to participate at this table as guests, this happens when the emphasis of the table is not that the Christians are hosting as Christians, but as citizens — with some sort of ‘political’ ends not oriented (directly) to the heavenly table.

Our time’s table problems

We are, as Christians, and society at large, facing some major problems operating around various tables. Our society increasingly buys into a sort of ‘cancel culture’ such that people running table 2 and table 3 type tables are very prone to exclude others from the table where those others don’t buy into a particular way of seeing the world. There is no ecumenical spirit outside the church even with public catch cries of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ — these are extended so long as people obey the table manners our age expects.

The question of hospitality and who it is extended to is used to exclude when a Rugby player shares a religious meme consistent with his sectarian views and is excluded from the ‘table’ of the national Rugby team, or when a TV talk show host goes to a football match with a former U.S President (who some believe should be tried for war crimes), or when a U.S political aide is asked to leave a restaurant as a result of her politics, or when a football player’s cousin is removed from employment from a religious institution he calls a synagogue of Satan, or when a religious school wants to hire or fire staff based on their personal convictions and behaviour, or when a Christian political lobby invites said Rugby player to share their public platform when that player explicitly denies the Trinity, or when an Archbishop of a diocese gives $1 million to a campaign about who our society will recognise as married, or when that same Archbishop asks people within his denomination who wish to change the platform to keep with public pressure to leave and start their own table… the issue is that in each of these issues, especially as they relate to how Christian relate to others (whether other Christians, or those we don’t consider to be Christians as we discern the body), there’s a different sort of ‘table’ at play and there are different principles governing who should and shouldn’t participate.

When Israel Folau instagrammed his meme I had an argument with a progressive Christian friend about whether or not it was legitimate for the National Rugby League (note, a different code) to pre-emptively refuse to register him as a player again on the basis of its ‘inclusivity policy’ while they were happy to re-register a player convicted of serious violence against women (Matt Lodge). I had an argument with a conservative Christian friend about whether or not Israel’s stance on the Trinity was a significant issue. In both cases those friends ‘cancelled’ me — blocking and unfollowing me — or uninviting me from a certain sort of table (a virtual table 2). I believe both would still welcome me at a table 1 situation if they were operating as host, but I suspect both would like me also not to have a seat at the ‘public’ table, sharing my particular views on the matter in the public square (given that the conflict arose in both cases because I did so, not because of the merit of the actual point I was making in each case). I would, for what it’s worth on the Folau case, exclude Israel Folau from my ‘Table 1’ scenario (because he denies the Trinity), invite him to ‘Table 2,’ and am happy for him to have a seat at Table 3 (in the Rugby team and on social media), so long as it isn’t labelled ‘Representative of Christianity.’

What happens in these virtual, personal, relationships happens on a wider, tribal, scale when it comes to denominations, but also theological movements — progressive and conservative — within denominations. Conservative denominations seem to be responding to pressure from outside their bounds by tightening the boundaries, while some people within such denominations — either because they see this change happening and want to preserve something good, or because they are compelled to change for reasons of progress or reform — are looking to push for change. Both forms involve change to who gets a seat at the table. Progressives in positions of power in denominations have often silenced, excluded, or expelled those with conservative convictions; or, in the course of progress, made belonging so untenable or a lack of welcome so clear, that more conservative people and churches have been pushed out. Conservatives do the same. There’s, though painful, a legitimate Table 1 reason to push for such change, and opposing parties, would, I believe, be better off generously parting ways, and sharing table 2 relationships (pluralism) rather than having different approaches to God (polytheism) under the same umbrella (which at times might be tantamount to creating circumstances that are the equivalent of ‘sharing the cup’ in idol temples — and I’ve seen plenty of rhetoric from progressive Christians suggesting Davies and the Sydney Anglicans have departed from the Gospel).

When Glenn Davies gave $1 million to the No Campaign it was, I believe, a bad decision because it was a decision that seemed to me to be seeking to hold a position close to the head of table 3; a position Christians no longer occupy in a post-royal commission world. It was a decision to invest not just financial capital, but social capital, in a cause that sought to exclude people from a type of table 3 (the public institution of marriage), in a way that communicated such people were not welcome at table 2, or table 1. It prevented the problem, in many cases, of having to navigate table 1 fellowship with the LGBTIQ+ community — whether married or single — by functionally communicating a lack of welcome. The Anglican church does historically have a place at Table 3 in a Commonwealth nation that other denominations do not; it is an establishment church. The Queen is its head. I think this was a mistake because it was essentially an act of inhospitality in those tables that are not closed off to the people of God, or invitations for people to join the people of God. Tables 2 and 3 should be, as a matter of participating in a civil way in a pluralist society, as open, inclusive, and hospitable as possible and we should model that. Table 1, on the other hand, should be welcoming in a way that is not as inclusive because it excludes those who are not part of the body of Jesus.

For me the way I think this paradigm plays out, where Table 1 shapes one’s participation in table 2 and 3 (and where one does not participate), I think ‘Table 1’ is a feast for God’s family, with an invitation to come home. Not all are included. Table 2 is a feast for all to ‘taste and see’ that God is loving and hospitable, and all are not just welcomed but included at the table. Table 3, which isn’t our table to host, is our table to serve not to run, and where we have power or influence our job is to look to those being excluded and find ways to include them at that table, by giving them space at our table 2s (this is why I think the line the institutional churches in Australia ran in the postal survey, on the back of a history of Christians excluding LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in terms of legal recognition and protection, was such a problem). Where there is disagreement amongst those operating table 1s it is a matter of discernment; we have a responsible to be part of a table 1 that we believe ‘discerns the body’ appropriately, and leaders have a responsibility to set clear boundaries (by teaching and shepherding), and also by identifying ‘idol temples’ (like, for example, Folau’s church). Where one discerns that a ‘table 1’ is not an expression of the body, one must not share ‘table 1’ type fellowship, but one must still share table 2 and 3 type fellowship (Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors).

The Anglican church is often described as a ‘communion’ — and that presents interesting challenges when it comes to the question of table 1 and the discerning of the body. Lines have to be drawn. I’m much more sympathetic to Archbishop Davies in the furore around his speech to synod which I believe was a (clumsy) attempt to ‘fence’ table 1 in a particular way, consistent with his appointed duties, and appropriately in a table 1 setting. Davies, as Archbishop, occupies a challenging position in that he has a sort of authority invested in him when he speaks on Table 1 matters for his diocese, that might communicate things about who he (and they) are prepared to sit down with in table 2 scenarios (as hosts or guests), and what tables they might avoid in table 1 scenarios as ‘idol temples.’ He also, for good or for ill, is often an authoritative, representative, Christian voice in table 3 settings — like the $1 million donation scenario — and that inevitably frames how his public proclamations about Table 1 are heard.

The challenge for the rest of us in parsing the reaction to Davies’ Synod speech on social media is that there are lots of different denominations and even local communities who operate their ‘table 1’ in very different ways to the Anglican communion, and it’s easy to apply our own standards to him and his speech in ways that might exclude him from any table. I recognise too, that his speech is a pitch to run the Anglican table — at least in Australia — in a particular way (one that is narrower than currently seems to be its mode). It’s not just that we hear him excluding vulnerable others from tables 1-3 as host — and he has been heard that way — others both inside and outside the Anglican communion have since turned around and sought to exclude him from tables 2 and 3. Davies has a particular responsibility for ‘his table,’ and it is within that responsibility, and the discerning of the body, that he made the speech he made. The reaction from the more progressive wing of Christianity has been stunning to me; mirroring the reaction to Ellen for daring share a table with Bush (and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bush, in exercising the office of President, did some things that office required of him that were evil, I’m just not sure you can occupy any sort of office in a modern military state and not commit evil), perhaps because part of the progressive view of the world is seeing reality in systemic rather than individual terms, hospitality is something offered categorically rather than personally, there’s also an echo in the progressive celebration of a restaurant in the U.S refusing to serve Trump staffer Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There were think pieces pondering whether Jesus would eat with Sanders (I believe he would, at the very least in a table 2 and 3 way), and whether it’s ever right to share hospitality with an ideological enemy (it is if you’re a Christian so that person is also your neighbour). The New Yorker ran a piece asking ‘Who deserves a place at the table’ (the nice thing about Christianity is it starts with the assumption that nobody does). It noted:

“Jesus—at least as he is reported, or invented, by the author of the Gospel of Mark—was the Kropotkin of commensality, blowing up the long history of Jewish food rules by feasting with publicans and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. It was nearly the whole point of his ministry.”

It’s a piece that ultimately explores the paradox of tolerance, and lands on the solution proposed by the political theorist who proposed it, that a tolerant society cannot tolerate — or make space at the table for — the intolerant. I’m not sure the Gospel conforms to that paradox. Jesus did, indeed, blow up the food rules and eat with everybody — both pharisees, and tax collectors and sinners. But he also established a table that had boundary markers; the people who put their faith and trust in him and so received a spot at the father’s heavenly table, and those who don’t. He broke Jewish table fellowship rules in order to create a table that included gentiles; but it excluded plenty of Jews (the Pharisees, for example), and gentile idolaters. It’d be a mistake to see Jesus’ dining practices solely in terms of eating with sinners and tax collectors; he ate with people previously excluded to show they might be included in his kingdom by grace. Table 1 sets the agenda for Table 2, and Table 2 practices are a gateway to Table 1, but they are not the same table.

I’m also not suggesting Conservatives are better at hospitality; they tend to run ‘Table 2’ institutions as though they are ‘Table 1’ ones and to occupy positions of influence in Table 3 scenarios that don’t match up with reality (the ACL has a particular approach to this that could be its own post). I’m also not suggesting that Table 2 type hospitality is about denying difference or patching over serious disagreement; civility is not the goal, persuasion is, love is, unity is, and civility is the means. To not sit at the table together, whether for the pursuit of common cause, or to hear one another, is guaranteed to entrench polarised communities of ‘others.’ If, for example, Bush is a war criminal who should repent and be tried, but he belongs to a tribe that views him as a champion, how will his views about himself ever change without hearing voices outside his tribe in a context that recognises his humanity?

For the record, I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ parishioners to leave, unless they are part of the movement to shift the boundaries the Anglican communion has traditionally established for those who can participate at table 1. Those outside the Anglican communion who practice a broader table 1 than Davies does (or than I would) have already made the decision Davies called for; there’s also a movement in Australia that has taken almost exactly the step Davies is now encouraging members of the Anglican church to take; one that absolutely fits an inclusive ethos that merges tables 1 and 2 — the Uniting Church. I’ve read comments from a stack of Baptists and Anglicans this week that basically just boil down to a wish for their denominations to become the Uniting Church, and were they all to do that, leaving those who want a distinction between tables 1 and 2 maintained, you know what they’d get… Presbyterians (just with worse forms of government). I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ members to leave, because I’ll take him at his word — but I can’t help but agree with those hurt by his words that there is a context that frames them particularly negatively and compounds the hurt they cause.

Lots of my progressive Christian friends commenting on the Davies speech on Facebook seem to want ‘table 2’ type fellowship operating in a table 1 scenario; a broader unity and an extension of charity that goes beyond one’s (or an institution’s) discerning of the body; an eradication of a particular sort of discernment in favour of unity. There’s a danger there, at least from Corinthians, that believers eat and drink judgment on themselves, or participate in ‘the cup of idols.’ Table 2 fellowship amongst Christians of different traditions is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing precisely when it is properly differentiated and we can discern areas of disagreement, and listen well to ideas that challenge us to be humble and broader than we might otherwise be at Table 1. Table 2 gatherings of Christians won’t work if we start insisting, or trying to, that table 1 should be shaped by the hospitality we’d like to see extended in the public space of table 3, or in our private gatherings around table 2s. Table 2s will collapse under that pressure; and the formative direction of the table, for Christians, is only really meant to work one way (though we might be formed to see the beauty and welcome of Table 1 by experiencing it at other tables). How we understand the Gospel, and the Jesus it reveals, should shape how we host and participate in tables beyond his; the tables we eat at in the world aren’t meant to cause us to revise our understanding of Jesus. The idea that ‘Table 1’ type fellowship should happen at Table 2 is cut from the same cloth as the ecumenical movement; we might, for eternity, eat and drink from the same table and we should be open to that possibility and rejoice, but the worst thing we could do is convince someone that is the case and then spend an eternity separated from them because we never challenged someone outside the body to move inside it.

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Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.

Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.