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.

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How the comfort offered by companies is pig slop, and why the church should stop lying down with pigs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three take homes for me from this ad.

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

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

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

Consumer life in the Secular City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech in the City

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

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

Postman, Technopoly

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

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

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

McLuhan, Understanding Media

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

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

McLuhan, Mechanical Bride

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

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

Scott Galloway, The Four

A call to (secular) worship

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

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

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

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

Disrupting hollow gods

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

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

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

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

This is a world that doesn’t want disruption.

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

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

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

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

Taylor, A Secular Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause

Pig slop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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

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

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

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

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

The boy was home.

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

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

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

Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

I’ve decided I want to be a dinosaur.

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

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

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

McLuhan, Understanding Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

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

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

— C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John 1:14

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

— 2 John 12

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

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

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

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

John 17:20-24

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

The spiritual is real.

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

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

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

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

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

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

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

1 Corinthians 1:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 10:10-11

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 1:4-6

And then:

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

1 Thessalonians 2:8-10

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

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

1 Thessalonians 2:17-18

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

And then:

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

1 Corinthians 12:27

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

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

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

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

Acts 19:32
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Baby Driver and the Culture Wars

Baby Driver is a pretty interesting heist movie you can now find on Netflix. What sets it apart from other heist movies involving driving stunts (so pretty much all of them) is its soundtrack. Baby Driver uses music differently to any other movie I have ever seen. Baby Driver’s creator, Edgar Wright, had the soundtrack designed before the movie was shot. The entire movie feels choreographed (in a good way). The music is deeply integrated not just into our experience of the movie as an audience, but into the life and experience of the protaganist. Baby.

Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, loves music. Baby was raised on music. His mother was a singer. He was orphaned, so music is his memory. The accident that took the lives of his parents also gave him tinnitus, and music helps him function because it drowns out the ringing in his ears.

Music adds colour and intelligibility to Baby’s world. It helps him get by. It helps him operate at peak efficiency. Without it the deafening tinnitus interferes with his decision making; his perception of reality; his ability to function as part of a team (in this case teams of heisters, where he’s the designated driver).

Without spoiling things too much — the major adversity Baby faces is not prison for his crime; a potential sentence of life behind bars, it’s the potential sentence of life without music — life without hearing, and without being able to make sense of the world, that threatens Baby’s long term ability to flourish. There aren’t really any ‘good guys’ in the movie; but when Baby’s antagonist, Jon Hamm’s character Buddy takes away the thing Baby loves most, he targets his ability to hear; not just to hear, but to hear music.

He does this by firing a gun next to Baby’s ears. It’s deafening. The music switches off.

Baby is a broken man.

There’s lots of talk happening right now about life beyond Covid-19 conditions; and the hope for a newer, better, restructured society emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of this disaster. Suddenly we’re believing for a secular healing; a resurrection, a new creation.

Christians, of course, are familiar with this sort of hope for something better than the present; a time where disease and death are gone; where the lame run, the blind see, and the deaf hear. While my physical ailments pale in significance to others, as someone who is colour blind, I’m looking forward to a time when I might see the full spectrum of colour, just as Baby longs for a time when he might hear music again.

Indian Novelist Arundhati Roy wrote an essay imagining a better, brighter, future after describing, in bracing terms, the scale and size of the problems confronting India as it prepares for the onslaught of Covid-19 in a vast, and broken, system that takes its place globally in a vast and broken system. Roy optimistically called for imagination and revolution, with a nod towards our dependence on the transcendent (that the mighty are being humbled in the sort of revolutionary way John the Baptist predicted before Jesus proclaimed he had come to bring good news of liberation to the poor — and that the posture this humiliation brings to the mighty is a posture of falling to one’s knees in dependence on some other). Roy says:

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Our issue is that like Baby, we, particularly in the west, are trying to imagine a new world without our senses; without being able to perceive the world as it is, let alone imagine it as it could be. We are deaf. There are plenty of gunshots being fired around our ears; because to raise one’s head in the western world is to be caught in the cross fires of a culture war.

My friend Stephen McAlpine presciently raised this as an objection to Roy’s optimism in a Facebook discussion, noting that any talk of a new society — of being able to walk lightly through this time ‘imagining another world’ — can’t survive the reality that every element of public life now, and of civic imagination — our ability to envision and act towards a new future — every act is clouded by the culture war. And that this culture war is often fought out as a civil war within the church.

I fear that our eschatological optimism about a time beyond this age of Covid-19 will only lead to disappointment so long as we are placing our hope in the wrong source of transformation. It may well be that we emerge with a kinder, gentler, way of life together; it may even be that this pandemic heralds the disruption and end of capitalism and Babylon; it may at least serve as a wake up call to Christians that we have been far too wedded to the Babylonian structures of this world, and the conditions that give rise not just to pandemics like this, but to the awful mixed bag of responses and conditions for people in the slums of India, and outside the upper class of the United States (and in various nations around the world). There will almost certainly be a re-imagining of our politics through this crisis. The Guardian ran a piece which, depending on your political persuasion, featured the lion lying down with the lamb in Australia’s national cabinet — as conservatives and progressives have come together to seek the good of the nation, rather than ideological self interest.

But lasting change — a new creation — needs an animating vision. A story. A shared vision of human flourishing — and one of the reasons we have culture wars at all is that this vision is contested. Roy’s piece notes the implications that different religious, economic, and political ideologies have on the way nations and communities respond to this virus.

One of the roles of the church, in society, is that we have an animating story — a vision, that we believe to be true. We believe that we hear clearly, free from tinnitus, and able to enjoy the music hard-woven in to the fabric of creation. We have a role to play in articulating a vision, and to some extent, the problems inherent in alternative visions. Again, I’d direct you to my friend Arthur’s twitter thread articulating precisely why we might need to offer an alternative vision; the idea that ‘Babylon’ — the status quo — will have its own inertia, and its own response, to post-pandemic life makes some optimism tricky to maintain; the idea that Babylon is actually a religious, or spiritual, impulse built from the worship of false gods and created things (those things close to, or at the heart of capitalism itself) should make us even less optimistic about new ways forward. It is likely that if capitalism is toppled, or the systems that we hope to see changed — systems that are ultimately religious — they will simply be replaced with alternative gods. Arthur also put me on to this piece from Aaron Lewis Metaphors We Believe By, that articulated the religious impulses at the heart of modern gods (in way that both he, and I, observed is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). His point is that the metaphors we moderns use for aspects of life that are beyond our control (like we might use Babylon, from a Christian framework), can help us understand that people behave, and pursue visions of the good, in essentially religious ways.

Which creates problems; because with that comes a tendency towards ‘holy war’ — god v god showdowns played out amongst religious adherents. This is what’s really going on in our tendency towards culture wars (and why optimism about the post-covid age might be naive). If we don’t have a shared eschatological vision — an animating story about the future, the ‘ends of the world’ (as in its purpose and destiny), then we won’t get on the same page in recalibrating the present. This is true for different ‘religious groups’ (including actual religious groups), or ideologies, as we compete for territory in the new world we’re imagining, but it’s also true for us within Christianity, where we’re just as prone to internal culture wars.

The problem with culture wars is that they are deafening. Like the gun fired next to Baby’s ears, they kill the music. They kill our imagination. They stop our ability to discern truth; to speak well to others; to envisage better futures by catching hold of the song that animates creation; or the story that we were created to live and to pursue into the future — the story of the fall of Babylon and the emergence of a new eden.

Our culture’s tendency to religious wars — to play the culture war game — has truncated our contribution to culture as Christians. Seeing everything through the lens of war and competition stops us being a faithful presence at the public table, in the conversation about the possible renewal of our cultural architecture or what Charles Taylor called our ‘social imaginary’ — the practices, culture, and physical architecture that shape how we live and what we believe and so inform how we understand reality. Our lack of ability to hear because of the gunfire happening next to our ears means we don’t just not sing the song we were made to sing; we become tone deaf. And so, the very public acquittal of a clergyman on sexual abuse charges automatically gets interpreted through a culture war grid by Christian contributors to the public square; to those simultaneously imagining a post-Covid political and economic future (through that same culture war grid); because we have no other song. We are deaf. And that’s a problem.

James Davison Hunter is the Christian sociologist who coined the term ‘culture war’; in ‘To Change The World,’ he described the deafening effect of our tendency towards conflict. He describes the contest for ideas (that will still be the backdrop of any post-Covid future because they are essentially religious) as the grounds that produce this culture war. Pluralism might, itself, make an uncontested future impossible.

But pluralism today—at least in America—exists without a dominant culture, at least not one of overwhelming credibility or one that is beyond challenge. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t the effort to establish a dominant culture. This, after all, is what the “culture war” in America has been about—a contest for cultural ascendancy and the capacity to enforce conformity.

The question then is how we act as Christians, and citizens, in pursuit of a newly ordered world; how we stand against, rather than participate in, Babylon. How we hear the song of heaven; and live our lives oriented towards the story the Bible paints of the future of the world, rather than conforming to the patterns of the world; to Babylon. Hunter’s conclusion is worth hearing as we prepare ourselves, as the church, to potentially participate in the re-shaping of the public post-Covid, without reverting to culture wars. Hunter envisages a “new city commons” (I’ll touch on the prospects of such a commons below), but this is perhaps a vision that might shape a future no longer dominated by culture wars.

America was never, in any theologically serious way, a Christian nation, nor the West a Christian civilization. Neither will they ever become so in the future. The goal for Christians, then, is not and never has been to “take back the culture” or to “take over the culture” or to “win the culture wars” or to “save Western civilization.” Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever—spiritually speaking—exiles in a land of exile. Christians, as with the Israelites in Jeremiah’s account, must come to terms with this exile…

He says this position means we cannot possibly play the culture war game (partly because we cannot possibly win), and that we might have to model a new way forward beginning with listening, and seeking to be a “faithful presence” in the world; a presence faithfully anticipating the renewal of all things. He notes that the first step towards a transformed commons; or a Christian contribution to such a space, is getting our own house in order; ceasing the culture wars that divide Christians who split into conservative and progressive camps, and refocusing on the centre — that which unites and animates us, the future — the story — that we share. Again, there’s an optimism here that fails to recognise that some of the fundamental split between conservatives and progressives is actually a fundamentally different conception of God, and the Christian story, and yet there is much more that Christians hold in common than a ‘culture war’ posture allows; such a posture deafens us to the truth. But he is conscious that the “animating forces” at work in the world today — the modern gods, or metaphors — are inherently religious, spiritual, forces that serve to dehumanise and destroy (they are Babylonian in the Biblical sense). There is more than a hint of this in Roy’s account of life in India. Hunter sees these spiritual forces at work in humanity’s more destructive tendencies, the tendencies that might have skin in the game in re-shaping a post-Covid world for the worse, rather than for the better:

I would certainly include here such forces that create conflict and violence over scarce resources in the far reaches of the world, often in the name of peace; the underside of technological innovation that instrumentalizes human beings, even while the technologies themselves claim to improve conditions for human life; and the processes in the economy and in society that undermine the bonds of family, friendship, and community, often in the name of personal freedom. I would include dispositions that continue to denigrate persons simply by virtue of their social class, skin color, ethnic background, nationality, mental or physical capability, age, beliefs, gender, and so on. I would also include realities closer to home: the ideologies that predispose people to measure human worth and to find personal significance in material possessions, in appearance, in minor celebrity, or career success, or the cultural forces that orient people to find emotional stability and even serenity through various medications—prescribed, licit, or illicit. Perhaps even more profound, though far less obvious, are the destructive tendencies that emanate from the forces of dissolution. The weightlessness that attends experience and all manner of speech in the late modern world weighs heavily on Christians and non-Christians alike, but for the Christian, it undermines the very reality of belief and witness. One could go on, for the sources of bondage in the world are myriad. The good news is that the shalom of God not only exposes them for what they are but also offers a radical alternative grounded in the hope of the new creation.

Hunter’s model for the church engaging with society, rejecting the culture wars, as those who can truly hear the music, is for the church to first engage itself in formative practices that see us animated not by ‘culture wars’ or these forces, the patterns of Babylon, but by our own song and story, living lives grounded by this “radical alternative grounded in the hope of the new creation.”

We have to step out of the culture wars — within the church, and in the way we participate in the conflict around us — because these wars are deafening, and the model itself — the pursuit of power — undermines the very nature of our story and our hope. Our public square is Babylonian, like in Revelation, where faithful witnesses are executed in the public square of ‘that great city’ — Babylon. Rome. Jerusalem — and our capacity to change that square is limited, especially if we take up Babylonian practices; though such hope is not historically (or theologically) unrealistic. It’s in times such as these — moments of crises where Christians operated as those animated by something other than animus, but rather by loving service of others shaped by the radical hope of a new creation — that there have been profound and lasting changes to the world.

Like Baby, we have a happy ending, a long drive into a future beyond pain and suffering with the one we love.

We have an opportunity to rethink the doomsday device we’ve strapped ourselves in to; to move away from Babylon and offer an alternative; but we won’t do this without a common grounding in our story and its future.

Like Baby there is a life beyond the deafening noise of gunshots and conflict and culture wars. The culture wars — and our being caught up in them as the people of God — will kill any hope there is of a better future.

We have a radical hope that shapes our picture of a post-Covid world; a new creation. It’s this hope that first has to unite and animate us as God’s people, before we might have any hope of contributing to a changed world. We have to stop being deaf to the siren song of heaven.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 

Revelation 21:1-7

Disrupting Church: Some principles for the Covid and post-covid church world

We had our first semi-major technological fails in our digital church experience this morning. A major fail would’ve been an electrocution or some costly equipment blowing up. This was minor league stuff relative to that — there were some issues around audio sharing of a pre-recorded component of our time together. Our service time was certainly not professional or polished this morning; and while I felt a degree of shame and embarrassment (some of our audio issues were a result of me accidentally muting our video when I muted my mic to ask my kids to be quiet), I’m reminding myself of the principles that have us where we are. I’m writing this as catharsis because of how much the tech fails grated on me this morning; and as a reminder that this is the path I think we should be committed to as a church community.

Watching the conversation around my tech-fail mea culpa post on Facebook, and the steady stream of churches and ministers promoting their live streams on my newsfeed has reminded me of the importance of principled decision making in this strange period. As an aside, I reckon close to 95% of the posts on my Facebook feed are churches advertising their online services. My cynical hot take: Facebook finally has a use for church stuff in its algorithm now that it’s the platform for church connectivity and can make some dollars.

I’m not a luddite. I have a smartish home. I have a coffee machine I can turn on with voice commands. My kids are listening to audio books in their bedrooms because I’ve allowed a multi-national surveillance capitalist company (two actually) to have a presence in our home in the form of speakers with built in microphones. Technology always involves trade-offs. Go read some Neil Postman, especially Five Things To Know About Technological Change or about Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Effects for more on this (and more on McLuhan’s Tetrad below). But I’m worried that our principles as church leaders in this crisis are perhaps not as well informed as they should be.

This event — the shutting of church buildings and practice of physical distancing — will be disruptive for churches; especially because of how we’re now introducing technology into our ecosystem in new ways (though not totally novel, online churches have existed as concepts and entities for years). This will be potentially disrupt churches in the same way that Uber disrupted the cab industry, and AirBNB the hotel industry. It could also be that we use this disruption to re-invent our practices — but that will either be a principled re-invention or a pragmatic one.

Here are some of the principles, some theological, some practical, and some technological/media ecological that have shaped how I’ve approached this time in our church family.

I’m curious to hear other principles driving other forms or technological methodologies, especially as I think the period ‘disruption’ is going to be forced upon us (rather than the ongoing effect of these changes) is going to stretch on for some months.

Principle 1. Church is the gathered people not an event.

One of the greatest challenges for the church today is a slipping in to the habits of consumerism. We will resist forms of church that have us see church as a service that produces resources for my benefit or consumption.

Principle 2. Pandemics are not a reason to panic.

The universal church, those we are Spiritually connected to by the Holy Spirit and our shared belief in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, and commitment to Jesus as king, has lived through many crises and pandemics, and has actually thrived in such times historically because where others act selfishly it has acted selflessly — followers of Jesus have walked into rather than run away from times like this.

Principle 3. Pandemics are not ideal; nothing about this time has to be perfect. We have to be gentle with each other and have low expectations.

The disruption happening here will mean non ideal experiences of church as we grapple with the very non-ideal experience of life. This isn’t a time for the pursuit of self-improvement and excellence, but for being held together by God and in the hope of the Gospel.

These non-ideal experiences are happening in the midst of a crisis that will take its toll on our community in various ways; economic, emotional, spiritual, need to mean we focus more on grace and relationships than results; and our priorities need to be firmly established and at the heart of our efforts.

Good enough is good enough. Not good enough is also good enough. This is especially true when coupled with principles 6 and 7.

Principle 4. Our priorities in a crisis are set by Jesus. Especially by his clear commands to his disciples.

Our priorities are that we as a church draw closer to God, closer to one another, and so are in a position to better serve our neighbours should the worst case scenario happen. This is how we apply Jesus’ two greatest commandments to this epidemic.

Principle 5. Media (as the plural of ‘medium’) are not neutral. The medium is the message. The forms we choose for church gatherings will be formative (and maybe permanently disruptive).

Screens are a medium or form that typically mediate content to us as consumers — especially now in the age of streaming (eg Netflix). The more our production values and content feels like Netflix the greater the impact of this medium will be on our message.

Because of the legislative framework we’re operating in (and because it’s just the loving thing to do to limit physical interactions in this time) we either have to use screens, or invite households (whether families or other mixed households) to operate alone. We can use screens to distribute content and we can use screens to maintain relationships. How we approach screens will show where our priorities lie here, which will reveal what we think church is and is about.

Principle 6. We will prioritise the relational over the distribution of content via screens.

This isn’t a dichotomy. Content matters. Our unity is built on our shared beliefs, that come from our shared story. But it is also a unity that comes from the very real work of the Holy Spirit who unites us as a community — as a local church and in the universal church. The local church is a particular expression of the Body of Christ; our services can either express something of the body, or give incredible prominence to the visible parts of the body (where Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the not as visible parts of the body are worthy of the most honour).

In real terms for us this has meant not focusing on technological excellence, or production values, or livestreaming a picture perfect production with multiple cameras and a sound desk. There’s a sacrifice being made in our production quality. We don’t have a flash kids program with content for kids to digest. Instead, our kids church team are having a face-to-face video chat with two groups of kids (older and younger) and inviting the kids to speak to them and to each other in that forum (with two leaders, parental consent, etc for child safety compliance).

We’ve prioritised interactivity on Sundays over a shared downloading of content. I’m pushing us towards meeting just in our Growth Groups some Sundays to enable more people to be directly involved in sharing in the task of the body (Ephesians 4). I’ve ‘preached’ once in the last three weeks (a modified sort of talk, shorter because of screen limitations), another member of our community preached last Sunday, and this week we had a mini-panel where a husband and wife team delivered a pretty great package on Genesis 1 and how we live in a world where the ‘heavens’ and ‘the earth’ are overlapping realities, followed by a Q&A time. Each Sunday we’re spending time in our Growth Groups discussing the passage and talk.

Principle 7. We will bring a social media mentality with a push towards the local village not the global one.

‘Broadcast media’ where a central authority reproduces content to the masses (think Television) is an historical anomaly. It’s time came with the printing press, and the invention of radio and television, and is disappearing with the Internet. Social media is pushing us to peer-to-peer content, changing the nature of authority for good or for ill. It also has the potential to pull us out of the local village and into the global — making us ‘peers’ with people we might never meet. The ‘social media’ disruption of church in the era of “the global village” might serve to annihilate time in the way C.S Lewis said the car annihilated space (meaning we’re less limited to a local area as embodied creatures). This would look like tuning in to church services with a virtual presence that you will never attend with your physical presence. This might be like going on a virtual tour of a museum, gallery, or zoo. It’s very easy to do. But this isn’t a substitute for the local church, even if it is an expression of the global church. It’s also something that can feed our sense that church is a product to consume, that we should make that consumption decision not based on the people God has gathered us together with (locally and in a community that comes together), but based on the quality of content produced (including the quality of the preaching, and the production values/schmickness of the service).

I don’t want church to be a thing you watch from bed in your pyjamas. That is a disruptive norm that will be diabolical beyond this shutdown.

I don’t want church to be a thing you pick to download, from a global smorgasbord of excellent Bible teachers with a high-powered band and schmick AV.

So though we are more dependent on technology, I want to push further away from broadcast style technology (though I did purchase a new microphone to make sure people can hear what we say from our family’s side of our screen). I don’t want church to be a ‘livestream’ or a ‘broadcast’ but a social gathering (which has pushed us towards Zoom, and as much as possible the live delivery of content where we can see each other’s faces and have multiple contributors).

Principle 8. If this period disrupts us I want this disruption to be towards our underlying principles, not away from them, and to be cultural rather than technological.

I’d like to be disrupted towards greater connection with God and his people, towards greater love for neighbours, and to a model of church built on participation not consumption. This means being careful what technology we embrace, and how much we embrace it. Careful to think about how the mediums we use become part of the message we receive; and the forms we adopt become formative.

One place this is a live issue for me is in the discussion that is happening more broadly about whether the sacraments (for Presbyterians that’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper) can happen virtually. I don’t think they can. But I would be happy for us to be disrupted towards a truer priesthood of all believers, and even for this epidemic to disrupt our idea that the ‘household’ is a nuclear, biological, family — that means too many of our community are facing social distancing in physical isolation. I don’t think we can share in the Lord’s Supper via Zoom, theologically speaking, but I do think households can participate in the meal instituted by Jesus, where he is spiritually present as we break bread, at their tables over a meal. It’s interesting that the last (and only) time the Westminster Confession of Faith was amended by the Presbyterian Church of Australia was around the emergency conditions of a World War in order to allow non-ministers to conduct the Lord’s Supper… That’s good and lasting disruption right there.

Marshall McLuhan’s Media Tetrad is this model that says whenever a new technology or medium is introduced into a system it impacts that system in four directions.

It enhances some capacity we have (so video calls allow us to see into places where we are not). It makes some other technology obsolete (the way that emails made letters much less necessary, and video calls make telephone calls essentially obsolete). It retrieves a capacity we might previously have lost (so video calls add, for example, a face to face dynamic and non-verbal communication cues, where print and telephone removed those). And it reverses something when pushed to its natural limits, as in, it ultimately pulls us away from a previous norm (so video calls taken to an absolute might give way to virtual reality and the idea that we don’t need a bodily presence anywhere to do anything real.

There are real risks for churches here if there is a technological disruption to what we think church is, based on how we practice church. We might enhance how easy it is to go to/consume church because we can now watch it from bed in the comfort of our pyjamas, without having to truly see other people, or enhance some ability to produce higher quality stuff (because we can pre-record, edit, and post-produce). We might retrieve participation of more than just professionals through some technology choices (like using Zoom), we might even see one another (digitally) much more often in this period than we once met in the flesh. But in the ‘reversal’ that is really where the disruptive power of technology kicks in, we might convince ourselves that these other changes are good, both pragmatically and experientially. That they, when coupled with the conditions of toxic churchianity, expand our reach, grow our platform, and make our consumption more frictionless, and charting the way back to messy, embodied, local church might be more difficult than we think.

I’d like our church community to emerge from this healthy; having loved God, loved one another, and loved our neighbours well, and having pushed further into a culture (structures and practices) that means that our ‘mediums’ support our message (the Gospel). We’ve often talked about being a church of small groups, not with small groups. I’d like that to become real. I’d like to decentralise power/control from me and my voice, to a community that genuinely acts as the body of Christ (recognising that I, and others, have been appointed by God, and by our community, to have particular roles in the life of that community). I’d like us to be practicing the spiritual disciplines, including rest and play. I’d like us to be doing this as a way of pushing back against the prevailing values of our culture and the way they have infected the church; the way we’ve co-opted forms and solutions from the world of business and entertainment so reflexively, the seriousness of modern life, our truncated moral imaginations that lead us to pragmatic rather than principled solutions to problems (utility over virtue), and the disenchanted ‘secular’ frame we live in which is, in part, created by the ecological impacts of technology and the way that human ‘technique’ has become our solution to any dilemma, in the absence of prayer, and the way technology dominates our social imaginary so that we think about reality through a technological grid — expressed through our dependence on technology, and our imagined solutions to this period being largely technological are symptoms of this, and that goes for how we’ve jumped to the solve problem of not being able to meet together as the church. Technology is the architecture of our action and our belief; it’s forming us as we form it). We desperately need disruption and a push of the reset button. Note: My friend Arthur wrote this Twitter thread the other day outlining just how much stepping out of ‘Babylon’ is required in order for us to see the way Christianity does have something profound to say about the crisis moment being revealed in the midst of this pandemic. What I’m calling ‘toxic churchianity’ is really just the impact of what he calls Babylon on church culture. That needs disruption so that we can be disruptive.

So I’ll take messy church with technology glitches that we’re all experiencing simultaneously, in a weird ‘meeting’ on Zoom broadcast from our lounge room while the kids are going nuts, over a schmick, faultless, production beamed, or streamed, into loungerooms, or shared in online ‘watch parties’ experienced asynchronously, because though I’m praying disruption happens for the church, in this moment, I’m hoping the disruption will push us back towards our principles, not into something disfigured and deforming.

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Feeling anxious? Try playing

That’s not a typo. Praying is obviously highly recommended too.

It’s time to go to work. The kids are restless, they ask their father to stay and play with them. “I can’t kids, I have to go to work.” The kids are relentless, and this father stops to enter their fantasy world for a time. When he eventually leaves the game to head off for the serious business of work, his children give him a parting gift. A texta wrapped in a leaf. Not much. But when the children’s mother asks what the kids gave their dad, he says “they gave me everything.” Bandit Heeler, for those not in the know already, is the impossibly heroic role model served up by Australia’s number one kids television show, Bluey. Like many Aussie families we had the launch date for season two on the family calendar, and the episodes so far have not disappointed — some have landed very close to our family’s daily experience navigating parenting life in our home city of Brisbane, the city Bluey’s animated world draws heavily upon for its backdrops. This week Bluey won an Emmy.

In Bluey, play is serious business. The timing of this series could not be better with families around the nation facing “social distancing” measures and school slowdowns meaning lots of parents are juggling working from home with supervising their children. If your kids are like ours they know enough about Covid-19 and its disruption of their normal lives to be both upset and anxious. Navigating this moment as a parent, without fuelling anxiety or traumatising our kids, seems almost as impossible as imitating our cartoon friends Bandit and Chilli in the best of times. It turns out establishing a routine of playing with your kids might be the key to their wellbeing (and maybe for yours as well). 

Our youngest daughter is at kindergarten this year, she’s the same age as Bingo, Bluey’s little sister. Our kindy is one of many fantastic kindergartens around Australia that has not just embraced a play based pedagogy, but works hard to instil play as a core value for parents trying to navigate our increasingly not play based education system. Not anticipating a global pandemic, I volunteered to be President of our kindergarten’s management committee this year, and I’ve been impressed by our director’s resilience through the early moments of this disruption, and how non-anxiously she has managed the uncertainty around school and kindergarten closures. There’s a stream of research that suggests she might have put the hard yards in to produce this resilience by spending much of her adult life not being serious, but playful. Play is something of a ritual for her, and for the kindergarten community. 

Jewish Rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman wrote A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fixin 2007. His book coined the idea of a ‘non anxious presence’ being the key to both challenge anxious systems and to lead change well. He drew significantly on his understanding of family systems and the way they shape social institutions from the ground up; someone trained or habituated to respond anxiously to disruption in family life will respond that way in the workplace as well. One of his fundamental insights was that a condition he described as ‘seriousness’ was a shortcut to anxiety; he believed a cultivated playfulness helped families and other systems become more resilient and less anxious. Friedman observed that one thing that separates mammals from the rest of the animal world — an aspect of life that makes us more highly evolved — is our capacity for playfulness; you can play with a pet dog, but a pet turtle will not engage in anything but the serious business of survival. Covid-19 is a serious disruption to our lives; a big issue; but Friedman would have us remember to play, lest the seriousness and our anxiety around it crush us and our capacity to innovate, recover, and move forward. “In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective,” he said. This is not quite a call to play the fiddle while the world around us burns, but rather a call to build resilient people who can tackle the difficulties before us with a shared ritual of play. The teachers advocating an expansion of play based educational strategy are right: play is formative, and while it might seem counter intuitive, if you have not had a lifetime of being formed by play, which is quite possible in an age that emphasises serious business (and so has sought to eradicate play from the education system after the earliest years) now is a good time to start. 

Through all their ups and downs, the Heeler family is a non-anxious system; a model for our families through these uncertain times. And the core ritual shaping and driving their family; the binding agent in the love that glues them together; is play. We could do worse than sitting down in front of the TV with our families during this pandemic, then finding ways to imitate the play at home games that families around the country have already incorporated into their daily liturgies. 

I’ve used these religious words like ‘ritual’ and ‘liturgy’ deliberately; the formative power of play is consistent with the Christian tradition that we are formed by our disciplines; habits we work on until they are written into our hearts and minds; rituals we enact until they form our character. The Christian tradition has often been accused of taking itself too seriously, but there has been a stream of theologians and philosophers (even Plato) emphasising the important spiritual discipline of play, and play as an expression of divine playfulness (remember, God made the Platypus). If play is hard-wired into our DNA as an evolutionary feature of our humanity, it is part of the image of God; the essence of our humanity. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote A Theology of Play in the 1970s, he says an apt description for us is homo ludens (the playing man), as he wrote he observed playfulness being excised from the serious business of work and the economy, calling this an expression of foolishness that undermined our humanity (though he saw the post-Reformation church being responsible for this outbreak of seriousness). Moltmann, looking to the revolutionary playfulness of Jesus in the face of the serious religious establishment he challenged, called Christians to return to a ritual of play, wresting control of our lives from those insisting on seriousness, in order to see revolution and change. How we play now, in a crisis, will shape how we, and our children, tackle the future. “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 said.

Bandit is right. Play with your kids during this period, they might give you everything.

How to pray (a guide for those trying prayer for the first time during this pandemic)

We live in anxious times. Rightly so. There’s a pandemic sweeping the globe. I heard this morning that over a billion people are currently in some sort of lockdown. And things are likely to get worse, at least here in Australia, before they get better.

Plenty of the countries on the global outbreak map are countries that are increasingly post-religious (please note, I’m not at all suggesting strong correlation or any causation here). But it struck me that in the secular western world, in anxious times, lots of people might feel this profoundly human urge — one that has given comfort to millions of people in human history — to pray. We might feel the urge to pray — prayer might even work — God might even be there and listening to our prayers. Prayer might calm our anxious hearts, it might help us to ‘be still’ and know that God is not distant, but present, in these times of crisis (that’s a whole other topic, but one way to put this idea to the test is to pray). We, in the secular west, might feel an urge to pray, a sort of haunting notion that it might do something for us, or that we might want to speak to a house that feels empty hoping that there’s something bigger than us present who we can ‘cast our cares’ onto; expressing our hopes, our dreams, our sorrows, our fears, and our anxieties. This is the condition that philosopher Charles Taylor says we modern westies live in — the Secular Age — an age haunted by the loss not just of God, but of the religious practices that help us make sense of our lives. If Taylor is right, we might feel the urge to pray, but have no idea how to do it. If that’s you, then this post is for you. A quick primer on how to pray — how to search, to probe, the haunted sense you might have to turn to something bigger than you, and not the government, in this moment we find ourselves in.

Christians have always believed that prayer is just speaking to God; an act of faith that God is there, God wants to hear us and have a relationship with us, and that God is directly accessible — you don’t need a priest, or a professional, or someone more holy than you to convey your prayers to God (though, when you struggle with how, or what, to pray, Christians believe that Jesus himself — and the Holy Spirit — give us strength to pray, and work in some sort of mysterious way to bring our prayers before God the father; but figuring out how the Trinity works as we pray is also beyond the scope of this post). Because we believe God is transcendent not just some weird bloke in the sky with a beard, but the being who gives us being — the foundation of the universe, the one, ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ (as the Bible says) — and because we believe prayer is enabled by God’s Spirit at work in our beings — Christians don’t even believe you have to speak out loud to pray. But it sometimes helps to feel like you’re actually talking to somebody, and if you’re in company and praying together, then praying out loud is a great idea. It also helps, I find, to pray out loud so that you remember that prayer is fundamentally relational. And let’s face it, if we’re talking about 6 months in lockdown, talking to an empty room is probably the least of our worries.

Christians believe that prayer can be an act of love, you can say the sort of things to God you might say to a friend or loved one, you can thank God for good things (the whole ‘gratitude’ movement is just the secular age version of prayer — where we express gratitude to an empty universe for the fortune we enjoy, prayers of thanks let you direct that gratitude somewhere and lets you enjoy the benefits that the gratitude movement has harnessed). Giving thanks in crap, pandemic, times for good things around us will help us keep some sort of perspective, and sanity, and keep us looking out for good things so that we don’t fall into despair.

Christians also believe that prayer can be an expression of dependence — that we can ‘petition’ God to act, in ways we might petition the government. We can ask God for things, confident that he is a good God who gives — whose expressions of generosity include the goodness and beauty of nature, the cleverness and ingenuity of people, and ultimately, his invitation to be in a relationship with him because of, and through, Jesus. You might know that famous verse, John 3:16, God shows his love for the world by sending Jesus — who dies — ‘that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ — that’s not just eternal life in lockdown, but with God, in relationship with this loving being who is the foundation of the universe — who wants to hear from us.

Christians also believe prayer can be an expression of sorrow or repentance — an acknowledgement that we fail at things, that we don’t always want a relationship with God, that we live in ways that are destructive to ourselves and our neighbours (the pattern Jesus came to reverse both with his example, and the new life he gives us that includes taking up his call to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart,’ and to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ — we stuff up all three of those loves (for God, neighbour, and self), all the time — and while that could lead to a breakdown of each type of loving relationship (relationship with God, with people, and the sort of self-care we neglect through guilt and shame), we can instead, turn to prayer to help us put those relationships right. You can pray that God would intervene in life — yours, the life of those you love, the life of the world. And the Christian God does, even if sometimes his interventions are beyond our comprehension (especially during suffering and crap stuff — there’s a whole book in the Bible, Job, that explores this question).

Basically anyone can try talking to the God who is there, who made the universe, ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ — when Paul says that bit, he’s talking to the people of Athens. They’re basically the opposite of our secular age; instead of pushing God out of the picture and feeling haunted by that loss, they’ve tried to pull every possible god into the picture. They’re haunted in a different direction (and maybe we’ve also replaced God with all sorts of little alternative gods without realising it?). Paul says even though the Athenian divine dance card is full, God still wants a relationship with them. He isn’t far away. All they have to do is seek him and they’ll find him. We seek God by prayer. So maybe you’re feeling alone; isolated; afraid… maybe you’re kind of wishing, or hoping, that there might be a God out there who cares in the midst of this chaos and darkness.

You can try prayer. Maybe you should. You can do it any time too — Paul says in one of his letters that we can ‘pray without ceasing’ — talking to God can be like the chat thread you’re keeping open on your computer screen, or the WhatsApp group you message with random thoughts and questions during the day.

Our best model for prayer is Jesus — there are other good prayers (as in people who pray, not just what to say) in the Bible. There are prayers written out in different books, by different people — the book of Psalms is basically a whole book of prayers that are songs. Daniel, in the book of Daniel, is a good picture of prayer during really rough times… but Jesus is our model for what the good human life looks like, and he prays. Lots. He often prays by withdrawing himself from the hustle and bustle of life — from distractions. To really zero in on his relationship with God. You might like to do that too — though that’s particularly hard if you live in a house with kids (and praying with them will probably help calm their anxieties in this moment too). Jesus famously provides a bit of a guide to prayer in Matthew’s Gospel (that’s Matthew’s story about Jesus’ life and teaching). Jesus teaches the most famous ‘model prayer’ of all — the Lord’s Prayer (a prayer that God’s kingdom would come — one that God answers as Jesus dies, and God’s Spirit gets given to people so that we can follow Jesus as king and have eternal life with him). It models talking to God in a relational way, thanking God for some stuff about God (“our father in heaven, hallowed be your name” just means ‘your name is great and holy — basically ‘you’re really great’). It asks God to act in the world (“your kindgom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). It asks God to provide (“give us each day our daily bread”) — there’s a good case to be made that this is a prayer for God’s Spirit, the literal translation is ‘the bread of tomorrow today’ and in Luke’s version Jesus says the Father (God) gives us something heaps greater than Bread, his Spirit). It asks God to forgive us for the wrong things we do and sets us towards better relationships with others too (“forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”), and it asks that we might live and act in certain ways consistent with what we’ve prayed (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”). Our prayers can do all that stuff. Jesus also has some pretty good guidelines for praying in lockdown. Ones we can all follow. We don’t have to babble on using holy secret language, or say the right number of ‘Father Gods’ or ‘hail Marys’ or crack any code to make our prayers work. We don’t have to be super religious types. We can just talk. And God will listen. Why not try it. At the very least it’ll give you something to do during lockdown, at best it’ll help push you towards the God who is there, who made the universe, and who cares for you.

Here’s what Jesus says:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” — Matthew 6:5-8

You can pray words you come up with yourself, but lots of Christians also find it helpful to pray prayers written by others (like the Psalms, or books of prayers from all sorts of people through history). You could try praying something like this to kick you off.

“God,

I don’t even know if you’re out there but I thought I’d give this prayer thing a go because I don’t know what else to do right now. I’m scared. I’m worried about this virus and what it means for people I love. For my family. For me. For my work. I don’t know if we’ll survive this. We need some sort of help. I ask that you would fix this. Whether that’s through scientists finding treatments and cures, or through some miracle we don’t understand. Fix this. Give us strength. Help us love each other. We don’t do a good job of that at the best of times, I don’t do a good job of that either. I get angry and selfish. I say things that hurt people. I see people as competition for resources. I’m sorry. God, if you’re out there, help me believe that. Help me see the good things you’ve made as good gifts. Thank you for trees, and birds that sing. For people and their brains — for stories that help me get through the day, and science that might help us survive. Thank you for colours, and food that smells good. If you’re there in those good things, help me find you, and so find comfort for my fears.”

Christians often say ‘amen’ at the end of prayers — you don’t have to, it just means ‘I agree’ — it’s a way to pray stuff together. Ultimately prayers work best if you’re actually in a relationship with God, not just casually dating, and the way that happens is through Jesus. Through trusting that Jesus is there, and that his prayer (for God’s kingdom to come) was actually answered. Then you can pray to God as someone who is his child (like Jesus did), and you can know that God is listening like a good father listens to their kids (partly cause that’s how the whole Trinity thing works). That changes the way we pray, but the one above might be a useful starting place if you’re in the more casual stage of a relationship — trying to figure out if God is there or not. Give it a go.

Covid-19 and Church: The case for churches to stay ahead of the curve in order to flatten the curve (and why I don’t think livestreaming is a solution during a shutdown)

In my last post I mentioned that I thought churches should act ahead of government advice, and so ahead of the curve, in our response to Corona Virus. I’ve been asked to expand on this point.

At the same time, I’ve been watching churches in Australia (mine included) embracing the technological solution of livestreaming services to help people stay away and not miss out. Technology can be great; but long time readers will know that I’ve often argued (following Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman) that technology isn’t neutral. Technology is ecological; the technologies we introduce to the ecosystems of our lives and relationships change our lives and relationships — sometimes in ways we don’t notice. I think livestreaming is a good temporary solution — to aid people in making the decision to self-isolate from churches now, but I don’t think it is a good long term solution — either beyond the pandemic, or in an extended shutdown through the Aussie flu season.

So here’s two further thoughts on church during the pandemic.

  1. Shut large (and even medium) gatherings earlier than the government tells you to to flatten the curve, and keep Christians healthy for acts of service in the community.
  2. Don’t live stream a service the whole way through a long shutdown because of a theological commitment to church being a gathering of people (not an event where people come together to consume the teachings of a priest).

Here’s a good place to start figuring out how to live in a world affected by pandemic conditions.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

1 Peter 2:12-14

Peter, up front, reminds us that our patterns of life aren’t those from the world — they aren’t sinful desires — but a world lived as people removed from the ways of the world because we are no longer exiled from God. As God’s people we’re meant to live observable good lives; lives that mark us out as different to our neighbours (otherwise, what’s the difference that makes them ‘such good lives’ not just normal ones). And we’re to submit to human authorities (there are versions of that submission that will look more like martyrdom at their hands than obedience).

I read this morning that the government is considering reducing the number of people gathered in static events from 500 to 100. This will be a threshold moment for lots of Aussie churches — but we shouldn’t be waiting. Waiting would be a normal good life, not a remarkably good life. Waiting would also embrace a particular pattern of life that is motivating the decisions being made about shut downs.

Flattening the curve requires early action — and while it’s been great seeing lots of churches taking action around live streaming and making hygiene a priority on Sundays, there are still quite a few churches committed to soldiering on through the virus. This assumes that the best way for us to soldier on, as the church, through the crisis, is to hold Sunday gatherings that bring an entire church community together. Rather than proactively loving our neighbours by staying away from each other and minimising disease.

The government has a particular view of human flourishing that will form the basis of its decision making about social distancing measures. It is not solely interested in the medical health of people. It is interested in economic flourising. Decisions to delay social distancing measures are constantly being weighed up against economic imperatives (decisions about who should be treated in publicly funded hospitals are weighed up against the same measures, ultimately, and perhaps especially in the sort of crisis Italy finds itself in). Approaching the issue in economic terms — with the health crisis assessed based on its financial impact (see Trump, Donald, ‘Response to the Corona Virus’ in future encyclopaedias) will have us asking questions and making calculations like the one asked in The Australian newspaper today:

It’s unedifying but governments do put monetary values on human life, implicitly. That’s why we don’t have double the number of ambulances or hospitals — because the additional people that would be saved aren’t deemed worth the diversion of resources from other things. State and federal governments spend about one sixth of GDP keeping us healthy and safe. A 2014 Australian government document put the “statistical value” of a life at $4.2m, and the value of a year of life at $182,000. “The value of statistical life is most appropriately measured by estimating how much society is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death,” it stated.

If 1000 more people died but we avoid a 1930s-style depression, would it be worth it? It’s a hypothetical question because governments can’t know how effective their health measures are in advance. There’s no neat menu of policy options and trade-offs.

Hospitals have a particular measure of human flourishing too (medical health), my last post touched on the idea that Christians kickstarted hospitals by caring for vulnerable people other medical professionals wouldn’t touch for both medical and economic reasons (these non-Christian doctors in the Roman Empire would only try to heal those who might survive, pay, and benefit their careers).

These aren’t the questions we ask in framing our response. Our questions are something more like: “what is the most loving thing we might do that show we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves”?

Our metric as churches is not predominantly economic or medical/physical flourishing — though because we believe people are embodied creatures, our vision of human flourishing includes the economic and the physical. Our vision extends to the mental and spiritual wellbeing, and sees worldly wealth and the value of human lives in different terms to a state that ultimately will make all pandemic decisions based on utility; based on limiting harm but defining that harm as a balance between the economic and the physical. We believe lives have value because people are made in the image of God, with a created vocation to represent his life, nature, and character in the world he made. We don’t assess flourishing in purely material terms; and especially not with economic ones on top of our hierarchy. In an age of radical individualism, and a nation built on individual freedoms, Christians also have good reason to believe that community, and relationships, are part of human flourishing. I’d suggest our hierarchy should put the Spiritual first, the physical next, and while the economic is important, it’s certainly not the priority for our gatherings (like it might be for schools and workplaces), and then I’d put our responsibility to others above self-interest in a decision making matrix (ala Philippians 2).

We have a very different economics built on our very different picture of flourishing (do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven… if your neighbour asks for your cloak, give them your shirt as well… that sort of thing… you know, the teachings of Jesus). Our ultimate picture of the flourishing life is one connected to God, by his Spirit, through Jesus, participating in the renewal of all things — seeking, as Crouch said, ‘shalom’ — life in God’s peace; his kingdom; in relationship with him.

We also have a different ethical framework to the ethical framework government applies. Christian ethics are not utilitarian but are virtuous, that we are called to make the right decisions based on the right thing to do — based on questions of virtue and character rather than predominantly about results on some bottom line or other; that we act as people shaped by love of God, and love for neighbour.

We should do the loving thing; not the least disruptive thing. So, we are to love sacrificially, and not find our value in our own physical or economic health, but instead are to trust God to provide, and have faith the the hope of the Gospel is real. While governments (rightly) have a role to play in determining shutdown parameters that will effect the economy, the education system, and the health system (and all of those inter-relate, and all of them are impacted by government decision making), our parameters for deciding what to do about how we operate as churches are very different, and we should act quicker because our priorities are different.

Now, I can see a case to be made, from a Christian framework that is a little more gnostic than I’m suggesting — where the health of the soul trumps all other forms of flourishing, that might suggest we keep doing Sunday church services come hell, or come highwater, trusting that God will work through the proclamation of his word. But I don’t think this rightly values the embodied nature of human life — our own wellbeing, or that of our neighbours. Not looking after your own health would be a way of ‘loving your neighbour as you love yourself’ — that is to say, a not very wise or sustainable way. And it would also be not a great witness to the very physical nature of the kingdom of God; the one that culminates in a physical new creation where we have physical resurrection bodies, brought about by the physical incarnation of Jesus into a human body; that same Jesus who cared for the physical needs of those he met and healed as a picture of their spiritual needs (the same loving kindness that motivated the beginning of public hospitals in the western world).

If flattening the curve is the best way to love our neighbours (wisely balancing economic, physical, and spiritual health) then we should model not putting the economy first and take steps to stay ahead of the curve. We should do the right thing not out of economic imperatives, but a fuller sense of human flourishing. This is why I think churches should stop holding big, Sunday, gatherings before the government directs us to, but that we should ensure that people are still having their spiritual well being, and need for community, met. If our priority is living and proclaiming the Gospel — and the priorities of the kingdom — in the midst of a crisis, I don’t think our most effective way to achieve that is to hold big gatherings that appear to be unloving (see the discussion around Hillsong’s conference on Twitter, for example). We have an opportunity to display the values of the kingdom in how we participate in the world during this crisis; with lives marked by sacrificial love for others and different priorities, and words soaked in the hope of the Gospel. While I’d hope these are markers of our gatherings on Sundays at “church” every week, they don’t exclusively have to happen there.

Live streaming a service is a great interim measure to flatten the curve and transition towards a social distancing period, but I don’t think it’s a very good medium term solution (because it is a terrible long term replacement for church). Live streaming is probably, I’d say, better than continuing to meet, either disregarding government directives or waiting until the last minute and taking no initiative in flattening the curve.

“Church” by its nature is the gathered people of God — a church is an expression of the body of Jesus; there’s an embodied, incarnational, nature of church that is fundamental to existing as that gathered community in the world. Gathering is important. Gathering to encourage and equip one another, and, in my Presbyterian context, for the ministry of word and sacrament, to take place is important. Andy Crouch’s excellent piece made the point that gathering for corporate worship is fundamental to a Christian view of human flourishing. I think he’s right. But (despite my Presbyterian heritage, and the Westminster Confession’s position on worship), I don’t think ‘corporate worship’ is located in the Sunday service, but in us Christians together (you plural) offering ourselves as a living sacrifice. We can do that in all sorts of expressions of a gathering. So I find myself with the theological convictions that the body of Christ is expressed in physical gatherings, where people are using their spiritual gifts to sacrificially love and serve one another (and together serve outsiders) as an expression of God’s presence in us by his Spirit, and that we meet ‘in Jesus name’ through the ministry of the word and sacrament (the proclamation of the Gospel, and our participation in it). You can’t really do most of this digitally. It’d be a really bad idea for us to establish this as an option that becomes either a norm, or a desirable/more convenient alternative. Call me an idealist, but I believe a crisis is exactly the time to turn to theological principles, and even push further towards them, rather than to find convenient solutions that don’t integrate with those principles. ‘Digital church’ isn’t actually a thing; and most churches have alternative structures that are closer to the nature of church than anything where teaching from someone outside a gathering is mediated by a screen.

If this shutdown period goes beyond Easter, I’ll be suggesting that we cease live streaming a centralised service with a talk from me (or another professional preacher) at that point, and that as more extreme social distancing measures kick in (the President of the U.S.A today asked people to limit meetings in the states to 10 people), we turn our energies and efforts to the small churches we already have in our midst (in most communities); that we change the dynamic of at least some gatherings of our small groups so that they actually function as small churches. If we’re going to establish a new normal through this period, let’s establish one that might see people growing in equipping one another for works of service (Ephesians 4), rather than one of people being fed content via screens.

If we are limited (or self-limiting) to gatherings of ten people, then I will be encouraging our small groups to function as churches who meet together to do what we would normally do on a Sunday in their small groups, but who also look beyond their own needs to serve others their community is connected to. In our system, this would mean that I would visit groups on a rotating basis to share the Lord’s Supper (probably a few times in a longish shut down), or that we get the appropriate permissions for others to conduct those sacraments.

It would mean growth groups take responsibility for the preaching of the word, and for figuring out what format that takes. There are plenty of church traditions where this is the norm, but one way that I would see us continuing as a larger church, who might come back together, is that I’d be encouraging our leaders to be teaching through the same material, and I’d meet with them during the week to help them prepare a church service. I’d rather reinforce that church is about the gathered people of God, equipping one another through works of service and through the ministry of the word and sacrament in the flesh than creating (or reinforcing) a consumer mentality that sees content from a professional preacher as the thing we come to receive when we attend church. Growth Groups might then invite members who are stuck in isolation or sick to stream in, virtually, to their smaller community, using the technology we’ve established in our preparations.

Livestreaming, for us, will take the edge off missing out on church while we are still meeting on Sundays, but it’s not going to be our solution beyond that point. I suspect this Sunday, or the next, will be our last services held or live streamed with a skeleton crew for some time, and that’s what I’m working towards. And I think on the whole, that’ll be a good thing.

Church, in Australia, during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Yesterday I posted about some parenting stuff in the age of Corona Virus. Today we had our first Sunday service after the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and the Australian Government brought in social distancing measures to limit large gatherings.

We aren’t a large gathering, but our congregation meets in a facility we share with multiple congregations, including one made up of a substantial number of people in high risk categories. It’s a building we don’t operate, so our ability to conduct appropriate cleaning measures between uses is limited.

I’m convinced churches need to participate in flattening the curve, even if our gatherings aren’t large, I think we have a responsibility to love our neighbours, especially the vulnerable. I’m struck by how wrong this can go — Patient 31 in South Korea was an individual responsible for a drastic uptick in Corona Virus infections because of her participation in church events.

I’m convinced that we should act ahead of government advice. The call from Jesus to “love our neighbours” comes with the caveat “as we love ourselves” — it’s important that we be healthy so that we can be in a position to provide good care to others. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to opt out of our service, to non-anxiously (or anxiously) self isolate, without judgment, from this point on. Even if the government doesn’t step in to limit interactions for weeks or months (probably until winter).

I found Andy Crouch’s piece on love in the time of Corona Virus profoundly helpful (I also linked to it yesterday). I’m convinced that we need to find ways not just to virtually connect as church, but to keep meeting together. But this requires careful management of physical spaces and personal hygiene, and our circumstances with our building and the other congregations that meet there mean we’ll probably be encouraging small groups to meet together during our church broadcasts, and to find ways to care for and support one another.

I’m convinced that we need to be prepared, and careful, so that we can love our neighbours well in this time of crisis as a faithful presence in the world — a people committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus. I’m struck by what’s happening in Italy, where hospitals are confronted with making treatment decisions that will determine who lives and who dies. Here’s a quote from a journal article I filed away once for a time such as this.

“Medicine involves faithful presence to those in pain, even—perhaps especially—when hopes for “cure” prove illusory and the provision of care throughout a longer or a shorter span of life becomes the sum of what medicine can offer. This is no easy task. Our helplessness to effect a hoped-for cure can too easily turn to hatred: hatred of sufferers for failing to get well and of ourselves for failing to make them better. In the face of this temptation to impotent rage and to the punitive abandonment of the sick and suffering, medicine needs the church, whose experience of the faithful presence of God in the midst of suffering undergirds its own willingness faithfully to be present to the sick. Only so can the hospital—and the practice of medicine more generally—be, in Hauerwas’ words, “a house of hospitality along the way of our journey with finitude . . . a sign that we will not abandon those who have become ill simply because they are currently suffering the sign of that finitude” (Hauerwas, 1986, 81–2). If anything, Hauerwas may have understated the dependence of the practice of medicine, thus defined, upon the moral community that is the church. In a recent monograph, historian Andrew Crislip (2005) links the emergence of the hospital in the late antique period to the health care system of Christian monasticism. According to Crislip, monastic health care stood in stark contrast to pagan health care in its commitment to care for the crippled, the infirm elderly, and the chronically and terminally ill (Crislip, 2005, 9). “It was standard among ancient physicians at all times to reject chronic or hopeless cases. To treat a patient he could not cure would only diminish the doctor’s reputation, even if it might enrich him somewhat” (Crislip, 2005, 114). Thus, where pagan medicine emphasized prognosis, which allowed the physician to identify hopeless cases and refuse to take them, monastic medicine emphasized diagnosis, which allowed for appropriate healing and caring measures to be taken on behalf of any sufferer (Crislip, 2005, 18–9). There is, in other words, no abstract discipline called “medicine” that offers nonstigmatizing, compassionate care throughout the life cycle. In the West, at least, such medicine originated in specifically Christian communities and was undergirded by specifically Christian moral commitments

M.K Peterson, ‘Salvation and Health: Why the Church Needs Psychotherapy,’ Christian Bioethics, 17.3, (2011), 277-298

Get that — before universal health care in western countries; in the Roman world; doctors would treat people based on who they’d boost their stats from, and who would make them the most money. Christianity turned that on its head because Christians kept caring for vulnerable people, and thus, the modern hospital was born. In the third century AD, a Roman emperor who hated the spread of Christianity, Julian, wrote a letter where he gave an account for the popularity of the religion of the ‘impious Galileans’ amongst the people of Rome. He gave instructions for the creation of something like the modern hospital.

“Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

Here are some steps we’re taking and the way we’re approaching decisions around Corona Virus. I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

  1. I’ve put together something of a crisis team, this team includes a few well positioned medical professionals, including one doctor in our congregation who is a medical advisor for a senator, and two GPs, but also our small group leaders, kids church coordinator, committee of management and elders. We’re discussing steps to take, and this group will allow us to make decisions quickly as information comes to hand. It’s really important that Christians, who are people of truth, build our decisions and our attempts to be wise, and to love our neighbours, from the truth. So good data and information is really key — both receiving it, making decisions from it, and sharing it — but doing so non-anxiously (again, see Crouch’s article). I’m also an asthmatic, which is a personal risk for me, but one our church leadership team needs to manage too. It’s probably a good thing for pastors of churches coordinating crisis management to make sure their own risk factors are known and that work arounds are possible.
  2. We’re communicating regularly to our congregation via our Facebook group, and looking at how to communicate to those not on Facebook.
  3. We’ve asked those who are sick or symptomatic, or potentially exposed, to self isolate, and to let us know so that we can care for them.
  4. We recognise that meeting together is vital for the Christian life, and loneliness is deadly, and social isolation has the potential to undermine our spiritual and emotional well being, so are working at solutions (in line with the Crouch article, and this useful document he linked). Our small groups, meeting in homes where some of the tips in that document will be easier to manage, will be part of continuity of community and care during this time. Even those groups can embrace technology — various members of our Growth Group have face timed in for weeks where they couldn’t make it already this year.
  5. We’ve been preaching through Luke’s Gospel, and today were reminded, as Peter denied Jesus, of Jesus’ call for his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. We broke up into small groups to talk about what this might look like during the pandemic. It’s interesting that the quote from the journal article above uses the phrase ‘faithful presence’ — this is common language for us as a church, the idea that this is our calling, along with the idea of a faithful presence being a non-anxious presence because our hope is secure.
  6. Meals together have been a feature of our gatherings since the beginning. We’re not catering for post-service community lunches during the pandemic, but are instead encouraging people to eat at nearby restaurants (or go home) to avoid handling food/cross contamination.
  7. We are providing soap and sanitiser on site for people to wash their hands as they arrive. Ideally, we’d be wiping down surfaces and equipment before and after use (we are doing that for our bits and pieces, but there’s uncertainty about which groups that use our facilities use what).
  8. We’re encouraging parents to make decisions about how to approach church with kids; whether they sit in family groups practicing some reasonable social distancing in our facility, or sending them to kids church and managing hand washing. Again, we want to make it as easy as possible for people to opt out to flatten the curve, while still belonging to and participating in our community.
  9. Today we ran our first ‘online’ service using Zoom. We’ve got access to a paid account, but like Zoom because should we move to totally online services we want multiple people to be able to contribute to the service. I sticky taped my phone to a mic stand. It worked.
  10. Presbyterians aren’t typically ‘every week’ communion/Lord’s Supper types here in Australia, but we’re changing our practices to minimise handling of the bread by those preparing it, and we don’t share a common cup (we have little cups of grape juice).
  11. On the home front, we’ve been doing some careful preparations, putting together a dry food supply that will last us through a period of isolation, but that will also allow us to meet the needs of others. We’ve started freezing meals in containers labelled with their ingredients (to manage intolerances) so that we can share these with those in need.
  12. Our street already has a thriving Facebook group, but people in our church liked the idea so I’ve knocked up this postcard template (pictured below) they can print off using a photo printing service (or their printer) to drop in to neighbour’s letterboxes. Feel free to shameless steal it. The text is (for those who might want to easily adapt/print using word:

    Hi neighbour,
    As we enter a pandemic where lots of us are predicted to catch Corona Virus, our church has encouraged us to love our neighbours and to find ways to care for those who are sick or isolated.
    We thought a Facebook Group for our street would be a good way for us to stay in touch with each other and offer support during these times (and grow our connection beyond this crisis). We have set up this group, you should be able to search for this name ______________.
    If you can’t find it with the search, please add me as a friend and I’ll invite you to the group. My name is _________. My profile picture looks like _____________. You can contact me by ______________. Our church is hoping to help with groceries or practical needs as they come up. Please let me know if we can help you.


  13. There’ll be an economic impact of Corona Virus as well as a health one; people in church congregations will be facing uncertain employment situations or losing their jobs, in a bad economic climate. We need to risk manage that as churches with our own budgets, but also want to be in a position to be caring for those affected. This is tricky, but it’s something I’ve flagged with our management team and the crisis management group to be part of our conversation. Another church I follow online mentioned maintaining giving during lockdowns as a good way to care for church staff, and to sustain the church’s ability to serve the community. I thought they did this well.

Over to you — hit us up in the comments on this post, or discussion on Facebook, to let us know what your church is doing, or things we’ve missed.

,

Talking to your kids about Corona Virus (as Christians)

We had ‘that talk’ with our kids this morning; and it turns out they’d already been talking about this a bit at school, and knew things already. Which is always awkward for parents…

Not ‘that talk’ — we’ve been having that one for a while, trying to help our kids understand how to approach sex and sexuality as Christians is something we wanted to kick off pretty early. No. The Corona Virus talk. It’s another one you should probably have early, as Christian parents, because our perspective on the virus should be a little different to the perspective offered by the world. Not because we want to go all ‘faith healer’ through the screens of people’s televisions, like one popular televangelist this week, or claim that Christians are immune because we are protected by God, but because we have a different perspective on life, and death, and a particular calling to love our neighbours — especially the vulnerable.

I’m keen for our family’s reaction to Corona Virus to look like:

  1. Prayerfulness
  2. Preparedness
  3. Playfulness
  4. Presence for the sake of our neighbours (loving, non-anxious, presence)

It’s possible ‘playfulness’ jumps out for you here as odd. Especially in such serious times. I’ll explain it first.

In an age of anxiety, I’m really keen to encourage our kids to be a non-anxious presence in the world, and part of that is modelling something different (Edwin Friedman’s A Failure Of Nerve is a good book for seeing how anxious systems (including families) are a self-replicating problem. Friedman coined the idea of the ‘non-anxious presence’ — people who can be emotionally differentiated from the anxiety around them, and appropriately challenge that, to respond better in crises than those losing their rational brains and switching to ‘reptile brains.’ I found this passage from the book quite profound for a bunch of reasons (one of which is that the Biblical paradigm of ‘beastliness’ — being transformed from the image of God into the image of the created things we worship — is ultimately a transformation into being like the serpent… It’s a long quote, but I think it’s important not just for parenting, and not just for in a crisis. Here’s Friedman:

“What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander (no matter how cute), or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem-storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective. When that circular process reaches unbearable thresholds, the chronically anxious family will not be able to contain its reactivity within its own boundaries, and some members will begin transmitting the family’s intensity beyond the family (acting out violently, combatively, or sexually) into a broad range of society’s other institutions, such as church choirs, synagogue religious schools, traffic, PTA meetings, a condominium association, or any office or place of business.

Kids play. That’s how they learn. It’s how they process the world. It’s the best way to teach serious stuff. When we talked about what a few weeks at home might look like, we focussed on how we would play well together. When we talked about hand washing we tried to encourage a bit of playfulness, our son Xavi is developing a “mega rub” method of hand washing. One thing our modern school systems do, when focusing on information and work as the key to formation, is eradicate play and fuel anxiety in these moments. Play and escape (and stories) are going to be a big part of combating that, and of not traumatising your kids or setting them up for anxious, reptile-brain, responses to the world around them. Just for the people who scan long bodies of text, I’m bolding the actual concrete steps we’re taking in case they’re helpful.

If you’re prepping for lockdown with your kids — prep to play. Buy an art and craft survival kit. Plan to be involved in play with your kids if you’re at home with them. Budget a moderate amount of screen time — but watch and play with your kids. Talk about the stories you watch, and the games you play. Help them regulate their emotions by being present with them, non-anxiously. Make sure they spend lots of time in fresh air outside (and think about physical contamination, so hand wash after, and use your backyard). I think we’ll be chucking their school work that gets sent home out the window (if it gets sent home at all).

Which brings me to the preparedness point. We’ve done a dry food shop so that we have a few weeks worth of food in our house, not just for us, but for others. We’ll keep stocking up on this front for a few weeks probably. We bought a standalone freezer (we’d tossed our old chest freezer in our recent move). I didn’t want to buy another one because of running costs, and how close our supermarkets are, but Robyn convinced me, and it might actually end up being useful in this preparedness thing. Our plan is to cook a bunch of frozen meals that will be available for us, should we get sick, and for our neighbours and community. We have a street Facebook group, with stacks of our neighbours in regular contact, which will put us in a good position to check in on each other in the event of a lockdown, but will also help us monitor those more elderly neighbours not on Facebook.

Part of preparedness for us, in talking to our kids, was finding out what they knew already. Kids listen to the radio in the car. They talk to each other. Schools are doing what they can to build hygiene practices. I’m on the executive committee for our daughter’s kindergarten so I know there are lots of conversations happening behind the scenes about risk management, and kids notice little changes in practices even if they don’t understand the why. When they don’t understand the ‘why’ they fill that gap with their own reasons. Xavi was telling us about a virus that can kill people in five minutes. Helping your kids have good information — like that this virus is very mild in children — will help them be better prepared emotionally. I’m an asthmatic, so is Xavi, so there’s a degree of risk for us, and we’ve talked about making sure we’re taking our preventers as prescribed (something I’ll have to start modelling). We spent a few minutes answering questions the kids had about the virus, and finding out what they’d heard. Part of helping your kids navigate this is making sure you’re considering expert advice — not just memes — so monitor advice from public health experts and government — and make informed decisions as a family, giving kids age appropriate information that will replace anxiety and fear with love.

Which is where we talked about how we’re going to respond as Christians. How it is particularly important for us to listen to Jesus, who tells us not to worry, and not to be afraid, and also tells us to love our neighbours. He showed us what that looked like in how he loved us. Part of figuring out what is loving in the face of this advice is figuring out how to not just act in ‘self-preservation’ but lovingly for the sake of others. So we talked about how while they’ll probably be very safe, lots of older people in our lives are going to be at risk, and part of loving them is looking after ourselves (washing our hands, coughing into our elbows, not touching our faces). We’ve talked about how preparing well, and looking after ourselves, will help us help people we know. We can only be present in community if we are looking after ourselves, and sometimes the best way to help our community will be to remove ourselves from contact with people if we feel sick — even if that is hard and sad for us (and BOOORING).

I loved Andy Crouch’s piece on how churches should respond to Corona Virus a lot. I like his take on culture, and on the importance of practices and symbols for ‘culture making’ (you should read his book on that front).

I thought his overarching aims dovetailed nicely with the non-anxious presence stuff — I think he is tapping into what it looks like to be a faithful presence in our community in times of crisis. Crouch says:

We need to redirect social energy from anxiety and panic to love and preparation. This crisis presents an extraordinary opportunity to fortify small communities of love and care for our neighbors. That will only happen if we lead in a way that reduces fear, increases faith, and reorients all of us from self-protection to serving others.

His advice on ‘what to communicate’ in a church setting to avoid it becoming an anxious system applies on a family level too.

In shaping culture, nothing matters as much as action that carries symbolic weight. Sometimes this symbolic action takes the form of concrete steps, but sometimes it is simply well-chosen words and images. It may seem like our most urgent need is to make decisions, and of course we cannot neglect the decisions that are ours to make. But just as important for moving the horizons of possibility are what we say, how we say it, and even how we appear to others as we say these things. The way we communicate will shape the choices others make, and how they approach their own decision-making.

This means that all of us have a primary responsibility as leaders, as far as it depends on us, to be well-rested, soaked in prayer and contemplation, and free of personal fear and anxiety. We need to start and end each day as children of our heavenly Father, friends of Jesus, and grateful recipients of the Holy Spirit. We need to pray for genuine spiritual authority, rooted in the love that casts out fear, to guard and govern our lives as we lead, and trust that God will make up what is lacking in our own frail hearts, minds, and bodies.

What he says here of leaders is true for parents. This is why prayerfulness, not just privately, but with your kids, is going to be important in a crisis (and, you know, we also believe prayer works). Prayerfulness matched with preparedness, playfulness, and presence.

While there are lots of 20 second songs you might sing while handwashing with your kids (and some of them will be fun… we use a 2 minute podcast called “Brushy” to add some fun to nightly toothbrushing routines — there’s a gap in the market for a 20 second podcast maybe)… We’re encouraging our kids to use the 20 seconds to pray for people we care about, and for those we don’t know. We’ll check in on their anxiety levels, and one of the things we’ll do as we sit with them and talk about what is happening is pray together.

Also, there’s a whole other conversation to be having with your kids if Corona Virus is threatening your economic wellbeing (possibly your employment). Those four elements are going to be practices that might stand you in good stead as we face these anxious economic times together too.

So that’s what we’ve done — would love to know how you’re navigating this with your families?

,

On words and meaning

In 2001, American writer/philosopher David Foster Wallace wrote a famous review of a dictionary.

Just ponder for a moment how a review of a dictionary might become famous.

It’s one of my favourite essays because while it does what it says on the tin, it also explains huge swathes of disagreement in modern life; it accounts for why so often we talk past one another in disagreements while using the same words.

It’s because the same words mean different things to different people based on an underlying understanding of how words work; what DFW called ‘a usage war’ — we’re seeing the fruits of that war, and most of the time we don’t even realise that’s what happening. He said, of introductory essays published in dictionaries:

“They’re salvos in the Usage Wars that have been” under way ever since editor Philip Gave first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster’s’ Third. Gave’s famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster’s Third endorsed OK and described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic}” was this: “A dictionary should have no traffic with … ‘artificial notion of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.

In one sense the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a war between objectivity and subjectivity; modernity and post-modernity; or conservatives and progressives. On the one hand are those who think words necessarily have an objective meaning, dictated by their ability to describe an actual thing, and only ever that thing. The meaning is fixed etymologically. Dictionaries tell you what a word actually means. On the other hand, there are those who think words are subjective; that our words are always analogies coming from our perspective attempting to describe reality in intelligible ways, but always limited — and also contested and subject to change, and meaning is dictated by usage. Particularly how the user conceives of the meaning of the word; but also how that word is understood in particular interpretive communities — and we must be mindful of that context, not just etymology.

I might be a nerd; but it fascinates me that this approach to language actually, fundamentally, plays out in disputes across those trenches — between modernists and post-modernists, and conservatives and progressives (and post-modern conservatives and modernist conservatives and post-modern progressives and modernist progressives). There are often things at stake in the definition of these words and how they’re used too; take a couple of examples; there’s currently a debate being waged within the LGBTIQA+ community, and within the feminist community (as much as those can be monolithic communities) about the meaning of words. Those communities are typically progressive (in many ways that we would understand that word). And yet, traditional feminists fought very hard for the word ‘woman’ to mean a particular thing; they’re now labelled as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), because they won’t broaden the label to mean something new — to assign the label based on a constructed gender identity, rather than an objectively observable biological reality (anatomical sex), even while recognising that gender is constructed. For members of the LGBTIQA+ community this same issue plays out for, say, gay men, who have lobbied for the recognition of their rights to love other men, only for the meaning of the word ‘men’ to also be contested. The contest is a language usage war.

I tend to be a descriptivist, because I think that better reflects the reality of how language is used, though deep down I’d prefer a more prescriptive approach to words and meaning. But this means we have to be careful, as individuals, when engaging in discussions, to notice not just what others are saying but how others are using words. It’s very easy to insist that other people are using words the way we believe they should be using them, and then crucify them, rather than entering the contest of meaning for words or terminology by bringing a broadened perspective, or arguing for a particular manner of usage.

One person responded to my last post about ‘toxic churchianity’ by saying I’d lost his interest in what I had to say by using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ He suggested there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ — there’s just the objectively positive good that is masculinity and anything else is actually not masculinity. This was a ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, that doesn’t grapple with a larger cultural conversation around what the meaning of ‘masculinity’ is, and where some proffered definitions might sometimes need contesting and qualifying to distinguish them from others; I’m comfortable entering that contest for meaning, and that conversation, because of how I think language works.

For a prescriptivist, language is ‘ontological;’ to name something is to describe it as it really is prescriptively, on every occasion. A word means what it means. This is a lot of weight for language to bear; and it limits the creative/artistic/poetic use of language where we can use words to create things that are not. This has interesting implications for how we exegete the Bible too — if words always mean what they etymologically mean in a prescriptive, technical, dictionary sense then we are assuming a certain sort of approach to writing from the authors of Scripture (a modernist one). This ontological thing is at play in a debate currently taking place within the conservative church, in a similar way to the debate playing out in the progressive communities described above. There’s a debate about how Christians who experience same sex attraction should describe themselves; and whether they should use the label gay. This debate, from a conservative prescriptive perspective is a no brainer; because to use the word ‘gay’ is an ontological claim about who a person is; and in Christ, one’s identity is transformed. In that theory of language, it makes no sense to use the label gay. But here’s why I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think language works that way, or that this is the claim being made by those people who use the label gay while pursuing a traditional Biblical sexual ethic. When you listen carefully to these brothers and sisters they say they use the label to describe their experience; or story. It’s not an ontological claim in terms of being an objective fixed reality (though I do think ontology/personhood/identity actually works narratively, not simply as a fixed objective reality too; I think a materialist, objective, ontology is a modern construct that we often impose on ancient texts, like Genesis, where ontology there is more relational and functional, and connected to a narrative — so my approach to language is theological, but this is circular, and prescriptivists would say the same thing about their exegesis, their theology, and their approach to languge). If we insist that words work a particular way; if there was no contest; then I think one camp in this debate could insist that the other use words in a particular, objectively correct, way. But I don’t think there’s much space for Christians, especially english speaking Christians, to insist things like that — because as people reading translations of texts from ancient languages, where the complexity of language has to be part of the fabric of how a translation is produced, we know we are experiencing the subjectivity of language as we read the Bible and dig into the Greek or Hebrew to find the semantic range of a word. We read a Bible that has puns, and deliberate ambiguity, and word play built in because words do not always have objective fixed meanings. Also, on the belief that words and labels function ‘ontologically’ and in prescriptive rather than descriptive ways; and the idea that a Christian cannot identify (ontologically) with their sin as though that is a prescriptive reality; someone ought to tell the writers of the New Testament who refer to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute” and Simon as “Simon the Zealot”— those are descriptions of part of their stories, not a prescriptive ontological claims about them.

Understanding how we use language is important; but the debate is not neutral; adopting a ‘descriptive’ framework — one born to some extent out of post-modernity’s reaction to modernity — is now politically loaded. George Orwell famously noted how political regimes with nefarious intent blur the meaning of language through doublespeak and the creation of very technically correct prescriptive looking language to describe things in particularly opaque (though technically correct) ways; and we see this in modern bureaucracy where ‘public relations’ is used (or “effectively utilised”) to prop up powerful status quos. Progressives (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) want to change the meaning of words through pointing both to the contested nature of understanding, but also to the dubious authorities that gave words their meaning. Sometimes word meanings should be contested; etymology is a useful guide for description and employing words carefully to describe reality as we understand it. DFW notes that descriptivism is the air anyone educated after about the 1970s in the west lives and breathes.

“For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively-via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males’? and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic,’ homophobic, elitist: unfair.”

We’re not going to solve this dispute about how words work any time soon, but understanding that the way words and language works is contested might help us listen better to each other in areas of disagreement. It might also help those of us who care about objective truths contend for understandable descriptions of reality.

On Toxic Churchianity: church growth, bullying, abuse, narcissism, and leadership

There’ve been a bunch of stories circulating recently around church leadership — and especially around bullying uses of power and authority. Especially after Steve Timmis was stood down by Acts29 for abusive and controlling behaviours.

Team ministry is ridiculously hard. I’ve spent six years in a large staff team, not as the senior pastor, and with my boss leaving unexpectedly last year I’m not looking to have a new senior pastor in this season of life. This isn’t because I was bullied. I am familiar with other team ministry scenarios in our denomination and it seems there’s no easy model. I don’t think the problem is team ministry, or submission to a leader in that context. My experiences, and this desire to no longer have a boss isn’t the result of bullying, but I do think some of it is the result of a toxic approach to church that spreads way beyond our church and our denomination. This toxicity is the air modern pastors breathe (and the air, by extension, that modern congregations breathe).

I’ll suggest why below, and unpack some of my reflections. I have, as unpacked in some posts towards the end of the year, been developing certain convictions about church and leadership (and church size) as a result of my experiences in the challenging environment of a large team, a complex system, and the relational dynamics that come with both.

I’m not speaking about my experiences as though I can detach myself from the church environment I am part of; I have been involved in leadership and decision making as our church evolved and designed a complex system over some years in pursuit of the mission to make disciples in an increasingly post-church Australia. There are parts of this system that are expressions of what I’m going to suggest is toxic churchianity; the type of system where power games become possible based on results. My former senior pastor’s story is not mine to tell, it’s his, but I’m reasonably confident his reflections on the system have landed in similar places to mine. And so, not just because it’s best practice, but from my own experience, I want to be careful to charitably read the motivations of many people in ‘high authority’, complex, systems; these are often leaders who passionately want to see growth in God’s kingdom. Churches, especially those with a team of staff, do need organisation, and structures, and management, and very few of our leaders are trained to operate in those structures. The kinds of leaders who find themselves in large systems are typically exceptional in such a way that in a market driven, consumer, approach to church they are likely to build a platform; which includes growing churches beyond the size that a community is manageable.

In church planting literature around church size dynamics, famously a paper by Tim Keller, there’s a recognised transition point from ‘pastor sized church’ to ‘program sized’ at 150 people. 150 people is also a sociological barrier called ‘The Dunbar Number’ — an established sized for safe, relationally connected, community. Church growth leaders celebrate those who can redesign church systems, around redefining the role of the pastor/leader, in order to push past that barrier. Our consumer culture of church celebrates those leaders who achieve big growth for the sake of the kingdom. I’ve seen church leaders (plural) be disciplined by one organisation for toxic behaviour only to be embraced by another sister organisation because they get results (ie grow a church or ministry) and must be, therefore, faithful and competent ministers of the Gospel. That’s toxic; we’re not talking Vatican level problematic shuffling someone around within one system, but instead NRL level one team picking up a player after another team removed them for bad behaviour. 

Most pastors are not trained to run the systems and teams required to operate a church bigger than 150, and none I know would list that as the passion or calling that drew them into ministry. Most love God as revealed in Jesus, love the Bible, and love people, and want to work in the intersection of those areas; few want to apply that love for people just to managing staff and leaders. The shift from ‘pastor size’ to ‘program size’ requires more control, influence, or authority to be excercised by the leader (at least in the literature, and in practice).

This isn’t to say abuse isn’t possible in pastor sized churches; our model of church typically assumes that is a stage the pastor must lead through, such that some of the leadership styles of later stages need to be adopted in order to get to those stages and make the transition less jarring. Pastors with personality disorders or authoritarian streaks are probably going to enact those personality types in smaller groups/churches too, just with a different group of people in their sphere; so Stephen McAlpine’s account of life in Timmis’ church (smaller than 150) was mirrored in the way Timmis allegedly acted in the Acts29 network. That said, I do think there’s something protective in the ‘killing of ambition’ necessary in committing to pastor-sized churches as a healthier norm. This alone won’t mitigate toxic churchianity, but when pursued alongside really good structures around accountability, and clear, cruciform, thinking about the role of the pastor or any leader in Christian relationships, such that leadership is about integrity, example, and influence rather than power and authority as understood by the world, it’ll address some of the issues.

Here’s a controversial thesis: a church actually sacrifices health and some of the fundamentals of church community in order to move from ‘pastor size’ to ‘program size’ in Keller’s model; and that sacrifice is echoed in the person of the leader unless there are really deliberate structures in place to mitigate that effect. A commitment to growth through all barriers, at all costs, under one leader, is toxic for both church and leader.

In cultures that celebrate and reward results (through influence and bums on seats), and systems that are geared towards results, there’s a corresponding pressure put on leaders to achieve results. I think an across the board move to pursuing church communities bigger than 150 in the name of mission, and measuring oneself against the ability to do this (and against those who have), we’ve fundamentally changed the nature of church and pastoring; and, in a documented way, we’ve started embracing worldly forms of leadership and authority in the church. When this process is healthy it’s about gleaning wisdom — God’s truth — about how systems and communities operate, but when it’s unhealthy, we’re plundering Egypt and building golden calves rather than golden decorations in the Tabernacle.

We don’t have a great (or consistently applied) paradigm for co-opting worldly truths, and this is especially true when we adopt worldly metrics for success (in the name of mission). This was what I wrote my thesis on at college; considering how Christians might adopt worldly wisdom around public relations and persuasive communication. And my answer was ‘cruciformity.’ We have to consider how the paradigm of a crucified king turns worldly wisdom on its head; while not rejecting it. I think this allowed Paul to learn from Roman orators, but respond to a church in a city obsessed with worldly metrics and style (Corinth), and allowed the compilers of the Book of Proverbs to graft in stacks of Egyptian wisdom, bracketed by reminders about ‘the fear of the Lord’ being ‘the beginning of wisdom.’ This is true both for how we approach wisdom about persuasion and communication from the business world; and how we approach wisdom about leadership.

The Church Growth Movement kicked off when missionary Donald McGavran returned from India to the U.S, realised it had become a mission-field (post-Christendom) and so sought to apply organising principles from the world of business to the world of church, where those activities and the forms/mediums/methods we adopt were unaffected by the Gospel, Christianity became just another product to sell (and buy), and the church became another business system. The senior pastor became CEO. This is an inevitability. Lots of senior pastors in team ministries in big churches have to operate like a CEO; the question then is how they should operate in that chair (cruciform wisdom), and how much we want to repeat that structure as the goal of church ministry (possibly not).

It’s possible to build big faithful systems with pastor as CEO, but it’s much harder than it looks (and we’re not well equipped to do it well). Too many Christian leaders, especially protestant evangelicals who have over-emphasised ‘sola scriptura’ are media illiterate; we’ve rejected ‘forms’ to be ‘word alone’ without realising that is a form; and we don’t notice all the other forms we embrace (like multi-purpose buildings or meeting in shared public space, rather than the architecture of a church building or home), or homogenous groupings within churches, or the management styles and structures we adopt in our teams. This is a problem because when our motivation is getting the content of the Gospel to as many people as possible, it’s that intention, rather than the content of the Gospel, that dictates the forms we adopt — whether forms of persuasion, or communication, or forms of leadership, or church structures. The church growth movement, which problematised the 150 barrier (see for example, this piece from a popular leadership blog), rather than seeing it as a natural limit, at its worst, established an uncritical embrace of business growth principles, which impacted our use of forms across the board. It’s important to recognise how this co-opting of business principles has impacted how we approach leadership and success, and how that then impacts how we use the content of the Bible to justify those forms; so, how Bible verses are then weaponised or sloganised (something particularly shocking in the Timmis revelations). It’s interesting to note the parallels between how Bible verses are used to justify abusive or bullying leadership in pursuit of the mission of the Gospel, and how domestic abusers are recorded weaponising the Bible to justify their behaviours (and how the Serpent twists God’s word in Genesis 3, and in the temptation of Jesus). 

Cruciform patterns of team ministry are very difficult to reconcile with models of leadership that come from the world; those models that emphasise top down authority, vision, and control in pursuit of results/metrics that the leader is kept accountable for meeting. This pressure placed on leaders to secure results — this toxic culture — is to abuse in church, what toxic masculinity is to domestic abuse (and on this, read the bracing, but necessary See What You Made Me Do, a deep dive into domestic abuse by Jess Hill). It’s the air we breathe that has led us to sanctify a utilitarian approach to church.

The challenge is that the toxicity of the system we operate in actually rewards narcissists or people who operate with thoroughly worldly paradigms; which is why stories are starting to circulate about the disproportionate number of narcissists in Christian leadership; and I don’t just mean the narcissistic behaviour that is a product of a system that rewards results and requires a brash sort of leader, though that is bad, I mean that the system attracts those with the personality disorder in a documented way). The trick is that we need to distinguish between those who can’t manage teams well because that’s not what pastors are trained to do, but these are the ‘rules of the game,’ those who are playing that game according to the toxic conventions for the sake of the mission of the Gospel (to get bums on seats and souls into heaven — there’s an overlap here between an understanding of the Gospel as calling for conversion rather than discipleship and being part of the kingdom that is fundamental too), and those who are genuinely very dangerous and abusive narcissists. It won’t always be that easy to tell the difference, and perhaps this is why we need Chuck DeGroat’s upcoming book When Narcissism Comes To Church. The first chapter, available as an excerpt, is worth reading ahead of its release. This diagnosis alone makes me think the book should be essential reading by all church leadership teams – whether staff, or elders – to invite some self-reflection. I’d suggest those leaders who don’t want to subject themselves to this sort of scrutiny are raising a red flag… in the same way that church leadership teams or denominations might suggest mandatory psychological assessments of pastors and employees (which we’re doing around the results of the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse of Children, so it wouldn’t be hard to add a test around narcissistic tendencies/coercive control/abuse) and it would be a red flag if a leader refused. Here are a few passages from the book:

“This sad abandonment of the humble way of Jesus shows up today in pastors of large and small churches, in beloved Christian celebrities, prolific clergy authors and bloggers, dynamic church planters, and seemingly godly men and women. The frightening reality of narcissism is that it often presents in a compelling package. Narcissism is the “glittering image” we present to the world…

When I started doing psychological assessments for pastors and church planters, I saw that narcissistic traits were often presented as strengths. Narcissism can be interpreted as confidence, strong leadership, clear vision, a thick skin. A colleague of mine often says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week? While the vast majority of people struggle with public speaking, not only do pastors do it regularly, but they do it with “divine authority.” In my own work, which includes fifteen years of psychological testing among pastors, the vast majority of ministerial candidates test on the spectrum of Cluster B DSM-V personality disorders, which feature narcissistic traits most prominently (as we’ll see in the next chapter). The rates are even higher among church planters…

For centuries, ecclesial systems have been structured hierarchically, privileging particular people over others. Male leaders, the educated, people with resources, or the well-connected traditionally have greater access to power than others. Structures are not necessarily to blame for narcissism, but particular structures do create an environment where it can grow unchallenged. Historically, Christendom’s conflation of church and empire undermined the “kenotic configuration” of the church, replacing cruciform humility with hierarchy, patriarchy, and power. The grandiosity, entitlement, and absence of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder was translated into the profile of a good leader. Those affected by narcissism’s bite were led to believe it was their fault—a lack of humility, a failure to submit.”

Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes To Church

DeGroat makes a distinction between narcissistic pastors (or church members), and narcissistic systems; and his definition of a narcissistic system doesn’t require a narcissistic pastor, but is simply the ultimate expression of the toxic Christian culture we find ourselves in. Toxic churchianity.

The psychological profile for types of staff/leaders this success-oriented approach to church attracts isn’t just limited to senior leaders. It’s not just senior leaders who, in a culture of toxic churchianity, abuse others. While there are plenty of horror stories about senior pastors abusing their authority, this toxic culture makes team ministry a power game. And anyone can be a player; and sometimes this means the senior leader isn’t the perpetrator, but the figure with the biggest target on his or her back. And our church structures, culture, and polity can stack the playing field in all sorts of directions.

Team ministry is particularly difficult in those contexts where the senior pastor has something like tenure (in a denominational context), or CEO-like authority without accountability (in an independent context); our Presbyterian system gives team ministry a different spin by giving some members of staff equal ‘power’ in the denomination. The Presbyterian system is not immune from abuse (and abuse is more likely to happen in small churches than large ones because we don’t have that many large ones). The Presbyterian system isn’t really geared to team ministry, though may have some protections against abuse in team settings if it is allowed to operate properly as an accountability structure. There are also teams I’ve observed where to mitigate ‘toxic churchianity’ other staff (those not recognised officially by the denomination) are empowered or recognised within the congregation whether with portfolios, or by cultural practice. Our church functions with a hybrid of both. This is a nice safeguard, but is just as open to abuse by staff playing the toxic churchianity game.

While a flat structure can mitigate abuse from a senior leader, the flatter a church structure, within a toxic churchianity culture, the more any leader, or team member, is empowered to be a bully or abuser, and the more dangerous a team member with a personality disorder, or just particular ambition and vision within a ‘toxic churchianity’ framework, becomes. The senior leader becomes a target to discredit and remove. This is an interesting challenge in non-hierarchical Australian church contexts that tend to be more ‘egalitarian’ (and I don’t mean around questions of gender here). Abuse in Anglican or Catholic contexts seems more likely to come from the top down because of a hierarchical structure, but outside those contexts (and histories), churches tend towards either flat structures or the elevation of senior pastor as CEO. In my observations, in these structures, it’s easy to abuse or gaslight a senior pastor from the “second chair,” or to abuse others in a team context, in a system where that second chair person might be seen to be a leader because they get results in the metrics assumed by a congregation. It’s not impossible to do this in a more hierarchical context either. Icing the boss — even with false accusations of their abuse of power in this current climate — can be a short cut to leading a big church where one might pursue one’s “big vision.” As an aside, Bonhoeffer’s “God hates visionary dreaming” quote is a nice antidote to some aspects of toxic churchianity because ‘vision’ plays a big part in justifying bad behaviour in our toxic context. And, to be honest — precisely because I’ve been caught up in this toxic culture (because it’s the air we breathe) — where I’ve been most tempted to act out in the complexity of our team environment has been in times where I’ve wanted to leverage criticism of our model (and senior leader), and my own ‘vision’ to push towards the changes I’ve wanted to see happen. That’s a fraught space, and navigating it is part of what has pushed me to question both our model and the culture that produced it (and that we perpetuate). The healthiest parts of our team culture have been those where we’ve genuinely pursued voluntary, mutual, submission — but it’s very easy for that dynamic to be abused if it isn’t clearly bedded down in team culture and even codified (so that it’s voluntary in the sense that to depart from it is to depart from participating in the team).

I’ve seen a bunch of examples of this abuse from the ‘second chair’ in my (relatively short) time in ministry — as well as far too many examples of abuse from senior leaders (and not just the ones that get documented publicly). The problem is, the more the spotlight is rightly focused on abused from senior leaders, the more the toxic second chair employee will wield that as a means of securing their own agenda. Abuse of power in Christian communities isn’t limited just to the most obvious candidates. It’s not just senior leaders who are attracted to participate in narcissistic, toxic, churchianity. Different church polities and cultures will put power in different hands, and the more market driven a church is the more that power actually sits in the hands of “the market” — the congregation — and the ‘popular’ rather than right decisions being made (church leadership can become as poll driven as political leadership). It’s this sort of popularity driven approach to church that is perhaps easiest for ‘second chair’ leaders to wield against the leader in the first chair; with the greatest capacity for disunity in the body. This can put a church leader in an impossible situation where exercising power or authority — over either the second chair leader who is acting poorly, or the congregation — becomes self-protective, but also self-fulfilling. The second chair leader can gaslight the first into acting and then crucify them, or have them crucified by the mob. DeGroat tells a story of a situation like this in his book, and I’ve seen this happening. But, he also warns that in narcissistic systems — in toxic churchianity — the idea of an abusive ‘second chair leader’ can help the senior leader play the victim (and yet, a narcissistic second chair leader will do the same thing if their bad behaviour is called out):

“Moreover, when the narcissistic leader is under attack, his response is defensiveness and a victim complex. Narcissistic leaders experience a victim-martyr-hero identity that postures them as the inevitable targets of frustrated subordinates. Their persecution complex actually enhances their status among some who view them as a hero for standing tall amid the battle. The system comes to the rescue of the leader at the expense of his victims. The lack of feedback, fear of disloyalty, and victim complex make it hard to engage, let alone change, this system.”

DeGroat

We don’t have great structures in place, or a good culture, that presents a healthy response to this sort of dynamic (except perhaps for “pastor sized” churches), or if we do, we have a low level of trust, or expertise in those structures for situations like this. A good culture would be one that emphasises character and virtue in approaching ethics, rather than duty or utility, and one where charismatic leaders of character are empowered and sacrificially sent off with people and resources to plant other pastor sized churches; rather than people and staff being hoarded within single entities under a single leader. Our broken, sinful, system is made up of broken, sinful, people.

We all approach Christian leadership and ministry, in Luther’s words, simultaneously justified and sinners. The control against that is meant to be the Gospel; the form and content of the Gospel; a theology of the cross. But also, a robust understanding of the levelling power of the resurrection — that we all share the same Spirit, are all part of the same body, are all called to serve, because we are all one in Christ Jesus. No ‘one’ is more one than others. The church is not Animal Farm.

We need church systems and structures built not just to maximise the dissemination of the message of the Gospel, but also the forms of the Gospel; and that’s much harder, slower, work that will require a vastly different form of ‘leadership’.

We need leaders currently operating in the privileged positions this toxic churchianity has provided them to lay down that power wherever possible, and to be prepared, as church communities, for the light to be shone not just on the behaviours of those in the big chair, but those in the second chair — or anyone in a congregation who seeks to wield power in pursuit of their own vision of church.

An interview I heard with an expert in spiritual abuse in the wake of the Timmis story pointed out that power-brokers in church life — those who might become spiritually abusive — are often not employees at all, but those with relational or financial power within a community. These are forms that need just as much reshaping through the form of the Gospel; and our communities need to bring not consumerism and worldly metrics but that grid of Gospel faithfulness — an alignment of medium and message — to assessing leaders, and participating in church life.

Next time someone (whether a member of staff, or leadership, or a leader from the pew) tells you your church needs to be bigger, and to push through a particular barrier by implementing certain change or behaviours, don’t ask them ‘how’ they’re going to achieve those results or ‘what’ they are doing; ask them why that’s the target and be prepared to push back against assumptions and methodologies that sound like they come from a business textbook without any thought as to how the cross is our paradigm. 

Because this is the air we breathe, when it comes to church, this toxic churchianity will keep being perpetuated and recycled unless we resist it. Good men who have embraced this as their default will misuse authority the culture tells them is their right by their position; a right reinforced by a theology of calling and the belief that overseers are given by God (which they are). Church leaders are given by God for the service of the body, in manners shaped by the form of the Gospel, not just its message. We need to be careful when condemning people for behaviours that are damaging without identifying the toxic culture we all buy into and enable when we approach Christianity as consumers, because it’s possible we’re enabling exactly the behaviour we’re condemning by perpetuating a particular vision of kingdom faithfulness.

The answer the excerpt chapter of DeGroat’s book on narcissism in the church — both in leaders and systems — gives is humility. Leadership and systems shaped by the cruciform, self-emptying, example of Jesus in Philippians 2.

“The long, sordid history of the church testifies to our arrogant love of power, position, wealth, prestige, success, and privilege. As Henri Nouwen says, we long to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, the toxic cocktail refused by Jesus in his wilderness temptation but gladly embraced by many pastors today. But given changing ecclesial dynamics and a growing social movement that takes clergy narcissism and abuse seriously, the church and its servants may be in a season of needed humiliation and reckoning. My hope is that we will respond to it humbly.”

De Groat

Given that toxic churchianity is an approach to church not shaped by the Gospel, but the beastly, diabolical, power games of the world — those same powers brought to bear in the temptation of Jesus by Satan — and so is a culture shaped by sin, and sin that is currently not exposed, humble leaders will welcome exposure, we will welcome light being brought to bear on our practices. Toxic leaders will flee the light; will reject accountability; will resist external voices and personality testing, and transparency. Humble leaders, even those operating in CEO-like systems, in big churches, will embrace these.

Cruciform leaders are those who embrace the way of Jesus. We were reading Ephesians together as a team last week, in preparation for a series teaching it in our church later in the year, and I was struck by the relationship between the start of chapter 5, and Paul’s subsequent words about darkness; and how much spiritual abuse and bullying, like sexual abuse, is a ‘fruitless deed of darkness.’

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God…

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 

Ephesians 5:1-2, 8-13

We can’t allow this toxic churchianity stuff, and toxic church leaders, to fester in darkness. And those of us who are leaders who have been breathing in the toxic culture need to expose our own hearts, and our own way of operating, to the light of the Gospel.

Exiles?

It’s a common trope (and one I’ve maybe engaged in a little in the past) to frame the Christian life in the post-Christian world as a life of exile. Part of the post-Christendom reality and the apparent aggressive shunning of Christian assumptions about life is this sense that we are now outsiders from the corridors of power, or the seat at the table, we might once have occupied; in those good old days when the church was an ‘estate of the realm.’

There’s lots of theological reasons to run with the paradigm of exile, and it can be a reasonable sociological observation, but I’m finding myself increasingly uncomfortable with the paradigm (and with things I’ve said in the past). I think it’s fundamentally true that following Jesus as king positions one in opposition to human power as it is used in ‘cursed’ patterns in kingdoms that the Bible paints as beastly (like Rome). We are ‘exiles’ in as much as Babylon is our frame of reference for worldly societies. And yet, the history of the western world, as laid out nicely in Tom Holland’s book Dominion, is profoundly shaped by Christianity, so no western culture is capable of being exclusively Babylonian. As Mark Sayers puts it in This Cultural Moment we live in a time where people in the west want ‘the kingdom without the king’ — we’re trading off the fruits of Christianity but don’t want the source of that fruit given space in political decision making.

Exile is on my mind right now because, like many churches, we’ve slated a teaching series on the book of Daniel; because Daniel is an exemplary figure when it comes to navigating life in Babylon as a faithful presence. All the cool kids are doing it. I read the new David Kinnaman book Faith For Exiles to help frame some reasonable application for life in these complex times. It’s a reasonable book, but I find myself longing for a Christian approach to life now — whether it’s a political theology or simply an approach to discipleship (and evangelism) — that recognises the way exile functions as a paradigm in the Bible.

The question of exile is not primarily about whether one lives in the Promised Land in political power (though it is true that this is an element of exile). The question of exile, for Israel, in the Old Testament, is about living in God’s presence, under God’s rule. So Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, and in a sense that begins humanity’s exile from God, while Israel is created as a non-exiled nation through the exodus, and they lose that status in the exile when they become just like the nations. Exile is predominantly framed by our relationship with God and his powerful presence, not the kingdoms of this world.

We’re working our way through Luke’s Gospel at the moment, where Jesus has set about bringing a homecoming of sorts; an end to the exile via a new exodus (he speaks concerning ‘his exodus’ literally in the Greek during the transfiguration). Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem and his judgment on the physical temple reveals that while its rebuilding happened after Israel returned from Babylon, Israel was still, ultimately, exiled from God. Waiting for the day of the Lord. Waiting for God’s glorious presence to re-animate the Temple. The tearing of the Temple curtain at the execution of Jesus shows that hope will not be realised. The temple is judged. Israel is ultimately, at that point, exiled from God. Jerusalem becomes Babylon (it’s interesting that Jesus’ apocalyptic section in Luke 21 seems to take a bunch of imagery from Isaiah, and especially from Isaiah’s pronouncement of judgment on Babylon in Isaiah 13) to apply it to Jerusalem, and then in Revelation John seems to do the same thing — equating Jerusalem with Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, and Rome.

It’s true that to be caught up in God’s presence again makes you an ‘exile’ from Babylon, or the cities of the world, but I’m not sure it’s the most hopeful description of our reality, and indeed, in the places where the New Testament encourages us to “live as exiles” in the world its actually in those places that our coming back to the presence of God, and being his presence in the world, are most stressed. We need to be careful with how we use the metaphor — acknowledging that the beastly kingdoms of the world are ‘exiled’ from Eden, and from God’s presence — and that we are now God’s presence in this world precisely because we are no longer exiled.

In Ephesians 2, where Paul is using a pronoun that probably applies to gentiles within his logic in the letter, Paul says the exile experienced in Adam — not being part of God’s people — is over for gentiles through Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. Such that:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22

In 1 Peter, Peter writes to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1) — where there’s a juxtaposition of the two ideas of being God’s chosen people while being exiled in the gentile (Roman) world. The profound statement he makes in his opening (which might primarily refer to Jewish Christians) is that while they might be ‘exiled’ among the nations, they certainly aren’t exiled from God. It’d be a mistake, I think, for us to adopt one half of this paradoxical existence in our narrative, in a way that shapes our political theology. I suspect some of our ‘exile’ language — even amidst a call to be a faithful presence — might miss the triumph of the cross, and what is achieved through the pouring out of the Spirit into God’s new temple. The moment that exile from God, from Eden, and from the temple and the promised land profoundly ends (for funsies, I reckon the events of Acts 2 actually take place in the temple, where the church was meeting daily, and where ‘exiled’ diasporan Jews were gathered for the Pentecost festival). While we’re to live as exiles in the world — this is a posture we are to adopt, not one the world pushes us into (though by nature a beastly empire won’t deliberately make a bunch of room for God’s people). It’s not a reason for fear; or one we need strategies for. Our strategies — or disciplines — should be those that allow us to be a faithful presence — God’s temple — in the world, not one that starts with the foundational assumption that we are being excluded from the world, but that we have now been included in God’s people within the world. As Peter puts it:

… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

1 Peter 2:9-12

It’s not us who are the exiles; it’s the nations still exiled from Eden; still cut off from the presence of God. It’s only that we’re home with God, as he makes his home in us, that we become exiles to the world. The real exiles as Paul and Peter write are the nation of Israel, who’ve joined the nations in opposition to God, and expressed that by rejecting their Messiah. Those who don’t have the Spirit.

This sort of posture might remind us that the Gospel is actually good news; and that it creates an alternative kingdom as it makes us citizens of heaven who are then ambassadors to a world that so desperately needs what we have. This might allow us to adopt a more positive, less defensive, approach to both discipleship and politics even as we live amongst nations and communities that occur along a spectrum of those influenced by the fruits of Christianity in the western world, and those who, through idolatry, have become more beastly or Babylonian (or Roman). Those who because of their idolatry are further away from God; digging further into the conditions of exile. If ever we speak of exile without emphatically speaking of our new citizenship, we run the risk of making human power our frame of reference, rather than God’s presence, and that’d be a diabolical mistake. It’s the sort of thing that has Israel become Babylonian in its approach to Jesus; they’ve spent so long thinking like Babylon, and Rome, when it comes to worldly power that they marshall that sort of power against God, and in doing so the kingdom is taken from them and given to others — other exiles from Eden, brought home to God.

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The Good(er) Place

Warning: Contains Spoilerish discussion of the finale of the Good Place, and the whole series.

After we finished watching The Good Place, closing the green door on the final chapter of the story of four misfits from earth saving each other, and the entire universe in the process, I turned to my wife and asked ‘if heaven was just me for eternity, how long would it take for you to choose non-existence?’

She didn’t answer.

But that’s one of the profound questions asked in the Good Place’s exploration of the afterlife. What is worth living forever for? Is mastery of every craft imaginable enough to keep you occupied? Once you’ve read all the books, or played the perfect game of Madden — once you’ve achieved your ‘end’ — reached your telos — what can sustain you for an eternity? Is love, even love for a soul mate, enough?

The Good Place has punched above its weight when it comes to tackling philosophical questions — the Trolley Problem episode (which gets a callback in the finale) will no doubt make it into university lecture theatres for a Jeremy Bearimy or two. When we tackled the question of hell as a church about 18 months ago we showed a clip from the Good Place where arch-demon turned arch-itect, Michael, explained the scoring system that secured your place in the afterlife. We thought we were clever when we argued modern life is more complicated than the system allows, and our participation in systems built on sinfulness means we can never hope to escape the consequences of our sin on our own steam — and the Good Place writers obliged by making that season 3’s narrative arc.

Without spoiling season 4, having discovered that the system is fundamentally flawed, so that nobody can earn their way into the Good Place anymore, the team of humans; Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, with the supernatural assistance of Michael, and super-computer Janet, have to come up with a better system.

They basically design purgatory, a process of testing and refining that will ultimately let any and every human earn their own salvation; so that people can find their way into the Good Place again. The problem here is that the system is geared against the human, so fixing the system allows humans to extract themselves from its corruption, over time. The darker part of human nature — that we might ourselves be the problem — is not part of the philosophical anthropology — an optimistic humanism — served up by the show.

This is the best and most just system humans can devise, it’s also the most hopeful. Even the demons get on board — they too have been victims of ‘the system’ — and at this point the writers might have been able to pack up having delivered a literal ‘happily ever after’ to every human.

But they don’t. There’s a moment a few episodes from the end where most shows, with happy endings, would finish. Eleanor and Chidi sitting on the couch, looking out over a glorious vista, reflecting on how paradise is having time — an eternity even — with the person you love. But the writers want to press in to just how satisfying (or not) that sort of eternity might be…

And this is where season 4 gets interesting. We get a pretty serious and imaginative attempt to depict the after life; a take on heaven that never tries to take itself too seriously, and ultimately serves as a vehicle for the show’s final philosophical message — life here on earth can be a bit heavenly if we muddle our way through towards self-improvement and more compassionate relationships. It’s life now that has meaning, especially because life and love might (will) one day end. You can have infinite Jeremy Bearimys to work this out, or four seasons of the Good Place.

The Good Place (the place, not the show, or rather, the place as depicted in the show) offers an individual the chance to continue their personal development — the process they’ve used to secure salvation — or simply to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a place of rest, work, and play. There’s continuity with life on earth in a way that is profound and comforting. The old order of things has passed away. Death is dead.

Something about the picture of heaven the show offers up reminds me of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien without enchantment. It’s not that the hypercoloured reality the Good Place serves up is not imaginative, it’s that in a cosmos where everybody saves themselves and heaven revolves around one’s particular individual desires — even if only the good ones — there’s a hollowness. And it’s this hollowness the show presses into powerfully, without really resolving in a way I found satisfying.

Chidi and Eleanor meet one of Chidi’s philosophical idols, who reveals that an eternity in the Good Place with all good things on tap, a gushing, never-ending stream of goodness has left people incapable of much thought or imagination at all. Heaven has become monotonous. Even the Good Place is broken, and our band of heroes has to fix it.

Their diagnosis is that the joy offered by the Good Place will only truly be joy if it can end. Death is what gives life its purpose and pleasure its meaning. If when you’ve lived a full life you can walk through the door and push out into nothingness. The Good Place ultimately serves up the best end as euthanasia — ‘the good death’ — only not to end one’s suffering, but to finish one’s pursuit of pleasure and desire; to find satisfaction and so stop searching.

If it’s fleeting and to be enjoyed in the face of death. There’s something very much like Ecclesiastes in the mix here; Ecclesiastes without any sense that ‘life under the sun’ might point to some greater reality. A telos beyond the self. And here’s where The Good Place offers a less compelling version of heaven than Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible.

Lewis wrote stacks on joy, on its fleeting, ephemoral, nature here in this world — though he saw our pleasures now anticipating the pleasures of the new creation, throwing us towards a more substantial reality than the one we enjoy now. He says moments of pleasure we experience now are pointers to something other-worldy, magical, heavenly even… in The Weight of Glory he describes these moments as echoes of a future time and place: “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” But for Lewis even the fulfilment of these things — the hyper-coloured reality — is not actually what these pleasures point to.

What they point to is God.

God and his glory.

God is missing from the Good Place. And it’s that God is missing, and that the desires of the characters can be fulfilled in the goodness of pleasure as an end, or telos, that makes walking through that final door — euthanasia — seem ‘good’.

Death is not good.

God is.

And God is missing from The Good Place.

And I’d say that’s why nobody wants to stick around for eternity (and why I’d be ok with Robyn not wanting to put up with just me forever).

The Good Place is a fairy story without God. And I mean this in a pure sense; it’s a very enjoyable tale, it is mythic and beautiful, and fundamentally human in all the good ways it should be (and what a killer twist at the end of season 1). But it seeks to do what Tolkien says fairy stories should do — offer consolation — by offering a picture of a “good death” when perhaps true consolation can only be found in a truly good life.

Part of the problem is that the Good Place, with its unabashed humanism, has every character acting as the hero in their own story. Everyone who gets to the good place has pulled themselves in by the bootstraps. They’ve worked to save themselves. They’ve achieved. All they have now is the fruit of their hard work; or more work; which is satisfying for a time, but not forever. Even true love for another person can’t, in the honest appraisal of perhaps the smartest TV writers ever, sustain life for eternity.

This left me feeling sad. Not because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason (oh Jason)… but because I don’t want to say goodbye to those I love at all. What euthanasia attempts to hide now doesn’t look any more compelling to me in hypercolour; death actually is a terrible thing. Existence trumps non-existence. Light offers consolation; darkness doesn’t.

Both Tolkien and Lewis depict heaven — in new, restored, creation terms — as a case of “further up, and further in” — growing deeper in a sense of glory in another, rather than in ourselves. Delighting and knowing more of God and his goodness, not simply the goodness of created stuff.

In Narnia, at the end of The Last Battle, one of the characters (the Unicorn) when discovering the ‘new creation’ — the new Narnia — sees that it is a fuller version of reality anticipated by the goodness, pleasures, and beauty, of the previous one. It’s his Weight of Glory in story form, in this new creation “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” and the unicorn, upon arriving, shouts:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”

Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle is a beautiful picture of the afterlife that was, in some ways, echoed in some of the more satisfying depictions of heaven offered in The Good Place. It has Niggle, an artist, enjoying the coming to life of the beautiful works of art he created — true art, that reflected the creativity of the creator of beauty — and pressing ‘further up, and further in’ to that beauty, taking all the time in the world to come to terms with the goodness of a new, restored, reality.

“He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.”

This little short story from Tolkien, and Lewis’ ending of Narnia, throw us towards the source of actual satisfaction — or at least show us that consolation is found not by completion, but by pushing deeper into love and goodness. They suggest such a ‘push’ works better, eternally, when you are pushing towards something, or someone, infinite.

The Good(er) Place — one that offers actual consolation — is the place where God is.

This might seem like pious waffle and a way to overthink a TV comedy — but the hollowness of the vision of the afterlife offered by The Good Place is not just because euthanasia seems like a terrible consolation; an eternity of pleasure in beautiful ‘things on tap’ rather than joy in the one who made beauty is also not consoling. Where The Good Place doesn’t achieve the emotional highs of the ending of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or other fairy stories is in offering the best imaginable ‘euthanasia’ — a good death — while offering none of what Tolkien calls a ‘eucatastrophe’ — a ‘good catastrophe’ — an interruption of the natural ordering of things that thrusts us towards our telos, particularly the goodness and fullness of God.

The Good Place is ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy (or fairy tale) because death is not defeated but embraced. Comedies and fairy tales have, by not simply ‘satisfying’ endings where our desires are met, but happy endings where they are exceeded. They have a eucatastrophe that brings a sudden joy, a taste of consoling truth, to the audience.

The Good Place doesn’t console, or bring joy, in Tolkien’s terms, because its good place is not true. Tolkien says:

“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”

For Tolkien the goodness of the Bible’s story — the story it tells about the afterlife — is that we are not the hero, and that the change brought by the hero is not simply time enjoying the fruits of our own victory, but that we are raised from the dead. ‘True’ consolation looks forward to the renewal of all things, secured by God’s ‘eucatastrophic’ interruption of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d want heaven without the God who renews all things? Without Jesus?

Because The Good Place has each person in heaven there as a result of their own efforts, there is no ‘telos’ beyond the self, and one’s improvement, but also nobody to glory in or love; no experience of grace; no desire to ‘push further up, and further in’ into the knowledge of the author of beauty; the true consoler. Where the throne in heaven in the Bible’s story is occupied, and the centre of the action, in The Good Place, everyone gets a throne, everyone rules their own little kingdom, and nobody wants to stay. The Good(er) place offers something more satisfying than the green door on the good place, it offers us a throne, and one on it, and invites us to push ‘further up and further in’ to knowing and glorying in the infinitely good and loving one on the throne whose glory will take an eternity to wrap ourselves up in.

Here’s how the Bible describes the Good(er) Place… with God at the centre.

“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 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. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5

In the real good place, nobody will want to leave.

Limit your freedoms, and take your time, for the sake of the future of the church (and the world)

Clocks cause secularisation.

This might seem like an odd flex; but that’s the argument I ended up settling on in an essay I wrote recently in a subject unpacking Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and its implications for being the church in the secular world.

One of Taylor’s basic starting assumptions is that our shared ‘social imaginary’ — the way we approach reality — has been ‘disenchanted’ — and while an inclination towards magic, the supernatural, and even religion might still exist in our world, part of what he means is that even in churches (where some belief in the supernatural is foundational) our view of time and space has been flattened. Where once churches marked a spiritual calendar as well as the passing of actual time, we now just see things in linear terms — and, like the rest of society — we’re increasingly particularly interested in the present reality; in the moment, or the instant. Our horizon for action and decision making has been massively reduced. We see this in the work of other thinkers too, and the way we make short term decisions, the way we view ethics in utilitarian or bureaucratic  terms rather than the virtue ethics of the past where we were less focused on the instant an ethical decision was being made, and more focused on shaping ethical character that would be brought to bear on those decisions. We’ve also flattened out our understanding of space so that only our present, observable, physical reality really matters — not only do we not conceive of space as both natural and supernatural (and of God as being present in the natural world as well as some supernatural order), we seem to have lost the ability to think long term about the shaping of space and its ability to provide for more than just our immediate needs and pleasures (see ‘climate change’).

We live in an age of instant gratification; where our horizons for decision making have been pushed into the very ‘here and now’ at the expense of the future (and certainly with an increasing, often optimistic, ignorance of the past). We’ve lost a sense of time and space being part of some grand narrative; partly because along with that disenchantment of space and time came a loss of the sense that God is at work, playing a very long game, as the author of space and time. The God who meticulously orchestrated history to centre on the death, resurrection, ascension and rule of Jesus — the lamb slain before the creation of the world — has been pushed to the margins, and so too has any sense that the world exists as a stage for a grand story that is bigger than the stories we write for ourselves.

This shrinking horizon is fed by what and how we consume; we live in an age where our whims and desires can be virtually gratified almost instantly; want the thrill of orgasm; no longer do you need to invest years in cultivating a relationship that leads to marriage; you can open your browser and self-sooth with pornography, or there are apps for hook-ups, or apps that take the hard work out of dating. But it’s not just sex, our consumer whims can be satisfied in ways that appear to satiate our hunger temporarily (think Uber Eats), but on that front we’re increasingly removed from the physical means of production of our food (we’re not even going to the restaurant where the food is made any more, let alone the paddock or the meatworks).

It might even be bugging you, as a reader, that you’ve already read 600 words and I don’t seem to have done anything with that initial statement that clocks cause secularisation. You’re too busy for this. Your attention span has been stretched. This format of information delivery does not mesh with your desire to understand the point of this piece right now. Why are you even bothering with this, you might be asking. How many tabs are open on your browser? And how many notifications are displaying on your email tab, or your Facebook tab, just beckoning you to click away (for me it’s 4,300+ on my gmail tab, and (1) on my Facebook tab).

700. How many of those words did you skim?

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff describes the way the collapse of narrative and the rise of the ‘present’ has led to a certain sort of apocalyptic fascination (the type also explored in How to Survive the Apocalypse by Alyssa Wilkinson and Doug Joustra). Towards the end of his book he describes the relationship between ‘present shock’ and living as though the end of the world is imminent; what would you do if you found out you had a day to live? Chances are, you’re already doing it… because that’s how we live.

“Present shock is temporally destabilizing. It leads us to devalue the unbounded, ill-defined time of kairos for the neat, informational packets of chronos. We think of time as the numbers on the clock, rather than the moments they are meant to represent. We have nothing to reassure ourselves. Without a compelling story to justify a sustainable steady state for our circumstances, we jump to conclusions—quite literally—and begin scenario planning for the endgame.”

We don’t say no to our impulses for a variety of reasons; but one of those is that in our liberal, enlightened, secular world — where there is no grand story, no God, no reason to limit our freedoms (or in the Christian version, God died to totally set us free so we can do whatever we want within the boundaries of his love) — we have become the gods of our own lives; the authors of our story. Our job, as humans, is to be who we were made to be (and who our inner self tells us we should be). To be true to thyself; and to express that truth by living freely and authentically in the moment, as an individual.

This is the pattern of this world.

Now imagine applying that pattern to the church.

Is it any wonder that our approach to church — to relationship with God and others — is mediated through the question of what’s best for me in an instant? A church doesn’t have the means to supply my needs or the needs of my family right now, so right now I’ll decide to go to one that does. A church isn’t helping me to grow in my knowledge or godliness or chosen metric right now, so right now I’ll go to one where there’s a better alignment with my priorities. A church doesn’t feel like deep community right now, and I don’t feel connected to the people, so I’ll leave and start a whole batch of new relationships right now hoping for instant community.

We make our decisions based on the minute hand of the clock; not viewed through the prism of a lifetime, but if Rushkoff and Taylor are right this is because we are being formed this way by a culture that has lost its narrative, and that bombards us with stimulus that keeps our social imaginary truncated not just by disenchanting space and time and their relationship to God’s eternal plans, but by promoting both ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ as the essential basis of the good human life, and ‘right now’ as the ultimate horizon for that freedom. This stops us placing limits on our immediate individual freedom for the sake of others, and the sake of ourselves. It means our ethical paradigms and our approach to decision making are built entirely on pragmatics or utility. This is the spirit of our age; this is the pattern of this world.

We’re meant to be different. God’s grand story is one where individual freedom is not the chief value; relationships are. Love is. Love of God, and love of neighbour. The desire for freedom and instant gratification were the motivations behind the fall of mankind in Genesis 3, and they’ve been a debilitating and deadly problem for us ever since. We are not made for freedom but for self limiting for the sake of others. In a great article titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom,’ Brendon Benz makes the case that to limit ourselves, freely, for the sake of relation is to be truly human; to manifest the image of God. Which is to say that the image of God is not something we bear purely as individuals; but something that we bear in communion with one another; which challenges a modern sense of “I” or “self” as God. Benz says of the idea that “that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God,” that this means:

“… An individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation (Bonhoeffer 1997: 64–65; Barth: 228–30; MacDonald: 314–20; Sexton: 187–206). In the words of Moltmann (1993: 218), while “the self-resolving God is a plural in the singular, his image on earth—the human being—is apparently supposed to be a singular in the plural.”

Consequently, the “one God, who is differentiated in himself and is at one with himself, then finds his correspondence in a community of human beings, female and male, who unite with one another and are one.” Such an account serves as an important corrective to what E. Gerstenberger critiques as “the heightened sense of ‘I’ in modernity,” which he partially traces “to Old Testament origins” and “the anthropological doctrine of” individuals “‘being in the image of God’” (287).”

The fall, then, is a failure to self-limit both in terms of humanity’s relationship with God, and this image bearing function, and, to self-limit for the sake of the other; a failure to give up freedom, but instead a choice to be an “I”.

The story of the Gospel is the story of Jesus’ self-limiting sacrifice for our sake; as an act of mercy; with his eyes on an eternal future, not the short game. This is what we’re meant to have in view as we give our own lives in worship to God (and as we do that together — offering our bodies (plural) as a living (singular) sacrifice.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Benz concludes his piece with an observation that our image bearing nature is restored in the church, by the Spirit; which restores our task of imaging God in the world, in and through our relationships to each other — not simply as heroic individuals; and, in fact, not as an “I” at all. To image God we have to give up some of our freedoms to one another, in relationship — our bodies have to become a living sacrifice. Benz sees this transforming our relationship with each other, and with space (so also, with time).

“Thus, in the creative, life-giving encounters among humans, and in the creative, life-giving encounters between humans and the rest of creation, Spirit does not stem from the self, but is present when those involved freely self-limit in order to relate.”

We Christians need limits; not unfettered individual freedom — which is the pattern of the world; the good life according to our neighbours in the secular age we live in where everybody is experiencing present shock, and so feeling utterly disconnected from a big story and living every moment as though it is our last. We Christians have an utterly different view of space, and time.

One of my favourite books this year was The Common Rule by Justin Earley. Earley makes the case that true freedom doesn’t come from doing what you desire in any given moment (in part this is obvious because our desires are so profoundly shaped by external stimulus, especially our environment and culture), but rather from doing what we were made for (or being who we were made to be). His book lines up nicely with the thesis of Benz’s piece.

Earley says the common narrative of our time is that to “ensure the good life, we have to ensure our ability to choose in each moment,” he asks “What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?”

Now. I was accused of sounding like a cult leader in my recent piece about church because I was encouraging people to limit their freedoms; the freedoms won for them via the Gospel. I think this is such an anaemic picture of the Gospel and the Christian life. We are free from slavery to sin and death, but we are freed to become servants of God. We are freed to give ourselves to the life-giving work of the kingdom of God. This is what happens when we individualise the Gospel so that it’s a message of personal salvation and freedom from all responsibilities, rather than seeing the good news as the good news of a new kingdom with a good king. A king who calls us to loyalty, who pours out his life-giving spirit to transform us into his image — the image of God again — and invites us to start living in his kingdom now not just as freed people who do our own thing, but as children of God who are united to God, and so to one another, by the Spirit. The Spirit which is a spirit of unity, that draws us together into the body of Christ so that we might self-limit in relationships to manifest the image of God in the world. If I was wanting people to ‘self limit’ to submit to some human authority or institutional structure (like ‘my leadership,’ or ‘my vision’ or ‘my church’), then that would be cult like. But the New Testament clearly expects us to submit to one another, and that submission, like a marriage covenant, involves a self-limiting of one’s freedoms for the sake of a relationship and a function in the world. My marriage covenant limits the expression of my sexuality, and of my economic freedoms, and all of my decisions really because Robyn and I make our decisions as ‘one’ rather than as ‘two’; and in doing this we reflect the relationship between Christ and his church, but also we reflect the image of God as Adam and Eve were meant to. Church communities, as they come together as the body of Christ, and self-limit for the sake of relationship with one another do the same — and this self limiting starts with the leaders. If leaders aren’t doing this then the community they lead isn’t a body of Christ, it’s a group structured around the leader.

2,500 words, and still nothing about how clocks cause secularisation. So now, let me explain.

The first mechanical clocks were created in monasteries to help the monks track sacred time; they were designed so that monks could follow their ‘common rule’ and pray at the designated times each day. They regimented life in the monastery with a new sort of precision. They changed our ability, as humans, to measure time — bringing more precision, and ultimately they started to shift the monastic account of time from ‘kairos’ to ‘chronos;’ and they spread out from the monastery into the villages. Town squares started being dominated by a large clock, which brought synchronicity to the village’s practices, workers would leave home in lockstep, and arrive home at the same time — becoming more like automatons than people were previously; the way people spent time began to be ruled by these machines that operated like clockwork. Village life began to operate like clockwork. More precise measuring of time made for more precise accounting of time; workers, and then all village life, was ruled by the clock. The more linear and measurable and machinelike time felt, the less enchanted it felt. The pressures of the clock, of being in the right place at the right time, of productivity, of machine like efficiency began to shape people; the mechanical advances that produced the clock began to be applied in factory settings, and soon machines were more prominent features of people’s lives and imaginations. At some point the presence of clocks and their effects on time started encroaching on how people conceived of space; of the physical universe. We started viewing reality as machine like, and God as a clockmaker. The clock, and then other pieces of technology, started to dominate our social imaginary, and eventually the clockwork-like processes of space and time produced deism, the idea that God had created the universe and then stepped back, that space and time were just ‘natural’ products of a God and we didn’t need to worry about an enchanted, supernatural, dimension of space and time, and then eventually we kept the clockwork model but did away with the need for a clockmaker; and as this all happened clocks were becoming more and more precise, and present, ruling more and more of our lives, and ultimately helping to contribute to our fixation with the moment; with the now and what I’m doing this second, at the expense both of an enchanted understanding of the universe where the clockmaker intervenes with reality, and of the future.

The clock began to set a limit for our thinking and imagining, tying us to this space and this time. Flattening and hollowing our experiences and our decision making. Producing (or being partly responsible) for the conditions Taylor describes in A Secular Age and that Rushkoff describes in Present Shock. The patterns of this world.

Patterns we Christians need to break.

Our approach to church, as leaders and members, is so often dominated by the short game. We want silver bullets. We want growth. We see a culture obsessed with the immediate and bombarding us with stuff. There are so many messages out there clamouring for our time and attention in this distracted age and our instinct is to get the Gospel out there amongst the distraction, and the way we think will get the greatest cut through is to compete with that distraction with the forms of the world; the forms that give us 24 hour news cycles with no time for developing connections to a bigger story; that give us ‘instant’ hits for our desires whether via pornography, Tinder, Grindr, or UberEats; that truncate our attention span; that pull us out of any sense of a big story in order to have us consume our way to (momentary) happiness; that rely on our addiction to that happiness with quick fixes and instant gratification; and that then apply this schema to our relationships — whether family, or church, rather than valuing a long, slow, obedience in the same direction with the same people.

The patterns of this world are broken. Deadly.

We don’t need unfettered freedom; the Gospel is not just a message of freedom from your personal sin, it’s a message of freedom to be who you were made to be. And you were made to be in relationship with God, with others, and with God’s world — as cultivators of fruitfulness. People who plant orchards and bed down into places as a testimony to the God who authors a story that takes more than one life time to be revealed, and to the nature of his kingdom. A God who is patient, and careful, who orchestrates, who sweats the small stuff. Who doesn’t value character above results, but for whom character is the result.

There are people out there deeply concerned with how much our clocks are shaping our experience of the world; people determined to break us from present shock. Ironically, one of those people is Jeff Bezos, from Amazon, who ultimately is the person profiting most from the patterns of this world and our obsession with instant gratification, and whose whole company is designed to make consumption as frictionless and fast as possible… Bezos has joined a group of other people sponsoring a clock that aims to alter our ‘social imaginary’ — to break us out of short term thinking; to free us from captivity to the instant and to silver bullet solutions to our problems. This group of people realise that problems like Climate Change are systemic and don’t need individuals making short term consumer decisions (like recycling), that we need more than mindfulness and things that offer momentary escape from the status quo built on self-denial (McMindfulness by Ronald Purser is a good book for showing how much we’re told that individuals are the solution to the world’s problems, and then we’re given mindfulness as a form of medication against the anxiety such an overwhelming challenge produces, by the very corporations who should actually be making the changes). This group wants us to see time differently, to approach problems playing the long game. To encourage us to realise that change of any substance, whether in ourselves or society, takes a long march in the same direction, not a flitting about following every whim, distraction, or better option that presents itself. They’re a group called “The Long Now” and they’re developing a 10,000 year clock; built inside a mountain (pictured back at the top, all those words ago). They’re hoping to shift how we assess our decision making by reminding us that we’re part of something bigger; part of a story even — they want to challenge us to be good ancestors. The inventor of the clock said:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

Perhaps we Christians don’t need a clock because we already have an entirely different sense of time because we know the author of the story, and we know the ending of the story we belong to, but perhaps there’s something we can learn from this project to challenge the way we’ve been suckered into a world dominated by the clock (and then the computer screen, smart phone, and smart watch; the ‘I’ things).

What would happen to our churches if we rediscovered ‘kairos’ time so that we weren’t ruled by ‘chronos;’ and if we organised our lives and relationships, and visions, around the long now, not the present shock we find ourselves living in. What if we need a new sort of monastic approach to life where we refuse to be totally ruled by the moment?

What if at exactly the point we start to feel ‘tired’ of the same people, and routines (or liturgies), and songs, and we’re itching for a change in environment, that’s the moment that those parts of our life are most capable of working on us deeply? What if a rut is a good thing and freedom to choose whatever gratification we’re looking for in any given moment is the enemy of genuine godliness and contentment? And the sort of relationships where we bear the image of God as we limit ourselves?

Maybe the change worth celebrating in the Christian life comes from a deep and abiding connection to God and to his people. Maybe connection to God and to people takes putting down roots rather than chasing a quick fix that will produce fast ‘growth’ in a particular metric. Maybe it’s actually the walking together with your brothers and sisters that produces the growth, the love, and the self-limiting, that will present the image of God to a distracted world disconnected from a deeper sense of time and place; a world that has lost the organising idea of a story for our lives, let alone the idea of a story authored by someone else; let alone a story authored by God, that we’re brought into by his Spirit.

Maybe we need to change our thinking so that our questions are “what will I look like, and this church look like if I’m still here in 20 years” rather than “will this church meet my needs next year”. Maybe we need to imagine our relationships, whether we feel deeply connected or not, with an entirely different horizon to ‘right now’… Maybe we need to give things time to germinate, and flourish, before cutting ourselves off from them and grafting ourselves in somewhere else. Maybe that’s actually what love is — not just a feeling, not just short term gratification, not just an orgasm, but long term commitment through the ups and downs of life; and maybe that’s where transformation actually happens.

So look, to the people who suggested that the Spirit might call us to leave a church, and that this is an expression of individual freedom, I want to say that if there’s a spirit causing disunity, and if that call can’t be discerned by more people than just you — that is, by those you are called to image God with in relationship, as you self limit (or love) for the sake of the long term growth, maturity and fruitfulness of one another — then this is more likely to be the “spirit of the age” than the Spirit of the living God. And you should be careful. Maybe we should take the clocks down, and our watches off, and start measuring time and seeing space differently; as enchanted again; so that we aren’t conforming to the patterns of this world one tick or tock of the second hand at a time.