Christianity

From non-place to New Eden: why churches should plant micro-forests

On Sunday our church’s Committee of Management met. These types of meetings are routinely boring. They typically spend a chunk of time on church finances (yawn), red-tape compliance (argh), and facility maintenance (blurgh). Our Committee of Management does those things (and I am thankful for the gifts other people bring to those tasks), but we also give a chunk of time to environmental issues and aesthetics.

We meet in a rented facility that belongs to another church community; we meet as one gathering on Sundays, but have two management structures. We’ve recently asked our landlords/partners in the Gospel if we might turn a small kids play area that is too small to meet various safety codes into a kids ‘nature play’ area complete with garden beds and other natural features that might encourage play, but not need the same sort of insurance risk assessments.

Two of the wonderful women on our Committee of Management are passionately integrating creation care into the fabric of our church life; one of these ladies, Wendy, has been leading our church into a new season of waste management, we now have recycling collection containers for just about everything that can be recycled, from disposable gloves, to plastic communion cups, to soft plastics, to our disposable coffee cups (and lids). She’s been reading the work of Jonathan Cornford from Manna Gum, especially his book Coming Home, and sharing insights from it, and her deep dive into recycling, with our church family. Another lady, Hana, has been a passionate advocate for environmental issues in the life of our church for some time, and our Committee’s discussion turned to Subpods (a type of buried compost bin developed here in Australia), and micro-forests — especially the kind that feature native plants, and that have the capacity to form ‘microclimates’. Here’s an ABC article on a growing move to establish micro-forests as a way to combat climate change in hyper-local ways.

The size of a tennis court, micro-forests were originally devised by Akira Miyawaki, a botanist who wanted to restore biodiversity in urban environments.

Since the first tiny forest was planted in Zaandam in the Netherlands in 2015, the Miyawaki method has been growing in popularity, particularly in Europe, as communities work to mitigate the “urban heat island” effect.

The method replicates mature ecosystems, but on a small scale, with each plant, grass and shrub chosen carefully to complement the others.

Now, we have a small amount of green space to work with in our little location, but this all got me thinking again about the church forests of Ethiopia and our place in the world as citizens and gardeners anticipating the New Eden, especially as we keep thinking about church spaces and how to use them as hotbeds for the sort of re-enchantment we need in a disenchanted world.

Recently I’ve been digging into the writing of Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth was one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, and some time back my friend Arthur pointed me to his work on re-wilding as a picture of resisting the Babylonian project of perpetual human progress via empire, or dominion, particularly the kind wrapped up in the myth of progress and the rise of the machine. Kingsnorth has quite spectacularly documented his conversion to Christianity in the last year, there’s a fascinating series of articles you can dip into from to this reflection on the modern machine age’s linear view of time and progress, and how destructive that is to us and the world, to this interview about the myth of progress, to this article on his new post Dark Mountain project ‘The Abbey of Misrule,’ titled Dreaming of the Rood (“Rood” is a word for crucifix), to, ultimately, his testimony The Cross and the Machine, published on First Things. In that he says:

“Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress—the triumph of the Nietzschean will—­dissolves the glue that once held us. Fires are set around the supporting pillars of the culture by those charged with guarding it, urged on by an ascendant faction determined to erase the past, abuse their ancestors, and dynamite their cultural ­inheritance, the better to build their earthly paradise on terra ­nullius. Massing against them are the new ­Defenders of the West, some calling for a return to the atomized liberalism that got us here in the first place, others defending a remnant Christendom that seems to have precious little to do with Christ and forgets Christopher Lasch’s warning that “God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder.” Two profane visions going head-to-head, when what we are surely crying out for is the only thing that can heal us: a return to the sacred center around which any real culture is built.

Up on the mountain like Moriarty, in the ­Maumturk ranges in the autumn rain, I had my own vision, terrible and joyful and impossible. I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost—the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first—above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them.”

Watching Kingsnorth convert, through this series of articles, because of his sense of the systemic nature of the Christian story, and its importance as a true and revolutionary myth — the antidote to the destruction he sees around him in the dominion systems of the world is a bit like watching Jordan Peterson convert because he sees the same thing happening at an individual level. We could turn Kingsnorth into the ‘lefty’ version of Peterson at this point, or see Peterson as the ‘righty’ version of Kingsnorth — or — perhaps we could see in their stories both the compelling power of the Christian story of the transformation of the individual and the cosmos through the victory of Jesus that we actually need both systemic and individual transformation to come from God, and that maybe both these stories are part of the Gospel (not just one — the systemic change championed by the theological left, or the individual change through penal substitution championed by the theological right).

Kingsnorth has been grappling with the secularisation of our view of the world and its accompanying disenchantment, and the revolutionary power of the Christian story, especially when framed not just as a story of personal salvation from a dying world, but of resistance to Babylon/Rome styled empire, centred on the cosmic victory of Jesus and the promised renewal of all things — God’s New Eden Project. He’s long been an advocate for re-wilding, trying to step back human destruction of the world by re-introducing nature and trying to live with it better… And now, in his story, and in this fuller picture of the Gospel as the story of life in a Garden-City, with God (as opposed to life in Babylon without him), we might see re-wilding — or letting forests back in to our dominated landscapes/ecologies — as a path both to re-enchantment and discipleship. Such re-enchantment might even be a necessary pre-condition for sharing the Gospel story in a disenchanted, secular, age. Kingsnorth’s conversion demonstrates how powerful it is to recognise the truth of the Christian story because one has first been disenchanted by the Babylonian myth of progress and dominion, and re-enchanted in the hunt for alternatives. If re-enchantment of the natural world is coupled with a right view of nature as a created good that reveals the divine nature and character of God, then this might help us live and tell a more compelling version of the Christian story.

It may also be that stories (or myths), like Kingsnorth’s fiction, can help us see the world this way. Maybe Tolkien and Lewis were onto something in their desires for us to grapple both with grand stories (myths or fairytales) and nature as spiritual disciplines that help us see God, his world, and our place in it, rightly.

As C.S Lewis said, “the fairy tale stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Stories might be a path to re-enchantment, and re-enchantment might be a path back to God in the machine age. Lewis’ first lecture at Cambridge was all about the way machines drove us into the post-Christian, secular, context we now find ourselves in.

Tolkien wrote a poem called Mythopoeia, about his friend C.S Lewis a man of whom he said “you look at trees, and label them just so…” Lewis’ view of the almost sacramental function of the natural world was not quite enough for Tolkien… he also wrote this letter to a newspaper about his love for trees and how that stands as a testimony against the machine-loving enemy (the same sort of Babylonian empire he represents in Middle Earth with Sauron and Mordor):

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

It would be possible to idolise nature… not just to rightly love it… to turn a sort of sacramental view of creation and our role in it into pagan worship of trees rather than a recognition of God’s role as God, creation’s role in testifying to his glory and divine nature, and our priestly image bearing role as representing this nature as we steward his world towards this purpose, but how we use and interact with the physical world is a testimony to how we understand God and the world. Our participation in the world, and our use of space, has to be different to Babylon’s; our spaces and use of the world has to be forming us as different people being transformed into the image of the living God we meet in Jesus, not the gods of Babylon.

Which brings me to how we shape, and steward, church spaces — and why planting micro-forests might be an anti-Babylonian act. There’s incredible historical rationale for the idea that church architecture shapes the people who inhabit these spaces — habitats do, indeed, shape habits. Aesthetics form ethics. Whether this was in the houses and tables of the early church — which reinforced the truth that Christians (regardless of social status) were part of a new family, or household (or “economy” — the word “economy” being derived from the greek words for ‘household’ (oikos) and ‘use or rule’ (nomos), or in the grand cathedrals deliberately built to reinforce both the stories of the faith (in stain glass and statues), and the shape of the Gospel (with a cruciform floor plan, and the highest point of the steeple, which reached to the heavens, being situated at the junction of that cross, where the communion table sits… this isn’t new. In fact, the Old Testament Temple with its Eden undertones, and the cosmic-geography reinforcing “Holy of holies” also served to form a people for life in the world.

We don’t do that now. I wrote a bit about the idea of church spaces as ‘non-places’ when I was writing down my ideas around the ‘New Eden Project’ (cause everyone needs a manifesto… right…). In philosophical terms, non-places are places like airports; places designed to feel the same, to be generic, to be “places of transience where humans feel anonymous” — they are specifically designed not to form us in the way that architecture does, and yet, by their very nature (and dominance of the modern landscape) they deform us, because they become blank canvases where Babylon’s capitalist machine can bombard us with visual advertising and erode our ability to pay attention. There’s a great Eucatastrophe episode called “Resisting Secular Space” that digs into this, and a follow up about “Sacrifice Zones” that is related.

Non-places are also ‘thin spaces’ rather than ‘thick ones’, they ground us in the ‘immanence’ of the here and now, rather than inviting us to connect with something transcendent. There’s a reason many people, like Kingsnorth, find an urge towards the transcendent in nature and beauty. The philosopher Charles Taylor would say life in the ‘secular age’ where we’re quite disenchanted and ‘ensconced in immanence’ features these occasional moments of ‘frisson’ or the haunting sense that something bigger than us might be out there. Our modern church spaces — especially black box auditoriums filled with technology — are not spaces that will throw us towards the transcendent with this haunting moments, but ground us in the day to day myth of the machine. Churches that create multipurpose facilities that are architecturally generic, or who meet in public facilities that are function rooms or the like, have the disadvantage that our spaces aren’t working to form us in the Christian story — but they’re also not neutral — they’re forming us in generic ‘non-spaceness’… Often we take black box spaces (like the theatre our church met in for a few years) and use lighting and other technology to create “atmosphere,” and yet, as Jamie Smith observes, we end up bringing the atmosphere of the cinema or shopping centre into the church and just forming little consumers, or citizens of Babylon, creations of the machine myth of progress, while preaching Jesus.

When you think about the story of Genesis 1-3 in these terms, Adam and Eve found themselves in a garden temple in the heart of an ordered cosmos. They were created as God’s ‘image bearing’ rulers of this ordered world, called to “be fruitful and multiply” as they represented God’s heavenly rule and relationship with creation in their own rule and relationships. They were placed in this garden and commanded to operate like priests in a temple (the ‘guard and keep’ words in God’s instructions to Adam are what priests did in the Temple later in the Old Testament). They were in a place — a fruitful garden — embedded in relationship with God — that was meant to form them as people, and be where they carried out the task of stewarding creation. Their exile from the Garden, like Israel’s exile from the Land, and from access to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was a move from space designed to form them as God’s people into non-space — not yet cultivated land outside of Eden, or, in Israel’s case, into the deforming space of Babylon; cut off from one of the sources of their spiritual formation (the cultic life of Israel with its Temple, sacrifices, feasts, and festivals). Our re-creation as “Temples of God’s Spirit,” through Jesus, and the picture of his return in Revelation 21-22 gives us a new pattern of ‘gardening’ as God’s priests in a world that’s a lot like Babylon (but one where we are home with God, rather than exiled from him).

Perhaps there’s something to that advice Jeremiah gives to Israel as they live in Babylon — the idea that they might cultivate little Edens in the middle of a city built on an utterly different dominion myth (one like the progress myth we find in the air we breath). The less famous bit before he says “seek the welfare of the city”:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”

Israel is to live its story because the God of Israel is the Lord of hosts — the most high — and Babylon’s story of humanity; its gods and images of gods — are not the path to, or pattern for, life. And so, planting little gardens — little Edens — and eating the produce might just be an act of rebellion against the dominant religious myths of their time…

Planting micro-forests — or at least thinking intentionally about our spaces and their structure and how we model and liturgise ourselves into being stewards of the environment rather than slaves to the machine — is an act of deep resistence.

So our Committee of Management meeting, though a routine piece of ‘church machinery’ was deeply spiritually refreshing for me, because it’s a joy to be led on this journey to resistance, and taking part in it, beside people who’ve caught this vision for life in God’s kingdom in a way that transforms even what we put in the bin and plant in the ground. Our Committee of Management is committed to a different sort of ‘household management’ — to being the household of God — which means we’re pursuing a different sort of economic management, and trying to create a different sort of ecology. Which is a beautiful thing.

If your church has some vacant green space — maybe space you’ve designated for new buildings, a playground, or an expansion of the carpark — why not plant a forest instead?

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine.

Paul Kingsnorth

On venues and hospitality

I feel like I’ve written about this before somewhere… but…

This week the West Australian Government banned, and then unbanned, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles’ roaming soapbox “The Truth of It” from two public venues it oversees; the Albany Entertainment Centre and Perth Concert Hall.

They should not have done this — and not just for commercial reasons (though that was the lever pulled, if I’ve understood correctly, by the venue partner to get the event back on — which, if true, just reveals that, as in almost all cases (see: woke capitalism), money is the actual idol at the heart of our culture, not sexual identity… sex sells, as it always has). They shouldn’t have done this because it is a power-hungry expression of something at odds with democracy and true secularism (plurality). They shouldn’t have done this because doing this reveals their own ‘state religion’ — the one they’ve replaced Christianity with.

Now. My take on the ACL is well-rehearsed in these parts — I’m not a fan.

So much so that Martyn has blocked me (or refused to host my views he finds troubling) on his Facebook page. That’s arguably a private space, and, sure, he’s quite welcome to block me if he doesn’t want to hear criticism of his brand of Christianity. That’s his right. I’ve also started limiting who can see and respond to my posts on Facebook too.

As much as I find the personality cult surrounding Martyn and his roadshow personally problematic, a government stepping in to cancel it is more personally problematic to me. This isn’t something to celebrate — especially if you are part of a minority group. This sort of government intervention around the use of public space — the demarcation of who acceptably belongs with a voice in ‘the public’ as recognised by the state — is dangerous.

In our first few years as a church plant, my church family met in a State-government owned theatre, many churches around the country meet in rented public school buildings. Public buildings that are available for hire to multiple faith groups and ideologies are an expression of pluralism and part of the bedrock of civility. We never had any pressure placed on us by our venue (we did, when we moved out due to renovations, get kicked out of a replacement venue because we aren’t an arts group and so were in breach of their leasing provisions). The hardening ‘secular frame’ in Australia which might mean these sorts of spaces become unavailable overnight, and my experience not having our own church property, means I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that church buildings are incredibly important (and we should probably stop selling them). They’re important for practical reasons — but as I’ll unpack below, I think they’re important for political, cultural, and theological reasons (and if we were good at architecture, on the whole, and didn’t just build multipurpose facilities that function as “non places“). Look. There’re going to be lots of generalisations in this post and they are just that… general observations.

My take on cancel culture is also well documented. I don’t like it (and it’s always religious). I don’t like this decision from the Labor Government in Western Australia. Governments, with strong majorities, banning voices who oppose “their views” isn’t just a slippery slope to totalitarianism, it’s an iron clad un-democratic use of power to disadvantage anybody who might challenge your grip on power.

I’m also, I think, on the treatment of public space as a religious contest for victory (toppling statues), rather than for a place where civility and a generous pluralism might play out — I’m not a fan.

I’m especially not a fan when Christians play, or enjoy, all these games ourselves. Toppling statues. Holding up Bibles outside churches after protestors have been tear-gassed. Only advocating for our own Christian freedoms (to the extent that, when we’re advocating for someone who denies the Trinity we’ll call them a Christian just to serve our broader project). Cancelling people whose views we don’t like… that stuff.

Now. Arguably the ACL both wants ‘religious freedom’ for Christians to participate in public spaces (and say whatever they want without consequences from their private employees), and to limit the ‘religious freedom’ of others participating in public spaces (like drag queen story times in public libraries, and gay couples calling their relationships marriage). They have been, I would argue, inconsistent on this principle of freedom in public spaces. Now, as an aside, I’m not saying I think drag queen story times are a public good, but I do think they are an expression of an essentially religious frame, and that anyone who says they’re ‘indoctrinating kids’ while running a Sunday School needs to be able to carefully explain what the difference is without imposing the Christian moral frame that doesn’t want kids grappling with adult content. They’re certainly an ideological use of public space that the ACL has opposed (and, surprise surprise, LGBTIQA+ political groups in Western Australia have supported an equal but opposite reaction against the ACL, celebrating the cancellation).

The secular governments in Australia at the same time have been increasingly treating public spaces as spaces to be free from religion, through an awkward definition of secularism that sees it as being ‘not religious’ rather than ‘not sectarian’, and through a weird secular-sacred divide that we religious people have also often enforced by pretending that religion does not affect every part of our life and being.

In ‘secular Australia,’ Religion is what happens in private places, like our hearts, our religious spaces like our Cathedrals, our Temples, or our Mosques. Or. You know. The prayer room in Parliament House. This decision from the West Australian Government is utterly consistent with other state governments, and the Federal Government, who want to restrict ‘religious freedoms’ to ‘religious spaces’ — because our governments, like most Christians in Australia, operate with this secular/sacred divide. So, we’ll protect (legally) a minister (like me) from conducting weddings outside our theology and “sacred” rites, or churches from employing non-religious people (or employing according to statements of belief and codes of conduct), and some people will even extend those protections to church run institutions (like schools), but we won’t protect a photographer or baker who, through religious convictions, won’t supply a service to a same sex couple (now, again, I think there are principles of hospitality and neighbour-love that mean Christians should feel free to offer those services without feeling like to do so means they suddenly adopt another person’s moral frame). The photographer and baker aren’t offered the protections afforded by ‘religious space’ because they are operating in public (even as private enterprises… it’s confusing). I do wonder what might happen if more churches had on-site bakeries…

The prevailing cultural narrative is that religion happens in private religious spaces, and that it doesn’t belong in public spaces. And we religious people have been part of creating that narrative in a bunch of ways. I’ll pick two. Firstly, “secularism” — including this divide — is a product of Christianity, and secondly, in the way we’ve used our own spaces as private rather than public.

Secularism is a product of the western world, which is for good and ill, a product of Christianity. They aren’t having these debates in Muslim countries. Secularism, depending on which ‘subtraction story’ you believe (those are stories that explain how we got from Christendom (where the vast majority of people and the architecture of society were built on shared religious beliefs) to where we are now (a pluralistic, fragmented nation with contested public space) is a product of explicitly religious movements before it becomes a product of the rejection of religion itself (that’s a bad modern ‘subtraction story’). Tensions between Protestants and Catholics about public space like who gets to build a Cathedral in a public square, or run a school, or influence the King and so win victory over the other are pretty similar to tensions around who gets to read stories in the local public library. It’s just our religious options have massively expanded (in what Charles Taylor calls “the Nova”). This expansion in religious options is also a product of The Reformation, which opened up the possibility of questioning traditional dogma.

Now. None of those historical changes are necessarily bad; as a Protestant, I’m glad we’re not all Catholic. I’m also glad that, for the most part, Protestants and Catholics have stopped killing each other (or even cancelling each other) because of religious differences and that now there’s even civility and dialogue.

What is bad, I think, is that with the disenchantment of space brought about by the Reformation, and the emergence of ‘the public square’ in the west, brought about (at least according to Jurgen Habermas) by the end of Feudalism (a divinely endorsed ‘order’ where space was given to people by divine birthright and there was no public or private, only land ruled by a sovereign monarch and ruled according to their will) and the birth of democracy (where you need space for ideas to be thrashed out and debated). There had, of course, been public squares in Greece, but its version of democracy was less universal than the democracies brought about in the west by the universalisation of the concept of the “image of God”.

Anyway. I digress.

See. The thing is.

Churches have always run their physical spaces as private spaces, as sacred spaces even — only opening the doors (in many cases) one day a week. Reinforcing, perhaps, the secular/sacred divide. Church space is here for you on the sacred day, but the rest of the time, all the other hours of your life, and on all other issues of communal life — wherever other discussions occur, the performing arts take place, or cultural artefacts are presented — that can all happen in secular space, and probably public space at that.

We haven’t been fantastic at bringing our own vision of beauty and culture and truth to the public square in part because we haven’t anticipated and reacted to change around us, in part because we’ve been busy reinforcing the secular-sacred divide in our practices, not only because we haven’t done ‘public Christianity’ well, but also because we just haven’t been using our own spaces well. There are, of course, groups committed to public Christianity — the ACL is one (and if Martyn’s the best we’ve got… then…), but also City Bible Forum, the Centre for Public Christianity, and a bunch of other organisations out there are doing this… but my point is that we haven’t seen the church (our local community, but also the visible church in Australia) as a public institution meeting in public sacred spaces, but private institutions (and often we ‘desecrate’ the places we meet by emphatically saying ‘they aren’t sacred’, rather than saying ‘these teach us how to view all space’).

We haven’t been great guests in the public spaces post-nova, in the secular age, where multiple religious views are brought to market for performance, recognition, and even debate. But, nor have we been great hosts.

We haven’t treated church buildings as public spaces — either as hosts who hold events for the public (outside of Sundays — and here I’m not talking about the way that churches use buildings to funnel people in to a Sunday service, that’s a ‘private use’) but events that use church buildings as a “public square” where other voices can be heard, or by inviting other people to use our facilities (where we might disagree with them). This isn’t universal, there are plenty of church buildings being used as community hubs out there… and plenty of church buildings that lose the Gospel and the call to be different from the world as they seek to play host, and so end up just as secular community spaces.

Churches are (typically) rightly careful about who gets to preach and teach in order to continue passing on the good news of the Gospel of Jesus (and maintain our distinctives), but we also have to figure out how to steward our spaces — whether our buildings will be public or private, or used in a way that reinforces the narrow view of the sacred, or in ways that break the secular-sacred divide.

But I reckon it’s worth asking the question — perhaps especially those in the West at the moment — would your church host a branch meeting of the Labor Party mid week (I’m not even asking about the pulpit)? And if the answer is no, and it’s about values, then we can’t jump straight to “but public space is different” — because we haven’t got a reputation for treating it differently (especially the ACL). Why should we ask the government to act as arbiters of a public square, when we don’t treat it as a truly public square ourselves (in excluding others), and when we aren’t using our own spaces as we’d want the government to use theirs? Why are we assuming that government is ‘secular’ and so ‘neutral’ (again buying in to the secular/sacred divide) rather than religious (and not Christian)?

We have a reputation for trying to exclude visions of human flourishing we disagree with from public life (again, think drag queen story time, or the same sex marriage debate). Public space isn’t different, public space has always been religious. Sometimes overtly, sometimes just because we have a theological frame, as Christians, that means we can recognise that every social political ideology is fundamentally religious, and every public act is liturgical. Because we are worshipping beings (and that’s the heart of being made to image God).

We also have plenty of religious spaces that we can start using to challenge the insidious secular/sacred divide that is so often at the heart of modern political problems; spaces that we can use (even architecturally) to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over every inch and every moment of life, but also spaces where we can make the truth public, and show that this means fearlessly inviting voices we disagree with to the table with us. Rather than silencing the voices of those who disagree.

Identity is a Trojan Horse. Stop bringing it in behind the gates of the church

The word “identity” looks like such a gift to Christian thinkers and preachers hoping to help people answer the existential question of our age “who am I” in a way that brings people to defining their personhood in choosing to follow Jesus as Lord. But it’s a dangerously loaded term used in ways that mean it isn’t just ‘neutral’ gold to be plundered in order to preach Christ. It’s more like a golden calf, or, indeed, a Trojan Horse, bringing enemy soldiers behind the gates and allowing the Gospel and its claims about our personhood to be infiltrated by worldly ideas of self-definition through authentic choice, and the need for that choice to be performed and recognised by others.

The question “who am I” is only of ultimate significance for those who don’t like the answer you are given…. Or rather, the answer “you are given”… our concept of personhood, as Christians, starts with God as the creator and sustainer of life, in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being — the one who gives us as people in community and for community with himself, and others (the two great commands to “love God” and “love our neighbour as ourselves” are built from this reality. Our bodies and our gifts are given to us for a purpose outside our own definition and choice, and our responsibility (or vocation) is to receive our givenness and give ourselves to the giver, for his glory. This is true for all of us created in the image of God — we are to “give to God what is God’s” (that is, what has his image on it), and it is especially true for us captivated by Jesus, who are being transformed into his image, as his body.

This picture in Ephesians is utterly at odds with modern understandings of personhood — and especially with the notion of “identity” — that we are the ones in a position to answer the question “who am I” at all…

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” — Ephesians 4:11-13

You are not your own, as if your “identity” is yours to define — which probably takes some of the pressure off us as Christians as we keep being told to “define yourself” and live according to your desires; we are already defined from above, our language now simply rests in the ability to describe ourselves and our bodily participation in this given vocation.

The Presbyterian Church in America last week voted to prevent men who “identify” as gay or same sex attracted being ordained to church office. The Overture, which secured overwhelming support from General Assembly delegates, read:

“Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same-sex-attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same-sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

Eternity has published a report (by me) on the significance of this change for our denomination’s ability to pastor same sex attracted Christians (especially as this move is now a live conversation in Australian Presbyterian circles).

While I have significant concerns with the move by the Ad Interim Committee whose report on sexuality was the motivation for this change to flatten all attraction into lust or sexual desire, and with the resultant approach that sees sanctification for same sex attracted believers resting wholly in mortification of sinful desires, rather than in vivification of ones loves and desires as they are rightly ordered around the right love of God, his creations (including other people) made possible by the Spirit, I am also deeply concerned by the way “identity” is being treated as a shibboleth here as though it is a coherent theological category, not a psychological and sociological fusion invented in the 20th century that has become a profound and established part of our theological lexicon. I’ve unpacked the origins of the language of identity, and my concerns about its theological use, at length in this earlier post — but basically my issue is that the language of “identity” is almost always about self expression of “true” desire (psychology), and recognition by others (sociology) and attempts to make it a theological category almost always fail to account for both our givenness, and the constitutive (ontological) nature of our relationships to both God and others (family, community, ethnicity, body of Christ, etc).

Our own local denomination — the Presbyterian Church of Queensland — adopted a paper on sexuality that also brings the Trojan Horse of identity behind the gates of the church (while lauding the PCA’s Interim Report on sexuality, sharing its collapsing of the category of desire and lust into attraction (and “internal temptation”), and following its attempt to make a measured distinction between phenomenological/experiential use of language and ontological use of language around how people who experience same sex attraction and navigate life with that experience. It also falls into the trap (because it sees all ‘attraction’ as ‘sexual desire’ and so the disordered temptation that gives birth to lust) of reducing the call of the Gospel on a believer’s same sex attraction to “mortification” with no space for “vivification” around the rightly ordered love, brought about by the Spirit, of those created things we are attracted to and inclined to worship. It is a document defined by moral pessimism rather than Christian hope and newness of life, and what is possible for a re-created heart liberated from bondage to the flesh (basically, it reads Romans 7 and 8 wrong. I think).

I believe the paper to be deeply flawed, but found myself in a significant minority position here in Queensland, and I would suggest this is because we aren’t yet realising that we can’t decry the idolatrous expressive individualism of our age on the one hand, and incorporate the language of identity on the other, without playing the same “identity politics” game of self-actualisation through performance of our identity choices (and choosing what choices are legitimate to recognise or not within our social ‘identity’ group).

Here’s a few quotes from the Queensland paper:

“Indeed, fleshly notions of identity have assumed particular importance in our current cultural context. Rather than perceiving identity objectively, that is according to certain biological facts (biological essentialism) or biblically revealed purposes, it is perceived more subjectively, according to who we conceive or desire ourselves to be (psychological existentialism). It is assumed that our subjective desires make us who we are and are essential for our well-being.”


While the world creates identities and tribes based on gender, sexual desires, generations and political persuasions, the church derives its being and identity from Christ. Thus, we should strive to reject false labels and identities in our church communities, knowing each other as sinners who are intimately loved, forgiven and called to righteousness in Christ.

This idea that we “derive” rather than are “given” an “identity” is a Trojan horse with massive implications for how we take up the vocation of being creatures given and gifted by God for his purposes (not our own), in relationship networks that are deeply real and also given. The paper, of course (because it is by smart people) attempts to reclaim the word identity and ground it in these deep truths…

“In other words, in Christ we are a new creation with a new identity and orientation (2 Cor 5:17). When we receive God’s truth, we are no longer of the world, knowing ourselves according to its false categories or our own fleshly desires. We know ourselves as people drawn into the loving company of Father, Son and Spirit, belonging wholly to him as adopted children (John 14:16-21; 17:14-19) and able to worship and obey him as we were made to do. In Christ, we receive a new foundation for our identity that humbles our self-righteous egoism but also assures us we are infallibly secure in his justifying love.”

But if the word “gay” can’t be re-narrated, because it ‘always carries another meaning in the community of people listening to its use,’ and we want to insist on the dominance of that meaning — then neither can the word identity.

It’s worth noting that the members of the Ad Interim Committee that produced the Report taken up by the Overtures seem to be, in principle, against the way the overtures sought to legislate what they had described as a “wisdom issue” — recognising the complexity of language (and that it must work both ‘ontologically’ (almost prescriptively) and phenomenologically (almost descriptively) at the same time, for different audiences. The Overture represents a decision to be prescriptive, and see word use as ‘ontological’ — though it does, perhaps, give some wiggle room (and is significantly better than the first versions of the motions).

Kyle Keating, one of the same sex attracted members of the Interim Committee provided a thread on Twitter unpacking the consensus view of the Committee…

That report also made it clear that neither the Scriptures nor our Confession disqualify same-sex attracted men from holding office, a position which the whole committee held and for which the two SSA elders on the committee (@JimPocta and myself) are particularly grateful.

However, overtures 23 and 37 on the ordination of SSA men are not, in my opinion, an appropriate extension or application of the work of our committee. Despite containing much that I agree with, they reflect a deeply flawed approach to controversy through amendments to the BCO…

Why would I speak against two overtures which have so much content that I agree with? Several reasons:

1) They codify the language of expressive individualism in our BCO, actually reinforcing our culture’s inclination to place far too much emphasis on self-identification. What we say about who we are is far less important than who Jesus says we are, and to create a standard that is focused on the contemporary categories of identity is to make too much of them.

2) The language overture 23 codifies will likely be outdated in ten years. Are we prepared to go through the laborious process of amending our BCO every time our culture comes up with a new way to self-identify? That’s not the purpose of the BCO. The BCO gives the principles which the proper courts (presbyteries and sessions) apply. Our report argues against language policing. As Kevin DeYoung noted in our presentation: the goal was not the creation of terminology shibboleths.

He says more, but those two objections are important context.

While Derek Radner, a member of the Overture Committee that framed the motion passed on the floor provided his own context. I’ve unpacked some acronyms used in his Twitter thread for clarity.

Many of us assumed that, because the sexuality report said, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church,” all the overtures about ordination would fail.

However, debate showed a divergence in the reading. Because the report said that, as a matter of wisdom & maturity, Christians should be encouraged to leave Same Sex Attraction identification language behind, many concluded officers must not use this language as mature persons.

Since the Overture Committee did not get to hear the Ad Interim Committee speak to their report, this group did not hear them show this was not their intent. Others of us, myself included, saw language as a matter of wisdom that should not be regulated, even for officers.

Tim Keller, himself a member of the Ad Interim Committee, tweeted his own word of caution about bringing Trojan horses (like the word identity) into the camp and using them as yardsticks for Orthodoxy. But I fear it’s too late, and the barbarians of expressive individualism are already behind the gates and defining how we approach complex pastoral and cultural issues without us realising.

Before we put modern words like “identify” or “identity” into our Constitution we should first do a major study to be sure we are using the word to convey biblical truth. Start with terrific essays by Michael Allen https://buff.ly/31AAGYH; also Scott Swain https://buff.ly/3ybQYV1

We want to make sure we use a word that won’t be considered in twenty years as opaque and obsolete.

One of my favourite thinkers, O. Alan Noble, has a forthcoming book on this issue You Are Not Your Own, he also tweeted:

Our conception of “identity” in the contemporary west is contradictory, elusive, and often self-serving. We’d do well to be extremely wary of using it in official contexts.

On word use, social media, and weaker brothers

It has become apparent that in a recent Facebook post some language I used has caused some brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to stumble; they have because of a communication failure assumed the worst of me, and so circulated my post to senior members of my denomination nationally and locally worried that I have veered into apostasy.

I have to own this failure to communicate, and it has caused me to reflect on how I use words, and how I use social media.

I believe the unity of the church is profoundly important — matched only in importance by the mission of the church — and, I believe the unity of the church is part of the mission of the church. So we live in perplexing times.

I use words in a particular way. I understand the way I use words — and the way I frame my writing and my speech according to my audience. That is part of the communicative act — it’s part of using words to describe and persuade.

The meaning of words changes rapidly, and, in an increasingly fragmented age where we have no common, fixed, perhaps even transcendent basis for the meaning of words (that isn’t to say I do not think there is a transcendent basis for the meaning of words) we have to nimbly communicate through confusion around meaning, both keeping pace with the changing meaning of words and contesting their meaning. It’s a challenge.

Two examples of the contest of not only words, but phrases — especially the way this contest plays out in a “culture war” setting — are the phrase “black lives matter” and the terminology used (by Christians or otherwise) to describe the experience of same sex attraction (whether a person uses a letter from the LGBTIQA+ acronym, like “gay,” or some other terminology including, for example “same sex attraction.”

I’ve outlined before that my philosophy of language is descriptive rather than prescriptive and that so much pain within conversations is caused by people approaching words differently, but on the back of some fresh experience of this pain, I’m using this post to provide certain clarification around both my use of language, social media, and approach to relationships from here on in.

More than 10% of my congregation are people whose experiences are in the what you might call ‘sexual minority’ category — that is, those who might describe themselves as “same sex attracted” or LGBTIQA+. This is not accidental; it is the result of years of advocacy on behalf of Christians in this category who are seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus; and by this, I mean, seeking to obey the Lord Jesus, as we understand the Scriptures, within a traditional sexual ethic — namely, our church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and sex outside of marriage is adultery, and, following the teaching of Jesus, that lust is, itself, idolatry.

I’ll say up top that I’m a reluctant public commentator on matters of Christianity; I do not wish to carve out a platform or profile. I do not check stats for this blog. I do not advertise. This website costs me at least a thousand dollars a year to register, and operate. I am happy to write for external publications because I enjoy crafting articles for publication, but I do not wish to court controversy or be a culture warrior. I am committed, as much as possible, to writing constructive or ‘generative’ pieces into the future, rather than deconstruction and critique. I am a public commentator on issues of public Christianity because I am a pastor and I care about my flock. I think part of the role of a pastor is to make space for your brothers and sisters to flourish, laying down your own strength while serving the chief shepherd. I have the ability and the privilege that allows me to speak as someone who will be heard. So I do. My social media accounts are not ‘platform building exercises’, though, until now, I have added any friend who has requested to connect where they have had more than 25 mutual friends, or reached out to ask questions about things I’ve written.

I am, first and foremost, a person. I am human. I am fallible. I think out loud. That gets me into trouble — but I am a person who aims to operate with integrity and conviction. I want to pursue truth rather than brand loyalty, a following, or popularity. So I am prepared to say unpopular things that challenge status quos.

I am also a husband and father. I have a responsibility to my family. I want to live in a world where it is plausible for my kids to follow Jesus, not because I think this relies on human effort, but because I understand that God works both by his Spirit and ordinary human means to bring people to himself, and my deep desire is for a church community that nourishes my faith, my wife’s faith, and my children’s faith. Given one of the major stumbling blocks for belief in the Gospel seems to be how Christians treat the LGBTIQA+ community, I think it is incredibly important that my kids have people in their lives (in their ‘plausibility structure’ who are both LGBTIQA+ and committed to the way of Jesus.

I am, thirdly, a pastor. I love my church family. I love my LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters who are modelling costly discipleship and rich community. I believe these brothers and sisters in our church community and the wider church are something like the Desert Fathers, those voices who withdrew from ordinary life and so were able to spot the idolatrous culture of the city and call it out. Our culture worships sex, desire-fulfilment, and individual self-expression and identity formation through choice/consumerism; it is courageous and prophetic to stand against that tide and these brothers and sisters model this in the area of sexuality in ways that have much to teach us. I will, as a pastor, give my strength, privilege, and voice, to carve out space for them to flourish, and to serve our church — and I will advocate for them when they find themselves under attack from the wolves, or bitey sheep.

Fourthly, I am committed to the work of evangelism — not only in a commitment to preaching and living the Gospel as a church community, but to making a compelling case for Christianity for those in a post-Christian, post-modern (maybe meta-modern) world. I’m not interested in re-Christianising only the politically conservative, for whom Christianity aligns nicely with a political agenda, but with those who feel most aggrieved by the way Christians have been caught up with empire. I want to take the Gospel to the marginalised, into the issues that groups like the ACL ignore, and into the lives and stories of my friends and neighbours. I believe that one of the best ways to do this is to listen, and to adopt a posture of hospitality. When I use social media, just as when I use my dining room table or backyard, I am inviting people not into a ‘public’ space, but a space that is private and where they are able to enter a conversation. I enjoy that these conversations can involve people from across the political spectrum, and religious spectrum — I think, for example, the church is at its best when it has that sort of diversity in the mix. I confess my posts have become ‘too public’ to do this well; but the primary audience of my social media is not ‘the church’, it’s ‘the world’ — and my primary use of social media (I hope) is not performative ‘image’ or ‘platform’ building, but to present myself as I am, and to engage in virtual, mediated, relationship with people with the aim of taking that relationship into the real world over a meal, or a drink, or at church. I want people to engage in conversation with me in the hope that the conversation will leave them feeling warmer towards Jesus than they did before engaging.

Any ‘public Christianity’ I do is an expression of these three roles — and my social media use is not ‘public Christianity’ (though admittedly it has become more and more that way without careful stewardship). My posts aim to be pastoral rather than political; I want to resist the politicisation of people and their experiences (both in church politics and worldly politics). This does not mean my posts are not political — they are in two ways; firstly I believe the local church (and the wider church) is a political institution — an expression of the kingdom of God, and that the Gospel itself is political (in that we declare that the resurrected Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth). As we operate as a local community, and that operation is reflected (though mediated) in our ‘social media’, that will be ‘political’ in a subversive way (I hope). Secondly, that pastoral stance produces a political stance, especially in a world that is so dominated by an ‘us and them’ culture war that uses vulnerable people as political footballs without caring how hard they get kicked. Some of my ‘politics’ involves kicking the people kicking vulnerable people (and I’d like to do that less), some of it involves putting my hand up to get kicked instead (I’d like to do that more), while some of it involves asking people to play a different game.

From here on in I’ll be changing the settings on my posts to friends only to minimise engagement with those who might feel my posts are a stumbling block, and to make it clearer that I am not particularly interested in ‘in house’ conversation with other members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in that forum (should my posts cause those brethren to stumble). There are other forums for that sort of conversation but you, my dear brothers and sisters in the PCA, are not the intended audience for my Facebook profile, it is given to the roles I’ve described above — as person, husband, father, pastor, and friend. St. Eutychus does have a Facebook page as a hangover from when I checked stats and thought a platform was important — I will continue to post articles there for wider engagement. I am happy to have debates there.

If you are a Facebook friend from the PCA but my posts trouble you, you are, of course, welcome to read along, but at the point that you feel offended or a sense of disunity, I invite you to contact me directly rather than kicking the denominational rumour mill into overdrive. I will do my best to accommodate you in contexts where we are in conversation.

In the case of the offending post I both described a member of my congregation as “coming out”, and, in the comments I described people who hold to a traditional sexual ethic as “celibate gay Christians”. The latter is offensive to some, the former caused significant confusion for many brethren around the nation despite the immediate clarification offered in the comments section of the post.

I want to briefly outline why I use “gay Christian” quite happily to describe members in good standing of my church community (when they so choose), and why “coming out” is something I believe is worth celebrating — but the main point of this post is to explain why and how my use of social media as a tool not for communicating within the people of God, but as part of God’s mission to the world will shape the way I use language, and what expectations I will then operate with when it comes to people interacting with my social media presence from here on out.

I don’t believe that a person who calls themselves a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim where their sexual preference is competing with their union with Christ in defining their personhood.

My understanding (and I’ll note here that I am cishet, married, and have no experience navigating life as a sexual minority) is that for my brothers and sisters who have been aware of their sexual orientation from quite early in life, that orientation is a significant aspect of their narrative, and their experience navigating the world and relationships. If a Christian, in good standing in a church community, told either a non-Christian or a fellow Christian that they are “gay” or “lesbian”, I think it’s reasonable to assume that both the church friend or the non-Christian friend would have unhelpful immediate assumptions about what that means for their faith; namely, the assumption is that one cannot be both “gay” and faithfully Christian (leaving aside “affirming” theology and its claims for the moment — and… I use those scare quotes because I think, ultimately, asking a ‘theology’ to do the work of personal affirmation is tricky (not that that is always the case here), and we’re meant to align our lives with theological truth, rather than the other way around… but I think almost all the ‘theology’ on the table here, whether supporting a ‘traditional’ sexual ethic or embracing same sex relationships ends up affirming a liberal view of the individual and identity… and so I don’t necessarily see it as totally distinct, much as I don’t see ‘left’ as all that distinct from ‘right’ politically). It seems to me that these individuals need language that can describe their experience and their religious commitments in efficient ways.

I don’t believe that identity is an airtight theological category — in fact — I think it’s a trojan horse that slips in all sorts of idolatrous anthropology built from expressive individualism into the church (and, that, for those who have issues with what ‘gay’ means in the ear of the average punter, it would be interesting for them to account for what ‘identity’ means in both a therapeutic and sociological/recognition sense such that we should ask if it’s a legitimate category to be putting at the heart of our theological anthropology). So I don’t believe that someone who says they are a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim, but rather describing their experience — and that the qualifier “celibate” helps further answer the questions and objections that the hypothetical person they speak to might have.

I understand that for many the word “gay” is associated with homosexual practice, and that for many Christians the debate about whether same sex attraction itself is sinfully disordered (a form of concupiscence), or whether it is lust and sex (the activities prohibited in the Bible) that are sinful expressions of an idolatrous rejection of God’s design for human sexuality, such that the word “gay” is an affirmation of a sinful and disordered aspect of a person’s life. I acknowledge that for both these groups (and they overlap of course) the use of the word “gay” is something like participating in idolatry. And yet, when I hear how my LGBTIQA+ brethren use terms like “gay” or “queer” they are doing something quite different with their language and it seems to me that “same sex attracted” is a label that thoroughly reduces a person’s experience to their sexual desire, and for those in the ‘concupiscence’ camp, that seems to me to be altogether worse (eg “I am a same sex attracted Christian”).

My “celibate gay,” queer, and LGBTIQA+ Christian friends are using language descriptively to describe their experience; inasmuch as they are making an “identity claim” it is a claim around experience/narrative, not ontology. And, to the extent that they are describing an experience it is an experience outside my own, and I want to be careful to listen well to them and to not think it is my job to control how language is used (remember, I am a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist). I think it’s particularly worth noting that words like “Gay” and “Queer” have been thoroughly contested, and the definitions in popular usage have dramatically shifted over time. The language keeps changing and to abandon the contest for words is to ensure the devil gets all the good music. Additionally, I’d note that the variety of experiences of attraction (sexual or otherwise) is consistently being nuanced as people have freedom to breakaway from historically rigid categories, and so, different labels are being given to different experiences of attraction at breakneck speed (did you know, for example, that because of the dynamic of ‘asexuality’ being unpacked in various ways, and in order to accommodate the different experiences of same sex attraction, people within the LGBTIQA+ umbrella will now make significant distinctions between romantic and sexual attraction, such that you might experience being romantically attracted to one sex, but sexually attracted to another). It pays to listen carefully in order to understand how language is being used, rather than insist on word meanings if one wants to have a conversation with another person; otherwise it’s like a Protestant theologian talking to a Catholic — we use all the same words, but have vastly different meanings.

This does mean that for Christians whose experience life as sexual minorities, they are navigating two sets of language — the expectation to meet certain theological shibboleths within the church, but also, often, actively working to make sense of their own experience as they navigate the complexity of positioning themselves in both the church and the world. Explaining to their church friends why they aren’t pursuing marriage with a person of the opposite sex, and to the world why they aren’t pursuing their attraction into desire (or lust), a relationship, or sexual activity. And we want to police their language use. Give them a break.

Also, I’d note that the terminology used — specifically ‘gay’ — is a broader and much more inclusive label than “same sex attraction,” which reduces a person’s experience — and perhaps even their identity — to ‘sexual attraction,’ whereas, so far as I understand it from conversations with my friends, to adopt a more inclusive label like gay, or queer, is to acknowledge a variety of shared experiences (and solidarity) with other sexual minorities who have to navigate a world (and church) that brings a degree of pain, trauma, and exclusion (even just from normal expectations around marriage and procreation). To police that particular term because it is “only ever about sex” is to choose a false prescriptive definition, and to significantly limit the semantic domain of a word (where there aren’t many better ones) that carries much more weight than simply some sort of idolatrous ontological identity claim built around sexual practice. It’s to make the mistake of elevating sex to the supreme position in a person’s life, and to flatten a range of narrative type experiences into some nebulous category of ‘identity’. In short, it’s a failure to listen.

My friend and colleague Matthew Ventura has written about the difficulty choosing the right language according to the audience he is speaking to, and about how he uses words not to make an “identity claim” (whatever that means) but in a paradigm of differentiation and solidarity. Here’s his description of why he uses the terminology he chooses when using the descriptor “celibate gay Christian.”

“A second approach seeks to step towards LGBTIQ people and say ‘I’m one of you. We can relate to each other’s experiences of being sexual minorities.’ Of course, for the celibate single same-sex attracted Christian, there will be plenty of areas of our experience that are not common to non-Christian LGBTIQ people, but this approach aims to highlight the commonalities and express solidarity. The motivations for this approach can either be missional (taking a step into ‘their world’ with the hope of eventually welcoming them into ‘our world’ of God’s family), hospitable (seeking to bring other marginalised people in and offer them a place of belonging in a safe and loving queer community) or a personal motivation (seeking a community where one can feel understood, supported and loved in their minority experience), or any combination of these motivations.”

Now, I’m not gay, but I think the reasons he gives for someone who shares that experience to use particular terminology also applies to the church in its participation in God’s mission to the world.

Matt makes a couple of observations on how people on the “differentiation” end of this spectrum operate, and how those seeking solidarity with the LGBTIQA+ community operate and the risks connected to these positions; the risk he describes here is the one my post fell foul of this week.

By associating themselves so closely with other LGBTIQ people, “celibate gay Christians” have risked causing scandal. Regardless of their actual moral conduct, celibate gay Christians often perceived by other Christians as being deviant, theologically liberal, or morally bankrupt simply by their close association with other gay people. Understandably, many Christians would prefer to avoid causing scandal by opting for the safety of unambiguous terms that clearly differentiate themselves.

That’s a useful framework. Ron Belgau at Spiritual Friendship has written about language being used narratively, or phenomenologically, rather than ontologically, which I think is also useful. It also fits better with a sort of ‘narrative ontology’ that sees us persons given bodies and lives to steward by God in accordance with the telos given to us by his story (rather than being authors of our own destiny and identity). In his excellent book A War of Loves, David Bennett spells out seven reasons behind his choice of language, a couple are worth quoting at length.

“The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behaviour; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out. We have all been impacted by the fall. The particular challenge for the majority of gay or same-sex-attracted Christians is untangling the sinful aspect of same-sex attraction from their God-given desire for intimacy. Some find that this need for human intimacy is met in celibate friendships; a smaller group report a special God-given attraction to a particular opposite-sex partner in a mixed-orientation marriage. But most side B Christians choose celibacy.”

Another reason he gives is to speak prophetically to the surrounding world.

“Those of us who are orthodox or traditional Christians and who are gay or SSA need to reclaim our space in the conversation over sexuality back from the secular culture. While we have shared experience of same-sex desires with those who are gay and seek to be in gay marriages, including dealing with them in a fallen world that is prejudiced and unloving, we are different, and this needs to be reflected in how we understand what it means to be gay or SSA in broader society. Also, people like me have benefited from the gay rights movement in many ways and would not be able to live the open life we do without many of these wins for human dignity, but we don’t want that movement to spell the deprivation of our rights to live in churches that support our choices and obedience to Christ. We can identify with many of its wins for the human dignity of LGBTQI/SSA people, including employment rights, protections from hate crimes, and anti-discrimination laws, even if we may disagree on sexual ethics.”

His final reason lines up with Matt’s “solidarity” framework.

“My seventh and final reason is invitational. Mainstream secular culture feels alienated by terms like same-sex attracted and gay lifestyle. There is no monolithic gay lifestyle. The term same-sex attracted sounds medical, like a diagnosis—reminiscent of when same-sex desire was seen as a disease. Such terms can place hindrances in the way of those who need to hear the gospel message. When I entered the church and heard these terms, they kept me from feeling included and understood. On the other hand, the term gay is positive and welcoming for those who are gay or SSA. Christians would do well to focus on removing boundaries—existential, intellectual, and spiritual—in order to know the good news for our own sexual brokenness, and then, further, to share the good news humbly from this place with others.”

Which is to say if we listen to our Christian brothers and sisters whose lived experience we’re talking about, and we’re wanting to speak the good news of Jesus in ways that are compelling to others who share that experience, there might be a 1 Corinthians 9 “all things to all people” rationale for using this language — even if, for Paul, sometimes becoming like the Greeks was massively problematic for Jewish Christians. But I’ll unpack more of this below.

My observation of the status quo — including my own experience this week — is that we can spend a lot of time trying to decide what specific words always mean and so interpret them that way, or we can spend a lot of time trying to understand what people mean when they use words. A lot of the consternation about my post would’ve been lessened by less insistence that the words I used always mean a thing they don’t, and more seeking to understand what was being communicated. As someone who uses words though, I do have a responsibility to ensure my choice of words is connected to clear meaning for my audience. The catch is we all have so many audiences, and so many of our audiences use words differently.

All that said, I do not believe that a person’s sexual attraction is inevitably a personal choice (though I am comfortable that there is a degree of fluidity experienced by a variety of people and sexual and romantic attraction is complicated). I do not think a same sex attracted person, or a person whose experience of gender does not conform with their biological sex, needs to ‘become straight’ or even ‘become not LGBTIQA+’ in order to put their trust in Jesus; I think to live with Jesus as Lord will have implications for how we use our bodies and desires as part of our Christian vocation — as we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And this will mean faithfully aligning one’s sexual behaviour, and desires, with the Bible (that said, I also believe church communities should be places where people come to hear the Bible taught before they have decided what that means, not having decided what that means), and that acknowledge that there is disagreement on how to interpret the Biblical data (personally, I find the arguments for an ‘affirming position’ on same sex relationships unconvincing). This means I believe it is fantastic for a person, and for their church community, if someone whose experiences (including, but not limited to attraction and/or desire) fall within the LGBTIQA+ spectrum, “comes out” and shares those experiences with vulnerability and trust, in order to be fully known, loved, and supported in their pursuit of faithfulness.

So, with all those bits of data in place — the reason I use the language I do — both the description “celibate gay Christian” for those who self-describe that way, and “coming out” for people who embrace the vulnerability of being known and supported, rather than closeted, spins out of my relationships and my sense of call (as a pastor with an evangelistic commitment to marginalised people groups in a post Christian world). I appreciate that this creates challenges for my brothers and sisters much like Paul’s ‘gentileness’ was a problem for the church in Jerusalem, and that perhaps I could work harder at being a “Presbyterian to win the Presbyterians”…

But here’s some of the theological framework behind this choice that I have alluded to above — I believe the choice of terminology here is roughly equivalent to idol meat in Corinth.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a situation where the moral freedom of Christians in the church — to eat meat from the local marketplace that came from local temples — was a stumbling block for other Christians in the church. Paul tried to balance the competing priorities of unity and mission; there are, in 1 Corinthians, very good reasons to eat gentile food — namely, to win gentiles to Jesus. Paul describes his missionary flexibility (offensive both to non-Christian Jews, and to Christian Jews, when he lands in Jerusalem) in 1 Corinthians 9, and unpacks his unity-first ethic in chapters 8 and 10. He does a few key things in his presentation of the tension. First, he makes it clear that idol meat is not illicit — that to eat it is not actually to definitively participate in idolatry — much as those celibate gay Christians who use the descriptor work very hard to make it clear that they aren’t endorsing idolatrous sexuality (even if other people who use the words “gay Christian” might be — just as some Corinthians who claimed to be Christians who ate meat in the temples might’ve been). Paul makes it clear that the stronger brothers and sisters in the church are actually correct. Paul connects eating this meat with eating with non-Christians (in chapter 10), saying one should stop doing it in that context at the point it confuses non-Christians about whether or not you are affirming their idol, but that is relational rather than caught up in some prescriptive meaning of the symbol of the meat. Paul wants Christians to eat with non-Christians as an extension of the mission he describes in chapter 9 — and he wants both differentiation (not being idolaters) and solidarity (being a Greek to win the Greeks) to be part of the pattern of engagement. His guiding principles, expressed in chapter 10 are the glory of God, the unity of the church, and the good of others so they might be saved.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

The tricky navigating act here is that Paul prioritises the protection of the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8.

He writes:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Now, in drawing and applying this analogy to the current circumstance I probably shouldn’t just assume the position of the “stronger brother”, but it is clear that my use of my freedoms (knowing, as I do, that despite my language use I have not succumbed to idolatry but am using language for pastoral, evangelistic, and prophetic reasons in a contest for meaning) have caused brothers and sisters to stumble, thinking that I am affirming idolatry. There is an onus on me here to be more careful with my language in church facing contexts. I assume Paul didn’t police the language (or meat eating) of Christians eating meat with their gentile friends without weaker brothers around — because he gives guidelines for how they should do that (in chapter 10). This is why my response to the present imbroglio is to more clearly define my social media use as ‘world facing’ rather than ‘denomination facing’ — I’d like to use it as a dinner party, rather than an in house church meeting.

But I will say, too, that the idea that Christians in various minority experiences — in this case sexual minorities — should position themselves as the stronger brothers and moderate their language, while existing on the margins of our institutions and having very little ‘social capital’ within the church; where their language is institutionally policed, and where their employment or sense of belonging not only in church communities but their biological families is always at risk (and often these relationships are sources of trauma-through-differentiation rather than solidarity) just seems intuitively wrong to me. We ask these brothers and sisters to do so much additional emotional, spiritual, and existential labour just to exist in our communities. Maybe we could flip the script a little bit and do all we can not to cause them to stumble — even if that means adopting terminology we are initially uncomfortable with, and joining them in solidarity in our shared pursuit of God’s glory, and the mission of the Gospel.

Book Review: Questioning Christianity by Dan Paterson and Rian Roux

Disclaimer: Dan is a friend, and a review PDF was provided to me free of charge. Dan is the founder of Questioning Christianity.

If Sam Chan’s books on evangelism (reviewed here and here) are the sorts of textbooks or handbooks you give to Christians to provide a framework for how we share the good news about Jesus in a post-post-modern, post secular context, then Questioning Christianity by Paterson and Roux is the book you give to Christians to give to their friends (and a book you give to your friends) who are seeking to make sense of the world we live in.

I’ve written here, and elsewhere (part 1, part 2), about the power of story in a post-post-modern world — the snapshot summary is that if post-modernity involved the death of ‘grand narratives’ about life (including the idea of God), the pushback against post-modernity’s overreach — whether that’s ‘post-post modernity’, meta-modernity, or the “new sincerity” — has included a rediscovery of the place of, and existential satisfaction connected to, a meta-narrative. Meta-modernity basically fuses post-modernity with the reaction against post-modernity — recognising that post-modernity rightly reacted against modernity’s disenchanting atomisation of life into a series of propositions, and while it killed ‘metanarratives’, it replaced those big stories with stories and recognised experience and emotion as legitimate parts of the human quest for truth (even if that truth was largely ‘subjective’ and in the context of one’s own story). A summary of meta-modernity says the difference is:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Evangelism and apologetics in this age is going to look different; it’s going to look like the skeleton you find in Sam Chan’s work, and the fleshed out body you find in Questioning Christianity (and also, hat tip to Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, that applies this model to a particular ethical question — around sexuality). It’s an ambitious book — it aims to serve multiple audiences and both present a positive, sincere and hopeful account of the Christian story as the story that organises the universe (and life within it), while also engaging big questions that might be raised in response.

The ‘big story’ — the book’s first section — charts the Biblical story through narrative settings — garden (Eden), tower (Babel), Nation (Israel’s story), Cross, Church, and City — and matching ‘character developments’ — created for good, damaged by evil, chosen to bless, redeemed by love, sent together to heal, and set everything right. There’s a sort of ‘hero’s journey’ going on in that set of movements for those familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work on the shape of stories.

Though the book works with a narrative framing, it manages to teach the importance of profound doctrines, with real and appealing clarity, along the way — for example — zeroing in on the importance of the Trinity and God as loving-community in the chapter telling the Garden story

There’s a commitment to a Jesus-centered Biblical Theology here that is rich and good. There’s a small quibble I have with the way the book zeroes in on the ‘universality’ of the ‘mythic’ shape of the Bible (that is, the way it functions to provide a meta-narrative for all human people). It’s a quibble the book seeks to address, but may not fully resolve. The Bible’s story is not merely archetypal in a way that answers, say, the Jordan Peterson’s of this world who see the power of myth and archetypes in organising life here and now, but also in C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien’s sense it’s the ‘myth that became history’ and the ‘eucatastrophic tale’ that ‘hallows all other tales’ — the “true fairy tale” — it’s not just a story that mirrors and meets our desires and quest for a true self, but first God’s story about Jesus that becomes our story through our union with Christ. I think Questioning Christianity threads that needle. Especially with this paragraph, recognising this dilemma:

“Perhaps one of the most unique and striking elements of the Christian story is that it is not merely religious philosophy or ideology, for its central claims are based on historical events that can be investigate and verified. That Jesus is history is what makes the gospel good news rather than simply a good idea. Christians believe that the One who made the world has left His historical footprint on it.”

Another minor quibble is that I think while the narrative does good work with God’s presence (Eden) and exile from Eden, and then Israel’s exile, I think I’d’ve liked to have split the Israel chunk of the ‘metanarrative’ a bit more decisively around the land, and exile into the nations — and done a bit more on recognising that we modern (gentile) readers are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, not of Israel, and that Israel’s exile in Babylon represents them joining the rest of us in need of re-creation.

The way the story becomes our story is, in part, a function of God’s redemptive commitment not only to Israel through its Messiah, Jesus, but for all nations through the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, who is exalted to the highest place above all powers and principalities. Our position as readers of the Old Testament is as those brought in not through heritage, but through God’s gracious act to unite us to himself in Jesus, so our lens, in the Old Testament, isn’t only what’s going on for Israel, but what’s going on in the hearts of the Babylonians. Where Israel is ‘chosen to bless’ — it’s not just chosen to experience God’s blessing, but to be a blessing to the nations (like it is, for a moment, under Solomon). It’s, in part, the failure to do this that leads to Israel’s exile. That gets a sentence or two along the way, it’s not missing from what is an excellent retelling of the Biblical narrative, but, personally I’d have made it a bigger deal. As I say, this is a minor quibble. I do think it’s a quibble that leaves us with a slightly different question, as gentile readers, at the end of the Old Testament to the ones listed in the book, something like: “If it isn’t clear God is blessing Israel, does God care about non-Israelites like me?” The payoff to adding this thread might’ve come in the section on the church, and on Pentecost, where the Spirit descends as a clear sign that not only is exile over for God’s faithful Israel, those who recognise Jesus as the Christ, but as the Spirit spreads with the proclamation of the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to the ends of the earth — our exile ends as we are united in Jesus. And, again, this is not absent, it simply enriches the story as it is presented — but, more importantly, it shows how this story about Jesus becomes my story as an Aussie (gentile) living in the 21st century.

“This moment marked the birth of the church, where God’s holy presence was no longer cloistered in tents or temples built by human hands. Now He dwelled in His people. Christians became mobile temples, taking God’s presence with them wherever they went as hotspots of heaven on earth. And God’s power animated them to do the impossible.

Where God had scattered humanity by confusing their languages at Babel, now at Pentecost He began a global gathering of tribes and tongues by enabling Jesus’ followers to tell the Christian story in languages they never knew.”

Once the story has been told, Paterson and Roux shift to showing how we step into that story. Before, I again, offer some quibbles (that may actually simply be expressions of my different theological tradition), I want to say this attempt to move from the abstraction of ‘narrative’ to something more tangible and concrete is often the missing link in the shift back to metanarrative; part of the move from modernity (just believe propositions) to post-modernity and beyond is trying to capture the language of belief/faith/trust that is more than simply ‘give rational assent to’ — and there’s whole theological schisms around this stuff (think the New Perspective), but capturing the sense of inhabiting and embodying a story does seem to sit in a rich vein of both Old and New Testament writings and practices. I think Questioning Christianity offers some really helpful language to bridge this gap.

That said, I do think this section would sing, even more, if the language around relationship was grounded in Union with Christ, not only ‘believing and following’ (though I recognise those are fundamentally Gospel invitations in that they are what Jesus calls for in the Gospel. This is, for what it’s worth, how I understand the language of repentance in the New Testament — not so much as a call to ‘reject sin’ but to ‘follow Jesus’ (and so reject sin). This slight change in language would’ve represented a shift to seeing ourselves positioned in this grand story ‘in Christ’, by the author of the story — rather than us choosing this story as the one we’d particularly like to inhabit, but maybe that’s my Calvinism coming through…

“Perhaps the best way, though, to come at defining Christianity is to let the Bible shape our answer. As best we can distill, becoming a Christian is fundamentally about stepping into the Christian story in response to Jesus’ invitation to believe in Him and follow Him. And first and foremost that means beginning a new relationship with God.

This is the beating heart of the Jesus movement.

From here, a new life story begins to emerge as we embrace a new community gathered around the gospel, receive from God a new identity as our foundation for self-understanding and expression, follow Jesus’ roadmap into a new way to live, and launch into a new purpose for our lives.”

I have not-insignificant concerns around the use of the word ‘identity’ here, and the way it freights in the ides of ‘self-understanding and expression’ via consumer choice; but this is a pretty niche concern of my own, and I simply would’ve replaced the word “identity” with “character”, and connected that back to the quote from Alisdair MacIntyre that Paterson and Roux share up front. And yet, this is such a helpful section in what is, overwhelmingly, an excellent book that sits in a unique position in the landscape. As a pastor of a church, I found the chapter on church within the broader work incredibly encouraging.

Each of the chapters in this section moves from ‘abstract’ to concrete transformative practices and resources, and these bits are terrifically helpful and memorable distillations, grounded in the Scriptures. They’re also where the six-stage framework setup in the first section are brought to life in helpful and integrated ways.

It’s one thing to commend the goodness and beauty of the Christian story — and life in it — which this book does admirably in parts 1 and 2, it’s ‘next level’ to then engage deeply with the questions raised by Christianity, which is both the heart of Dan’s ministry organisation Questioning Christianity, and this book. The book could’ve been an adequate evangelism resource — an excellent one even — if it finished up after section 2. But section 3 tackles big apologetics questions: what if the snake was right? How can a good God allow suffering? Why isn’t God more obvious? Has Science disproved God? Can I trust the Bible? Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? How can God be good when the church is so bad? Dan cut his teeth as an apologist working with an international apologetics organisation, and these chapters distill his time on the road answering big questions into erudite and tight answers that don’t simply assert a bunch of propositions, or get hyper-defensively aggressive, but seek to resonate with experiences and curiousity — engaging the questions as good faith exercises in the pursuit of truth (a bit like Paul in Athens).

A questioning faith is a robust and growing faith, and the book gives a grammar for the sort of Christianity that can withstand the pressures of the world we live in, and produce resilience rather than fragility. This section is, I think, as much for Christians to create and grapple with questions we should be wrestling with as it is for non-Christians coming at them for the first time (or over a long period of time).

God is not afraid of your questions. Why? Because if some- thing is true, then any doubts, rather than subverting faith, should serve as a doorway to a deeper faith. For the healthy response to any doubt is to launch an open investigation. Doubts should spark you to study the reasons for faith, and upon embarking on that journey, if your curious questions are met with credible answers, then you can emerge with a more fully-orbed trust that there is a substantial why behind the what of your beliefs. Serious space should always be made for questions and questioners to explore whether the Christian story can stand up to scrutiny. Such is the hallmark of any true story.

Truth invites questioning.

Yes and amen. There’s been a substantial debate within evangelistically minded Aussie pastors (and podcasters) around how we should promote Christianity in our present climate; whether we should emphasise the ‘good’, or acknowledge the place we now occupy in the post-Christian landscape. Whether our language should acknowledge and create doubt and curiousity or push toward certainty. I think there’s scope both for surprisingly positive presentations of the Gospel to people who’ve dismissed it (the first third of the book), and for engaging with the hardest form of the real questions (and accusations) people bring to the church, even in forms people might not’ve considered yet.

Paterson and Roux offer us an engagement with questions people are actually asking, which is better than hypothetical questions that people in were asking back in modernity — there’s a shift, in some sense, that I’ve observed from ‘is Christianity true’ to ‘is Christianity good’ and even if it’s held to be true, if it isn’t good, people don’t have a place for it in their lives. Questioning Christianity presents a Christianity that is good and true, and an account for why sometimes it hasn’t seemed either.

I must confess that these aren’t the existential questions I grapple with — I’m a bit weird — maybe. But they are questions that get asked (anecdotally, I’ve now had a series of people call my phone number, listed on our website, to ask about the apocalypse and Covid and a sense that we’re in the midst of a massive socio-political moment, and those have been fun conversations).

I’d love to see a follow up book applying the first section (the story) to ethical issues and questions — a bit like Harrison’s A Better Story — not just those the church struggles with, but those that are evidently problems that any grand metanarrative has to answer (around things like justice, personhood, the environment) — places where the goodness of the Christian story shines through (even if the church has been an agent of Babylon at times).

This is a good book — one that like Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens left me inspired to view my faith as an adventure — a story to engage in — not just dead letters or propositions — and so I’d urge you, wherever you sit on the spectrum from unbelief to unquestioning Christian, to pick it up and give it a read. Maybe you, like the authors, will find truth and goodness in questioning Christianity again, they describe their experience living in this story as follows:

“We have found rich meaning and help and hope in following Jesus. And perhaps the most exciting aspect of becoming a Christian, of joining Jesus on the road, is the unpredictability of God. For it is when you hand over the pen of your own life story that you find yourself swept up into an adventure as wild as the imagination of God.”

That’s also my experience.

Buy a bunch of these for your friends — and, be sure to follow Questioning Christianity on the socials.

Dear Facebook. Please un-kill Bill.

It’s fair to say that I’m not on Bill Muehlenberg’s Christmas Card list (and nor is he on mine)…

In fact, in the past, Bill described me as a “spineless wonder” and my writing as “mainly all waffle, bubble and froth,” where I “foolishly run with all the sorts of things which we expect the homosexual militants and atheists to say,” also calling me things like a “craven, carnal, men-pleasing shepherd” (in case you’re wondering if he’s actually talking about me here, he provides a link in the comments when pressed on what sort of pieces raised his ire).

So, you might expect me to take great delight — schadenfreude even — from Bill’s removal from Facebook for violating its terms of service. But I don’t.

I do find Big Tech, or woke capitalism’s, activist streak problematic.

I don’t like cancel culture.

I don’t think silencing loud and potentially damaging voices like Bill’s actually serves the human project — the pursuit of truth.

I believe we should be contending for truth; that truth should be made public, and that part of the pursuit of truth requires airing views that fall outside an acceptable status quo and that should be debated (publicly).

The idea that ideas and even criticism of a status quo should be limited or restricted because of the damage those words might do does seem like a fast path to totalitarianism.

Though my friends on the left find the spectre of ‘cancel culture’ raised by the right problematic (especially with Bill’s inevitable comparisons to Hitler and Stalin), and will no doubt point out the paradox of tolerance, and that speech has consequences and private media companies do not have an obligation to host Bill’s bigotry — and though I agree with them that virtuous speech is costly, not free — the ability for ideas to be fully and frankly exchanged seems fundamental to our shared pursuit of truth and goodness.

Facebook is not the ‘public square’ — it is a private square, and yet, almost every example of a ‘public square’ has been privatised thanks to late modern capitalism and the digital age.

If Big Tech, and the broader woke capitalist agenda have landed on the objective, capital T, truth — then ideas that criticise such truth should not be a threat, but a chance for that truth to be demonstrated in conflict. It seems more likely that capitalism (or these media corporations) has simply harnessed a series of social agendas and the challenges to this orthodoxy threatens to undermine their money and power.

Bill said:

This is all part of the censorship and leftist tyranny that Tech Giants with near-monopoly powers like Facebook operate with.

And as I have often written about before, most of the other groups are just as bad, be it YouTube or Twitter or even online booksellers like Amazon. They are all singing from the same hardcore leftist song sheet, and conservatives and Christians really are not wanted.

Woke capitalism isn’t a ‘lefty’ agenda out to get us, singing from a lefty songbook; it’s a capitalist agenda out to make as much money, by creating as much power, as possible. Here’s a piece from The Atlantic that outlines the “iron law of woke capitalism,” a development of what was the “iron law of institutions” — that claimed that senior individuals in institutions would inevitably act to preserve their own power, rather than the institution, the piece titled “How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture” is worth a read beyond just this paragraph.

That self-preservation instinct also operates when private companies—institutions built on maximizing shareholder value, or other capitalist principles—struggle to acclimatize to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social-justice causes. Progressive values are now a powerful branding tool.

But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.

Ross Douhat, who described woke capitalism in a piece for the NY Times, said the problem with this new corporate strategy is that “it encourages cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement, their sense that all the major institutions of American life, corporate as well as intellectual and cultural, are arrayed against their mores and values and traditions.” It’s not that these corporations are left-aligned by conviction, it’s a corporate strategy.

These companies (and their founders) will act in their own self-interest and serve us, the consumer up, with whatever they think protects that self interest; it’s commercial pressure that shelved Israel Folau, not ideological pressure (which is why Qantas will partner with Emirates, from the UAE, where homosexuality is illegal, but not with a footballer whose performance threatens their bottom line).

When it comes to these big tech companies, the real threat they pose isn’t in what they choose to censor as part of a political agenda, but how they commodify our attention and relationships — and us — and the way they manipulate us and our social interactions not from a political agenda but in the pursuit of their golden god. In his stunning piece Worshipping the Electronic Image, Chris Hedges wrote about this risk:

“Those who seek to communicate outside of digital structures to question or challenge the dominant narrative, to deal in ambiguity and nuance, to have discussions rooted in verifiable fact and historical context, are becoming incomprehensible to most of modern society. As soon as they employ a language that is not grounded in the dominant clichés and stereotypes, they are not understood. Television, computers and smartphones have addicted a generation and conditioned it to talk and think in the irrational, incoherent baby talk it is fed day after day. This cultural, historical, economic and social illiteracy delights the ruling elites who design, manage and profit from these sophisticated systems of social control. Armed with our personal data and with knowledge of our proclivities, habits and desires, they adeptly manipulate us as consumers and citizens to accelerate their amassing of wealth and consolidation of power.”

It’s not the political elites pushing a lefty agenda I’m particularly worried about here, it’s that our ability to engage in discourse and the pursuit of truth is manipulated by corporate agendas who operate from utter self interest, censoring views that might cost them a dollar or two and claiming that the censorship is motivated by protecting the vulnerable.

Hedges provides a solution to the breakdown of the public square.

Intellectual historian Perry Miller in his essay “The Duty of Mind in a Civilization of Machines” calls us to build counterweights to communication technology in order “to resist the paralyzing effects upon the intellect of the looming nihilism” that defines the era. In short, the more we turn off our screens and return to the world of print, the more we seek out the transformative power of art and culture, the more we re-establish genuine relationships, conducted face-to-face rather than through a screen, the more we use knowledge to understand and put the world around us in context, the more we will be able to protect ourselves from the digital dystopia.

This isn’t to say that Bill should be happy not to be on Facebook anymore, and to have the opportunity to build real world relationships (though it might do him good not to be, and public discourse good if more of us were having discussions elsewhere) — but rather, that, in his anger, he’s tilting at the wrong windmills. And maybe he should be calling for a decoupling of capitalism and public discourse, rather than left-wing politics.

That might not serve his narrative though — or his culture war. It might, however, help in the bigger and more pressing need — the shared pursuit of truth. That sort of pursuit requires voices being heard, not suppressed though — which is why we shouldn’t celebrate the power of big tech to mute the microphones of the uncivil voices. All revolutionary voices and ideas challenge civility and the status quo. By nature.

If we keep attacking Facebook, or other big tech companies, as though the ‘left agenda’ is the root cause of the problem, we’re missing the mark. The problem, perhaps, is that so many of the hard right are so embedded in capitalism that they can’t see how the problem is with the soil all that discourse — and life itself — is planted in… remember, when we talk about Facebook, we’re talking about a company that has monetised self interest built around algorithmically understanding and grabbing your attention, with a newsfeed philosophy expressed by Mark Zuckerberg’s theory that “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

The problem with big tech companies deciding which views they want to connect to their worship of mammon is multi-faceted, it has knock on implications for all of us when they operate as mediators (or priests) for the sort of public imagery and religiosity that is acceptable.

Media platforms work best when they are hosting conversations that serve the pursuit of the common good; commercial media platforms are almost immediately distorted (though you don’t hear Bill and friends complaining about Sky News). These priestly mediating companies do provide a song sheet — but it’s not one that is designed to form us into lefties, but into consumers. Facebook is a giant advertising beast harvesting your data to sell you more things, and to sell you to more companies.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a public square that is free from the manipulative power of the market — such a square is probably an ideal that has never actually existed; even the literal public squares of old were formed by physical architecture (including statues and temples) that articulated and shaped a ‘social imaginary’ — providing a coherent worldview that would ground dialogue between parties who disagreed on small things but agreed on the foundational vision of the world. Our physical public squares are as bombarded with imagery and noise (like outdoor advertising, branded buildings, and pop up marketing events) as the old ones, so the answer to this very modern dilemma is not just to start holding discussions (or protest groups at ten paces) on village greens.

I (also) fear that pushing people out of public squares — whether online or in the real world — forces them into ghettos and echo chambers (Facebook’s algorithms do just this too, which is doubly concerning). This is why religious freedom is something the government should take an interest in, because ‘banning’ a religion (or even shadow banning it, to use some social media terminology for a ‘soft power’ ban) doesn’t stop people holding such beliefs, it stops people publicly holding problematic beliefs and sends them into these ghettos with a victim narrative. It’s a path to radicalisation.

Ask yourself if Bill will be more or less radical without Facebook’s terms of service looking over his shoulder (though, let’s face it, Bill’s not the kind of person who moderates his language for the sake of others or because of platform ‘rules’ anyway)? Ask yourself if he’s going to do more or less harm without a wider market offering pushback on his views.

I worry, too, that cancellation is a form of martyrdom in the culture wars — that it actually takes Bill’s views too seriously, and means he now joins his account to a litany of complaints from those who are simultaneously perpetually angry at the victim narratives they see driving society into the pits while taking every opportunity to position themselves as victims.

And look, I will say that I find it fascinating that those who call out against cancel culture the loudest — whether that’s the leader of a political movement with the slogan “truth made public” who censors voices critical of their positions on their own platforms (like a Facebook page — and, in an update, I’m not just not able to comment on Marty’s page now, but unable to view it while logged in… I’m actually blocked, and the featured image on this page is what I get when I try to visit), or the editor of an online publication that publishes regular screeds against cancel culture are the keenest to cancel voices who are critical of their positions not only on platforms they control, not just via blocking, but also by writing to church denominations seeking to have church employees who are critical of their positions defrocked and/or disciplined, while simultaneously threatening court action. The same outlet is happy to post Bill’s opinions on his cancellation with no sense of irony.

So Facebook, please un-kill Bill. Even if there’s no dollar in it. At least he’s more interesting to some of us than a dead squirrel. Just.

Under Review

My denomination has been in the news over the last week, because a financial situation that has been bubbling away for some time has reached a head. Please, if you’re a Christian whose been reading these stories and trying to understand how we could all get it so wrong — suspend judgment for a moment, and take time to pray for those involved in the legal and financial situation at the coal face, and for congregations around Queensland wondering what this means for their church communities. There’s more to this story than simply bad governance, or a church’s historic involvement in a complex industry, and I’ve seen more than one public conversation where people have the wrong end of the stick; or perhaps have only grabbed hold of part of the elephant…

The situation also requires more than people with a ‘thin’ Gospel (one that emphasises proclamation alone, without meat on the bones, or boots on the ground) saying that churches shouldn’t be involved in these industries in the first place. I was reminded, over the weekend, that the way the early church gained a foothold in the community in the first few centuries was running something like a burial society — burying those people who could not afford a fancy funeral. We’ve always been called to love and serve people in complex areas at the margins of our society — and we in the west dehumanise and devalue our old people (or at least remove them from sight/having value) before they die, by shuffling them off to these halfway homes to be cared for by a marginalised workforce (who, were, for example, disproportionately affected by Covid in Australia because of where they live, in high density housing at the margins of the community where social distancing is tricky, and the nature of their work). It wasn’t wrong, necessarily, for the church to be involved in this ministry — whether it has been conducted as a ministry of the church is an entirely different question, and one we should answer.

This crunch moment has been coming for some time — in one form or another — and so the Presbyterian Church of Queensland has been conducting a review of the denomination and its ministries across the state. A Review Committee was appointed, and they asked for submissions from ministers, elders, and members in our churches across the state. The review now becomes either pointier, or pointless, depending on how receivership unfolds. But, for what it’s worth, here is my own contribution to that discussion. It is not short, but the short summary of what I’m suggesting needs to be reconsidered in our denomination is:

  1. The Role of women — especially their absence in rooms where key decisions are made. We can have male eldership, and listen to (and seek) the wise counsel of our fellow image bearers in the co-operative task of representing God in his world, cultivating the community of the Kingdom of Jesus, and stewarding the world he put us in to rule over.
  2. An obsession with ‘technique’ and ‘technology’ rather than spiritual health — part of this is that we’re too wedded to modernity, and the idea that people are brains on sticks who will follow a path towards personal growth (and thus church growth) if we just get our systems right.
  3. A defining narrative that keeps looking back to the glory days of ‘avoiding liberalism via church union’ which means we don’t ask good questions, or imagine change and innovation that will help us engage the current cultural landscape with the good news of Jesus.

    This means, for example, that we ourselves are suspicious of the sort of ministry that aged care could have been for us, and allowed a company to operate without any genuine interest from ministers and elders in the denomination. We have become ‘Reformed’ and stagnant — increasingly looking to pre-Union theological commitments (especially those of the Westminster Divines), and perhaps the ‘doctrine/historical theology’ department of our college as authoritative, rather than ‘Reforming’ — continuously looking to the Bible (and the Biblical studies department of our college) to grow to be the communities God has re-created us by his Spirit to be. The WCF is a beautiful expression of our theological convictions, but it is the ‘subordinate’ not ‘supreme’ standard for a reason. Ideally the Doctrine Department and Biblical Studies departments are working in concert and steering the ship; but we’ve tended in one direction culturally and lost some imagination in the process.
  4. Seeing our Presbyterian polity and structures as a ‘bug’ not a feature — we keep trying to work around systems that are an impediment to a certain sort of growth, rather than seeing those systems as a deliberate and thoughtful limit that prevents the kind of growth that might cause problems. Whether that’s in the structure of local church communities, or at a denominational level — sometimes the fence is there for a reason. Part of the solution in this present crisis is to be more Presbyterian in our governance (and culture).

We were asked to respond to five questions; which appear as headings below.

1. What have the current PCQ challenges revealed about the changes we as a denomination need to consider and why? For example, what do we as Congregations, Sessions, Presbyteries and a Denomination need to let go of? What new approaches to how we work together do we need to find? Have we discovered any new strengths?


I believe the current crisis — the PCQ Apocalypse — has pulled the curtains back and revealed a scene less like the apocalyptic vision of the majesty of Jesus in Revelation 1, and more like the old man peddling a machine behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. This is a useful comparison because in John’s apocalypse Jesus is revealed as the transcendent Lord of all; the victorious and risen king of heaven and earth; while the Wizard is revealed to be merely human, pulling off faux-mystery in an immanent world by pulling the right levers and pursuing an agenda on human power alone.

I believe one fundamental piece of revelation in this ‘PCQ challenge’ is that we have, as a denomination, become wedded to technology and technique; to pragmatism and market based thinking and solutions; we have immanentized our concerns, and our denominational operations at exactly the time we should have been pulling back the curtain that is the barrier between heaven and earth, and unpacking what it means for us to live as God’s living, breathing, temple — filled with the Holy Spirit — in an age that is obsessed with technology and technique because our culture has closed itself off to the transcendent. This situation has revealed that we, as a denomination, have been placing our trust, and our energy, in the wrong places.

Here’s an anecdotal example; I have been attending PCQ Assemblies for seven years now as a member of the courts of the church. If we were to add up time spent in discussions on the floor of the Assembly and to weigh training seminars on technique/technology, discussions about the business of running an aged care corporation with a variety of subsidiaries, reports from schools and hospitals where the secular/sacred divide is heavily enforced, and time spent thinking theologically about our mission, or presence, in the world; the overwhelming majority of our time and headspace has been devoted to the former, not the latter. When we do think theologically – typically as GIST reports — we think almost exclusively about sexuality and gender, and not about greed, pragmatism, Christian ethics (beyond sexual or medical ethics), or theological anthropology. We are ill equipped, in our practice, to handle a crisis because we have normalised not thinking theologically, but thinking pragmatically.

Our courts function largely as bureaucracies making decisions about efficiency, and increasingly judging our performance on ‘results’ where the metrics are brought over from the realm of business.

We devote our theological energy to fighting against idolatrous cultural forces that are not our biggest threat; spending much more energy in the area of sexuality on how we deal with LGBTIQA+ social pressures, and almost no time on pastoring people with porn addictions, or addressing our own systemic greed, racism, or the besetting sins of the modern western church.

We might flinch at the idea of ‘racism,’ but I am yet to see any discussion of ministry with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples discussed, or the pursuit of meaningful representation or acknowledgment of past injustice perpetuated by the church around land, and the stolen generation (while that is a significant conversation outside the church).

We are blind to our blind spots; and have closed off avenues for self-reflection, and thus for genuine repentance and change because we have stopped ‘always reforming’ and started assuming that our default ecclesiology, theological anthropology, and ethical practice is correct; this ‘present situation’ has revealed the limits, I believe, of operating the church like it is a business (at an institutional level, but perhaps also at the level of the local congregation).

The philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote The Technological Society in 1954. He described a cultural shift that had become obsessed with technique in the pursuit of efficiency; all other concerns became secondary. He said “technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity.” This obsession with technique in the ‘technological society’ we find ourselves living in in the modern, post-industrial (and now digital) world, coupled with a default mode of operating that ignores the transcendent, or at best, sees God at work in the mechanics of ‘efficient’ day to day life gives birth to an ethical system that is not just pragmatic (what works efficiently), but utilitarian (what works efficiently and produces the best results).

Alisdair MacIntyre describes a similar social shift in After Virtue, where the pursuit of utility creates bureaucracies obsessed with technique and ‘right order;’ and the development of the ‘management’ class. MacIntyre’s critique is, especially, that we have lost more ancient (and Biblical) concepts of virtue and character, as we have lost a sense of our ethics (and actions) being shaped according to a “telos” (purpose, or ‘end’ in the way ‘end’ is used in the Westminster catechism). He said things like: “Whenever those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises.”

Our church operates as part of the ‘technological society’ in a post-virtue bureaucracy, where, as we drill down into our practices and metrics, such Nietzchean premises (although ‘baptised’ in missional language) are operating.

The Church Growth Movement is one example of the fusion of the ‘Technological Society’ and the post-virtue pragmatic/utilitarian bureaucratic approach to church. When missionary Donald Macgavran returned to the U.S from India and realised the western world had become ‘post-Christian’ and a ‘mission field’ — he turned to the world of business and marketing/advertising for solutions to grow the church; Christianity became a product, and the church became a corporation. Pastors and elders became managers and bureaucrats, while the flock became consumers not members of the body. The metrics became numerical and financial growth, not maturity and formation of disciples.

Our churches — and even our involvement with Prescare — are expressions of the same sort of bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency through technique; ministry leaders hunt for silver bullets to grow our churches according to metrics that are not connected to our telos, but to ‘mission, vision, and values’ statements that could be photocopied from a fast food outlet (or shopping centre).

This phenomenon isn’t only visible at the denominational level, in the failure of the Assembly to properly mitigate against the risk of this present catastrophe; the same approach is effecting the ministries of local churches: as ministers burn themselves out trying to break through ‘church growth barriers’ (like the ones described in Keller’s Church Growth document), especially by becoming bureaucrats and managers of human resources, as team ministries collapse because very few of us are gifted or equipped to manage staff teams, and as we feed a culture of consumerism by shaping the experience of church around the technology or techniques we employ (think, for example, about how local churches ‘pivoted’ in the pandemic).

Our prevailing question cannot simply be ‘what works best to achieve good results’? but ‘what is the right and Godly thing for us to do for God’s glory’? That we ask the former, and not the latter, question is evident, also, in the handling of information during the Prescare crisis; justified not by our ecclesiology, or theology, or a commitment to transparency and truth at cost to ourselves, but by ‘commercial in confidence’ reasons at the advice of professionals from outside the church. We got into this crisis because we acted in ways inconsistent with our ecclesiology (why were we running a complex network of corporations in the beginning, that we did not have the expertise to manage), and when we say this is a ministry of ‘the church’ what do we mean by the church? And we have not responded to this crisis in a manner consistent with our ecclesiology.

When it comes to ethical questions we should be working from the ‘ends’ or telos, and from the character life towards those ends requires in us, or, as MacIntyre puts it, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

These forms that come from a technical, post-virtue society — the practices and culture we bring in from the world of business and bureaucracy — form us, and leave us, as people and an institution, ill equipped not just to handle an erupting crisis, but to make good and right decisions in the build-up. Unless we address this culture, a changing of the guard in the denomination will not represent us learning or reflecting, but us looking for a different technique, or silver bullet.

Unless we shift our theological ethics from pragmatism or utility (often in the name of ‘mission’) to emphasise developing the character or virtues produced in disciples of Jesus, as we pursue our chief end (“to glorify God and enjoy him forever”), we are doomed to repeat these same mistakes over and over again. This isn’t to say there is no place for wisely adopting ‘truths’ from the world outside the church; nature is God’s second book; but we must ask if when we plunder the gold from Egypt we are bringing in idol statues, or melting it down to furnish the Temple for God’s glory.

If you were to set four or five strategic priorities for us as a denomination for the next five years, what would they be?

  1. Re-imagine our practices from first principles.
    Invest time and effort into developing a culture that is not shaped by ‘worldly metrics’ but by a theological vision — an ethic born from our theology (including Christology and pneumatology), anthropology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

    We must keep, as children of the Reformation, pushing back to ‘first principles’ in our decision making. We pump out church leaders, and elders, who are great at pragmatic system building, and utilitarian calculations, but often do not give time to theological reflection, or prayer, or thinking about how our action (or simply our being) serves to bring God’s presence to the world as his image bearing people and the body of Christ.
  2. Re-form our understanding and articulation of the Gospel, and so our communities as plausibility structures for the Gospel that form us and witness to God’s kingdom, and his king, Jesus.
    This requires deepening our ‘gospel fluency,’ in order to sharpen our Gospel proclamation (in word and deed) by asking questions about where worldly thinking has crept in not only to our structures, but our articulation of the Gospel (for eg, to what extent have we assumed liberalism and capitalism are ‘goods’ that represent truth not upended by the crucified King being what God’s wisdom actually looks like). If the Gospel is not simply ‘God saves individual sinners through repentance’ but “Jesus is the Lord and King who brings forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom of heaven, by pouring out his Spirit to make us new,” then as we live as communities of renewed people who love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might — as people filled with the Spirit — and so love one another, and love our neighbours, because we now know what love is — this becomes the plausibility structure for the Gospel both for our people as we become disciples, and for our neighbours as we invite them to meet Jesus. This is what it looks like to ‘know what story’ we are living in, and this story must shape our ethics.

    If we can’t articulate how a practice is an expression of that story, we shouldn’t be doing it.
     
    This would lead to a fuller and deeper sense of how the Gospel is good news about an alternative kingdom, expressed in alternative communities, to the world that is subject to the powers and authorities in league with the ‘prince of the air’ and allow us to properly question the forms of ‘worldly’ wisdom, truth, or practices we embrace in this new stage of denominational life, and would sharpen our articulation of the Gospel and our critique of the idolatrous patterns of this world.
  3. Re-enchant our gatherings, spaces, and sense of purpose.
    Our church practices are often thoroughly secular, and instead of forming disciples of Jesus who have their eyes fixed on ‘things above’ where we are raised and seated with Christ, through our union with him by the Spirit, we are occupied with ‘earthly things’ — our church practices, because we borrow so much in terms of ‘forms’ or ‘mediums’ from the world around us don’t ‘renew our minds’ but ‘transform us into the patterns of the world.’

    We are already new creations in Christ, and our use of time and space — our engagement with God’s world — should (including and beyond the Sunday gathering) involve a robust and embodied commitment to life in God’s kingdom as an expression of the ‘now and not yet’ reality that the kingdom of heaven begins here and now in those of us who are already seated in the heavenly realm.

    This might look like being a church that commits to developing a doctrine of work that sees it as more than just a place to earn money to give to church, and a doctrine of creation that sees us valuing beauty, the arts, and architecture. The artist Mako Fujimura talks about this task as ‘cultivation’ or ‘creation care’ and specifically calls for Christians to be ‘generative’ — people who live and love in ways that are life giving and productive alternatives to the systems of consumption and death outside God’s kingdom.
  4. Re-image our church to fully reflect the divine image — male and female — living as co-labourers/collaborators in the kingdom.

Our theological anthropology is built on the claim that male and female are made in the image of God, and that the ‘telos’ of the image of God is ultimately revealed in the “exact representation of his being” and the “image of the invisible God,” Jesus. That we are “all one in Christ Jesus” — this should not eradicate the differences between men and women, and yet, the story of the Bible, both in creation, Israel, and the church seems to envisage men and women as co-laborers and co-heirs in the kingdom who are united to Christ by the same Spirit, and united as one in his body, the church.

That this difference is expressed in different roles in the church is one of our denominational distinctives; and yet, there is nothing in the Bible that pictures, at least so far as I can tell, courts of the church that are essentially closed off to the wisdom and counsel of women; or to their participation in discussions about the business of the church; that the courts of the church are closed to women seems particularly egregious, theologically, when our Presbytery and Assembly meetings are not given to the Spiritual oversight or ‘teaching’ ministry of the church (ala 1 Timothy 2), but to pragmatic business decisions that would no doubt be best served if the wisdom of the whole was more readily available to us.

There is no Biblical reason not to restructure our courts to include the voices of women, appointed by church communities to this role; to do so would not necessarily undermine the role or office of elder (or require expanding it), but would allow our elders and ministers to consider the counsel of women on pastoral and wisdom related issues arising in the life of the church. It is no coincidence that wisdom is consistently depicted as a woman in the Old Testament, and that the wise life consists of listening to wise counsel.

That Paul sees a place for women praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11) in the public life of the church, and consistently describes women as his fellow workers and partners in the Gospel suggests to me that we could rethink our structures and gatherings locally: from pastors and their wife, or female ministry workers and their husbands, and how we view the calling of vocational ministry for a household within the household of God, through to wives of elders (who Paul seems to believe must be qualified on the basis of godliness, ala 1 Timothy 3), through to stewarding the gifts and wisdom of married and single women in our churches in ways that draw on these gifts for the management of the household, or economy (οἰκονομία) of the church, the household of God.

One theologian, Brendan Benz, suggests that because we are image bearers of the Triune God, the image of God is actually most fully on display in relationships, not in our individual lives, specifically in relationships built on love, and listening, in the pursuit of wisdom and godli(ke)ness.

Reformed theologian and writer Aimee Byrd has much wisdom to offer on this issue in her recent work Recovering (from) Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

3. To achieve these priorities, what changes do you think we need to make in the way the denomination is structured, the way we relate, how we are governed and how individuals and committees are held accountable within our denomination? What resources do we have or need, to achieve these priorities?

I believe our obsession with pragmatism — or technique and efficiency — means that we have spent years trying to circumvent the slow and clumsy nature of Presbyterian Government, but it is that very form of government (that ordained ministers and elders swear to own, and defend) that should’ve been a bulwark against our adoption of worldliness.

Our best resource is our Presbyterian form of Government and the natural limits it imposes on change, church size (including ministry team size), and speed of decision making processes. Anything that is too complex for us to manage under our current system should be a warning light on the dashboard that we shouldn’t be doing it.

We should abolish Commission of Assembly — or significantly minimise its scope to declare business ‘urgent and emergent’ — especially where the technology now exists for meetings to be held, and called, using digital technology. Not because this is a pragmatic ‘technique,’ or technical solution, but because we would be applying the PCQ Code to the appointment of committees, and so see administrative responsibility as a delegated responsibility under the Spiritual responsibility of the courts of the church; such that committees and commissions operate with greater accountability to both the Assembly, and our local church sessions and congregations. How can we reflect on spiritual or theological failures in our decision making processes when those processes are opaque to those who hold that responsibility?

We should abolish many of our committees that are not particularly necessary to manage the areas of ministry and mission identified in our code. And we should stop seeing the solution to our present crisis as being more Anglican (whether in the power and authority we give individuals, or committees), or being more centralised, or being more ‘top down’ led by particularly gifted leaders or visionaries. In the words of Bonhoeffer, God hates visionary dreamers.

Our best resources for equipping us to do the work outlined above are our local churches, and our theological college. Our college and faculty should be encouraged to form the sorts of thinkers — men and women — who might lead us in the sort of necessary theological thinking and towards wisdom, not pragmatic ‘leaders’ who produce visionary techniques to break through barriers when we don’t understand why those barriers are there to begin with (ala Chesterton). 

Part of pressing harder into our Presbyterian distinctives means defining whether we view ourselves as Reformed and Confessional, or Reforming and operating with the Confession and the Declaratory Statement and Basis of Union. The pressures being placed on Christians by the world outside the church, but also by ‘progressive’ agendas within the wider church, are producing an impulse to define ourselves in more black and white terms where once we were comfortable with liberty of opinion and appealing to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Fear of ‘progressive’ agendas — especially with Church Union as part of our defining narrative as an institution — limits our capacity for truly ‘catholic’ or evangelical progress or Reform, and enshrines tradition (and the Confession) as perhaps more authoritative than it ought be (especially in the light of the Declaratory Statement and Basis of Union).

To be ‘reforming’ rather than ‘Reformed’ would require us to allow a greater plurality of theology and practice within the framework provided by the Basis of Union and Declaratory Statement; and would mitigate against any impulse to respond to present circumstances by pushing for more centralisation or uniformity in practice (or theological vision).

Our cultural push towards an “episcopalian” system of government (and culture), where committees and denominational office bearers function as Bishops, has led us to a sort of ‘church politicking’ where those committees exercise disproportionate influence (authority even) as they ‘speak for’ the denominational institution. Our denomination, both in Queensland and Federally is a ‘broad church’ that shares particular distinctives, but an expressed commitment to Christian liberty. And yet, our cultural milieu, and particularly the way politics is played outside the church in the ‘culture war’ struggle for power and ideological dominance — perhaps especially as our secular culture has lost a shared transcendent foundation — means we have turned church politics, and committee membership into a sort of ‘civil war’; as MacIntyre puts it “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — if we do not define ourselves as deliberately broad, with a shared theological centre, but as rigidly confessional, then such a move is a form of ‘civil war’ against those in our numbers (and congregations) brought into our fellowship, or communion, through evangelical commitments or the animating spirit of the Reformation, rather than particularly Presbyterian or Reformed (Westminster) commitments.

A commitment to ‘reforming’ rather than ‘Reformed’ principles would mean pushing for our thought leadership at the College and Committee level to value diverse perspectives within a broad framework, whereas a push to Reformed principles would necessarily narrow the participation and scope of both the College and our Committees. We should articulate our approach here with clarity such that ministers, sessions, and congregations are afforded the opportunity to stay or depart in the same way that any amendment to the Basis of Union triggers such an opportunity; because to push towards ‘black and white’ and centralisation, away from the Declaratory Statement and the emphasis on liberty of opinion in the Basis of Union is to introduce significant change; and we should have the integrity, as a denomination, to acknowledge that.

4. What do you think a healthy Presbyterian denomination looks like in 21st century Australia? For example, what services and processes, formal and informal would a healthy denomination provide to churches, ministry workers and presbyteries?

Unpacking some of the above, I believe a healthy denomination looks like:

1. We practice what we preach: A church of people with theological and ethical integrity, whose lives and doctrine are a coherent witness to the nature and character of God as revealed in the person of Jesus.

2. A broad community committed to listening, discerning, and truth telling, seeking to ‘truth in love’ in the pursuit of transformation into the image of Jesus as our model of maturity.

3. A community whose methods and metrics aren’t uncritically adopted from the ‘patterns of the world’ but that are the products of engaging in God’s world as a community of people who have the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God, and who are being transformed by the Spirit. Health looks like Godliness, and communities producing and embodying the fruit of the Spirit in their interactions with one another and the world, and people shaped to do the work of the kingdom not only in Sunday gatherings, but in God’s world as we work for his glory.

4. A community committed to union with Christ, who see diversity in the body of Christ as an expression of the breadth of God’s love and the radical inclusivity of his kingdom. This would be a church community that celebrates the ‘less visible parts of the body,’ that values the contributions of women and men, that creates an environment where people can participate in the life of the church regardless of education, or class, or ethnicity. It would be a church community that values singleness as a vocation, not just marriage (and so doesn’t talk about unmarried women in the courts of the church as though they are incomplete without a husband). It would be a church community that includes those committed to celibacy, living ‘as eunuchs for the kingdom’ as they subordinate their sexual desires to their love of Jesus. It would be a community that sees inclusivity as involving listening, and pursuing the wisdom of, all of its members in making decisions, wherever possible.

5. A community led towards godliness by leaders — men and women — committed to personal godliness, and to appropriate vulnerability, confession, and accountability for error, and to transparency in decision making. This would look like conducting far less business of the church in closed court, and being far more consultative in our practices. But it would also look like developing a culture where people own their failures, and repent, and find forgiveness; but also where accountability and healthy conflict is possible and encouraged – not a culture of rubber stamping the ideas of prominent and popular leaders.

6. A community that operates with trust, rather than loyalty — where that trust is democratised, and built, again, on transparency and seeking wisdom ‘outside the room’. Where we subject decision making to scrutiny from within the church, and from organisations outside the church as a norm. The most damaging aspect of the present crisis is how often whistles were blown, and ignored, through a loyalty culture.

7. A decentralised communion with a strong commitment to a theological centre — but freedom (and diversity) in the areas of methodology. There has been a culture of centralising a variety of services in a bid to centralise our mission, vision, and values as an organisation. I do not believe this is healthy.

8. A commitment to church planting and revitalisation in urban, regional, and rural areas with a sustainable model of church community and leadership so that our people, and our physical spaces can be better stewarded for the kingdom.

Our denomination has celebrated large churches with team ministries, and spent time seeking to accommodate these ministries into our polity because they hit the metrics we have valued. These ministries are not always going to be the best ‘technique’ for producing the metrics that matter; the training and equipping of the saints for works of service, or the sorts of communities where every member of the body is honoured and contributing, or the environments where elders (and teaching elders) can properly discharge the tasks of eldership (as outlined in the New Testament); such churches require a shift to bureaucracy, and often break through natural ‘barriers’ by restructuring community life such that members of the body no longer know, or are in fellowship, with one another. This turns a feature of church life into a bug to be squashed. This model raises the bar for vocational ministry in our denomination to heights nobody but ‘particularly gifted’ leaders can scale; but also creates conditions where the broader church rewards and normalises narcissism rather than godliness (see De Groat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church), and emphasises technique, technology, and the consumption of a product over character and participation.

Equipping us, as a denomination, for this vision of health would require (from least to most important):

1. A well-resourced theological college that looks beyond simply training clergy, and considers how it might equip elders and members of our churches to think theologically and contribute to the shared work of the church, but also a college that values diversity of opinion on areas of liberty and encourages broad, interdisciplinary, thinking and the integration of theology and practice.

2. A group of Godly, trusted, and experienced men and women offering their time as mentors and coaches; not to implement a centralised mission in pursuit of particular metrics through the appropriate technique, but who are committed to post-college training and developing of theological and cultural reflection, as well as self-reflection and growth towards godliness

3. Presbyteries to build a culture of trust, and a network of relationships that allow Presbytery meetings to function as places of theological reflection on practices and decisions, and to not simply operate as pragmatic decision making bodies around a nebulous ‘vision’ for their area.

4. Sessions that are equipped to see their task as primarily theological and pastoral rather than practical; elders who are appointed because their households are models of the households we hope to see influencing the household of God.

5. Elders who are prepared to say no to the worst impulses of pastors, not to operate as ‘yes men’ in service of visionary goals that will take a church community (including its leaderships) beyond the size it can manage well.

6. Ministers committed to godliness and the development of a life of character that aligns with the story of the Gospel (and displays the fruit of the Spirit), and comes from a prayerfully dependent relationship with God; the story they then model teaching and proclaiming; above all else.

7. Members of our church families who are shaped as resilient disciples through life in communion with God and with his people, through the teaching of his word, prayer, and formation as worshippers of the Living God who is revealed to us most clearly in Jesus, and who are equipped, encouraged, and unleashed to serve him in his world.

5. What kind of culture would we have if we were a healthy denomination? How might that culture come about and be sustained?

 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:4-21

What Bluey can teach us about creation, wisdom, and image bearing

Bluey has gone gangbusters globally; and such recognition is, of course, utterly well deserved. Last night I had growth group (what our church calls our small groups) at my friend’s house — a house that, thanks to her two boys, always has a collection of sticky geckos stuck to the roof; this is to say that if you’re a parent there’s a relatable Bluey moment for every parenting experience.

Our church is currently working its way through the Biblical concept of wisdom, in conversation with the wisdom literature — but also (with the help of good Bible scholars like Will Kynes) seeing that “the Wisdom Literature” is a made up imposition on these few texts because wisdom is woven into the fabric of the whole Bible, and indeed, the whole of creation. We’re in the ‘10,000 feet’ abstracted part of the series at the moment considering how wisdom is lived, not just ‘believed’ and that it is about right relationship and understanding of God, his world, and each other, shaped by God’s revelation of himself in his word, and the ‘second book’ of creation. You can follow the sermons as they get closer to ground level via our Vimeo.

Our created purpose — in Genesis 1 — is to bring order to the world; to “be fruitful and multiply” as we rule the created world as God’s regents. Psalm 8 suggests this rule is connected to God’s glory — a glory displayed in the heavens, and the heavenly realm, that we were meant to co-operate with in the world as we spread the conditions of Eden across the face of the planet, “cultivating and keeping” the garden; shaping the world to be like the garden-temple — the place of God’s presence, as we partnered in wise relationship with him.

right after human nature is corrupted in the pursuit of wisdom (via the fruit) apart from God — or in broken relationship with him as an expression of a desire for self-rule, that fractures our co-operation with each other and the world — we get this genealogy that notes that people and cities become ‘culture-makers’ — who make a mix of generative, life-giving things that can be used to glorify God (or in idol worship, or entertainment), or implements of destruction; musical instruments, agricultural tools, and weapons — we are homo faber — “man the maker”…

Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. — Genesis 4:20-22

This is a family of makers — but in the next sentence we hear how Lamech, the patriarch of this little family — is a maker of death.

In our first week in this series — considering what a wise relationship with the world looks like — I noted how often wisdom in the Old Testament is tied to craftsmanship — to the right use of raw created materials to co-create (or in Tolkien’s words maybe, ‘sub-create’) beautiful creations that glorify God. To fulfil our vocation as image bearers is to create things in accord with our purpose, in relationship with God — those same skills and imaginations can be used to build idol statues, and weapons — and the priestly garments — that take the gold and jewels present around Eden in Genesis 2 (and plundered from Egypt and use them to recapture humanity’s (now Israel’s) priestly representative role as people creating God’s Eden like presence in the world.

See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. — Exodus 31:2-5 (see also Exodus 35:30-35).

The tabernacle and priestly furnishings are a reflection of Eden; and an anticipation of the Temple that Solomon will build, and the new creation golden heavenly city of Revelation 21. So the craftsman who makes the bronze furnishings — especially fruit trees, fruits, and other ‘garden’ imagery for the Temple is described in similar terms in 1 Kings.

“Huram was filled with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge to do all kinds of bronze work. He came to King Solomon and did all the work assigned to him.” — 1 Kings 7:13

We were created in the image of the creator to be creators. Dorothy Sayers put it this way in her most excellent The Mind of the Maker:

“When we turn back to see what [the writer of Genesis] says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.”

Tolkien specifically saw this role playing out in the telling of stories — the creation of worlds — that would teach us true things about the world; but that were also in themselves, an expression of a truth about us — that we are image bearers of a story-telling, world creating, God. Here’s some Tolkien (from On Fairy Stories).

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Tolkien makes a distinction between the illusion of creation and genuine ‘sub-creation.’ He sees ‘sub-creation’ as a sort of elvish life-giving, or generative creation, working with the fabric of the natural world (and God’s design), and illusory ‘magic’ as de-generative. And so, in his books, the elves are sub-creators, but the magicians are a metaphor for those who would make and use technology outside our sub-creative purpose. Elvish stories tap into our deep desire to be makers who sub-create rather than destroy.

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself.

In a letter, to his friend Milton Waldman, Tolkien speaks about what happens not only when our sub-creative tendencies draw us to the creation of machines, but when they are motivated by hearts bent on autonomous power and dominion — disconnected from the creator. He calls this “fallenness” — and says it is a tension at the heart of Middle Earth (and our own earth as well), he says a desire for the ‘things of this world’ (we might call it ‘idolatry’) corrupts our making, and so our making corrupts the world.

“It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Which is all well and good, you might be thinking.

But what about Bluey. You promised this was about Bluey.

First up — Bluey is just beautiful Tolkien-esque sub-creation; the layers of careful, thoughtful, generative and life-giving ideas, imagery, and music woven together in the life of the Heeler family and their community is pure faerie. Bluey even has a little explicit dose of elvishness, or faerie, to it in the episode Fairies. It is, maybe to Tolkien’s dismay — a world exclusively made up of talking animals; but it is everything that good sub-creation should be. And so, it should be taken seriously because it is a manifestation of our human desire for rightly ordered relationship with the world and each other — it is a source of wisdom inasmuch as it rightly recognises truths about flourishing life in this world.

But I want to talk about the episode Flat Pack (and I will be this Sunday, in my talk).

I went back to watch Flat Pack (currently available on iView) because it is something like peak relatability to me as someone who might be better sub-creating in words, than with ‘wise hands’ — I have several flatpack horror stories that mirror Bandit’s efforts in constructing an outdoor chair. I wanted to talk about the folly of pursuing wise work in the world without reference to the maker’s instructions — and I still will — but I was blown away by the high art of this episode. I know it is an episode with a little controversy and history attached to it — and, no doubt it carries a certain amount of controversy within the realm of conservative Christianity.

Flat Pack is a creation story told next to a sub-creation story that then integrates the two stories in a beautiful and profoundly religious way; it also — consciously or not — offers an integration between the ‘science story’ — a story of the pursuit of knowledge from God’s second book — and the theological story told by the Bible.

Augustine spoke of the world being God’s second book in order to encourage people to pursue deep and wise knowledge and use of the ‘gold’ buried in nature — he saw the purpose of the world, and our knowledge of it — to be somewhat connected to the use of material gold in the Old Testament (whether the gold is in the hills or in nature). He said we should ‘plunder gold from Egypt and use it to preach Christ’ — and that the task of the Christian is to be well informed about God’s world; to be widely and wisely educated. He was, with others, part of the impetus for the development of science, in the west, as a quest to know more about God from his world; the idea that knowledge about the material reality would somehow contradict knowledge of God from the Bible was anathema to Augustine (his commentary on Genesis is quite brilliant; especially on Christians who use it to make truth claims about the world that science makes obviously not true, particularly, in his day, this was about the movement of heavenly bodies). In a book called The Literal Meaning of Genesis he wrote:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven”

For Augustine — creation rightly understood would involve an alignment between what the Bible says about creation — the questions it is answering — and what science would reveal about God from creation — and wise living would connect the dots; so that we wise image bearers might sub-create good things (including in speech and writing) that reveal and glorify God.

Whether deliberately or not Flat Pack stands in this great Augustinian tradition; it is a thing of beauty.

Bandit and Chilli are building a piece of flatpack furniture from the Bluey equivalent of Ikea; in the world of Bluey they are the dog-gods. Existing in the ‘heavenly’ realm, upstairs — while Bingo and Bluey are in the lower, earthy, regions. As Bandit and Chilli — Bluey and Bingo’s mum and dad — fashion their heavenly constructions — a heavenly throne — Bluey and Bingo play with the off-cuts. While mum and dad create — they also create as little images of dog-gods (or images of god-dogs?).

While mum and dad struggle with their chair, Bluey and Bingo play their way through the evolutionary story — starting as fish, on some bubblewrap, becoming frogs, then dinosaurs, then monkeys, and then cave-people-dogs as their environment is subtly changed by the provision of the upstairs dog-gods. While they’re in the cave, these cave-people dogs draw the creation story complete with the heavenly ‘mum and dad’ as gods overlooking the process.

Bandit and Chilli finish their work in the heavenly realm, and look down, proudly, at the little living image bearers they made — “we made them,” Chilli says; and they are good and pleasing. The little makers are chips off the old block — images of their parents; but also, in the ‘cosmic story’ — images of their making-gods. The supreme creation of these god-dogs (or dog-gods?).

Bluey and Bingo eventually become grown-up people-dogs who master their physical world, once the ‘upstairs gods’ have finished their creation, they find their tools and say “let’s be builders.” They have become like their gods. They use their tools and resources to cultivate an entire culture; one that looks a lot like a temple-city, with a library, before Bingo ‘finishes growing up’ — building a rocket ship to explore the cosmos.

Once her life as ‘mum’ is complete, with Bingo a little ‘image’ of her, who has learned her ways, Bluey feels at a bit of a loss. She sits down. It could all be over. But then — she reaches out to the gods (in a little homage to Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam), and ascends to the heavenly realm to sit down with her makers in their heavenly throne. And, as she does, and we see this golden vista — the world put right, filled with ‘sub-created’ culture — Bingo says “this is heaven.”

It’s beautiful. Heavenly. Elvish even. This is children’s television — but there are some deep ‘cosmic architecture’/understanding of reality flat packed into this seven minute episode if you know how to put them together. The thing is, according to the Bible’s own creation to heaven story (which is, pretty much, the story of the Bible in a nutshell) — we don’t just figure out wise, generative, life by ourselves — in fact, we do the Tolkien thing of idolatry; the ‘machine-based-domination’ of one another in a sort of ‘military-industrial-complex’; and we actually need God to step in to the story to redirect our making, and to show us what it is our sub-creating hearts need in order for us to be truly human and to flourish as sub-creators with our sub-creation connected to both the image and likeness of God, and the purpose he made us for. There’s a nice little picture of this where Paul visits Athens — and sees in their building; their sub-creation — even in the creation of idols, temples, and altars — some part of our human need to know God and to make things from his world.

Our making of art, and stories, and even things that reshape our world — temple-cities, libraries, buildings — can be an expression of our ‘reaching out for’ — our quest — for God, and the way his nature is still imprinted on ours; it can be — like the tower of Babel (a picture of the city of Babylon in the Bible) our quest to reach for the heavens and our assertion that the gods in heaven are like us; dominant military-industrial death-hungry monsters who justify our corruption, and sometimes it can be both those things at the same time.

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

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

The world changes — our human quest changes — because God came down the stairs; the creative word — the light and life of the world — Jesus, the maker — stepped into the earth as the true image of God, the true human — to show us the true way of ‘sub-creative’ life, and to restore us to it by reconnecting us with God, pulling us up into the heavens (seating us with God, even, in Ephesians 2, and Colossians 3), so that we make with our eyes and hearts fixed on God again, rather than on our idols and our destructive will to power.

Our making doesn’t have to be an expression of our quest for God any more, if the Christian story is true, because in Jesus God finds us, and so our making can be re-cast as sub-creation — taking up the task we were made for to be like God, and to reveal God’s nature — his love and glory — to the world. Our redeemed making is an expression not of God’s absence; but his presence.

Tolkien saw the Christian story — the Gospel — as the justification for making; for sub-creation; for fairy stories with joyous ‘eucatastrophic’ endings (that’s “good catastrophe”); he saw in Jesus the ‘good catastrophe’ written into the fabric of the world. The ‘true fairy story’ that doesn’t just redeem us and re-create us, but redeems our making so that we participate in God’s work in the world. He said:

Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

We humans were made, and we Christians were redeemed, in order to sub-create — to make things that reflect God’s presence and nature in our world, to bring the conditions of heaven to earth — it’s our idolatry and corruption that gets in the way; an idolatry and corruption that required God’s intervention in our story, and his re-creation of us as image bearers caught up with Jesus, but this re-creation involves us being given the task of being wise sub-creators who reveal his glory to the world; we could do much worse than making art as wonderful as Bluey, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or getting our flatpack furniture rightly ordered.

Revisiting Generous Pluralism (unpacking a little of my political theology) — part 2

This picks straight up from where yesterday’s post left off — as part of an explanation of how I understand generous pluralism, within a broader political theology, because a paper will be released by our denomination’s politics, culture and theology committee (GIST) in coming months.

Fourth Point: The ‘Politics’ of the Kingdom

Because to be ‘made in the image of God’ is to be made to spread the presence of God over the face of the earth as his ruling-representatives who are like him — so that Israel’s task as a “kingdom of priests” is a continuation of the created purpose for humans, to be re-created in the image of Jesus and brought into the Kingdom of Heaven by God’s anointed king (the Christ), the Gospel is inherently political.

Even the word Gospel — ‘good news’ — was a word used in the Roman empire to announce the victory of Caesar, or a new Caesar taking the throne. Mark’s Gospel, which announces as Jesus ‘the Son of God’ goes toe to toe with imperial propaganda that said the same thing about Caesar Augustus (claimed to be the Son of God in various gospels circulated around the Empire).

The nature of the Kingdom of God, in the Old Testament, was to be different — Holy — set apart — generative — rather than destructive. Israel was to be a subversive presence in the Ancient Near East because of its vision of the dignity and created purpose of every human; and because instead of having ‘image of God kings’ who were the images of violent domineering gods who rule through chaos and destruction (like the gods of the Enuma Elish — Babylon’s creation story), Israel would not have a ‘king like the nations’, but Yahweh as king, and, failing that, Yahweh’s anointed. So, Israel’s little exercise with Saul, when they ask for a ‘king like the nations’ is a picture (in Samuel) of ‘life by the sword’ — life under a domineering, proud, military king like the nations — but Hannah’s song at the start of Samuel sets the scene for the nature of God’s king and kingdom (much like Mary’s song does in Luke).

Both depict an upside down kingdom where the proud are humbled, and the humble exalted.

Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2) Mary’s Song
“There is no one holy like the Lord;

there is no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.

 

3 “Do not keep talking so proudly

or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

and by him deeds are weighed.

 

4 “The bows of the warriors are broken,

but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

6 “The Lord brings death and makes alive;

he brings down to the grave and raises up.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

he humbles and he exalts.

8 He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.”

These songs outline the character of the politics of God, and his king. Jesus is the king the Old Testament has been waiting for. God-as-king.

Saul is not the idealised version of the ‘image of God’ who will lead God’s people. Neither, for what it’s worth, is David — though he is a “king after God’s heart” — his rape of Bathsheba is a picture of Adam-like kingship where he, like Eve in Eden (the verbs are the same) sees, desires, and takes something (in this case someone) God forbade taking. Solomon, his son, builds the temple — then builds a house for himself bigger than the Temple, and breaks all the Deuteronomic rules for kingship — including going back to Egypt to get military machines, and marrying many wives to solidify his political power, and amassing wealth. Kingship in the Old Testament ends up (like priesthood) being viewed as negative and not fulfilling the image bearing purpose humanity was made for. The Old Testament ends with the hope (or expectation) that Yahweh might bring a ‘day of the Lord’ where he will establish a Davidic king forever, who would truly end the political-theological exile from God, restoring his dwelling place (the Temple) and presence with his people, and in the world — and restoring a people who might take up our created purpose once again.

Jesus is crowned as the king of heaven and earth in his crucifixion, and ultimately in his ascension as he enters the throne room of heaven as the victorious son of man (pictured by Daniel); the fully divine-human son of man and son of God is now reigning in heaven (Acts 2, Ephesians 2-3), and his kingdom — a new polis — begins on the earth in the church — the new ‘temple’ — God’s presence in the world. We are ambassadors of the kingdom, priests, and ministers of the reconciliation God will work in and for all things as the first fruits of the new creation and Temples of the living God (Acts 2, Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 15, 2 Corinthians 5, 1 Peter 2, Revelation 21-22).

The still incarnate (human) Jesus is reigning in the throne room of heaven and we are already united in and to him by the Spirit, and raised and seated with him, so that we are ‘positioned’ there too; and he continues to serve as the true image bearer of God, the priest and king who intercedes with the Father on our behalf as we pray. His victory unites Jews and Gentiles in this new, re-created humanity with this political task of being his image bearing regents who spread his kingdom across the face of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20). The Great Commission is not just a call to ‘make converts’ — but to make disciples; citizens; new-creations who bear the image of Jesus in the world, and, by the in-dwelling presence of the Spirit function as God’s faithful presence — the body of Christ — in the world.

The church, then, is an alternative political kingdom to the kingdoms of this world; a new polis, participating in the ‘upside down kingdom of the cross’ — those who ‘take up our cross and follow him’ — so our political strategy is not to be Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman or like the beastly self-centered and proud kingdoms caught up in service of Satan, and the gods (Elohim) opposed to Yahweh in the heavenly real. This kingdom is cross-shaped. When we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice “in view of God’s mercy to us” in Jesus, as our true worship we are able to avoid the deforming patterns of this world, and display a challenging (perhaps subversive) alternative, trusting God to vindicate us even as we are confronted with evil (even an evil state, and even as we submit to such power (Romans 13), like Jesus did). Our unity as believers (across kingdom lines that formerly divided us) is a testimony to the victory of Jesus over the powers and principalities, and the “ruler of the prince of the air” (Ephesians 2-3). The victory of Jesus is a victory over the forces arrayed against God in the heavenly realm, establishing (as if it was in doubt) that Yahweh is the most high; but also reversing the distribution of the nations under alternative spiritual authorities in Deuteronomy 32 and at Babel. Where in the past “God overlooked the ignorance” caught up with idolatry, because Israel was his inheritance among the nations, now he commands all people everywhere to repent — recognising the reality that “in him we live and breathe and have our being” (Acts 17).

A faithful presence — as re-made image bearers — is distinguished and distinguishable from fallen humanity and the political kingdoms built on the cursed patterns of human relationships described in Genesis 3; a fracturing of our role to be co-rulers — representative regents — with God, and one another, in Genesis 1. The distinction is cruciformity; embodying the nature and character of the God revealed to us in the crucified Jesus; and the values expressed in Hannah and Mary’s songs.

It’s also important to remember that though we are God’s presence in the world, and called to imitate Jesus, we are not God (we are not judge, jury, and executioner, nor are we saviour or king — we are ambassadorial/priestly presence, this is nicely captured in the person of Paul, who seems to adopt the motif of the ‘suffering servant’ in his conception of his role as apostle to the Gentiles, though who is able to say “was Paul crucified for you” while also calling us to “imitate him as he imitates Jesus” (1 Cor 11:1), carrying around the ‘death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus may be made known (2 Cor 4), and becoming a suffering “fool” for Christ rather than adopting the power-based rhetoric of the world while ‘demolishing worldly arguments’ that set themselves up in opposition to God (2 Cor 10-11)). And, indeed, the church is not tasked with ‘wielding the sword,’ though governing authorities may well be Christians. Our job is not to change hearts — that happens by God’s Spirit as an act of grace and recreation (Romans 8, Ephesians 2); our job is to proclaim and live the Gospel, the power of God (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1-2) — to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice as we live wise and good lives amongst the pagans (Matthew 7:24-27, 1 Peter 2, Romans 12 etc). Our role is not to condemn people to judgment, or to stand by and celebrate that judgment (like Israel may have been tempted to as God opposed the nations who opposed them), our task is to embody the virtues of the Kingdom; loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, praying for those who persecute us and to invite people who see the King at work in us to join us in repenting as we proclaim his victory and invitation to be re-created. This might involve calling sin sin (like John the Baptist did with Herod), but it will necessarily involve the proclamation of the victory and reign of Jesus as ambassadors in Rome would carry around the ‘Gospel’ of Caesar.

So. My “political theology” and my account of the posture we are to take is first captured in this idea that we, the church, are a polis called to live as God’s faithful (cruciform) presence in the world; challenging and subverting worldly empires that are beastly and cursed, so that we might invite people to rediscover the life they were created for — reflecting the nature of God as we worship and serve him.

Fifth Point: Mapping the Terrain

While it is possible to articulate a ‘political theology’ against the backdrop of the west — whether reflecting back to the halcyon days of Christendom, or a nobler ‘pre-Christendom’ age, or this new ‘post-Christian’ era we find ourselves in, I believe a Christian political theology and/or posture worth its salt is one that coherently guides the public activities of Christians in any time or place; a Godly political theology is not simply a theology that operates in exile in Babylon, or in first century Israel, or for the church in Rome in the second or tenth centuries, or in 21st century China. A proper political theology should not be something we simply form against our own context, but one that forms the way we engage in our context.

This is not to say we can’t (or shouldn’t) observe, or learn from, the history of the west and its intimate relationship with Christianity (see, for eg Tom Holland’s Dominion for a narrative account of Christianity’s profound shaping of the west). We should observe the transition of epochs or ages in the west from pagan pre-Christian, to Christian, to post-Christian — noting that post-Christianity is not simply a return to the pagan preconditions of the first few centuries of the church, but that post-Christian governments are defining themselves against Christianity as though it is intimately involved in the wielding of the sword, and that often (to quote Mark Sayers) citizens of the west ‘want the kingdom but not the king’ — or, as Holland would express it ‘secularism is a Christian development’ (Charles Taylor would agree on that front, seeing ‘secularity’ as a product not just of Christianity but reformation). In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, De Descriptione Temporum, C.S Lewis made this point about these three different western epochs.

“The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors, whether they welcomed it themselves as Christians, or, like Gibbon, deplored it as humanistic unbelievers, a unique, irreversible event. But we have seen the opposite process. Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. The Pagan and Christian ages alike are ages of what Pausanias would call the δρωμενον the externalised and enacted idea; the sacrifice, the games, the triumph, the ritual drama, the Mass, the tournament, the masque, the pageant, the epithalamium, and with them ritual and symbolic costumes, trabea and laticlave, crown of wild olive, royal crown, coronet, judge’s robes, knight’s spurs, herald’s tabard, coat-armour, priestly vestment, religious habit for every rank, trade, or occasion its visible sign.”

Taylor sees the ‘secularisation’ of the world emerging from its disenchantment (Lewis’ diagnosis is essentially the same, though his sense of what caused that change, technology, is only an aspect of Taylor’s account), and from the post-Reformation emergence of many options for belief (pluralism) within any particular society or nation, where previously nations in the west (and non-Christian nations) had enjoyed a sort of political, cultural and religious order that functioned as a hegemony. That divinely order and authoritative ‘architecture of belief’ shifted, and we were left defining our own sense of the good as “buffered selves” — individualism is, in some ways, both a product and a cause of secularisation.

Pluralist (or polytheistic) contexts make it harder to identify the idols or powers and principalities (the cosmic forces) at work in any particular society, community or individiaul — but this does not mean such spiritual forces are absent or irrelevant in the modern west (or even in the operation of Christendom; Luther, for example, was pretty quick to see the Devil in the details of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century).

One of our questions, as Christians, is how should we engage not only with the civil magistrate — but in a world where the forces once held together in a common social architecture of belief — religion, culture, and politics, have now fragmented (from each other, and to the extent that common myths, stories, religious beliefs and practices (and spaces), and political philosophies are no longer almost universally held. How should we operate in a secular liberal democracy within a capitalist framework, particularly a post-Christian one drawing on the fruit of the Gospel, as opposed to a not-ever-Christianised China? Do these different contexts produce thoroughly different outcomes or has Lewis overstated the difference between pagan and post-Christian contexts in that people remain idolatrous worshippers, it’s just our modern gods are less overtly and explicitly ‘religious’ in nature. Paul’s diagnosis that idolatry is ‘exchanging the truth about God for a lie, worshipping and serving created things rather than the creator’ gives us a consistent anthropological and political starting point for our political engagement with non-Christian neighbours. Secular prophets like David Foster Wallace (“everybody worships”) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, that recognises the idolatrous impulse at the heart of various forms of consumption and the pursuit of transcendence from the material world, are useful companions on this journey. The intersection between religious orders and politics are more visible in eastern or majority world contexts, and even in communist/atheistic China.

How a Christian takes on the task of ‘faithful presence’ in second century Rome (a minority culture), when closer to the centre of power (in Christendom), in minority ‘post-Christian’ Australia, or in 21st century China might simply be seeking to express and embrace the cruciform values of the kingdom of Jesus and adopting a posture of loving, faithful, difference to their religious neighbours who hold deeply different beliefs. Just as a Protestant, or Catholic, in Ireland must navigate deep difference across Christian traditions, or a Reformed Christian must work out how to accommodate anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, or the Australian government has to figure out how to approach education when schools were previously sectarian enterprises, or whether an Islamic community should be free to build a mosque, or how a faithful Christian community should operate in a Chinese context where the government explicitly opposes Christianity and persecutes the church. In whatever the context, our political call, as Christians, is to faithfully embody the message and ethos of the king we represent, trusting that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and that we will be vindicated — this will, I believe, look like proclaiming truth about God as creator, redeemer, and judge — but recognising that political and religious transformation is not ours to secure through the mechanics of power, but God’s to secure by the inbreaking of his kingdom through the Spirit.

This means we will not seek to coerce co-operation or conversion to Christian life for those whose idolatry means God has ‘given them over’ to a darkened mind and heart, leaving them unable to please God or obey his law (natural or revealed). This means that, at a fundamental level some degree of pluralism is God’s design for life this side of the eschaton; Christendom, and the wielding of the sword (or the mechanics of power) against other religions (like Israel is called to in Deuteronomy) is not the way of Jesus; and post-Christian paganism (or idolatry) is going to involve religions that look a whole lot like capitalism (greed which is idolatry), liberalism (self-worship autonomous from the creator), and the worship of sex and sexual pleasure.

Some form of pluralism in the world outside the kingdom of God is the norm, the sword — in Romans — was given not to Christian governments, but to the beastly and idolatrous Roman empire and our call to submission to that sword — even for disobedience to unjust laws — was an opportunity to embrace the cruciform nature of the kingdom, trusting that God would vindicate his people when they did not repay evil for evil (Romans 12). This is consistent with how the early church understood the task of witnessing — or martyrdom.

Should Christians find themselves wielding the sword — or as a presence within the institutions of power (like Joseph, Daniel, Esther, or Erastus) they are still called to be a ‘faithful presence’ with their first loyalty being to God and his kingdom.

Pluralism coupled with faithful presence is not polytheism; it is not a call to affirm the truth of the positions reached by idolatrous systems, though it may involve recognising a common quest for truth and goodness (like Paul in Athens, or Paul’s recognition that rulers and authorities bring order and goodness even as idolaters). Pluralism might involve a posture of humility and listening in a shared quest for wisdom and truth (like Solomon listened to international proverbs such that they are included in the book of Proverbs attributed to his name), recognising, with Augustine, that “all truth is God’s truth” and we might find some to plunder in Egypt.

Pluralism is not a posture within the church; where Israel’s aggressive monotheism does find continuity; we are to “keep ourselves from idols” and to flee sexual immorality, and to expel the immoral brother — but this does not mean we are to expect non-Christians to embrace Christian sexual morality and to not be in relationship with them when they do not (1 Corinthians 5). We can eat at the table with idolaters so long as that is not understood as our embracing idolatry (to the detriment of the weaker brother), and as part of our witness as God’s faithful presence, so long as it is not us ‘sharing the cup of demons’ — but we are to guard our own table more with more care (1 Corinthians 9-11).

The challenge for us, in adopting a posture in our secular, liberal, democracy (or in any context) is to consider how to be a faithful presence amongst those with different religious convictions to our own; whether we are in power or they are. Our task is not to be proud oppressors, but humble ambassadors of the crucified king — a task that may well lead to martyrdom, and our bodies being left to be mocked in the ‘public square’ of that great city — Egypt, Babylon, Rome, or Jerusalem — where Jesus was, himself, crucified (Revelation 11). Beastly empires will reject us because our faithful presence will challenge, or confront, the powerful with the message that Jesus, not Caesar, is the son of God.

Sixth Point: Integrating these blocks to pursue a ‘generous pluralism’

In our context, where many views are invited to be accommodated at the political table — a table that is not ours to run as hosts, but where we enter as fellow citizens of our nation — the question is how we should welcome contributions of others, and their own pursuit of the good. So, if all the above is true, these are, I believe the necessary implications.

We must recognise that our neighbours are fundamentally religious and shaped by a certain sort of worship.

We must recognise that this darkening happens individually and culturally; and that our political systems are products of human hearts corrupted by idolatry and given over to that corruption by God as an immediate and ongoing judgment for sin. We must recognise that this religiousity is expressed in a variety of ways and that we are more comfortable with some gods (like marriage, family, dominion, and money) than with others (like sexual liberation) — and we should examine why that is, and seek to be consistent — not just in how we treat the capitalist and the muslim, as those whose hearts belong to another god, but in how we treat those who worship ‘individual sexual liberty’ in the pursuit of an ‘identity’ apart from God. Some pluralism is a necessary function of our own existence as ‘citizens of the kingdom of this world’ who are also, like Paul, be citizens of human empires. We are no longer exiles from God, so now live as sojourners in these nations — and for us to be accommodated, rather than simply martyred, requires the state make such an accommodation. This (via the golden rule and the call to love our enemies) should shape how we wield political power or influence should we receive it. If we want ‘religious freedom’ because we recognise that to be human is a fundamentally religious enterprise; then we should consider how we extend or support that same freedom to others while also faithfully proclaiming God’s call to repent because of the victory of Jesus, and his role as saviour and king of all nations, and the one appointed by God as judge.

We must recognise that the freedom to worship other Gods is actually a freedom given by God, as an expression of his sovereignty — as he chose Israel, and then the church, as his worshipping communities — his inheritance — but that he calls all people everywhere to turn to Jesus and receive forgiveness of sin, and re-creation as his heirs through his Spirit, and that he has appointed us to that task.

We must recognise that the tendency for beastliness has not been eradicated by Christendom (and indeed, that beastliness was, paradoxically, operating in tension with the goodness of a Christian presence and influence on the west). Sometimes the emperor, or ruler, listens when the Gospel is proclaimed — we see that in Jonah, but also in Constantine.

We must recognise that our primary task is not to change the world or to change hearts, but to live as changed people who glorify the Triune God who changes hearts through the events of the Gospel — God’s “good news” about his victory and rule over the heavens and earth. Our posture, then, is to be a faithful presence — bearing the ‘image’ of Jesus as we worship God by his Spirit. Change in the world, historically, has happened when Christians have done this. And part of that recognition of our task is what should limit our tendency to reach for the sword; to keep us clear of culture wars or the beastly, worldly, mechanics of power — the ‘medium’ of worldly politics is part of the ‘message’ — its forms and tactics are forms of idolatry, and liturgies that form us as we engage in them.

We must recognise that our task, when engaging with the world, is not to engage on the terms supplied by the beastly power games of human politics — that liberalism, secularism, and various forms of idolatry (for example, greed, or racism) — are self-perpetuating. Part of being a faithful presence will involve challenging and exposing the status quo (like John’s Revelation), calling it what it is, and trusting that God will vindicate his faithful church, as he did Jesus. We should also not, for example, avoid explicitly religious language when explaining how we understand what fruitful life in God’s world as his faithful people should look like, in order that we might best be understood and accommodated (so playing games that reinforce secularism, or idolatry, or individualism/liberalism) is a failure to be fully faithful, and reinforces blindness.

It cannot be our job to create a Christian state through the creation of laws that our neighbours cannot obey (Romans 8), or to coerce or co-opt faith through the law. There will be good things that flow to our neighbours should they live lives aligned with God’s design (and have been in the west), and part of being a faithful presence is to advocate for such goods, and to embody them in our own community, the church, we might even participate in democratic process on the basis of securing that good, but I believe we should do this in balance; recognising that the government, in a pluralist context, has a responsibility to govern for different visions of the good and that we would want to be accommodated as much as possible were we at the mercy of the political or religious other (so, for instance, the early Christians advocated for law changes around their own persecution — they asked for pluralism, accommodation, and reciprocity, as might a Christian in modern day China) because these things are, in themselves, religious, political and social goods aligned with God’s design, as the one who providentially continues supplying life, breath, and everything else to idolaters who have rejected him, so they might seek and perhaps find him — it is not simply the means by which the goodness of Christianity might be established.

Generous pluralism, then, is a recognition of deep — almost infinite — difference between positions; not just because deep disagreement exists as a human product of creatureliness and personhood, or our situatedness in nations and cultures and families who are different because of different experiences, stories, and values — but because there is a profound and real gap between those who have the Spirit of God and are his re-created images in the world, and those living in exile, cut off from his presence. That gap can’t be bridged by anything but the Spirit as a gracious gift from God; and political difference is an expression of that ontological and epistemological difference. I wasn’t seeking to make a significantly different posture to John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism, except that I wanted to ground it as a posture more deeply in the spiritual realities causing difference and frame our approach around obedience to the commands of Jesus to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and treat others as we would have them treat us, and his example of generous hospitality and invitation to his enemies (us) — both in life, and death.

If I were coining the phrase to describe how I believe we are to navigate this necessary balance between faithfulness and pluralism now, rather than four years ago, I would perhaps not focus on generosity as an attempt to articulate the reciprocity at the heart of the commands of Jesus; I am happy enough with the word — but I wonder if a better expression of the spirit of generosity, embodied in the nature and character of God and his invitation for all people to be restored to his presence, in the light of his ongoing providence and provision (all generous), and in the ministry and mission of Jesus, that was so centered on the table, I would probably talk about how our role is to envisage public life as a table; and to practice hospitality, whether as hosts, or guests.

Revisiting “Generous Pluralism” (unpacking a little of my ‘political theology’) — Part 1

The good folk at GIST, my denomination’s think tank (committee) on politics, society and culture contacted me recently to let me know that they’re working on a paper canvassing (and critiquing) various ‘postures’ towards the world and that my “generous pluralism” was one of the positions they were hoping to engage with. After a lengthy email exchange and a long conversation with a friend on the committee, on GIST’s behalf, seeking to clarify my position, I still have concerns that this paper will not adequately represent my views, in ways that might cause some issues – issues I’d like to cut off at the pass.

I appreciate their reaching out, and the opportunity to (for myself) re-examine “generous pluralism” as an articulation of my own political theology (or posture towards the world), both in the light of their critique and as an expression of my thinking from four years ago. One of the nice things about blogging is that one can observe how one’s own thought iterates, or evolves, or expands over time — another good thing about blogging is that every post has a context, a wider body of work (and an author) that give a particular post meaning — a downside is that sometimes people may only see one particular post, or idea and use that to extrapolate or totalise my position. Nobody is going to read everything I write, and I don’t expect people to, and the piecemeal approach to engaging with various articles in my archives, even those I still totally agree with (like this one), runs the risk of interpreting a word, idea, or phenomenon outside the context (and particularly my authorial intent). I do not think ‘generous pluralism’ is a coherent political posture on its own, nor do I think anybody else is articulating or advocating for it (if it is a ‘thing’ at all rather than an aspect of a bigger thing), and so I’d like to unpack that context explicitly over the next two posts.

I do try to work towards being coherent, and integrative in my thinking and writing — and to chart how things expressed in my archives have developed, or remain, so this has given me an occasion in which to do that. I’m also very open to critique or criticism — and I’d genuinely love to know if these views put me outside the Presbyterian camp — but I would like my actual views (in full) to be being critiqued, not one aspect detached from its foundations.

The more immediate context, for me, than the occasions that led to the production of the posts on ‘generous pluralism’ is also the context of the pulled Eternity News piece about polarisation and the hard right, the ongoing attempt to articulate a political strategy of hospitality and seeking to understand and accommodate the ‘other’ (even the theological other within the church), and various opportunities to talk in a more ‘long form way’ on a couple of podcasts — both CPX’s podcast Life and Faith and Freedom For Faith’s podcast Talking Freely — in such a way that I’ve been able to map out some of the integration of various aspects of my thinking. Because it is likely that the new GIST paper will lead to some people engaging with work of mine from 2017, I thought it might be helpful to unpack some of that framework explicitly (with some reference to other things I’ve written).

This might be a long post, but it’s really, I guess, for those seeking to actually understand, engage with, or critique my position within the context outlined above.

Starting Point: My Theological Frame

Political theology — as a theology — is grounded in some understanding of who God is. My political theology is shaped from convictions about God as Triune — that the God we meet in the Bible, and in Jesus, is a generative life-creating God of infinite and eternal love within the Trinity who poured out light and life and love as an expression of His character; that God is the ‘grounds of being’ (the one in whom we live and breathe and have our being), who created all things with a telos (or ‘end’) — for the persons of the godhead to mutually glorify and love each other, and for that glorious love to overflow into creation, and for glory and love to be given back by creation — both ‘what has been made’ (in a material sense — so, Psalm 19, Romans 1, etc), and specifically the people made in God’s image as rulers and representatives of his divine nature and character — ‘sub-creators’ in the world who join in God’s generative purposes for God’s glory as we worship God.

I believe that the persons of the Trinity operate in perichoretic union and perfect co-operation in creation, the sustaining of all things, and the redemption of the world through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus.

I believe that God is Triune, and that the Son, Jesus is both fully divine, and fully human — that he is the perfect revelation of God (the exact representation of his being) to us, and also the image of the perfect image bearing human; that Jesus and the Father join in pouring out the Spirit as an act of re-creation, anticipating the renewal of all things and the joining of heaven and earth (separated by a ‘vault’ or firmament in the Beginning, but not anymore in the end — but we’ll get to that in the ‘cosmic geography’ below).

I believe that the creator God is a loving and hospitable God who desires relationship and provides a good world as a good gift to people in order to reveal his character; that he is Holy and righteous and perfect and defines what is good — but also that while we are made in the image of God, and have our being in him, our ability to grasp the infinite nature of God is limited by our creatureliness before it is limited by our sin — that God has to accommodate himself to us in order to reveal himself to us. I believe that God — the almighty — is the most high God who rules over the heavens and the earth as the rightful ruler, and who is sovereign (sovereign in such a way that places me in the Reformed stream of theology around questions of soteriology). I believe the things said about God in the Westminster Confession — including “To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them,” and so I believe that God is both creator, sustainer, redeemer, and judge of all — and that our task as ‘image bearers’ is not to stand in each of those roles, but in the role he has appointed for us.

I believe the Bible is the word of God — inspired or ‘breathed’ by him (like we humans are), through human authors at various times in history, but that it is a coherent whole where the ‘law, Psalms, and prophets’ are Israel’s Scriptures (the Old Testament), teaching God’s priestly people how to represent him as a kingdom in a political-theological context but that these are primarily fulfilled in Jesus; Jesus was God’s plan a. The lamb was slain before the creation of the world, and the author of life orchestrated history and events to culminate on that wooden cross in Jerusalem as the climactic moment, and fulcrum, of all of history. I believe that most of us approach the Scriptures as gentiles, not under the law, and that our job as Christian interpreters is to understand the Old Testament as Christian Scriptures, recognising how they were also Jewish Scriptures — so that we can’t flatly turn to a law in Deuteronomy or Leviticus and apply it to the life of the church now. I believe Jesus, as fulfilment of the law, is a more perfect law — and a more perfect picture of what the image of God looks like, and what ‘being Holy as God is Holy’ looks like, and that we are called to imitate him and be transformed into his image. I think some categories or distinctions that we Reformed Christians have used to understand and apply the law are arbitrary and artificial, and that a Christ-centered, or Christo-telic, Biblical Theology is an attempt to read Scripture on the terms supplied for us by the Word made flesh.

Second Point: Theological Anthropology

I believe that humans were created by God with a glorious task of bringing his presence into the world — ruling over it and participating in his generative, fruitful, flourishing, life-creating purposes — tasked with spreading his Temple-like presence (Eden) over the face of the earth as his priestly agents.

I believe that the image of God (imago dei in the Latin, tselem Elohim in Hebrew) is not simply a divine imprint in us that gives us dignity and makes human life (and bodies) sacred — but that to be made as ‘tselem Elohim’ is to be given a particular function in the world; to, as his worshipping beings reflecting his glory as our lives are shaped by his presence with us — and that this function is political in that it is about how we believe the world should be ordered (the spreading of God’s presence/kingdom).

I believe that all humanity was made with this function — but that all humanity joins in the rebellious rejection of that function — following the temptation of Satan, the Serpent — and so, we were cast from his presence (exiled) from the Garden. I believe the story of Genesis is the Bible’s cosmic origin story that tells us the purpose not only of Yahweh’s people Israel, but all people — such that Israel were to view their international neighbours as exiled from God’s presence, cursed, and in need of restoration and blessing that they would participate in bringing as God’s priestly people in the land (a new Eden). But to be exiled is to also be under God’s judgment and given over to the consequences of idolatry as we ‘become what we behold’ — so sin has an affect on our individual humanity and our ability to know God and know his world rightly; but it also has a cultural affect on nations with ‘common idols’ — and these nations and cultures have a reinforcing impact, that, under the judgment of God, further darken our hearts and minds. This is sometimes called the ‘noetic effect of sin’ — which has to be held in tension with the idea of ‘common grace’ and the divine imprint on all people as people created ‘to bear God’s image’ (in God’s image) who are not actively ‘bearing God’s image,’ but are becoming ‘the images and likeness of their gods’ (Psalm 115).

I believe the Genesis story interacts with other Ancient Near Eastern stories about the origins of the world, the nature of the gods, the function of humanity, and what a human ‘tselem Elohim’ looks like — particularly with the stories of the beastly (Satanic) dominion machines ruling the surrounding nation; Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome might have looked like much more successful and dominant ‘blessed’ nations — but the story told by the Bible critiques their views about gods, chaos, disorder, war, dominance, and the idea that only the king ‘represented’ the gods as a tselem Elohim. To be made in the image of God is a political task, with an inbuilt political critique of distorted, beastly, sinful forms of humanity.

Sin has not eradicated the image of God in us, but it has stopped us performing our God given function of glorifying him as his representatives; we are like idol statues (that’s literally what a tselem Elohim is) in exile waiting to be re-vivified so that we might represent God again (this is what happens when idol statues are captured in the ancient world and Genesis 2 actually has significant parallels with a ‘vivification’ or ‘revivification’ ceremony where the life of the gods was manifested in a sculpted statue, in an orchard, so that it might represent those gods.

Sin starts with our hearts — and our decision to ‘worship and serve’ creation instead of the creator; to exchange our task as being ‘made in God’s image’ for ‘worshipping images we made’ — we are worshipping beings and we become what we behold; created to reflect and glorify God we de-create ourselves so that we represent other gods, and, eventually, like captured idol statues that are not reclaimed, sin leads to the fiery furnace; the destruction of false cultic images by the victorious God-king.

Every action comes from our hearts — shaped by false worship — this means that every action we make is shaped by our loves; total depravity is not ‘absolute depravity’ and the latent ‘image of God’ in all of us, and our place in God’s world that testifies to his nature means that even ‘captured images’ still look and act a bit like God; we still live, breathe, create life — we still ‘sub-create,’ bringing order and beauty into the world — and yet that order and beauty is, in varying degrees, corrupted by sin. I believe Paul is talking about this experience — humanity ‘in Adam’ in Romans 7, where he talks about ‘knowing what he ought to do’ but his flesh (image of God), being at war with sin. We are in need of rescue — re-creation — the provision of new hearts and God’s Spirit (the new covenant) — which Paul describes in Romans 8, with the coming of the Spirit to re-create us as God’s children, freeing our minds and bodies from bondage to sin (and idolatry) so that we might be transformed into the image of Jesus and glorified — so that we might be God’s presence in the world again as we serve the king who liberated us, and are transformed into his image through the ‘true and proper worship’ of offering ourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), not being conformed to the idolatrous patterns of this world (Romans 12).

People without the Spirit do not have “the mind of Christ” — they have the breathe of life (psyche) from God, but not the Spirit (pneuma). Paul makes a big deal about this in 1 Corinthians to explain why the cross is understood as the power and wisdom of God by those with the Spirit who call Jesus Lord, but is foolishness to those who are perishing. There is an infinite chasm — both an ontological difference and an epistemological difference between those who are being re-created for eternal life by the Spirit, and a functional and telic difference — in that a re-vivified image of Jesus has a heavenly body and is destined to glorify Jesus forever, while an ‘exiled’ in-Adam image is destined for death and dust and judgment (1 Corinthians 15). We are either united to Jesus, and raised and seated with him in the heavenly realm — liberated from all other ‘elohim’ and their imagery, forgiven and re-created by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and so freed from judgment (and not complicit in his rejection and crucifixion, so judged for rejecting God’s king in the ultimate act of rebellious sacrilege), or united to the ‘ruler of this world’ — Satan — and so facing his future for our actions, and our share in his treasonous campaign.

The Great Commission is a new ‘cultural mandate’ — a call to go out and fill the earth with God’s image bearing presence because, through the resurrection, all authority of heaven and earth has been given to Jesus and captured (exiled) humans, previously ‘bound up’ by the rulers of this world, are now able to be liberated and re-created, restored from exile to their image bearing function by the Spirit; called to be part of the kingdom of the crucified king in the face of beastly (Satanic) empires; equipped to be God’s faithful presence in the world. A presence that is subversive, differentiated, and challenging to the powers and principalities because we’re the new creation breaking in to ‘this world’ as a picture of God’s triumph in the heavenly realm through Jesus (Ephesians 2-3).

Third Point: Cosmic Geography

The earthly political order reflects a ‘cosmic’ geography. While I’m still inclined to see ‘Trinitarian’ significance in the plural in Genesis 1 where God says “let us make man in our image,” and to see that flowing into the creation of male and female, when read beside Psalm 8 there’s a sense that we were, perhaps, to be on earth what the angels are in heaven — God’s representatives. There is a ‘heavenly host’ that includes other beings called either ‘sons of God’ (the Nephilim) or ‘elohim’ (see Psalm 82).

When the nations are scattered across the earth in Babel, Deuteronomy 32 (in a textual variant that makes more sense in the context and is better attested than ‘sons of Israel’ — ‘sons of God’) the nations are given to these other divine beings to be ruled by (because of their idolatry). The origin story for this move — the Babel story — shows the nations scattered by Yahweh after humanity had failed to heed his command to spread across the face of the earth, and instead, committed to building a sort of temple-bridge to the heavens for their own glory — the tower — in a story that also seems to engage with and invert Babylon’s creation myth, which pictures the city of Babylon as a place built by the gods so they could party on earth and enslave people (the Bible’s Babylon — Babel —is built by people who want to party on earth and enslave people while also trying to take over heaven).

These heavenly ‘powers and principalities’ appear at various times in the Biblical narrative, but different nation states in the Old Testament are essentially ‘monotheistic’ or ‘polytheistic’ nations where their political order reflects their cosmic mythology, and when Daniel talks about wars he suggests conflicts on earth reflect conflicts between heavenly princes. Political structures in the world are also, in the Old and New Testaments (right up to the divinisation of Caesar), inherently religious and idolatrous — so when gentile converts come into God’s people, because through the victory of Jesus, God has commanded all people from all nations to repent (Acts 17), the re-creation of a foreign person in the new people of God — the kingdom of Jesus — represents a re-ordering in the heavens because all authority really has been given to Jesus; the age of Babel is over and the scattered, exiled, people are now being invited to repent and come home from their idolatry. There’s a tension to wrestle with between the idea that ‘idols are nothing’ — that statues are bits of creation such that to worship them leaves you breathless, dumb, and lifeless — and that there is a cosmic order being reflected in the beastly (Satanic) empires that are at war with God — a political/theological message hammered home by Revelation’s apocalyptic critique not just of Rome as the Beastly power par excellence, who corrupted and co-opted Israel in Satan’s war with God; but in the way Rome is connected thematically to Babylon, and so we have a critique of all religious systems that set themselves up on power, destructive and idolatrous dominion, and rebellion against God’s order. We can take that critique and hold it up against various political structures (or economic structures) operating in the modern world and see ‘Babylon’ still operating as an empire to be resisted, enslaving people to be re-created and liberated through Yahweh’s victory secured by the son, Jesus Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, so that ‘heaven and earth’ are brought together as we become God’s temples — a sort of ‘bridge’ between the heavens and the earth (and this is how Pentecost is a new Babel). Our job as “Citizens of Heaven” is to bring God’s presence into the world as testimonies to his re-creation plan — the “New Eden” Revelation 21 and 22 depict — where heaven and earth are brought together under the absolute reign of God because all enemies have been eternally vanquished through the victory of the cross.

Interim conclusion (stay tuned for part 2).

Any description of my political posture as ‘generous pluralism’ has to be understood against this backdrop (and, as we’ll see in the next installment, has to be significantly modified by my understanding that the primary political call on God’s people is to be citizens and ambassadors of God’s kingdom; his temple and “Faithful Presence” in the world, and by the first step from these conclusions which is to say that faithfulness looks differentiated from Babylonian ways of ‘imaging God’, and specifically looks cruciform. It looks like being the image of Jesus and the ‘body of Christ’ in the world as we take up his pattern for our humanity equipped and empowered by the Spirit.

Why you should want all politicians to bring their religion (or lack of) to the table

Australia’s Opposition leader Anthony Albanese was interviewed this morning by ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly about revelations that Pentecostal Prime Minister Scott Morrison actually practices what his church preaches — even in the workplace.  This follows Peter Van Onselen’s piece in the Australian this week, an excerpt from his book by the ironically named Hachette Media. Van Onselen, at least, sought to understand how Pentecostal theology might inform some of Morrison’s positions — unlike the real hatchet job performed by Fairfax media which in a sort of dog whistly ‘expose’ styled manner, raised the spectre of a deranged PM worrying about how social media might be a tool of the devil, a piece built on a video of Morrison’s appearance at an ACC conference last week, and outlined as much as it possibly could about Morrison’s religious beliefs (without any particular understanding of the significance of his words and actions).

Here’s the transcript in full of the bit about Morrison’s religion from the Radio National interview.

KELLY: Anthony Albanese, can I ask you about the Prime Minister’s faith? Because it’s again a matter of public discourse. A video is out there, it’s emerged, of his address to the Australian Christian Churches National Conference recently where he spoke of how he is doing God’s work and how he sometimes uses the evangelical practice of laying on of hands while embracing people who have suffered trauma or natural disaster. Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice. Are you comfortable with that?
 
ALBANESE: I think you’ve given my answer in some of your question. For me, faith is a personal matter. I respect people’s own spiritual beliefs. But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.
 
KELLY: And do we have that? I mean, the Prime Minister says he doesn’t consider The Bible to be a “policy handbook”. But he also spoke in this speech, or in recent times, of how his pastor told him to use what God has put in your hands, do what God has put in your heart. I mean, I’m not suggesting that speech had any policy content at all. But does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?
 
ALBANESE: Well, I have no intention of making comments on the Prime Minister’s faith. That is a matter for him. I think that the separation of church and state are important. I think that the idea that God is on any politician’s side is no more respectful than the idea that when someone’s sporting team wins it’s because of divine intervention. I think that, for me, that isn’t appropriate. But I’m not going to comment, and have no intention of commenting, on Scott Morrison’s personal faith.

I think it’s worth, as religious people — but also just as Australians — interrogating some of the claims made in that interview and checking where they might lead us.

First, in Kelly’s question (that Albanese says answers her own question) is the claim “Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice.”

Religion has almost never, in the history of the world, been a ‘private matter’ — that it is viewed as such is a product of a particular (and very contestable) understanding of what it means to be a “secular nation.”

Albo describes himself as “culturally religious” — he doesn’t attend church or have any sort of public faith (except when courting the Christian vote). This idea that religion is private has seeped into the fabric of religious conviction in Australia in ways that are profoundly damaging — especially to Christianity. That description alone makes him only marginally equipped to comment on how religion actually works — like a non-driver giving mechanical advice, or a non-coffee drinker who likes the smell of coffee working as a barista. I would hope that Albo, as a non-church goer, does not feel like he needs to pretend to be anything other — or to act without integrity — as he seeks to serve our nation and lead his party in developing its policy platform.

I’ll try to, briefly, make a case against this understanding of religion — particularly Christianity — but there’s plenty I’ve written in the past that makes the case with more substance. Here’s a bullet point summary.

  1. The Bible says humans are made in the image of God — while this has been vital to the development of western democracy and Australian values (as Scott Morrison said in his speech) in a bunch of really helpful ways (this is pretty established history, for an overview/version of this argument see Tom Holland’s Dominion), it’s actually also (more significantly) a description not just of what humans are but what humans are for — we are made to represent and rule over God’s world as reflections of God’s nature and rule in the world. This is, fundamentally, a public function, and a religious one. Religion, for Christians, was never meant to be private.
  2. The Bible makes this claim as the defining understanding of our humanity for the people who believe and live by the Bible in a contested world — the claim in Genesis is especially powerful for God’s people, Israel, when they’re captured and living in exile in Babylon (and also before exile, while they’re hanging out with people from other countries, and even in Rome). Babylon (like Egypt, Assyria, and Rome) has a national mythology that says the king — the ruler — of a military-dominion machine is the only ‘image of God’, and that people from other nations can be treated however you want; the Bible says people from all nations are ‘exiled’ from the life of God and this function as image bearers and so they should be loved and blessed, rather than destroyed.
  3. The civic life of nations for the vast majority of history, and still in many places around the world, is inherently religious, and this religiosity has always been inherently public. A nation’s shared religious framework is part of guaranteeing the social-political order; this is reinforced in architecture (church buildings, temples, political buildings incorporating religious imagery), cultic statues, national mythology and culture. It is a product of the multi-cultural/pluralist/global west — and to some extent the Protestant Reformation, that religious choice exists within nation states giving rise to the ‘separation of church and state’ and the idea of a secular sphere that is not controlled by the gods. .
  4. The Christian — like any other religious believer — is right to challenge the idea of ‘the secular realm’ if to acknowledge a secular realm is to create a space where God (or for other religious people, the gods) are somehow absent — to make such space is actually to deny the fundamental nature of God (the Christian God), or other gods as understood in other religions. Some part of ‘the secular’ is a recognition of the possibility of ‘no god’ or the contest between representatives of various truth claims about God.

To ask a religious person to operate as though ‘faith is private’ is to, essentially, ask them to operate without integrity — either to behave as though their fundamental beliefs about reality are not true or important, or to behave as though that truth depends on the belief and practice of others. The conditions of secularity arose more with an explosion in the number of possible beliefs within a nation — that needed to be accommodated — than the rise of non-belief; and yet the rise in non-belief is also part of the story (this is, in a nutshell, Charles Taylor’s thesis about secularism in its realist sense in A Secular Age (as opposed to the narrow sense in which it is used in this interview. Tom Holland, in Dominion, says secularism itself is a product of the Christian influence on the west; it is, as others have said “a Christian heresy.”

There are better ways to tackle politics in a pluralist/multi-faith secular context than to argue that people should act with no integrity between belief and practice by bifurcating themselves into public and private personas — especially if the very essence of religion — in this case being a ‘practicing Christian’ not just a western, cultural Christian secularist — is public.

If the Prime Minister is Christian I’d want to know about his religious beliefs in order to form a fully realised picture of the man — to get a sense of what integrity should look like for him, and what fruits his beliefs might produce in the public life of our nation as he serves in public office. This isn’t to say I agree with Morrison’s beliefs or practice, simply that he shouldn’t be punished for having them (much like with Folau and his tweets).

While it can be viewed this way — especially in a post-religious society that still has various aspects of previously public religiousity sprinkled through civic life (like the Lord’s Prayer in parliament), religion isn’t just a hat, a crucifix, or a hijab we pop on for special private occasions or when entering a ‘sacred space’ — it isn’t just a checkbox on the census, or a cultural affiliation, or set of private convictions with no bearing on actual life. It’s a prime motivator for behaviour — and thus — for politics, especially because it shapes one’s convictions about truth and goodness.

For people who believe in a God who is “almighty” (pretty rudimentary, credal, Christian belief), the “grounds of being” (pretty rudimentary monotheism), who for Christians is the one “in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being,” and who proclaim a political message that “Jesus is Lord” (by which we mean ruler of the earth and the heavens — every inch), religion touches every aspect of our life, public and private — and we kinda want people to know and understand that about us, and how that might motivate our actions as we seek to represent the God we believe in and worship.

Albo’s answer included the statement: “But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.” 

And yes. This is important. It’s historically been important in western democracies after the Protestant Reformation because of sectarian favouritism, conflict, and competition. The reason we don’t have an established state religion (though our monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), or a religious test for office, is that all religions are equally valid in our state institutions, as is having no religion at all. It is important that we don’t say only those sanctioned by the Pope (Catholic) or the Queen via the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican), or any other religious leader can occupy roles in the government — but that isn’t to say that religious people should not act as religious people when participating in public life.

Kelly’s follow up question is a good one: “does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?” 

I believe Scott Morrison absolutely should be more open and transparent about how he integrates his faith and his policy because I believe this would make the motivations behind his good policy decisions clear, but also open him up to be more accountable (to a higher power perhaps) for policy decisions that don’t represent integrity between his religious beliefs and practice; or, it would at least help us to find religious beliefs and practices that align with our values as we seek to elect leaders who will govern with integrity. Personally, while I acknowledge the scourge of people smuggling, I find Australia’s treatment of refugees under Scott Morrison’s leadership appalling. Refugees are made in the same ‘image of God’ as the rest of us. When Scott Morrison says “It’s so important that we continue to reach out and let every Australian know that they are important, that they are significant. “Because we believe that they are created in the image of God.” — unless he also extends that importance and significance to every person still in detention in various forms, he is operating as more Babylonian than Christian — in that the Babylonians were very unlikely to see non-Babylonians as anything like image bearers of God. Nationalism, limiting the “image of God” to “every Australian” is not Christian — I’m sure Morrison would affirm the image bearing dignity of each refugee; I’m not sure a deterrence policy built on the dehumanising of others aligns with that affirmation though.

I’d love to see a robust application of the belief that all Australians are made in the image of God to our First Nations peoples — especially connected to the idea that God appointed people to be custodians of the land (and more than just lip service in the form of acknowledgements of country like the one he gave in his speech).

I’d like to see us think about how our nation’s natural resources might be used to uphold the dignity of all of us, not just be to accelerate the wealth gap between our richest and poorest people, especially I’d like to see it invested in improving the educational, economic, and health outcomes of our Indigenous population (and to see these changes improve the incarceration rates of Indigenous people, and so lower Indigenous deaths in custody). I have concerns about our role as image-bearing stewards of God’s world and the climate — made to co-create the conditions of life and flourishing.

I am concerned about many areas where I find it hard to reconcile Morrison’s policy platform with the teaching of Jesus and I’d like that to be fair game for critique, or at least engagement and theological disagreement to be expressed from the standpoint of different Christian traditions, rather than Morrison being able to conveniently push those public dimensions of the Kingdom of God into the private sphere — and I’d like people to be able to interrogate the way different theological systems produce different fruit and assess their truth and goodness on that basis.

While Albo wasn’t prepared to comment on Scomo’s faith — I think both of them should be accountable to the God they claim to worship (or religious affiliation or commitment they claim to have); and both of them should be scrutinised around areas of integrity — surely we want leaders whose ‘outer person’ matches the ‘inner person’ — who do lead from the heart and from the head, even while seeking to lead a nation where we all recognise that our government governs for people of many faith traditions, including those who have no faith tradition at all. To insist otherwise is to insist not on ‘secularism’ as the default position of the state, but de facto atheism. And to play that game — as a religious politician (or public) simply reinforces the same misunderstanding driving this series of questions, and objections, to Scott Morrison’s religious faith.

We’ve got to stop playing that game and start seeking to genuinely understand one another while genuinely seeking to live public lives of integrity.

Your Gospel proclamation will only be as rich and magical as your Biblical Theology

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is a kids TV show. My almost six year old loves it. The other day she was watching an episode where Nanny Plum, the resident fairy godmother, was undergoing a test for her magic license. She was confronted with a series of scenarios where she would have to solve a problem with magic — and her answer to every question was “turn them into a frog”.

 It’s a surprisingly effective tool, that adequately solves many of the problems, but it’s a very blunt instrument, and the tester is maybe looking for a little more.

It reminded me of that old ‘little Johnny’ joke where Johnny is asked a Sunday School question about animals who live in trees and eat Eucalyptus leaves, and he says “Miss, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a koala.”

And it reminded me of a little thing I’ve noticed about the relationship between models of Biblical Theology (understanding how the Old and New Testament fit together), and models of the Gospel message (understanding the essence of the good news about Jesus).

Here’s what should be a totally non-controversial thesis: your Biblical theology will only be as rich as your understanding of the Gospel, and your understanding of the Gospel will only be as rich as your Biblical theology.

And the real magic is not in a ‘turn them into a frog’ Biblical theology where the answer to every Old Testament passage is “Jesus” with a particularly narrow understanding of the essence of the Gospel, but one where we embrace the sort of circularity of how the reality of Jesus is given depth and dimension by the Old Testament ‘shadow.’ One of the criticisms of a ‘Christ Centred Biblical Theology’ — often the sort picked up in Reformed Evangelical circles here in Australia is that it ends up with a ‘Jesus bit’ tacked on to a sermon, and, experientially, that Jesus bit feels like a ‘penal substitution’ bit tacked on and that can be legitimate, but it can also be a frog where we could have a prince. There are so many rich categories created by rich and deep reading of the Old Testament narrative — around God’s promise to reign as king, about a re-creating day of the Lord that would return people from exile and give us new hearts, about the defeat of Satan and the powers and principalities so that all nations might belong rightfully to Yahweh, the most high, as a fulfilment of our ‘image bearing’ vocation… and the Gospel is that all those threads, and promises, and more are fulfilled in Jesus. That is a Gospel that is not simply “my personal sins can be forgiven if I repent” but that the cosmos is renewed from the throne room of heaven down and repentance is a recognition not only of my sin, but the goodness of this new reality. One way to challenge this is to move beyond a ‘Christ Centred’ Biblical theology that often is reduced to a ‘penal substitution centred’ theology (and again, I’m not saying this isn’t an aspect of the Gospel built for us by a Biblical theology that incorporates, say, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament), to a broader ‘Christotelic’ reading that doesn’t simply impose a Gospel summary/reduction back into the text, but that allows the text to provide categories (and a story) that Jesus then fulfils.

If your Gospel is simply an aspect of the Gospel — a ‘small Gospel’ — whether that’s Lordship, or cosmic victory, or penal substitution and you flatly impose that meaning when digging back into the Old Testament, a proclamation of the Gospel drawing on the Old Testament will end up sounding like Nanny Plum turning everything into a frog. Sometimes I think that’s what’s happening as people get to a passage in the Old Testament that only leads to penal substitution via the crucifixion, rather than a better category (like kingship, or victory, or new creation) and shoehorn that ‘Jesus bit’ onto the end; it’s the “turn them into a frog”… “I know the answer is Jesus” mentality, and maybe we should be allowing the text to give us richer categories, so that when we’re invited just to proclaim the Gospel we have a richer toolkit at our disposal than just “God saves sinners from Hell”…

You can, if you want to apply a blunt instrument, try to make every Old Testament passage about Jesus and reduce Jesus to the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and it’s probably better than not making the Old Testament about Jesus at all — a surprisingly effective better (in that, I’m surprised, still, by how many modern Christians still have a pretty flat grid that they apply to the Old Testament, seeing it as “Scripture” without recognising our standing as Gentiles, and its standing as Israel’s Scriptures fulfilled in Jesus) — but imagine if you had more tricks in your magic tool kit. Here’s where, as a sidebar, I want to give an obligatory shoutout to The Bible Project, who I think do a great job of expanding our horizon to see more narrative categories and ‘story patterns’ in the Old Testament so that we end up with a richer Gospel.

Imagine if your bigger Gospel — whether that’s in the classically expansive ‘The Gospel is the material contained in the Gospels’ or an integration of atonement models (like kingship, representation, and cosmic victory) — was something you could pull out when digging into Old Testament texts; but also something shaped by the Old Testament texts that give us the categories and messianic/cosmic expectations that Jesus fulfils.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road on a critique like this. I think at times we celebrate frogs — as magic — when there’s a more rich and robust, more enchanting and ‘good’ version of the good news that we should be encouraging one another to pursue. Better a frog magically produced on Q&A than no enchantment at all, and yet, what if we had a real magician?

When the Gospel is proclaimed as penal substitution — that God saves sinners — it can often end up being anthropocentric (that is, it puts us humans at the centre of the Gospel). When, in that context, we talk about repentance it can sound a lot like we’re saying ‘turn from sin because sin is bad and you will face God’s judgment unless you repent’ — and that’s certainly true. But it’s a frog. The deep magic of the Gospel is much bigger than toads being turned into frogs.

The deep magic of the Gospel is not really about ‘me’ at all; it’s about Jesus. The good news about the one who fulfils the Old Testament; the true Israel, the true son of God — the divine and human “son of Man” who through his incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and future return, has begun God’s recreating act by launching his new kingdom; who invites us to ‘repent’ by turning from the old, to the new, which involves receiving God’s Spirit as an act of re-creation and being united with God. There’s so much more magic than just ‘forgiveness of sins’ — though forgiveness of sins is part of our restoration and resurrection; our move from death to life, darkness to light and the kingdom of the now defeated Satan, into the kingdom of heaven… and even that the resurrection is not just a ‘pie in the sky’ heavenly future for our souls, but physical life in God’s kingdom in a renewed heavens and earth, so that our lives now are an expression of the kingdom because we are ambassadors of this future reality and citizens of the kingdom of God now.

There is, of course, some C.S Lewis in the background of this reference to “deeper magic” — and in The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe (and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia), the ‘deeper magic’ includes penal substitution — but it stretches out to new creation; it includes the effects of being faithfully caught up in that magic on mice like Reepicheep. Here’s Aslan, from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

The deep magic is more than simply one dying in the place of another, it’s the new life that flows from that act. In Prince Caspian the mouse Reepicheep loses his tail in battle, and Aslan restores it, moved by his commitment to Aslan’s kingdom, and as an act of love. The deep magic of the Gospel involves death working backwards as new creation works in — not just sins being forgiven, but restoration to new life found in the kingdom and its king.

“Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

So magic tricks — Gospel proclamation — that looks like ‘here’s a frog’ are all well and good; better than no magic. But what if we do the work of digging deeper into the book of tricks — expanding our understanding of the whole counsel of God, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the victorious saviour and king as its culmination — then maybe our ‘Gospel proclamation’ would do more than just see Jesus as the one who calls us to repent and dies to take our punishment; it might see Jesus as the one who brings a new pattern for life in this world by restoring us to the life and presence of God.

I, for one, am committed to serving up more than frogs in my attempts to do the magical and enchanting work of telling God’s good news story.

A big table and the paradox of tolerance

There’s a popular meme that circulates on social media from time to time; one of those sort of epigrams for our age — “when you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher fence” — it’s always struck me as an interesting quote as someone whose denomination talks of my role in administering the sacraments as involving “fencing the table,” and it strikes me too that much commentary around the direction of Eternity News playing out on social media is grappling with whether Eternity should be a big table, or whether it should erect some fences.

I have massive sympathy for what Eternity News is trying to achieve in its opinion section, and while it pains me to see the culture wars fought out in a publication I love, and one that I’ve invested time, energy, and words into contributing to and promoting over the years, and to have been part of the war of words, I do believe Eternity’s vision to provide a forum for conversations for those who’ll share eternity together is good and necessary, and that it requires a diversity of political and theological positions to be gathered around one table.

This week Eternity ran a pro-Israel Folau/ACL campaign piece by David Pellowe, and then, for balance, ran a piece critical of that campaign. I do fear John Sandeman’s approach of pursuing ‘balance’ in the opinion section by posing opposing views rather than views that seek to discern the truth (ie classic news/feature writing) ends up fuelling the division rather than bridging the gap — especially because of how the Caldron Pool reacted to the two part series in this piece by Mark Powell (that seems to have no sense of the existence of the Pellowe piece). There’s also an irony here in that Mark Powell, in a 2019 interview with the then Bible Society CEO, asked a question that implied correct views on the Trinity should be a deal breaker for their platform, but he and his mates are quite keen to promote Israel Folau’s orthodoxy.

The Caldron Pool piece was, predictably, shared by the union of figures I’d named in my now deleted article. They don’t like that Eternity will feature voices critical of their political theology and practice. Curiously, the editor of Caldron Pool, who’ll write pieces against cancel culture, will, without irony, seek legal advice and complain to church courts if anyone has the temerity to criticise his publication in public. The Caldron Pool is not a ‘broad table’ — it has, clearly, different aims to Eternity, though its unclear who they believe will share the eternal table with them. One might ask at what point their accusations of ‘wolflike’ behaviour for those ‘woke pastors’ and woke platforms represent an act of discernment that these people fall outside the kingdom?

The table is such a profound and powerful Christian image; for many Christian traditions the table is the centre of the church gathering — around communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharistic meal (depending on one’s theology or tradition). At the table we Bible believing Christians do the work Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 11 of ‘discerning the body.’ Now, part of this is surely to do with how one understands the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, but, in the context of 1 Corinthians 12, and the bad table manners Paul is correcting in 1 Corinthians 11, this act of discernment includes recognising that our union with Christ and the church, by the one Spirit, draws together people from all corners of society to this one ‘gathering’ (what ‘the church’ is) as one body.

Jesus spent lots of time at the table in the Gospels; sometimes these were tables managed by religious leaders who were out to get him, often he ate with sinners and tax collectors; some of the most beautiful moments are when he brings the judgmental religious people to the table with those people searching for the kingdom who were on the margins of society to reveal something of the character of God and his love for the outsider. Jesus didn’t stop eating with the people who were out to get him — right up until the Last Supper he’s eating at a table in the presence of his enemies. In that meal, as he gave us the model for our meals together that Paul draws on in 1 Corinthians, Jesus speaks about the eternal table; the heavenly banquet, such that his act of hospitality as he breaks bread and pours out the wine is not just a picture of his coming death, but of eternity.

In Luke’s account, Jesus talks about the nature of his kingdom — that the table won’t run in his kingdom like it does in the kingdom of the Gentiles, where rulers lord it over others and the seats at the table are allocated in some sort of status game (that’s the Corinthian problem), instead, he says he is at the table as “one who serves” and greatness, or indeed “the kingdom” is defined differently for those who Jesus says will “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus also talked about how people in this kingdom should participate in other tables — not as fence builders or power grabbers, but as guests. Guests who do not seek the places of honour, or to have their status boosted and their voices heard by all at the table, but as those who sit in the lowly places, he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and then pivots to providing hospitality advice for when we run tables around the same ethic. He says don’t just invite the powerful; the high status — those who’ll make you look good and give you a boost in the world. That’s the gentile power-game. Instead make space for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

This advice should guide how those of us who’ll spend Eternity together might use our tables — whether those are literal, in our churches and homes – or metaphorical, our digital places of hospitality and dialogue. It’s not that such spaces should exclude the powerful necessarily, Jesus eats with Pharisees and religious leaders, as well as sinners and tax collectors, it’s just that we Christians should recognise the dynamics here (and our own tendency to act more like Pharisees and religious leaders than sinners, tax collectors, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” When Eternity is at its best it is sharing stories — making space at the table — for the outsiders in our church communities; when it is at its worst it has religious leaders like me sparring with others in the opinion section. My own contributions have ranged from lofty heights — working beside marginalised voices in the broader church, to the lows — writing a piece so inflammatory it was pulled after an outpouring of anger, and some legal posturing.

While I, and other church leaders, often bear a responsibility to administer a table as we lead our communities in the sacraments, and while this might mean ‘discerning the body’ and ‘fencing the table’ from some we believe fall outside the kingdom based on our doctrine and practice, Eternity is a deliberately broad table, crossing denominational and local boundaries. Those of us who run narrower tables — in denominations, or local tables — in local churches — need such ‘broad tables’ to remind us that the kingdom of God and the body of Christ exist outside our particular tribes and communities. Eternity invites us to sit at the table, discern the body, and enter conversation and perhaps even communion with those saints we will join with for Eternity. We need voices from outside our local bubbles or theological grids to offer gentle critique, encouragement, and opportunities to listen to other ideas as we humbly remember that all our human institutions are the product of humans who are simultaneously justified and sinful (at least for Protestants that’s part of the package). Institutions like Eternity, and their big table, remind us of our union with Christ unites us with loads of people who think and live differently to us (and might encourage us to practice hospitality when it comes to how the tables in our churches or homes operate).

After my controversial anti-culture war piece (that became a culture war piece) — one that ended with a call for peace-making across very real divides, David Pellowe, host of the Good Sauce, convener of the Church and State Summit, and now, it seems, Eternity columnist, who I’d specifically named in my piece, reached out across the divide and invited me to break bread with him, and subsequently, he invited me onto his YouTube program, Pellowe Talk, where I sat at the table (or desk) in his studio and we had a conversation. I’m reasonably convinced that David Pellowe thinks we’ll be spending Eternity together, even if his most recent piece describes positions I hold — positions on core, orthodox Christian doctrine (like the Trinity being foundational) as making me a “progressive believer.” If that’s progressive, count me in. David’s hospitality and this act of peacemaking helped both of us ‘discern the body’ in such a way that while I still believe his politics, and those shared by others on the Christian Right are dangerous to both the church and society, I would not ‘fence the table’ if he attended our church gathering, nor would I keep him from my dining table; I’m not, by extension, concerned that Eternity makes space for him at the table of public discourse. I do recognise that it creates a genuine expression of ‘the paradox of tolerance.’

In a nutshell, this paradox, coined by Karl Popper, says that for a tolerant society — or table — to operate, it has to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, as my friend Cameron puts it “you can’t invite people to the table if their express goal is to set the table on fire.” The trick here is that even if fellows like Pellowe, and other new Eternity columnists are committed to a ‘broad table’ — and even if Eternity itself is — at some point a broad table becomes unsafe, and not just for the ‘leftists’ or whoever the target of intolerance is.

Quite a few of my Eternity columnist stablemates have been in conversation over the rightward lurch in the opinion section, concerned about this new direction, in part because it seems to us that some of these new writers are not interested in tolerance, or pluralism (and indeed, many from the Christian Right turned to language of boycotts and cancellation when Eternity ran pieces critical of the hard right), the catch is, some of the gentler voices in the Eternity stable are also grappling with the goodness or wisdom of sharing a table with the intolerant. Meanwhile, John Sandeman, Eternity’s editor has been doing the rounds of conservative Christian media outlets (including Pellowe’s show, and Jonathan Cole’s The Political Animals) to cast his vision for a broad table as an invitational act of peacemaking (in part managing the fallout from my piece, and one of his own), and to court the addition of gentler conservative contributions.

I am not inclined to boycott Eternity, or its opinion section, because of these new voices being included. I love Eternity, and I find John’s vision compelling — but this is, perhaps, a product of my privilege and my place at the table.

I don’t want the answer to be fencing the table from conservative religious leaders with significant status, but, at the same time, it is true that sometimes particularly aggressive sheep can bite like wolves and be a danger to the flock, and just as my role in our church community — with other elders and leaders in our church — is to shepherd the flock in the way of the good shepherd, Eternity, as a “Christian institution,” even a broad table, has some pastoral responsibility here too. One that might look like a firmer editorial hand, or clearer parameters around acceptable voice or tone that defines the sort of conversation one might be invited to enter at the table; some agreed upon Eternity table manners. I was the first to admit that my pulled article was ill-mannered (that, rather than ‘untruth’ was why it was pulled). Eternity did not ‘cancel me’ or my piece, though some people I wrote about did — and are continuing to push for my cancellation in other spheres I operate in, in response to the piece. John and I made the call in consultation, and John’s hand was forced into that consultation because I publicly apologised for the tone of my piece and distanced myself from that tone, while Eternity was still expected to host it. I’m seeking to learn from that experience as a contributor, but I wonder if there is space for Eternity to apply some learnings from that piece and the fallout across the board, beyond just that it’s hard to be a place where iron sharpens iron. Sometimes sharp iron, and flecks of iron thrown off in the process can do real damage to people.

My concern about the current editorial direction of Eternity is not only that seeking loud mouth institutional voices (like mine) to engage in traffic driving ‘iron-sharpens-iron’ tit-for-tats in the opinion section, and the comments on Eternity’s Facebook page drowns out the experience of the lost, the last, and the least — the sinner and tax collector, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — those we should be hosting at our tables, but also that some recent articles are inhospitable to those we should be including.

Want to find a community of ‘sinners and tax collectors’ or the downtrodden and oppressed, who need Jesus in our modern western world — there are plenty of candidates, from members of the LGBTIQA+ community, to those whose experiences sit outside the ‘male, middle class, and white’ norm of Australian institutions (like the church), including women (whose voices were drowned out in Eternity’s own stories on International Women’s Day by a boisterous boys club push-and-shove).

The catch is that for many in those communities — if you pay attention to the comments on social media, these new voices introduced to the comments section are pictures of intolerance and exclusion of their own voices and experience, not only by virtue of arguments, but because of trauma responses because religious institutions, and their tables, have not always been shaped by the way of Jesus.

Some of these more recent opinion pieces have an intolerant tone — not a tone that is hospitable to “the other,” but that is dangerous to those who’ve been hurt by wolves or biting sheep in the past. Even if these writers are fellow guests; fellow sheep; fellow members of the body — such words, and the way they are spoken, can produce an atmosphere of condemnation, or produce traumatic responses in the vulnerable or hurting, or can lead to others feeling unwelcome not only at Eternity’s table, but at God’s eternal table. Some, believe this new tone — and also the words being said — have made Eternity a less hospitable table. This is not the case for bull-headed people like me who are prepared to go charging into any conversation without fear for my own safety. This lack of hospitality is not something I tend to feel in the ‘Christian bubble’ as a religious leader with status, education, and a degree of wealth, status, and security. It’s precisely people like me who should be challenged by the words of Jesus about his table — and how Christian spaces operate, and precisely those others — who feel a sense of inhospitality — who Jesus called his kingdom to be hospitable to. It’s this change that others who have been part of the Eternity stable but are feeling uncomfortable are reacting to. Eternity has become a hospitable place for religious leaders to play power and status games, and an inhospitable place for those who are, or have been, outsiders and victims in those games.

I’d love to see their vision of a big heavenly table involve a broadening of the voices (including perspectives, practices and experiences) they platform, and correspondingly, some of us prominent blokes with institutional power dialling down our participation in culture war bunfights to make space for that — for the richness of the body of Christ to be on display we must decrease so they might increase.

I’d love to see the ethics of that heavenly table shape the tone of voice Eternity allows at its table, not just the broad spectrum of political views invited to speak.

The paradox of tolerance is real, it is impossible to run a broad table when some of your guests are telling others they aren’t welcome, and while this might go both ways, the way of Jesus is clear — the religious leaders who believed they were the righteous ones, who had power and status, and were used to running the table — they were able to stick around so long as they were listening to the Lord of hosts, through his chosen king, even when he spoke pointedly to condemn them, and the lost, the last, and the least — those were the people who have priority at the tables of the kingdom. It’s possible that creating safe tables for those others — whether through calling for change in existing institutions (like churches and publications), or starting new ones is the work of the kingdom here; and it’s possible that such pressure might be applied by refusing to share a table with those trying to burn down your table, or who want to build big fences.

The challenge for committed pluralists like me is to take up invitations to be a guest at hostile tables, to provide hospitality through the tables I serve at, especially to those we’re called to love and serve by Jesus

#QandA is more like Pokemon than Poker: a review of Martyn Iles’ appearance

Martyn Iles did well on Q&A last night. He articulated some deep Christian truths, the Gospel even, with his feet held to the metaphorical fire. And he did it with a degree of grace.
Here’s a snippet from the transcript:
“Alain, thank you for the question, and it’s important, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer it in front of you and others who are watching. There was a word in the question which I’d like to address first, and then I’ll address Israel Folau, if that’s OK. The first word I’d like to address is the word ‘hate’. ‘Hate’ is a word that is thrown around a lot. I see it every day thrown at me. It’s a very, very serious word. It refers to somebody’s motive. It’s an attitude of heart that would like to see someone else come into harm. Jesus said, effectively, that if you hate your brother, then you’ve murdered him in your heart. It’s a very serious thing. For a Christian to hate is a bad sin. The reality is this – a Christian never looks fundamentally at another person as an enemy to be destroyed. And that’s the danger of politics – that we can get sucked into that. We never look at the other person as somebody who we would like harm to befall. We only ever… And I cannot say this strongly enough. We only ever look at people as souls to be saved, and that includes me, and so…”
Now. I’d say Christians see people as people to be saved, and that this includes bodily life both now and into eternity, not just souls, but I’m not sure Martyn was espousing a sort of platonic dualism in that last bit… But this was helpful. So was his presentation of Jesus’ universal call to repent.
I have some quibbles around his defence of antivaxxers (because nobody asked him to do that), and his ongoing conflation of trans/gender diverse people with a political agenda (ie an approach to the people and questions that is political rather than pastoral).
But he played a tough hand well.
The thing is, Q&A is not poker. It’s more like Pokémon. You bring your deck with you. And Martyn’s deck is stacked, by Martyn.
The tough hand is a hand of his making.
Imagine a Christian at that table with a different hand.
Imagine a Christian, even one with conservative sexual ethics, who represents an organisation that had invested time and energy into loving the LGBTIQA+ community and seeking their inclusion and representation in our democracy, from an organisation known for love and service. Imagine a call to repent in a relational context of love rather than one of perceived self-interest.
Imagine an organisation with a track record of advocating for First Nations peoples, around deaths in custody (last night’s most powerful segment). Imagine if that organisation was known for pushing for the application of the recommendations of a 30 year old Royal Commission, rather than to extend the playing career of a 32 year old millionaire footballer (with heretical views on the Trinity… only Biblical sexual orthodoxy counts).
We shouldn’t have to imagine this. Churches, church run institutions, and church members — Christians — navigate issues across the political spectrum/divide all the time.
Martyn’s statement last night that there are lots of Christian charities addressing poverty and inequality is true.
They are not called ‘Australian Christians against poverty’ though. If it is true that the ACL is focused on the political realm on behalf of Christians then surely racial reconciliation and poverty are issues that have structural and political changes that need making and the ACL, like the church, could walk and chew gum here.
Here’s what Martyn said on this:

“I think everybody would love it if the ACL did exactly what they wanted us to do. The fact is that the top 25 charities in this country, I think 23 of them actually had a faith basis and they work on alleviating poverty. And I say, wonderful work. More power to them. I myself was involved in youth work for a period of six years with disadvantaged kids. There is a huge wealth of Christian charity in that regard.ACL has a certain area that we focus on, which is the political realm, and the reason… I mean, we spent that much money on that ad. I’m here to tell you, we spend many times that on defending Margaret from Blacktown, Patricia from Sydney, Jason from Perth, Byron and Keira from Perth, who are no longer foster-parents, who are no longer medical professionals…”

The issue is that the ACL serves a constituency; it has a narrow political agenda, and that’s fine, but a broad name, and that’s not so fine.
So long as the ACL serves a narrow political agenda, and one that alienated many Christians in its narrowness, when Martyn goes on TV and preaches the Gospel he will align the Gospel with that narrow agenda in the minds of the audience (or public).
And that’s great for those who share his politics, but not so great for those who share his Gospel.

A question for Martyn about #lethimplay

Israel Folau is a multimillionaire footballer who secured a multimillion dollar settlement from the Australian Rugby Union after a dispute around his sharing of a meme that targeted homosexuals and other sinners with a hatefully twisted quote from the Bible.

Israel Folau is on the record rejecting the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Israel Folau is unwanted by any NRL club, there are no attempts to register him as a player.

It’s quite possible to believe that Folau was hard done by, that religious freedom should be extended to non-Christian cult-like members who use social media to preach hate; no matter the commercial risks involved. It is possible, even, to believe that at least some part of the response to Folau’s tweet was not only religiously intolerant and confused, but a little racist. It is possible to believe those things and be horrified by the ACL’s #lethimplay campaign.

The ACL is spending donor dollars, and resources, to run a campaign that literally nobody is asking for — Folau hasn’t asked (according to the ACL), no club is asking (according to the NRL). But, the ACL in its wisdom, is running this campaign despite Martyn Iles, in the past, suggesting that a lack of resources is what keeps the organisation from broadening its platform beyond pleasing a conservative/right-wing constituency. Iles said:

“When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do.

“The reality is I am spent in my abilities and capacity to do what we are doing. My staff are spent and we are doing the best [we] can.

“I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith.

“The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.”

He said something similar in a recent interview on the podcast The Political Animals. This is his go to excuse for a small platform — limited resources.

Now, to justify spending dollars on this campaign:

“The purpose of the ads is to connect more people with the campaign, and anybody who wants to have a say has the opportunity to do so.”

It turns out their niche now extends to getting jobs for millionaire footballers past their prime, with clubs that don’t want him.

It turns out you don’t need extensive ‘resources’ for political lobbying; you just need a platform and a team of willing voices who’ll use it. It shouldn’t be that hard for the ACL to set up similar campaigns for all those issues they are too stretched to pursue. Maybe they could help people — passionate Christian people — have a say about these other issues too?

Next time the ACL says they don’t have the resources to pursue an issue remember they spent dollars on a full page advertisement in a News Ltd paper to get a multi-millionaire a job that nobody wants to give him.

Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’Landys said:

“This Christian Lobby with their full-page ads basically are wasting their resources and money because there is no application. There are a lot more things in life that they could be lobbying for, like [an end to] poverty and inequality and all those sort of things, rather than this.”

Martyn is on Q&A this week. Someone might care to ask him about this. They might also ask how getting a non-Christian millionaire a job in a sporting competition is remotely Christian, and whether they might consider becoming registered sports agents and leaving public Christianity to people not committed to playing culture war games. Here’s the question I sent to Q&A:

I am a Presbyterian minister in Queensland. I have long been puzzled by the ACL’s approach — but have found Martyn’s leadership increasingly baffling in terms of both the policy platform and the approach to politics as a ‘culture war’ — which seems inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus.

Martyn. You have said the ACL’s policy platform is limited by resources — that you don’t lobby on issues like refugees, racial justice, and poverty because the ACL is limited in what it can focus on. This week you’re campaigning to secure employment for a multimillionaire footballer no NRL team wants to employ, who publicly denies the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Would these resources not be better offered somewhere like ARL chairman Peter V’landys suggested — to dealing with poverty or inequality, would that not be more consistent with the way of Jesus?

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