Just ponder for a moment how a review of a dictionary might become famous.
It’s one of my favourite essays because while it does what it says on the tin, it also explains huge swathes of disagreement in modern life; it accounts for why so often we talk past one another in disagreements while using the same words.
It’s because the same words mean different things to different people based on an underlying understanding of how words work; what DFW called ‘a usage war’ — we’re seeing the fruits of that war, and most of the time we don’t even realise that’s what happening. He said, of introductory essays published in dictionaries:
“They’re salvos in the Usage Wars that have been” under way ever since editor Philip Gave first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster’s’ Third. Gave’s famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster’s Third endorsed OK and described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic}” was this: “A dictionary should have no traffic with … ‘artificial notion of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.
In one sense the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a war between objectivity and subjectivity; modernity and post-modernity; or conservatives and progressives. On the one hand are those who think words necessarily have an objective meaning, dictated by their ability to describe an actual thing, and only ever that thing. The meaning is fixed etymologically. Dictionaries tell you what a word actually means. On the other hand, there are those who think words are subjective; that our words are always analogies coming from our perspective attempting to describe reality in intelligible ways, but always limited — and also contested and subject to change, and meaning is dictated by usage. Particularly how the user conceives of the meaning of the word; but also how that word is understood in particular interpretive communities — and we must be mindful of that context, not just etymology.
I might be a nerd; but it fascinates me that this approach to language actually, fundamentally, plays out in disputes across those trenches — between modernists and post-modernists, and conservatives and progressives (and post-modern conservatives and modernist conservatives and post-modern progressives and modernist progressives). There are often things at stake in the definition of these words and how they’re used too; take a couple of examples; there’s currently a debate being waged within the LGBTIQA+ community, and within the feminist community (as much as those can be monolithic communities) about the meaning of words. Those communities are typically progressive (in many ways that we would understand that word). And yet, traditional feminists fought very hard for the word ‘woman’ to mean a particular thing; they’re now labelled as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), because they won’t broaden the label to mean something new — to assign the label based on a constructed gender identity, rather than an objectively observable biological reality (anatomical sex), even while recognising that gender is constructed. For members of the LGBTIQA+ community this same issue plays out for, say, gay men, who have lobbied for the recognition of their rights to love other men, only for the meaning of the word ‘men’ to also be contested. The contest is a language usage war.
I tend to be a descriptivist, because I think that better reflects the reality of how language is used, though deep down I’d prefer a more prescriptive approach to words and meaning. But this means we have to be careful, as individuals, when engaging in discussions, to notice not just what others are saying but how others are using words. It’s very easy to insist that other people are using words the way we believe they should be using them, and then crucify them, rather than entering the contest of meaning for words or terminology by bringing a broadened perspective, or arguing for a particular manner of usage.
One person responded to my last post about ‘toxic churchianity’ by saying I’d lost his interest in what I had to say by using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ He suggested there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ — there’s just the objectively positive good that is masculinity and anything else is actually not masculinity. This was a ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, that doesn’t grapple with a larger cultural conversation around what the meaning of ‘masculinity’ is, and where some proffered definitions might sometimes need contesting and qualifying to distinguish them from others; I’m comfortable entering that contest for meaning, and that conversation, because of how I think language works.
For a prescriptivist, language is ‘ontological;’ to name something is to describe it as it really is prescriptively, on every occasion. A word means what it means. This is a lot of weight for language to bear; and it limits the creative/artistic/poetic use of language where we can use words to create things that are not. This has interesting implications for how we exegete the Bible too — if words always mean what they etymologically mean in a prescriptive, technical, dictionary sense then we are assuming a certain sort of approach to writing from the authors of Scripture (a modernist one). This ontological thing is at play in a debate currently taking place within the conservative church, in a similar way to the debate playing out in the progressive communities described above. There’s a debate about how Christians who experience same sex attraction should describe themselves; and whether they should use the label gay. This debate, from a conservative prescriptive perspective is a no brainer; because to use the word ‘gay’ is an ontological claim about who a person is; and in Christ, one’s identity is transformed. In that theory of language, it makes no sense to use the label gay. But here’s why I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think language works that way, or that this is the claim being made by those people who use the label gay while pursuing a traditional Biblical sexual ethic. When you listen carefully to these brothers and sisters they say they use the label to describe their experience; or story. It’s not an ontological claim in terms of being an objective fixed reality (though I do think ontology/personhood/identity actually works narratively, not simply as a fixed objective reality too; I think a materialist, objective, ontology is a modern construct that we often impose on ancient texts, like Genesis, where ontology there is more relational and functional, and connected to a narrative — so my approach to language is theological, but this is circular, and prescriptivists would say the same thing about their exegesis, their theology, and their approach to languge). If we insist that words work a particular way; if there was no contest; then I think one camp in this debate could insist that the other use words in a particular, objectively correct, way. But I don’t think there’s much space for Christians, especially english speaking Christians, to insist things like that — because as people reading translations of texts from ancient languages, where the complexity of language has to be part of the fabric of how a translation is produced, we know we are experiencing the subjectivity of language as we read the Bible and dig into the Greek or Hebrew to find the semantic range of a word. We read a Bible that has puns, and deliberate ambiguity, and word play built in because words do not always have objective fixed meanings. Also, on the belief that words and labels function ‘ontologically’ and in prescriptive rather than descriptive ways; and the idea that a Christian cannot identify (ontologically) with their sin as though that is a prescriptive reality; someone ought to tell the writers of the New Testament who refer to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute” and Simon as “Simon the Zealot”— those are descriptions of part of their stories, not a prescriptive ontological claims about them.
Understanding how we use language is important; but the debate is not neutral; adopting a ‘descriptive’ framework — one born to some extent out of post-modernity’s reaction to modernity — is now politically loaded. George Orwell famously noted how political regimes with nefarious intent blur the meaning of language through doublespeak and the creation of very technically correct prescriptive looking language to describe things in particularly opaque (though technically correct) ways; and we see this in modern bureaucracy where ‘public relations’ is used (or “effectively utilised”) to prop up powerful status quos. Progressives (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) want to change the meaning of words through pointing both to the contested nature of understanding, but also to the dubious authorities that gave words their meaning. Sometimes word meanings should be contested; etymology is a useful guide for description and employing words carefully to describe reality as we understand it. DFW notes that descriptivism is the air anyone educated after about the 1970s in the west lives and breathes.
“For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively-via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males’? and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic,’ homophobic, elitist: unfair.”
We’re not going to solve this dispute about how words work any time soon, but understanding that the way words and language works is contested might help us listen better to each other in areas of disagreement. It might also help those of us who care about objective truths contend for understandable descriptions of reality.
The meme, as demonstrated below, comes from a street preaching circle in the United States that one could legitimately describe as a non-Biblical ‘hate preaching’ ministry that has a track record of distorting the Gospel and cherry-picking the sins it features to condemn the sexual proclivity of the modern west, but that has significant blindspots that lead to a distorted representation of the Biblical source material. The ‘ministry,’ like Folau’s meme, conveniently ignores an equally pressing besetting sin of the western world, and at least one of the preachers in question: greed.
The ‘meme,’ pictured above, paraphrased the Bible but also flips its audience from Christian to non-Christian, and misrepresents the text in question. The image Folau shared comes from a context (this street preaching group) that determined what parts of the Bible passage were highlighted. The list of sins in the image comes from, but does not quote, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV)
Folau’s social media presence reveals a tendency to quote the King James Version of the Bible, which, is, of itself an interesting phenomenon within the church — the KJV is a favourite volume of those who are suspicious of ‘modern’ ‘human’ re-writers of the Bible, which is a deep irony built on a reasonable amount of ignorance around Bible translation and history. The KJV translates these verses in this way:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (KJV)
The original, or earliest, rendering of this text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we have, used in english Bible translation is:
And this isn’t a point I’m making lightly – because those who want to make a simple ‘black and white’ case that Folau quoted the Bible and so is being persecuted for being a faithful Christian need to ponder how helpfully his meme renders the words μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται, which are the two words for homosexual sex (behaviour) combined in the NIV translation, or separated as ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ in the KJV. Whether these map carefully and accurately onto the modern word ‘homosexual’ is an important discussion to consider when determining how much the meme accurately represents the Bible. I don’t think it does. I believe, and have a long track record of arguing that ‘homosexuality’ as a label describes a person’s orientation to the world, their sexual attraction, their proclivity to ‘lust’, and that these for people ultimately (often) end up in same sex sexual activity of the sort Paul prohibits. The Bible doesn’t directly speak to orientation or attraction, but it does talk about behaviour in a way that people with any orientation or attraction have to take on board when submitting to the authority or rule of Jesus and the re-ordering of our hearts and lives when we move from “worshipping created things” as Paul describes our sinful state, to “worshipping the creator.” The meme misrepresents the relationship between ‘sinners’ and ‘sin’ established by Paul, who is emphasising sinful activity or action, not an orientation or desire (though in 1 Corinthians 6:11 he does say ‘such as some of you were’ and our orientation, attraction, desires, lusts, and actions are often integrated so that actions are an expression of orientation. For anybody who becomes a Christian, gay or straight, the call to repent and turn to Jesus is the call to re-orient ourselves in the world and so moderate our attractions, desires, and behaviour accordingly.
So, that’s one strike against the idea that Folau ‘quoted the Bible’ via this image (at least in this image, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s in trouble for quoting Galatians in the text attached to this image in his post). Another strike would be that in the context of Corinthians, Paul has just spoken about how the church in Corinth should engage with the world, and how they should respond to sexual immorality — he says they’re to keep themselves pure, exercising judgment on sexual morality in the church, but leave judging those outside the church to God (1 Corinthians 5). I’m not one to quote Matthew 7:1 as though it should stop us seeing behaviours that are against the express revealed will of God as ‘not sinful’ or some sort of wishy washy revisionism, but I am going to point out that there’s a difference between writing to Christians telling them not to behave like the world, and writing to the world telling them to behave like Christians and taking the position of God when doing so — judging them — it is not for me to declare that ‘hell awaits’ anybody; it’s for me to declare the Gospel of Jesus, and him crucified (as was Paul’s description of his practice in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1-2, a message he summarises to include the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15).
This is a second strike; the third is to reframe Paul’s statement about ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ to ‘hell awaits’ the other. It’s not that judgment isn’t a thing, Biblically, it’s that a causal link between these particular sins — that are symptoms — and judgment, is not a point Paul is making in this text. Also, when Paul does get to 1 Corinthians 15 his argument isn’t ‘heaven v hell’ but ‘death and dust in Adam’ v ‘life and imperishability’ in Jesus. We tend not to be super careful about making a distinction between Hades and the lake of fire reserved for Satan, his minions, death and hades, and those who reject Jesus; and I’m not convinced a person whose flesh has not been made imperishable by the Spirit of God (ala 1 Corinthians 15) lasts for very long in Revelation’s lake of fire… but this is a much more contested point than the one I’m making with this third strike against the meme; that the Bible as a whole, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in particular, don’t make judgment about particular sins, or particular types of sinner, but about whether one accepts Jesus as Lord and receives the Spirit, and life, or whether one rejects Jesus.
This is a point made by Jesus himself about what earns judgment, in, for example, John 3. Where ‘seeing’ the Kingdom of God requires being ‘born of the Spirit,’ which comes through believing in Jesus (John 3:3-16), but death comes as the ongoing result of not being born again and judgment comes on the pivotal question not of what sins I commit as a result of rejecting Jesus, but on the question of whether or not I reject Jesus.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. — John 3:17-18
So that’s three strikes. I’m not sure you can say someone ‘quotes’ the Bible if they take a message from the Bible written to Christians, that has a particular context within a letter, and then turn it around to say something else to non-Christians, in an apparent direct contradiction with the verses from right next door (1 Corinthians 5). It’s not ‘quoting the Bible’ if you obscure in your translation decision what the original makes clear (the move from ‘homosexual sex’ to ‘homosexuals’). It’s misquoting the Bible. ‘Quoting the Bible’ is also not the ‘shibboleth’ test Christians seem to be treating it as — it’s possible to quote, say, Job’s friends or Satan as he is tempting Jesus, without the literary context, and to say very untrue things about the world.
But here’s two more questions to raise about Folau’s post (and this is not to say Folau should have lost his job for sharing his religious beliefs publicly, but rather to say, Folau did not lose his job for quoting the Bible).
Is it wise to try to reduce the teaching of the Bible into memes, or even just into single verses to pump out via social media devoid of the context both of the Bible as a coherent whole, and a real relationship with the person you are communicating to? And;
Where did this meme actually come from, and to what extent should that frame questions about how helpful and Biblical its content is?
The first one is one where people will no doubt reach different convictions based on communication theory and an understanding of the ‘content’ of a proclamation of the Gospel; ie what ‘communicating’ the Gospel as a message involves in terms of content, and how this ‘content’ should shape the context we give it as communicators. How much does our ‘message’ need to inform and shape ‘our mediums’. I wrote a thesis on this question, basically, so I won’t revisit that here…
But the second question is quite instructive. Google’s ‘reverse image’ function reveals there’s no public, track record of this image being shared online (this doesn’t mean it’s not been shared and circulated on systems that might be closed to Google’s image search function (like Instagram)). Its presence on the web in the form Folau used it, directly coincides with Folau’s publication of the image; and correlation is causation in this case.
I also waded through, thanks to reverse image searching some of his other posts, Pinterest boards of other images Folau has shared on Twitter and Instagram over the last 12 months, and it appears he gets images from a wide variety of sources. He has a penchant for criticising prosperity preaching (and Joel Osteen and Hillsong cop his ire regularly). In the fallout of last year’s similar controversy, he shared a video from David Wilkerson (the guy who wrote The Cross and The Switchblade), who is popular amongst a certain corner of the Christian ‘dark’ web — those who believe the church, in its current form, have compromised and that faithful preaching looks a lot like taking to the street with placards. Folau is getting his content from somewhere, and he got this image from somewhere, and where it came from (both when he found it, and originally) is not irrelevant; especially not in the realm of ‘memes’ and how they are circulated and distributed.
In the early days of the Folau controversy I asked what the difference between his ‘quotes’ from the Bible and the quotes from the Bible featured on Westboro Baptist signs were, because there is more to faithful proclamation of the Gospel than just taking bits of the Bible that name specific sinful behaviours, convicting people of that, and telling them to make some sort of belief transfer to Jesus; there’s more to ‘evangelism’ than just holding up a placard and shouting. But I wasn’t sure there was a legitimate link between a Westboro sign and Folau’s meme; as a result of a reasonably deep dive into the source of Folau’s image, now I’m not so convinced the comparison isn’t apt; and that rather than the picture being ‘quoting the Bible’ it isn’t a certain form or re-appropriating the Bible for a ‘hate speech’ based approach to preaching.
My reservations about Folau’s communication strategy on social media are much the same as my reservations about Westboro; though I don’t think he is a ‘teacher’ in a church in the same way Fred Phelps is, so I think his actions are well intended and wrong, rather than the horrid actions of a false preacher; Folau’s post is the fruit of that sort of false preaching and wrong use of the Bible taking hold in the lives of real people searching for a coherent truth about the world, and sin, and Jesus. Folau’s post is the product of a tradition that puts the emphasis on those ‘blocks’ in all the wrong places in a way that distorts the truth and misrepresents it to a world ill equipped to have conversations about sin and judgment (especially when it comes to the way it tackles the sexuality issue).
Folau did, however, source this image from somewhere. Because the image does exist in a variety of forms, with some variations. It is used by a couple of street preaching ministries in the United States, appearing both in the ‘Bulldog Ministries’ (bulldogministries.com) ‘evangelism’ of David Stokes in Texas and surrounds, and the ‘ChristianInterviews.com’ (site now defunct) ministry of Aden Rusfeldt in Philadelphia. Both seem affiliated with OfficialStreetPreachers.com; which features images linking to ‘ChristianInterviews’ and is linked to by Bulldog Ministries. Official Street Preachers features this charming assembly of some of their signs (an earlier version of this post had this image as the header, which led to some confusion and concern on social media, the header image has now been changed).
Here’s the Facebook page and YouTube channel for Rusfeldt’s ministry, and a gallery of public preaching from both sites featuring signs identical to, similar to, and from the same ‘family’ as Folau’s meme.
“And Pastor Aden knows what it’s like have your soul saved. He, too, used to be a seemingly hopeless sinner. Pastor Aden had sex before marriage. He used to drink heavily. He polluted his body with marijuana.
That’s the stuff that Pastor Aden tells you about when he gives you his “testimony,” as Christians call it — the story of their salvation.
But he leaves some stuff off of that list.
Pastor Aden has been fined millions of dollars by the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission over investment schemes he ran as far back as 2005 and as recently as 2015. According to the government, he was known as “Big A” to many of the people whose money he took. The CFTC found that he “defrauded customers.”
And a few weeks ago, the Internal Revenue Service filed an $800,000-plus federal income tax lien against Pastor Aden and his wife in Bucks County, where they may or may not live.”
That’s not the only place Rusfeldt (and others) choose to leave greed off the list. It’s also interesting to ponder why ‘slanderers’ or ‘revilers’ don’t make the graphics, given that 1 Corinthians 6 is their origin. The dropping off of ‘greed’ from a list of sins in order to emphasise the sexual deviancy of the western world is a distortion of the difference between lust and greed; both are about false worship of created things (sex, or money and possessions). It’s not a cheap rhetorical move to ask why the guy being paid a million bucks a year shares an image that doesn’t mention it, it’s pointing to a massive cultural blindspot within Christian responses to the west. We’re great at throwing rocks at people who don’t match our sexual ethic, but not great at seeing where our economic ethic marches in lockstep with the world — or in the case of one of the promulgators of the meme Folau shared, where we’re running ahead of the world into swindly theft built from greed and carefully retelling our story to avoid that while living in a mansion.
And it’s not a ‘genetic fallacy’ thing to trace the source of this meme back to this petrie dish of hate preaching. Folau saw this image somewhere. It’s not circulating on the regular internet in obvious places. He has made a deliberate decision to pass on a meme — the study of ‘memetics’ is all about how memes function a bit like genes; that ideas transmit through different networks in particular and connected ways. The area of memetics is interesting and a bit disputed (and comes from Richard Dawkins, and is built on evolutionary science, which might poison the well for some Christians). But when we say ‘Folau just shared a meme’ we’re buying into a certain sort of idea transmission and communication theory that says that meme is connected by heritage to what came before, and remains connected as it evolves. Whether the Gospel is, itself, something like a meme — or whether it can be reduced to an internet meme — is another question; but what’s instructive in this case is that the origin of our communication material will shape what is communicated, and that will shape how the communication is received and the reaction it earns; and at this point Christians can rest a little easier, because Folau didn’t just quote the Bible, and had he just quoted the Bible we can’t know what the reaction might have been. He shared an image that has been used by people reducing the Bible to a message of hate, targetting an ‘other’ that those people hate and see as corrupting the world, while being oblivious to their own corruption (in the area of greed), and promoting an ongoing ignorance to that issue.
There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).
The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…
There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).
There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.
It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.
It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.
And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.
It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).
It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…
It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).
It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…
It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.
It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:
“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?
This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”
Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.
The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:
“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”
This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:
“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.
Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”
And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:
“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”
Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:
“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”
Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).
For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.
For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…
Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:
“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”
What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.
Some people asked to see the letter I said I was going to write in my post on how to write to a minister or MP. I’ve sent this to Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and to my local member (who is a Liberal Party MP).
Dear The Hon. Mr Dutton,
I’m writing to you regarding the ongoing situation of asylum seekers and refugees held in detention by our nation, especially the recent announcements that no refugee currently held offshore will ever receive an Australian Visa. I’m a Presbyterian Minister in Brisbane, and am writing to ask you to consider an alternative way forward, and to offer my assistance, and that of my church community. I want to thank you for the way you serve our nation through managing your complex portfolio and don’t want to pretend these are simple issues; regardless of the way forward, you are in my prayers. I’m thankful for Australia’s generosity when it comes to re-settling refugees through our humanitarian program; but concerned at the huge cost of our continued detention of asylum seekers in off shore detention; not just the financial cost, but the cost to our humanity.
In the words of the poet John Donne, I believe that “no man is an island” so that ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;’ the way we treat others impacts us because it changes how we participate in humanity globally, and shapes the vision of humanity we live by in our community and as Australian citizens. The bell is tolling, and the evidence that we are causing damage to others (including children), and so to ourselves, is mounting.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” How we care for those under our authority who are excluded from our society reflects something about the society they are kept apart from. Continuing to deny vulnerable refugees, especially refugee children, any sense of hope, freedom, or dignity, especially if we’re punishing victims of crime to deter criminals, will not just cause damage to these refugees, but will damage our souls. I don’t mean this exclusively in a spiritual sense, but that it undermines the core of the Australian psyche; teaching us, as citizens, to be more self-interested, and that global problems aren’t also our problems. We may indeed live on an island, but we are not disconnected from the suffering of humans abroad; nor can we detach ourselves from the suffering of those in our care held on smaller islands.
I believe it is time we turn to community-based, not simply political, solutions to lower these costs. It is a sad indictment on modern life that we have politicised everything, and so made this a problem for our political leaders to solve, not for us all. As a believer in small government I’m hoping we might find ways to share the burden created by international humanitarian crises amongst other institutions and communities within the Australian public.
As a church leader, I think the church has a particular opportunity and role to play here; a role it is already playing on a case by case basis; my church in Brisbane is home to a community of Iranian asylum seekers and our love and care for them has enriched our souls, and the life of our community. I’d love to see this experience repeated in churches around our nation as we take the responsibility for living out the call Jesus gave us as his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus called his followers to look after the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the prisoner, the hungry and the thirsty — those at the margins — he says:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ — Matthew 25:35-36
He says whatever we do for the “least of these;” whether in caring for them or ignoring their plight; it is as though we are doing it to him. Australia is by no means a Christian nation, but Christians in our nation are concerned to follow the teaching of Jesus, and in doing so to seek the good of our neighbours, be they our global neighbours or the Australian whose spirit is being systematically eroded as vulnerable people are broken in our name.
No man is an island. The bell is tolling; and it is tolling for thee, and me… Can we please stop keeping our vulnerable global neighbours on these small islands and find ways to bring them here, where Australian citizens might take up the challenge, apart from the government, of caring for these neighbours lest our nation’s soul be destroyed? I would like to offer to be involved with exploring ways that the church, and other interested communities or institutions, might play a part in lowering the cost of caring for refugees in our community.
Rev. Nathan Campbell
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” — John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls
There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).
There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).
Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.
If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.
So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.
1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.
So be gracious and charitable.
Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.
2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.
So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.
3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).
So be wise and humble.
4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.
So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.
It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.
There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.
This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.
5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.
So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.
People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.
6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.
So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.
It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.
7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.
So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.
It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).
8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).
So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.
We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.
It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”
9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.
So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.
And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.This is good, and pleases God our Saviour,who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-3
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17
10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.
So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).
“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 27:28-29
In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).
11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.
So love with actions; not just words.
There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.
When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18
12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.
Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.
If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.
Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.
It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.
James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).
“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre
13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.
Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.
14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.
So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship. Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C.S Lewis
We should stop speaking to our world as though the definition of marriage is a truth they should know like mathematical laws and start speaking as though it is a good and beautiful thing like music.
That C.S Lewis quote up the top of this post is profound. My Christianity actually shapes both the way I see and understand math and the way I see and understand music, because it shapes the way I see and understand everything. But how I see and use math and how a non-Christian sees and uses math is relatively similar; how I see music and how I use it is much more closely aligned to my faith. I sing in church, I do not do math in church (no matter how boring the sermon). There’s something different about the truth math contains and conveys and the truth music contains and conveys, and the way our faith or religious framework shapes the way we see and use them. No matter what we believe.
Christians who love natural law or revelation (and rightly) believe that creation points to God had much less to argue with when people held that nature and reason were good guides to truth. The problem is that everyone thinks nature points to their God; idolatry in its basest form is turning something from nature into God and understanding the rest of nature through the grid that creates. Just as C.S Lewis said he saw the world through the lens of his Christianity; secular Aussies do the same with their ‘religion’ or their sense of what the good human life looks like. Our worship frames how we see nature and created things like marriage. Secular worship (which expresses itself in diverse human cultures and sub-cultures built on common objects that people love like music, a sports team, an activity, or a shared sense of what a ‘good life is’) doesn’t present much of a challenge to how we see math; math doesn’t really challenge anyone’s view of the good or flourishing human life… but what we worship does shape the way we see other created things (objects and human relationships or realities) like marriage.
So here’s a question. Is marriage like math — an objectively true created thing that describes how the world works in a way that can be universally understood, or like music — a good created thing that cultures produce and enjoy subjectively based on their values? Should we expect everyone to think the same as us about marriage; is it an objectively knowable created thing, like math, or is it like music?
There are certain natural or created laws that from our finite and limited ability to observe how stuff works, seem universal. These laws — things we believe we’ve proven —are observations about nature; objective statements about how things are. We can express them as axioms or equations. These are universal.
When it comes to marriage many observers of nature who hold a belief that nature reveals something of God want to suggest a similar equation:
Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman
Often the natural argument here is that:
1 man + 1 woman + sex = a potential child.
That is natural. It is a biological equation; it seems axiomatic for those who think about the world like created things are like math not music. The only way we can change that is by artificially intervening with what is natural. That’s also long been the argument for defining marriage the way human cultures have defined it. It seems a natural fit for this objective truth. But it’s not necessarily axiomatic that marriage means that relationship; that is what is contested at the moment in our world. Because there is an alternative equation, more in the realm of music, where:
Marriage = 1 person + 1 person + love
Love is clearly a subjective thing, and much music is written trying to evoke and express that feeling. And this isn’t so much a question of how marriage should ultimately be viewed; but how it is in societies where people worship more than one god or different created things. It might have been enough to argue for marriage as though it is like math in the world operating in the age of reason — the enlightenment era when nature and our ability to know things about nature, and we viewed the world through that grid; but now we’re in the age of feelings, and arguments from reason are largely starting to sound like nonsense to people when it comes to how we should live or what should become cultural axioms and definitions.
So do people see marriage as being like math or music?
The position we come to on whether marriage is a universal truth or law that people will definitively see in the same universal way regardless of what they choose to worship (like math), or a thing we shape meaning for in our cultures (like music), will shape how we speak about marriage in our world. Do we speak of it like math, or like music?
Lots of Christian arguments I read in favour of the secular state defining marriage the way God defines it are built on the basis that it is a universal created good; a moral law written into the fabric of our humanity, much like math is written into the fabric of the cosmos.
But I don’t think it’s that simple, I think it is more like music: an imaginative shared act of creation where we act in concert with God’s design in a way that reflects who we are and what we believe about the world we live in.
We all — everyone, not just Christians — approach marriage as a ‘created’ thing; a part of nature, and we all approach created things through the ever-changing grid created by our worship. When we worship in such a way that we, or our cultures, become creators of meaning, and we create that meaning as we interact with created things. So modern secular Aussies believe we can even redefine the nature or purpose of created things (like marriage, or family, or human life) to fit our view of how the world works, or how we work best in the world. That’s why the definition of marriage is now contested; our culture keeps changing its common objects of worship and so re-ordering our loves and re-examining the way we interact with ‘nature’…
Mathematical truths operate at the objective level. We argue for them using proofs and logic and reason. The aim of discussions about these laws is to ‘prove’ something using a way of viewing and understanding the world that all people who know about math seem to share. The implications from our proving of things are clear axiomatic description of nature; the way things are. Natural law (for the ‘enlightened’ rationalist). Natural revelation (for the Christian).
Math is a pure way to get to the heart of how stuff works. To do math we employ logic and reason to describe the relationships underpinning everything in the cosmos; from the relationship between atoms to the relationship between planets. We can, using numbers, express, model, and predict the way these parts of creation will interact. Math describes the world. It has been described by some as the language of God; and there is something about the intricate order and design of the cosmos that it reveals; and its unchanging nature too; that says something about the nature and character of God… But not everyone sees math in these ways, and you don’t have to in order to believe true things about math or about the way different bodies interact in the world.
What we do with math, or the truths about the universe we extrapolate from math will vary based on what we worship, we may choose to worship math itself (or our own logic and reason), because of its explanatory power, and a very strange form of unnatural worship may even convince us that 2+2=5. But mathematical truths are natural and we can establish them, and see them in operation across human cultures towards good ends like commerce, agriculture and engineering. We harness math, but we don’t make it. It originates in nature itself and in the nature of God.
Music, at its heart, is the application of mathematical principles to sound. It is the ordering of mathematical truths to create beauty and is, by the nature of our different ears and cultural practices a subjective thing that has the potential to mean (and so reveal) different things to different people in a profoundly different way to math. Unless we’re recording the sounds of nature — like birdsongs or running a record needle over the cross section of a tree so that its rings form some sort of melody — music is something that we create in and for a culture. Music will still reveal what we worship — and human cultures across time and space testify to its place in forming us as people and representing how we view the world through the lens of our worship. It is totally ‘natural’ but in a way that works in harmony with who we are and what we worship, not in a way that directly demonstrates who God is via ‘nature’… Its origins are both divine and human. I’m fairly sure God is a musician who sings and makes beautiful noises (because of the birdsong and the picture of the throne room and what we’re called to do with music as his worshippers), but not all music points to God and not all musicians are expressing divine truth as they play — beyond the sounds themselves that arise as a product of cause and effect; when you bang stuff together, according to the laws of math, noise happens and travels through different mediums depending on what they are (physics is just math really). It is a natural phenomena but taken and shaped, subjectively, by people based on what we worship. You can’t really reasonably argue that Bach is better than Kanye, no matter how reasonable your argument is. You make that decision based on a values system you bring to the data; their music.
Problems with seeing marriage as math (a natural law)
One of the problems I observe in the way the western church, and its leaders, argue for our vision of a good natural human life is that we argue about issues that are like music as though they are like math; and expect reason and logic to win the day. This is perhaps truest in the arguments the leaders of the institutional churches in Australia are mounting in favour of the secular government maintaining a traditional definition of marriage. The problem with natural law arguments is that once an enlightened and liberated individual knows something is a ‘natural law’ they still feel totally free to break it; it’s not an argument that convinces anyone anymore once they’ve decided that real goodness lies apart from nature.
We modern Christians are so profoundly indebted to the enlightenment and the ‘age of reason’ and the natural theology tradition championed by Aquinas and his followers, and so excited about the way natural and special revelation sing in harmony to those of us attuned to hear both, that we treat moral arguments on issues that we see as derived from creation or nature as though they are mathematical truths for us to prove. An example of this way of thinking of marriage would be to insist on the axiomatic equation for marriage described above (1 man + 1 woman) and to point out that almost all cultures everywhere have recognised that as truth. The modern secular response is ‘so what’? And we don’t answer that objection by simply restating the proof, we need to demonstrate the proof in action the way music gives life to mathematical proofs.
We Christians want to keep riding the enlightenment pony in a post-enlightenment world. We settle for mounting reasonable arguments (that are reasonable and logical and tightly line up with ‘nature’); but these arguments are implausible because the good life now is much more about music than math. Our sense of what is good is much more derived from our ‘worship,’ our different stories of the good life, and our feelings than it is from some sort of natural law that we can simply choose to walk away from. Math might be true, as true as music… but it feels cold and emotionless. It takes a certain sort of rare soul to find math beautiful in the same way we find music beautiful. You might make avant-garde music celebrating obscure mathematical equations composed by algorithms rather than humans, but that is a particular taste that not everyone will share, and because it ignores the experiential nature of music; it won’t seem beautiful to anyone who doesn’t get the math.
We’re so used to operating in a culture where the ‘music’ sounded enough like ours that we could see its goodness. We’re like a bunch of Beatniks surrounded by Beatles tribute bands, that we didn’t really feel the need to keep pointing people to the Beatles, but now we live in the age of One Direction and Autotune and Pitbull and Kanye and Bieber… suddenly the music our world is making sounds very different and it’s like we’ve turned back to the math underpinning music to point out why the people around us have got music wrong.
Even though the Beatles are objectively and subjectively better and more beautiful than Bieber (and Bach is better than the Beatles), arguing for that with a bunch of numbers won’t shift anyone, you probably can’t actually argue someone out of their love for Bieber at all (and by analogy, I’m not sure you can argue someone out of or into a particular view of marriage without inviting them to first change the lens they use to see the world).
Math makes us understand music better — there’s a reason a lot of musicians do musical theory; which ends up being a bit about math. The answer for those who like Bieber rather than the Beatles, or Bach, isn’t pure math; it’s not to outlaw all other forms of music, it’s to make better music. Perhaps we also need to realise that part of the reason people like bad music and don’t see math as important — or rather the reason people are walking away from a ‘natural law’ in favour of what appears to be a position built entirely on feelings and personal preference, is that after we walked away from God’s design he gives us the consequences of that decision; which is to believe that bad stuff is good and math only important for making stuff we can use to do stuff we want to do.
Marriage is actually like music
There’s actually a bunch of objectively real and true things underpinning the making of music. How sound works; how our ears work; the physics involved with making, and recording, noises. But it also involves humans and human creativity. And that’s true in marriage too. God might have created and defined a fundamental relationship called marriage, but marriage is always experienced as a living breathing thing involving humans and human creativity. It’s always experienced subjectively, which is part of why how marriage works changes from culture to culture even if the fundamental axiom of what marriage is largely does not and has not. Marriage as God created it is music, not math.
Marriage is a good thing God made — but like music it’s a thing created when people take up a good thing design from God and approach it with love and imagination and the desire to make something beautiful (again, why Bach is better than Bieber); and ideally it’s something that reflects the relational, loving, life-giving, sacrificial nature of God (which is perhaps why the Bible speaks of our marriages as both a reflection of the ‘us’ who make men and women as people who bear the image of God, and as a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the church, and about our oneness with God secured by our union with Christ as the ultimate marriage that our lives as Christians should anticipate).
Marriage and how we do it and speak about it in our world — a world full of knock-off Gods with cheap knock-off versions of marriage — is an opportunity for us to make something beautiful that glorifies God. To make a joyful and compelling noise that says something to the people around us about what is good for them and to call them to something better. Talking about marriage in our public square is not just something we can reduce to a simple ‘natural’ or ‘reasonable’ equation. Even if 2+2=4; the world is convincing itself that 5 feels like a better answer. Understanding math or the created goodness of marriage will help our marriages be better and more beautifully musical; but that doesn’t mean we should speak to the world as though marriage is math when they don’t and can’t see it the way we do because their paradigm for approaching nature is different.
The reality is that just as knowing math helps make better music; knowing that there’s a created reality to marriage helps us make better marriages; but also, people don’t really want to hear about the math underpinning the music they’re listening to, they want to experience the beauty of the music, we show the goodness of our view of marriage by having and promoting beautiful marriages within our communities, and by helping other people have more beautiful marriages when they ask. We need both the objective truth that marriage between one man and one woman is created by the real God for a good purpose, and the subjective reality that we’re able to make something beautiful in our marriages using our imaginations.
But we also need to be empathetic listeners who try to understand why people make music that looks very different to the kind we like, and the kind we know is good, because that music reflects who they are. People are going to like different music, and make different music, and when we listen to that ‘music’ carefully — when we pay attention to how people speak of the created thing they call marriage (or what they want to call marriage) — we should pretty quickly be able to see that natural (math-like) arguments aren’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t first share our assumptions about the world and the place of reason. We talk like we’re talking about math while they’re talking like they’re talking about music; and it’s actually ok to talk about feelings and what beauty and the ‘good life’ looks like.
Listening to others in our world, and also knowing the deep truth math expresses (and even marriage as math in as much as the axiom is actually an expression of how God designed things) allows us to make music that resonates with people and with creation, and so might actually change the way the people around us see the world; the real way to change how they see the world is via Jesus and the ‘new eyes’ the Spirit brings; eyes that help us see the world through ‘by our Christianity’ in the C.S Lewis way… but when it comes to marriage and how to see truth about a created thing, repeating axioms isn’t going to cut it. We need symphonies that are remarkably more compelling than Bieber or whatever mass produced music people are pumping into their ears to hypnotise themselves to the truth of whatever view of the world is hot today; not cold laws.
The way to prove that God’s vision for marriage is better isn’t to walk up to a bunch of people listening to music to shout numbers at them, it’s to play better music. It isn’t to insist on a natural proof, but to sing a supernaturally more beautiful song and then point to the amazing and intricate natural order behind the beauty, and the real relationship that marriage testifies to.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” — Ephesians 5:31-32
What do you do when a small band of trolls attacks you, or your church, online? Whether its a bunch of people rocking up to vandalise your Facebook page, or people invading the comments section of your website, whether it’s someone known to you, or a stranger, how are you going to respond to trolls? What’ll you do if some disgruntled member of your community turns to a trolling community and asks them to target your page just for LOLs?
I confess, I hadn’t really thought about this specifically until a merry band of trolls turned up dropping offensive comments and 1* reviews on our church Facebook page on Saturday. It’s very hard to undo the sort of damage they do to your rating (but if you pick a church based on its Facebook rating, we need to talk). We received a tip-off that the comments were coming from a Facebook group dedicated to trolling, after somebody looking to cause a bit of trouble and damage decided to target our page; so I decided to head into the troll’s den to see what I could learn, and I replied to a handful of the reviews. I think it went ok.
The trolling stopped soon after; but it’d be easy to get a little bit stirred up if a bunch of vandals started wreaking whatever havoc they could on your Facebook wall. It’s in events like this that your approach to social media, and Jesus, really gets tested, and I had these handy principles bouncing around in my head as I replied. This stuff might all be obvious, but it is a fusion of PR principles and Gospel principles, which I’m in a position to offer, so having this framework might be useful for someone else when trolls attack.
1. Love your troll: Remember the inherent image-bearing dignity of the troll
If trolls are guilty of forgetting that the people at the other side of the pixels they create are people, with feelings, and families, and stories, and anxieties and pain, then it’d be a shame if we forgot that about them when responding. Trolls aren’t, by their nature, being particularly nice, but they’re people, and there has to be some sort of motivation for becoming a troll. Because they’re people, they’re people who are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and their trolling doesn’t totally eradicate the image of God in them. How we treat people who are hurting, and who are hurting us, privately or publicly (and if you’re responding to a troll it’s likely going to be public) shows what we believe about humanity, and about who’s ultimately in control. There are also these fine words of Jesus to consider, not to mention his example as he’s beaten, nailed to a cross, and jeered.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
2. Pray for your troll.
Your troll is a person; a person who might one day put their trust in Jesus and be a person you spend eternity with; an immortal who will be made to be gloriously like Jesus. So maybe rather than tearing into them with your wit, or your perfectly planned response, you could pray for them first. That God might be at work in their heart.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” — Matthew 5:43-45
3. Respond by taking up your cross; not your sword (or fighting pen)
Thinking this way about your troll; remembering that even if they’re acting like your enemy, you’re called to love them, should take a little sting out of your response. Sure, they’re probably saying stupid and hurtful things about you, and probably about Jesus too — and there’s a real cost to that. But part of loving and forgiving our enemies is taking on that cost and not paying it back in kind.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41
The pay-off, of sorts, is that in responding this way you actually score a win for the good guys. Responding in kind — repaying evil with evil, makes you evil and loses your neutral audience.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.18 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: 17-21
Plus, if you can’t love your enemies when they’re flinging some words at you, what are you going to do when they want to crucify you?
If you have confidence that Jesus really is king, and the cross is really a victory, then you don’t have to grab a sword (or the ‘mighty pen’) to respond to an attack, you can keep taking up your cross.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. — Matthew 26:52
4. Criticism and crisis are an opportunity to show what you believe is truer and better than the alternatives
This is the best thing I learned (apart, perhaps, from the persuasive power of stories) working in public relations, and especially crisis management. You get more attention in a crisis; people are watching to see how you respond. A crisis is a chance to demonstrate the coherence and consistency of what you stand for, because if you can’t stand under pressure then what you stand for is basically useless. A crisis is a chance to respond in an unexpected way that demonstrates your point of difference. Fight fire with fire and nobody will be able to tell you apart from the person trying to burn you… but be different, and the contrast is greater still.
If you can’t respond to a troll with the Gospel — the good news of Jesus, his rule over your church and his example being what guides your response because at the heart of the Gospel is God’s love for you — who’ve chosen to be his enemy — then you need to check that the Gospel really is your ‘key message’… the great thing about the Gospel is that it is the best and most disarming response to a troll. What power does someone who wants to harm you have when you know that Jesus wins, but that he wins by being crucified by God’s enemies.
5. Respond with Humour — especially at your own expense (don’t take yourself too seriously)
Being combative or unnecessarily defensive when everyone can tell your troll is a troll is what gives a troll their power and satisfaction. They want to cost you time and attention. They want you to get grumpy. Do the opposite. If you are quicker to admit your faults and failings than they are to point them out, you rob the troll of any power to say anything particularly hurtful. This makes you look human to those looking on, and like your identity doesn’t depend on the words of your ‘enemy’ — it shows that your identity and security lie else where. And that’s a good thing for those of us who are in Christ.
6. Humbly avoid getting into a silly argument, or exchanging insults, with your troll
Nothing wastes more time online than stupid arguments; and often the reason these arguments waste such time is a prideful desire to win, or to defend yourself and your reputation over and over again in the face of silly attacks. This point, and the next one, may mean that sometimes you shouldn’t respond at all.
It’s very easy to slip into the idea that thriving online, particularly on social media, is about getting as much attention as possible, and about managing your reputation so that you amplify Jesus’ reputation. But his reputation is amplified when we are humbly confident in him. His reputation is damaged when we argue and joke and bicker like the trolls who are trying to make life difficult for us. Your presence on social media — as a church, or a Christian, isn’t about you, but about Jesus. You are God’s media — his image bearers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus. You represent him, not yourself. So be prepared to let it go, and realise, when you don’t, it’s Jesus you’re representing with your words. Stay humble (this also helps you be self-deprecating).
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. — Romans 12:2-3
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…Do everything without grumbling or arguing,so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”Then you will shine among them like stars in the skyas you hold firmly to the word of life. — Philippians 2:3, 14-16
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. — Ephesians 5:4
Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. — 2 Timothy 2:16
7. Use wisdom to decide whether or not you should even reply
Turning the other cheek is an active thing, not just passive, so you might have to offer yourself up to your troll; but that’s not always the wisest course of action. Responding is the absolute best way to feed a troll if you don’t respond in such a way that it de-escalates the situation. There’s wisdom in responding well, and it might take wisdom to realise that not responding at all is the best bet. I lean towards responding because of the next point. But Proverbial wisdom reminds us that there’s a paradox to navigate here so that we don’t end up looking like we’re part-troll ourselves.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5
One thing to bear in mind on social media is that there are many people watching — not just the fool who might be wise in his or her own eyes, but the friends of the fool, and your friends too. There’s risk involved in replying so be careful.
8. Respond with the Gospel; invite your troll to de-trollify by meeting Jesus
Your troll is a person; your response to their warped view of God’s world, his king, and his people, is a chance to model the Gospel, but, in your love for your troll, it’s also a chance to model the Gospel directly to a person who has taken the time to engage with you, who wants to waste your time in conversation (albeit to score points and LOLs), why not follow the steps above and see if you can also attempt to persuade your troll to give up their trolly ways, or at least have those looking for LOLs second guessing just how funny or effective that trolling is.
Always try to move the interaction from the safety and comfort of the computer screen to the real world. It’s much harder to troll a real person. It’s also the pattern of the Gospel to move from ‘disembodied word’ to ‘word in the flesh.’ Plus, it’s just surprising.
There was a shepherd boy. A gatekeeper. He had a flock of sheep that he looked after and he tried to look after them very well indeed. There were often other sheep wandering near his pen, and he would gaze longingly at them wishing that those sheep would become part of his flock. There were many sheep out there who appeared to have no shepherd at all, but they actually belonged to the nearby town. The town, unable to really agree on how sheep should be sheltered, was trying to live without shepherds. They were making decisions by having adult conversations where a variety of voices were invited to the table. Shouty voices that didn’t listen to others tended to be ignored, but sometimes they held sway because no compelling alternative view was put forward.
One day. This sheep saw a couple of dark, furry, ears pop up on the horizon. They sure looked wolf-like.
“Hmm. He thought to himself. This is an opportunity for me to make my case for the role of the shepherd.”
And then he saw some teeth. He remembered once seeing the damage a wolf had done to a stray sheep. He knew that the people of the village were also terrified of wolves and what they did to sheep. He thought this might be an opportunity to get a few of the sheep outside the pen to join his flock, or at least for people to recognise his role as a shepherd. The thing is, he knew this was a dog that belonged to one of the townspeople. That this particular townsperson believed the dog was the best way to look after the sheep, so much that he’d even opined about the possibility of getting rid of the town’s common sheep altogether, and just getting dogs. It’s fair to say that the shepherd didn’t like this idea, and he didn’t love the idea of a bunch of wolf like creatures hanging around near his poor defenceless sheep.
The shepherd, despite knowing full well that this wasn’t a real wolf,* and knowing that the town would see through his ruse eventually, believed the town would recognise the damage a wolf might cause and see the connection in the maw of this black dog ran into the town crying “WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!” He interrupted a town council meeting where some reasonable voices had already been arguing that sheep need shepherds, and that dogs with wolf like tendencies also had a place in the town but the future of the town probably depended on everybody figuring out how to live together, despite and through disagreement. Just as they always had.
The thing is. The boy had tried this trick before. Many times. And when people realised that it was a dog, not the wolf who had previously caused such horrific damage to both sheep and dogs, they didn’t just stop listening to the shepherd. Some made plans to release the sheep from the shepherd’s pen. Others became even louder in their calling for dogs, who might better fight off wolves if they ever arrived, or indeed, keep the wolf from the door. Others simply wanted to exclude those in favour of the ancient art of shepherding from the table.
Everyone in the town has a concern for the safety of the sheep. Some might even want sheep to dress as dogs. Ultimately the town will decide the best way to do this, especially for the sheep in the commons, and they might listen to shepherds who speak out of concern for their sheep so long as they don’t keep raising the spectre of a sharp-toothed wolf wanting to devour everybody. Dogs might serve their place in keeping wolves at bay, and other sheep, outside the shepherd’s flock, safe (though not as safe as they’d be with a shepherd, and perhaps the shepherd’s job might be to ask that every sheep should be free to choose that safety, and to model that safety and love well).
See. The problem with this shepherd in this story is that he’s actually forgotten what shepherding is all about. And what is attractive to sheep. It’s not so much that they offer protection from wolves. It’s that they offer protection from wolves by facing them directly, not running to the town to get the town council to do their work for them out of fear. The shepherd had forgotten the ultimate lesson in shepherding; the lesson from the ultimate shepherd. The shepherd had also, in a way, or at least as it appears, become more worried about preserving the role of the shepherd than protecting the sheep.
The shepherd’s job isn’t to make the town fear the wolves, or hunt the wolves, or even keep the wolves at bay by making them fear dogs instead. The shepherd’s job is not to make the case against dogs by linking them to wolves. That is dog whistling. The shepherd’s job is to make the case that shepherds are better for sheep than dogs. And, if some people in the town choose to use dogs, the shepherd’s job is to help them fight off wolves. Wolves are hungry. The shepherd does have a role to play in spotting wolves, but this job is damaged every time the shepherd cries wolf when he doesn’t like a townsperson’s dog. Shepherding is a noble calling. The shepherd’s job is to protect sheep from wolves, and sometimes, it’s to make the wolf eat them so quickly it chokes on the bones and dies.
The shepherd’s job is not to protect the dignity of the office of shepherd by comparing it to the wolf, or the dog, or comparing dogs to wolves. The comparison should be so obvious it doesn’t have to be made. It’s to inspire others to become shepherds because they see how great and virtuous this sort of sacrificial love is. This love also helps the sheep feel at home and secure with the shepherd. This shepherd has lost his way. He’s lost the art of shepherding. He’s lost the real pattern of the ultimate shepherd through some transmission loss, but also because he’s seen how effective some of the louder more powerful voices in the town are at getting their way. This analogical shepherd share’s the goals of the ultimate shepherd, but has lost his method. He’s decided to cry WOLF! Rather than facing the wolves at the cost of himself. In doing so, he is at risk of just being a hired hand, and not a shepherd. A real shepherd has skin in the game in such a way that the real wolves, and the dogs, bite the shepherd and not the sheep, or when the sheep get bitten because they wander off, he’s there to save them and patch them up. The ultimate shepherd dies for his sheep.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” — Jesus, the ultimate shepherd, in John 10:11-16
*There are real wolves. The holocaust and the stolen generation are good evidence for this, and might be times when shepherds failed, where shepherds became allies with the wolves, or were eaten first and nobody listened. The town should probably be made aware somehow when a real wolf comes. And this is one point where this analogy falls down, which kind of proves the point that analogies are terrible. And sometimes dogs become wolf like and attack sheep. But the shepherd needs to have skin in the game in these situations and be able to show the tooth marks if he’s going to be taken seriously as a wolf-fighter.
Post script. In case the analogy breaks down. This is me, by analogy, arguing that making an analogy to something really terrible like the holocaust or stolen generation is a dangerous, high risk, game and the ACL should stop playing it because it is stopping other ‘shepherds’ being able to protect our sheep. Analogies and comparisons are fraught. I am, for the record, comparing the ACL to the boy who cried wolf, but also suggesting that in losing Jesus and his example they are playing as the “Hired help” not the shepherds.
Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.
Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.
Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.
Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).
I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.
“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference
This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.
We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.
It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.
So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:17
I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.
I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms. The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…
“… you have taken off your old self with its practicesand have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:10-14
Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.
Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?
Did they say “X”?
Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…
And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things.But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20
This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.
This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.
A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.
Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.
In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.
Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.
If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-20
This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? — CS Lewis, God In The Dock
I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron
Epic stories — myths — are only as compelling as their hero. Sometimes, in modern storytelling, the formula has been broken so that the ‘hero’ is not heroic at all, but is relatably conflicted. A character at war within himself or herself, and so our modern stories have gritty anti-heroes, or we view stories sympathetically through the eyes of a villain. This leads to a certain way of imagining the world, but it probably doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous imagination that leads to an enchanted view of life the universe and everything. I’d argue its disenchanting, and depressing, and pushes us towards accepting a gritty, immanent, version of reality and trying to make the best of it.
Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero
Epic stories that occur within an ‘immanent’ reality — where the here and now is everything — struggle to move us, or to invite us to see what things could be, rather than simply seeing how things are. In episode 3 we considered the sorts of immanent heroes in our modern myths, and suggested the incarnate hero — the hero as neighbour produced by a problem in a place with a view to solving that problem from a position of attachment to people and place is the best sort of immanent hero (as opposed to hero as stranger coming into a problem place). So Daredevil was the best example of this from the modern pantheon of heroes — whether Marvel or DC. But, perhaps haunted by a past where an enchanted ‘transcendent’ reality was taken for granted — or perhaps because of that gnawing human sense that we’ve lost some infinite thing — epic storytellers (including the writers of modern comics) have long played with the need for a more transcendent sort of hero. An otherworldly stranger who steps into the world to pull us from a mess, while helping us see life in the world properly. These storytellers often depict someone who steps into the machinery of life and our world with a transformative agenda — the saviours or villains in these stories are ‘outsiders’ — wholly other — like Thor, or Superman. These heroes who come ‘from above’ often function in a way old timey epic writers labelled Deus Ex Machina — as Gods in the machine; unlikely solutions to complex human problems, who turn a story on its head. The downside of these transcendent heroes is that unlike immanent ‘from below’ — the friendly, neighbourhood, hero — we can’t immediately relate to them. They are strangers. The visions of virtue they offer is almost always ‘other,’ or there is a chasm between us and them, in their alien or godlike nature, that we cannot hope to cross.
Here’s my thesis for this post: A really good enchanting story — a story that will push us towards a more complete view of the world, a more virtuous life, and a better ability to imagine a transformed world and life, will involve a godlike saviour figure coming into the machine, but will also have enough connections with our humanity that we are left with a pattern for living and imagining. Real re-enchantment will involve the transcendent and the immanent being held appropriately in tension, it won’t involve one collapsing into the other.
Epic stories — enchanting stories that give us a transcendent account of life —produced through the ages have charted this course between the nature of the divine and the implications for life in this world of this divine nature carefully. In some ancient stories — Greek myths, or even older myths like the Enuma Elish — deal mostly with the life of the gods, and treat humanity as an incidental bi-product, or even a distraction, these stories function to explain the nature and state of the cosmos, sometimes to account for the disinterest the divine world takes in our piddling, momentary, existence. Such stories were more difficult to churn into an ethical framework for hearers because the divine nature is so detached from life. Other epic stories where the gods step into the world to fight with or for a particular human cause are much more grounded, and so, have lasted and essentially been adapted into our modern myths — never more obviously than in the case of Thor who bridges the ancient gods, or epic heroes, with the modern. These stories, transcendent stories, serve us best when the heroes — or gods — interact with us in such a way that they ‘save us’ and in saving us, provide a pattern of life that will prevent us getting into the same trouble again. That’s what real salvation looks like; a path out of disaster. In an essay on epic heroes through the ages, Roger Rollin wrote on this sort of epic hero and their sociological function — both within the story, and within the community that tells the story.
“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader
In another essay about comic books functioning as modern epics, or myths, David Reynolds considers the formula that modern ‘epic’ narratives — including comic narratives — follow.
“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
Our post-modern epics, or myths, sometimes provide us with this sort of heroic saviour figure who stands apart from the human mess, but increasingly are not. Our heroes — for example, either Tony Stark as Iron Man, or Batman in his ‘Dark Knight’ iteration — are now flawed humans. Our ‘legendary heroes’ are not Holy messianic saviours figures. They are the reverse. Pious readers can’t jump to Jesus from these heroes any more when ‘baptising’ the stories for Christian consumption. They’re now left using these stories to explore the human condition. Because our heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, are all too human, they’re too like us. They don’t depart (mostly). But their presence actually leaves us without a model worth following, because they’re following us, just with superpowers, or fancy gadgets. The stories Rollin and Reynolds describe pre-date our post-modern ‘epics’, but actually diagnose the problem facing a world — or comic book universe — filled with flawed, fallen, characters.
The Marvel Universe needs a saviour
The Marvel Universe, in its modern cinematic/TV iteration started out a bit like a ‘harmonious paradise’ but the fall of this world didn’t just come about through villainy, it came because of the power put in the hands of flawed heroes who go to large scale war with super villains. Increasingly the stories told in this universe are dealing with the fallout in the universe that comes because Marvel’s heroes aren’t actually selfless. They’re profoundly selfish. They’re (even Thor) flawed and they’re (except for Thor) very human. Daredevil, of course, and now more recently, Jessica Jones, now live in a world, a New York, post ‘the incident’ — the wanton destruction of the city that happened when our heroes went to war with an enemy from the outside. Our stories are no longer stories of regaining paradise, as much as grappling with our inability, via flawed heroes, to do anything but perpetuate our fallen state. In the last post in this series we considered an alternative to the ‘hero as stranger’ — the ‘hero as neighbour’ — which is a game changer in an ‘immanent’ story, but not particularly helpful for epic stories that hope to help us see reality as enchanted, or to find meaning beyond the moment.
Good stories — enchanting stories — give us a way out of a purely immanent existence by inviting us to connect with a more fully meaningful view of life. A touch of the transcendent. There are those who are so fully invested in an immanent view of the world — the belief that the material realities of this life are the only realities worth exploring — who might dismiss a transcendent sphere as even worth exploring. Which explains much of our gritty storytelling.
The Marvel Universe does not just need good neighbours. Those who don masks to express the sentiment caught up by the hashtag #illridewithyou, it needs a saviour who leans down, offers a hand, and says #illhelpyouup. Neighbours are destined to be tainted by the universe — the environment — that has shaped them and their priorities. Let’s call it Batman Syndrome — Batman shapes Gotham, just as Gotham shapes him, and so an altered Batman shapes Gotham in an altered way, and in the end they become each other… This isn’t salvation so much as reconciliation, which is an immanent hope, but a transcendent story — a hero who is both in the city, and apart from it, offers a different hope. A hope untainted by a poisonous environment…
Immanent stories — these stories of becoming always end in tragedy. They describe the world as it is, and offer a compelling picture of love to fellow journeyers. But love is costly sacrifice, taking on the traits of your environment as you take on the environment for the sake of the other, or with some utopian vision that helps you lift the gaze from catastrophe to slightly more palatable catastrophe. Think Gotham without the Joker, or the crime bosses, and Hells Kitchen without Kingpin. But there’s always another villain around the corner. Transcendent stories — enchanting stories — don’t end in catastrophe, but what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. In his masterful On Fairy Stories, in which Tolkien outlines why we need enchanting stories, and the elements of these stories that lift our gaze from the immanent and offer us an escape from a broken reality as they move us when we participate.Tolkien embraced the idea that enchanted stories were a form of consolation or escapism — he said that’s absolutely the point, because we need to escape in order to re-imagine life. Tolkien speaks of the eucatastrophe as the perfect happy ending, a taste of joy, a vital element for enchantment, and one missing from our modern epics/tragedies.
The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
If the Marvel Universe is to have a happy ending, if the journey towards destruction that is both the result of its horrible villains, and the ‘heroism’ of its flawed saviours, it needs a virtuous hero to arrive who is untainted by the mess, who offers a vision for salvation, who is prepared to walk the talk, and who can truly restore and perhaps even renovate the ‘paradisiacal’ conditions we all have the sense we were made to enjoy. It needs a eucatastrophe brought about by a hero who brings a taste of joy. In ancient epic storytelling this sort of arrival on the scene of a potentially tragic story — a resolution bringer — especially when delivery seemed improbable, was called a deus ex machina, ‘a God from the machine’.
The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine
Which brings us to the latest instalment in the Marvel Universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron. And two literal gods from the machine — Ultron, and The Vision. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is all too aware of the problems created by the trajectory the Marvel universe is on, and so he, the flawed but altruistic genius, fashions a solution in his image. He attempts to create a godlike machine, a shield that will protect the world from any threat. And in this attempt creates a god from the machine — a god, Ultron — who in his godlike assessment of the situation, as he digests the entire internet, decides that humans are the problem. Ultron emerges as a new threat to humanity. An immanent, destructive, literal, God from the Machine.
Incidentally, while he might fall foul of some of the criticisms perennially directed at the deus ex machina — that he represents a contrived and convenient villain — Ultron is the embodiment of one of the greatest apocalyptic fears of the modern, secular, immanent. mind. He is the incarnation of a very modern, very immanent, concern; artificial intelligence that turns on us. He is the worst version of the ‘singularity’ — an immanent vision of the apocalypse.
Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark’s flawed utopian vision, a god from the machine but apart from humanity — a fusion of metal and code — soulless, without whatever non-physical reality it is that makes our humanity human. Ultron is an eerily immanent figure. Ultron’s imagination of salvation and transformation of the cosmos is one we need saving from. He is God in the Noah story, but without compassion or hope for humanity. In fact, some have suggested that Ultron is a secular rendition of the popular conception of the ‘God of the Old Testament’, while The Vision, his counterpart, or anti-thesis, is Jesus.
In the visage of Ultron, and then The Vision, we see a Dystopian, and then a Utopian, retelling of the same old immanent myth — a myth where humanity makes gods in order to pull us out of human made problems. Where we ultimately face a moment of crisis, or judgment, and need a saviour. Ultron wants to wipe out humanity — Noah style — The Vision wants to save us. Hero style. Both are the products of the same mechanical eschatology — this technological singularity — the apocalypse writ large, just in binary. In this eschatological frame we must pin our hopes on a saviour from the machine, because only a machine god will be enough to save us from the raging of the machine.
Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.
Bruce Banner: Ooh, it’s definitely the end times.
In this, the Marvel Universe shares an eschatology — a view of the end times — with the secular world that it is produced by. Our modern secular eschatology tends to involve a catastrophe for humanity either at the hands of the machines we create, or the world we destroy. The apocalypse is always, in a serious secular sense, and especially in our stories, a catastrophe of human making, requiring a human solution, or some super-human intervention. Nature is against us because we meddle, or the machine is against us because we aren’t careful enough in deciding which levers to pull, or what to combine. And, this is pretty much the origin story of every non-divine hero or villain in the Marvel universe. This apocalyptic stuff is about as epic as our (popular) story telling gets. This is where we ponder what the epic storytellers of old pondered — immortality, the limits of our humanity, and what the heroic life looks like in our time. These are our epics. And. They are still thoroughly disenchanting. The world is mechanical — we’re in trouble because we’ve pulled the wrong levers, we’ve built the wrong machines within this machine. The only hope proffered for our world is a god-from-the-machine. A machine god. Our future is tied to this ‘singularity’ moment — its just a question of whether we produce a judge or a saviour. A machine who is patient with our human faults, or who sees them as a glitch to be immediately eradicated. If this is the best we can imagine, then we’re in trouble when it comes to trying to find meaning in our world, meaning that sees the world — and life in the world — as something more than mechanical.
Ultron: “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.”
Ultron: Do you see the beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor. My swift and terrible sword and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers; turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing! When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.
Ultron was meant to be both ‘judge’ and the incarnation of a better, inspirational, version of humanity. In the Noah metaphor he wanted to both bring the flood, and build the ark. Only Ultron, as a human creation, falls. He is tainted with the same problems as those who created him, the ‘fallenness’ of humanity, and our role in the apocalypse is not tied to our flesh, but our nature.
Helen Cho: “The regeneration Cradle prints tissue; it can’t build a living body.”
Ultron: “It can, you can. You lacked the materials.”
Ultron: I was meant to be new. I was meant to beautiful. The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror… I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky and see hope… I’ll take that from them first.
Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers. People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there. Children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end.
The Vision is an interesting saviour. He is the machine incarnate, embodied to step between humanity and machinageddon. If Ultron is the machine passing judgment on the planet — part human — in the comics he’s described as “every inch a human being—except that all of his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials,” and part god from the machine. He’s the embodiment, or incarnation, of Stark’s personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S, some transcendent matter in the form of the ‘infinity stone’ embedded in his head, and synthetic human flesh on a metallic frame. The J.A.R.V.I.S component is of Stark’s making, the infinity stone comes from the gods — or from beyond the earth, but the creation of the synthetic body was Ultron’s initiative. The Vision’s making is an act of a machine god, but his breath — his life — comes from mankind and some transcendent life force via the infinity stone, and some lightning from Thor. The infinity stone is part of the fabric of the cosmos, which, in the Marvel Universe, was created by one God, a God who is not Thor, but is infinitely greater than him.
“Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.” — Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki
“…and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal—the final judge—hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of all gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!” — Thor on God, The Mighty Thor Annual #14 (1989), Marvel Comics, cited in Marvel Wiki, One-Above-All
The Vision is a bit-part god; a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of us, a bit of machine, and a few parts divine. Age Of Ultron positions him as a godlike saviour figure from above and below. He is a virtuous godlike character with enough purity to wield Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. He is, in this sense, a fusion of the immanent — flesh, code, and metal, and the transcendent — Thor’s lightning and the infinity stone. His divinity is hinted at with lines like:
I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… Iam. — The Vision
But he’s ultimately a ‘god’ within the cosmos, within a pantheon of equally not infinite gods, while the Living Tribunal stands apart in infinity, a distant deistic god. Thw Vision is called on to save from within the universe — part god from above, part god from below, this real god, kicks back, not intervening in the world as the universe falls apart. According to Thor at least, he’s the transcendent one who could really fix things. The infinity stones are something like a bridge to his power, but other than these stones, the transcendent is only incidentally connected to the immanent in Marvel, these bit part gods — The Vision and Ultron — like their Norse counterparts, are more immanent than transcendent, limited by how great the gap is between any of them and this real transcendent power, limited in power and to a particular place. They are finite.
Despite his godlikeness, and his name, The Vision does not have much of a vision for salvation. He should be able to save the universe, and yet, even as he destroys Ultron, he essentially admits humanity is doomed. Perhaps because humanity is not equipped to imitate his non-human virtues.
Ultron: Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave. The Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments. Ultron: [laughs] I suppose we are. The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that. Ultron: They’re doomed! The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them. Ultron: You’re unbelievably naïve. The Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.
The Vision is the ultimate #illridewithyou hero, only, he’s not human enough to carry it out like Daredevil. He remains ‘other’. Despite his incredible power and capacity to transform the world, he’s no more inspiring or enchanting than Daredevil, he just seems less likely to be shaped by his environment. While remaining ‘other’, The Vision, like Thor before him (and like Superman) is not ‘other’ enough, godlike enough, to bring a real solution into the picture for humanity, nor is he imitable enough for his solution to be democratised. The Vision only delivers temporary relief to the Marvel Universe, and so as an example for us as viewers looking to have our imagination shaped by an epic hero, falls short. The Vision is a god from the machine, but not the Eucatastrophe, or re-imaginative transformation, the Marvel Universe requires. There is no denial of the ‘universal final defeat’ Tolkien spoke of; in fact, such defeat is seen as inevitable even by the ‘saviour’ — whatever joy that is offered is immanent joy — The Vision’s ‘grace in our failings’ or beauty in temporality. These are immanent joys; the joy of the ‘journey’ alongside others, the joy in the moment, the joy in the struggle, rather than the joy of the destination.
The Vision v Jesus: God from the machine, or God into the machine
“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
“[The eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” — Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
The Vision is not this hero — he’s not this sort of god. So he does not bring that sort of joy, or hope. He is, ultimately, a product of the cosmos, born, in part, from outside earth but always from within the material realities of the universe. He’s a ‘god from below’ — destined, like any other epic hero, to grasp after something transcendent, that ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (to quote David Foster Wallace), and destined to stand beside us as we share that sense. He offers no road back to paradise lost — infinity lost. Because he hasn’t been there or seen it for himself.
Tolkien wasn’t writing On Fairy Stories to engage with the Marvel Universe, but he does speak about how Jesus is a better eucatastrophe than The Vision. Jesus is both the archetypal #illridewithyou hero who walks the path we walk, only with virtue, and the stranger-saviour who wears the cost of our broken pattern of life without joining in and perpetuating it. He comes into the world and takes steps towards restoring paradise precisely because he does not follow the pattern of a caped crusader. He absorbs the corruption of the world, he takes it upon himself — he becomes sin and death, but he is equipped, by virtue of his transcendent, divine, nature, to break the human cycle rather than perpetuating it. In his full humanity, and his offer of resurrection is able, also, to provide a pattern of life that might see hope
The Vision might be a secular Jesus figure, but he’s a cheap Jesus. Jesus is not a bunch of bits stitched together by a bunch of broken people, bringing their own brokenness to the table. He’s not part human, part machine, part divine — its in his paradoxical fusion of full divinity — or transcendence — with full humanity — or immanence — as a hero simultaneously from above and below — a God from the machine, and God coming into the machine in one person — that makes Jesus both the archetypal epic hero, and the eucatastrophe this world needs (and that the Marvel Universe could do with too). It’s these two natures working in symphony that means Jesus was able to enter our journey and secure a heroic victory over death on our behalf, while also inviting people to touch the infinite; to see the finite world as ‘enchanted,’ filled with divine meaning because he is both the one who holds all things in his hands, and the one whose hands were pierced by spikes to remove the threat of universal final defeat, and to provide a path and an invitation to us to join him in paradise renovated. These hands bring the finite and infinite together.
The Gospel is the best epic story, and Jesus the best epic hero, according to every formula for assessing such stories. Jesus provides a vision for a future world — the Kingdom of God — and invites people to follow his example in bringing a taste of this joy — being bringers of ‘eucatastrophic’ moments as we follow his example of the epic life. This has been a key belief of epic tellers of the Christian story from the early days of Christianity, here’s Athanasius, an old dude, reflecting on the nature of Christ in a way that seems to parallel with the modern archetypal hero story… the same story The Vision was expected to live out, but admitted he could not…
“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.” — Athanasius, On The Incarnation
According to Tolkien, Jesus, in the Gospel, is the prime example of the Eucatastrophe — the true eucatastrophe that all fictional eucastrophes draw on. Jesus is better than The Vision because he is better than any epic hero. His story is more compelling, and should stoke the fires of our imagination better than any other story, and lead to a more enchanted view of the immanent and transcendent meaning of life in this world than any other, this should lead us to make better art, tell better stories, and live better stories. Here’s a passage from On Fairy Stories.
In the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a faroff gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.
The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.
The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. 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. — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
If we’re followers of Jesus how should we think about social media? How do we keep tabs on how teenagers are using stuff like Instagram, Snapchat when we can’t even figure Facebook out?
These are, of course, the questions of our age.
I’m going to answer them a little here by making a certain assumption, that I’ll put up front. I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere (including how people who are leaders in churches might help the people they lead think about this stuff). I’m going to assume that we, people, as God’s image bearers, are God’s social media. That God’s people have a track record, beginning in the Old Testament, of using communication mediums to tell people about God, while avoiding the dangers that come from deadly communication mediums (like idol statues). We’re naive when we assume mediums don’t matter, but we’re over-correcting when we assume mediums that can become dangerous shouldn’t be used. Creation itself was meant to reveal God’s divine character and invisible qualities, the fact that we turn God’s creation into images of things he made, and worship those images, isn’t a problem with creation as a communication medium, but with us (see Romans 1:19-25).
“I have created an image of myself that I think others feel is unattainable, others look at as a role model, others look at as some type of ‘perfect human’.” — Essena O’Neill
If you believe what teenagers tell you about social media, Instagram is where the action is. It’s where people are crafting an image of themselves for others to see, and where people are finding images to follow — to worship — and to be shaped by. Snapchat, another image based service, is equally interesting, and equally ignored by Christians who talk about this stuff.
“Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don’t care if they see me at a party having fun… If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.” — Andrew Watts, A Teenager’s View on Social Media
One of the interesting things about Instagram and Snapchat, apart from their use of images, is that they don’t rely on the same algorithmic sorting of information that Facebook and Google use. They provide a stream of content unfiltered by an algorithm; except of course for the photos, which are ‘filtered’ first in terms of what images are shared and not shared, and ‘filtered’ in the sense of being made to look good via tweaking, often tweaking via the application of a pre-designed filter which applies an algorithm of effects to a photo. This content comes from people who people have chosen to follow, or, in the case of Instagram, content sorted via hashtags or location from newest to oldest.
Perhaps this shift to these new platforms, by our younger generations, is built on a cynicism about algorithms, and the desire to really be in control of one’s media experience.
“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, describing the Facebook newsfeed philosophy
I think this, in itself, is interesting because it means the reason we’re not confronted with pictures we don’t want to see — or the reason we’re confronted with pictures that cause us outrage — is not down to an algorithm that controls what you see, but is down to your choice in who to follow.
Anyway. Here are ten tips I’m giving to a bunch of teenagers for how to use image-driven social media — mostly not thinking about Facebook — as Christians.
1. Remember that you are God’s Social Media
We were made in God’s image to represent him in his world. That’s what images of God in the ancient world did. We, from the beginning, were meant to be God’s media. That was true for Adam, true for Israel, and is true for us in Christ. God should be made known through us, and through our connection with him and with others. We’re his representatives in his world, re-created in Christ to re-represent him.
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:3
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:18
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
— 2 CORINTHIANS 5:17
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
— 2 CORINTHIANS 5:20
2. Don’t worship, or become an image of, anything else.
Our human tendency is to make ourselves images of anything but God. Our first inclination is to want to be images of ourselves, rather than dependant on God. To be the pattern for life. That’s basically what Essena admitted above in the words “I have created an image of myself”… in replacing God, we actually end up worshipping ourselves, or some dead thing — an idol — and we become what we worship, and we become disconnected from the one who gave us a pattern for life.
All the stuff we know about media and the brain confirms what the Bible says about idolatry. Our brains are shaped by the things we consume, including the mediums we use to consume things. There’s a saying that’s popular in a particular branch of media studies that looks at the effects of different communication mediums being introduced into society: “We shape our tools, and then, they shape us.” Add this to the line that sums up much of what we know about how our brains take shape “neurons that fire together, wire together” and we find that it’s not just the things we present in our media, but the mediums themselves, that shape us. It’s true that we become what we worship — the objects we fix our sight, imagination, and desires on.
… Idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see… Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
— PSALM 115:4-5, 8
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
— ROMANS 12:2
3. Share Jesus.
If we are communication mediums for whatever we worship, then the way we use mediums will reflect who we are, and communicate what it is we worship. If someone looked at your social media accounts, who would they say you worship? Our job isn’t to try to make images of God, or of things we worship, but to point people to God via our lives, and via what God has made (and how we use it). God’s handiwork — the stuff he makes, including the people he remakes in Christ — should point people to him, which for us means our ‘good works’ that he has prepared for us to do, as a subset of his creative acts, should show who we are “in Christ Jesus.”
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
— ROMANS 1:20
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
— EPHESIANS 2:10
4. You must decrease. He must increase
Our human tendency is to want to be at the centre. It’s the experience of being creatures whose lives are projections of our own subjectivity — our thoughts, our imagination, our desires, are projected through our actions. The Gospel calls us to re-centre ourselves, and our lives, and our thoughts about others to make Jesus the subject, and the centre of reality, and to point people to him, not ourselves. I like the way John the Baptist describes this experience as he is confronted with the truth about who Jesus is.
He must become greater; I must become less
— JOHN 3:30
This runs counter to the way people in our world use social media to project either ourselves as the ultimate subject of reality, or to present our idols as the subject of our lives and worship.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others
— PHILIPPIANS 2:3-4
In a practical sense, this changes the sort of stuff we tend to want to share/project into the world so that we’re not crafting an image of ourselves, but seeking to serve others (which will always, in some sense, involve sharing something of yourself). This Venn Diagram from Wait But Why’s post on 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook pretty much nails it. Instagram and Snapchat work a little differently to Facebook, but the question is who are your photos pointing to? You? Or Jesus? Who are they serving? You and the image you craft as you ‘worship’? Or Jesus, and others?
5. Don’t Fight.
Nothing looks worse on social media than you arguing with, and grumbling about, other Christians. We’re actually called to be God’s image bearing ‘social media’ together, in and through our relationships with each other as we, together, find our identity in Christ. And arguing and grumbling undermines and so destroys this ‘image’… When we want to fight, Paul’s answer is to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” whose approach to status and power is described in Philippians 2, where Paul follows this instruction, and his description of Jesus’ example, with:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.
— PHILIPPIANS 2:14-16
We’ll stand out on social media as ‘shining stars’ if we make social media a place where we’re not living for our own name, or glory, but for the sake of others — and where we demonstrate this by not fighting or grumbling.
6. Online is great. Offline is greater.
Heaps of people, mostly old people, are super-negative about social media because it’s disembodied. You’re talking at people through a screen. You stare at screens rather than ‘doing life’ in a very present sense. The place you are physically put is definitely part of reality when you are a finite creature, but we’re called to hold our physical reality in balance with the eternal spiritual reality we’ve become part of. As a Christian, you’re connected to the people in your immediate vicinity, but, paradoxically, you’re also connected with God, by the Holy Spirit, and ‘in Christ’ — and through this connection you’re, in a real sense, connected to every other Christian who has ever lived, and who currently lives. Virtual connections are a pointer to this reality, and a great substitute for the physical presence we will enjoy for eternity. If this is a little too abstract — virtual, online, connections are also a way to overcome some of the limits of being finite, in order to have real and significant relationships. They’re a brilliant new way to make space and time less of an impediment for relationships with people, they become dangerous if they stop us ever being really present with the people in our lives, or if we never anticipate coming face to face with those we ‘commune’ or ‘communicate’ with via these channels.
In the old days, like the Bible days, people wrote letters to overcome the limits space and time place on our communication with others. John wrote letters like this — and they’re obviously valuable because they’re in the Bible and have continued circulating for almost 2,000 years since. He saw the value of letters, but placed a greater relational value on presence, and his letters anticipated this presence.
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
— 2 JOHN 1:12
What are some ways we can use social media to anticipate or invite face to face contact, even if they’re global relationships? One way is to look forward to, or anticipate, a shared eternity through a shared connection with Jesus.
7. God’s Word is the best media.
Everything God made is, in a sense, media. In that it reveals something about him to us. It helps bridge the divide between creator and creature, or writer and audience. God is most clearly revealed in Jesus, who is most clearly revealed, for us, in the Bible, which is all about him.
Whatever media practices, or social media practices, we cultivate will be best, or at least will relate best to our created purpose, if we start with media practices centred on God’s media. Not our own. And these practices are, at least significantly, to occur within our ‘social network’ as God’s people — we’re not called to plug in the headphones and focus on God as individuals as though we’re an island.
Check this out. This is a fairly famous passage from Colossians. It definitely already has a corporate sense in that the ‘dwelling among you richly’ all relies on things we do together. But our tendency is to think this is speaking particularly to us as individuals. That it’s a set of instructions for personal godliness.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
— COLOSSIANS 3:16-17
But this is a problem, at least a little, because we don’t use youse. Everything about these verses is corporate. Let’s play it again, while breaking all sorts of rules — well, one — about english.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among YOUSE richly as YOUSE teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever YOUSE do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
We need to focus on the message of Christ, via multimedia practices, in relationship. God’s media is media we’re to use socially. And this should both come before we pick up ‘social media’ from the world, and it might inform how we use social media. Not in that it will make us boring regurgitators of random Bible verses, but because this message of Christ should soak everything we do and say as Christians.
How can social media help you, and your ‘network’ have the message of Christ dwell among you richly?
8. Prayer is the best social networking
Prayer is how we express that we have become part of the ultimate social network — that we have, in a profound way, been united with the God who made the universe. That we have been brought into the eternal, self-giving, community of the Trinity, and invited to communicate with God, our Father, in a way that is enabled by Son and Spirit. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is an incredibly profound demonstration of prayer, and explanation of the privilege we now have as pray-ers.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
— JOHN 17:20-21
We are members of this incredible social network, and with that, comes the privilege of communicating in this network — but also the responsibility to pray for those in every other one of our networks. There is not a person you are connected with on social media who you are not instructed to pray for. We’re called to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), for our fellow Christians (which Paul models in Ephesians 1:15-18, and then instructs us to do in Ephesians 6:18-20).
How might social media help you to pray for the people in your life?
9. Use your new imagination to share Jesus on new mediums
There are plenty of pitfalls with adopting new mediums without thinking. But we’ve been adopted into a new ‘network’ in a way that gives us great freedom to act as people with renewed minds, who are being transformed by God’s media. We are creatures of imagination, and we’re invited to use these in creating and participating in media, as God’s media. Giving people a bunch of rules and regulations for how to be ‘good’ social media users is a guaranteed way to make people un-imaginative and inauthentic on social media. It’s a pitfall most social media experts fall into. The formula for success is to be generous, interesting and authentic. So. How might we use snapchat or instagram? Be creative. Tell stories. Throw attention onto others. Celebrate.
I had a great coffee with my mate Dave Miers this week and picked his brain about how he — very intentionally — uses check-ins and hashtags to share bits of what he believes with strangers on Instagram. He’s even had someone come to his church because they started following him on Instagram because he uses relevant local hashtags, and tags photos in excellent local places, while sharing snippets of what he’s thinking or reading in God’s word, or in books he’s reading in those cafes.
10. Tell real(ly thankful) stories
This follows the above. People love stories. We are creatures who live by stories as we create stories. Social media thrives on stories. Most people craft stories that are boring and self-seeking, or tap into some story that we want to imagine ourselves living. I love stuff like the 365 Grateful project that encourages people to cultivate gratitude.
And I reckon gratitude is fantastic. But I think we, as Christians, are called to appropriately direct our gratitude beyond the great people in our lives, and past the ‘universe’ which conspires to give us great experiences — and we’re called to cultivate thankfulness to the God who makes excellent media, who has re-created us to be actors in his story. That’s how we give God’s world its purpose back — how we stop falling into the trap of living for ourselves, or making the mistake of worshipping God’s great media instead of God as the imaginative creator of great media.
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
— 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5
We cultivate thankfulness in the same way that people are trying to practice gratitude. By expressing it. In real ways. By being thankful for the big things, and small things, God has made. And by using social media to do that — to be thankful for what God has given us, in this world and in Jesus, and by being thankful for the people he has given us as part of our networks. That’s a natural way to soak your life in the message of Christ, and to be God’s workmanship, rather than building your own image via the things you share online.
I love this so much. This service, Dumb Cuneiform, takes the messages you send using a frictionless, ephemeral, media transmission service built using modern ‘script’ (code and pixels) — Twitter — and converts them to a solid, long lasting, tangible message written in ancient script (cuneiform etchings). It’s brilliant.
Here’s a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that might explain why I think this is so cool.
“The written word evolved from image to word – the hieroglyphics of Egypt, to the Cuneiform text of Sumeria, to various alphabets. With alphabets came the rise of literature and scribal cultures, and the evolution of new languages. These were applied to changing mediums, from the walls of pyramids, to clay tablets, to papyrus. The rise of papyrus did not signal the end of communication with stone, just as the rise of the written word did not signal the end of visual communication. Communicative texts are produced on a space-time grid – durable media (eg stone inscriptions) emphasise time, while portable media (eg papyrus) emphasise space. This use of a medium is the choice of the communicator based on the situation and intention…
Low levels of literacy meant the first audience for written texts was smaller than a visual or spoken communicative act, but the ease of transmission of a papyrus scroll, as compared to a stone stelae, or clay tablet, transformed the reach of the written word. This reach depended on portability and repetition, or transmission of the message…
The success of any empire is proportionate to the success of its communication program. [Marshall] McLuhan expanded [Harold] Innis’ insight to suggest the empires who coped best with change had the best chance of expansion and longevity because “Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.” The kingdoms that coped with this change were the kingdoms that thrived.”
You put stuff in stone if you want it to last, but to be harder to transport than paper, or the spoken word. You put stuff on paper, and make lots of copies, if you want it to spread throughout the borders of your empire (or beyond), and if you want this distribution to happen quickly. There are lots of examples of the rise and fall of empires from history that follow the Innis-McLuhan theory described above. People who grapple with how their messages can be supported by the available mediums are generally more successful than people who don’t. Here’s an example; the success of the Protestant Reformation which is often attributed to the printing press, was in part possible because the media the Reformers used was able to be spread quickly, and supported its basic thesis that people everywhere could, and should, know things about theology (the ‘priesthood of all believers’). The transmission of the key messages of the Reformation was supported by the media the Reformers used to carry these messages. The Catholic Church built big and beautiful churches out of stone, and couldn’t shift media practices — including the choice of medium — without ceding a vital point about lay people and their desire to read stuff in a language other than Latin. The war of these ’empires’ was, in some sense, determined by the media they used to fight it. Your choice of where to put stuff you want to say on the ‘space-time’ grid — timeless or timely — is important.
This service, Dumb Cuneiform, is fun because it invites us to ask questions about how we use media now, and what sort of messages we have become more likely to send via our digital media channels because they work to collapse the obstacles of space (digital messages occupy no physical space — they’re not paper or stone), and time (we can fling things across the globe instantly, they last in some sense, forever), and so cost. The ‘new media grid’ means messages are cheap to produce and last forever, but this means, too, that many more messages are produced and so nobody cares about, or can pay attention to, everything an ’empire’ writes — or everything you write. This service tips the scales back. It takes 2 weeks, and the process of etching and baking a tablet takes significantly more time than belting out a tweet.
You tweet stuff if you want to get it out fast, but to not last much beyond the average time the tweet stays on the first page of your follower’s twitter feed (unless you get your tweet favourited, which is a move towards permanence). This service is fun because it turns the nature of Twitter on its head, and maybe asks us to consider just how vapid our communication has become.
How are you using modern mediums to build something timeless — as the empire builders of the past did?
What would the internet look like if people started crafting their tweets as if they were going to be etched in stone?
Chances are you’re reading this because you’re my friend, you may have worked with me, gone to school with me, you might always have that nagging suspicion about my sanity because I work for a church.
Are you one of the many Aussies who grew up going to a church run school, or who occasionally got dragged along to Sunday school by a friend, or relative? Are you a little bit curious about why, given your experience of church, anyone bothers getting out of bed on a Sunday to hang around with a bunch of people they don’t really know, who they probably have no good reason to love?
We’d love to help answer this curiosity, and so, this video is something our church Media Team put together to help re-introduce the idea of church. Most churches have moved on from the sort of church you might have experienced in your childhood. We’re mostly only 10 years behind the curve now when it comes to technology and our ability to understand and make culture. But hopefully we’re catching up.
If you haven’t been to church for a while, and don’t know what to expect if ever you ‘darken the doors’ of a church now, or don’t know what it is that churches that aren’t the church you might remember from your school years, or Sunday school as a kid, here’s a little run through of how and why we do things the way we do at our church.
You might be watching this video because you work for a church and you’re trying to figure out what you have to say about your church, or what you can offer the people around you. I quite like this as a departure from some of our previous ‘vision videos’ where we describe who we are in terms of what we want to achieve. I was very involved in some of those, this time around, my version of this video involved a talking smart fridge of the future. I think we can all agree this is a better video because it didn’t go with that idea.
If you haven’t been for a while, and you live in Brisbane, then why not come check us out one Sunday — or, if you’re not in Brisbane, or nowhere near South Bank, Carina, or Springfield (where Creek Road churches meet) let me know where you live and I’ll introduce you to a church near you.
On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead.Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!”Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12
St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.
When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. As a PR hack, who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living, I genuinely believed this trap was deadly.
So what’s happened?
Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.
This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.
I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.
We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.
Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.
You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:
Please pay attention.
To the world.
Give it generously.
Lavish it in droves.
Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:
“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.
And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…
“We become, neurologically, what we think”
The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:
But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see…
Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.
Paul, in Romans, says:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.
Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.
Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.
That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.
And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.
I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.
Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.
As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?
I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.
I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:
“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon
Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?
I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.
All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…
Our Disenchanted world
I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.
The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.
But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:
Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.
One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.
“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist
These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.
These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.
Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.
Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?
It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.
Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.
“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction
The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.
“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children
But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?
In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…
Comics and the “real” world
Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.
It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton
The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).
Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.
While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.
The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.
Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.
That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York
“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger
“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com
The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader
But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.
“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader
What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.
What places do to people, what people do to places
There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.
In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.
“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings
Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.
“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.
“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative
But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.
One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.
CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.
In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image
Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23
Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent
The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.
But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.
“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…
Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…
So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories
So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.