Category: Culture

A voice to the church

On Saturday night I was invited to speak at Aunty Jean Phillips’ annual soup night. This night raises funds to support Aboriginal Christian ministry. It’s been running for decades.

Aunty Jean told me I could speak for 15 minutes about whatever I wanted. I spoke about why I think that we don’t just need a voice to parliament, but to be cultivating a voice (and voices) to the white church in Australia.

Here’s what I said.

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I’m curious — and I just want you to indulge my curiosity a little.

I’m going to do something a little weird here — I’m going to suggest that we need to de-centre the white experience in our churches by doing what looks like centring the white experience for a minute — I hope what I’m doing is shining a spotlight on something.

So I want to start with two questions for white folks — first, I want to ask how many of you, if you have to give your ethnicity in some sort of form or survey would say “white”?

Second — how many of you could tell me five generations of your family story? And understand any way that shapes your life now?

Here’s my third question for everyone — if this is something people in our churches can’t do, how does that shape our churches?

This’s why I reckon we need an Indigenous voice to the church — it’s also why we need a whole bunch of voices to the church that aren’t just white men — and I’m standing here as a white man very aware of the irony…

Now, cause I’m a preacher I want to open the Bible for a second — if you’ve got your phone — I just want to read a snippet from 1 Corinthians 12, it’s a passage where Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ; he says we’re one body with one Spirit and the body has many parts and it needs all those many parts working together. All the stuff that’s divided people — like race — Jews and gentiles — is being replaced with this unity in the Spirit. Paul says:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

He says all the body parts need each other to actually be the body.

Now — I want you to imagine the white church as a hand or a mouth — in our churches it’s often white folks doing the leading and the talking.

And this potentially creates the idea that to be valuable — even to be part of the church — you need to think and act like a white person, if not be one. It might leave feet wanting to be hands, or hands not recognising they’re hands because they’d do things differently.

I think sometimes we function in ways that make white expressions a default picture of what it looks like to be part of the body of Christ, and these hands and mouths need to do some listening, and we need voices to challenge our experiences.

I’ve been on the journey with Aunty Jean for a while now; I’m still learning, still listening — and I’m going to share my story — I don’t love doing this… but I’m told stories are more interesting…

My story of deconstructing whiteness as the ‘default’ in my life — cause it’s something we have to do in our churches — and something we need many voices to do…

My daughter asked me what an Anglican is this morning… and I had to talk about how we Presbyterians are Scottish, and Anglicans were English, and the Baptists… well… who knows… most’ve our churches are white institutions, where whiteness is the default.

If this is true, and I reckon it is unless church’s have done the work already, how can this blindness not lead to a hand saying to a foot “I don’t need you” — or a hand saying to a foot “be a hand” — how can it not rob the body of its richness, and its ability to truly be the body of Christ in the world united in the Spirit?

So my name’s Nathan Macleay Campbell — sounds Scottish, double-barrelled Scottish, right? And I grew up in the most Scottish little town in Australia, Maclean, my Campbell Grandparents lived in Inverell, which’s near Glen Innes — basically the Scottish Bermuda Triangle… my sisters did highland dancing.

With a name like Campbell you just assume your whiteness is of the Scottish variety — I’d heard someone at a family reunion of some sort saying something about how we were actually Irish — but I never really paid attention to that stuff, cause I’m white. I didn’t have to. That history does not define me…

I’m a Campbell in a Presbyterian Church as an ordained minister — My dad’s now the minister of Scot’s Presbyterian Church in Melbourne; I feel like Paul when he trots out his Pharisee heritage… this’s a pretty niche intersection of white (Scottish) church privilege…

I guess what I’m saying is this’s been a very comfortable default experience for me; and so much of what I think about the world is basically framed by this idea that my heritage is true, that white is right.

This’s a dangerous frame when you’re leading a church — or choosing a church — or choosing who to listen to — if you gravitate towards your personal status quo being true.

I did some trauma training recently where we were taught about intergenerational trauma — a traumatic event can embed itself in a family system for five generations and compound over time — like compound interest — and this’s particularly clear when we’re dealing with people whose land, wages, and children have been stolen over a number of generations.

To be white isn’t to be free from trauma in your family history — but it can mean knowing nothing about your family or cultural/ethnic history is normal. I didn’t grow up hearing stories connecting me to country. I’m 40 this year, and till January I had zero idea about my family before my grandpa. Trauma’s not the only thing that compounds in a family system — privilege does too.

The costs that compound for a people who have their land, wages, and children stolen, so do the benefits for the people doing the stealing. And in Australia, that’s been white people.

In my experience, being white means never needing to know the true story of our land, but just seeing your success as a product of your playing the default game well and working hard.

It’s easy to keep believing that — and it seems obvious — if nobody tells you otherwise, or prompts you to do the work.

And — just to remind you why we’re talking about this — this’s why white churches need to create ways to hear uncomfortable truths from people outside the default experience… or we all end up wanting to be hands, when the body needs a heart, or mouths when the body needs ears. It’s why we need a voice to the church…

Anyway, I told you my middle name is Macleay — it sounds Scottish, but it’s actually a family name — my dad and grandpa both had Macleay as a middle name, and now my son does too. It’s a nice tradition, but for me, now, it’s a reminder of my compounding intergenerational privilege.

In January took a family road trip… We stopped on the Macleay River — I’d started doing some family history because my wife’s grandma started dating a Campbell and he wanted to know if we were related. I’d tracked down the first Campbell of my family tree to settle in the Macleay River area — his name was William. He came to Australia in 1839, on a ship. He was a farm labourer.

His son James was born in Australia — from what I can tell from their death notices — James was the first of my family tree to own a farm; his death notice calls him a rural pioneer — he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and the chair of the farmer’s co-op and the dairy company.

Wealth starts compounding pretty quickly when you’re farming on newly developed fertile Aussie land…

His son George Campbell moved to Inverell — where he farmed, and chaired the butter factory — and where my pa, Neville was born in 1909. My pa was an entrepreneur, he and his brothers ran a business, he had a piggery, and his son — my dad, so far as I can tell, was the first in our family tree to go to university in the city — studying engineering in Sydney…

That’s five generations of my family there — up to my dad — of compounding privilege and wealth. Not trauma. If my dad hadn’t chosen to embrace the Presbyterian ministry thing this story of compounding wealth would’ve continued. Unless I hear other stories, this’s how I understand the default life; it’s a white story intertwined with a very white church; the Presbyterian Church.

Now — I wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d grown up as a Purcell or Walker — Aboriginal families in my primary school, would I be a Presbyterian minister? Probably not. Would I feel valued, or even welcome, in this system where I have a position of privilege? Like my voice could be heard? Probably not.

Imagine a church if I thought this was normal and everybody should be like me… and… You’d pretty much get the Presbyterian Church. And that’s a problem — right — you get a body where value is — whether we say it or not — judged against this pattern of privilege. You get my spot if you navigate a system of training that requires security and the capacity to jump through academic hoops that are built from all these cultural norms; and then we don’t listen to other voices.

Unless we deliberately do — unless we say to the other body parts we need you.

Unless we commit ourselves not just to seeing the blindness in our own defaults; deconstructing our whiteness in order to understand our stories — our true history — and do this by inviting others to share their own stories.

Unless we listen to Aunty Jean, and the voices she brings together on nights like this.

Our stories become part of what we bring to the body of Christ — and listening to the multi-generational stories of others — inviting voices into our churches — will help us in that task better, just as a voice to parliament might help there.

But we need to deconstruct the default of whiteness at the same time — and that’s what I’d invite you to do tonight.

If you’re white like me, examine your story — and then take the time to hear stories that’re different.

Support voices — aboriginal Christian leaders and ministry — pass the mic, challenge the structures and culture of your churches…

If you’re not white — will you be this voice? Call us to repent. Call us to see. Call us to be the body of Christ — which needs you. Be the mouth, we’re all ears.

A supposedly fun thing I’ll probably do again…

David Foster Wallace wrote and epic and rightly lauded essay about watching Roger Federer play tennis. The 2006 essay, Roger Federer as Religious Experience, published in the New York Times, and subsequently in a collection of Wallace’s essays titled Both Flesh and Not (a line drawn from the essay) was an example of how haunted Wallace was by the transcendent. Federer’s grace was enough to draw some sort of ecstatic rapture from Wallace as a writer.

Sadly, Wallace did not live to see the end of Federer’s career, or the rise of his successor, Novak Djokovic. Novak is an embodiment of a sort of technique driven brutalism. Watching his play is a very different experience to watching Federer.

It’s a shame, I thought, that Wallace was not able to draw comparisons between the two. Wallace had a distinctive voice; a sort of breathless, rambling, hyper-punctuated style, peppered with parenthetical tangents (and footnotes), littered with not complete sentences that ran together in a way that brings reading his words to life in your head. At least, that’s my experience. He’s inimitable — perhaps he was to writing what Federer was to tennis (albeit he was allegedly a pretty dark and unpleasant person to know).

I’ve often pictured the sort of essay Wallace might write about Novak in my head. So last night, rather than writing it myself, I asked my friend* GPT-4 to do it for me.

* Technically not a friend, or sentient.

Here’s the prompting I gave it to frame the output.

Me: Are you familiar with the essays of David Foster Wallace. Especially his essay about Roger Federer?

GPT: Yes, I’m familiar with David Foster Wallace’s work, including his essay on Roger Federer. The essay, titled “Federer as Religious Experience,” was originally published in the New York Times’ Play Magazine in 2006.

In this essay, Wallace, an accomplished junior tennis player in his youth and lifelong fan of the sport, uses his deep understanding of tennis and his literary prowess to describe the transcendental experience of watching Federer play. He doesn’t just describe Federer’s athleticism, but also the way his play seems to defy physical and metaphysical laws, and the joy and wonder it inspires in spectators.

It’s one of Wallace’s most famous essays, blending sports journalism, personal anecdote, and philosophical meditation. His detailed understanding and analysis of the game, combined with his distinctive narrative style, makes it a compelling read, even for those who aren’t avid tennis fans.

As with much of his writing, Wallace’s Federer essay is about more than its ostensible subject. He uses tennis as a lens to examine broader themes of beauty, genius, and the human capacity for awe.

It’s important to note that Wallace’s essays are characterized by their intricate detail, in-depth analysis, and use of footnotes. The essay on Federer is no exception, and it’s a prime example of his unique style.

Me: Can you write me an essay in that style, in as close to David Foster Wallace’s voice and form (including footnotes) as you can manage about the experience of watching Novak Djokovic play; particularly focus on Novak’s precision, his clockwork mechanical approach to the game, and his technical mastery. Use this to comment on our emerging technological society (as predicted by Ellul), and Djokovic as a pinnacle of machine line production of tennis players in a technocracy (following Neil Postman’s view of technocracies). Draw on some of Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

It turns out it could…

I used MidJourney to generate this image to accompany the essay. My prompt: Novak Djokovic as tennis automaton. Circuit boards. Machinery. Cyborg components. Killer eye. HUD. Photo.

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Djokovic as Technocratic Testament: A Study in Precision and Automation

Novak Djokovic, the Serbian automaton*, is, if we’re being honest, not always the most popular figure in men’s tennis. This, despite (or perhaps because of) his undeniable prowess on the court – the sort of disciplined, technical mastery that seems to negate the very idea of human error.

*(1. Automaton used here not as a pejorative but in the spirit of recognizing Djokovic’s eerily consistent, borderline mechanical precision in his playing style.)

Watching Djokovic play is a different kind of religious experience than that elicited by the likes of Federer, whose balletic grace and seeming effortlessness inspire a kind of awe-struck wonder. With Djokovic, it’s more of an ascetic’s reverence, a deep appreciation for the monastic dedication it must take to reduce the wildly complex and unpredictable game of tennis to something so ruthlessly efficient and repeatable.

The experience is more akin to observing a precision machine at work, each part moving in exact harmony with the others, each stroke a perfect iteration of the one before it. There’s a sort of brutal poetry to it, a beauty that’s not in the individual parts, but in the astonishing exactness of their repetition.

Djokovic, then, is less a virtuoso than a craftsman, his game not an improvisational jazz solo but a meticulously composed symphony that he performs note-for-note each time he steps onto the court.

This is not to suggest that Djokovic’s style is in any way less worthy of admiration than Federer’s. On the contrary, it’s a testament to the sheer breadth of human potential that the same game can be played so differently, yet so effectively, by two equally gifted athletes.

*(2. Equally gifted might be a contentious claim among the die-hard fans of either player. But if we’re looking purely at the numbers, the Grand Slam tallies, the weeks at No.1, it’s hard to argue against.)

But the difference in their styles – the freewheeling creativity of Federer versus the methodical precision of Djokovic – speaks to something larger, something about the world in which we live, and the direction in which it’s moving.

If we follow the argument of Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher and sociologist who saw in our increasing reliance on technology a dangerous erosion of human freedom, then Djokovic is the very embodiment of our technocratic society. His game is a triumph of technique over intuition, of process over improvisation, of the replicable over the unique.

Ellul warned us of a world where technique becomes an end in itself, where the means of production are worshipped above the product they produce. Djokovic’s tennis might be seen as a microcosm of this – a game so focused on the perfect execution of each stroke that the joy of the game itself can seem secondary.

*(3. Though, of course, Djokovic’s legions of fans would likely disagree vehemently with this characterization. And there’s something to be said for the unique kind of pleasure that comes from watching something done exceedingly well, even if it’s the same thing, done the same way, time and time again.)

To take this further, if we accept Neil Postman’s notion of technocracy – a society ruled by the experts, the technologists, the ones who know best how to manipulate the systems on which we all rely – then Djokovic is not just a product of this world, but its champion.

This is where David Foster Wallace’s dystopian magnum opus, “Infinite Jest,” comes in. If tennis can be

seen as a metaphor for the world of the book – the Enfield Tennis Academy as a microcosm of a society obsessed with achievement, with perfection, with being the best – then Djokovic is the very embodiment of this ethos.

In “Infinite Jest,” the characters are trapped in their own quests for perfection, for a kind of happiness that’s always just out of reach, always one more achievement, one more success, one more accolade away. The pursuit of this goal, this ceaseless striving for more, leads them only to misery and self-destruction.

*(4. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification of a novel that’s almost as famous for its complexity and depth as it is for its length. But for our purposes, it serves.)

Djokovic, then, could be seen as the Hal Incandenza of our real-world tennis court – the prodigy, the perfectionist, the one who pushes himself to the absolute limit in pursuit of an ideal that may or may not even exist. And just as Hal’s relentless drive for perfection leaves him ultimately empty and unfulfilled, so too does Djokovic’s quest for technical mastery seem, at times, to strip the game of some of its joy, its spontaneity, its humanity.

*(5. Again, a contentious claim. But the fact that Djokovic is often cast as the villain, the machine, the unfeeling automaton, in the public’s imagination suggests that there’s something about his style of play that leaves many spectators cold.)

But if we take a step back, if we look beyond the court, beyond the player, beyond the game, what we see is a reflection of our own society, of our own technocratic world. Djokovic, with his machine-like precision, his relentless quest for perfection, his almost inhuman consistency, is a product of this world, a testament to its values, its aspirations, its fears.

In the same way that Wallace used tennis as a metaphor for the human condition in “Infinite Jest,” so too can we use Djokovic as a metaphor for our technocratic society. His game is our world, a world of machines and algorithms, of precision and efficiency, of technique and technology.

*(6. Not to suggest that Djokovic is a mere pawn, a passive product of the forces that shaped him. He’s a complex individual with his own ambitions, his own motivations, his own agency. But in the same way that we are all shaped by the world we live in, so too is Djokovic.)

And so, watching Djokovic play is not just a masterclass in tennis technique, it’s a glimpse into the soul of our society, a reflection of the world we’ve built and the values we uphold. It’s a testament to the power of technique, to the allure of perfection, to the seductive promise of a world where everything can be quantified, controlled, perfected.

*(7. Whether this is a world we want to live in, whether these are values we want to uphold, is a question we each must answer for ourselves. But in the meantime, as we watch Djokovic move on the court with his mechanical precision, his clockwork consistency, we can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, even as we ponder its implications.)

And yet, in this clinical, nearly sterile landscape of technical mastery, there emerges an uncomfortable question: where does the human element fit into all of this? The quirks, the emotions, the unquantifiable, unrepeatable, unpredictable moments that make the game, and life, so wonderfully, maddeningly human?

*(8. It’s worth noting that Djokovic himself is not devoid of these moments. His on-court outbursts, his sometimes petulant demeanor, his intense rivalry with the other members of the ‘Big Three’, all point to a deeply emotional, deeply human core beneath the mechanical exterior.)

But in a world so enamored with the predictable, the repeatable, the quantifiable – a world that values the machine-like precision of a Djokovic over the mercurial brilliance of a Federer – is there room for this kind of humanity? Or is it slowly being squeezed out, replaced by an ever more mechanistic, technocratic ideal?

This is the paradox of Djokovic, and by extension, of our technocratic society. On the one hand, we admire, even revere, his technical mastery, his mechanical precision, his unerring consistency. We see in him a reflection of our own aspirations, our own drive for perfection, our own faith in the power of technology.

*(9. And there’s no denying that technology, and the technocratic mindset that accompanies it, has brought us many benefits. From the smartphones in our pockets to the medical advances that have extended our lifespans, the fruits of our technocratic society are all around us.)

On the other hand, we can’t shake the nagging feeling that something’s been lost in the process. The unpredictability, the spontaneity, the sheer joy of watching a player like Federer defy the laws of physics, of logic, of probability – these are things that a game like Djokovic’s, for all its technical brilliance, can’t quite replicate.

*(10. It’s worth noting here that this is not a judgment on Djokovic, the man or the player. It’s simply an observation, a reflection on the kind of game he plays and the kind of world that game represents.)

And so, we find ourselves in a kind of limbo, torn between our admiration for the machine and our longing for the human, between our technocratic present and our all-too-human past.

In this tension, this push and pull between the machine and the human, between the technocrat and the artist, we find a mirror of our own society, our own struggles, our own fears and hopes for the future.

And in the end, perhaps that’s the true beauty of tennis, the real magic of watching a player like Djokovic in action. Not just in the precision of his strokes or the consistency of his game, but in the questions it raises, the reflections it inspires, the glimpse it offers into the soul of our technocratic age.

*(11. Whether we like what we see, whether we’re comfortable with the direction we’re heading, is another question entirely. But for now, as we watch Djokovic dismantle another opponent with his machine-like precision, we can’t help but be awed, and perhaps a little unsettled, by the spectacle.)

And so, the watching of Djokovic becomes not just a passive act, but an active engagement with our own societal norms and values, a meditation on the world we’ve built and the one we’re building. It becomes a reflection on the way we live now, on the choices we’ve made and the paths we’ve chosen.

*(12. It’s worth noting that this kind of reflection, this kind of active engagement, is not exclusive to watching Djokovic or tennis. It’s something we can, and perhaps should, bring to all aspects of our lives. But there’s something about the starkness, the clarity, of the metaphor that makes it particularly poignant in this context.)

Watching Djokovic, then, becomes a kind of technocratic litmus test, a way of measuring our comfort with the mechanization of our world, our lives, our selves. It becomes a mirror in which we can see reflected not just our admiration for technical mastery, but our fear of its implications, our longing for a more human, less mechanistic way of being.

*(13. And in this sense, Djokovic serves as a societal gauge, his game resonating differently with different spectators depending on their own perceptions and feelings about the technocratic world we inhabit.)

This is the power, the beauty, the terror, of Djokovic’s game. It’s a testament to our technocratic age, a symbol of our mechanistic ideals, a mirror of our own conflicted feelings about the world we live in.

*(14. And yet, Djokovic himself is not the villain of this piece. He, like all of us, is navigating the world he was born into, a world steeped in technocratic values.)

And so, as we watch Djokovic move on the court with his mechanical precision, his clockwork consistency, his technical mastery, we are not just watching a tennis match. We are watching a reflection of our own world, our own society, our own selves.

*(15. As Djokovic swings his racket, our societal reflection swings back at us, and in the silent pause that follows each match point, we’re left to grapple with the questions and reflections inspired by this uniquely human spectacle.)

And perhaps, in the end, that’s the real power of tennis, the real magic of watching a player like Djokovic in action. Not just in the precision of his strokes or the consistency of his game, but in the questions it raises, the reflections it inspires, the glimpse it offers into the soul of our technocratic age.

*(16. In the swift and precise dance of Djokovic’s game, we’re invited to contemplate our own dance with technology, and to question the rhythm and steps we’ve chosen.)

Be winsome for goodness sake

Every time a Christian finds themselves publicly crucified in the mainstream — or online — media a debate rages about what posture said Christian should adopt in their engagement with the public.

Its been interesting, for me, to watch the American blogosphere trying to understand the Essendon saga, and City On A Hill pastor Guy Mason’s subsequent Sunrise appearance. One reformed writer opened his piece with:

“I do not follow Australian rules football, the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie but, a month ago, they collided on Australian television”

He’d actually first said:

“I do not follow Australian football (soccer), the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie…”

But someone corrected him in the comments without alerting him to the fact that, to my knowledge, Guy Mason did not collide with anybody named Ryan Kochie. It’s interesting to watch non-sports fans trying to talk about sportsball, but also, it’s worth noting (as we’ll see again below) that some conservative culture war thought leaders looking to drum up angst in their base aren’t going to let a quick fact check, or getting the name of a person or platform right, get in the way of a good story (I am astounded by the number of people who simply can’t get the name City on a Hill right).

Simon Kennedy, an Aussie academic who isn’t a culture warrior with no fact checking capacity, wrote a piece for Mere Orthodoxy — one that echoed Aaron Renn’s ‘The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism’ from First Things back in February, and James Wood’s subsequent rejection of Tim Keller’s model of “winsomeness” also from First Things (I wrote an article on both these articles in an edition of Soul Tread).

The thesis of Renn’s piece is basically that once (pre-1994) the west was positively disposed towards Christianity, as a general rule, then it was neutral (1994-2014), and now, since 2014 “Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity,” and “Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences,” like losing your CEO gig in a commercial sporting team.

Now. I don’t think Thorburn should’ve lost his job. I don’t think woke capitalism and the contracting out of every aspect of one’s life to one’s employer is a good thing (and the left celebrating this turn to capitalist levers for exercising social power is bizarre), I’m also not particularly interested in disputing that the world is negatively disposed towards us; it clearly is — my point has always been that given we Christians (and our institutions) basically shaped the west (and we keep wanting to claim credit for the good bits), we have to recognise that moral condemnation of Christians, by western folks, is coming from people whose moral frame is shaped by Christianity, but we also have to recognise that where genuine injustice (and evil) has occurred in the west, we’ve been, previously, either holding the wheel, or we’ve had means to stop it. Part of the shift to a negative world is actually on us, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to gay rights. Not many of these thought pieces grapple with these twin realities; what they are often doing is serving up a political strategy to regain the wheel (on a spectrum that finishes up with Christian Nationalism, or Trump voting, at one extreme). Renn and Wood were both, essentially, justifying a pro-Trump stance in the American church for strategic reasons.

The thing about strategies is that they’re almost always coming with a consequentialist, or even utilitarian, ethical framework — emphasising results, or output, rather than character, or input in the ethical decision making schema. You can, we’re told, justify aligning with the devil, or just Trump, if the outcomes make it worthwhile (it seems to me that the devil often invites people to control big kingdoms, while forfeiting their soul in exchange for bending the knee to him). So, for example, Renn frames the ‘strategy’ in the ‘neutral world’ as “cultural engagement,” where he says:

“The neutral-world cultural engagers were in many ways the opposite of the culture warriors: Rather than fighting against the culture, they were explicitly positive toward it. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms… the cultural-engagement strategy is an evangelicalism that takes its cues from the secular elite consensus.”

He suggests,

“Under pressure, this group has turned away from engagement with and toward synchronization with secular elite culture, particularly around matters such as race and immigration. Their rhetoric in these areas is increasingly strident and ­ever more aligned with secular political positions. Meanwhile, they have further softened their stance and rhetoric on flashpoint social issues. They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb. While holding to ­traditional teachings on sexuality, they tend to speak less about Christianity’s moral prohibitions and more about how the church should be a welcoming place for “sexual minorities,” emphasizing the church’s past failures in this regard.” 

Now, it’s worth noting here that his assumption is that what’s driving the “cultural engagement” folks (he names quite a few) is the end goal of maintaining a place at the secular table and having respectability. With respect, I think this is a cynical reduction of peoples motives away from virtue/character and towards outcomes, and it predisposes the conversation to treat people as sellouts. The dice when it comes to conversations about how we present ourselves in public are loaded as soon as our posture is about securing an outcome (even a good one), rather than about faithfully transmitting a message in a manner where our medium (our presentation) matches the message. I’m genuinely convinced that the New Testament’s guide for communicating the Gospel calls for us to bring our medium (ourselves as image bearers of Jesus) into alignment with the message we preach (one of God’s victory and model for life in his kingdom centering on the life and love of Jesus displayed at the cross, where the ‘negative world’ puts him to death horrifically). I wrote my thesis on this, you can read it if you want. We can’t, for example, match the message of the cross (foolishness to the world), with the waxy-chested sophistry that was popular in Corinth and was all about speaking with human power — Paul says a whole lot of stuff about the shape of his persuasive ministry — how it’s embedded in the nature of his message, before he talks about becoming all things to all people, and then he calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus. I suspect many cultural engagement folk are embodying their understanding of the Gospel, and, I think, inevitably all models of public engagement (communication modes) form an understanding of the message of the Gospel for both the communicator and the recipient; the more one embraces power-based, or results driven, strategies the more one is conforming their understanding of the Gospel, and the way God works in the world, to their communication medium — especially if they hit their metrics and gain the promised kingdom.

In his follow up to Renn’s piece, James Wood wrote:

“Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today’s world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings and his views on how Christians should engage politics.”

Notice, again, his assessment of Keller’s “winsome” approach is built on metrics (how effective it was in evangelism), and then he builds what I would suggest is a category error separating politics and evangelism; at least as far as the Gospel is concerned. For starters, it’s called ‘winsomeness’ not ‘winallness’ — the New Testament doesn’t seem to set up any expectation that our public witness will convert everybody — or even a majority — it does seem to suggest, in, say, the book of Acts, that faithful representations of the Gospel will bear fruit and lead to a whole heap of people wanting to get rid of you. Secondly, the evangel is, by nature, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that he came to bring God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection, and to invite us to become citizens of heaven who are no longer exiled from God because of sin and death (and Satan), but who now have God’s Spirit dwelling in us so we are united in life and death (and resurrection) to Jesus; so that we’re raised and seated with him in the throne room of heaven, and functioning as ambassadors of that kingdom now; ambassadors and heralds (‘keryx,’ the word for preachers or heralds) were the people who’d carry gospels (evangels), announcements of royal victories, around with them in the ancient world. The separation of pastoral and evangelistic communication is a modern distinction built more off our weird separation of religion and politics (or the secular and sacred, or the immanent and transcendent) in the modern protestant imagination. It’s not a separation that makes much sense outside a particular historical context, and it’s certainly not one you’ll find in either the Old or New Testament.

One way to frame this soft criticism of Keller is that he wants to win people to Jesus as an outcome of his public engagement — whether political or otherwise — which seems to me to be a fair and charitable enough description of the desired outcome of ‘winsomeness,’ when coupled with the idea that a public Christian is hoping to represent the character of Jesus well (perhaps the fruit of the Spirit), and the nature of the Gospel (the announcement of a crucified king who calls us to take up our cross and follow him if we’re going to be his disciples) in their engagement with the world. My contention is that too often this sort of debate about winsomeness only views it through the lens of metrics connected to results — specifically around political influence and outcomes, a place at the public table — without assessing its faithfulness or virtue or the integrity (and ethos) being displayed in a manner aligned with the message we are communicating as Christians.

Wood describes his shift from anti-Trump to Trump justifying through his piece, with little quotes like “Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing,” and “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?”

I’m suggesting these quotes are revealing these problematic assumptions that ‘winsomeness’ is about securing a ‘favourable hearing’. How people respond to our communication is, ultimately, going to rest on them — and it’ll largely be about their heart — our responsibility as public Christians is to represent Jesus well, not to persuade (though not ignoring that persuasion is a good outcome that might come through faithful communication). The kind of persuaded person formed by our presentation of the Gospel will reflect our manner as well; the well-known axiom “what you win them with, you win them to” is true. There’s a reason, I suspect, that churches that have embraced a culture war posture and a certain vision for masculinity (and politics) are growing, but I question whether the people being won by that methodology (or message) are being won to the Jesus who preaches not just judgment on the world, but the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount as descriptions of the way of life in his kingdom. Results are no guarantee of faithfulness; and they’re a terrible way to decide how to be faithful.

Wood notes that “Public witness” most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” I find this interesting. I suspect it is true that I ‘punch right’ so to speak, more than I ‘punch left,’ though I personally tend to punch ‘inside the church’ rather than ‘outside the church’ with my writing and I’m much more profoundly concerned, in my context, with the influence of the secular right (the Aussie equivalents of Trump, and the promise of a kingdom of the earth if we just bend the knee a little) than the secular left.  

All of that serves as background for the renewed debate about winsomeness in the wake of the City on a Hill/Essendon saga.

Kennedy declared “Negative World Arrives in Australia,” as though we’re only just on the pointy end of the secularisation now facing the U.S; or as though this particular interview was a watershed moment… not the Folau stuff, or the Manly Seven, or myriad other moments. Is it really when a white bloke can’t be CEO of a corporation that we recognise that the negative world has arrived? That’s a question less about Simon’s piece, which was a fine response to events, and more about how much our perception of where we sit in society is about what happens at the elite level; there’s a class thing here (not distinctly a race thing), that probably even harks back to Australian settlement where the establishment class was “Christian,” while converts and settlers were at best nominally so, unless they were Catholic rather than Anglican. It’s probably also true that secularisation bites in different ways outside the elite layer of society (or doesn’t really at all in some communities). Personally, I don’t recognise the not-negative Australia (in terms of the public’s approach to the claims of Christianity) as having really been operating in my lifetime — certainly not with my peers — though maybe this’s cause I lived the unsheltered life of a public school educated son of a preacher-man so my faith was always public, and contested (and insulted), for as long as I can remember. I thought acknowledging the ‘negative world’ was the whole point of having (often elite) Christian schools and universities (the same schools now under fire in the negative world context)… so that people could avoid engaging in a public sphere they didn’t control… but I digress.

Kennedy’s take home on the Mason interview is basically:

“What Mason and others need to realize is that in this Negative World public Christianity will by definition be abrasive and possibly combative. It can still be “winsome,” whilst simultaneously being ready to stand firm. If Mason and others aren’t prepared for that, it may be better to not do the interview because the message of “life and love” won’t be heard.

Thorburn’s resignation and Mason’s interview demonstrate that the church needs to face this hard truth: the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it. No amount of “life and love” will change the fact that, in Australia at least, we’ve entered Negative World proper.”

Being ‘nice’ and ‘relevant’ isn’t going to cut it; ‘conciliatory cultural engagement’ has had its day; in other circles — just as in the Wood piece Kennedy links, this’s a reasonable summary of how people’ve positioned the idea of “winsomeness.” As someone who has perhaps encouraged a ‘winsome’ approach to public engagement — though not to the same degree, or with anything like the influence, that Keller has — I don’t think this represents how I, or others in my ‘camp’ might understand what we’re advocating.

Keller also chimed in on the Essendon saga, responding to Kennedy on Mere Orthodoxy (there’s another good piece there on the issue from Jake Meador, and another from Kirsten Sanders and Matt Shedden, responding to Keller, in a way that lands close to this piece). Keller suggests our goal should be to engage with a threefold posture of “a spirit of humility and love (what I will call ‘Affection’),” “Culturally compelling arguments (what I will call ‘Persuasion’)” and “A quiet, courageous confidence in the truth of God’s Word (what I will call ‘Resolution’).” He proposes “that, using Paul’s exhortation, we can find ways of combining the three elements of Affection, Resolution, and Persuasion in our public discourse in a way that many secular people will find moving and some secular people will find convincing.” “Affection” and “persuasion” are probably the bits that get critiqued as “winsomeness,” and to the extent that “persuasion” is about the impact on the listener (rather than one’s intent), I agree with the Sanders and Shedden call for the category of ‘witness’ to be at the fore; but that witness still needs what Keller calls “affection” in order to be faithful, and it’s that posture of humility and gentleness — love for one’s enemy — treating the other as you would have them treat you — that is, I think, what ‘winsomeness’ is.

I am happy to concede that winsomeness, so defined, in our present cultural moment, has little to commend it in terms of metrics — if I was output focused and wanted to be maximally effective politically, or even in terms of bums on seats in a church — I would embrace the culture war and the levers of power.  

I’m also keen to point out that utilitarianism is a sub-Christian ethical framework, and that what we’re called to be in the New Testament is faithful witnesses to the work of God in the world through Jesus, in his life and teaching, his death (at the hands of a beastly Satanic empire) for his people, his resurrection, his ascension, and his joining the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit to give his life to his people in the world. The word “witnesses” in Greek is “martyrs” — we’re called to represent the story we live in by embodying that story; and bringing our bodies and stories into the public square — as our means of persuasion — in the hope that God will vindicate us, and he might even use the way we are received to not just bring him glory, but turn hearts to him through the power of the Gospel being displayed.

Now, I don’t want to centre myself in this story. I’m a pastor with a blog, and a small church. I haven’t written much in the last 12 months for a bunch of reasons that I’ll unpack in coming months. I’m a bit player in the scheme of things, I’m not saying this as an exercise in false humility — or humility at all — it’s just a thing. It’s very possible that in my attempts to suggest that the ‘winsomeness’ position is being misrepresented here, I’m misrepresenting the positions of others — or, that, indeed, there are many who embrace winsome cultural engagement for utilitarian reasons rather than virtuous ones. However, in my observation, there’s a stream of hard right Christian commentators who’re critical of ‘winsomeness’ and ‘niceness’ who’re advocating for a more aggressive form of public engagement to the point that I think the mediums they’re advocating for the Gospel message (or Christian politics) are distorting the message and forming something other than disciples of Jesus who take up their cross and live generative lives that display the fruit of the Spirit. There’re those who suggest ‘winsomeness’ is selling out to the culture who’re embracing a culture war posture that comes from the beastly empire, rather than the kingdom of the crucified king — that looks more like the sword, than the cross — and that will link sword and cross in unhelpful ways, but not totally new ways. This is a perennial problem of the relationship between Christians and empire.

There’re also those who in their bid to commend courageous truth-speaking, neglect love, and those who in their dismissal of ‘niceness’ dismiss ‘gentleness,’ and other fruit of the Spirit — and plenty of other ethical imperatives from the New Testament that guide how we ought conduct ourselves.

I think there are two misfires driving these positions — the first is in our (particularly modernist protestant) decoupling of word (logos) from character (ethos), or medium from message, in our public presentation, such that one can somehow faithfully present the Gospel in a manner just by forcefully speaking truth, in a vacuum disconnected from the embodied witness of our individual and collective lives, that leaves its impact resting on human power, not God’s power. The second is that we’ve embraced an ethical system from the world (especially the realms of politics and business) that measures the goodness of an action in terms of its results, rather than its inherent goodness (or virtue). If we think ‘faithfulness’ is, in any way, tied to establishing a Christian nation, or controlling the levers of power, through our work, then, “winsomeness” is foolish appeasement, that’s true too if our metric is just a place at the table and people not hating us.

There’re also those somewhere in the middle between ‘cultural engagement’ and ‘culture war’ — perhaps like Wood and Renn — or like my friend Stephen McAlpine locally – who’re trying to guide us towards a model of public engagement for our time, one that recognises the ground is shifting.

My suggestion is that our model of public engagement is actually, essentially, timeless; that our job is not so much to be winsome, but to be Christlike, and that obedience to Jesus, and to God’s word, does in fact include considering our reputation amongst outsiders, doing good, responding to evil with good, living such good lives among the pagans, and turning the other cheek responding to curse with blessing — that sort of stuff — when we’re engaged in public Christianity. Further, my contention is that as we live these good lives, some, even those who ‘bear the sword’ as those appointed by God to govern, will crucify us — whether metaphorically or literally, and this is a possible outcome of faithfulness rather than simply bad communication strategy and being misunderstood.

In the fallout of the Mason interview, my friend Stephen McAlpine and I were interviewed by Glen Scrivener, an Aussie living in England, on his show SpeakLife (the name is important). We approached the events through our paradigms — as most people who speak, and write, and think, do. And I think the interview’s worth a watch, even months after the event.

For good or for ill, this interview demonstrates that I find myself in the cross hairs of people in Australia championing the anti-winsomeness approach to public Christianity; those who reckon I’m a capitulator who just wants a seat at the public table. I do, for the record, want a politically engaged public Christianity that is evangelistic and pastoral in nature — but most of what gets interpreted as ‘capitulation’ by these folks is actually more about me wanting to keep carving out space for those already following Jesus — at great cost — to have a space at our table in the church, and to wonder aloud what people we’re excluding through our practices (especially where they align with oppressive and exclusive practices in the world outside the church).

A pastor local to me, Tom Foord, didn’t love our interview. You can watch his 18 minute hit piece on my position here, but, to save you the trouble, here’s a couple of quotes. This first sentence demonstrates again how little interest guys like this actually have in representing truth, or seeking understanding.

“So we’re going over to this Youtube interview that a bloke on Real Life, or Real Talk, or something, a YouTube interview, where he grabbed two not ideal but popular Christian evangelical cultural commentators. Stephen McAlpine and Nathan Campbell. Neither of whom I would agree largely on this whole situation around homosexuality and what not. Campbell’s pretty well known for tolerating same sex attracted pastors, which is a huge issue, he should not be a pastor for even having that position. Anyway, this guy’s asking them a few questions on what they thought about the Guy Mason interview and largely what their read is on the cultural situation in Australia. I thought we’d listen to them say some stuff and take another case study on how this is wrong, and why it’s wrong, and how it’s going to effect your witness…”

He goes on to spear my suggestion that “winsomeness, if it’s Christlikeness, it’s not just a stance, it is a strategy and a victory is actually some form of crucifixion.”

Tom didn’t like this. He says:

“This sounds super holy and pietistic, this’s literally what every failure of a person says, “I’ve failed, let’s redefine what failure looks like. Jesus failed because he died. Maybe failure is kind of an upside down victory. Doesn’t that feel and smell like the Gospel.”

He went on to take my description of another person’s description of a debate he hadn’t watched (the debate, and a transcript, are readily available online), where I said “the best review on Twitter was it was like watching a gentle crucifixion,” and then he used it to attack that other person, in an absolutely specious way. He even says:

“In other words, this dude got his rear end handed to him. I haven’t watched the debate, but if these guys think he lost I think he would’ve been buried. He was crucified, dead and buried, never to rise again…”

Then he goes on — not having engaged at all with the content of the debate — to suggest it failed to convey the content of the Gospel. And then, throws another blow my way.

“This’s the sheer idiocy that cowardice produces. When you have weak men who tolerate homosexuality in the pulpit, who probably entertain homosexual tendencies, when you have weak men who seem more like women, then you start getting them into the pulpits and into the blogs, and into the authorship, and onto the interviews, and they redefine, literally, the commands of God. The ability to convince the people of God that failing to obey the commands of God is in fact how you be Christlike is nothing short of mind control. They failed, call it a failure, he lost the debate, he couldn’t defend the truth. That sucks. Christians are supposed to be able to do that, don’t now turn around in this limp wristed way and say “well, doesn’t it feel like a crucifixion,” no, that’s gay. You lost. The whole posture is in fact a blasphemy to the cross.”

That last bit came with a snide accent that was, frankly, immature and awful, then he takes issue with my saying “we should seek to be obedient to Jesus, and represent him well, by embodying the way of the cross.” He says:

“I’m going to disagree with him, because he’s using Christianish words, but what he means by that is failing to give a good and bold clarity, like clarity about the Gospel message about sin, and the law of God, and justification in Christ, and the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation… that’s not what he means by embodying the way of the cross even to the point of them killing us. He’s saying not doing that and being looked on by people like bully old Tom Foord who’d look at you and say “you failed to do that,” and he would say “I know, wasn’t it like a crucifixion?” No, no cultural enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ, nobody out there is going to look at him and ever think that this dude, or any of us that embody what Nathan Campbell is saying, no one will look at you and think “you’re a threat to the kingdom of darkness,” Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like Nathan Campbell filling pulpits and calling his little community a church. It’s a sham.”

Just notice that last bit — not the attack on an entire community of faithful Christians — but this idea that Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like me. Wow.

Now. Tom Foord is going to feature on Caldron Pool’s podcast tonight (Nov 28). He’s an emerging voice on the conservative platform that has poured more energy than any other in Australia into the anti-winsomeness/anti-niceness crusade, and, more recently, an explicit pursuit of Christian nationalism. It’d be easy to dismiss these guys as fringe — but Caldron Pool is connected to an emerging network of what you might call “Christian Nationalists” here in Australia; ‘thought leaders’ and people connected to Christian political action groups, think tanks, and the publishing arms of established denominations (including my own); these’re folks taking their lead from American commentators like Doug Wilson and Stephen Wolfe (whose new book, with its problematic racism is currently blowing up Christian Twitter).

These folks, and their churches, are increasingly attracting disenfranchised politically conservative young men; radicalising them with a purpose in a culture war; from all the reports I’ve heard from people who’ve known Tom for years, Tom’s a guy who himself has been radicalised to this point from keen and passionate evangelist to angry zealot. This isn’t a guy you want to be following; follow Jesus.

I’ve been inundated with messages from people whose ministries are being upended by folks radicalised at Tom’s church, or those who’ve left it, or who’ve known Tom from previous churches, who’re deeply concerned about the direction he’s going in. I think it’s clear from his words that he’s not particularly interested in niceness, gentleness, respect, or love — whether that’s within the church, or outside it, but with a strong and persuasive presentation of the truth as he understands it, with all the viciousness (vice) he feels is necessary to muster to secure his desired outcomes. It’s clear to me from his interpretation of my words, but more, from his failure to even watch the debate he banged on about for the better part of 10 minutes (where the Gospel was preached in a compelling way in a hostile room), or even to get the name of the show he was talking about right, that Tom’s not a reliable witness to small truths, but I’m also concerned his approach to both preaching and public Christianity — his ethos — ultimately undermines the Gospel and will win people to a false vision of Christianity, and so, with whatever little platform or influence I have, I’m offering an alternative approach to public communication to Tom, to Caldron Pool, and perhaps to all those who want to throw out ‘winsomeness’ because it no longer seems to produce the desired outcomes.

I understand the desire for our speech to be persuasive; for evangelism that produces results; I can understand why, with all the best intentions, someone might want to do what is most effective for the kingdom; but faithfulness to Jesus isn’t about the volume of fruit you produce — God produces the real fruit — faithfulness to Jesus is about obedience to him; it’s about finding life in his kingdom and his example. We are called to be good; good in a way that is noticeable — in contrast — to the world (and to the way we’re treated). What is ‘winsomeness’ if not seeking to be good, not for the sake of persuading people, but for goodness sake; even for the sake of obedience to God.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-18, 21

Whatever public engagement built on these words looks like; that’s what we’re called to do.

And I reckon if there’re those who think that “sounds gay,” then I’d rather be numbered with my gay brothers and sisters taking up their cross daily, denying themselves, and following Jesus, than the blokes who reach for the sword, or the microphone, to stab other Christians.

Dear Facebook. Please un-kill Bill.

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

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

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

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

I don’t like cancel culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Point: The ‘Politics’ of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

there is no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.

 

3 “Do not keep talking so proudly

or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

and by him deeds are weighed.

 

4 “The bows of the warriors are broken,

but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

6 “The Lord brings death and makes alive;

he brings down to the grave and raises up.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

he humbles and he exalts.

8 He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

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

holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

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

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Point: Mapping the Terrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Point: My Theological Frame

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

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

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

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

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

Second Point: Theological Anthropology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Point: Cosmic Geography

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

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

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

Interim conclusion (stay tuned for part 2).

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

A big table and the paradox of tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the prayer room; and when ‘thin places’ become thick

There’s lots that can (and must) be said about the present crisis in Australia around toxic sexuality (as an expression of toxic masculinity and rape culture). Lots is being said about the relationship between institutional Christianity, purity culture, and this crisis both outside the church (in the church shaped western world), and inside the church. I’m working with a brilliant friend who is a scholar on the Song of Songs to piece together a helpful response both for my own church community, and beyond.

But I was struck by reports emerging about videos and stories of bad sexuality in parliament house; and particularly struck by the location identified as home base for perhaps the worst of the depravity.

The prayer room.

If parliament house were meant to be a sort of temple to Christendom this is the sort of thing that would have Jesus flipping over the tables; it certainly reveals the hollowness (rather than hallowedness) of our parliamentarians praying “The Lord’s Prayer” at the start of the day (and of campaigns to keep that in place).

When Jesus flips the tables in the temple in Jerusalem it’s part of a wider act of judgement against those running the show; a judgment that culminates with the curtain temple tearing at his death, and with his Spirit not coming to the holy of holies in the temple, but into the hearts of those who recognise him as Lord. The church. The house — a place that once was the meeting place between God and humanity — is left desolate; and Jesus’ judgment is that this is the case because “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

In 2012, a travel writer from the New York Times, Eric Weiner, wrote a piece that popularised the concept of thin places, places in nature, but perhaps even places of human architecture, where ‘heaven and earth’ come closer together.

“No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

The Temple was meant to be a ‘thin space’ — where the boundaries of heaven and earth were less obvious; a place that threw worshippers towards the transcendent realm; the heavens. Where the supernatural and natural overlapped. A house of prayer; but it had been corrupted by the idolatry and materialism of its day; the attempts to secure meaning and goodness not through relationship with God, but in material realities, like money and power.

There’s a corresponding story to Jesus judging the Temple in the New Testament to God’s judgment on ‘thin places’ (which are often ‘high places’ in the OT, if you want to trace this as an interesting and legitimate thread); particularly the judgment brought on those who are meant to be stewarding the Tabernacle; the ‘tent of meeting’ or dwelling place of God at the start of 1 Samuel. There’s an old priest, Eli, whose two sons are corrupt and corrupting not only the meeting tent — the thin place — but the whole nation of Israel. They’re extorting people, stealing food, and sleeping with the women allocated to serve in that thin place — abusing their power in pursuit of pleasure. And God steps in to judge this family because of their failure to represent God as his priestly people, presenting his house as a meeting place between God and the world.

Parliament house is built like an ancient temple. It has columns and courtyards and a pillar that reaches towards the heavens. It sits on the hill overlooking the capital. It’s a monument to our values and is meant to be an expression of our heart; our commitment to democracy; the equality of all people in the law, and perhaps, under God.

Whether or not it was ever meant to be a ‘house of prayer’ — leaders in western democracies; landscapes shaped by Christendom; were meant to be doing the work of God for us; leading ‘under God’; and the house and its prayer room and the Lord’s Prayer are all vestiges of that sort of vision.

If Parliament House was meant to be one of these ‘thin spaces’ — how much more the prayer room: a room where people go to connect with the divine; a sacred space; profaned. Desecrated.

When the apostle Paul writes about sexual ethics for married couples — upholding the goodness of the one flesh union of husband and wife as a created gift from God to be enjoyed together, he says the one thing that might keep them apart is their devotion to God, they might prioritise prayer “for a time” over sex; our parliamentarians have turned all that on its head; both the sexual ethic of the mutuality, commitment, and intimacy of marriage — where the parties belong to one another and are bound up in love and communion — but the idea that prayer might be a priority.

But these news stories — that MPs would use the prayer room — a thin space — for such thick purposes; worldly purposes far removed from the heavens — reveal something about our modern gods, our modern pursuit of goodness (and even perhaps echoes of transcendence not through prayer, or religiosity, but through the liturgy of sex and orgasm), and perhaps, for just a table-flipping moment, just how toxic and damaging these new gods are to us, and to our leaders.

Want to know why we’ve got no social changes or political will around rape culture — look at the heart of our nation and how deeply embedded this poison is.

The Lord’s Prayer opens by acknowledging the nature of reality and the heavenly realm; “our father,” it says “who is in heaven”… it acknowledges that God’s kingdom represents the overlap between this realm and the earthly realm — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — parliamentarians prayed this because the idea was their actions were meant to be part of the answer to this prayer. They’re clearly not. And should stop pretending.

Someone should flip some tables.

The kicker in the Lord’s Prayer here — when it comes to Jerusalem and its thin-place-become-thick, or Canberra and its thin-place-become-thick, is in the opening “hallowed be your name” — God’s name was attached to his temple, and his people. The way they lived and acted was to be an expression of the God they worshipped and a reflection on his reputation; it could either bring glory, or desecration. And desecration of God’s name brought consequences. Table flipping. Judgment. Jerusalem no longer the centre of, or vehicle of, God’s kingdom. Their temple, and nation, declared no longer a ‘thin space’ where heavenly realities are realised; but thick, and dead, and disgusting. This isn’t to say these things about the Jewish people; Jesus was Jewish, the vast majority of the ‘new temple’ were Jewish people, including those at Pentecost who had been spread into the distant corners of the globe, but about the hollowed out rather than hallowed religion of those operating the Temple in pursuit of false gods; perverting the name of the God they served.

Parliament House isn’t a ‘thin place’ — it’s become thick, or perhaps it is a ‘thin place’ like the corrupted Temple in Jerusalem, a place that reveals who we have become. In the NY Times piece that function of a thin place is meant to be good and life-giving, as it pushes us towards a greater sense of reality, but perhaps it can push in another direction too; exposing us like Jesus exposed the politcal-religious leaders of his day (and the prevailing culture that enabled them, and that they perpetuated)? So the Times piece says:

“Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Parliament house, like the temple, has been unmasked — and the essential selves revealed by this mirror, or this revelation, are not pretty. Parliament House, and these leaders — or this institution, won’t bring the sort of liberation from idolatry and the destructive nature of dehumanising toxic sexuality that is rampant in our culture; because it can’t. Instead, while this toxic heart beats — where sexual pleasure with no regard for another person is God — it’s just going to push us further and deeper into that pit. Unless someone flips the tables… unless a new heart is dropped in.

And yet, at the same time there is something revealing about the approach to sex in a ‘thick world’ in all this; we’ve replaced God and the presence of the divine — even the idea of ‘thin places’ we might travel to; with sex. With pleasure. With ‘created things, instead of the creator’ as Romans 1 puts it…

Sex is one of those ‘thin experiences’ that might push us towards the idea of something divine; a God out there who made goodness, and sensuality, and put us in this world so that we might seek him, and perhaps find him, with the help of all these good things that reveal his divine nature and character. Thin places and thin experiences are meant to push us towards the transcendent. Our issue, at heart, is that we keep exchanging the truth about God for a lie; we’ve put sex in the place of God, instead of sex being something that throws us towards the overlap between heaven and earth.

And so maybe the prayer room is the right place to take that search for meaning and significance; even if in doing so we’re opening ourselves up for judgement; turning what is meant to be a ‘house or prayer’ into a temple to toxic sexuality.

Maybe in this moment of judgement and exposure we might start to ask questions about the sort of culture we’re building when we make this exchange.

Maybe, though we’re quick to throw stones at the ‘Temple’ or thin space in Canberra, we might also — those of us who are Christians — seek to get our own houses in order; asking if they — whether our church spaces and communities, or our own homes — are built on the same hollowed out sexual idolatry and damaging, dehumanising practices — or are spaces committed to the coming of God’s kingdom and the hallowing of God’s name; lest the tables be turned on us.

We need an Aussie equivalent of the ‘Never Trump’ movement

Eternity News has asked a few people — including me — to contribute a regular column. This is my latest piece, it should be online over there shortly.

Who can forget the events of January 6, when armed protestors stormed the U.S Capitol building fervently praying, chanting, and singing, while carrying placards bearing the name of Jesus and the occasional wooden cross?

This ‘insurrection’ — complete with prominent figures in the Q-Anon movement, like the self-proclaimed Q-Anon Shaman Jake Angeli, whose conspiracy videos on a variety of topics are available for all to see on the right-wing video sharing platform Rumble. Angeli is a prominent promoter of ‘Q’ related conspiracy theories, metaphysics, and politics, attending rallies for other causes — like Black Lives Matter and climate change — to promote Q and his video channel. I am deliberately using the label “right” rather than “conservative” to make a distinction, particularly around the area of a commitment not just to polarisation, but a culture war footing

This information is easy enough to verify online — yet, prominent figures on the Australian right — including Lyle Shelton, spent energy perpetuating the idea that Angeli was an antifa operative seeking to discredit the legitimate opposition to the election of Joe Biden. A steady stream of voices who are Christian, politically active, and right-aligned are increasingly trying to bring the culture war politics of the American Christian Right into Australia, urging Christians to take up arms to join the culture war.

There have been moments where leading figures in the Australian Right have deliberately borrowed from the American playbook, examples include James Ashby’s ill-fated meetings with the National Rifle Association, seeking NRA financial support for political action here in Australia, and Martyn Iles championing a shift to targeted ‘grass roots’ political action in key, marginal, electorates, leading to the production of ‘how to vote’ cards that preferenced One Nation above mainline political parties in 2019.

This weekend Eternity reported on David Pellowe’s Church and State conference held here in Queensland; in the interest of disclosure, I’m a pastor in a conservative denomination in Queensland and did not attend; and in the interest of further disclosure, I count some of the speakers platformed at this event as friends. I use ‘conservative’ here, rather than ‘right wing’ because I am increasingly convinced these are not the same thing in our political landscape; despite Eternity Columnist James Macpherson’s attempts to push the conservative/progressive distinction in his column yesterday, he, like those platformed at Pellowe’s conference are not conservatives, in that they are not particularly sure what it is they are conserving; he, and others following in the footsteps of American religious right (that culminated in Trumpism), are simply defining themselves by what they oppose — ‘the left’, “cultural marxism,” “critical theory,” and “woke progressive politics.” These are the new code words to help the Christian right identify and demonise (or dehumanise) their ideological enemies.

Pellowe’s Church and State conference happened in Brisbane over the same weekend that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) happened in the United States; this conference featured the messianic return of Donald Trump, a man heralded by many in the Christian Right — including figures like Eric Metaxas — as something like God’s anointed leader not so much of the free world, but the fight against the political other (and often religious other, that someone might be a Christian and politically left is almost inconceivable to these people). The U.S conference featured a golden statue of Donald Trump, a fitting image of the role political idolatry is increasingly playing in the Christian right, and, no doubt, a stunt designed to be turned into digital images to be beamed around the world. Such digital pageantry serves to animate the right-wing base by shocking the political other and ‘triggering’ outrage; much like Trump’s photo opp on the steps of a church at the height of the Black Lives Matter rallies following the death of George Floyd. Those opposed play into the culture war narrative simply by speaking out in opposition.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Presbyterian Minister in the United States, Christopher Hedges, wrote a piercing critique of the modern political moment, and Trump’s mastery of a new politics of the ‘right’ for Truth Dig that explains both the vivid images of Jake Angeli standing at the heart of the capitol in the insurrection, Trump’s Bible stunt, the golden statue, and the increasingly outlandish behaviour of figures in the Australian (Christian) Right. Hedges argued that we live in an age obsessed with ‘Worshipping the Digital Image’ — a cultural condition effecting all of us.

On the same weekend the CPAC conference was busy propping up the adoration of Trump, Australian Right leader Lyle Shelton (whose memoir is titled ‘I Kid You Not: Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture War) was tweeting about the stolen election and the failure of Mike Pence to act to keep Trump in power, and posting photos of his attendance at Pellowe’s conference.

Stephen Chavura, an Australian Academic and thought leader in the Christian Right, wrote a recent opinion piece for the digital culture war Christian Right propaganda machine Caldron Pool; Australia’s Breitbart (and I don’t mean that as a complement, though it may be taken that way). The Caldron Pool is a den of hyperbole, and poorly sourced opinion pieces attacking anybody not on the crusade led by figures with connections to conservative Australian church denominations, including my own — where founder Ben Davis is a member, and regular contributor Mark Powell an ordained minister. Even our national moderator Peter Barnes contributes ‘satirical pieces,’ and a recent denominational communique was leaked to Caldron Pool 16 hours before being sent to ministers and congregations around the nation.

Chavura’s Caldron Pool piece was a call to arms urging Christians to stop seeing the cross as a paradigm for ‘losing cheerfully,’ because we believe that the cross is God’s wisdom, but will be viewed as folly by those seeing wisdom caught up with worldly power (like Paul in 1 Corinthians 1). Chavura said “Could we please stop talking about cheerfully and graciously losing the culture wars as though they are some faculty lunchroom discussion and of no great consequence in the long term?… In other words, to hell with losing cheerfully. Let’s fight furiously.” Chavura was a speaker and panellist at Pellowe’s summit; speaking against Critical Race Theory.

Fairfax-Nine media reported that this summit — which also featured right-wing politicians George Christensen, and Matt Canavan, as well as Shelton’s successor at the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Martyn Iles — was another call to arms in the culture wars.

In 2019, Iles told Eternity News that his desire was to shift the ACL from an advocacy group to a movement facilitating grass roots political action, and that this represented “a change away from conviction politics to pragmatism.” That the ACL publicly makes it clear that they have shifted from something like a virtue framework, to a utilitarian one, explains why they are happy to preference One Nation (a Right Wing party) on how to vote cards because One Nation politicians give better access to Christians, or as Iles put it in another interview with Eternity “One Nation are actually very very good to work with. You know One Nation senators’ doors are open. They talk to us. They actually want to know what it is that we have to say, and I find working with them far more pleasant and constructive and leading to good results than working with the vast majority of other cross-benchers in the Senate, and that’s just the way it is.” Such pragmatism might also explain why Iles was keen to support and share a platform with footballer Israel Folau, an avowed oneness Pentecostal from a fringe quasi-Christian movement led by his father and cousin (whose sermons can be watched online), and to describe him publicly as a Christian, on the basis of Folau’s shared sexual ethic (if not his fundamental theological convictions).

Fairfax reports a conversation on the Q&A panel at the conference between Pellowe and Iles as follows:

“In a later panel discussion, Mr Iles joked that his father often said “we need a good war” to sort this out and “there’s a little bit of truth in that”, because society would not be so concerned about climate change or gender identity if we were at war with China.

Mr Pellowe then interjected: “We’re not advocating violence or revolution … today.” Mr Iles added: “Not yet, that’s down the line.”

While Iles and Shelton have both been vocal in their support for Trump, and their scepticism about the results of the U.S election, the ACL has pivoted under Iles’ leadership, part of the shifts to pragmatism-driven grassroots campaigning has involved both a rebrand and a renewed commitment to social media content production and activism. Iles hosts a regular video panel show, and has positioned himself as a commentator on any current event — from the death of Ravi Zacharias (who he praised), to racism and critical theory, to bushfires and climate change, to sexism, sexual assault and the weaponization of rape accusations in parliament house. Every piece of commentary is brought through the lens of the culture wars to attack the pernicious left, cultural Marxism, and the power games Iles finds himself fighting against. Even how Christians refer to Jesus is brought through the prism of the culture war; with a recent post decrying the ‘trend’ for Christians to simply talk about “Jesus” without his divine titles.

Iles rails against censorship and cancel culture as ‘power games’ employed by the left to silence truth, but his crack team of social media moderators are adding to a long list of cancelled (or blocked) commenters on his page daily — silencing those who dare criticise their boyish, golden haired, leader. I joined that list on Sunday after questioning his take on the use of the name Jesus, and inviting respected academic, historian, and public Christian voice John Dickson to comment (which he did). My comment, and John’s response, were ‘disappeared’.

These figures on the hard right are loudly critical of the ABC, the academy, and the ‘leftism’ they find hiding behind every corner and marching through every institution. They find echo chambers for their rage on digital platforms like the Caldron Pool, and the Spectator — and some, like James Macpherson, slip into the opinion section of Eternity News.

They are raging against the machine. They refuse to go gently into the good night, and rage, rage against the dying of the light. And yet, perhaps they fail to see that by playing the political game using the tools of the kingdom of darkness it is they who are hastening sundown, and that their combative culture war footing solidifies and catalyses the strident opposition of the left. Polarisation takes two; and so does a war. These culture warriors who claim to serve a crucified king might spend some time reflecting not just on the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, but the words of their general — and king — the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Conservative American Christian leaders committed not just to the way of the cross, and the fundamental belief in the separation of church and state — because of the ontological difference brought about by the indwelling of the Spirit in the life of the church, and the change that brings to our capacity to obey God, know truth, and live a life shaped by new hearts ‘from above’ that love God, and love our neighbour as we love ourselves, with a love shaped by Jesus’ love for us — were quick to rally against the Christian Right, the Culture War posture, and especially against Trump. Conservative voices like Karen Swallow Prior, David French, Alan Noble raised concerns consistently through Trump’s initial campaign, his time in office, and in the 2020 election — others like Rod Dreher joined their voices to the cause after watching not just conservatism’s moral credibility, but the church’s moral authority over young members dissipate as support for Trump increased.

They were largely ineffective in pragmatic terms — and the political air we breathe in the modern west is one where pragmatism and technology loom large, and where spiritual truth has been evacuated from political discourse (as Charles Taylor, Jacques Ellul, and Alisdair Macintyre might tell us). But the Australian religio-political landscape desperately needs the equivalent of the Lincoln Project, or Never-Trump Republicans speaking up within the boundaries of the church. Australia’s inherent centrism, our Westminster democracy, and other inherited cultural factors might protect us from some of the excesses, and widespread influence, of the American Religious Right and Trumpism; but with our relationship to the American church (especially via thought leadership and resources) Q-Anon conspiracy thinking, Culture War polarisation, and pragmatism are never far from our doors. These figures are marginal figures in the Australian landscape; Shelton received just 5,533 votes in his Senate bid with the Australian Conservatives; but they wield disproportionate impact in the church.

The Christian thinker who popularised the term ‘culture wars’ (from the German Kulturkampf), James Davison Hunter, has much less lofty goals for Christians in the post-Christendom, secular, pluralist, modern west. His vision for participation in society and politics is one marked by being a faithful presence in communities, institutions and political parties — not seeking to dominate, or win a culture war, but to participate as ambassadors, of the kingdom of heaven, or images of Jesus Christ, bearing witness to his nature as an alternative king. When it comes to the culture war — which the Australian Christian Right is keen to import to our shores, Hunter said “America was never, in any theologically serious way, a Christian nation, nor the West a Christian civilization. Neither will they ever become so in the future. The goal for Christians, then, is not and never has been to “take back the culture” or to “take over the culture” or to “win the culture wars” or to “save Western civilization.”

It is notable that every ‘thought leader’ pushing the culture war agenda in this piece is a man, and that many fighting against the culture war agenda (and so being engaged in combat) are men too. There are many reasons for this, to be sure, but one is the vicious way women who speak out against the culture war and the Christian Right are treated by the right, especially online. The abominable treatment of Karen Swallow Prior on Twitter, or by Pulpit and Pen (America’s Caldron Pool) is one clear example.

We are stuck in the paradox of the age of the digital image; giving attention adds fuel to the fire, but ignoring them won’t actually work either, because they are building an army of the aggrieved and alienated. What might work is peacemaking; bringing loving attention rather than what Hunter called ‘ressentiment’ to our interactions, and seeking to build relationships with these leaders across the divide, but also with those inclined to hear the call to arms. We do all claim to worship the Prince of Peace, the one who said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and who came to fulfil these words of Isaiah the prophet:

“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.” — Isaiah 2:4

It’s harder to go to war against your neighbours if they’re also your friends.

On Australia Day

A few years ago I wrote about the complexity of multiple Australian stories converging on Australia Day, and how I was finding January 26 increasingly difficult to navigate as a Christian. I’ve kept listening to people like Aunty Jean Phillips — who I mentioned in that linked post — and to others, be they First Nations voices across the political spectrum, white Aussies, or migrants whose citizenship began on the national holiday.

This year I tuned in to Common Grace’s #changetheheart service (you can read a post on the Common Grace website about why), which you can still view online, and I’d encourage you to do so. You should probably prioritise that over reading what really amounts to another white guy adding noise to a conversation that needs less white guys adding noise. I’m still working out how to ‘pass the mic’ in these conversations so that I don’t just become a whitesplaining bloke who keeps ‘centering’ himself, while also having a corner of the internet where I write and process my own thoughts (while also realising that even using ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘centering’ is so ‘woke’ that I’ve already triggered an overt negative emotional response from some readers).

The difficulty I feel personally around January 26 hasn’t eased in the intervening years, though I’m not at all convinced by arguments, typically — but not exclusively — from white folk that we should keep the national day as January 26 and morph it into a day of mourning and acknowledgment, as well as celebration.

I’m puzzled as to why this question — the date of a national public holiday — has become such a polarising ‘culture war’ battlefront not between people of different ethnicity, or history, but between people of different political affiliation. That is, why we can’t just all say together ‘yeah, it’d be really good to have a national day that wasn’t inherently offensive to people in our community.’ That so many people want to hold on to January 26 while so many people are distressed by it just seems to me to be a failure to be good neighbours. It’s like the house on the street that wants to play their music loud, without considering the family with the unsettled infants, because, ‘freedom rules’…

I’ve noticed in the hyper-polarised discussion this year (see, for eg, News Ltd going to town on the ABC allowing its employees to refer to January 26 as Australia Day or Invasion Day), that the predictor of how one responds to the national day, and the call to national pride or national mourning that comes with it is not necessarily linked to ethnicity, but rather, a predilection to a certain political pole.

There are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the right who want to celebrate the goodness of Australia as a land of opportunity, where individuals can flourish, and there are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the left who want to see deep systemic change in Australia and believe that dealing with our nation’s history, or at least acknowledging it as a source of ongoing inequality, is the first step towards closing the gap. There are also those who want to do both. Simultaneously. On the same day. One thing I’ve noticed when (typically white) people call for a ‘redemption’ of January 26 through holding the tension of lament and celebration is how few Aboriginal Christians seem publicly supportive of the idea.

I’m not convinced this is possible, or good, for a few reasons, but one of them — in particular — is built on a Biblical principle around freedom and disputable matters, and I’ll unpack this below — other reasons are just how recently January 26 became a national Public holiday, what it is that January 26 commemorates, the ongoing injustices created by that date, and that a day of unity is not a day of unity when not everybody wants to come to the table. So long as the day is treated as a front in a culture war between right and left it can never be what those on the right say they want it to be (a day celebrating the unity and goodness of our nation). To achieve that end, the ‘left’ in the culture war would have to be wiped out. Before I get to the Biblical rationale for, at least Christians, supporting a change to the date, I found this essay fascinating and helpful when it comes to understanding how issues around racial equality play out, broadly speaking, along political lines both in the U.S (the context of the article), and I think also in Australia. I found it helpful in trying to unpack how we might transcend political division and work at peacemaking, especially as Christians. The piece was originally looking at how white people and black people in America approached race differently, but I think it’s actually also about how those on the right, and those on the left, approach race differently (including why people on the left accept Critical Race Theory, and the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an oppressive construct in white-dominated western countries). Michael Emerson, a sociologist, wrote The Persistent Problem back in 2010, the introductory thesis statement says:

“While whites tend to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, people of colour tend to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

The essay drills down into how this plays out in areas like how one defines racism — and again, I think the individual/systemic divide is a right/left divide, not (only or exclusively) a white/black divide.

“Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.”

To call a right leaning person a racist, with this definition operating in our heads, shuts down the conversation because the right leaning person says ‘but I do not have hatred in my heart towards a person of colour, nor am I personally prejudiced such that I discriminate’. Emerson observed that this individual emphasis is particularly held by white Christians. Perhaps this is because of the way individualism is a construct of both western thought (and thus ‘white’ thought), and Christian thought, as I unpacked a little while ago.

“Most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.”

We see this definition at work in, say, the Black Lives Matter protests, Critical Theory, and the response to the Australian Prime Minister’s (racist by this definition) statements about the First Fleet this week — that’s a classic expression of the sort of racism this definition describes, even if ScoMo has no personal animosity towards individual Indigenous people (or Indigenous communities). Interestingly it’s probably also why when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ and we want it to be about individual health care, and opportunities for education, and fixing individual behaviours that might cause less individual flourishing around health and education, it’s possible the system (the government) that is responsible for health and education, and that has a straight line institutional responsibility for the historic dispossession of our First Nations people, is doomed to fail.

Some of the gap that needs closing is a product of our nation’s systems — whether its stolen wages, the stolen generation, or the stolen land. All of these government operated policies created intergenerational disadvantage and when a government tries to create equal opportunities, or even reconciliation, against this historic disadvantage, without acknowledging the systemic ramifications of that historic (and ongoing) sin, it is probably not going to work — and yet, it is also true that better health and education outcomes for individuals are an important path to flourishing.

Disagreeing on racism’s definition means not only the potential for more group conflict, but also reduced potential for overcoming it. Different definitions mean groups and people are working to different ends using different means.

Emerson’s essay unpacks the idea of ‘white privilege’ in a useful and clear summary built on the three pillars of ‘white structural advantage’ where most of society’s institutions (public or private) are controlled by white people who benefit from the status quo of the system set up by and for them (an example here in Australia is, for example, that I come from at least three generations of land owners, such that the inherited wealth and stability I am born into allowed me to easily access education and be schooled in a secure environment that allowed me to thrive and pursue even more education, while also receiving good health care, in those generations my family ‘urbanised’ moving from settler status in regional New South Wales to life in inner city suburbia), ‘white normativity,’ where white people don’t have to navigate life in these systems as outsiders society is set up so ‘the way we do things’ is very close to ‘the way things are’ (so, I don’t have to navigate a difference between my ancestral language, music, and culture and the dominant or popular culture and language, plus, my ‘story’ is the ‘typical’ Aussie success story, totally built on ‘opportunity,’ wisdom, and ‘hard work’ but without state-sanctioned tragedy in the mix), and ‘white transparency’ where I don’t have to think about what is or isn’t an expression of ‘whiteness’ (and, beyond ‘whiteness’ I have very little idea about my cultural heritage, and don’t need to — for example, I was a teenager when I found out our ‘Campbellness’ comes, most directly, from Ireland, rather than Scotland).

Emerson makes a useful distinction between a ‘racist’ society — where these structures are overtly prejudiced against the other, and a racialised society where these structures work to systemically advantage those who neatly fall within them, and disadvantage other groups. And, while this is difficult for those of us who are ‘right-leaning’ — systems and especially institutions are a classic building block of small government conservatism so the sort of colour-blind individualism one might find advocated by commentator Gerard Henderson in his Australia Day piece, where ‘group identity’ is out and ‘individual success’ is to be celebrated across ethnic lines, is tricky to mesh with lived reality where one (an individual) receives their success only by successfully navigating and embedding in such institutions (like a university). It assumes a colour blind status quo that simply does not exist given the history and multiple stories interweaving in our nation. Emerson’s piece is, again, U.S centric, but it describes life in Australia in observably real terms.

A racialised society allocates what society values—income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health, life expectancy—unequally along racial lines. Society (its institutions and its people) create racial categories which change over time, as well as the form of racialisation—such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, de facto segregation and inequality. So while its form changes, what does not change is that race matters considerably for people’s identities, whom they know, where they live, whom they marry, and their life chances.

If education and better health outcomes are essential parts of closing the gap in Australia — and if the gap is a genuinely observable phenomena in a way that meets this definition of a ‘racialised’ society — then some changes will need to be systemic, not just the result of heroic individuals overturning the status quo and its disadvantages (though long may those individuals exist and be celebrated). No person is born into the world as an individual though — we are not the authors of our own story — we are born into families and social groups, and places, that we have no control over but that reflect the advantage, or otherwise of the people who have come before us. Again, it’s a fundamentally conservative thing to acknowledge this truth, the political left, and, typically, non western collectivist cultures just make this a bigger deal than our individual/liberal culture. Emerson says:

“We need to focus our attention on undoing our racialised society, on making our organisations fairer places for people of all racial backgrounds, on making our congregations places that do not reinforce racial division, but which instead bring people of all backgrounds together for the common purpose of glorifying God. We would do well to acknowledge that for all the reasons discussed earlier, whites’ tendency will be to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, whereas people of colour’s tendency will be to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

Again, for some purposes ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are interchangable with political ideologies (right, and left) that emphasise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. Although, it’s also true that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are built on the same western liberalism that makes ‘freedom’ the chief good; they have a common foundation, so there might be a ‘western right’ and ‘western left’ or ‘white right’ and ‘white left’ that operate differently to other political cultures from outside western liberal traditions… Part of ‘de-racialising’ might be ‘de-westernising’ or ‘de-whiting’ our society, so that we think corporately or systemically, not just individually.

One must — I think — particularly as a Christian see identity functioning corporately at least a little. For Christians this happens both for Israel (and the nations) in the Old Testament, and for the church and our union with Christ in the New Testament. Sin and blessing work inter-generationally in the Bible as well, with, for example, blessings and curses for Covenant obedience (land v exile) for Israel, and also judgment on the nations who mistreat Israel (and then, the church, in, say, Revelation).

A multi-purpose Australia Day where lament and celebration are held in tension doesn’t actually address the cause of the tension in Australia — it does not close the gap, nor does it address the ‘racialisation’ of our society, or help us develop the sort of language and common purpose that could allow us to start working towards de-racialisation and improvement in our communities. It may be that a mixed day is better than a nationalistic day of what is essentially conservative (or white) pride, but even if that means conservative (right-leaning) indigenous people, or successful individuals who have navigated the pressures of racialised society, feel their story is being celebrated — it does nothing for those people who by either ethnic experience, or political conviction, feel like something token is being offered. It’s not ‘virtue signalling’ to call for a date change to a more inclusive date if inclusivity is the starting point for a de-racialised society any more than it is ‘virtue signalling’ to call for the date to remain the same (for the white/right leaning Australian), or for a mixed occasion (for the person comfortable with tension). Every option put forward for January 26 is a contribution to a conversation about the virtues we want at the heart of our society — be it celebrating individual triumph in a nation we think has everything sorted (right-leaning nationalism), calling for mature holding of tension (typically a ‘centrist’ position from a position of privilege, that wants a more honest appraisal of history, and a maintaining of parts of the status quo worth celebrating), or a call to change the date to a mark a more inclusive and re-constructive occasion (typically a position from the political left).

And here’s why, as a Christian, I think we should throw our lot in with the Change the Date movement (while also pursuing the harder #changetheheart work) — not as an expression of ‘rightness’ or ‘leftness’ but as a path towards actual unity and deconstruction of our own racialisation, so that we operate as ministers of reconciliation — those who have been brought together in Christ — in an unreconciled nation. Nationalism is often a form of idolatry — this was true where the nation state and a religion were perfectly overlapping realities (say, in Ancient Rome, or in modern monarchies where the king or queen rule as divine regents), but it is also true in a secular world where the nation has become the ‘ultimate’ good in a world that has pushed divine or supernatural realities to the margins. One of the reasons the national holiday is so contested in the modern culture wars is that it is a ‘holy day’ — a chance to celebrate what we think should be held sacred (ANZAC Day is another expression of secular nationalistic religiosity). Marking a national holy-day is potentially idolatrous, that isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t ever join in celebrating the good things about our nation, and to be thankful for God’s providence to us, just that we already have reason to be careful — because we are ‘citizens of heaven’ and worshippers of God, serving our Lord and King, Jesus. The Old Testament is full of nationalistic idolatry — just read the book of Daniel — and we should try to navigate life in the public square much like Daniel did. He was a contributor to Babylon’s success (much like Joseph was to Egypt’s), but he did not worship its king in a display of empire-celebration (nor did Esther or Mordecai in Esther). We should approach a national day of celebration as people who live in our country, but whose citizenship is, ultimately, elsewhere — in a way that creates the potential for differentiation from calls to participate in idolatry. Some people in our midst will feel like the line between ‘idolatry’ and ‘not idolatry’ falls in different places — a bit like in the first century ‘food sacrificed to idols’ debate in the early church.

White nationalism is a particular form of idolatry that Christians, especially in the U.S, but not exclusively, are predisposed towards — perhaps because much of what we take for granted as ‘whiteness’ is a product of Christianity’s influence on the modern west and its nations — including our emphasis on the individual. When we are asked to celebrate Australia, what we might think we are being invited to celebrate is a western nation built on ‘judeo-Christian values’ — and so our conservative impulse is to use this as an opportunity to signal the good fruits of Christianity in our nation. Those outside ‘whiteness’ or ‘conservatism’ — whether those committed to a more collectivist outlook because of politics, or culture, or religious convictions might see ‘idolatry,’ or at least a participation in sin caught up much earlier in the celebration or participation in nationalism — right back to the choice of date and what is being ‘celebrated.’ When they are asked to celebrate Australia Day, with a time of lament attached to beginning, it feels a bit like saying grace before chowing down on food from the idol temple up the road. Those peoples consciences are seared to the extent that they are genuinely hurt when other members of the body — people who share their ultimate citizenship — participate without thinking in idolatry. The unity in the Body of Christ is damaged. The analogy isn’t exact, but I don’t think Paul’s ethical principles outlined in Romans and 1 Corinthians are only about food sold in the meat markets in the first century but about the absolute priority of unity in Christ; particularly, when it came to food laws, unity between two ethnic groups — Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ethic was to create a ‘de-racialised community’ built on the absolute truth of our union with Christ. I say it’s not a perfect analogy because Paul thought eating idol meat in your home was not the same as going to the idol temple and eating it in a liturgical BBQ. He definitely did not think Christians could or should participate in overt idolatry — and it’s possible to make a case that Australia Day, and certain forms of Australia Day celebrations, function overtly as holy-days for an idolatrous post-Christian ‘white nationalist’ society, especially given our nation’s history.

So for me, when some members of the body of Christ — our indigenous brothers and sisters — even if it’s not all of our indigenous brothers and sisters — say that they feel a breaking of fellowship when others participate in something — an area of genuine liberty — but one that they can only understand as participation in idolatry, I think we should listen, and respond in love. At least personally that’s where I’m at. I admit it’s hard for me to be convinced that anybody is deeply and ideologically wedded to January 26 as the traditional date, given its reasonably recent history (it’s only been a national holiday since 1994).

Changing the date won’t do everything in terms of de-racialisation, but not changing the date communicates something that keeps us from sharing the table with one another — whether in the church, or in the nation at large. All the fancy lamb ads in the world won’t overcome that divide. Not changing the date, or joining the call to have it changed, will keep some members of our community (whether church or nation) away from the table, and feeling like we’re at (culture) war with one another, rather than trying to make peace.

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul says:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

And that sounds all well and good. We should each be convinced of our own position — whether from our ethnicity or our politics — and yet, he doesn’t end there… does he. Part of the ethical implications of our own individual union with Jesus — our not living for ourselves alone — is that we are also connected to one another… Part of the reason I’m unpacking my thinking here is that I’m not entirely sure this is just a ‘disputable matter’ or an area of total freedom. I do think there’s some idolatry caught up in Australia Day, and nationalism, that moves from ‘area of freedom’ to ‘area of sin’ — and while I’m not Paul, he tried to tread the line between taking an obvious position on a moral issue, upholding freedom and liberty, and making the absolute moral priority our union with Jesus. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t in good conscience celebrate Australia Day as you see fit on January 26, with or without lament — but simply that because I am aware of the distress this causes some of my brothers and sisters, I can’t. Because to do so would be to no longer act in love — even with lament and tension, nor would it be to act towards de-racialisation as effectively as changing the date (whether that’s a token, or not, it’s going to help build trust in the sorts of institutions that provide education and healthcare, rather than perpetuate distrust).

Here’s how Paul concludes his example on idol meat in Romans 14:15-21… applying our union with Jesus to our union with one another. He says we should ‘make every effort’ to do what leads to peace, and the responsibility lies with the person who is not distressed, but who causes distress through the exercise of their freedoms around a Holy Day.

“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Note: I’m using this image here because for some reason when the link gets shared it’s grabbing a picture of Trump holding a Bible from a ‘related post’…

Arnie and his sword won’t save America; but the real king will be back

There’s a limited amount that an Aussie pastor with a blog can contribute to the religio-political situation in the United States right now, and I’ve been reluctant to say much at all with no real skin in the game; content, as I am, just to needle our own emerging ‘Christian rightTM‘ here in Australia (not to be confused with Christians who are conservative politically).

Some insurrectionists carried ‘Jesus saves’ signs into battle, while others carried racially charged Confederate flags, and — including one woman trampled to death — Confederate themed ‘don’t tread on me’ flags. This was, as David French puts it, a “Christian insurrection”

My own non-expert two cents on the situation in America is that Trump is a symptom, not exclusively a cause, that white Christian nationalism is a heresy (and one that might need something like Critical Theory to unpick, and reveal, the heresy and how deeply embedded it is in institutions), that politics has become ‘ultimate’ for everyone in a world where something that ‘transcends’ material issues is no longer the assumed default (and ultimate even for those who believe in some transcendent reality), that we now live in an image based culture where very few people do the deep reflection required to understand the world, or the other, and where people see political action as ‘image making,’ such that we get this ultimate form of political expression…

There are lots of better thinkers than I expressing these ideas elsewhere — Christopher Hedges on the image based culture thing two years ago, Jemar Tisby on white Christian nationalism v Critical Theory, Karen Swallow Prior on how little substantive integrative thinking happens, this is what James K.A Smith was on about in his book Awaiting The King, exploring how politics becomes an ‘ultimate concern’ in a secular age, what Walter Wink was on about when he wrote about ‘domination systems’ and the ‘myth of redemptive violence,’ and what James Davison Hunter warned about both when coining ‘the culture wars’ and talking about the ‘politicisation of everything.’

There’s been lots of fear-mongering by voices from the Christian Right TM that makes even handed engagements with critical theory and the potential overreaches of the progressive side of politics (or ‘the Left’) difficult to parse out and engage with. Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas have metaphorical, if not literal, blood on their hands — Metaxas is being called out, trolled even, by fellow Christian conservative Rod Dreher on Twitter, but Dreher’s own anti-left rhetoric creates grist for this mill (see this Cardus review of his most recent book). There are plenty of voices out there deconstructing this particular political moment, and the best of these offer some alternative vision or ‘political’ way forward for us in our multi-cultural, multi-faith, secular, pluralist, democracies in the west.

These ways forward are problematic because whether one pushes into monotheism (either a Christian theocracy (Christian nationalism)), pluralism (where I think I’d sit short of Jesus’ return), or a sort of ‘polytheistism’ (wokeness/CRT) all the political solutions offered are actually fundamentally ‘religious’ solutions with their own problems, pluralism, for example, has to grapple with the ‘paradox of tolerance,’ while polytheism necessarily exclude some voices from the public table (those being ‘progressed from’).

Who knew that this ‘image based political culture’ would not just produce a barbarian in the Capitol building wearing horns and wielding a flag on a spear, but an altogether more civilised barbarian wielding a sword, surrounded by flags, calling us to a more noble answer. This morning Governor Arnie released a stunning and stirring video in response to the Christian insurrection, drawing on his Catholic heritage, to call for ‘public servant leadership,’ and soul searching and repentance in his Republican Party.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_P-0I6sAck

Arnie went from this…

To this…

Now. His contribution, coming, as it does, from a prominent Republican Governor, reflecting, as it does, on his childhood experience in post-Nazi Austria, is being widely hailed as the sort of circuit breaker that America needs. And it is a beautiful and powerful speech.

“I grew up Catholic, I went to church, went to Catholic school, I learned the Bible and my catechisms. And from those days I remember a phrase that is relevant today: a servant’s heart. It means serving something larger than yourself. What we need right now from our elected representatives is a public servant’s heart. We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power, or their own party. We need public servants who will serve higher ideals, the ideals in which this country was founded, the ideals that other countries look up to.”

Now. Arnie ‘grew up Catholic,’ but what he seems to advocate from here on in is the same old American exceptionalism that creates an American civic religion…

When he whips out the sword it’s a picture of his vision of democracy. Tempered by fire. Swords become stronger through ordeals.

“Our democracy is like the steel of this sword. The more it is tempered, the stronger it becomes. Our democracy has been tempered by wars, injustices, and insurrections. I believe, as shaken as we are about the events of recent days, we will come out stronger because we now understand what can be lost.”

Democracy is just another version of the sword. It’s a power game. Democracy, especially American Democracy, is the ideal Arnie is putting his faith in.

We do need public servants who will serve higher ideals. He’s right.

But what?

We’ve all got to serve something, or somebody, and the thing about the word ‘serve,’ is that Biblically, it’s the same as the word ‘worship’ — and what kingdom we serve, or what kingdom our political leaders serve as ultimate is not just a political question, but a religious one. This is why the New Testament speaks of Christians as ‘citizens of heaven’ and ‘citizens of the kingdom,’ which positions us with a view that this world, and its political kingdoms, are not ultimate. We might exist in them as a faithful presence — ambassadors even. We might follow the examples of Daniel, or Esther, or Erastus in Corinth — but we also follow the example, ultimately, of our king, Jesus, who was put to death by the nation state operating ‘the sword’ when he was around.

But, while it nods back to the religious source of his conception of ‘servant hearted leadership,’ it’s an expression of the same secular age politics that treats politics — or rather, in this case, nationalism, as the ultimate concern that will save America from itself. America can’t save America. America can’t fix Christian nationalism if the problem is worship of America… or a vision of it. America doesn’t need a more correct form of Christian inspired nationalism, or a better nationalism, to fix a problem caused by nationalism; as David French argues in his piece, only the church can save the church — but really, only Jesus can save his bride, the church, from the clutches of the dragon.

It’s Jesus who provides the template for servant hearted leadership — not the church — and it’s ultimately reconnecting not just to his example, but his kingdom, that will save Americans (and us). The problem is that a secular state — including Arnie — keep wanting the fruits of Jesus’ impact on the world, after disconnecting from Jesus.

We still want a sword to save us, just one swung by a more benevolent king (or President, or reality TV star), but what we need is a king who rejected the sword and took up his cross.

And the thing about Jesus…

He’ll be back.

And he’ll bring the ultimate kingdom, and yes, judgment.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:5-8

Deconstruction is easy. It’s easy to tear down and diagnose the problems of the other, perhaps especially the ‘political’ or religious other… It’s easy to pull apart the social factors that get us where we are — providing treatments that take root and transform are more difficult, because there’s no silver bullet solution to these problems.

We can’t just make beautiful videos featuring the ultimate counter-punch to a president who governed almost entirely by ‘image,’ in pursuit of ratings. One former host of The Apprentice taking down a previous host of The Apprentice… that doesn’t address the problems facing us, it’s another symptom of these same problems.

So, when it comes to choosing political voices to listen to — those who’ll enable and activate your participation in the political sphere — pick voices who offer constructive visions of what it looks like to live as citizens and ambassadors of that kingdom. Not those who put our hope in the princes of this world — or in the democracies where we all become princes and princesses, but in the king of heaven and earth.

Top 20 for 2020

End of year lists are a cultural phenomenon that everybody loves, and, in what has been a terrible year on so many fronts, there have been things that have given me joy. And I thought I’d write a list of them. Most of these are recommendations for cultural bits and pieces I’ve loved, but I’m using ‘culture’ in a very diverse sense, a bit like the way Andy Crouch uses it in his book Culture Making, and this list isn’t ranked with any particular chronological value built in. These are just things I’ve liked. They aren’t just things that have been released this year, but things I’ve enjoyed.

1. Movie — Pixar’s Onward

You can read my review of this beautiful movie over at my little review site “Like But Better”. I think this is my favourite Pixar outing to date. It is (re)enchanting.

2. TV Show — Ted Lasso.

I wrote a piece about ‘the new sincerity’ and my desire to stop being so cynical and deconstructive in my approach to life, and along came Ted Lasso. A beautiful example of the new sincerity available on Apple TV. You can read a review of this series at Like But Better too.

3. Magazine — Soul Tread

Soul Tread was a kickstarter project I was thrilled to help launch (I got to host a Zoom launch party). The vision of Rachael Lopez, who is now the editor of a very fine print only magazine. The first edition is beautiful, and something I’ll treasure. Buy a subscription for yourself, or a friend, today.

4. Book — Sam Chan’s How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy)

Sam’s ‘pop level’ book on how to winsomely present the good news of Jesus in a world that doesn’t think it needs to hear it is a great addition to his earlier textbook on the same gear. It edges out Stephen McAlpine’s Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus in a World that Says You Shouldn’t on my list of ‘most useful practical books for an Aussie’ this year. I reviewed both Sam’s book and Stephen’s book this year, so check those out to see why you should read them both.

5. TV — Bluey (season 2)

Parents, especially dads, loving Bluey is such a cliche now. But in a year where a significant chunk of time was spent at home trying to cope with children being constantly present, the new season of Bluey was a godsend. Rug Island was my favourite reminder of the value of presence and play with your kids, and Cafe was a beautiful picture of adult friendship (and the way we grow out of making friends easily).

6. TV — The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

Superhero family meets time travel meets exceptional sound track (and fight scene choreography to music), and cinematography. What’s not to love? I also enjoyed Titans.

7. Article/conspiracy theory — The ‘animals are out to get us’ conspiracy theory planted by an old John Jeremiah Sullivan piece The Violence of the Lambs

I discovered this article from 2011 this year, shared it on Facebook, and now I am bombarded with news stories where animals prove the article’s thesis by attacking people in strange ways. What makes this particularly troubling for me, is that it’s not a new obsession. I wrote a college essay on animal attacks in the Bible. John Jeremiah Sullivan also wrote this incredible piece ‘Upon this Rock’ on the Christian rock music scene.

8. Christian Book — Slow Church

We’re in the process of rethinking/recalibrating our church community as we move to independence. I’d already been thinking about how rest and play should form part of the rhythms of our church, and about how to roll out the insights from, say, Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (or a reluctance to buy in to a ‘small target’ Gospel), and my reflections on the way the church growth movement and its practices creates consumers rather than disciples, and this book, Slow Church, came along using the metaphor of slow food (as opposed to fast food) to ask questions about how we might realign our collective practices as Christians. It’s, I think, at least a ‘must contemplate’ idea, especially in a post-covid world after so many of us have been forced to slow down.

9. Tech — Zoom

Imagine 2020 without Zoom.

Imagine if you’d bought shares in Zoom at the end of 2019.

It’s not perfect, it may have been bad for us — distorting our interactions, and leaving us fatigued, and the cost of importing technology made for the boardroom into church life is one we’ll still have to reckon with for a while, but Zoom made life, church, friendship, and work possible this year.

10. Community institution — Holland Park Kindy

At the end of 2019 I put my hand up to be president of our kindy’s parent committee. Who’d have thought that a global pandemic was about to significantly disrupt our year, and that a parent committee would have to help navigate the operations of a play based kindergarten as it shifted to a largely online program. We’ve loved this kindy, and it has been such a life-giving part of our family, and so very good for our kids. This, in large part, is thanks to the director, Leanne, and her ethos/pedagogy. We’ll miss it.

It’s such a beautiful picture of the importance of community institutions in the fabric of civic life, and we’re really glad to have been involved the way we have. Plus, Leanne just gave me a bobble head statue of me.

11. Sporting Team — Village FC

I’ve played football (soccer) pretty much since under 7s. This is, by far, my favourite team to play with in that time. Some good recruiting during the Covid lockdown made us almost unbeatable. We dropped the semi final, but because we’d finished top of the ladder we had a second chance, and ended up taking out the title, winning the Grand Final 4-0, so we’re Div 2 Queensland Baptist League champions. Glory. But really just a lot of fun having a kick around every week with some great blokes.

12. Video Game — Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

I can take or leave some of the broader Assassin’s Creed mythos. I’ve sporadically dipped in to this franchise over the years, and while there’s a sameness to ‘parkour + bladed combat,’ the rendering of different historical periods has improved over the year. This one was special — not just because of the way the exploration of the Greek and Persian world at the time of Socrates was well realised, including the way the gods or a sort of spiritual reality was woven into the fabric of the life of the characters in a sort of ‘magical realism’ that was immersive, but because the landscape and landmarks were put together with attention to detail. It was fun running and jumping around ancient Corinth, and Athens, and Epidaurus; all cities I visited on a study tour while at Bible college. On the whole it was an experience a bit like roaming New York City as Spiderman in terms of ‘re-enchanting’ real space.

13. Physical artefacts — Colour blindness correction glasses

New glasses for my ‘presbyopia’ have been fantastic in helping me see clearly, and be less tired, but the clip on colour correction glasses have blown my mind. I don’t wear them as often as I could because they’re overwhelming, and I feel a bit like Bono, but, just knowing that world is out there, and being able to dip into it at will, is like having a super power.

14. Video Game — Jackbox Games (and Quiplash)

Playing online party games during lockdown was one of our big survival strategies. Laughter is good for the soul. Jackbox’s series of party games were great fun, and I kinda find myself missing Quiplash now that (at least temporarily) lockdown in Queensland is in the distant past.

15. Article — Christian Storytelling and the Upside Down Shadowlands

K.B Hoyle’s piece on stories and the culture war at Christ and Pop Culture is one of those absolute must read pieces that I’ll keep sending people back to over and over again. Karin writes some exceptional pieces, including this one on How to Train Your Dragon and Edenic longing, and this piece on Tiger King, and what its popularity says about us (and does to us).

16. Book — Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton.

This is a book about ‘secular worship’ in a time where the transcendent nature of reality is flatly denied by most people; the idea that there’s a spiritual or supernatural realm is gone, but we’re still worshippers who replace old religions with new ones. It is the first book I’ve read that made me feel old and out of touch with the youth of today and the pace at which sub cultures are forming around common objects of love or worship, secular options in what Charles Taylor describes as the ‘nova effect’ — I bought this book after reading two incredible articles by the author, Tara Isabella Burton, one on ‘bad traditionalism‘ and one on a ‘post-liberal epistemology‘ that are hard going but worth your time. I’ve also grabbed her novel after reading this great piece about a Christian aesthetic.

17. Podcast — The Eucatastrophe

C.S Lewis said “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one!” I haven’t met the gents who host The Eucatastrophe, but we’ve corresponded enough online for me to think we’d probably either hate each other or be friends in the real world. So many of these Lewis like moments as I listen to these guys dissect pop culture, or talk political theology, and plenty of stretching my thinking too. They’re a gift.

Special mention also to the hosts of my other favourite podcast, With All Due Respect, but I have met both of them in real life.

18. TV — The Righteous Gemstones

In a year where I’ve been doing lots of thinking about church, and consumerism, and the dangers of turning church into a consumer product or an event (and ‘pivoting’ to seeing it as a ‘media product’), The Righteous Gemstones was a beautifully prophetic critique of so much that is wrong with modern evangelicalism, both in the States, and anywhere where technique and co-opted business/entertainment principles are imported into the church like a Trojan Horse.

The Righteous Gemstones comes with all sorts of content warnings (sex, nudity, language, etc), but despite its very black humour take on the problems with modern evangelicalism, and hypocrisy of the sorts of leaders who play the platform-building game with a whitewashed public persona, while the inside is dead and dirty, there’s a nice redemptive thread that runs through the season, and some genuinely great moments. 

19. Bookshop — The Little Lost Bookshop/The Wandering Bookseller

I’m more and more convinced that Amazon is Babylon. Or the modern equivalent of it. That its rotten all the way down, but big and bright and efficient and offering the promise of everything you could possibly want to consume at the click of a button. This piece from William Cavanaugh was helpful. I’m attempting to ‘consciously decouple’ at least some of my consumerism from Amazon, and one way I’m doing that is more intentionally supporting Aussie book seller Karl Grice and his team at The Little Lost Bookshop and The Wandering Bookseller. I was inspired, in part, by an episode of Sam Wan and Sam Chan’s podcast Espresso and Earl Grey, where Sam Wan talks about his work with the book shop as a more human form of Amazon’s recommendation algorithm. 

Working in Karl’s book shop, or one like it in Queensland, is my Monday morning day dream. 

20. Book — American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve read lots of fiction this year. Mostly some deep dives into viking historical fiction, or Robin Hood stories, or different books dropped in to long running series throughout the year (Bernard Cornwell’s Uthred of Bebbanburg/Last Kingdom, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher being two notable pop fiction series from this year). But, in terms of sprawling epics, it was American Gods that stuck with me the longest this year. Gaiman is fun; and this deep dive into a variety of mythologies in a world with a fun anthropology (where humans are worshippers, and our worship gives the gods their power) was rewarding. Made more so by this Alan Jacob’s article on fantasy and the buffered self that explores Charles Taylor’s secularisation thesis, and uses Gaiman’s American Gods as a conversation partner.

Bonus list

Outside that 20 things by other people, here’s self-indulgent addition; my favourite things of my own this year.

  1. This piece on Ethiopian Church forests, tying in with the ‘new eden project’ idea I’ve been chewing on since last year.
  2. The Digital Museum of Preacher Gifs on Tumblr.
  3. This review essay of the Amazon Prime show Upload, that was a reworking of a paper I presented at the 2020 ISCAST conference.
  4. The series of posts I wrote around statue toppling, that became this piece published by CPX.
  5. The posts I wrote around Covid’s disruption of church practices, and our sometimes uncritical embrace of media/technology solutions that act like trojan horses, especially how we fall prey to the technological fallacy as Christians.

What did you love in 2020?

On the need for subversive ideologies

Australia’s Gospel Coalition CEO, blogger, and genuinely nice guy Akos Balogh is currently working on a series over on his blog about critical theory titled ‘Are You Being Shaped By This Subversive Ideology.’ Part 2 leads off with a quote from Hebrews, “‘Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.’ (Hebrews 13:9),” this could just have easily have quoted Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick to see Critical Theory as a ‘pattern of this world’ or a ‘diverse and strange teaching,’ but not to apply that same standard to the systems, patterns, and teachings that Critical Theory seeks to dismantle. For Christians, all systems of thinking and action — all patterns, political systems, and pretensions — whether whiteness or wokeness — are things we, at least, should be demolishing and bringing captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4), as we adopt a methodology or way of life that comes not from the world, but from Jesus, our king. This means Christians are actually called to be subversive.

Now, I’m not sure where Akos is going to land, whether or what insights from Critical Theory, or Post-modernity, and its critiques of modernity and power structures, he might affirm, but there’s something a little culture war-y about the posture of the series so far; and TGCAU has a little form here. If we’re not being shaped by ‘this subversive ideology,’ as Christians (or citizens), then might I suggest that we always need to be shaped by other subversive ideologies? Otherwise, without subversion, the status quo inevitably becomes enshrined as the default vision of ‘the good,’ and looking around at society, culture, and politics, I’m pretty sure we’re in need of some good old subversion, as I argued in a previous post, this subversion probably needs to be both conservative and progressive (mostly it needs to be wise and good).

Akos writes about the move from boring post-modernity, to a toothier ‘social justice theory,’ where the insights of post-modernity are turned into moral imperatives. He says “This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.”

Now. We might be in real trouble if universities in Australia were pumping out graduates from these ‘social justice’ type courses (and, bear with me, ‘woke capitalism’ is certainly also a thing). That would be a status quo worth subverting. The ‘so many students,’ at least according to data on university enrolments from Australia’s Department of Education, is a subset of the 19.9% of university students who fit in the ‘society and culture’ segment of the university population, 25% of the student population are in ‘management and commerce’ degrees, 6% in Engineering or related fields, 7.9% in IT, 2.4% in Architecture and Building, 7.4% in Science, and 1.1% in Agriculture, add the 15.4% who are in Health, and that’s 65% of students who are in ‘modernist’ courses with a STEM flavour. That’s a pattern. That’s a system (the other 13.6% of students are studying Education or Arts). Drilling down into the ‘society and culture’ field of education, research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, says this sector includes “Political Science and Policy Studies, Studies in Human Society (History, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, Sociology), Human Welfare Studies and Services, Behavioural Science, Law Justice and Law Enforcement, Librarianship, Informational Management and Curatorial Studies, Language and Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Economics, and Sport and Recreation.” Gender studies is there, but that’s a whole lot of other courses that aren’t necessarily producing activists committed to a social justice outlook. According to that same AAH paper (albeit a paper from 2014, using data from 2012) the ‘Other Studies in Human Society’ field, that includes Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies only accounts for around 12% of full time equivalent employees in the Society and Culture sector. Given that (according to the Grattan Institute) only 2 in 5 high school graduates enrol in university, the number of Aussies getting Gender Studies degrees and becoming activists is negligible, especially when compared to non-activist students who get jobs that plug them in to an economic and social machine that is more representative of a system or status quo or pattern of the world.

Perhaps these activists have a disproportionate impact on society and culture — perhaps they’re particularly effective online, and in a sort of ‘chattering class’ that cares about moral or ethical conversations (where plenty of Christian leaders find themselves engaging). Perhaps they even wield a disproportionate influence on western politics, especially on the left (though equally, they gain a disproportionate amount of attention from the Christian Right in these same online fora). But. Here’s a couple of caveats — perhaps the social justice activists from the Gender Studies departments, or Critical Theorists are actually right in some of their diagnoses about power, and systems and structures (but maybe sometimes wrong about their prescribed solutions to said problems), and perhaps, we Christians, aren’t so much at risk of being swept up by this ‘subversive agenda’ but not being subversive enough when it comes to the status quo that accounts for the vast majority of university graduates, and the 60% of Aussies who don’t go to, or haven’t graduated from, university.

We Christians could be a little more subversive when it comes to systems or patterns of thinking that are drastically shaping our conception of what it means to be human. Systems like liberalism and its radical individualism, or capitalism. Power structures like systemic racism or the patriarchy. This isn’t to say the answer is rushing out and subscribing to Critical Theory or getting a Gender Studies degree, but surely the same discernment we’re so willing to apply to progressive politics should be applied to the conservative realm and its patterns. The call to follow a crucified king in an upside down kingdom where the proud fall, and the humble are exalted actually requires a degree of subversion?

Akos suggests that the political principle of this ‘subversive system’ is “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice.” I won’t rehash the argument I made elsewhere about how the Biblical account of empire — whether Babylon, or Rome-as-Babylon, seems to fit with a belief that society is formed of dominion systems of power and hierarchy — but I will suggest, briefly, that identity politics is actually a product not of ‘social justice’ but of liberalism; and some unexpected consequences of Reformation Christianity and its emphasis on the individual (and a protestant work ethic).

Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, traces the rise of what he calls ‘the age of authenticity’ to a protestant impulse to disconnect people from a previous social order, particularly an order where people were born into class systems or professions, this came with a disconnection from the idea that this social order was created and dignified by God (or a reflection of the supernatural realm in the natural order), such that, for example, kings were appointed by God. When we pushed that transcendent ordering of the natural world to the side, we were all left masters of our own domains, forced to construct our own individual identities, and, often, choosing to construct our identities through performative projections of our ‘authentic’ desires; our ‘id’ into the world — when we talk about identity politics, we’re really talking about id-entities — the idea that we as individuals create ourselves, that we need to be recognised by others to be legitimised, and that we can often construct this identity through consumer choice; either as we build our appearance and our connection to place, or as we associate ourselves to brands, sub-cultures, or tribes, in order to be understood. The system that we all operate in — whether plugging in to the economy as the quickest means to the sort of security that allows us to construct our ideal ‘id-entity’ through consumption or experience, or participating in woke capitalism, or social justice activism, or culture wars — is one built on this conception of the human. It’s a picture that needs subversion, or disruption.

Historian Tom Holland (not the Spider-Man actor) does a great job charting this in his book Dominion. He starts his exploration of the impact of Christianity on the secular west — or rather its formative and foundational role in the western world, with an exploration of the systems of dominion or domination ultimately replaced by Christianity, but maybe, following Taylor, that we might be returning to in the post-Christian west (as a result of some streams of Christian belief and practice).

He says, of the Babylonian and Persian realms, that they had a particular relationship to a conception not just of the universe and the ‘heavenly realm’ but the nature of the gods, “beyond the physical apparatus of the Great King’s vast empire, then, beyond the palaces, and the barrack rooms, and the way-posts on dusty roads, there shimmered a sublime and momentous conceit. The dominion forged by Cyrus and secured by Darius served as a mirror to the heavens. To resist it or to subvert it was to defy Truth itself.” The sort of power systems that led empires to crucify, destroy, or torture their enemies in order to promote or maintain power gave way in the west, at least for a while, to a thoroughly different way of operating; but this does not mean that ‘systems of power’ are a fiction; they are, instead, the very patterns the Biblical story emerges against — the patterns Hebrews and Romans call Christians out of as we pattern our lives on the cross. Holland says his ambition in writing  Dominion was to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Note that Christianity in its rejection of the sort of power structures of ancient empires was subversive and disruptive. 

Holland argues that the subversive and disruptive effects of Christianity served to overturn a certain ancient, and perhaps human-without-Jesus pattern of dominion; the same sorts of patterns that always sit latent in human hearts in a Christian anthropology — or that are always active in human hearts and actions without the influence and transformation brought by the Spirit, such that we should expect to see not just human lives given over to dominion (or being dominated), but human systems and cultures being built around the idolatrous use of power. These are the sorts of systems that Paul and the writer of Hebrews were worried might pull people away from the pattern of life found in the Gospel. Holland says the pattern that has shaped the western world, for good, is not one of dominion built on power, but rather, a culture built on the emptying out of power for the sake of the other; the power of the cross not just as a symbol but an ethic.

He says:

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

That’s powerful stuff right there; and I’d suggest where cultures, including the west, are moving away from the image of a god dead on a cross, and towards systems of power modelled on different concepts of god (idolatry, including greed), we’re seeing returns to dominion systems that just go by other names, like capitalism. Now. Capitalism is a product, like much of the west, of Christianity — a product of the idea of property rights and a person owning ‘property’ in the form of their own self (thanks Locke), and a product of ‘the protestant work ethic’ and democracy, and some of this is good fruit from a good tree — but idolatry is where good things — created things — are taken, and instead of being received with thanksgiving, worshipped in the place of God; made ultimate. The Social Justice Movement, or Critical Theory, is its own power game (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and it is not immune from critique using its own framework of deconstruction and assessment of an approach to power — but its critiques of systems of power at work in the west aren’t all wrong; especially because Christianity has had an awkward relationship with state power in the western world. If the book of Revelation is a criticism of Israel and its harlotry — cuddling up to the beastly Roman empire and so executing Jesus and persecuting his church, then the church, too, has been guilty of cuddling up to beastly human power structures — dominion structures — and copping some ire from the people we were meant to serve for our failures, historically and presently, is part of doing the business of repentance for us Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who are sensitive to systematised abuses of power also point the finger at us, we had a whole Royal Commission exploring some of the failures of the church in this area, but those aren’t all our failures — just our failures that broke the law. We’ve also failed in our calling to be those who stand not at the centre of society but for all those made to bear God’s image, our neighbours marginalised by dominion systems. If the church is so cosied up to worldly patterns — especially in the west, which still bears the hallmarks of the Gospel and is now enjoying the fruits, how will we be able to see where disruption or subversion is still required without voices from the outside?

If we assume the status quo is good and right, how will we avoid the ‘patterns of this world’ — and isn’t there a chance that sometimes things that challenge our comfortable status quo will feel like ‘diverse and strange teachings’ — much like the prophets calling Israel away from idolatry, or Jesus arriving in first century Israel felt to God’s people who had become too comfortable with the gods and systems of the nations? If we get caught up conserving the good things about the west to the extent that we don’t hear a call to ongoing progression or disruption don’t we run the risk of conforming to the patterns of the world? To systems of dominion or empire? Won’t we end up becoming vassals to the empire in ways that make it hard not to bow the knee, or kiss the hand, or bless the President, when he beckons to us, rather than ambassadors for Christ and ministers of God’s reconciling work in the world?

In an essay titled ‘Woke Politics and Power,’ published in The Monthly, Australian academic and media personality Waleed Aly unpacks a way that the Critical Theory/Social Justice movements play power games via cancel culture. His analysis is well worth the time because he observes that underneath the Social Justice/Critical Theory movement is both a power game, or dominion system, and an animating force that is essentially the same as the forces animating capitalism (that also explains, again, why woke capitalism is a thing). It’s the same false fruit of Christianity (and perhaps particularly post-Reformation Christianity) behind the ‘age of authenticity’ and the pursuit of an id-entity that needs to be recognised by others (including the state) to be validated. He’s not the only one making this observation. The whip smart hosts of the podcast The Eucatastrophe have been banging this same drum for three seasons of their show now, and, really, Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and William Cavanaugh have made similar observations (MacIntyre in After Virtue, Cavanaugh in many places including this most excellent essay about Amazon as a modern god). The issue is a version of liberalism, or radical individualism, built on a radical form of individualism that props up, and in a vicious cycle, is a product of a form of capitalism-as-empire. Aly examines wokeness, and cancel culture as an application of woke power, as a reaction to liberalism that doesn’t escape liberalism’s constraints. He says:

“But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time.”

It’s a really, really, good essay.

So how do we disrupt, or subvert, the worldly patterns, systems, and power structures underpinning both wokeness and whiteness? How do we challenge not just the ‘subversive systems’ that challenge the status quo and so feel like they’re challenging the things we want to conserve, but also the more invisible systems that we’ve become complicit in that still need to be challenged?

Well. I tried to unpack that in this earlier post, but it’s ultimately going to work with the same spirit that animated the west and subverted older models of idolatry or dominion, and that animated the Reformation itself, even if subsequent generations of reformed Christians created a dangerous emphasis on the individual in their deconstruction of ecclesial power structures — the cross of Jesus. Weakness. Power given for the sake of others, not for self interest.

More than that though it will have to come with two simultaneous convictions — the existence of a heavenly realm and a heavenly being who has some say in how human relationships and systems should look — and we Christians have that at the heart of our story of creation and redemption; a God who made heavens and earth that they might reveal his ‘divine nature and character,’ who sustains things by his powerful word, who uses the ‘wisdom of the cross’ to shame and defeat worldly empires and power structures, and whose ‘word-made-flesh’ taught us to pray that his kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ — we need a re-enchanted sense of the world, and our place in it within a system, not simply as individuals, and we need a conviction that our personhood is given, not just self-actualised.

The first of these convictions is going to come through worship that rejects idolatry. In Romans, Paul describes the way cultures and norms are formed when we reject God as creator, and worship creation instead. There are plenty of religions-of-liberalism. Aly describes wokeness itself as a sort of religion — the kind philosopher Émile Durkheim described in his sociological definition of ‘a religion’ — Durkheim’s model describes how all sorts of things, from politics, to consumption, to sport, function as ‘religions’ in a post-transcendent, or disenchanted, world. There are plenty of corporations out there vying to fill the religious void in your life, and even to appear ‘enchanting’ — Cavanaugh’s essay on Amazon describes this, where he says “we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

“Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology, N.T Wright suggests that much of what might otherwise be called ‘liberalism’ is just a modern form of Epicureanism. Wright argues that this is built from a consistent atomisation, or individuation, of all parts of life, playing out in the way we approach systems — from the universe down, whether that’s in economics, politics, or anthropology. He talks about modern life as life in ‘Epicurean Babylon,’ and suggests that this Epicureanism has infected the church, including how we understand God as creator and redeemer, in a variety of damaging ways, and sees part of the way this atomisation has taken place being the destruction of the role of narrative — not just in post-modernity, but in western modernity as well (where propositional truth and a sort of ‘mechanical’ model of life and the universe were assumed, so that a ‘deistic non-interventionist God’ is assumed, and that isn’t so different from a disenchanted, materialist universe where secular and sacred are separate realms, rather than integrated or overlapping). In such a world material things become our objects of worship, or the ways we define our ‘identity’ — rather than seeing our humanity as something given to us with the purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God (or, bearing his image). This is to say that the current state of play in the West isn’t just a product of Christianity, as Holland suggests, but also the product of a turn to, or at times a synthesis of Christianity and, a sort of Epicurean cosmology that underpins liberalism and its understanding of the world, the economy, and what it means to be human.

For me the second task, rediscovering who we were created to be, means being suspicious of the word ‘id-entity’ as a theological or ethical category (and a preference for talking about personhood), and an avoidance of identity based politics, identity-construction through consumer choice (and, instead, an approach to formation and ethics based on virtue and embodying the narrative we’re called to live in by the God who made, and re-created us in Jesus, who is transforming us into his image). Id-entity construction is so often a product of idolatry — our hearts, that are factories of idols, are poor guides for what our humanity should look like, and we aren’t as in control as we think we are of our ‘identity’ if, fundamentally, we are worshipping creatures who become what we worship. Our transformation, redemption, or re-creation in Christ certainly involves transformed hearts — but this transformation, like our bodies that are born into a ‘story’ (our families, communities, etc) is ‘given’ to us in that it is brought about by the Spirit (see Romans 7 and 8). The whole exercise of talking about Christianity as an ‘identity’ that we construct lends itself to a sort of liberalism where our religious commitment ends up being a personal consumer choice and a bid to construct and have our heart-desires recognised in much the same way as a sports fan, or a member of a sub culture or community. The Biblical concept of personhood in relationship to God as creator and redeemer is, in many ways, the antithesis of liberalism and we should be really cautious in adopting the language, or anthropology, at the heart of the liberal system (or empire).

This attempts to re-understand humanity, or personhood, requires a commitment to discovering who we are in the Gospel, as the culmination of God’s story — or revelation of his character to us, and in our union with Christ and as his body in the world, and a commitment to the sort of worship, or liturgy, that forms us as the people who live this story in all of life. The stuff Paul says at the start of Romans 12 about true worship is the antidote to the false worship of Romans 1, and the basis of our transformation and the renewing of our minds and the not being conformed to the patterns of this world, and its the ‘offering of our bodies’ in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus). As MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, when examining the givenness of our personhood, and how that has been lost in modern constructions of identity (or how the modern bureaucratic state wants to educate/form us into particular identities within an economic machinary), ‘“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? ‘ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

Finally, because subversion requires challenging the status quo we need to not just hear political and social voices we might otherwise exclude. The prophetic voices calling for disruption, subversion, or Reformation. I fear that many of our conservative, institutional, voices would react to Luther the way the Pope did. The Protestant impulse might have led us to some interesting political and social positions where different sorts of idolatry were birthed, and it may have not just ‘re-ordered’ given structures that underpinned a sense of God’s providential ordering of the universe (like kings and popes), but done away with a link between the two in some profound ways, but it did get the emphasis on disruption or subversion — the church always reforming — right. Perhaps rather than dismissing voices that challenge systems and status quos as ‘diverse and strange teachings’ we might consider and discern whether we should be receiving them as a ‘voice calling from the wilderness’ encouraging us to make straight paths for the Lord. Our tendency, especially in a ‘liberal’ world that teaches us we are the autonomous authors of our own identity, is to be blind to the systems that are shaping us, because we believe we are in control.

The telling of the Christian story as a counter-narrative to the stories of the world is one way that should open our eyes, but we probably also need to hear the Christian story as told by non-liberal (non-western even) Christian voices to examine where our version of the Gospel might have been colonised, or where a worldly dominion model might have crept in without us noticing (or worse, with us noticing but not caring because that’s more effective, or comfortable). One example of this that I’ve come across recently is this application of something like ‘critical race theory’ to ‘whiteness’ in the church, or more particularly, in the Christian academy by Ekaputra Tupamahu. This article’s insights into how liberalism, particularly in the form of property rights (starting with the self, or the body, as autonomously governed personal property) and then copyright are particularly ‘white’ western phenomena (made evident, historically, by colonialism in the west, and white ownership of non-white persons as slaves). The application of ‘property rights’ — an expression of liberalism — to the field of Biblical studies, and specifically, to a problem in New Testament studies known as ‘the synoptic problem’ is a fruitful example of listening to voices from outside of the liberal western world and allowing those voices to lead us in a task of subverting some damaging assumptions.

Brian Walsh, the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, which explores, for the most part, an Old Testament Babylonian context and the way Israel’s creation narrative called them to be a subversive people who believed something different to the sort of idolatrous capitalism and environmental (and human) destruction at work in Babylon’s dominion-based empire, in order to map that on to a call for those bearing God’s image in a new Babylon, also wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empiredemonstrating (as Tom Holland does) a shared philosophy of dominion or domination at work in Babylon and Rome, seeing these as the backdrop for Christianity and its subversive politics — namely, the kingdom of God, centred on a crucified king. In it he said:

“What was true of an ancient community of Christian believers struggling with a powerful and appealing philosophy is also true for Christians in a postmodern context. Arguments that deconstruct the regimes of truth at work in the late modern culture of global capitalism are indispensable. So also is a deeper understanding of the counterideological force of the biblical tradition. But such arguments are no guarantee that the biblical metanarrative will not be co-opted for ideological purposes of violent exclusion, nor do arguments prove the truth of the gospel. Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.”

The trick is to not embrace deconstruction (alone) or dominion-style power games as we listen to these voices, but to embody a subversion built on hope, and joy, and eschatological anticipation of the renewal of all things, and so to work towards reconstruction of our own systems aligned to the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus. It’s actually these voices from the margins — or the wilderness — speaking out against empires, dominions, or domination systems — that are echoes of the voices of the prophets; the voices that are indispensible for our task of being disrupted to our own personal transformation, and to the transformation of the world around us, or at least our anticipation that the one reconciling all things to himself will one day return to make all things new, but it’s the voices of those pointing us to Jesus that are the ones offering us not just diagnosis, but a way forward.

Halloween, Harry Potter, and the Satanic Panic

Halloween is a big deal on our street. It’s bigger than Christmas. Probably. This year two of our three kids are obsessed with Harry Potter, so will be dressed up as Hermione, and Professor Lupin (in werewolf form, thanks easy book week costume from Spotlight).

Harry Potter was a favourite series in my childhood, from the moment the first book was introduced to our family by our cool aunty from Canada. I had a running competition with one of my sisters to see who could re-read the early books in the series the most times. But my wife, Robyn, is meeting Harry Potter for the first time as an adult, trying desperately to keep up with our oldest daughter who has now ploughed through the series multiple times. Harry Potter was on the banned book list at her primary school.

Halloween is a pretty fraught holy-day for Christians; it’s obviously become a popular and commercially successful venture here in Australia, after decades of resistance, and is apparently becoming an even bigger deal in the United States. In the spirit of the ‘Satanic Panic’ of old, the sort that involved widespread conspiracy theories and loopy ideas about backwards masking in rock music it’d be easy to see a dark and sinister agenda behind the rising popularity of a festival that seems to not just glorify the supernatural realm, but a sort of ghoulish supernatural realm — the demonic… This isn’t helped by groups who’re harnessing ‘the darkness’ to make a political point. Here in Queensland there’s a group of ‘satanists’ who are holding a ‘dark mass’ tonight, to mark Halloween. There’ve been prayer chains and emails sent out to and from different Christian organisations and their mailing lists raising awareness about this little chapter of darkness. However, it seems the guy running the show is employing a fairly dark form of black humour, the blackest of black humour, to make a political point about religious freedom legislation in Australia that protects Christians.

His garb is a little, umm, underwhelming, and obviously from the discount section at a costume shop.

He’s also been standing outside Brisbane schools recently trying to drum up interest for Satanic religious instruction classes. His little chapter of ‘satanists’ sprang up demanding the same legal protections and privileges that Christians enjoy — and they’re loving the ‘hypocrisy’ of Christians trying to shut down their Halloween eve gathering. When you don’t believe a supernatural realm exists, playing around with Satan and the demonic seems like a bit of a cheap thrill; some harmless fun even, and an easy way to score points at the expense of Christian gullibility and a genuine degree of hypocrisy when we act to limit the religious freedom of another ‘religious group.’

In diagnosing the modern world with its smorgasbord of religious and spiritual views, philosopher Charles Taylor makes two interesting points that might help us understand something of the appeal of Halloween, not just as a commercial venture, but as a chance to nod to the supernatural, and even the darkness. The first is that our modern world mostly assumes that the supernatural realm is gone; we operate in a closed off universe where we can poke fun at the religious without fear, mocking not just the godly, but the gods themselves (and Satan and demons too). That seems perfectly reasonable for people to do; and yet, the second idea from Taylor is that lots of us actually feel haunted by our decision to close ourselves off to the idea of the Spiritual Realm, and stories about ghosts and magic are not just a product of mischief but a genuine hauntedness; the little chills we get when playing around with the darkness, or turning towards the supernatural he calls ‘frisson’ — a word awkwardly meaning ‘skin orgasm’ — Taylor sees these thrills and chills maybe pointing us to an actual truth; a sign that in our probing around the edges of reality we might actually be acknowledging something that’s really real. He observes that we now go to movies (or read books) like Harry Potter for these thrills, but in doing so we’re venturing into territory that once terrified our ancestors. For them witches, demon possession, and Satan were genuinely terrifying forces, and now we turn to these forces for giggles… sometimes. For most of us, most of the time, “science” has negated “this whole dimension of dark forces,” Taylor says this has calmed our fears but we remain fascinated with the idea of both dark forces and their counter-forces so we recreate them in popular stories, films, and art to “give ourselves frissons, while still holding the reality at bay.” For Taylor, the path back to enchantment — to a magical or supernatural reality — runs, in part, through these sorts of stories being taken seriously.

This is something that fantasy writers like Tolkien, Lewis, and Harry Potter’s J.K Rowling have embraced quite deliberately. In an interview about the religious (not just supernatural) themes of Harry Potter, Rowling says the books represent her own grappling with the idea of death and an afterlife. Rowling, by her own account, is a regular church goer, and the books Christian themes aren’t as buried as Tolkien’s, or as overt as Lewis’s, but they’re there, quite explicitly. Especially in the final book in the series, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. In an interview about the religious themes in her books, Rowling said:

“The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. [But] it’s something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.”

It’s not just implicit, either. The Deathly Hallows features a scene where Harry and Hermione have a conversation by the side of his parents’ gravestone; which bears the inscription “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” a quote from 1 Corinthians 15:26. In the graveside conversation Harry and Hermione tease out some of Rowling’s preoccupation with the question:

“Harry read the words slowly, as though he would have only one chance to take in their meaning, and he read the last of them aloud. ‘“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” …’ A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’ ‘It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’ said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means … you know … living beyond death. Living after death.’”

I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it; except to say that whether or not life beyond death exists in the enchanted world of Harry Potter is resolved in a way that might land where Rowling herself does…

The Deathly Hallows and Halloween are both interesting cultural artefacts in a world not so certain about life beyond death; a world devoted to staving death off through our scientific efforts, to pretending death isn’t really looming for us all (by pushing our cemeteries out to the margins of our cities, rather than having them surround church buildings that we attend every week), and to turning funerals into celebrations where the body isn’t present. Halloween’s popularity is interesting to observe through the lens provided by Charles Taylor — it’s simultaneously a vastly successful commercial enterprise for our new god of consumerism, a pagan festival of consumption of excess sugar, and ghastly decorations, an odd ‘frisson inducing’ dalliance with ideas that might have once terrified us — the ghostly, ghoulish, or demonic figures wandering the streets demanding we sacrifice our treats less we be ‘tricked’… and maybe, just maybe, an acknowledgement that somewhere at the edge of our consciousness we’re haunted by the loss of belief in a supernatural world — not just in demons and darkness, but in the light — in God himself, and life beyond death.

The word ‘hallow’ means ‘holy’ — to ‘hallow’ something was to make it holy, and the original day was not a day to celebrate the power of the darkness — the ghoulish, the demonic, or the satanic — but its defeat. It was not a day to mock God, but to mock death. Historically, of course, Halloween was “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before All Hallows, or All Saints, Day — a day when Christians remembered the faithful friends and family who have died. It is a celebration that death has been defeated. The origin of the practice of wearing slightly dark costumes the night before came from a tradition of not fearing death, but mocking it; it was not from a tradition of celebrating Satan and his minions but revealing that they did not have the last laugh; that God himself won a victory over sin, and death, and Satan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. And it was.

Which is to say that Christians need not fear Satanic dark mass rituals – no matter how seriously, or otherwise, the people involve take them. The idea of such a mass should not move us to outrage or conniptions, or to fear. Satan is real; but Satan has already been defeated. The dark mass is, for us, a toothless tiger. So too are many of the costumed wild things wandering the streets on All Hallows Eve. Halloween is not evidence the darkness has triumphed over the light, but the way our culture celebrates it is disconnected from its origins, and from a supernatural picture of the universe; since this supernatural picture is closer to our view of reality than a closed off world only observable by science, maybe, just maybe, we should embrace this holiday and shed some light on the darkness?

For those of you reading who aren’t Christians; perhaps the thrills you feel dipping your toes into the supernatural realm once a year — or as you read Harry Potter, or watch ghost stories, are because there’s something realer than real going on. Perhaps when we let death and darkness creep into our lives, in this one night, it might cause us to ask what we’ve lost by pretending, most of the time, that death isn’t an enemy at all. Pushing it to the side so we don’t have to worry about it — and perhaps this night need not be a night of terror for you, or for others, if we grasp hold of the truth that not only is death a real enemy, but death itself has been destroyed, darkness loses. Light wins. Death can be mocked, not simply embraced as an inevitability.

The trick is, if the supernatural realm is real, that doesn’t just mean God is real, but the devil is too — and the dark joke might end up being on the Satanists with their black mass, who’ve totally misread the situation… by thumbing their nose not just at God, and Satan — in their politically motivated mockery — the Bible suggests they’re in a pretty dark place. One part of the Bible describes the situation facing those who don’t die trusting in Jesus, it says:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” — Ephesians 2:1-3

The ‘ruler of the kingdom of the air’ — that’s Satan. He’s the one who loves people kept in darkness, and death, and rejecting God. The little black mass speaks truer than those participating know about their own position in the supernatural universe. Not only is the Satanist honcho wearing a cheap, not particularly scary costume, he’s dabbling in some darkness that might be beyond him.

So. We’ll have a couple of Harry Potter’s companions treading the streets this weekend; knowing, as they do, that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and that death was destroyed by Jesus. Our family will be thankful that those who have gone before us trusting Jesus are safe and secure and victorious; not just in the grave, because the supernatural, heavenly, realm is real, and death and darkness can be mocked from a position of security… Or, as that same bit of the Bible quoted on the Potters’ grave finishes, when talking about the hope that gave meaning to All Hallows Day:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?

 

On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

Owen Strachan is, increasingly, a ‘thought leader’TM in the hardline evangelical Reformed Baptist movement in the United States. He was, for a time, the President of the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He’s an influential voice. If one was to peruse his Twitter output in recent weeks, and months one would find that he’s turned his earnest voice to ‘wokeness’ and ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’. These are the bad guys in the culture war, where feminism was, for the CBMW guys, just the pointy end of the spear.

Strachan posted a video clip from one of his recent talks yesterday where he quoted 2 Corinthians 10. Here’s the full lecture for context.

He said:

“We are speaking the truth in love. We are demolishing strongholds according to Paul in Second Corinthians 10:4. A lot of us today, we don’t think in those terms, that language sounds kind of hostile and arrogant and imperial and very western. That is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, martyred in the Christian faith, who tells us that he demolishes strongholds, the Corinthian church is to demolish strongholds, and by extension, two thousand years later roughly, you demolish strongholds that would seek to take you captive. We want unity in the truth of Jesus Christ, but where people have embraced wokeness, we must follow the steps of discipline per Matthew 18:15-20. We need to treat them as if they are being taken captive by ungodly ideology. Because they are… Even as we also publicly confront those teaching unbiblical ideas in a broader sense. Though it will pain us greatly, excommunication must be enacted for those who, after going through the Matthew 18 steps, we pray we don’t have to go all the way to the end, but if we do, excommunication must happen for those who do not repent of teaching CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality. At the institutional level the same principles apply. Trustees, voting members, organisational heads, educational boards, and so on, must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer. Not one day more. Not one hour more. It is time. It is time for a line in the sand.”

Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and intersectionality are quickly replacing ‘Cultural Marxism’ as the term of choice in these culture war debates; which is a small mercy, at least, because Critical Race Theory is not so much a pejorative label with anti-Semitic undertones, but an actual discipline. These umbrella labels are attempts to describe the same sort of phenomenon; a cultural move afoot that recognises that the established status quo typically benefits those holding cultural and institutional power, and indeed is systemically set up to benefit those holding cultural and institutional power such that this status quo also costs those excluded from cultural and institutional power.

One way to observe this status quo, in the West, is to look at the question of power through, say, a prism of individual wealth. Globally, the white male comes out pretty well. This systemic ‘status quo’ stuff is more obvious in other cultural contexts, like Russia’s oligarchy, or China’s communist party. More ‘free market’ based nations, cultures, or economies, have changed the power dynamic so that power is more connected to wealth (success in the free market). But this isn’t a neutral status quo, the market isn’t free of history or the institutions (banks, corporations, etc) that mediate it to us, or even the expertise to navigate it (that comes via education, opportunity, and connections). It is geared through cultural, structural, and political systems, to benefit those already at the centre; and those people are typically white and male. It’s not that being white and male guarantees success, it’s just that the status quo keeps benefiting the same people. This also isn’t to say that all white people benefit from these systems, or that no non white people do, one’s success will depend on how well one adapts to, or challenges, the status quo. An example might be that not all white people can afford a sports car or a nice suit, but if you have a sports car and a nice suit as a white person in the west, particularly in America, you’re less likely to be assumed to be a criminal than a black person in the same car, and more likely to be assumed to be an individual success. If you’re a non white driver of a sports car the narrative is often that you’ve succeeded by sheer force of will, against the odds. Those odds, or what is overcome, are the ‘status quo’…

In short, critical theory says there’s a system built to perpetuate this, and that we experience that cascading down from the top into all systems and relationships. Critical race theory observes that in the west there’s an ethnic element to this status quo, partly through the colonial history of the ‘commonwealth,’ where the British Empire brought an ‘establishment class’ into various nations, benefited from the wealth of nations connected to the empire, and built cultural and physical infrastructure to benefit that establishment class (universities, old boys networks, gentleman’s clubs, legal systems, political parties, corporations etc) at the expense of non-establishment (non-white) people (including through slavery, but also in dispossessing people from their lands). Then, these establishment institutions assume the white experience as a default, whiteness as a norm, and white voices at the center, and this perpetuates itself generation by generation. Often these nations and cultures have not just been built on ethnic inequality, entrenching a biased status quo that benefits the establishment class, but they have been built by cultures where power was held by blokes, sometimes for theological reasons, other times because of the typical power dynamic created by brute physical strength. So when ‘woke’ CRT people speak of ‘whiteness’ — it’s not white skin they’re particularly interested in, but the assumption implicit in our culture and institutions that whiteness is the default, such that, for example, I never have to describe ‘where I’m from’ (and really, I don’t actually know with much precision), I’m just white, and I don’t suffer the downsides of systemic racism, or the inherited baggage of intergenerational economic disparity built from those establishment decisions that created a status quo I see as ‘normal’ and am not particularly predisposed to change or challenge, on my own, because not only is it normal, it is beneficial.

Where feminists particularly focused on the maleness caught up in the patriarchy, race theorists look at ethnicity, and when those groups recognised the similarities in experience and outlook the idea of ‘intersectionality’ was born. Throw in the sense that the status quo operates through the application of power, given to maintaining, or further entrenching the status quo as ‘the norm,’ sometimes the ‘God given’ or ‘natural’ norm, and we get the language of oppressed and oppressor in the mix.

This wokeness, when you open your eyes to the systemic reality — whether as an oppressed, marginalised, person, or someone benefiting from the system — then brings a new ethic. So we see groups or institutions that subscribe to ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ seeking to re-alter the landscape so that the voices that are dominant ‘status quo’ voices — that are all too often centered — are turned down, while the voices of the oppressed are amplified.

In the ultimate expressions of intersectionality or wokeness, powerful ‘centered’ voices can find themselves ‘cancelled,’ or historic statues toppled, for perpetuating oppression, while marginal ‘intersected’ voices — especially, say, the voices of a black trans woman (the ultimate intersection of oppressed classes) — are elevated, or centered. Now, we’ll come back to the question of whether this is actually a change of structures, or just a change of people occupying the positions of power in a structure that is essentially the same, below. It’s worth noting too that this whole intersectional agenda only really works in the west, it’s a particular product of western history, multiculturalism, violence, and even (in a positive sense sometimes) Christianity. Intersectionality doesn’t see ‘whiteness’ as a problem in China; it’s not a universally true, all encompassing worldview, and the people who want it to be have a pretty small view of history and geography. In some ways, our ability to even identify injustice, oppression, and systemic sin in our ‘status quo’ might, itself, be a product of the Christian framing and vocabulary that comes to the west via its heritage. It’s worth bearing that in mind when declaring it a heresy or a ‘line in the sand’ where anybody who uses any wokeness, CRT, or intersectionality should be excommunicated.

There are, of course, truths to the criticism of the west offered by critical race theory, or intersectionality, that anybody with a Christian anthropology might recognise. Our story — the Bible — is full of political leaders who create empires and cultures that perpetuate their godlike power, and that oppress and enslave (think Egypt, Babylon, and Rome). It shouldn’t surprise us when power based empires or cultures create a marginal experience where those not sharing power, or benefiting from the status quo, have similar observations, language, and experience that builds a shared revolutionary suspicion of the status quo.

In these ‘dominion’ style cultures it was hard to be from another ethnic group, or a woman, and to be a woman from another ethnic group did work in a sort of intersectional way. If Jesus had met, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in Jerusalem, she’d have been an example of an intersectionally marginalised and oppressed voice on an additional count; as it was she was an outcast in her community, a bit like the woman accused of adultery, caught up and spat out by what we might now call the patriarchy and its status quo benefits offered to blokes (so that women bore the cost of sin and shame disproportionately). We see these dominion systems as an outworking of the sinful rejection of God, and our desire to rule in his place and to seek dominion over others, rather than co-operation.

This is the fall written into the fabric of human society — our beliefs, our structures, our institutions, our cultures — are as fallen as we are at an individual level, and then serve to perpetuate that fallen view of the world (so a Babylonian was raised to think like a Babylonian, according to Babylonian stories about what the gods were like, and who the king was as ‘the image of God, and this was the same in Egypt, or Rome, where the rulers of those empires were also ‘images of God’ in imperial propaganda).

The trick is that it’s hard for an Egyptian, Babylonian, or Roman kid to realise how much the default system, or status quo, was a departure from God’s actual design for life; and how flawed their picture of God was when built, inductively, from the life and rule of the ‘image of God’ at the heart of their empire. It’s harder still for someone caught up in the power games at the heart of the empire, and benefiting, to hear that their stronghold is a house of cards, and to see the oppression and destruction it brings.

It might take, like it did with Naaman, a general serving the King of Aram, an empire opposed to God’s people, the de-centered voice of a marginalised ‘servant girl’ to bring the whole house crashing down. Naaman wanted to keep playing the power game in his interaction with Israel; the girl sent him to the one who would speak God’s word — a prophet — but Naaman went to the king. The prophet, when he got there, wouldn’t take wealth, or power, or glory for healing Naaman, but sent him to get dirty and lower himself into a river. His picture of power was inverted; his stronghold demolished.

To suggest ‘CRT, wokeness, and Intersectionality’ are grounds for discipline and excommunication is a fascinating step, given that there are pretty strong Biblical precedents for reaching a similar diagnosis of what happens when idolatry and sin are systematised; namely, that people are oppressed or enslaved. It might be better, I think, to question the solutions offered by those bringing this diagnosis to bear on modern cultures and institutions (including the church). There’ve been some interesting contributions to this project from Tim Keller recently, and in these two response pieces to him from David Fitch (part one, part two).

Here are some additional further possibilities that might lead us to be cautious when it comes to drawing ‘lines in the sand’ — and ‘excommunicating people’ — especially when we belong to the ‘identities’ that are typically the beneficiaries of the status quo (especially if much of your professional life has been given to entrenching the gendered part of that status quo).

It’s possible that exactly the power structures that CRT, Intersectionality, and Wokeness identify are the structures we should be demolishing both in the world and in the church, but that the trick is we’re meant to demolish those with different weapons than the weapons of this world; and those same weapons might also be turned against the new world order dreamed about by those championing regime change or revolution under the CRT, Intersectional, or ‘woke’ banners.

That is, it’s possible that the demolition job the Gospel of the crucified king does on human structures and empires and power games actually demolishes both ‘whiteness’ or the patriarchy and ‘wokeness,’ intersectionality, and CRT.

It’s possible that the whole ‘identity politics’ game, whether played from the right or from the left is a politics built on a model of the human person where we’re creating our own ‘image’ and thus projecting our own ‘image of God’ as we pursue some sort of authentic self or ideal human life and experience (‘identity’).

It’s possible that democracy means that instead of having empires where the king is the image of God, we’re all kings and queens trying to carve out our own space, playing the game Charles Taylor calls ‘the politics of recognition‘ — where we want our identity to be affirmed and recognised and upheld by the law, and our chosen ‘identity’ to be the one that is at the centre of society, and that flourishes most of all.

It’s possible that Christian contributions to politics in the culture war have simply been a form of the identity politics we claim to hate, built from a desire for our own recognition as the ‘images’ that should be the social and cultural norm in a particular form of empire.

It’s possible then, that the church built by people playing this sort of ‘politics of recognition’ game, uncritically adopting worldly mechanics of power, or not demolishing the strongholds of our particular empires (democracy, meritocracy, technocracy, etc) have created a situation where those in positions of power in the church, at least those whose voices are centered, tend to look a whole lot like those in power in the world.

It’s possible that in all this we’ve totally lost the sense of personhood being something given to us from above, and built in relationships and community, not something we build by playing an individual power game where we claim our space in the world and yell ‘this is me, know me and love me for who I really am’ at the universe (see The Greatest Showman’s anthem ‘This Is Me’ for example).

It’s also possible that we’ve lost something of the essence of the Gospel in both the shaping of our own institutions, communities, and culture — the Gospel that is the story of a member of an oppressed people group (Israel under Rome), born into a system that was threatened by his very existence (Herod’s rule as a symbol of Caesar’s rule), and so further marginalised him (his exile into Egypt). Jesus was a non-centered voice in both Israel’s religious institutions (he wasn’t a priest, or a pharisee), and he consistently sought to ‘demolish the stronghold’ the Pharisees had built — the religious edifice that oppressed the people for their own wealth, relied on cosying up to imperial power (Herod and Pilate), and claiming, ultimately, that Caesar, not Jesus, was king of Israel as they sought to silence his voice.

It’s possible that we’ve missed the New Testament’s diagnosis that opposition to Jesus and his kingdom, particularly through the use of the power of the sword, was beastly, or Satanic, and represented a false image of God being held by those who were meant to be living as God’s image bearing, priestly, people; and that the leaders of the Temple had become oppressors who ‘devoured widows houses’ just like their tax-collecting Roman rulers did; as beastly, prowling, Satan-like wolves, rather than being like lambs trusting God as a shepherd.

It’s possible that where we’ve missed that essence, and even systematised the domination system caught up in our status quo in our churches the ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing will not be ‘out there’ in the community, but ‘in here’ in the church. Some examples might be where we uncritically embrace leadership manuals, or business practices, or status quo practices (like old boys clubs, gentleman’s clubs, setting the parameters for who gets authority in our institutions in ways that perpetuates a ‘sameness’ to the voices that are centered, etc). It’s possible, too, that the church will never see where it has sided with the ‘oppressor’ or the status quo unless we see these practices through the eyes of those who are marginalised and oppressed. If voices like ours are the voices we keep centering, how will the status quo ever be challenged? How will the strongholds ever be demolished? If, God forbid, we have systematised sinful patterns in our church structures, then it’s precisely the ‘woke’ intersectional critical race theorists we may need to hear from; there are plenty of examples in the Gospels of voices who would normally be ‘marginalised’ being centered in the kingdom; including the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection (see the response of the disciples who “did not believe the women”).

If we’re going to discipline people and excommunicate them; let’s do it when they have a Lord, or king, who is not Jesus, and pursue an image of God not found in Jesus, and want revolution that looks something other than like bringing in the kingdom of Jesus. You know, like supporting Trump for president.

Let’s demolish strongholds. But let’s demolish all strongholds.

And let’s recognise that we might need to listen to voices who are typically excluded in order to see what we’re missing. The catch is, we won’t find many black trans women in our churches (and nor should we play the game of intersectional one upmanship, perhaps our posture should simply be to listen to those members of the body of Jesus, including the global church, whose experience and outlook is different to our own). This isn’t to say that wokeness, intersectionality, or critical theory aren’t ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing because they pull us from Jesus, just that they might be allies in tearing down some strongholds that have already dragged us into captivity. ‘Wokeness,’ in the culture wars, often feels like an attempt not to change the game, but change who occupies the centre (even whose image gets turned into a statue that sits at the centre of civic life). Our solutions to the problems of this world aren’t meant to look like elevating other, previously excluded, voices to the place of supremacy or dominion (though God does oppose the proud and give grace to the humble), that just perpetuates the same system under different parameters, our solution to the problems of this world don’t just sit in the space of diagnosis, but revolution. Our revolution isn’t about picking other humans as kings or queens who’ll become the image of our God to us, but about following the king who is the image of the invisible God. Wokeness, where it seeks to play a dominion game, captivating us and pulling us away from Jesus as the radical inversion of beastly empires we need, but also whiteness, the status quos from the world we’ve brought into the church.

This is, of course, why culture wars style politics, or worse, culture war Christianity, is problematic. And this is, in a sense, exactly what Paul is writing against in his letters to the Corinthian Church.

In the city of Corinth the dominant culture was one of power and status. They played the Roman game harder than most. The city skyline was dominated by an imperial temple. The city was big on oratory and impressive orators. They wanted Paul to be an orator — a big and flashy speaker who’d sway their power obsessed neighbours over to this new empire. They liked Apollos because he was an impressive orator, then, by the time 2 Corinthians rolled around, they were enamoured with the ‘super apostles,’ who, when you look at Paul’s response seem to be the very opposite of him; the sort of church leaders wielding the weapons of this world — sharp tongues — playing a power game that the Corinthian church was getting behind. Winning the culture war.

The Corinthian Christians didn’t quite understand how revolutionary the message of the Gospel was; how much Jesus being the antithesis of Caesar, Pharaoh, or a king of Babylon meant for how we’re meant to approach life, as individuals and in community. Jesus’ diagnosis of the world — from Israel outwards — was that the powerful had become oppressive; that sinful rebellion against God and siding with Satan and cosying up to Rome had corrupted the people and institutions who were meant to be representing God and his heart for the humble.

Jesus upended the ‘dominion’ style status quo, and its politics, and brought something very different as a solution. A cross. This is how Paul sees strongholds being demolished. God’s power and wisdom is found in the crucifixion. This realisation shaped Paul’s message — so that he resolved to know nothing but Jesus, and him crucified, but it also shaped his posture — his approach to persuasion — so that he came to the Corinthians not with powerful words, but in weakness and trembling. So that he ‘renounced underhanded ways’ of persuasion, and ‘carried the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus might be made known’ (2 Cor 4). If we’re going to trot out a part of 2 Corinthians 10, lets ground it in Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian pursuit of dominion within the life of the church, and for the church within the life of the city. If Paul were here today I don’t think he’d be speaking for ‘wokeness’ or ‘whiteness’ in a sort of fight-to-the-death battle for supremacy; I think he’d be pointing us towards weakness. I don’t think he’d be kicking out those who identify how the pursuit of strength in church structures has led to oppression of people we should be loving with our might, or those who cry out for reform and justice in the church on that basis (it’s worth seeing, for example, how Strachan’s speech plays out specifically against conversations about race in the American church in the midst of the conversations amplified by the black lives matter movement, and the current unrest in America produced by generations of racism that are now entrenched in the status quo). Paul might have used a ‘war’ analogy in 2 Corinthians 4, but it was precisely to subvert the sort of power games we’re so used to playing in the church and in the world.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

The cross of Jesus is our weapon; it demolishes both wokeness and whiteness because it stops us playing the culture war and invites us, instead, to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), who carry the death of Jesus in our body, and have relationships marked not by dominion but by the self-emptying example of Jesus.

This might mean rejecting, or re-directing, the power and opportunity given to us by the status quo; the platform, or the centering of our voices in the life of the church. It might mean making space to listen to those voices marginalised by structures that perpetuate the same sorts of people being given authority and influence. It might mean hearing the critique of our church structures, and the west, from those who stand among the oppressed. Maybe that’s where we find what the paradoxical strength in weakness of the cross looks like embodied in the western world. In the voices of those, faithfully in our churches, but from the margins of our society.

This might mean that CRT, intersectionality, and wokeness aren’t the enemy, even if they challenge the things we hold dear. It might mean that the things we hold dear, the things that give us strength and influence, are actually things we should be letting go as we embrace weakness, rather than grasp worldly weapons.

Here’s Paul again, just after talking about the ‘weapons’ he uses to demolish strongholds — the things Satan uses to capture us and pull us away from Jesus.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Which, of course, is an outworking of his whole understanding of the Gospel of his king, and the way it confounds the systems and conventions, the status quo, of the world he lives in.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:25-31