Culture

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.

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.

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

Support Soul Tread: a new Aussie publication

Here are three great reasons to support Soul Tread, a new Aussie mag currently crowd sourcing funding via Kickstarter (and one not so great one).

  1. Electronic media is bad for our brains.
  2. Electronic media might actually be bad for our spirituality.
  3. Curated content from a broad range of Christian voices put together in a beautiful designed, typeset, and printed magazine is a good thing and an antidote to some of these effects.
  4. People keep saying I need an editor; I’ll be contributing to this magazine, and will be edited.

On points 1 and 2 (because point 4 means you aren’t going to click those links), there’s a mounting body of good evidence out there that consumption of content via social media platforms that are shaped by algorithms and more sinister ‘surveillance capitalism’ motivations is bad for our brains; that we become addicted to dopamine hits from social media use, but also more narcissistic as we engage the world through a filter that makes ‘me’ hyper-important, and my pre-existing interests hyper-present, and invites me to perform ‘virtue’ according to a particular tribe, presenting myself as a certain sort of ‘digital image’ or ‘digital icon’.

There’s a good case to be made that the ‘media ecology’ of the internet and the black glass screen is distorting our experience of the world and reshaping our hopes and dreams. Elon Musk is one of my favourite whipping boys here because he already thinks we’re living in a computer program, and, if we’re not, he seems to be determined to take us there. The digital eschatology of the modern ‘technocracy’ is a scary thing for the shaping of our understanding of what a good human life looks like, and what a good future for humanity looks like, and that should be disrupted. One way to disrupt this is changing our media practices; and the types of physical things we bring into our physical environment that we then interact with. A printed magazine is an act of subversion.

Support this initiative. It’s a really great project, and Rachael, the editor has a vision worth engaging with, and has put together a team of people from around the country who I’m excited to engage with. You can support it, and secure both a copy of the magazine, and some great ‘swag’ (that’s what us (older, at least) millenials call this sort of thing) on the Kickstarter campaign page, but also follow along on Facebook (which is ironic, given points 1 and 2).

The perils of small (and large) target Christianity

In the politics/PR world there’s a thing called the ‘small target strategy’; it’s a way to manage your brand and reputation by only putting out there what is absolutely essential for the broader public to know, and so minimise the things about you that might give offense.

Now, there’s a certain sort of wisdom built on this sort of approach, but also a pragmatism that can end up leaving the public knowing less than they should when making a decision, or forming an opinion about you, or your party, or your brand — to the extent that some might question the ethics or integrity of such an approach.

In politics the ‘small target’ strategy gets deployed at election campaign time where the political other is so repugnant that all you have to do to secure victory is stay out of the way; it’s questionable, in a democracy, whether such a strategy earns you a mandate from the public to implement any particular policy beyond ‘not being the other side;’ and it’s a strategy also deployed because big target politics — the sort where you have a massively integrated political platform built on convictions, invites people to pick one area of your platform that they utterly repudiate and so choose the other side (Bill Shorten’s Labor leadership, and Labor’s failure at the last election, in part were a product of a big platform built from hubris and a sense that the other side, the Liberals, were so on the nose — adopting a small target might have been more expedient, politically, especially when elements of the platform were so easy to zero in on to create problems in the electorate). It’s typically, at least in Australia, a strategy adopted by oppositions; but Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign in 2016, and Scott Morrison’s 2019 campaign might have established it as a norm on both sides.

In public relations the small target strategy can be a response to a crisis, but can also be a longer term approach built around ‘staying on message’ — that’s where you just repeat the mantra at the heart of your organisation and your business at every turn; it ends up leaving you in a bit of a niche, where you’ll only be relevant to the public so long as that mantra is relevant. In a crisis the small target strategy means saying or doing as little as you possibly can — sometimes invoking the terrible ‘no comment’ strategy; it’s the equivalent of burying your head in the sand hoping that whatever danger or disaster is approaching will pass by without damaging the nerve centre of your organisation so that you can live to fight another day. This PR blog provides a definition of the strategy:

The ‘Small Target’ strategy is simple, conceptually – it’s selectively choosing to stay silent or minimising the response to an issue or crisis.

Now. I’ve been listening to plenty of chatter about the decline of the church in Australia, especially the reformed evangelical church scene I’m part of; perhaps especially focused on Sydney Anglicanism and the “pastor drought”. I’ve also been following a debate within this subset of the church, both here and abroad, about the definition of the Gospel, and I want to suggest part of the dilemma facing the church here in Australia is that we’ve settled for a small target Gospel, and a small target communication strategy in both a political and public relations sense (where evangelism; the public proclamation of the Gospel overlaps with both categories); and I want to suggest this campaign strategy isn’t working, and we’re reaping the results.

So, contra Philip Jensen, who in a Podcast interview on The Pastor’s Heart suggested the Sydney Diocese is where it is because it has ‘stopped preaching the Gospel’ (and there’s a big implicit critique of drinking too much from the fountain of Tim Keller in just about everything Philip Jensen says these days), I’m going to suggest it’s because the Sydney Anglicans (and others influenced by them) have preached too small a Gospel, and that’s become part of the toolkit for the modern church often coupled with church growth movement strategies that adopt ‘small target/big emphasis on unity around the key message’ as a growth and retention strategy (often growing by grabbing people from other churches). Stephen McAlpine’s engagement with Philip’s interview, and a follow up with others, is also worth reading (part 1, part 2); and I wonder how much a sort of tribal/culture war within the Sydney Anglican Diocese (historically Matthias v Barneys, UTS v UNSW, etc, etc) where people who didn’t fit one’s orthodoxy were discouraged from ministry, where its training institution has become increasingly narrow in its posture towards the world, and where the last Archbishop election involved a public dog fight between these camps, might also be to blame, and my understanding from talking to plenty of people over the years would be that Philip has been at the pointy end of that internecine/inter-nicene war.

But before I dig deeper into this; I want to acknowledge that in the present lay of the land a ‘big target’ approach to church is exceptionally costly to those running with it; in a landscape where people will chop and change churches for a variety of reasons (including personal preference) adopting ‘policy positions’ or articulating a Gospel vision beyond a small Gospel (as I’ll define it) leads (and in my experience ‘has lead’) people to break fellowship and to seek a more comfortable ‘small target’ church that is big on essential nature of the the small target gospel. If we approach churchmanship (awful word), or public Christianity, as though it’s a political or public relations campaign, where results matter, and where our metrics are numbers of bums on seats, and where we’re ultimately just competing for the distribution of the choir amongst various churches, rather than seeking to persuade others of the truth of the Gospel and its implications for their lives, then a big target strategy is a bad idea. It will probably, so long as others are adopting a small target, small Gospel strategy, shrink your church; and there’ll be a danger that you turn non-essentials into essentials and make it feel like there’s no room for disagreement on the implications of a bigger Gospel. So long as people will pick churches like choosing brands to purchase, or political parties to vote for, the small target strategy and the small Gospel will be the path of least resistance for church leaders. But like with politics and public relations, what seems prudent or pragmatic might ultimately lack integrity and normalise a certain sort of head-burying cowardice; it might also be a failure to boldly articulate a bigger vision that might prove unpopular with the public (but could also be truly and properly animating and life giving for those who get on board).

To be clear, though, this cowardice is not the sort embraced by the seeker sensitive movement that sought to eradicate anything offensive in the message of the Gospel — a ‘no Gospel’ strategy embraced this ‘small target strategy’ with great effect; the issue with the small gospel strategy in Reformed Evangelical circles in Australia is not with what it includes — that is, the offense of the Cross, of sin, and of God’s judgment, but what it excludes. Our scene wants to hold out that offense, and sometimes hold on to conservative moral values, without challenging anything tricky that might upset the western economic status quo (except when we tell upper middle class people that their sons and daughters should go to Bible college instead of being doctors or lawyers).

Small Gospel, Small Targets

There’s a tendency in the best parts of reformed evangelicalism to reduce the Gospel to the mechanism of the atonement and its implications for the individual. Penal substitution is, as far as I understand the Bible, part of the good news of God’s activity in the world in Jesus. But our small Gospel (Jesus died to save me, a sinner, from my personal autonomous rebellion against God, by taking my punishment in my place) often doesn’t help us escape from a disenchanted, modernist, individualist vision of life in the world and a disembodied eschatological hope (‘my soul getting into heaven’) (in fact, the Protestant Reformation arguably contributed to all these aspects of modern life). A fuller picture of the Gospel would, I think, make the subject and emphasis of the Gospel Jesus himself, and emphasise not just the fruit of the Gospel for me, and my personal salvation, but the victory of Jesus over Satan, and through his resurrection and ascension, the reconciliation of all things (a cosmic scale, where there’s not just the material world but a spiritual one too), where we get to be part of this victory even now, because God’s Spirit now dwells in us. Forgiveness of sins is part of this picture; but so too is our re-creation and resurrection as God’s children, as, through Jesus the Lord, Saviour, and King, God sets out to liberate all things from decay, and we anticipate the making new of both heavens and earth.

This is the debate playing out particularly in America between Scot McKnight, and those who’ve taken up the diagnosis of his book The King Jesus Gospel (where N.T Wright always looms large), and John Piper and those who’ve bought into his paradigm (let’s put those two figures at ends of a spectrum in this debate and recognise there’s significant nuance not just in their positions but in those of people along that spectrum).

Here are a few links:

This Gospel, where Jesus is not just personal Saviour who punches my ticket into heaven when I die, but also victorious king, and not just victorious king over sin, but vindicated king of heavens and earth and defeater of Satan and his beastly minions in heaven and on earth, has political implications for every inch of the Christian life; and implications not just for me as an individual, but for us as a community of people participating in this kingdom, anticipating and testifying to the renewal of all things as new creations in Christ, transformed into the image of Jesus. To proclaim this Gospel involves living it in our lives — both as individuals and community — as an alternative vision of life in the world; it involves seeing sin as something that doesn’t just corrupt us as individuals, but operates in partnership with curse, and Satan, to corrupt cultures and systems that people create. McKnight, in his book, saw this shifting an emphasis in our proclamation of the Gospel from making converts (small target), to making disciples (big target), and some of the implications of this bigger, cosmic, kingdom, not just individual salvation scope of the Gospel for discipleship are that it is not simply enough to pursue individual piety and a personal relationship with God, but to take up a vocation aligned with the kingdom that goes beyond simply proclaiming penal substitution (and so, it is true, thanks Keller, sorry Jensen, that being a pastor is a great vocation for a Christian, but not the only great, Kingdom oriented, vocation).

The playing field created by this bigger Gospel means a ‘small target’ Christianity that simply proclaims individual salvation from personal sin and a personal relationship with God through Christ as mediator, by the Spirit dwelling in me, doesn’t really cut it in terms of an assessment of the problems with life in the modern world and the antidote offered in Jesus.

When Australian culture largely still operated with a social and cultural architecture that assumed Christian beliefs (including morality) at a political, institutional, and even aesthetic/cultural/artistic level, we, the church, could get away with a small target Gospel (maybe), to connect a bunch of norms with their source. We didn’t need to build all that other kingdom infrastructure because we inherited it from Christendom, and simply assumed it as foundational. But those foundations have shifted and now our small Gospel doesn’t land on soil cultivated by the historic impact of the bigger Gospel, it lands on rockier ground, or, as Alan Noble describes it in Disruptive Witness, we’re planting and trying to harvest on concrete.

People drinking the church growth Kool-Aid, or embedded in ‘toxic churchianity,’ and let’s face it, that’s most of us because it’s the air we breath, will default to this small Gospel, small target version of Christianity because it is pragmatic and maximises success in the metrics we’re given. A huge part of the problem with retaining people in Christian ministry boils down to these metrics and the associated pressure to create a big and growing church with lots of converts (or people grabbed from other ‘less faithful because they’re less numerically fruitful, or less programmatically excellent’) churches, because this leaves the pastor operating both as gospel teacher and CEO, and success resting on navigating both in the most effective way possible.

The “best strategy” to adopt in the current model is the most soul destroying; it’s to be a pastor without conviction beyond the small gospel, out of fear that you’ll offend someone and they’ll head to the better option up the road, or elsewhere. This leaves us not thinking about how we change and challenge the architecture of belief — political and cultural — outside the church, and still throwing the same good seed that once might have worked in a landscape more explicitly cultivated for that seed, and not getting the results we’ve come to believe should follow faithful Gospel preaching ministry (or people questioning whether we’re faithfully preaching the Gospel at all, and undermining attempts to renew or change the cultural architecture by telling people something other than Gospel proclamation might be a Christian vocation, thanks Philip). Keller isn’t blameless on the church growth front either; his ‘Leadership and Church Size Dynamic’ model provides a pathway away from the ‘pastor sized’ church to mega church and despite his own example of political engagement (a dedicated centrism), I’d suggest both in the model, and observing those who follow it, the ‘small target’ becomes more appealing for a pastor the more disconnected the pastor becomes from the lives of his congregation and the more the success of the movement depends on avoiding controversy. The most successful versions of this paradigm (according to these metrics) — both within Sydney Anglicanism, or in Acts 29, or in other networks seem to be the least politically engaged churches with the leaders least likely to articulate a political position on any issue that might cause offense. It has been refreshing to see Hillsong’s political engagement grow as (I’d suggest) its Gospel vision has grown (see, for example, its engagement in the Black Lives Matter conversation).

A small gospel matched with a small target strategy is not the solution we need; but a shift to giving church communities (and pastors) freedom to pursue a bigger Gospel and bigger targets in terms of messaging and engagement with the world outside the church (including seeing Gospel ministry as taking part in the renewal and reshaping of those parts of the world outside the church that form our beliefs and practices), without pulling up stumps and heading elsewhere if that big target offends you, might be.

The trick is to pull off a ‘big target’ where we display unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. The bigger Gospel broadens the need for unity in Christ beyond unity in the individual mechanism and spiritual implications of the Gospel into some sort of commitment to a shared life and mission (beyond just the making of converts, and into the making of disciples, with ‘political’ and ‘economic’ implications in the true sense of both words — it organises us as people, and guides our collective approach to resources).

In a polarised political climate it would be easy for such a ‘big target’ approach to produce a ‘left leaning church’ and a ‘right leaning church’ who end up at odds with one another in both Gospel communication and politics; and an excluded middle. It is interesting that it doesn’t feel like churches are adopting a ‘bigger target’ strategy when they support politically conservative campaigns (like campaigning against same sex marriage, or abortion), but it does when churches speak out on systemic racism, asylum seekers, and the environment; or that one isn’t risking offending someone in a theologically conservative environment by adopting right leaning politics emphasising individual responsibility and morality, like we are when we speak out about systemic sin that people might be complicit in or benefit from without knowingly, as an individual, choosing to do so. Talking about individual morality, and applying that to the political realm, fits with the small target Gospel.

This, again, is where the small target thing is so much easier; we can avoid anything that feels like ‘worldly politics’ or division and focus just on getting bums on seats and buy in on the smallest possible truths that unite us (in our case, the Gospel of penal substitution). But that won’t work in an increasingly post-Christian context where heaps more scaffolding is required before people are even coming at questions of how the “Good News of Jesus” becomes good news for me, or changes me (or us); a big target approach considers how we challenge alternative scaffolding that supports unbelief, while building our own plausibility structures (communities of believers, following Berger) and social imaginaries (the things in our culture — stories, architecture, practices, politics, etc that support belief, following Taylor).

Grappling with how Paul navigates idol food, idol temples, and missionary dining in idol-food eating cities, with the unity of strong and weak brothers and sisters within the body of Jesus might be helpful here; especially noting that Paul doesn’t choose the ‘small target’ practices of the “weaker brother” in either Romans or 1 Corinthians, but urges their accommodation within a bigger drive to reach and engage the cities and critique, disrupt, and demolish the value of their idols by introducing the big good news of the Gospel of Jesus (an approach he models in, say, Athens in Acts 17 and Ephesus in Acts 19, and describes in 2 Corinthians 10).

The other challenge is for our ‘big target’ strategies to be appropriately shaped by our ‘big Gospel’ — for us not to adopt other forms of political strategies that undermine the message of the Gospel (think political lobbying as power game), or positions that simply pick one form of the post-Christian status quo to conserve because it aligns with the individualism of the small target gospel we’ve imbibed, without pondering how human sin and beastly, Satanic, empires work as the antithesis of the Kingdom of God, and so dismantling structures built on sinful behaviour might also be within the job description of Gospel shaped politics and communication.

The context for our public messaging, and our ‘politics’ has changed — and so the content of the Gospel we proclaim (in word and lives) needs to change too; a small target Gospel if a good thing at all, was an historical anomaly and retreating to it in order to avoid the costs of a big gospel (and even to hand some of that over to ‘the culture’) was maybe a mistake.

To knee, or not to knee? That is the question

Some people responding to my celebration of NBA star Jonathan Isaac’s decision to stand during the national anthem while all around him took to their knees have (rightly) raised questions about how my post fits with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback in the NFL who first took a knee during the national anthem in protest against racism in the United States.

Kaepernick’s actions developed quietly in the pre-season, and became more public and intentional as a result of then Republican candidate, now President, Donald Trump’s reaction to his actions. Trump has a long history of, at best, courting the white supremicist vote for his own political ends, not only through dog whistling tweets and soft responses to fascism (including his response to Kaepernick’s kneeling, but also around the NASCAR “noose” story earlier this year), and at worst, being a white supremicist by conviction.

In the washup of his decision to take a knee, Kaepernick said: “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Love it. Others didn’t. His actions were framed as actions against the Flag, against the veterans, against the civic religion of the United States — they were framed as a desecration of sorts. But, for Kaepernick, they were simply an expression of his convictions that something in the United States had to change before he could feel like he belonged.

While, in my last post, I suggested there’s a parallel between ‘taking a knee’ and adopting a posture of submission, or worship (the greek word proskuneo), one can also adopt a posture of idolatry or worship by standing for a liturgical moment in the cult of civic religion. Kneeling during the anthem can also be a rejection of an alternate vision of the good; an alternate idolatrous regime. Our bodies are instruments of worship, and their postures, especially habitual ones (like kneeling, or standing), form us.

Since my post about Jonathan Isaacs, Israel Folau, no stranger to not bending the knee to idolatrous social pressures, has also drawn the ire of the Twittersphere for failing to kneel before an English Rugby League game, where he plays for a French team. The way new shibboleths emerge, and the mobs who are willing to conduct spontaneous heresy tribes with cancellation looming large is one of the more visible expressions of how deeply religious our hyper-secular society has become; and how much we’re all aggressive monotheists rather than pluralists. The overlap, or faithful presence, of Christians within these movements is an interesting test of one’s political theology.

While the present pressure to ‘take a knee’ feels implicitly, if not explicitly, religious — a call to give bodily expression to convictions about truth and goodness, where those who don’t participate are expressing a rejection of an orthodoxy that leaves the crowd incredulous — the roots of the ‘taking a knee’ movement were also, essentially, Christian. In that Kaepernick is, by all accounts, a man of deep Christian convictions. His decision to take a knee in the face of injustice was a decision not to stand for the values of a country, or its flag, while that country and flag were symbols of oppression; of a sort of beastly Babylonian imperialism. As James K.A Smith puts it in Awaiting The King, politics is inherently religious, he says: “There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics.”

In Smith’s system, which pays attention to embodied practices as ‘liturgies’ aimed to form us with a vision of the good life, the act of standing for the national anthem is not neutral, it is a civic liturgy. Smith says, of the modern civic religion: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to “pledge allegiance” is not happy with anything less than your heart. In this case, a liturgical lens works like a cultural highlighter that draws our attention not just to the “laws of the land” or the decisions of supreme court justices but to the rites interwoven in our public life together—the rituals and liturgies that inculcate in us a national myth and habituate in us an unconscious allegiance to a particular vision of the good.” Our Australian equivalent is the civic cultic apparatus that has emerged around ANZAC Day and its mythology; a mythology that shapes the collective Australian psyche (and psyche is just the Greek word the Bible uses for soul). Smith suggests his lens is a useful one because it invites us to “be attentive to the ways we are formed by the rites of democracy and the market, not just informed by their institutions.

Whether one stands or kneels during the national anthem is now loaded up as a civic-religious rite; one is either perceived as joining in and participating in the civic cult, or perceived as desecrating that valuable thing by participating in an alternative religion. And as we intentionally use our bodies in either direction, according to Smith, we are being formed towards some vision of life — then, when the Twitter voices pile on to either celebrate or condemn our actions, that formation process goes into hyper-drive. Our formation is amplified by the filter bubbles we belong to and their reinforcing interpretation of our embodied acts.

How are we meant to live, as Christians, when no public territory is religiously neutral? By being attentive, discerning, and acting with intent as people who belong to a different polis; the kingdom of God. As Smith puts it in his fancy phraseology: “our political engagement requires not dismissal or permission or celebration but rather the hard, messy work of discernment in order to foster both ad hoc resistance to its ultimate pretensions and ad hoc opportunities to collaborate on penultimate ends.” This is quite similar to what James Davison Hunter calls being a “faithful presence,” and is also the sort of leadership Edwin Friedman calls for in A Failure of Nerve, that of being a differentiated non-anxious presence in an increasingly anxious and fractious body politic. We’re to know who we are, such that we can resist being deformed or conformed to the patterns of this world, while seeking to be transformed, and to transform the world around us according to the picture of the kingdom of God revealed to us in Jesus.

Jonathan Isaac decided to not kneel, not because he rejects the idea that black lives matter, but so that he might make the case that racial justice won’t come through kneeling, or perhaps even politics, without the Gospel. His decision was an attempt to be a faithful presence, one differentiated from the world around him and its conforming patterns. In my piece unpacking his actions, celebrating them even, I hoped to qualify both that Christians can faithfully be present, kneeling even, in protest movements, and faithfully present in empires (think Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and then under Darius, think Joseph in Egypt, think Erastus in Corinth). It wasn’t a problem for any of these individuals to contribute to the common good in an empire, despite the idolatry inherent in these empires, but there is a pressure that comes with this sort of presence; a pressure to bend the knee to idolatrous systems, rather than to king Jesus.

Sometimes this sort of faithful presence isn’t just about joining some sort of pre-existing empire, or political cause, Christians can even start, or lead, protest movements as expressions of our convictions about the nature of the kingdom of God, and the nature of beastly kingdoms set up in idolatrous opposition to Jesus. When Kaepernick first took a knee, the symbolic meaning of his refusal was clearly a repudiation of empire consistent with his faith. One of his (many) Christian tattoos features the words of Psalm 27:3, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” His taking a knee, surrounded not just by players, but an empire, that first saw this as an attack, was an act of courage, coming from convictions he owns as a follower of Jesus.

Both Kaepernick’s kneeling, and Isaac’s standing, were acts of faithful presence. Like the paradoxes in Proverbs in the Bible, where the wise person either answers a fool according to their folly, or does not, the vexing moral issue of our time is captured, in some form, in the question ‘to knee, or not to knee’?

Does one take a knee in solidarity with a brother who sees the idolatrous impact of empire on his people, who refuses to put the nation state — the empire — in the place of God?

Or does one stand, because at some point the act of kneeling has become synonymous with alternative forms of empire, and a religious social pressure just as opposed, ultimately, to the truth of the Gospel as that which it kneels against?

The key is that whatever you’re attempting to do as a faithful presence, your posture reveals a faith in Jesus as king, not in the alternatives; which will mean freedom to do either, and will require charity from within the body of Christ to be directed at those exercising wisdom and freedom in a different direction; not an attempt to eradicate our fellow Christians as repugnant others in a culture war.

This ethical conundrum became a little less clear cut when Kaepernick’s symbolic act was co-opted by two essentially religious groups. First by Nike, in order to sell more shoes through that insidious form of capitalism. This sort of capitalism is the kind where a multi-national company that has a history of using oppressed people to make shoes in the third world for peanuts, can simultaneously make a poster boy out of a member of an oppressed group who took a costly stance on racism to sell more shoes. It’s here that we might note that what often gets called ‘cultural marxism’ is really just another lever pulled by the capitalist machine to sell goods to a different audience, an idea you can dig into further in The Eucatastrophe’s episodes on cultural marxism. And second, when it was co-opted by people wielding essentially the same but reversed, political power against the (racist) empire as an expression of a culture war with a merchandising arm. Those campaigning against racism, and for the dignity of black lives, are certainly more aligned with God, as creator, and the kingdom of God, as the ideal, than those seeking to uphold white supremacy through systemic racism, but there’s an insidious idolatrous agenda, built on worldly power being applied without God in the picture, co-opting this kneeling campaigning, and twisting potential solutions to racism away from the truth, and towards the idolatrous status quo, just with different labels. Whether BLM or Nike, whether one kneels or stands, as in so much modern politicking, the forces of ‘the market’ are in the mix attempting to make more money through social and political posturing. One wonders who is making and selling the shirts that NBA players are wearing during the anthem…

Modern capitalism (surveillance capitalism or otherwise) is just like modern black-hat Russia in its manipulation of discord in western elections; it doesn’t matter which side wins, so long as the fight is happening in a destabilising way, if that happens, Russia wins. Modern capitalism is like the arms dealer in the culture war, selling polarising political-religious iconography to both sides, turning a buck, growing the market, conscripting us not to our political theology, but to Mammon. How dare Isaacs not wear the Black Lives Matter T-Shirt (he did still wear his Orlando Magic shirt, which you can buy in the gift shop for…). Mammon doesn’t care so long as you buy your political merch and wear it loudly in performance of your virtue; the louder and more obnoxiously the better, in order to promote an equal, but opposite, reaction (and more sales).

When the market turns activism into a way to make a buck or two, we should be doubly suspicious of its religiosity; these acts then serve the twin idols of our vision of the political good (our idealism, or empire), and the economic machine. Black Lives Matter is increasingly a monetised social media phenomenon with merch. Kaepernick’s kneeling became a Nike campaign putting “overt” into religious overtones.

Now, to not kneel, but to stand, is its own act of rebellion, or subversion, in the face of another conforming pattern of this world; and it’s unclear whether by standing one is upholding the idolatry of empire, rejecting the capitalisation of activism, rejecting an anti-racist political movement that is, itself, potentially idolatrous, or simply standing as an expression of faith in an alternative kingdom, with its king.

And here’s where Smith’s diagnosis of the modern ‘political field’ is useful; global capitalism means politics isn’t just about the government; it’s not just about a political empire, but also an economic one, our governments increasingly become pawns in an increasingly global idolatry; the worship of Mammon, and the church, or kingdom of God, stands in opposition to all these forces. Smith describes this, again this is from Awaiting The King:

“If the church is a “public” that stands, in some sense, counter to the pretensions of the earthly polis, we can’t narrowly mistake this as a critique targeted only at the state because, in the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies—and globalized societies more and more—the economy functions as a “structure-building force” that shapes everything. The market now constitutes “the inner logic” of society itself: the dynamics of society are “moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.” This coupling of market forces and the crowd’s demand for publicity means that everyone dreams of monetizing their Instagram feed. And that effectively becomes the ethos of a society.”

This ethos is on display in a protest movement that is essentially performed for photo opps, and that arose from social media activism, using a hashtag. How can we possibly know if every knee publicly bent is a knee privately committed, as part of a body, to the renewal of society around the issue of race. How many knees bent in public, and knees belonging to people whose behaviours and ideologies in private, or out of the camera’s gaze, are given to maintaining the status quo? Isaacs was right to emphasise the need not just for a change of actions, but of hearts.

How one decides what to do when such pressure is applied, and the stakes so high, is an interesting shibboleth test for life in the modern world. Navigating this sort of climate, where nobody is prepared to give an inch in the culture war, but all acts are interpreted through a hyper-political lens, is almost impossible, and certainly crippling. The key for us Christians is to use our bodies in ways that align with our story — our understanding of their God-given and redeemed purpose; our trajectory, or, as Smith puts it, our ‘teleology,’ which “is an eschatology: a hope for kingdom come that arrives by the grace of providence and doesn’t arrive without the return of the risen King. And this changes everything. A teleology that is at once an eschatology will be countercultural to every political pretension that assumes either a Whiggish confidence in human ingenuity and progress or alarmist counsels of despair. But precisely because Christian eschatology is a teleology of hope, it will also run counter to cynical political ideologies of despair that reduce our common life to machinations of power and domination. Furthermore, a Christian political theology attuned to eschatology will run counter to a kind of postmillennial progressivism to which the so-called justice generation sometimes seems prone…”

Any action, or story, that does not share this teleology or eschatology is essentially idolatrous, which isn’t to say we can’t participate in public alongside people who do not share our worship of Jesus, but simply that we should be careful that the use of our bodies is aligned to the truth, not to truncated visions of what it means to be human, and how to solve the problems we’re confronted with in a world marred by sin.

So, Christian. Kneel in the protest movement against racism, or stand against solutions to racism that don’t include king Jesus. Do so as a faithful expression of obedience to your Lord Jesus. There’s freedom here, and this is a course that requires wisdom — but don’t be so co-opted by worldly agendas whether of ‘political empire’ or ‘economic empire’ (and really, these are just two sides of ‘Babylon’) that you lose sight of what is ultimate. Don’t crucify your brothers and sisters for choosing a political action that is different to yours, but celebrate when ambassadors for Jesus are able to be a faithful presence in any community, pursuing the goodness, truth and beauty of the kingdom.

Because remember, ultimately, there is no choice about bowing the knee; we’re all going to take a knee as we participate in various non-ultimate realities here and now, and those realities are going to be religiously motivated economies, like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome were, but every knee will one day bow to Jesus. And it’s his kingdom that counts, and his rule that offers a solution to the problems of sin, including racism. This is part of that ‘eschatology’ — that future hope — that Smith talks about, a future secured through the death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

As you choose who or what to bend your knee to now, bend it to him. It’s good training.

The Flailing New York Times: why we need media(ting) institutions that mediate, not culture warriors

Donald Trump has been relentless in his attacks on the ‘fake news media’ — part of his culture war strategy is to white ant the credibility of any institution that might seek to hold his craven, narcissistic, sociopathic pursuit of power and wealth to account. One of his favourite targets is the “failing New York Times.” The Times, as a sort of bastion of New York culture and elitism has always stood in stark opposition to Trump’s kitschy megalomania and Reality TV style boorishness. The paper has been a strident critic of the President, and has been for many years, it both endorsed Hillary Clinton, and thoroughly dis-endorsed Trump, calling him the “worst nominee ever put forward by a major party” (they weren’t wrong). In the wash-up of the election results, trying to understand how they, like most of the nation’s elite establishments, had so failed to predict a Trump win, the Times committed itself to a renewed understanding of its calling as a media institution.

“As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.”

Another way of framing this commitment was that the Times committed itself to not being a combatant in the culture wars, but the sort of mediating institution that media institutions are meant to be; institutions and ‘public spaces’ that allow the sort of civil conversation and listening that builds consensus about what is actually true. Functioning societies that aren’t autocracies (governed by a sole authority), or technocracies (governed by experts, science, and data), require an informed populace making decisions from commonly held truths (this is, of course, obvious when you have a pandemic, and a need to communicate and coordinate public health responses, including public behaviour). Trump’s anti-media culture war agenda is dangerous because it can force media agencies to fight fire with fire; it can make ‘truth’ contested. By playing the game Trump wants to play, media companies become wedded to an agenda other than the truth and so open to undermining as ‘the fake news media’ who are perpetuating an elitist view of the world that misunderstands the experience of the common man; and so misunderstands reality. The Times editorial at his election was a hopeful sign that it wasn’t going to be dragged into the mud.

Democracy needs an independent press; a trusted press; a press that operates as a ‘mediating institution’ — not simply one that treats all claims as equal and airs ‘both sides,’ but one that pursues truth, expertise, the public interest, that both speaks truth to power and exposes the truth about power. What we don’t need is media institutions trapped in the culture wars as combatants. That won’t serve anybody. The undermining of trust in the media both because media companies, in order to operate as a force in the market (and to meet its costs, or secure its funding, for eg the ABC) adopt biased positions to sell to a market, and because powerful figures have their own vested interest in undermining institutions that might call them to account, is a pox on all our houses. It’s a particularly vicious cycle when our politicians are poll driven (in order to keep power) and the polling companies are subsidiaries of media companies.

In short, we’re screwed. Our media institutions have become not institutions ‘outside’ the mechanics of power, as a sort of public square, or ‘commons,’ but institutions caught up with wielding power for their own ideological and commercial interests. It’s no coincidence that people like Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos get control of media institutions as they seek to fashion a world in their image of what a world should be.

What doesn’t help mainstream media, like the Times, is when they also become victims to ‘polling’ — to reflecting the voice of the people, rather than operating as a mediating institution that is objectively pursuing the truth. When a media agency becomes an arm of the culture wars, and starts flailing predictably in the direction of some repugnant other, it undermines the ability it might have had to build common ground on issues of truth. The catch, of course, is that with someone like Trump whose only mode is culture wars and self interest, the speaking of truth to power will look and feel a whole lot like ‘culture wars’ to his supporters.

The New York Times is trapped; if Trump is what they say he is, then to say so will be to support his criticisms of them, to become a player in the culture war game, and to lose its institutional cachet, and its trusted position in a democracy. This is true in Australia as our own media institutions get caught up in culture war games.

But it’s worse — despite columns dedicated to public civility from ‘centrist’ (or conservative) figures like David Brooks and Ross Douhat, the Times has failed in its attempts to “reflect all political perspectives,” at least from the perspective of the person they brought in to do that job, who has just publicly announced her resignation because the ‘failing New York Times’ is a flailing, hot, seething mess of resentment internally. In a resignation letter that will surely now sit alongside the open letter from 150 prominent writers condemning cancel culture, Bari Weiss announced her departure from the masthead.

She’s resigning because the Times, ultimately, is inhospitable to those who do not share its orthodoxy. This is religious language being applied to a public institution; it’s a telling category shift. Interestingly, Weiss, who has a long record of opposing anti-semitism, was interviewed after a mass shooting at the synagogue she grew up attending, she said of her Jewish compatriots who had supported Trump and the climate he created, that she saw contributing to rationale of the shooter, “I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain: They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people—and frankly, this country—forever: Welcoming the stranger; dignity for all human beings; equality under the law; respect for dissent; love of truth.” On her reasons for departing the Times, Weiss said:

“I was hired with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home. The reason for this effort was clear: The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers… But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else… If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets. ” 

She goes on to detail not her cancelation, but her treatment at the hands of colleagues who she says have bought into this particular ideology and so police her orthodoxy, and how inhospitable that becomes.

This stuff is tricky; because in the fallout of the Harpers letter there’s been a fairly public dispute at Vox, where an editor, Matthew Yglesias, was a signatory to the open letter, and a trans writer on staff, Emily VanDerWerff, published an email she’d written to management about how unsafe his signature made her (without calling for his cancellation, but the Internet didn’t read it that way); inhospitality goes in all directions. The argument that free speech is not without cost; especially when it offends or marginalises, is not so easy to dismiss as ‘sticks and stones will break my bones’… What’s noteworthy here is that the treatment Emily VanDerWerff is receiving from strangers on the internet is essentially the same that Weiss says she is receiving from colleagues within her organisation.

Incivility is a terrible thing. And disagreement is complex; we can’t simply create an institution committed to the common good and to canvasing ideas as though we have a blank slate, either historically or emotionally. There must be ideas that are beyond the pale, whose intolerance and exclusivity will drive others away from a platform, Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” has to kick in somewhere (this idea says “if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant”). I’ve written before about the analogy of tables, or hospitality, and community; where, for Christians, there’s the Lord’s table (those you break bread with on a Sunday, where theological particularity might matter), your own tables (those you’ll invite around for a meal as host), and tables where we might eat as guests in the commons; media outlets, and the public square, naturally sit as ‘third tables’ (or third spaces), it becomes problematic when media outlets that have a role to play in the commons behave like religious sects. The second and third tables, in order for society to function as something other than a theocracy, have to practice accommodation, hospitality, or some form of pluralism. I’ve also written about how, for Christians, ‘costly speech’ is a better ethical paradigm than ‘free speech,’ these examples of incivility in the public square outside the church are the equal and opposite version of the church seeking to impose its morality on the third table; the third table — mediating institutions that allow the pursuit of common goods and common ground — can’t operate ‘policing orthodoxy,’ instead, it must operate around principles of hospitality and pluralism.

The flailing New York Times has failed to do this because it has become an institution conscripted in the culture wars; a sectarian institution, an institution committed to what the coiner of the culture wars moniker, James Davison Hunter, calls “ressentiment” (the French word for resentment), he says “it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. Ressentiment is, then, a form of political psychology… Nowhere does it find a more conducive home than among the disadvantaged or mistreated as directed against the strong, the privileged, or the gifted. But here an important qualification: perception is everything. It is not the weak or aggrieved per se, though it could be, but rather those that perceive themselves as such. Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged… The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity…

Now, this isn’t to deny that there are those who have been mistreated by the strong, but it does mean that part of the culture war manual is positioning yourself as the victim; which is both the criticism of the signers of the Harper’s letter (that they are claiming victimhood) and the criticism in the Harper’s letter that the process of claiming victimhood is used to silence others. It’s also the heart of Weiss’ criticisms of those in her Jewish community who supported Trump, and her own rationale for leaving the Times. It’s ressentiment all the way down. The antidote to ressentiment is listening and love; it is hospitality.

The flailing Times tried that in appointing Weiss, they failed at it in appointing Weiss, committing to not playing the culture war games, and then becoming increasingly, at least in Weiss’ account, pugnacious crusaders for a particular ideological position.

Hunter says “In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.”

I’m sympathetic to the signers of the Harpers open letter and their call for the free expression of ideas, the idea that our ability to collectively know truth, or at least seek it, requires a certain degree of free speech. If their objections are understood as powerful people who contribute to the ongoing marginalisation of the ultimate intersectional oppressed class complaining about the sort of ‘cancelling’ that oppressed peoples have long experienced at the hands of the elite, then the only thing more brazen would be an open letter from the kinds of sectarian church traditions that have sought to impose their moral frame on all of societies tables complaining about cancel culture; the church invented cancel culture (or Israel and other nations of the Ancient Near East, then Rome, did, with the knocking down of idol statues), we just used to call them ‘inquisitions,’ heresy trials, or witch hunts. But some of the signers of the Harper’s letter, like Weiss, are themselves members of oppressed groups; victims even (J.K Rowling, for example, is a feminist and an abuse survivor, Salman Rushdie the subject of a fatwa), Weiss, too, is an outspoken critic of anti-semitism. if we allow the game to be played on these third tables as a sectarian religious, or culture war, where the most intersectionally aggrieved parties dictate the terms about what can and can’t be said, then the flailing New York Times, and other media(ting) institutions will fail; and will fall into the hands of demagogues like Trump (an argument the Harper’s letter makes). Mediating institutions can’t function as mediating institutions if they aren’t operating as ‘third tables,’ or common places; when they ‘mediate’ in a sectarian way they’re acting more like churches pursuing a theocratic end, and executing heretics. This isn’t to say that those who have historically been excluded from platforms, when they were previously enthralled to other ideologies, should not have their grievances heard, or be received with space-giving love, the trick is finding ways to invite such people and groups to not just be guests on the platform (like Weiss’ introducing conservative and centrist voices to the Times), but allowing people of various convictions to function not simply as guests at the table, but hosts.

On the flip side, the church might learn from these stories — not in ways that lead us to operate our own tables differently, but in ways that moderate how we engage in the culture; not as culture warriors who long to wield the power of the cancel button again, but as people not given to ressentiment, but to love and hospitality. The ABC’s Scott Stephens presciently made a point very much like this in a conference I wrote about back in 2015, where he said:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

Maybe not just the public broadcaster, but any organisation with the noble aims expressed by the Times after Trump’s election. Maybe such institutions might aim to be more like a table, and less like a trebuchet with arms flinging destructive projectiles at some repugnant other.

 

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