Memories be damned: On the modern hunt for the perfect image of humanity

Scenes of protestors tearing down statues of figures from history around the world this week have prompted conversations here in Australia about what to do with our monuments to people with stories, that from our perspective here in the future have become problematised. If the conversations aren’t happening already around the names of some of our universities — James Cook, Deakin, and Macquarie — then you can be sure they will be soon. When the moral code of the present is applied to towering figures of the past — especially those memorialised as statues in public places; held up as examples to us all, cultural and architectural reminders of our story — it becomes clear those figures have feet of clay. A new story for our cultural moment means a hunt for new icons from past and present.

History is an important teacher, and while erasing these figures from our national, or international, stories might help us forget some sordid aspects of our racist past here in the west, their removal will not necessarily guarantee a better future. It will also remove, with the clay feet, those good deeds that these figures performed; as Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. One photo of a plaque to Winston Churchill, defaced with the word “racist,” that I saw this week on Twitter was framed with the statement “wait till they hear about the other guy.”

In the Roman world statues were a popular form of propaganda; those looking to gain favour with the empire would commission and build statues of the imperial household, and these statues would become icons that dictated fashion, even hairstyles, throughout the Roman world. The Greco-Roman world were no stranger to a good old fashioned statue toppling either; an orator named Favorinus had so pleased the people of Corinth that they erected a statue to him, putting him on a pedestal in the city’s library, as an example of the sort of oratorical skill and thoughtfulness they hoped their city might aspire to. In a speech Favorinus gave to the Corinthians about this honour he said they placed his image “where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.” This quote comes in a speech Favorinus gives to the Corinthians having returned to the city to discover his statue — a monument to him as an icon — is no longer standing; he accuses the Corinthians of a personal attack.

There was a common practice in the ancient world of ‘damnatio memoriae,’ a latinism with a meaning not so difficult to decipher in English; the eradication of a person from memory via the destruction of their icon; a collective refusal to view a person as an icon or image from whom a culture seeks inspiration or example. This, of course, was an expensive practice when statues were carved of marble, by artisans, so such damnation could include the defacing of an inscription, or the reuse of marble slabs in promenades; a toppled statue could literally be trodden into the ground. Another Roman practice tied to this sort of cultural iconography, and perhaps to save on costs, was the practice of producing statue bodies with removable heads; people could check in on who was trending (and what fashion to adopt), knowing the statues and their iconography would keep pace with the political and cultural times.

Recent iconoclastic rallies are, rightly, asking questions about whose images should be used to inspire today’s youth (and the not so young). What human from history (or the present) is fit to serve as an inspiration for ‘the good’? Selecting someone to semi-immortalise in a more concrete form than the flesh is difficult in the present, and made almost impossible with the benefit of hindsight and progress. Sporting figures being celebrated for their sporting prowess seem safe, after all, King Wally is still the king of Lang Park; and yet, while ‘image rights’ are an increasingly valuable commodity in the sporting world, if there’s one thing media coverage of the off field exploits of many of today’s athletes tells us, it’s that athletic prowess should not qualify someone as an icon or example. It’s better for companies to celebrate athletes in pixel and print, than in stone or bronze.

Part of the question about making a statue (or tearing one down) is a question of who should represent us; who should present an image to us of the ideal person, who should we aspire to be? But another function of images is that they serve as objects in a cultural architecture, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘a social imaginary,’ they help frame our beliefs, values, and understanding of virtue. It seems right to be careful about whose visage or name we memorialise, and right to be prepared to damn some icons or even tred them into the ground; but another question we might ask ourselves is what this realisation that even our heroes in history had feet of clay, is perhaps we should be asking ourselves about the danger of iconography to begin with. The anger we feel when an icon; or an ideal; disappoints; that anger might be because these icons have become idols. In the ancient world the line between icon and idol was a fairly blurry one; the same images on street corners of the imperial family could also be found in imperial temples dedicated to the worship of the Caesars, alongside the Roman pantheon. Perhaps these objects are actually occupying a ‘sacred’ space in a modern civic religion; one where we’ve pushed out the old gods, or God, and turned to people to fill a place previously occupied by something transcendent. Perhaps what we’re seeing in the toppling of these statues is an act of desecration; a deliberate renunciation of previous forms of worship, or religion, or visions of the good life, so that we might replace the religious symbols of the past, and their representation with a previous story, with images that we, in the present, wish to create.

And maybe here there is some wisdom in those ancient words that are, sometimes themselves, erected as stone monuments near civic institutions; the ‘Ten Commandments’ — God’s commands, through Moses, to the people of Israel. Commandment number two is a prohibition against making and worshipping ‘graven images,’ this is part of what was meant to be an Israelite commitment to monotheism; a rejection of the icons and gods of the surrounding nations, based on a wholehearted commitment to worshipping the God who could not be reduced to an image. The God of the Bible is a living, breathing, creating God who gives life to his own living, breathing, images (or icons in the Greek text of the Old Testament). Part of the prohibition of icons and idols is that people — typically ancient rulers — will never properly represent the goodness of God or a truly good pattern of humanity; to worship them, or an image of any other thing, is to commit yourself, to aspire, to becoming like them. You become what you worship. The choice about what to immortalise in bronze or stone is an important one — and in the moral vision of the Bible, we’re better off not making that choice at all; remembering that humans are humans who will disappoint, who will be capable of good and right choices, but who will — in the Bible’s vision — always be ‘dust’ infused with divine breath; with feet of clay, and hearts capable of leading us to both goodness and evil.

In the story of the Bible there is one true image of the good human life; one true icon who should be imitated. Jesus, who the apostle Paul describes as “the image of the Invisible God,” the one good man. As statues and icons are toppled in modern damnatio memoriae, the image of Jesus remains the image of a human who did no wrong, who stood for the oppressed rather than the oppressor, who because all people are made in the image of God, offered his life to secure life for us, who loved and forgave his enemies and taught us to do likewise, even as the powerful rulers of his day, those busy building statues of themselves, created a system that was used to put him to death; crucifixion was a certain sort of damnatiomemoriae in the Roman world, and yet it is Jesus, not Caesar, whose memory stands the test of time, and who stands as one hero from history whose example is worth turning to even now.

On #BlackLivesMatter, colour blindness, centering, and Aboriginal deaths in custody

I’m still learning lots about Australia’s racism problem.

You see, I’m white, I haven’t experienced racism, either overtly, or through my interactions with the structures and institutions that form part of Australian society — and even within the structures of the Australian church.

I’ve had position, and forms of power, given to me through my education, my employment, and my family’s relative prosperity, secured through generations of free education, inherited wealth and social capital, and through my own efforts in securing an education — primary, secondary, tertiary, and post graduate. I am an ordained member of an institutional church in Australia that requires people in my position to have a certain amount of privilege; the type that enables access to and success in an academic context. My denomination only affords this particular positional privilege to men. Its structures are rigid and built on tradition, as well as doctrine. One doesn’t have to be white to be a Presbyterian minister, in fact there are many non-white ministers and elders in our denomination, but it sure seems to help. One does have to be educated, and adhere to certain social and cultural norms. It’s hard for one to not conform to the parts of our culture that look pretty institutionalised and based on credentials that require a certain sort of privilege; the sort that often seems to limit the pool drawn from (you know, like judges and other positions draw from the same milieu, but also the same schools and suburbs).

It’s easy for people in our particular context, where once one has a platform, and so a voice, one assumes a degree of being there by merit, or calling, to assume there’s a sort of ‘colour blindness’ that should mark our interactions within this institution, and then to extrapolate that as a norm we’d like to see in a sort of post-racial society.

We might even project colourblindness on to God; arguing that this is the default way we’re called to see and treat one another, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile; we are all one in Christ Jesus. And yet, our oneness in Christ Jesus does not eradicate our difference — it’s a paradox, or tension, we are called to hold that is held up as part of the Bible’s own vision of the kingdom of God.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9

The Gospel of Jesus and our union with him does not eradicate distinction and difference, it unifies us across difference in our created purpose — loving God and enjoying him forever.

Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles made two mistakes in this area; one, suggesting that God is colour blind, the second, suggesting that because the organisation registered as BlackLivesMatter has a radical vision for the end of oppressive structures that might go beyond a Christian desire to see such structures (like family) redeemed and reconciled in Christ, that all use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag supports the boogeyman of marxism. His post fundamentally commits a kind of reverse ‘genetic fallacy’ in that it links a hashtag that emerged on Twitter, with an organisation that developed around the hashtag and the conversation it linked. Hashtags on social media are a way of participating in linked conversations in a democratised way; and these links can give rise to different movements; but to use a hashtag is to participate in a conversation, and to affirm a truth, it is not to affirm a movement, or an organisation.

I am actually colour blind. Red-green. Just, not on issues of race. A few years ago I was invited by Common Grace and Aunty Jean Phillips to speak at a seminar in Brisbane, and there I repented of the idea that to be a follower of Jesus is a call to be colour blind on issues of race. You can read the talk, which drew on the super-powered Mantis Shrimp, an animal that sees a much greater spectrum of colour than I do, to suggest that we are more aligned with God, and the kingdom re-imaged and re-imagined by Jesus, when we see colour (and ethnicity) than when we pretend not to. But here’s a passage from it…

“I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of Indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the way we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have Aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.”

In my ongoing process of confessing, and listening, and learning, I’ve continued to journey with Aunty Jean Phillips, and with Brooke Prentis, who is now the CEO of Common Grace; Aboriginal Christian leaders who have worked hard to draw the Australian church’s attention to racism at work in our nation and in our churches.

I find myself facing a dilemma now, because the more I listen and learn, the more aware I am of the privilege afforded to me; as one occupying a position ‘at the centre’ of power and influence in my denomination, with some platform in the wider church (because apparently some people read stuff). I enjoyed one of my institutional colleagues’ reflections on white privilege on Eternity News a couple of days ago, James Snare wrote:

“What I’m suggesting is that the ethical imperatives of Christ, the growing awareness of my own privilege and seeing the consequences of not addressing racism and sexism in culture – and in the church – has led me to believe that people like me can’t let our privilege go unused for others any longer.”

I feel similarly. And yet I’m increasingly aware of the challenges facing people like me, with platforms, occupying positions close to the centre, that speaking up, even attempting to use one’s privilege for the sake of others, can be a form of what is now being called ‘centering’ — it can be a tool that people like me, at the centre, use to keep ourselves at the centre beyond an awakening. We can, in exercising our voices, continue to de-centre the voices of others. I’m aware of how tempted I am to speak up before listening, and how much that speech, even well intended, can be hurtful. I’m also aware that black Christian friends are often commodified as a sort of ‘resource’ in times like this; those we turn to only when it’s convenient and we feel there’s mileage to be made in centering activities; or those we only reach out to when it’s popular to do so.

It’s a fraught space to step into, especially if it is perceived as coming at the cost of those from the margins who have had to work for a platform, or to be listened to, in ways I can’t imagine — whether they are women, or from minorities, or in this particular case, women who are Aboriginal Christian leaders; those whose counsel I’ve sought, who have taught me as I’ve been on the journey with them.

Last week Aunty Jean Phillips phoned me about a rally being held in Brisbane over the weekend; a rally reported as a #BlackLivesMatter rally. She told me she would be attending, and she wanted to draw it to my attention. I didn’t go, partly as a result of my privilege — where I was still trying to decide on the efficacy of rallies, partly because life with small kids, in ministry, in this weird semi-lockdown age is confusing enough, life in ministry is challenging in this season, and for a whole bunch of other reasons that as I spoke to my friend Brooke today, just sounded a whole lot like the excuses I can make as a result of privilege, and only being indirectly effected by structural racism, and by Aboriginal deaths in custody. I admit that another large reason for not attending, for me, on Saturday, is that I think practicing social distancing is still the right thing to do; which is why I’m also not campaigning for restrictions to be lifted faster when it comes to church gatherings. And yet, Aunty Jean went. She’s in two significant risk categories. But how could she not? How can I not?

What I did promise Aunty Jean is that I was working on a letter about Aboriginal deaths in custody; following the urging of Brooke on the Common Grace website (there’s even a template). Brooke has been asking Australian Christians to pay attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody for years now. I’ve been to several #ChangeTheHeart services around January 26 where this is one of the key calls for prayer and action, alongside other initiatives that might close the gap. Brooke consistently urges us to listen, to learn three stories of Aboriginal Australians who have died in custody. This sort of listening is an act of de-centering; so to is acknowledging that listening is something you have been led to by those leaders who have been speaking up against racism in society and the church for years.

So I’m hesitantly offering this letter that I sent as an act of using my privilege for the sake of others, but also as an act of being on the journey with Aboriginal Christians; of listening, of seeking to not put my voice at the centre but to amplify others. Because Black lives do matter, and Australia still has structural issues that are the ongoing result of a time where nobody even paid lip service to that idea. We can’t jump from there to being colour blind; repentance and reconciliation are a process where we do have to examine the institutions, laws, cultural expectations, and practices — and the results they produce — that are the fruits of racism, whether that examination is in the church or society at large, and we must keep committing ourselves to reforming these structures.

I produced this letter because I told Aunty Jean I would, and I wrote it in consultation with Brooke — having asked her first if she, as an Aboriginal Christian Leader, was happy for me to not use the template (she was, so long as it rightly acknowledged a connection to a request from Common Grace, in connection to hearing first nations voices), and if she was happy to give advice as a first nations person — which she is, because to blunder in without such advice perpetuates a marginalisation of Aboriginal voices, and because part of ‘being on the journey’ together is a commitment to relationship and listening, and she gave me great advice on non-centering — particularly that always acknowledging those who have taught you is a good way of not making yourself the centre of attention.

Having witnessed, on Twitter, occasions where transgressions around centering behaviour and feeling the weight of the dilemma, I am thankful for the way that Christian leaders, powered by the Gospel, practice forgiveness around the bumbling efforts of privileged white blokes like me to escape the blinkers of colour blindness and privilege. Brooke and Aunty Jean are both consistently gracious in their responses to me, and others, in a way that without the unity we share in Jesus would be, evidently from Twitter, much more difficult. As Aunty Jean often says, there is no hope for reconciliation or a different Australia around these areas without the cross of Jesus.

Before you read my letter, can I encourage you to do six things:

  1. Commit yourself to listening to Aboriginal Christian leaders, not just privileged white blokes like me and Martyn Iles. There are good resources on the Common Grace website.
  2. Learn the stories of three Aboriginal deaths in custody — like Brooke has been urging us to for years. Here’s a starter on the issue.
  3. Write your own letter, using the template as a starting point, and ask for help from Brooke at Common Grace — join the journey (before you ask, Brooke has put plenty of resources for you to read on the website over the years. Read them first).
  4. Follow the example and call of Brooke, and Aunty Jean, and pray for our nation in this area.
  5. Don’t make this an issue of culture war/social justice ‘woke Christians’ v conservatives; make it an issue of seeking to learn our nation’s history and seeing the ongoing effects of that history, and committing yourself to act as someone shaped not by our nation’s story, but by the Gospel.
  6. Consider donating to the Common Grace 20 for Twenty campaign to employ an Aboriginal Christian Leader to work in this space.

To the Hon Mark Ryan MP, Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, and Corrective Services,

CC: The Hon Craig Crawford MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, The Hon Daniel Purdie MP, Shadow Minister for Police and Counter-Terrorism, and Corrective Services, the Hon Christian Rowan MP, the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

My name is Nathan Campbell. I live in Upper Mount Gravatt, in the Bonner Electorate. I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and my parish meets in Annerley, in the Moreton electorate. My parishioners come from across the greater Brisbane area.

For a few years now I have been “on the journey” with Aboriginal Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips — that’s what she calls it when white blokes like me are prepared to sit with her and to listen. Her generosity in thanking me for being “on the journey” as I listen blows my mind, because I feel like I am powerless to change much at all when it comes to structural inequality and its experience here in Australia. I often feel like I’m doing nothing. Common Grace, a movement led by CEO and Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis has invited Christians to speak up, particularly about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

As a Christian I believe that each human, regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation, is made in the image of God; that our lives should reflect his goodness and love in the world, but also that each person has a dignity bestowed upon them by something beyond the self. This dignity cannot be taken away — but we humans can be good at not seeing it in ourselves, or in others. For too long, our western society has claimed to be developed from this idea that each person has inherent dignity, that each person is created equal, while not considering how an inter-generational failure to recognise that dignity in the other has become embedded in our structures, and in the experience of those at the margins of our society.

In recent weeks, as we marked Reconciliation Week, and witnessed the Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, we have all been reminded that one way this failure to recognise dignity, equality, and even the humanity of our first nations peoples manifests is in the ‘gap’ that is yet to be closed here in our country. We have also been reminded about the supreme goodness and necessity of genuine reconciliation, and our desire for it — another bedrock of any society that has been influenced by the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and new life together built on love. We are in need of deep, structural, repentance in Australia; in need of turning from an old way to something new, and we must, as we make these changes seek reconciliation with, and forgiveness from those we continue to wrong, our First Nations peoples.

While the Black Lives Matters movement gained momentum because of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police; the arms of government; we have our own very similar issues here in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1991 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that began in 1987 delivered its findings on 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody. 99 Australian Australian ‘George Floyds,’ with their own names, and stories. Since the Commission handed down its findings there have been hundreds more Aboriginal deaths in custody; many harrowingly similar to George Floyd’s death. Brooke Prentis and Aunty Jean Phillips challenged those on the journey to reconciliation with them to learn just three names and stories of first nations people who have died in custody. I wonder if you might be able to name three? Or whether you might learn three stories?

So I remember Trevor King, a 39 year old man from Townsville, who couldn’t breathe after officers spear tackled him into the ground, whose wife had called police because Trevor was talking about self-harm. Who died in the ambulance police called in 2018.

I remember Shaun Charles Coolwell, a 33 year old from Kingston, who, during his arrest was pinned, handcuffed, and injected with a sedative, before he had breathing problems. He died in hospital a few hours after his arrest in 2015.

I remember NRR, a 37 year old from Cairns, who was pinned to the ground by six neighbours after a violent altercation, and restrained face down with zip ties. By the time police arrived the Coroner’s Report says that Mr Reading was unconscious, and no longer a threat, however police handcuffed him and shortly afterwards his breathing stopped, he was unable to be resuscitated.

The idea of custody is an interesting one; that those who were the traditional custodians of our land, responsible for stewarding this part of God’s good creation are dying in what should be our nation’s care is a profound problem that should lead us to consider, for example, whether our police should be a “force” or a “service.” The Royal Commission’s report in 1991 made many recommendations that have not yet been implemented, including many that would have resulted in a different approach to policing in these three stories; recommendations about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness (recommendation 79), and of arrest being a last resort in situations like the ones in these stories (recommendation 87a). The report also recommends that officers should receive training that involves listening to Aboriginal people in “appropriate training and development program, designed to explain contemporary Aboriginal society, customs and traditions. Such programs should emphasise the historical and social factors which contribute to the disadvantaged position of many Aboriginal people today and to the nature of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities today. The Commission further recommends that such persons should wherever possible participate in discussion with members of the Aboriginal community in an informal way in order to improve cross-cultural understanding” (Recommendation 96).

As the Minister for both the Police, and Corrective Services departments here in Queensland, I urge you to consider the urgent adoption of these recommendations. There have been 28 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Queensland since 2008, many in situations paralleling George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Implementing many of these recommendations would require the sort of partnership between states, territories, parties, and the Federal government that we have seen displayed in the recent efforts to combat Covid-19 here in Australia; we now know such action in response to a health crisis is possible, and so I call on you to exercise the same leadership of our nation in this area by listening to the voices of First Nations people, and the Royal Commission, and ensuring we do not see another George Floyd, or TK, or Shaun Charles Coolwell, or NRR, here in Queensland.

I would love a reply to my letter outlining how the Government intends to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody, and where it stands in the ongoing process of implementing the recommendations of a Royal Commission that concluded 29 years ago.

I will continue to uphold you and other members of the Queensland Parliament in prayer as you seek to lead us in listening and seeking reconciliation with our First Nations people. I would be happy to arrange contact with Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis should you wish to join us on the journey.

Yours Faithfully,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Upload: the digital good place?

Upload dropped on Amazon Prime this week. It’s like The Good Place, only there’s no twist. Really, it’s not that like The Good Place at all, except that it deals with life after death in a universe where God is mostly absent. Belief in a spiritual afterlife is a quaint hope held by some “Ludds” (from Luddites) pitted against the very real virtual hope peddled in Upload‘s universe — our universe, just in 2033.

There’s some interesting dynamics right up front with this program being on Amazon Prime; Amazon’s end game might look very much like the in show company, called Horizon. Amazon’s smile logo can be found on packaging within the show, but their push into cloud computing, digital media, and Jeff Bezos’ ‘end game’ (not to mention his exorbitant personal wealth — no seriously, click that, spend a few minutes scrolling it, and then come back) make them prime candidates for attempting to produce something like this for reals. It won’t be Elon Musk who does it; probably; he believes we’re already in this future; already characters in a computer program indistinguishable from reality. You can trust Amazon to find ways to keep making money from your consumption after you die.

In Upload, Horizon is the company responsible for the richest afterlife experience (an afterlife experience for the rich, where you have to keep paying for room service and minibar items by swiping left for your virtual pleasures. Horizon’s prime afterlife location is called Lakeview. Residents pay big bucks to have their consciousness digitised and uploaded; stored on servers, so that their lives can continue not in the clouds with harps (like some poor Ludds believe), but in ‘the cloud.’

As far as reviews go, we watched the whole first season over two nights. It’s a fascinating (but not Good Place esque) dig into some philosophical questions about what it means to be human; leaning into Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to suggest that so long as a person’s mind is still active, no matter what happens to their body, the person still is; and later probing whether a soul exists as a thing apart from a mind. We’re in a sort of new gnostic territory most of the time, except that scientists are also working on synthetic bodies that can host a download of the individual’s upload. There’s a hint of the unnaturalness of life without a body, but even the Luddite hope of heaven is the hope of a disembodied soul in the sky when you die (where salvation, and immortality, is not secured so much by wealth, but simply by death).

The show’s main upload, Nathan Brown, is hanging out for the availability of a download because he knows, deep down in his soul, that to exist as a person, a human, is to have a body. He’s also died in a freak self-drive car accident (or was it), and lost some vital memories in the upload that also make him less than him. Uploaded beings are served by ‘angels’ — employees of the ultimate surveillance capitalism firm, who are voice activated. Unlike Siri and Alexa, these are real humans sitting at computers waiting for voice commands from now-digital beings. And so we meet Nora, Nathan’s angel.

The show also has some fun pictures of technology in the not so distant future; including consent cameras for kicking off sexual encounters largely curated via Nitely, a future version of Tinder. The show handles sex and bodies in a fascinating way; the boundaries between the digital afterlife and the real world are almost totally porous, any avatar can cross over and connect in virtual reality, which means your loved one is never truly gone — even if they stop aging (so long as you don’t pay for age up updates). Sex is excarnated, rather than incarnating — though for those on the meaty side of reality, feelings are reproduced by a frankly kinda creepy VR suit. When Charles Taylor observed that the ‘disenchanted’ world we now live in is an ‘excarnated’ world — he was describing a world that pushes us out of being enfleshed in bodies, and into ‘being’ in our heads. Where sex may once have been ‘enchanting’ — sacramental almost — as a good gift from God, in the disenchanted, excarnate, world it is simply transactional.

At one point in A Secular Age, Taylor notes that the more intimately connected we are with a person the less worried we are about cross contamination — we’ll share a spoon with those we kiss — he suggests sex is the ultimate expression of such intimacy, that “love making itself is a mixing of fluids with abandon” — it’s a bit gross; but as we become excarnate, culturally, our approach to intimacy gets a bit blurry, when our bodies don’t matter anymore, we’ll mix fluids with anybody. And yet, the VR ‘sex suit’ proves too much for Nathan’s girlfriend, stuck in embodied life, because she sees them being cleaned in the hire shop — and hears all about the fluids they have to wash out — the suits are also used for people hugging dead grandparents; so there’s a cocktail of snot, vomit, sweat, and other things. Gross. Bodies are gross. And yet, sex-as-intimacy, for two embodied people, can also be sacramental; Nathan’s girlfriend, Ingrid, is prepared to overcome the ick factor because she “misses their intimacy.” Touch matters. Bodies are essential to that, and while our approach to sex (think pornography, hookup apps, consent video cameras, VR suits etc) can ‘excarnate’ — we can push ourselves away from our bodies and into our brains, sex, like other embodied pleasures, has the capacity to re-incarnate us. To remind us of the goodness of our bodies, and even of something enchanted or transcendent; something meaningful. Taylor calls this ‘haunting’ we sometimes experience in the real world — the reminder of something beyond us a ‘frisson’ (sometimes called “skin orgasms“) — that’s the little thrill you get sometimes that makes your neck hairs stand up and your skin get goosebumps. That power of touch — even in the afterlife — gets explored too.

The fundamental question in season 1 of Upload is can a human be a human without a body; what are we? While the eschatological hope served up by Amazon Horizon is frictionless consumption in a digital eternity controlled by a corporation that exists to serve your every whim with a voice command (“Alexa…” I mean “Angel…”), the question Upload asks is just how satisfying such a future can be; and whether a download into an eternal body might not be a more desirable, human, outcome.

Those in the digital world have lost all the limitations of embodiment; there is no longer any mourning, nor crying, nor pain… it’s a world made new. Digitally.

Except, you can pay to be sick — because after a stack of time in the digital afterlife, your yearning for a bodily existence leaves you wanting the feeling of pain or sickness, just to feel alive. So, you can pay to have a headcold…

_______

Zach: “Having a cold is no fun”

Nathan: “Why are you paying extra for this, isn’t it like a dollar a minute”

Zach: “When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll see that having no fun can be kinda fun. My nose is actually stuffed up. Just like real life.”

_______

The conversation pauses here because a new afterlife experience pops up; it’s pay to play, remember.

Trust Amazon Horizon to figure out a way to monetise a sneeze.

One of the more depressing sub-plots (and there are a couple, if you push too hard), is the story of Luke. Luke is a war veteran whose body was broken in conflict; he lost his legs, and rather than suffer life in the body, with no legs, he chooses to ‘upload’ early, and spends his digital life chasing experiences from the other parts of his body he gave up (mostly sex and food). Life without a body isn’t all its cracked up to be in Lakeview. But he’s also just a bloke desperately looking for connection. The show wants love to be enough for him, and for him to find compensation for the other bits, but it also leaves open the idea that life without a body just won’t be enough.

There’s a great dialogue between Nathan, and Dave, the Luddite father of his angel (it’s complicated) about the nature of the person, the soul, the afterlife, and hope.

_______

Dave: “You see Nathan, when you died, your soul went to real heaven, so whatever simulation I’m talking to now has no soul. It’s an abomination.”

Nathan: “Ok, or, there is no soul. And there never was, and in a sense both of our consciousnesses are simulations. Mine on a silicon computer and yours on a computer made of meat. Your brain.”

_______

Dave’s hope is a tangible future where he might hold his wife in his arms again; an embodied resurrection even, but Nathan, like many good moderns, can’t conceive of heaven as anything more than disembodied consciousness; eternal life for the soul, but not for the body. Like in the finale of the Good Place, the message from episode 1, to the end of episode 10, is that heaven is other people; the chance to spend eternity (or as much time as possible) with the people you love. God isn’t in the picture — even in Dave’s heaven — heaven is other people. For Horizon/Amazon — that’s an opportunity to make some money…

There’s an open source alternative to Horizon weaving its way through the storyline of Upload; the good guys who want heaven to be ad free. That might be the truly ‘good place’ — and Nathan hopes to be able to bring some of that open source goodness to Horizon; to hack away some of the overreach of his corporate overlords. Whether or not a ‘good’ digital afterlife is possible, Upload reminds us that we really want bodies for most of the stuff we love; which fits with the Christian understanding of the person. We are not souls in a meatsack — that’s gnosticism or Platonism — we are people who have bodies. The Christian hope is a resurrected body; a body made imperishable because God’s Spirit works not just with our soul, but on our body, to make us heavenly and immortal (1 Corinthians 15).

And while the show is billed as ‘science fiction,’ there are actually people out there seriously contemplating what such a digital afterlife could or should look like. Let me remind you again, Elon Musk thinks this is it; that the digital afterlife, where we exist not as people with flesh and blood, but as 0s and 1s in someone else’s program (with Covid-19 a really weird glitch in the software; a virus even). This was also, taken in a more dystopian direction, the plot for The Matrix.

There’s a question about what a good digital afterlife might look like, if the tech was available. We humans love the idea of being in control of our own end game; being able to work towards an eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’) where we, collectively (or corporately) are gods who can select our afterlife of choice and then consume our way to bliss. That fits the secular narrative pretty neatly. Amazon is a master of that narrative; a master of frictionless consumption and seemingly limitless consumer choice; which makes its involvement with the production of this program quite bizarre to unpack. Is being sucked into Amazon’s mainframe a good death? A good afterlife?

In Greek, the letters ‘eu’ at the start of a word work as a prefix for ‘good’ — so ‘euthanasia’ is a “good death.” In 1993, tech-philosopher David Porush published a journal article titled ‘Voyage to Eudoxia.’ It was an article exploring a potential escape to cyberspace; a good cyberspace. He suggested an obsession with cyberspace emerged earlier than he was writing (almost 30 years ago), after space exploration became a little passe. The next big tech things would be computers. Games were just starting to become ‘immersive’ (though nothing like they are now). He wrote then:

“Eventually, in the far-flung future perhaps, we may all emigrate, at least part time, to this new and gleaming electronic suburb, there to revel in an excess of sensory stimulation that today’s cinema or MTV can only hint at.”

He called this future place ‘Eudoxia,’ after Eudoxos of Knidos, and an invisible city in the work of an author he liked, Italo Calvino who wrote Cybernetic fiction. Porush used the term ‘cybernetic’ to describe a future “Cybernetic Age” where technology might enable us to capture (and maybe understand) the mind and how it works. Porush described a genre of science fiction exploring this potential as “cybernetic (or even better, “anti-cybernetic”)” — Upload joins a long line of stories, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, exploring the potential that technology might free us from our bodies. Calvino, and Porush use the word ‘Eudoxia’ to describe the ability to write and create virtual worlds, or cities, built on ‘good discourse.’

“We now have a word for a magic technology that will create a complete sensorium or virtual reality on a cybernetic platform; cyberspace, an accessible, self-referential, genre-destroying hyperspace, a soaring sensorium that will imitate, model, and link to its mirror image, the human brain.”

Porush believed such a future technology, or place, Eudoxia, would render the story — TV or fairy tale — impoverished.

Lakeview, the ‘heaven’ in Upload, is a picture of a Eudoxia. And it turns out, people still want their bodies. That the mind itself is not enough; and that the sort of ‘transcendence’ Porush dreamed of, where we push out of our bodies and into our brains, is actually disenchanting rather than magical.

In a follow up piece, Hacking the Brainstem, published in 1994, Porush argued that (even then) our “centuries-long romance with technology” where we used technology to, for example, achieve intimacy with others, “has already cyberspatialised us,” preparing the way for us to experience ‘sensuous information bodilessly’ — he breathlessly hoped that cyberspace would help us transcend our bodies. He said in the sort of science fiction that anticipated cyberspace — this cybernetic fiction — “Cyberspace already transcends the physical “meat” body by creating a simulated “meta” body in the brain and communicating with it directly via electrical implants.” He said:

“Eudoxia is presently enacted in video games and cybernetic fiction, which will find their ultimate material marriage in the computer’s cyberspace.”

Whether or not this future can, or will, happen is immaterial. It’s clearly a future that we like to imagine happening; an escape from the meat of our bodies into the meta. Life forever; freed from pain and suffering, beyond death.

That a company like Amazon is going to be best placed to deliver such a future is a scary thought Upload presents us with; but its story, like other anti-cybernetic stories, should cause us to pause and ask if this is the best good place we can imagine.

Porush describes the promise of cyberspace peddled in such stories in this reasonably long passage, it’s worth it though…

______

The imminence of the cyborg is not a matter of speculation, it is a matter of reporting the news, a matter of postmodern sociology and introspection. We are already experiencing the reflux from a time twenty seconds into the future when our own media technologies will physically transcribe themselves onto our bodies, re-creating the human in their own images, forcing our evolution into the posthuman through a combination of mechanistic and genetic manipulations… yberspace will renovate human relations; it will unite art and technology; it will represent an altogether new and radical domain for improved social, psychic, and perceptual transactions. Bypassing the infirmities of the body, cyberspace will free the cripple and liberate the paralytic. Enabling multimedia and sensory access to the entire wealth of world data, cyberspace will deliver a universal education. Through its anonymity, cyberspace will invite the construction of a more ethical code and create norms for human interaction that strip distinctions of gender, class, race, and power. Cyberspace will provide a playspace for the imagination to roam free, liberating the mind from its inevitably neurotic relationship to the body. Cyberspace therefore has untold psychotherapeutic possibilities. Yet cyberspace will incapacitate destructive urges and consequences by removing our bodies. Cyberspace will create the means for a pure and perfect democracy and universal suffrage in which everyone can vote immediately on any issue. Cyberspace will present the possibilities for “virtual communities.” Cyberspace will reconstruct the nature of the relationship between labor and time and labor and space and will reconstruct authoritarian technics as they are manifested in the workplace —although one wonders who is going to empty the garbage and build the roads after we have all emigrated to this new virtual suburb. While cyberspace will undoubtedly present new opportunities for criminality, rape and physical assault will become impossible. Cyberspace will present a new opportunity for our manifest destiny, a new frontier. Cyberspace will make war obsolete by turning it into a Desert Storm videogame. Cyberspace will create a totalized hypertextual platform that will cure what ails American higher education. We will become immortal there. It will enable us to combine work and play in a new way. Even the music will be better there. Cyberspace will be the new, clean, virtual Eden to which we will all emigrate when this physical world becomes an unlivable ecodisaster. In cyberspace we will finally perfect the academic’s dream of sex: we will be able to indulge lust without the involving of our bodies (perhaps I should have said “the dream of sex that’s academic”). The New World, World Without End, amen.”

______

Cyberspace in Porush’ vision, is the cyberspace on offer in Upload. A world built by Horizon Amazon.

In Hacking the Brainstem, Porush makes a pretty interesting point about ‘utopian visions’ served up in our stories; eschatologies, even. He suggests we create utopias, culturally, by ‘modelling our view of human nature rationally and then inventing a technology to control or direct that model’ — by ‘technology’ he says he means “systems that seek and project perfect control” — so when a human is placed in the system the system encourages the “best part and controls the worst part of human nature” while the human maintains the system by their participation. This is particularly interesting when one considers Upload’s utopian vision; a digital world where the technology pictures the ideal human life as one of unfettered consumption in the pursuit of goodness and pleasure, surrounded by those people you love (such that you might consume them too).

The world we live in is one where corporations want that to be our utopian vision; because it’s what keeps them profitable.

The corporate world wants to keep us disenchanted and placing our hope in a technological future — a eudoxia — because if we put our hope in some transcendent otherworld, heaven — clouds outside the cloud — then they lose us now. We no longer want to play in their system.

There’s a reason there’s no God in Upload — that the priest for hire at the funeral parlour offers up factoids about Nathan that he’s gleaned from wikipedia, and no comfort beyond his digital avatar being there on the big screen behind him. God upsets the apple cart of these apple vendors.

Like in The Good Place, the ‘eudoxia’ of Upload — Lakeviewis in need of a good eucatastrophe. A “good catastrophe” — the term coined by Tolkien for the fantastic moment in a fairy story where the failure of our attempts to build our own utopian visions; craft our own ending to the story, our own ‘afterlife’ is met by an interruption; a good catastrophe. Tolkien’s ‘best catastrophe’ — the one that means I’d be banking on fantasy novels outlasting cybernetic fiction — is the enchanting story; the story that reminds us that reality is not all there is; that the physical world points to a supernatural world; that sex in bodies is, like other experiences in our bodies, meant to throw us towards something ‘enchanted’ rather than excarnated, and to remind us that our bodies are fundamental to our personhood. Tolkien’s best version of the good catastrophe is, of course, the version where the story of Jesus is true; where the heavenly future he offers is not disembodied life in the cloud(s), but an embodied life in a re-created and renovated world; this world; not a digital world; not a world fuelled by consumption and the pursuit of pleasure through choice where you have to keep paying a corporation; but a transformed world centred on the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for God and for one another. This is our hope. The real new eden — not the digital one.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:4-5

Who needs a Lakeview when you can have a river view anyway…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. 

Revelation 22:1-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three take homes for me from this ad.

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

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

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

Consumer life in the Secular City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech in the City

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

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

Postman, Technopoly

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

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

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

McLuhan, Understanding Media

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

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

McLuhan, Mechanical Bride

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

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

Scott Galloway, The Four

A call to (secular) worship

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

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

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

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

Disrupting hollow gods

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

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

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

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

This is a world that doesn’t want disruption.

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

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

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

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

Taylor, A Secular Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause

Pig slop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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

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

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

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

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

The boy was home.

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

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

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

Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

I’ve decided I want to be a dinosaur.

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

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

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

McLuhan, Understanding Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

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

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

— C.S Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1954

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

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

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

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

Baby Driver and the Culture Wars

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

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

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

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

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

Baby is a broken man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

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

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 

Revelation 21:1-7

Feeling anxious? Try playing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking to your kids about Corona Virus (as Christians)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good(er) Place

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

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

She didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What they point to is God.

God and his glory.

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

Death is not good.

God is.

And God is missing from The Good Place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5

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

Why Christians must never acknowledge an altar to an unknown god

Mark Powell has responded to the responses to his piece about why Christians shouldn’t conduct acknowledgments of country. He’s responded, especially to Fr Daryl McCullough’s piece with the classic ‘double down.’

Mark confuses description from some quarters with prescription for all quarters on a couple of occasions; citing examples that back up his claims about pantheism and smoking ceremonies, and then drawing a long bow and shooting arrows into all versions of acknowledgments of country and symbolic uses of smoke. One hopes that he will consistently extend his logic to suggesting we shut down fellowship with the Anglican Church over its use of incense, and stop Presbyterian churches participating in ANZAC Day ceremonies, which are overtly religious and nationalist and just a tiny bit pagan in their remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors. Mark must, of course, be worried about the sort of syncretism that saw the discussion he mentions that happened at our General Assembly happening in a building decked out with the trappings of the ANZAC cult. Pretty much every charge Mark levels at acknowledgments of country can also be levelled at dawn services — so he might, for consistency’s sake, have to reject those syncretistic symbols.

Mark also thinks I called him white in my last post. Having known Mark since I was a kid, and having heard him describe his heritage and his family’s connection to the South Sea Islands during the Assembly, it would be very odd for me to assert that he was white. I didn’t. I said the courts of our church are typically white. I said his impulse to read indigenous practices through a western individualistic political lens was part of the colonial impulse. I hope that clears things up.

Needless to say, I don’t find Mark’s response to the responses very convincing (he has another drive by shot at me over suggesting that there’s a ‘sacramental’ element to nature; to be clear, I don’t think going to the beach is a ‘sacrament’ in the way that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are; but I do believe nature is oriented towards grace; and that the purpose of the natural world is to throw us towards the presence of God in all times and places as the creator who sustains all things by his powerful word. I don’t believe in a secular/sacred divide when it comes to time or place (1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 11:36). If all time and space is sacred, then recognising this, that the transcendent and immanent realities are always overlapping; not bifurcated; is very similar to what we do in the sacraments though those are particularly oriented to the saving work of Jesus (in the same way I’d say marriage is ‘sacramental’ but not a sacrament).

Anyway. My real beef is this.

Mark insists that acknowledgments of country are a protocol that is always inherently religious; particularly because of the claims made by one source on indigenous spirituality. He says this idolatry disqualifies Christians from using the forms of the protocols because to do so is to invite judgment on our heads.

Someone shoulda told Paul.

Eating food sacrificed to idols or acknowledging that unknown God in Athens are the worst forms of idolatrous syncretism Mark can imagine.

There’s two places one might go to engage with Mark’s argument here; one is in Paul’s treatment of food that had been sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy 4; in 1 Corinthians he says ‘the idols are nothing,’ and ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (he does warn about sharing in the cup of demons in 1 Corinthians 10:14-19). Now. If Mark is right and an acknowledgment of country is always idolatrous such that to participate in a prescribed form is to participate in idolatry, then the cup of demons paradigm might apply. If an acknowledgment of country is always to partake at the table of pantheistic indigenous theology (and if all indigenous theology is pantheistic), then we cannot participate. For Mark this idolatry seems to take the form both of indigenous spirituality and the woke, progressive, lefty politics he hates so much… and the same rule probably applies, if participating in a civic protocol is necessarily to be a woke, progressive, lefty, and so cause division in the church with those who don’t share that ideology, then Christians shouldn’t do it for the sake of Christian unity.

But Mark is self-evidently wrong because he admits that the protocol for an acknowledgment of country is not really established; that the first one was a quasi-spiritual welcome put together by Ernie Dingo; and this is exactly what aboriginal Christian leaders are saying — there is no recipe for a welcome to country; no particular spirituality to be ticked; no formula in the words used for the speech-act to have taken place; the fundamental element of an acknowledgment of country is truth telling about our nation’s past (Mark seems to keep wanting to offer an alternative narrative here with his doubling down on wave theory, but we’ll leave that for now). That some acknowledgments of country are idolatrous does not make all acknowledgments of country idolatrous; and that some are idolatrous does not prevent Christians adopting and adapting the forms to align them with Biblical truths.

Mark seems to believe that all the meaning of a protocol is caught up in one particular form, and one particular sort of content, and that you can’t adapt those forms. Which would be news to the Israelites who melted down gold from Egypt to furnish the temple; and Solomon as he copied and pasted a bunch of Egyptian proverbs bracketing them with the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’… both the gold, and the proverbs, had particular idolatrous meanings before Israel co-opted them; just as meat did in Corinth.

An acknowledgment of country, because it can mean something different at each different table where it is offered, by each different host, seems to be much more like idol meat — sure, there might be idolatry involved in some of the application of the protocols (and this is also true of smoke ceremonies), the question is whether the symbolism might be re-appropriated and used to preach something true (like ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’) that invites us to love and serve our neighbour. When Paul writes to Timothy about people wanting to forbid different foods, or practices, on the basis of idolatry, he gives this principle for dealing with created things (particularly things created by God), and their redemption.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-5

But wait… you might say… this is about food and marriage; things that God created. Sure, it’s obvious that we can redeem those by consecrating them (a sacramental approach to created things if ever there was one) and receiving them with thanksgiving… and acknowledgments of country were created as a civic protocol, not by God. There is a spirituality attached to some versions of both acknowledgments and welcomes to country, and smoking ceremonies (just as there is idolatry attached to Anzac ceremonies, and a political mythology too). The question is whether that spirituality is definitive, and inherent to the practice, or whether they might be re-framed by Christians to bridge the gap to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now. If only we had some example of man made, civic, religiosity, being redeemed, and reframed, to connect people to their creator.

Mark seems to believe that any adaptation and reframing of an idolatrous activity or ‘cultural text,’ such as a smoking ceremony necessarily leads to syncretism. So. I’d like to introduce you to the Bible’s chief syncretist. The Apostle Paul.

Mark says “Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are clearly spiritual in nature. Their goal is to explicitly ward off evil spirits.” I’d suggest this is equally true of the altar Paul found on the streets of Athens to “an Unknown God” — an altar the Athenians used to cover all their spiritual bases and explicitly avoid offending any god they’d accidentally missed. A piece of religious superstition; clearly spiritual in nature. Paul, of course, as a Pharisee, knew what idols were — abominable departures from the truth about God; that when Israel occupied the promised land they were meant to destroy. And yet Paul, in Athens, does not pull out the sledgehammer and condemn the Athenians for their misplaced spirituality; he uses that spirituality, and that altar, to build a connection to the God he knows. The God who created all people; even the Greeks, and who appointed them (and those before them) to live in and occupy their lands. Mark doesn’t believe simply conducting a smoking ceremony — using the burning of a created thing as a picture of God’s goodness — in worship ‘sanctifies’ the act of burning; he says “Just because they are done in the context of Christian worship doesn’t sanctify them.” I’d suggest the reframing offered in the context of Christian worship might explicitly be the sort of ‘consecration’ that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy. Mark also rejects the idea that we might use our indigenous neighbours’ previous beliefs about an ‘All father’ Creator Spirit’ to proclaim the God of the Bible, because that would be ‘precisely what syncretism is’… the problem is Paul’s explicit example in Athens. Now. Mark will appeal to the regulative principle and the nature of Christian worship here, perhaps, but I’m in a slightly more maximalist camp on the question of worship than Mark within our denomination (Romans 12:1). And the issue here is that nobody in our denomination is currently suggesting Acknowledgments of Country happen in worship (ie between a call to worship and a benediction in a Sunday service); the question has been whether we can conduct them at all as Presbyterians. Mark objects to any reframing of the civic protocol because he believes all versions of the protocol are idolatrous syncretism, what he defines as the “fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices!”

Someone should tell Paul that he got it wrong. I mentioned in my last piece that this section at the Areopagus also involves Paul deliberately following the conventions of that court for introducing a new God into the life of Athens. Syncretism. He also favourably quotes their religious philosophers, he, for example, alludes to Zeno the Stoic, who said that the true God doesn’t dwell in a temple, and directly quotes Epimenedes Cretica, a hymn to Zeus, when he says “For in you we live and move and have our being.” Syncretism baby. Pure syncretism. Paul takes the content from a hymn to an idolatrous God, and uses it to proclaim truths about the God of the Bible who reveals himself in Jesus. Syncretism! Or… Pure Gospel proclamation using created things and the humanity of the people he is seeking to reach with the good news.

 “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

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

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:22-31

How could Paul get it so wrong. Doesn’t he know he is inviting God’s judgment on himself by affirming truths that he found with pagan roots?

The test for whether or not acknowledgments of, or welcomes to, country are ‘pagan’ or idolatrous or not is not ‘what are their origins’ but ‘are we speaking God’s truth,’ and the benefits are ‘are we speaking such truth in a way that invites people to know the God who is just, and a father of all nations, who invites us to come home to him through Jesus; the resurrected king.

Why Aussie churches should acknowledge country

We Presbyterians are, next time our General Assembly meets in three years, deciding whether or not Presbyterians should conduct acknowledgments of country, or facilitate welcomes to country, in Presbyterian Church events.

I think it’s a no brainer. Others, including the Reverend Mark Powell, disagree. Mark has rehashed his arguments against acknowledgments of country in a public forum over on Eternity News.

I vehemently disagree with Mark on this issue; which won’t surprise him because we disagree on most things. I think his piece in Eternity is the worst form of religious culture war propaganda (up there with his columns in the Spectator, which are typically just culture war fodder, rather than being explicitly religious). While there’s an ‘opposite’ position already published on Eternity, and while I’d love to hear from Aboriginal Christian Leaders like Brooke Prentis (who Mark names in his piece) and Aunty Jean Phillips (who has been exceptionally helpful to me in ways you can read about here), there is, I think, a place for a fellow Presbyterian Minister to respond (so someone who is definitely a university educated male, and highly likely to be white). I don’t think being male, middle class, educated, and white prohibits someone from having an opinion, or from being right, or from speaking — but I do think when a room of decision makers, like our assembly, is made up almost exclusively of one type of people (men), with a fairly homogenous (though not exclusively western) cultural background, the onus is on us to listen well to those not in the room, not just to each other. I remain optimistic that our denomination will land somewhere good on this issue. I find myself feeling like there’s a similar dynamic going on here that was at play in the same sex marriage debate, where the ‘political ends’ shape our engagement with others rather than pastoral and evangelistic ends; like Mark I believe politics is also a form of love, and an outworking of the Gospel, but I believe our politics are meant to be pastoral and evangelistic as we are ambassadors of Jesus, through whom God makes his appeal for all people to be reconciled to him. There’s a consistency between this Eternity article and what you’ll find in Mark’s pieces on the Spectator; there’s a fusion of a certain form of western individual liberalism, a syncretism even, with Christian theology. I often feel that Mark’s positions are more concerned about politics and winning a culture war (or converting people to a syncretised western individualism and an individualised Gospel), than they are about bringing people into the kingdom; there’s a degree to which to accept Mark’s vision of the truth you must accept his late modern political assumptions (that late modern politics has to some extent been shaped by a protestant form of Christianity is not lost on me).

Here are my arguments against Mark Powell’s arguments.

  1. For Aboriginal Christian Leaders, acknowledgments of country and welcomes to country mean nothing like what Powell insists they mean. Powell reads the culture, and these ‘cultural texts’ through a prism of Western individualism (that comes through in his argument), and an idiosyncratic theological grid. To impose either that social or theological grid on others without listening to them is the very worst of the colonial impulse. Mark would do well to listen to people like Brooke, or even those indigenous men and women serving in our denomination before telling indigenous people what these aspects of their culture actually means or represents. I’ll include an Acknowledgment of Country I wrote, in consultation with Brooke, for a wedding for someone from our church at the end.
  2. The Bible consistently connects identity to land; and has God appointing the boundaries in which different people live and are connected to land. Think Adam and Eve in the garden as ‘gardening’ stewards, Israel in the ‘promised land’ — whose fortunes were intertwined so that blessing would flow from the land to Israel if they were obedient and worshipped God, while the land would become harsh and unlivable if they worshipped idols. But also, this is a point Paul explicitly makes in Acts 17: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Mark makes a very strange argument from the work of Manning Clark to refute this, but regardless of who the original custodians of this country were, Mark’s version of the history of European settlement is a troubling one that seems in part to be based on recognising that to make reparations would be expensive for individuals (who benefit from the historic dispossession of the occupants of this land), and institutions (though Mark’s western individualism is consistently applied here). The Bible consistently recognises the intergenerational cost of sin; from the ground being cursed because of Adam, to Israel in exile, to Pilate’s words about the blood of Jesus being on the heads of those who killed him and on futute generations. The Old Testament jubilee laws recognise an historic ‘birthright’ connection to country, and a corporate identity, closer to indigenous beliefs about connection to country than a western individual liberalism that turns land into something that individuals and corporations can own for perpetuity (not to mention foreign investment).
  3. The Bible has a sacramental, though not idolatrous, view of creation. To make all sacramental approaches to nature idolatrous is to throw out a whole bunch of baby with the bathwater; or to avoid the “abusus non tollit usum” principle (wrong use does not negate right use). If the divine nature and character of God are revealed from what has been made, and if the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, and if the Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by human hands but put people all over the world so that we might seek him; then those places that are recognised as beautiful, that thrust us towards the transcendent as they take our breath away are truly sacred, but also we should not be surprised that such places become ‘sacred’ in idolatrous systems. Regarding Mark’s treatment of Brooke in his piece, Brooke (who was recently appointed as the CEO of Common Grace) says she was drawing on Stan Grant’s observation that ‘the sporting field’ is the most sacred place in Australian culture; she wasn’t even making the theological point that I am.
  4. Acknowledgments of Country, or Welcomes to Country, especially those conducted by Christians, do not deny that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ — in fact they acknowledge that, and the role God gave humanity as stewards or custodians.
  5. Even if there are idolatrous forms of an Acknowledgment of Country or a Welcome to Country, and that is quite possible, there are lots of other idolatrous forms of things we westerners embrace; the Presbyterian Assembly, for example, took place in a church building with a metal archway entrance bearing the words ‘Lest We Forget’ with flagpoles carrying the Union Jack and the Australian flag (but no Indigenous flag).
  6. Even if there are idolatrous beliefs associated with traditional indigenous religion, as there are with every non Christian belief, it is possible for us, as Christians, to hear the existential cry of those practices and show how it is answered in the Gospel by participating in adapted forms of the cultural text or artefact. This, for example, is what Paul does in Athens as he introduces a new foreign God to a place searching for meaning through connection to the transcendent; Paul does this by following the cultural conventions for introducing a new God to the Areopagus in Athens (there’s a paper by Rev. Dr Bruce Winter that makes this case about the structure and content of Paul’s speech in Athens).
  7. There is, perhaps, very good reason historically, but also presently, that Presbyterian Churches are not known for having Indigenous membership that reflects the breakdown of the population in any given area. Many of these are structural — both around building design (our buildings feel ‘institutional’ (the ANZAC arch being a great example), and because of our forms of worship being quite western and structured. But our failure to listen, and indeed, our baptising of ‘not listening’ as something sacred where we came bringing the light of the Gospel such that we should not listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who bridge that cultural gap, insist that people leave their aboriginality behind to become Christians (while not leaving our western individualism and conservative culture war politics behind), seems to me to be a significant blocker to our ongoing witness in partnership with our indigenous brethren, and it stops us acknowledging the historic injustice that so many of out Aussie neighbours are now prepared to acknowledge. Plus, in a week where we’re seeing more ongoing horrific institutional abuse, including deaths in custody, it’s just massively tone deaf to be making such an argument now. It’s possible for us to walk and chew gum; so I’d love to see Mark make some acknowledgment that embodied practices of sin, by individuals and communities and institutions end up affecting systems so that we can speak of systemic sin and its implications on different groups of people within our community. I’d love to hear him explain how deaths in custody emerged as a problem ex nihilo.
  8. Conducting theologically thoughtful acknowledgments of country that articulate Biblical truths is not ‘syncretism’ but an invitation for our community to connect its desire for justice, a connection to country, and a desire for reconciliation to the one in whom God is reconciling all things. The Lord Jesus. We don’t lose anything by taking a form of communication that is not inherently idolatrous, and like Israel with Egyptian gold, and Augustine with oratory, using that gold to preach truth about Christ. An acknowledgment of country is not a golden calf, but a sometimes idolatrous expression of our humanity, that can also be used to connect people with the truth about our creator; as some of our own indigenous poets have said… (Which is, of course, how Paul engages with Stoic philosophy while in Athens).

It’s not that hard to do this. Here’s the wording of an acknowledgment of country I put together listening to Brooke Prentis, reproduced with her permission. I’d love to hear more about how this is awful pagan syncretism… or actually, I wouldn’t.

“We would like to acknowledge the ____ people who are those appointed by God as the traditional custodians of this land — both within the area called ______, which we know as _____, and of this nation.

We would like to pay our respect to Elders past and present of the _____ nation for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, and we extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and those future generations who we pray will continue this task, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.“

How Jesus met a pagan fascist through Facebook

“I’m done with Christianity, thank the gods.”

This was my first interaction with Steven Pidgeon, then going by Sigurd, or Vidar, Pidgeon depending on the social media account he was logged into at the time. He posted this response to an Easter advertisement from our church that we had pushed out via Facebook advertising in 2017.

My own personal Facebook policy, for our church’s online presence, is that you should always feed the trolls. So I clicked through to his profile, where I found a man who had apparently recently converted to paganism, sharing memes from the TV show Vikings, and discussing participating in online ‘blots’ — a Norse ritual — with other Norse pagans from around the world. I also found a series of troubling posts about Hitler, and race. Steven, or Sigurd (named for the legendary hero of Norse mythology), turned out to be an interesting man obsessed with Tolkien, white purity, fascist politics, and religion. I noticed that he was based near me, in Brisbane.

“I’ve never met a legit pagan before, I find this fascinating, I see you’re in Brisbane, I’d love to grab a beer and hear your story.”

I posted in this in response.

Steven sent me a friend request. I’ve since learned that Steven loves social media and building connections with all sorts of people from around the world. In our virtual conversations I learned that his back story was even more complicated than I imagined. He’d spent the last 17 years living in a religious community in the Blue Mountains, the infamous Twelve Tribes, a community with a particular view of the end times seeking to recreate twelve tribes, faithful and pure communities, of Christians who will bring about the end times. Before this, Steven had been, as a teenager, a Pentecostal, and then a Mormon. Steven rose through the ranks in the Twelve Tribes. His IQ is off the charts. He learned Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and made trips to the United States to ‘prophet school;’ often acting as a teacher in the community. At some point in the years leading up to his departure Steven became suspicious of Israel as a political entity, and began reading anti-Semitic literature, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He found the politics of national socialism intriguing. He also smuggled a phone into the community — which exists cut off from the outside world except through their businesses (like the Yellow Deli café in the Blue Mountains), and their missionary activities. At some point, his interest in politics, and his reading, led him to start his own political party, the Australian Freedom Party. He started to connect with people on social media, and questioning the teachings of the community. The more he knew, the more they unravelled, eventually he decided to exit this group who were like a family to him for most of his adult life. His exit wasn’t straightforward, nor was it straight into paganism, or fascism.

Steven is a convinced theist; his approach to testing truth claims of different religions is ‘full immersion’ — not baptism, though his Pentecostal, Mormon, and Twelve Tribes history mean he’s chalked up double digits for baptisms — he invests himself deeply into the plausibility structures for beliefs; the communities of believers. Steven spent some time in a Buddhist community in the Blue Mountains, and then moved into a Mosque in Sydney. He spent a period of time as a Muslim “revert,” grappling with the text of the Koran, while living in community with Muslim friends, who eventually organised for him to move to Brisbane where he found employment in a kebab shop, and enrolled in a Business degree at Griffith University. His experiences in Christianity, the Twelve Tribes, and Islam, and his interests in politics, and particular, the political vision of national socialist movement Order15, led him to explore and embrace white nationalism, and Odinism as a ‘white’ religion, disconnected from any religion with Jewish heritage. He began to embrace this identity; wearing a Mjolnir hammer around his neck, immersing himself in Norse Mythology, and participating in message boards, and social media groups with other pagans who were embracing the old religion as part of a commitment to ethnic purity. In embracing this identity Steven, who doesn’t do things by halves, adopted a racist persona, and expressed racist sentiments consistent with Naziism and white supremacy, while disconnecting from the Islamic community who had moved him to Brisbane. This extraction process was not without complications — his employment and housing were both connected to Brisbane’s Muslim community. Steven packed all his belongings into a backpack and bought a tent; prepared to embrace life as a wanderer, like those in the epic tales he loved — whether Norse, or from Tolkien. He eventually found a share house, but found himself in a city a long way from family, and friends, only connecting to his new ‘community’ online.

Then Easter happened.

We’d, by chance, themed our Easter series around Tolkien’s view of the Gospels as an epic true fairy story; a theme explored in his On Fairy Stories, where the Gospel and its joyful resolution in the resurrection is the ultimate ‘eucatastrophe’ — the sudden, joyous, turn that gives fairy tales their mythic constitution and quality. Steven and I were able to share a mutual appreciation for Tolkien. He shared my invitation with his pagan friends on Facebook, asking for their advice. Given that we’d become Facebook friends I was able to see, and participate, in this conversation where pagans from around the world suggested he ‘bring an axe’ and ‘be prepared to go full Lindisfarne’ on this Christian priest (Lindisfarne is the site of a famous massacre where Viking pagans put Christian monks to the sword and plundered their relics). Steven was lonely, he loves speaking to people about politics and faith, so he accepted my invitation to share a beer at the pub.

Here he is waiting for our first meeting; not knowing the twist his adventure would take.

I was genuinely fascinated to hear his story; I’d seen John Safran’s segment on modern pagans in John Safran Vs God years before, and despite Steven’s apparent racism and the risk of being smote by an axe, it was obvious that he was an intelligent man with an interesting journey. I committed to sharing a beer with Steven in a safe, and public, space; and I listened to his story. I asked questions. I didn’t, in our first meeting, push back on anything in particular except the idea that the Christianity he rejected looked nothing like orthodox Christian belief. We parted agreeing to keep in touch. I found the experience fascinating, because Steven’s story is truly remarkable. About a month later my wife and I were returning by bus from a football game, and we happened to bump into Steven at the bus stop; he’s not one to believe in coincidence. We chatted briefly at the bus stop, and then a few weeks later he sent me a message. His New Guard movement — a local fascist group — was meeting in the city in a couple of weeks, some of the members of the fascist movement were churchgoers who were planning to go to church after their meeting, but he had decided to come along to our gathering instead. He thought he might try it out this coming weekend to get his head around transport logistics in Brisbane.

His first Sunday was a perfect week for a racist fascist with a history in a community trying to live out the vision of the church in Acts 2 to visit our community. We were in the middle of a Bible overview series, and his visit coincided with our look at Pentecost, and the way the pouring out of the Spirit was the beginning of God’s kingdom expanding to include people of every tribe and tongue and nation. As if to highlight the contrast, the Bible was read that Sunday by a member of our community who is of Indian heritage, and we incorporated the baptism of two Iranian converts into the sermon. Steven hasn’t missed many weeks of church since that day.

Our church shares lunch together after our service, and introducing your multi-ethnic community to a pagan, racist, facist, is an interesting challenge. As a community we have long cherished the idea that people belong before they believe, and can come into our community as they are. We believe that conversation and connection, and the experience of Christian hospitality and love make the Gospel plausible, and that the Gospel has the power to change lives. So Steven was welcomed; he shared lunch with us, and I directed him to one of our members who happens to be a professor in Old Testament (whose Hebrew is much better than mine — but then, so is Steven’s). This member of our church was a safe pair of hands, who again listened to Steven and answered some of his questions about orthodox Christian belief. That day, when Steven went home, he went home questioning whether the Christianity he was ‘done with’ was really Christianity at all; I sent him works by Augustine, Athanasius, and C.S Lewis. He spent the next two weeks watching the entire back catalogue of our church’s sermons that were available online. Over time, as he explored the Reformed theological outlook, Christianity became the lens through which he saw the world. His racist Facebook posts didn’t stop straight away, there was a period of transition. He threw himself into a community of Christians on campus at Griffith (where he was blowing his studies out of the park, recording the highest mark ever given in one subject, and achieving exceptional academic results across the board). Steven was a 37 year old who had never handled money for himself; who had been withdrawn from society for 18 years, missing most pop culture, and plenty of news. He was readjusting to life in the real world, outside the intense communal life of the Twelve Tribes. A couple of months later, in a conversation we were having, Steven and I both realised he had become a Christian; that not only did he believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that Jesus was his Lord and we were seeing the fruit of that in his life, his changed view of others, and his evolving political convictions. Steven had repented; we recognised that to do this and to be able to truly say “Jesus is Lord” was an act of the Holy Spirit. Steven, despite his journey taking him to all corners of the religious globe, had come home. Steven is now my friend. He has been a much-loved member of our church family ever since, and, if not for his desire to own his past and acknowledge his mistakes and the way his journey has developed, almost nobody in our community would know about the darkest chapter in his story. Steven Pidgeon, the online Nazi pagan, has become Steven Pidgeon, our servant hearted, genius, brother in Christ, a man who desires that people from every tribe and tongue and nation meet Jesus, and that he might use his gifts, and the degrees he earns through his study, to serve his neighbours around the globe, in some ways making amends for the horrid views he held for a short period of time.

He now devotes himself to his studies, and his social media posts are much more likely to be about very obscure questions around Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions (where our Old Testament lecturer’s PhD work on Akkadian language came in handy), reflections on what he is hearing at church, or his experiences as a Law Student at university. This reflects how he spends his time and energy in real life.

This week a group of Antifa (anti-fascist) activists unearthed the archives of IronMarch, a web portal for Nazis and fascists that Steven contributed to up until 2017. He was named and shamed as an Australian neo-Nazi. Those doing the shaming were not prepared to accept that transformation is possible, and reached out to different groups and institutions Steven has connected to since repudiating paganism, and the Nazi, or ‘Alt-Right’ movement. I’m sharing this story now because Steven has genuinely changed, and is genuinely a member of a church community committed to a cause that is fundamentally opposed to fascism. I share Antifa’s issues with fascism, and Naziism, in all its forms; but it might be that there are better methods for changing hearts and minds; it might be that the Gospel of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring about an amazing transformation in someone’s politics, and this doesn’t happen by exposing, “doxxing,” or attacking a person you’ve never met on the internet, but by meeting them face to face, connecting, understanding, and loving your ideological enemy, and inviting them to experience a community living out a thoroughly different politics. Maybe our world needs more people sitting down for a beer with those we oppose, rather than entering a vicious cycle of trolling and insults.

Maybe Easter changes everything.

The climate apocalypse is real, and here’s why we need a different sort of climate apocalypse that begins with Jesus (and us Christians)

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11,000 scientists from around the globe have joined forces this week to declare a climate emergency, signing a paper warning of catastrophic threat to humanity. It’s a pretty apocalyptic sort of vision.

Are you listening?

I’m not a scientist, so I tend to leave science to scientists. Which means I am listening.

I am open to questioning the worldview or default assumptions underpinning some science — in that, as someone who is a Christian I do also believe in a supernatural realm and a God ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ and I’m skeptical of scientific overreach where conclusions are drawn about the legitimacy of such a being because of ‘science.’ As a quick tangent — science as we know it is born out of theism — Christianity specifically in the western world, and Islam in other parts of the world. For Christians, from the Bible (for eg Romans 1:20), through Augustine, the Bacons, and other pioneers of the scientific method science was a way to study the cosmos as ‘God’s second book’ — understanding God from what has been made. When we observe natural operations and order in the cosmos (like mathematics and natural laws) we are seeing God’s handiwork. Part of the problem, in the Bible, is that we can’t always get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ because we humans are so busy writing our own stories into the fabric of the universe as we build and break, but also there’s this dynamic right from the first pages of the Bible where that good order is thrown into ‘disorder’ or decay, frustration, and curse as a result of human sin. Plus, a sensitive reading of Genesis 1-2 suggests there are bits of creation that are less than perfectly ordered in that the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are meant to “cultivate and keep” this garden, so probably to expand it over the earth as they “be fruitful and multiply.” The Garden, Eden, does not yet cover the whole earth. There’s space for some chaos existing outside the garden in a plain reading of the text of Genesis.

Christians have typically understood God’s first book — the Bible — as the primary authority in a way that shapes (and underpins) the scientific endeavour. If there appears to be a conflict we’re either reading one (the Bible or the science) or both books (the Bible and the science) the wrong way. When they line up we can be pretty confident, as Christians, that there’s something to pay attention to. We don’t need to reject or be suspicious of science simply because it is ‘science’; or to conform every bit of what we believe to be true about the universe to what scientists tell us (or the conclusions that naturalistic scientists then might seek to draw from the data).

So when 11,000 scientists — and plenty of Christian scientists — tell me that the world is heading towards catastrophic change, and I can see a pretty direct link to individual and systemic sin — particularly greed or selfishness or our culture of instant gratification and taking what we want from the world rather than stewarding it sustainably as an act of love for God the creator, and our neighbour — as a cause then I’m happy to take note. I’m not, for the record, a Young Earth Creationist TM  so I’m not inclined to reject science simply because it is science, but I do take Genesis very seriously as a text that informs my position on this question. I’ve been puzzled for a while about an apparent link between young earth creationism and rejecting anthropomorphic climate change because it seems to me that a plain, literal, reading of the text of Genesis directly links the state of the planet to human action (the subsequent promise not to wipe out humanity with another flood in the Noah narrative notwithstanding). Here’s what God says to Adam about sin and the climate. The fall itself is a sinful, self-serving, grasping, pillaging approach to the created world — the taking of the fruit God had forbidden to use for Adam and Eve’s own ends.

“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

This seems to be a big deal for Paul in the book of Romans, who spends a bunch of time showing that Jesus is a new Adam, who brings a new pattern for humanity (a new image of God to be conformed to), where we become the ‘children of God’ that the creation itself is longing for. Or, as Paul puts it:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. — Romans 8:20-22

The command for humanity to ‘be fruitful and multiply, rule the earth and subdue it’ is not a command to rape and pillage the creation, but to interact with the created world as image bearers of the life giving, life creating, God who makes things good and hospitable; it’s a call to cultivate Eden across the face of the earth not strip mine it to build little palaces for ourselves that mitigate the harsh conditions we find ourselves living in. The post-fall, cursed, world is the reality we exist in and have to figure out our ethics from. We don’t pretend the creation is not cursed or frustrated as a result of the fall of God’s image bearing rulers (we’re certainly not universally pursuing fruitfulness and the sanctuary where God dwells with his people post Genesis 3). We also can’t totally pull the conditions of the new creation — described in Revelation 21-22 back into the present. We should expect fallen people to be producing cursed conditions rather than life-giving ones as they depart from bearing God’s image in the world. This is one of the things that was most beautiful about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie a few years ago; the way it showed how the sinfulness of the generation God wiped out in the flood expressed itself in the treatment of the world; it’s what is beautiful about Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the way that Mordor is a picture of the destruction of the planet through the idolatrous pursuit of control, wealth and power (this link is to a great piece exploring this dynamic, but also check out the Eucatastrophe’s episode on why they’re called The Eucatastrophe for more on this). Human sinfulness damages the world, and you don’t have to be an expert on ecology to know that there are cycles in nature that can be thrown into different patterns as we tinker with or destroy the natural order — it shouldn’t surprise us that pumping anything into the air that wasn’t there in the same volume before has an impact (I mean, it’s obvious with air pollution and air quality in cities right? And in water quality when we pump stuff into rivers or oceans).

The Noah promise that I’ve seen politically conservative Christians rely on to reject climate change is one piece of Biblical data pulled out of the context of the rest of the Biblical narrative. You don’t even have to leave the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, a literary unit of which Genesis and the Noah story is a part) to find evidence supporting a relationship between human sinfulness and the state of the climate. What’s going on in God’s “never again will I curse the ground” with Noah is clearly not a return to Eden, and clearly not a restoration of a universal image bearing people — the children of God — who will live rightly with creation. It doesn’t prevent human intervention in messing up the world. God’s sovereignty doesn’t ever seem to totally try to wipe out the human impact on the world except at the flood. Maybe that’s significant in our interpretation… in fact, from this point onwards, fruitful, blessed creation where the conditions for human flourishing are most present in the world (not withstanding God sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous) are promised benefits for people living in harmony with God again — whether that’s Israel and the promised land (eg Deuteronomy 28:1-11), the promise that the land will become hostile to life if Israel becomes hostile to God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), and restored if they return to God (Deuteronomy 30:1-11), Ezekiel’s description of the barren land produced by Israel’s profaning God’s name and subsequent exile, and the promise of a new Eden when God re-creates a new image bearing people who serve him from the heart… the conditions of the world are, from Genesis on always linked to whether or not the people living in the environment are in relationship with God or not; when they aren’t, curse and destruction follows.

The Bible’s approach to the natural world and its hospitality for life is anthropomorphic not simply about God’s sovereignty; though God’s sovereignty plays out in blessing and curse. Here’s a sample from Deuteronomy 28, which comes, of course, after the Genesis 9:11 passage that climate change skeptics love to quote. This is the sort of doom and gloom apocalyptic vision we now hear from scientists — talk about uninhabitable for human life…

“The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” — Deuteronomy 28:22-24

Oh, and there’s this cheery bit in Deuteronomy 29…

The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” — Deuteronomy 29:23-28

If God, in his sovereignty, says this is how he will respond to sin — and sin often expresses itself in a failure to steward creation or to seek the flourishing of others (selfishness/self-gratification/pillaging) — then who are we to insist that climate change is not a result of human behaviour and not consistent with God’s sovereignty?

Now, these curses are just promises to Israel, God’s people — and it’s not a great principle to extrapolate from such a curse to a universal principle; but nor can we use the words in Genesis 9 to establish a universal principle that Deuteronomy 28 explicitly rejects. Especially when Romans 8 seems to still see a universal frustration of creation linked to humanity not universally being Adam-like children of God who bring fruitfulness. There’s also, in Genesis 12, the promise that God’s blessing on the nations — their flourishing — is connected to Israel. We see a slice of that in Joseph’s relationship with Egypt, but more with Solomon’s international relations (not the marriage bits, their coming to him for wisdom on how to live in the natural world (you know, the world he compiled proverbs about)). But this promise to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (which is where Paul goes in Romans 9), so that real blessing and the real people of God who really start unravelling curse is found in those united to Jesus as the new Israel; the people of God who bring life and relate to the world differently because we have the Spirit (which is the fulfilment of the prophecies in Ezekiel that start the new Eden project).

Jesus is the new Adam, the New Israel, who is faithful — whose heart is inclined to God so that the restoration promised in the Old Testament is possible. As a cool bonus detail, in his resurrection appearance he appears as a ‘gardener’ a new Adam bringing a new image of fruitfulness and, ultimately, the liberation of creation from sin and curse (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22). His obedience means that he and the father pour out the Spirit and re-create people who are children of God.  People who are called not to conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed (Romans 12). People who are part of a liberating project that will ultimately be fulfilled in the return of Jesus and the complete revelation of the children of God.

Here’s a fun fact about Romans 8:19, which says “for the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” That revealed word is ‘apocalypse’ — apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — but creation is waiting for the apocalyptic children of God. People who will help creation meet its ‘end’ or fulfilment (as the children of God are revealed) and live in a new beginning for the created world too. The point of Romans is that the apocalypse doesn’t just arrive with the return of Jesus but with the coming of the Spirit into his people. We live in this apocalyptic, revealing, age pointing to the ultimate end (both purpose and future) for creation — and to where creation goes when we humans use it for our own godless ends.

Some Christian political visions do pretty odd stuff with Revelation as a text; Revelation is a pretty odd text. But Revelation is an ‘apocalyptic’ text (again, that word). It reveals true things about the world as it is; not just as it will be. It is a profoundly political text; a rejection of the beastly human empires that kill God’s children, including his son, Jesus, and who use God’s creation for selfish gain. It’s a text that offers a similar commentary on reality to the Lord of the Rings; especially in the first century. If you want more on this, check out Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation. He’s got an interesting chapter on Revelation 18 and its economic/apocalyptic significance in a book called Image of Empire (though I think a better reading of Revelation than he offers has Rome as the beast, and idolatrous Israel who sold her soul to Rome and conspired with it to execute Jesus as the harlot).

Here’s an interesting promise, from God, about the nations and the climate… 

‘Come out of her, my people,’
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
    pay her back double for what she has done.
    Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
    as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
    I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
    death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. — Revelation 18:4-8

Sound familiar? Now, people have all sorts of positions on when this will happen (or has happened) — the ‘apocalyptic times’ — but the point of Romans and Revelation is that the apocalyptic times are now. This is life now because it is life opposed to God. John in Revelation describes the cargoes of all the merchants who belong to Rome/Babylon — they get rich from the things they dig up and produce from the world; things specifically mentioned in Eden in Genesis, but also recalibrated to give glory to God in the vision of the new Eden and new temple in Revelation 21. Revelation is a condemnation of the empires that set themselves up grasping and destroying the world and living for self and self-gratification and the moment, rather than living for God with eternal fruitfulness and the kingdom of Jesus in view. The message of Revelation is that kingdoms — lives — built on pillaging and destruction and greed and the rejection of God — the kind of lives it describes as belonging to Babylon — the nation that took God’s people into exile — will not last. Lives that seek to control the frustrated creation by building human comfort through making ourselves little gods, and through the robbery and misery of others will be destroyed… and that Jesus will make all things new. Jesus will, ultimately, fix the climate. And when this is our story, the lives we live now — and our interaction with and understanding of the natural world — will look different to Babylon; and we’ll expect Babylon and its sin to have an impact on the world.

The vision that is to animate Christians against the beastly Babylonian backdrop the first Christians found themselves operating in in Rome, and that we find ourselves operating in today (which includes economic and political powers that destroy the planet); is the vision of a new Eden; a new Eden requires a world that is broken by sin and curse — by human actions and God’s punishment for our sin — a world longing to be renewed.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

Those of us who are Christians now live in these ‘apocalyptic’ times differently. We live as those restored from exile from God — the exile that began for humanity in the loss of Eden, and for Israel in Babylon. We live as people with God’s Spirit in us; people living in the dawn of an ‘apocalyptic’ end times age. People knowing where things are going; but our neighbours don’t. And the world is still frustrated and will still be messed up by ‘Babylonian sin’ — by those exiled from God who aren’t bearing his image, but the image of the destructive idols we pursue instead. Those who don’t fruitfully multiply by cultivating the earth, but bring death and destruction by pillaging it. We live as a kingdom called to be different, with our vision of the future shaping how we live now, and the kind of solution or apocalypse we proclaim as we ‘garden’ and serve the resurrected gardener. Our apocalyptic vision is the new eden project.

When scientists say ‘we’re heading towards climate catastrophe’ and the reasons we get look a lot like us taking creation and trying to be God with it from sinful, selfish, hearts — then we Christians are pretty well positioned to say “amen” and offer a solution that isn’t just human-driven salvation, but a return from being exiled from the creator to being the image bearing gardeners we were created to be, who in partnership with God, spread the conditions of life through the planet again; that’s one way Christians might bear witness not just to the creation but to the new creation we see depicted in Revelation; where Jesus returns to make ‘all things new’ — until that happens, in a Romans 8 sense, we have the job of being ‘children of God’ who are mini pictures of the returning Jesus, being transformed into his image by the Spirit because we have faith that he is our Lord and king and the pattern for our humanity. Maybe we need to re-read or re-watch the Lord of the Rings and commit ourselves to a certain sort of heroism; maybe fantasy might help us see nature as part of a cosmic battle between God’s design and the patterns of the evil one. We can bring little pockets of life-giving liberation and resistance in those parts of creation we occupy and cultivate. We can commit ourselves to stewarding creation for our neighbours, and their children, as an act of worship. A friend of mine from church has launched a project aiming to live a carbon positive life; he’s blogging his way through it. Another friend is blogging through her own journey in stopping what I’d call ‘Babylonian’ practices and starting ‘Eden’ ones. We can do our bit to resist the systemic and individual patterns of life that bring destruction. We can do this while preaching the Gospel, proclaiming that the resurrected Jesus brings new life, and launched the new Eden project, that is the ultimate solution to human sinfulness and its impact on the world, and the end of God’s curse.

We need to embrace a different sort of apocalyptic way of life, one that sees the world and its patterns as they are, a source of death and curse, and Jesus and his patterns as they are, a source of life and blessing.

Returning to the table: on being the church, and disagreement, in an inhospitable age

There’s a beautiful metaphor of unity in the Gospels.

The table.

This is a particular thread in Luke’s Gospel where we witness Jesus going as a guest into the house of sinners, feeding people abundantly, and eating with his disciples and offering bread and wine as a picture of our participation in his death and resurrection and being made children of God who can eat at his heavenly table. The table, and who has access to it, has been a powerful picture of belonging in church history — different church traditions have different approaches to the table, some open it to all, as an invitation to be part of God’s family — an altar call of sorts, others ‘fence’ it, offering it to those members of the community the leaders of the community know to be Christians — taking seriously Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about ‘discerning the body’ in the meal (and understanding that both being about discerning the body of Jesus in the bread, and the body of Jesus being the community one shares the meal with — believing a person must be able to do both to truly be celebrating unity with Christ and his people).

There’s a backstory to this idea of sharing at the table that goes right back to the Garden at the start of the story of the Bible; the Garden where God as host declared all the fruit of the trees he’d put in the garden ‘good for food’ — except for one tree — and Adam and Eve decided that despite God’s prohibition, despite God being the good and generous host of an abundant table, they would declare what he called evil “good for food,” and they took it, and they ate it, and they were expelled from the table. God’s abundant provision of hospitality and a feast was celebrated through Israel’s history in various ways, including at the temple and through feasts and festivals, and Psalm 23 is a poetic picture of God’s abundant, overflowing, hospitality that must surely have had Israel salivating when they too found themselves cut off from God’s table during exile. Jesus restoring people to God’s table is a big deal; a deal the tables we operate in our churches points to — a return from being banished from the garden and exiled from God.

The table is a powerful picture of God’s hospitality to his family. But it’s also a powerful picture of relationships where difference is acknowledged. The tables Jesus eats at in Luke — those of the pharisees and tax collectors — are not the table Jesus operates as host. His presence there does not make the people he eats with part of God’s family, but it makes them people he loves and wants to eat with in order to love his neighbours and his enemies and invite them to the greater feast. This culminates, of course, with Zacchaeus, the lost tax collector who comes home to God as he invites Jesus to eat at his table. This difference is a really significant feature; we Christians sit at tables with different people at different times and express different things in that sitting; the table I eat with my church family and the table I share with my family in our home, and the tables I host with my friends, and the tables I am hosted at in public place, or the tables in the homes of other people all mean different things, and I occupy a different seat and a different role each time. To invite someone into my home, or to share in the Lord’s Supper (or communion) in church, is to invite people into the life of my family or the family of God, and the latter is in a different way to the way we might invite people to share dinner with us at church.

I wrote a few things during the debate about same sex marriage in Australia, and around the position the church was occupying as scandals around church abuse and domestic violence broke in the media to make the point that Christians now don’t occupy the place of honour at the public table we might have once assumed. We need to relearn the art of receiving hospitality in the Australian community, and indeed, it’s possible we’re now so on the nose, and that our social capital is so low, that we might need to learn what it looks like to be excluded from that table all together; it’s not a table that operates with the same grace that our Lord’s table operates with, we actually might need to earn our place at the ‘public table’ in the public square.

The table also has some interesting dynamics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church beyond how Christians treat the table when it comes to sharing dinner and sharing the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist, depending on your theological tradition) (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The sorts of tables Christians eat at as guests matter; how joining a table is perceived and what it represents to others, and for themselves, matters.

Christians are not to eat in idol temples or share at tables of idol temples in Corinth because they belong to God and his kingdom; to eat at an idol’s table is to unite yourself, to commune, with that idol — or to be seen to by others, whether the idol is nothing (which is why Paul is happy to eat meat bought in the markets that had been sacrificed to idols), or there is something more substantial going on (which is why Paul says not to ‘share in the cup of demons’ in the idol temple). Christians shouldn’t participate in the hospitality of other gods, and eat at their tables — both because of whatever Spiritual reality is at play, and the perception that would create about the exclusivity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-21) — but they should enjoy the hospitality of those who follow other gods, their neighbours. We’re also to put the unity experienced at God’s table above all other forms of unity — his table shapes our approach to all other tables. We’re not to eat at tables we might feel free to if it destroys the conscience of the members of the body of Christ who share God’s table with us (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). So Paul expects Corinthian Christians to eat in the homes of their neighbours as guests and do so freely until their host tries to make the table a table belonging to an idol, so that to eat is to participate in idolatry, or express a ‘belonging’ to that god’s table (1 Corinthians 10:27-28). We’re not, with our table manners or our eating to call evil “good” with our actions, but nor should we call what God has declared good “evil.” This is the line Jesus trod so artfully as he ate with sinners, despite the Pharisees believing that ‘bad company’ corrupted. Israel had some pretty intense table fellowship laws that ruled out ever eating with gentiles and especially ever eating ‘unclean’ or idol food.

David Fitch has this really great picture of three types of table we Christians participate in as individuals, that maps nicely onto a corporate metaphor of the table — how we run tables, and participate at them in a more ‘institutional’ way. In his book Faithful Presence: Seven habits that will shape your church for mission, He talks about this in terms of ‘circles’

The first table

He talks about our churches operating the table where the Lord’s Supper is served as a practice that forms us as Christians, where we invite people to put their trust in Jesus, return from exile from God, and receive his hospitality as children. It’s like Jesus holding the Last Supper with his people, those who belonged to him who share in his body and blood and will share in the heavenly table. There’s a picture in the Gospel of someone who is grumpy at just how far the invitation to this first table extends — the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who grumbles that the father will let anybody who comes home and is recognised as part of the family eat, no matter how far into the world of exile they’ve wandered (partying it up in gentile cities and then wanting to eat pig food is about as far from Eden or the promised land as it gets).

The second table

This formative practice of sharing at what is essentially God’s table, where we extend his hospitality, then shapes how we operate the tables in our homes, or the meals we conduct as hosts. We get caught up in the hospitality of God and generously invite all comers to our tables, not just those who might give us something (like increased status — which was a sort of Roman hospitality practice the Corinthians were falling into), but those who can’t, and not just those who belong to our household or family (another Corinthian practice) but those who don’t. This table though doesn’t mark out the people of God; it marks out the people we extend love to and invite; it’s perhaps more like Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a picture of being the good shepherd who ends exile. It isn’t really just our neighbours either, the great act of Christian love is that we, like Jesus, invite our enemies to the table with us, to practice hospitality at this table is to invite all comers, to not draw lines or boundaries, to not exclude but to welcome, include, and to feed. There’s a picture in Luke’s Gospel of the sort of person who refuses to share this sort of table with others who belong — the Pharisees who mutter and complain that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, or that he lets an immoral woman wash his feet. They don’t want this sort of relationship building with others to happen. This doesn’t mean turning our guests into co-hosts though, that’s a different sort of table.

Everybody worships; everybody has a ‘temple,’ but not every table is a temple; not every meal is an ‘idol feast’ — not every one of our meals is ‘the Lord’s supper’ — we are called to share a table with all sorts of people. Like Jesus did.

The third table

Fitch says our practices at these first two tables also shape how we operate in situations where we are guests — and I’d suggest where we are co-hosts (those times where it is not so clear that hospitality is being extended, but where participation at a table is mutual). When we eat as guests, with our neighbours, like Jesus with both the Pharisees and the tax collectors, our eating does not signify that we belong to their ways of seeing the world, we eat as those who belong to another table, bringing the virtues and values shaped by experiencing that love and hospitality, and being prepared to lovingly challenge the sin of those we eat with, but also to invite them to enjoy a taste of God’s hospitality at the other two tables.

The tables and the institutional church

When it comes to public, institutional, Christianity, church institutions or organisations decide who and how the first table operates — whether it is open to all without prior expression of faith and an indication of belonging to God’s people, or fenced; normally requiring baptism or membership in a particular community.

Church institutions, through their leadership and history (depending on the structure of the church), “discern the body” and decide what marks out someone as ‘included’ in the body or not — this can be justified along the lines of the church having the keys to the kingdom, or the table. If the church is to be an institution, as it has become through history, someone or some set of rules, ends up guiding the use of these keys or access to the table.

Different church communities, and different denominations, apply all sorts of different standards on who is seen to be part of the body — the line is drawn through discernment. This seems to be a totally normal function of our creaturely limits and church history. There are significant disagreements within the church — amongst Christians — around significant questions such that some churches would not let me share at their table, while I am given (by ‘ordination’) the ability to decide who gets to participate at this table in our community.

The first table, Biblically, is one that it is right to limit to Christians because of what we participate in as we eat (but I think it is legitimate to invite people to express their trust in Jesus and participation in the Gospel by sharing in the Lord’s supper as a first step, and to wrap baptism up in this sacramental package). This means that churches have to decide who they believe is a part of the body, and who isn’t. Again, different churches have different ways of drawing this line — different understandings of the Gospel and the way it works to unite people to Jesus, and different understandings of the sort of maturity required before one participates in the sacraments (so lots of Christians don’t baptise infants, and don’t invite them to participate at the table for various theological reasons). Those I am prepared to share at this first table with are those I consider to be Christians eating at the Lord’s table, not idolaters sharing in idol worship. This, too, requires discernment. My Presbyterian tradition (and the broader Protestant tradition) considered the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Eucharist to be in the latter category; if I were to visit an Anglican, Pentecostal, or Baptist church while communion were being taken, and I was invited, I would participate, just as I invite people from traditions outside of Presbyterianism to participate, based on an articulation of the Gospel, if they come to our table.

The church also participates in ‘second tables’ — and where it gets tricky is that we participate at second tables with each other, through ecumenical partnerships in politics, mission, or just seeking to acknowledge unity in the Gospel that might be expressed in something other than the table we run in our churches. To host, or participate at, a ‘second table’ doesn’t say anything substantial about the faith of the other, or whether they belong to God’s table or not. Such a table should be, if it is shaped by the Gospel, broad and inclusive. We don’t do anything to fence the dinners we host at our church every week; we invite all comers — we show that we are ‘hosts’ though by giving thanks to God for the food we receive and share. When I’m eating, and praying with, my friends who pastor Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches in Brisbane’s city I don’t lose my Presbyterian distinctives nor do I insist they become like me; there is differentiation and there is a pluralism at play in such gatherings that is not present when I invite people to table 1 at church. If we were jointly operating a ‘table 1’ type deal in some sort of combined service we could only do that (I think) if we agreed on some of the parameters; some parts of the ecumenical movement, historically, have — I think — failed because they failed to realise that these commonalities couldn’t be assumed and were legitimate distinctives. To that extent I think ecumenical cross-denominational boundaries fellowship should operate at ‘table 2’ acknowledging the capacity for many of us to share relationships at table 1 in different circumstances. We can also share table 2 with people who are not Christians at all — and indeed we should, but our operation of table 2 as hosts which is alway shaped by our table 1 practice should also have table 1 as its telos; we should want people joining with us in union with God. The ultimate expression of Table 1 is not in the church gathering, but in the heavenly feast those gatherings anticipate.

The institutional church can still sometimes participate in ‘third tables’ — examples are when institutional leaders speak ‘institutionally’ into public discussions, like contributions to debates about political issues. Sometimes third party groups — like lobby groups — represent a sort of ‘table 2’ Christianity; whether that’s a good idea or not depends on how deep the unity is, and how much such a contribution inevitably eradicates important distinctions and ends up pretending there’s a table 1 unity on political or social or moral issues where there is not (and where there isn’t even a table 2 type unity). Churches, and Christians, can sometimes even host third tables and invite other churches, and other neighbours, to participate at this table as guests, this happens when the emphasis of the table is not that the Christians are hosting as Christians, but as citizens — with some sort of ‘political’ ends not oriented (directly) to the heavenly table.

Our time’s table problems

We are, as Christians, and society at large, facing some major problems operating around various tables. Our society increasingly buys into a sort of ‘cancel culture’ such that people running table 2 and table 3 type tables are very prone to exclude others from the table where those others don’t buy into a particular way of seeing the world. There is no ecumenical spirit outside the church even with public catch cries of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ — these are extended so long as people obey the table manners our age expects.

The question of hospitality and who it is extended to is used to exclude when a Rugby player shares a religious meme consistent with his sectarian views and is excluded from the ‘table’ of the national Rugby team, or when a TV talk show host goes to a football match with a former U.S President (who some believe should be tried for war crimes), or when a U.S political aide is asked to leave a restaurant as a result of her politics, or when a football player’s cousin is removed from employment from a religious institution he calls a synagogue of Satan, or when a religious school wants to hire or fire staff based on their personal convictions and behaviour, or when a Christian political lobby invites said Rugby player to share their public platform when that player explicitly denies the Trinity, or when an Archbishop of a diocese gives $1 million to a campaign about who our society will recognise as married, or when that same Archbishop asks people within his denomination who wish to change the platform to keep with public pressure to leave and start their own table… the issue is that in each of these issues, especially as they relate to how Christian relate to others (whether other Christians, or those we don’t consider to be Christians as we discern the body), there’s a different sort of ‘table’ at play and there are different principles governing who should and shouldn’t participate.

When Israel Folau instagrammed his meme I had an argument with a progressive Christian friend about whether or not it was legitimate for the National Rugby League (note, a different code) to pre-emptively refuse to register him as a player again on the basis of its ‘inclusivity policy’ while they were happy to re-register a player convicted of serious violence against women (Matt Lodge). I had an argument with a conservative Christian friend about whether or not Israel’s stance on the Trinity was a significant issue. In both cases those friends ‘cancelled’ me — blocking and unfollowing me — or uninviting me from a certain sort of table (a virtual table 2). I believe both would still welcome me at a table 1 situation if they were operating as host, but I suspect both would like me also not to have a seat at the ‘public’ table, sharing my particular views on the matter in the public square (given that the conflict arose in both cases because I did so, not because of the merit of the actual point I was making in each case). I would, for what it’s worth on the Folau case, exclude Israel Folau from my ‘Table 1’ scenario (because he denies the Trinity), invite him to ‘Table 2,’ and am happy for him to have a seat at Table 3 (in the Rugby team and on social media), so long as it isn’t labelled ‘Representative of Christianity.’

What happens in these virtual, personal, relationships happens on a wider, tribal, scale when it comes to denominations, but also theological movements — progressive and conservative — within denominations. Conservative denominations seem to be responding to pressure from outside their bounds by tightening the boundaries, while some people within such denominations — either because they see this change happening and want to preserve something good, or because they are compelled to change for reasons of progress or reform — are looking to push for change. Both forms involve change to who gets a seat at the table. Progressives in positions of power in denominations have often silenced, excluded, or expelled those with conservative convictions; or, in the course of progress, made belonging so untenable or a lack of welcome so clear, that more conservative people and churches have been pushed out. Conservatives do the same. There’s, though painful, a legitimate Table 1 reason to push for such change, and opposing parties, would, I believe, be better off generously parting ways, and sharing table 2 relationships (pluralism) rather than having different approaches to God (polytheism) under the same umbrella (which at times might be tantamount to creating circumstances that are the equivalent of ‘sharing the cup’ in idol temples — and I’ve seen plenty of rhetoric from progressive Christians suggesting Davies and the Sydney Anglicans have departed from the Gospel).

When Glenn Davies gave $1 million to the No Campaign it was, I believe, a bad decision because it was a decision that seemed to me to be seeking to hold a position close to the head of table 3; a position Christians no longer occupy in a post-royal commission world. It was a decision to invest not just financial capital, but social capital, in a cause that sought to exclude people from a type of table 3 (the public institution of marriage), in a way that communicated such people were not welcome at table 2, or table 1. It prevented the problem, in many cases, of having to navigate table 1 fellowship with the LGBTIQ+ community — whether married or single — by functionally communicating a lack of welcome. The Anglican church does historically have a place at Table 3 in a Commonwealth nation that other denominations do not; it is an establishment church. The Queen is its head. I think this was a mistake because it was essentially an act of inhospitality in those tables that are not closed off to the people of God, or invitations for people to join the people of God. Tables 2 and 3 should be, as a matter of participating in a civil way in a pluralist society, as open, inclusive, and hospitable as possible and we should model that. Table 1, on the other hand, should be welcoming in a way that is not as inclusive because it excludes those who are not part of the body of Jesus.

For me the way I think this paradigm plays out, where Table 1 shapes one’s participation in table 2 and 3 (and where one does not participate), I think ‘Table 1’ is a feast for God’s family, with an invitation to come home. Not all are included. Table 2 is a feast for all to ‘taste and see’ that God is loving and hospitable, and all are not just welcomed but included at the table. Table 3, which isn’t our table to host, is our table to serve not to run, and where we have power or influence our job is to look to those being excluded and find ways to include them at that table, by giving them space at our table 2s (this is why I think the line the institutional churches in Australia ran in the postal survey, on the back of a history of Christians excluding LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in terms of legal recognition and protection, was such a problem). Where there is disagreement amongst those operating table 1s it is a matter of discernment; we have a responsible to be part of a table 1 that we believe ‘discerns the body’ appropriately, and leaders have a responsibility to set clear boundaries (by teaching and shepherding), and also by identifying ‘idol temples’ (like, for example, Folau’s church). Where one discerns that a ‘table 1’ is not an expression of the body, one must not share ‘table 1’ type fellowship, but one must still share table 2 and 3 type fellowship (Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors).

The Anglican church is often described as a ‘communion’ — and that presents interesting challenges when it comes to the question of table 1 and the discerning of the body. Lines have to be drawn. I’m much more sympathetic to Archbishop Davies in the furore around his speech to synod which I believe was a (clumsy) attempt to ‘fence’ table 1 in a particular way, consistent with his appointed duties, and appropriately in a table 1 setting. Davies, as Archbishop, occupies a challenging position in that he has a sort of authority invested in him when he speaks on Table 1 matters for his diocese, that might communicate things about who he (and they) are prepared to sit down with in table 2 scenarios (as hosts or guests), and what tables they might avoid in table 1 scenarios as ‘idol temples.’ He also, for good or for ill, is often an authoritative, representative, Christian voice in table 3 settings — like the $1 million donation scenario — and that inevitably frames how his public proclamations about Table 1 are heard.

The challenge for the rest of us in parsing the reaction to Davies’ Synod speech on social media is that there are lots of different denominations and even local communities who operate their ‘table 1’ in very different ways to the Anglican communion, and it’s easy to apply our own standards to him and his speech in ways that might exclude him from any table. I recognise too, that his speech is a pitch to run the Anglican table — at least in Australia — in a particular way (one that is narrower than currently seems to be its mode). It’s not just that we hear him excluding vulnerable others from tables 1-3 as host — and he has been heard that way — others both inside and outside the Anglican communion have since turned around and sought to exclude him from tables 2 and 3. Davies has a particular responsibility for ‘his table,’ and it is within that responsibility, and the discerning of the body, that he made the speech he made. The reaction from the more progressive wing of Christianity has been stunning to me; mirroring the reaction to Ellen for daring share a table with Bush (and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bush, in exercising the office of President, did some things that office required of him that were evil, I’m just not sure you can occupy any sort of office in a modern military state and not commit evil), perhaps because part of the progressive view of the world is seeing reality in systemic rather than individual terms, hospitality is something offered categorically rather than personally, there’s also an echo in the progressive celebration of a restaurant in the U.S refusing to serve Trump staffer Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There were think pieces pondering whether Jesus would eat with Sanders (I believe he would, at the very least in a table 2 and 3 way), and whether it’s ever right to share hospitality with an ideological enemy (it is if you’re a Christian so that person is also your neighbour). The New Yorker ran a piece asking ‘Who deserves a place at the table’ (the nice thing about Christianity is it starts with the assumption that nobody does). It noted:

“Jesus—at least as he is reported, or invented, by the author of the Gospel of Mark—was the Kropotkin of commensality, blowing up the long history of Jewish food rules by feasting with publicans and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. It was nearly the whole point of his ministry.”

It’s a piece that ultimately explores the paradox of tolerance, and lands on the solution proposed by the political theorist who proposed it, that a tolerant society cannot tolerate — or make space at the table for — the intolerant. I’m not sure the Gospel conforms to that paradox. Jesus did, indeed, blow up the food rules and eat with everybody — both pharisees, and tax collectors and sinners. But he also established a table that had boundary markers; the people who put their faith and trust in him and so received a spot at the father’s heavenly table, and those who don’t. He broke Jewish table fellowship rules in order to create a table that included gentiles; but it excluded plenty of Jews (the Pharisees, for example), and gentile idolaters. It’d be a mistake to see Jesus’ dining practices solely in terms of eating with sinners and tax collectors; he ate with people previously excluded to show they might be included in his kingdom by grace. Table 1 sets the agenda for Table 2, and Table 2 practices are a gateway to Table 1, but they are not the same table.

I’m also not suggesting Conservatives are better at hospitality; they tend to run ‘Table 2’ institutions as though they are ‘Table 1’ ones and to occupy positions of influence in Table 3 scenarios that don’t match up with reality (the ACL has a particular approach to this that could be its own post). I’m also not suggesting that Table 2 type hospitality is about denying difference or patching over serious disagreement; civility is not the goal, persuasion is, love is, unity is, and civility is the means. To not sit at the table together, whether for the pursuit of common cause, or to hear one another, is guaranteed to entrench polarised communities of ‘others.’ If, for example, Bush is a war criminal who should repent and be tried, but he belongs to a tribe that views him as a champion, how will his views about himself ever change without hearing voices outside his tribe in a context that recognises his humanity?

For the record, I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ parishioners to leave, unless they are part of the movement to shift the boundaries the Anglican communion has traditionally established for those who can participate at table 1. Those outside the Anglican communion who practice a broader table 1 than Davies does (or than I would) have already made the decision Davies called for; there’s also a movement in Australia that has taken almost exactly the step Davies is now encouraging members of the Anglican church to take; one that absolutely fits an inclusive ethos that merges tables 1 and 2 — the Uniting Church. I’ve read comments from a stack of Baptists and Anglicans this week that basically just boil down to a wish for their denominations to become the Uniting Church, and were they all to do that, leaving those who want a distinction between tables 1 and 2 maintained, you know what they’d get… Presbyterians (just with worse forms of government). I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ members to leave, because I’ll take him at his word — but I can’t help but agree with those hurt by his words that there is a context that frames them particularly negatively and compounds the hurt they cause.

Lots of my progressive Christian friends commenting on the Davies speech on Facebook seem to want ‘table 2’ type fellowship operating in a table 1 scenario; a broader unity and an extension of charity that goes beyond one’s (or an institution’s) discerning of the body; an eradication of a particular sort of discernment in favour of unity. There’s a danger there, at least from Corinthians, that believers eat and drink judgment on themselves, or participate in ‘the cup of idols.’ Table 2 fellowship amongst Christians of different traditions is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing precisely when it is properly differentiated and we can discern areas of disagreement, and listen well to ideas that challenge us to be humble and broader than we might otherwise be at Table 1. Table 2 gatherings of Christians won’t work if we start insisting, or trying to, that table 1 should be shaped by the hospitality we’d like to see extended in the public space of table 3, or in our private gatherings around table 2s. Table 2s will collapse under that pressure; and the formative direction of the table, for Christians, is only really meant to work one way (though we might be formed to see the beauty and welcome of Table 1 by experiencing it at other tables). How we understand the Gospel, and the Jesus it reveals, should shape how we host and participate in tables beyond his; the tables we eat at in the world aren’t meant to cause us to revise our understanding of Jesus. The idea that ‘Table 1’ type fellowship should happen at Table 2 is cut from the same cloth as the ecumenical movement; we might, for eternity, eat and drink from the same table and we should be open to that possibility and rejoice, but the worst thing we could do is convince someone that is the case and then spend an eternity separated from them because we never challenged someone outside the body to move inside it.

Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.