Origin Story — East of Eden (and the path back)

This is an amended (and extended) version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes. I’m going to be honest, 90% of the reason I started posting these sermons is that I think the title of this post is pretty great.The original introduction to this sermon, which was preached the day after the Federal Election in 2022, I’ve adapted that slightly for this blog version

In Genesis 4 we meet two brothers; two brothers offering two paths in response to humanity losing access to the Garden of Eden. We see a branching of the family tree; a choice between two lines of seed, with two ‘parents’ shaping the tree and the fruit it produces.

Like a good origin story this is where we start to set up the tension that is going to drive the narrative, we’ll see threads that take us to the end of our chunk of Genesis, but that pay off at the conclusion of the story, so we’re going to take up a couple of these threads — first by really looking at where the human family we’ve got our lens zoomed in on find themselves, and then by following them through the story of the Bible all the way up to Jesus. We’re seeing the start of two feuding family lines; the beastly line, children of the Serpent, and the line that might produce an image bearer who’ll lead people back past the guardian cherubim, into the presence of God and to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).

Genesis chapter four deals with a major change of scene that came about in the events of chapter three; this human family find themselves exiled; outside of the Garden — the eastern entrance to the garden has been sealed off by a cherubim wielding a sword (maybe imagine this as a gate).

This move east, away from Eden, is going to be a significant repeated thread that’ll take this family all the way to Babylon in chapter 11; it’s a device to pay attention to, and to have in our imagination that the gateway back to God’s presence, his heaven on earth space, sealed off by cherubim is reached by heading west. Gates on the east of places like this will repeat over and over again through the Bible’s story. We’re going to be on the look out, ultimately, for both God’s presence returning to a place like Eden, and a Son of Adam leading the way back into God’s presence, and the seeds for both these storylines start in this origin story.

The cherubim guarding the way — people being kept out of the Holy of Holies where God dwells on earth — is a big obstacle to be overcome through the unfolding narrative, so is the idea that people now are going to approach God with a gap that requires sacrifice, and that’s where we land in chapter four. Adam and Eve failed to act as one in chapter three, but now they become one, so that Eve, the mother of the living (Genesis 3:20), brings forth a son, Cain (Genesis 4:1). They’re being fruitful and multiplying — and the question framed by the narrative so far is, has she brought forth an image bearer, who will rule the wold representing God, and maybe lead people back towards the Garden, or a beast? They’re fruitful and multiply again, and along comes Abel (Genesis 4:2). Two Sons of Adam; sons of man; that’s what Adam’s name means.

Abel shows a mastery over the animals, keeping flocks, while Cain does what humans are made to do in the garden; the task required for the uninhabited and unpopulated land to become fruitful; he works the ground (Genesis 4:2). He’s an earth man working the earth. So far so good.

They both bring the fruits of their labours to God as a sacrifice. Abel brings the firstfruits — the good, fatty, portions of his first born animal, while Cain just brings “some” fruit of the ground; the narrative doesn’t suggest its anything particularly special.

We’re not told where Cain and Abel are taking their sacrifice; but at this point it seems this human family is dwelling outside of the garden, but still in Eden, by the gates with the cherubim. There’s some fun stuff we’ll get to below around the Tabernacle that means I reckon readers of the Torah, tracing the development of some imagery, would imagine Cain and Abel taking their sacrifices up to the dwelling place of God, the Garden, to the barrier, to the cherubim guarding the way to God’s presence, knowing they can’t get in, but maybe seeking to restore themselves to being God’s representative people through sacrifice.

But it doesn’t go so well.

If you read the rest of Genesis you’ll see a type-scene beginning here; a conflict playing out between brothers. Humans were made to represent God together, and it’s not just husband and wife turned against each other from the curse in Genesis 3, but siblings, as firstborn and secondborn compete to be the child of promise. This type-scene repetition includes Jacob and hairy-beastly man Esau; and maybe later stories from the same big story can shape the way we read the dynamic here as these two brothers compete to represent God as the serpent-crushing line by offering a sacrifice. Or maybe only one brother is competing: Cain. Maybe that explains why there’s a little bit of implied tension between them as God receives Abel’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5). We’re not told why God favours one gift and not the other here; the New Testament book of Hebrews gives us an interpretation that says Abel was acting by faith, and so produced a better offering (Hebrews 11:4).

When his offering is rejected, Cain, the ground-worker gets a test; will he be a son of dying-beastly Adam? A son of the serpent? Or Eden-gardening Adam? Will he repeat his parent’s failure in response to his disappointment. Will he know Good from evil? God says “Sin — is crouching at the door” — like a beast — wanting to devour him — like the serpent wanted to devour his parents (Genesis 4:7).

And before we find out where Abel, the younger son, might be able to lead his family after his sacrifices are accepted, Cain makes a sacrifice of Abel in a field (Genesis 4:8). Abel makes an animal sacrifice then Cain acts like an animal and sacrifices his brother. Where he’s meant to sow life, he sows death. Abel’s blood, his flesh, is given back to the ground; dust to dust. 

This sacrifice shows sin has devoured him; he’s been swallowed up and become a bloody swallower of life; beastly; opposed to God’s plans for fruitfulness and multiplication. Now the land isn’t just desolate and empty, or a source of fruitful human life, it’s soaked in blood. Cain has become part of the seed of the serpent, its ‘striking’ offspring attacking the seed of his mother, Eve.

And just like in the garden, where God came to see his folks after their sin and asked “where are you?” now he asks “where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Cain knows, but he pretends he doesn’t, he gets shifty — his dad owned up when God came looking, but Cain doesn’t. “Am I my brothers keeper?”

Well. Yes. He’s meant to be. Humans are meant to be one in their task of representing God; cultivating and guarding his presence in the world; defeating the crouching beast, and yet, he has become his brother’s killer; he is his brother’s keeper at this point; he knows exactly where he has hidden Abel, but he can’t hide what he’s done. God says his brother’s blood is crying out from the ground — telltale blood — calling out for justice (Genesis 4:10).

As a result, instead of Abel leading the family back towards the garden through his acceptable sacrifice, Cain’s unacceptable sacrifice means he’s sent further east; out of God’s presence, away from Eden, and the ground he once worked turns against him (Genesis 4:11-12, 16). Cain becomes a picture of the human condition in our exile from God. This serpent-like line is marked by violence, grasping, and vengeance. The ground has received Abel, but it will not receive Cain.

The garden was made as a place to rest with God and enjoy his hospitality; there’ll be no rest for Cain (Genesis 4:12, 14). People were blessed to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), Cain is cursed (Genesis 4:11). He becomes a “restless wanderer” at war with the world — the ground is not going to yield fruit for him; he’s pushed out of God’s hospitality into an inhospitable world — further east (Genesis 4:16).

There’s more than a hint in this chapter that there might actually be other human families out there — outside of Eden, away from the Garden-temple, God’s dwelling place on the earth. Cain is scared people out there will kill him… He’s being driven from God’s presence, and he’ll be devoured. He’s got this picture of other people acting like animals. Violent killers who take vengeance. A world ‘out there’ that is red in tooth and claw.

At the moment with our camera zoomed in on Adam and Eve and their two boys there aren’t other people in the picture; we’ve been looking at this is the family tasked in the story with bearing God’s image in the Garden Temple and perhaps cultivating that life to spread it out into the world where the people Cain is scared of live. It’s a conundrum the narrative gives us, but doesn’t resolve — it just assumes killer people are going to be out there, outside the borders of God’s lands.

There are other ways to try to resolve that narrative conundrum, like they could be a bunch of siblings who’re about to go out into the world along with Cain, who might kill him, but they seem to be out there already, and I think it’s worth just sitting with the story the way it works, keeping the lens firmly on this family line we’re zoomed in on.

But here’s the point of the narrative — it’s not the people who are the real obstacle or threat to life, it’s being hidden from God’s presence (Genesis 4:14). Cain is sent out, exiled, with a mark from God protecting him. God promises that anybody who kills him will suffer vengeance (Genesis 4:15). We get this cycle of bloody violence, rather than people guarding and keeping with one another, ruling together, they’re murderous and celebrating their viciousness (Genesis 4:19-24). Cain goes out from God’s presence into this world. He’s exiled. He lives in the land of Nod, which is the Hebrew word for homelessness. He becomes homeless East of Eden (Genesis 4:16).

Cain finds a wife, out there away from his family, and he founds a city — a home away from home — a city in the land of homelessness away from God’s presence. If Eden, as a garden, was a walled enclosure marking out God’s presence and hospitality this city is an echo of Eden but without God’s presence (Genesis 4:17). In the midst of the story of a family tree we start getting some culture; some cultivation of creation; some fruitfulness and creativity; a weird origin story for instruments and farming tools and methods of farming livestock (Genesis 4:20-22). They’re taking the raw matter of creation and making stuff; they’re ruling. This city might look nice; the music might be good and the tools might help humans overcome the cursed ground, but there are makers of death in this family line. Cain might be avenged seven-fold; his descendant Lamech is a violent avenger who’ll kill a man just for wounding him (Genesis 4:23-24).

This is a beastly city; a city of violence and bloodshed and vengeance, in a land of ‘no-home’ — it’s the furthest thing you can get from the Garden in Eden; the home of life and generativity and God’s fruitful presence.

But the narrator takes us back to the land of Eden, outside the garden. Eve, the mother of the living, celebrates — God overcomes Cain’s beastly attempt to end the line of seed from Eve — he grants her a son, Seth, who has a son. We’re also told that at this point, people begin to call on the name of the Lord — while those out in Nod are shedding blood, there’s a little note of hope in this line (Genesis 4:25-26).

And we get a re-cap around the line of seed that the narrative is going to follow. Cain’s line is a dead-end that creates death, but this recap goes back to the beginning. God created mankind in the likeness of God, blessing them, male and female, and calling the earthling, Adam, then Adam’s son Seth is made in Adam’s own image and likeness — a chip off the old block. We’ve seen how an ‘image’ in the ancient world was an idol statue, or the king as an embodiment of the gods, part of being the image of or the likeness of someone, or of God, is also caught up in this idea of being a son or daughter (this idea gets picked up in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, which calls Adam the “son of God.”) (Genesis 5:1-4).

A line of image bearing humans continues. God works despite human beastliness towards creating a serpent-crusher who will lead humanity back from the east, from restless wandering and a sense of homelessness into rest in a garden-like home.

These threads get picked up through the narrative of the Bible. People keep heading further east. People keep acting more like Cain — and the Serpent — than Adam’s purpose in the garden. We’re landing this series in Genesis 11, with another move east, to the Plain of Shinar, where humans build a tower called Babel (that’s Babylon), which, as it turns out, is also due East of Jerusalem. When the southern kingdom of Judah is exiled, like Cain, they’re sent eastwards again. The Genesis origin story is a story that helps exiled Israel understand their own predicament; they, too, have behaved like Adam and Eve, and Cain, like children of the Serpent.

Through this origin story God’s also going to call his people out of Babylon; starting with Abram, who comes from Ur of the Chaldeans — that’s Babylon — to begin a people of promise; a nation of priests; calling people back into his presence. In that nation of priests we get little Edens; little pictures of the paradise lost, not just the fruitful land around the garden, but the garden itself. We meet a bunch of people who look like they might lead people back to life with God; Abraham, Moses, The priests, David, Solomon and all their stories have echoes of this story.

Moses enters God’s presence, on the mountain and then builds a tabernacle, where there’s an atonement where blood from sacrifices would be taken up to two cherubim, who were sitting, guarding, the Ark as they guarded the garden. The Ark is the symbol of God’s heavenly throne, where he says he’d meet with his people “between the Cherubim” (Exodus 25:22). The ark was placed behind a curtain embroided with Cherubim (Exodus 26:1, 31) who are guarding the way, separating the Holy place, like Eden, where God’s people could dwell from the most Holy Place, God’s dwelling place — like the Garden. The curtain was a barrier like the gateway separating the garden from the rest of Eden.

The entry to the Tabernacle is on the eastern side of a courtyard (Exodus 27:13-19). To come towards God was to move from the east, back towards the curtain and the Cherubim; towards his dwelling place. Moses and his priestly family end up guarding the tabernacle; living to the east of this door; a bit like the Cherubim guards Eden; living at the doorway to God’s presence and caring for the Sanctuary.  Anyone else who approaches the way to life; to God’s presence, was to be put to death (Numbers 3:38, note the word for “caring for” or “keeping” here in Numbers is the same word used in God’s instructions to Adam in Eden).  Once a year, a priest — starting with Moses’s brother Aaron — would sacrifice animals (like Abel) to make atonement for sin — to bring God and his people together again. He couldn’t come past the Cherubim whenever he wanted; or he’d die — but this time it’s the presence of God in the cloud, above the ark and between the Cherubim, that’s the risk (Leviticus 16).

One day a year that priest would go behind the curtain; entering the Eden-like place, or specifically, the Garden-like space, where God is present, in order to sprinkle the blood of animals on the atonement cover, under the Cherubim. There are even two goats where ones blood is spilled and the other is exiled into the wilderness. There are echoes of the Cain and Abel story here, and throughout the story of the Old Testament. Sacrifices to God are offered where God dwells as an expression of a desire to be one with God again; to dwell with him in the Garden. For Cain and Abel these sacrifices are made in Eden, outside the Garden excluded from entrance, for Israel, it’s in the Tabernacle, then the Temple. In all these places the barrier remains.

And people in Israel keep acting so much like Cain that they get tossed to the east.

At one point in the story, and this’ll be significant below, Israel acts almost exactly like Cain, killing the people who are meant to lead them back to God in the temple. There’s this guy named Zechariah — who’s different to the Zechariah the book of the Bible is named after… they kill him in the Temple courts (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Chronicles tells the sorry story of Israel becoming like Babylon, and so being sent east to Babylon; when that happens Babylon takes the whole Temple set up with them (2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

When Ezekiel the prophet talks about this moment he talks about God departing from Israel’s Temple with the cherubim; the presence leaves, heading to the east, first of the temple, then the city (Ezekiel 10:18-19), stopping on the mountain to the east of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23), which is called the Mount of Olives. According to Ezekiel, Israel won’t come back to God, from the EAST, from exile in Babylon and back into God’s presence until God’s presence has first returned to Jerusalem. Ezekiel is brought, in a vision, to a gate facing east where he sees God’s glory returning to his Temple through an eastern gate (Ezekiel 43:1-4). Once that happens humans — first Israel, then the world, can be restored to garden-like life with God in a new Temple as the world becomes a picture of Eden restored; centred around a mountain temple facing East, where living water flows out to give life to the nations (Ezekiel 47, note Ezekiel 28 has earlier pictured Eden as a garden on a holy mountain in verses 13-14).

By the end of the Old Testament, via the prophets, we’re waiting for God’s presence to return to a Temple in Jerusalem; an Eden space, in order to dwell with people again and we’re waiting for someone like Abel, or a priest, to come and make a sacrifice God will accept; one who will get us past the Cherubim and re-open access to life in his presence; a human from the line of Serpent-Crushing seed who is not, like Cain, a beastly child of the snake. We’re waiting for someone who might bring us back into life with God; the paradise we lost.

And the New Testament picks up these threads ties them together in the person of Jesus. Luke tells us he’s from this line of seed; he’s the image bearing son of Adam, and Seth (Luke 3:23-38, especially 38). At the climax of the Gospel story Jesus heads towards Jerusalem. John’s called him God’s glory tabernacling in flesh and a walking Temple (John 1:14, 2:19-20). As he approaches Jerusalem, he approaches from the East; from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:1). He comes in to the city via the eastern gates and then enters the Temple court — moving from east to west towards the Holy of Holies, and he sets about cleaning up the sacrificial system, because people’s sacrifices — their sin offerings — have been corrupted by those running the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He enters the Temple to proclaim judgment on the people running it, including the woes he pronounces on the Pharisees who ‘sit in Moses’ seat, who aren’t ‘keeping the Temple’ like Moses’ family, or leading people to God, they’re shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven on them (Matthew 23:13). He calls them a brood of Vipers — serpent children — who imitate Cain, throwing back to both the murder of Abel and of Zechariah the priest between “the altar and the sanctuary,” which is maybe how we should picture the location of both Zechariah’s death in the Temple, and Abel’s death at the gateway to Eden (Matthew 23:33- 23:35).

The blood of these innocent people is on the hands of Jerusalem’s leaders because they have become like Cain; like the Serpent; a violent and oppressive people whose city has become like Babylon.

Then he talks about himself as the Son of Man; the true son of Adam; who’s going to come like “lightning from the East” (Matthew 24:27) to give a place in God’s kingdom to those who are blessed by God; a kingdom prepared from the creation of the world (Matthew 24:30).  He’s going to enter God’s presence and sit at his right hand (Matthew 26:64), but before he gets there there’ll be more blood on the hands of the humans who take up Cain’s line; the line of the Serpent. Jesus will become like Abel, and like Zechariah; as he’s put on trial the priests are joined by the people of the city baying for blood, and they crucify him.

But Jesus’ arrival in the city, and even his death, is a demonstration of God’s glorious presence returning to Jerusalem to judge the city and its Temple, making access to life with God possible through the sacrifice of a firstborn. So the Temple curtain tears (Matthew 27:50-51); the curtain embroided with Cherubim, separating humans from the Holy place and containing God’s nominal dwelling place on earth (he doesn’t return to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the rebuilt Temple in the Old Testament). This Temple in Jerusalem has been replaced with one that will make people holy, bringing actual atonement so we can come in to God’s presence again.

This is how the book of Hebrews picks up what happens in the death of Jesus picking up the threads that run from exile from the Garden, to Cain and Abel, through the Tabernacle and the curtain and the altar — it says we’ve been made holy through his sacrifice; restored to being the kind of people who can live in his presence (Hebrews 10:10-11) by this one human who can lead us back into the Garden. Jesus replaces the sacrifices that couldn’t take away our sins in the temple and he has entered heaven to sit with God, having made one sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:12). His entering this Most Holy Place; the place behind the curtain makes him — his body through his sacrifice — a new and living way; a way past the cherubim and into life with God. Through his sacrifice we can draw near to God because atonement has been made and we have been washed and purified (Hebrews 10:21-24). His blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” because while the tell-tale blood of Abel cried out for justice his sacrifices, even his death, did not bring humanity back into the Garden; Jesus, on the other hand, brings us into the city of the Living God, his heaven-on-earth dwelling place (Hebrews 12:22-23); the new Jerusalem the prophet Ezekiel saw as the end of Exile, and that John pictures for us in Revelation (Revelation 21-22). Jesus becomes the way maker; the mediator of a new covenant who brings us back to God; the media or way we use to come back to God, Jesus’ blood as the first born son sacrificed on our behalf is what Abel’s faithfulness anticipated. All those threads from the start of the Bible’s story  are tied together in our origin story, the Gospel. This is the story that shapes our lives; the story of how we find ourselves back in the promised land; the garden.

We might pin our hope on all sorts of leaders to carry us back to the promised land; modern politicians promise lots and deliver little. This can be disappointing, but our politics is not exhausted in our vote; we practice politics in where we give our time, our money, our energy, to building the city — the ‘polis’ — we want to live in; whether it’s Babylon or the New Jerusalem — and we do this knowing that it’s actually Jesus who builds the city, we’re just ambassadors popping up little embassies in our households and the communities we start, or occupy. Our businesses. The kids we educate.

We have to choose our family — our story — not red or blue, but Jesus or the Serpent.

Our politicians won’t lead us back to a promised land; they’ll make plenty of promises, but the world offers cities built by Cain, by children of the Serpent; Babylons, and old Jerusalems when we humans turn to violence to solve our problems, or live seeking our own way to heaven-on-earth.

But if we plant ourselves in the story of Jesus; in his family tree, as children of God, people living as God’s Images in the world, knowing that we are now located in Eden; the new Jerusalem; raised and seated in the heavenlies with Jesus; this story will produce fruit in our lives.

It’ll change the way we think about politics and participate in the polis; our city. Our desire to not be violent people of vengeance, but people of peace, will shape the way we vote; certainly, but it’ll also shape the causes we support with our time and money.

We’ll see ‘politics’ as going way beyond voting for a blue team or red team — Scomo, or Albo — who just offer more of the same; scratch a western liberal democracy and you’ll find violence and greed and individualism lurking below the surface; the coils of the Serpent — even if there are Christians in the corridors of power; and we should be participating in our city, our politics — this story will shape the alternative city we build within our city; our communities, our households we participate in and the way we use our tables. We aren’t nomads living in exile in the land of nod; or exiled in Babylon; we’re citizens of heaven, or the New Eden, called to live as those who are home, not those who’re wandering.

Origin Story: Treason against the tree son

This is an amended (and extended) version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 37 minutes. I’m going to be honest, 90% of the reason I started posting these sermons is that I think the title of this post is pretty great.

What’s your utopia?

Your picture-perfect society — not your heaven on earth place, or ‘thin place’ from the last piece, but your idea of a heaven-on-earth people or community?

500 years ago the English philosopher Thomas More imagined an ideal society in Utopia. In his vision kings were generous not corrupt; there was no private property, just abundance, and everyone ate meals together all the time…

Some of you are thinking that sounds like hell.

It wasn’t ‘eu-topia’ — “the good place” — but ‘u-topia’ — “no place” — more knew this was impossible.

Anna Neima wrote this fun book, The Utopians, deep diving into six post-World War One, post-Spanish flu communities that tried to build ‘the good place’ as a response to the combined trauma that emerged out of a pandemic and a war.

She describes utopias as:

“A kind of social dreaming. To invent a ‘perfect’ world – in a novel, a manifesto or a living community – is to lay bare what is wrong with the real one.”

There’s a prophetic function to these attempts to re-order relationships. The catch, she concludes — none of them worked, they promised too much change from the status quo, but couldn’t deliver. She wrote:

“These experiments in living all ended up facing a similar set of problems… There were tensions between the ideals of cooperation, egalitarianism and democracy, and the practice of elitism and hierarchy.”

This can end up being true not just of our view of the perfect society – whether that’s family, or church, or a sharehouse. Our utopian visions often end up no places not good places because they all involve people and end up as a product of the hearts of the people living in them.

We zero in on the first good place today, and the first ‘ideal human society’ where two humans face a choice; a life-or-death choice between eutopia and dystopia; between two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There’re plenty of other trees to eat form too, but these two trees represent a choice between loving and listening to God — trusting him as good source of goodness and fruitful life, or rejecting god and pursuing wisdom and life in some other way. To eat from the Tree of Life is life, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is death.

I’m going to go out on a limb here — to suggest humans aren’t pictured as immortal creatures, but dust animated by god’s breath depending on the Tree of Life to live forever. A little later in Genesis, God will say his breath won’t contend with human flesh forever (Genesis 6:3). So when humans are cut off from the Tree that means being cut off from forever life, and facing death as de-creation; becoming dust again.

At the end of Genesis 2, the man, or “earthling,”  and woman made from his side are together, united, and things look good. They are destined for oneness; created to represent God, fruitfully multiplying and ruling the world together; based in the garden in Eden, to work it and guard it together; not alone. We’re also told they’re naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:35). This lack of clothing is an interesting point for the author to make; it’s almost unimaginable for us to feel this safe while naked. Imagine feeling safe to turn up to church naked without judgment or fear; was that part of your utopian vision? The reasons we don’t do this are pretty obvious, right? And when we probe these reasons it doesn’t take long to find sin and brokenness in the mix — ours and other’s. The point here is that things are good and safe and glorious. And oneness is a real possibility; oneness in purpose — in rule – in generative life that brings fruit. The oneness doesn’t last long though.

We meet this chaos figure, this serpent (Genesis 3:1). Imagine it with legs, too. Like a dragon. Like this sort of ‘divine’ beings you might find pictured with kings in Babylon or on their architecture.

Image Source: Wikipedia article The Mušḫuššu, Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The serpent’s crafty. It’s a wild animal — a “beast of the field” in Hebrew; the sort of creature humans were meant to rule over (Genesis 1:28), it’s also leading a rebellion on earth that we’ll see echoed in heaven. It’s a threat to the good and fruitful order of the world.

I suspect guarding the garden (Genesis 2:15) probably meant keeping sinister critters out; especially critters the humans are meant to be ruling over. Maybe these humans should’ve crushed the intruder’s head straight up, especially as the serpent speaks with a forked tongue, “did God really say “you mustn’t eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 3:1). God says nothing of the sort. Right up front the serpent is reframing God as a miser — as someone who restricts rather than graciously giving — this isn’t the God we’ve met so far in the story who makes and shares fruitful and beautiful life and wants to see it spread and enjoyed. God said they could eat freely of every tree — including the tree of life. There’s just one choice that leads to death.

And the woman does her bit to set him straight, only, she adds some stuff to god’s instructions. She creates a restriction — a boundary — that wasn’t there before. The seed of doubt has been planted.

We can do that too. Create rules that sound righteous, but actually restrict good things God has given us. The trick is actually listening to God’s word; and contemplating his good creation. God did not say they couldn’t touch the fruit on the tree in the middle of the garden.

And so the serpent twists. You can eat. You should eat. God’s holding back. God doesn’t want you to be like him. You won’t die. Your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like god knowing good from evil.

Now, pause, because this bit is important. In our work through Genesis one and two we’ve seen that God made humans with the exact purpose that they be like him. It’s hard to imagine that being like him means being ignorant about what good and evil is. There’s an issue with how we picture knowing as being about the head alone, about information, not about experience, or right relationship — as we worked through the Wisdom literature together we saw that wisdom is actually about right action — action aligned with truth (note: this is a reference to an earlier sermon series I might repurpose as articles one day too, but that you can find on our podcast here).

What the serpent is actually offering is an opportunity for them to make themselves like gods who get to decide good and evil for themselves; apart from God their creator. To speak rather than listen, to be laws unto themselves, to grasp hold of autonomy and be their own images of god, like the kings of the nations around Israel. It’s interesting that these kings — and their gods, like Marduk, get pictured with little dragon gods – serpents — next to them.

Image Source: Wikicommons, 9th century BC depiction of a Statue of Marduk.

I think it’s a legitimate question to ponder why God made this tree; what it’s doing in the Garden — what its purpose is and in what sense it does what it is named after. I suspect the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a test, but also a teaching aid; providing wisdom to humans who contemplate it as a beautiful gift from God, along with his instruction, rather than grasping hold of it in disobedience to God. It operates just like wisdom in the Old Testament operates; where the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).

The question in this interaction with the slippery serpent is will the humans fear and listen to God?

I wonder too if the idea was always that humans were meant to ask God for wisdom; God seems to delight in giving wisdom to his people — like with King Solomon, who’s pictured as a new Adam, naming the animals and plants (1 Kings 4:32), and who asks for exactly this sort of wisdom — not just to know right and wrong — but good and evil — it’s the same words in Hebrew — in a way that pleases God (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon asks for a listening heart because he needs this sort of heart and wisdom to rule as God’s representative.

So long as these humans were in the garden, listening to God, obeying him, enjoying him, and contemplating the tree, they actually were knowing good and evil, and finding life, and being like God, the way the rest of the Old Testament frames it.

Humans should be ruling over the wild animals — the beasts — but the serpent tips the world upside down. They should be co-operating in the task of guarding the garden and representing God as his priestly people — the sort who speak his word into the world. They were meant to be being like God, but they take matters into their own hands

There’s no joint pondering of God’s word and testing it against the serpent’s, just impulsive action in the belief that God is holding something good back and we’re better off deciding good and evil for ourselves. There’s joint action — the woman sees — she sees the fruit is beautiful and pleasing to the eye (Genesis 3:6), which is how the fruit in the garden has been described (Genesis 2:9). And I think we’re meant to believe it is beautiful even that it looked delicious. She’s attracted to it, and I wonder if contemplating its beauty, but not taking something that is forbidden might have been, and might still be, a path to wisdom. But then she declares the fruit that God has said is “not good to eat” is “good to eat” — and she eats it, and she gives some to her husband — the flesh of her flesh — and he doesn’t say “stop,” he eats too (Genesis 3:6). There’s not just one sin here — not just one action — the whole thing, from the moment they let the serpent misrepresent God uncorrected, to the moment they add to what God has said and so present God as miserly and harsh, to the moment the woman takes the fruit — it’s all a failure — a joint failure to be like God.

They eat the fruit and everything changes; suddenly their nakedness is a massive problem (Genesis 3:7). They make clothes out of leaves — dressing themselves like trees; they become what they’ve worshipped. They identify themselves with the bottom of the food chain — the very things given to them to eat (Genesis 1:29, 2:9), but from here on they aren’t going to be as fruitful as they could’ve been. There’s now a barrier between them; and worse — a barrier between them and God; and a loss of this function reflecting his glorious image.

God turns up to walk in the Garden. This word used here is a way his presence is described with Israel through their history — both in the tabernacle, and temple. This walking — it’s part of the Eden-as-temple package. God comes to be present with his people, and they hide from him (Genesis 3:8-9). They’re dressed as trees trying to hide in the trees — the original camouflage — as though God won’t find them. They are ashamed. But God calls for them.

And Adam calls back. “I heard you. I was afraid. I hid” (Genesis 3:10-11).

That’s not how we were meant to respond to God. This isn’t the relationship they were created for as representatives of God’s rule. And God — like a parent catching their kid with a face covered in the chocolate they weren’t meant to eat — asks if they’ve been eating what they shouldn’t. He knows what’s going on… “who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11). I wonder if things could’ve gone differently at this point too, but the man straight up fails to own the one flesh nature of what’s just gone down; the barrier between man and woman becomes obvious. He blames the woman, and he blames god for putting her with him; ‘I can’t be fruitful because of her and you,’ “she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” And she blames the serpent. Nobody takes responsibility. Nobody repents. They shamelessly blame others (Genesis 3:12).

God recognises they’re all complicit, so, as a result, more barriers are put up to fruitfulness. The first two chapters have been about the desolate and uninhabited lands becoming fruitful places inhabited by God’s image bearing people who reflect his rule in the world. This can’t happen without people being like God and listening to him, and pursuing wise life in his presence — trusting his goodness and enjoying his hospitality — his provision of life. And now, this is frustrated. Cursed. The serpent bites the dust. It is cursed “above” all the other livestock by becoming below them; crawling on its belly and eating dust (Genesis 3:14).

The serpent and its offspring are set at odds with humans and their offspring; in keeping with the tree-fruit metaphor the word for offspring here is seed. Serpent-spawn will strike the heel of the seed of the woman, while there’ll be a seed produced from the woman that’ll crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).

For the woman, fruit-producing, childbearing, is going to be frustrated. This word encompasses everything about that process from sex to birth. It’s a breaking of the relationship with the man; they’re meant to rule together, but now there’s a cursed hierarchy (Genesis 3:16). The patriarchy as we know it (and as it unfolds in the Bible’s story) isn’t god’s good design; it’s part of the curse (this doesn’t mean we should accept it any more than we should refuse to fight against weeds and thorns in the production of food). We saw last week that ‘helper’ meant more than servant – it meant ally — where men rule over women like this we see curse at work.

While for earthling-Adam — suddenly the earth is a rival and a destiny. Instead of cultivating a garden from a garden, with god’s life-giving help — the ground is now cursed because of ground-man. Eating will be a result of painful toil. Thorns and thistles will be an expression of curse (Genesis 3:17-18).

And they’re both going to die; to return to the ground. Dust to dust. Earthling to earth (Genesis 3:19).

Now earthling — Adam — exercises rule over eve, he names her like he named the animals. Something has shifted (Genesis 3:20). She’s still going to be the mother of the living — but they’ve become like beasts not like God; and God dresses them up in animal skins — you are what you wear — they’re not trees, but wild things — ruled by the serpent — rather than ruling (Genesis 3:21). And as God declares this curse on humans in verse 22, the Hebrew we get translated as “has become like us” is ambiguous, it can also be “was like us” (note: Old Testament scholar Doug Green as a whole lecture on this idea that he once gave at QTC that was profound for me, and I think, unlike the Serpent, has legs).

I think we’re meant to ask the question of that ambiguity: were humans like God, and now they’re not, or have they in this moment become “like god” as an act of idolatrous or treasonous self-actualisation. The answer is they were like God, or they were meant to be — and now they’ve tried to make themselves into gods, just like the kings of the nations — but they’re actually beastly.

As a result, they’re exiled from the garden (Genesis 3:23). It’s what happens to Israel when they want to become like the nations by grasping hold of power and idols and rejecting God as creator too; they get kicked out of the fruitful land and sent to Babylon. Israel’s story echoes this origin story. Beastly humans don’t get the Tree of Life; they don’t get immortality and life with God in his garden (Genesis 3:23). They’re outside the garden. East. Outside the gates.

God’s still in the picture, but they aren’t in the garden anymore. And now there’s a heavenly being — a cherubim — wielding a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24). A heavenly being, doing the work Adam and Eve should’ve done; guarding the garden; keeping out the beasts; the wild things, the beings not committed to bringing a heaven on earth society as God’s representatives — which now includes these beastly humans.

They can’t live forever as beastly critters, enjoying the Tree of Life. So what do we do with this story?

It becomes a story for God’s people, Israel, to contemplate; both when they’re headed towards a fruitful land again, and invited to choose life in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:19-20), and when they’re in the valley of the shadow of death, in Babylonian exile. Where they’re contemplating what went wrong again; how history repeated, as they too tried to be gods on their own terms, rather than being like god; and how this got them there. The pattern of sin we see bring curse into human relationships repeats (internationally or systemically, and individually) through the Old Testament — seeing, desiring, declaring things God has said are not good as good and taking them; pursuing life, deciding good and evil on our own terms, and it keeps leading to exile and death.

And yet — the pursuit of wisdom itself — through listening to god’s word — becomes a tree of life (Proverbs 3:13-18). The person who plants themselves in god’s word becomes like a fruitful tree (Psalm 1:1-3). For the Israelite reading these words in exile in Babylon, surrounded by the people of a beastly king, that path back to Eden; back to life is obvious: listening to God.

The prophets also promise the way back to Eden-life will come through a faithful seed; a branch of a tree, the “root of Jesse,” so a son of David, a tree-son, who’ll delight in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-3), this figure will create an Eden like land where animals are at peace and serpents aren’t a threat anymore, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:8-9).

A fruitful tree will emerge. A king. An image of God who leads us to life with God, while crushing the serpent. Jesus — the branch of Jesse — comes to lead us back to blessing — to fruitfulness — to a pattern of life that doesn’t look like the curse.

At his arrest, John tells us that Jesus enters a garden; Gethsemane (John 18:1), where he doesn’t grasp and decide what is good and evil, but gives himself to God, saying “not my will but yours” (Matthew 26:39), before people storm the garden, wielding clubs and swords (Matthew 26:47). The Greek word for club here is the word for wood and tree that gets used in the Greek version of the Genesis story for the two trees — they come into a garden wielding trees against the branch of Jesse. They come wielding trees, committing treason against the tree-son (look, that’s pretty good).

Jesus is arrested and taken off to face a beastly trial — treated like an animal — he has a crown of thorns pushed into his head — the picture of the cursed ground pressed into his skin (Matthew 27:35). Then he’s stripped naked and crucified — nailed to a cross — publicly shamed as he’s nailed to a tree. The cross is described using that same wood word (Acts 13:28-29). Jesus absorbs the worst the world and the serpent can throw at him. His death on a tree isn’t just him taking on curse — as Paul puts it, but an exchange of his life for ours in a way that secures forgiveness of our sins, our redemption from curse, and our restoration as people of God as we receive his Spirit (Galatians 3:13-14).

Jesus comes to restore us from exile, to lead us towards life and wisdom by being the life and wisdom; the living word of God; and we now choose life or death in our choice regarding one tree; the cross. The cross is both our Tree of Life a way to eternal life where God gives his life to and for us, and our Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where we find true wisdom; a way of life through contemplation. It’s where we choose to be God’s image bearing children, or to side with the serpent.

We’re invited to stop grasping, to stop trying to be gods, to stop being ruled by sin, to no longer be led by our desires to take what we want in disobedient rebellion against God. So much of my sin is me just repeating that pattern. So many of our utopias — our ideas of the good life — our temptations to sin — involve the serpent’s vision casting — the idea that God is withholding something good from us, or we shouldn’t listen to him, and these visions lead us to grasp and destroy, and they lead us away from god, feeling ashamed, and hiding as our humanity is diminished, and replaced with beastliness as we become what we worship.

Jesus, the tree-son — the firstfruits — gives us God’s Spirit to dwell in us, making us one with God, so we’re no longer hiding from him, but hidden in him; protected, seated with him as his children, and invited to produce the fruit of the spirit in our lives as we give up treason and contemplate the tree-son, as he re-creates us as imperishable humans.

There’re lots of ways the New Testament talks about this re-creation that pick up ideas of what Genesis suggests it means to be human — we become transformed into the image of Jesus; we get clothed with Christ; we become a kingdom of priests and ambassadors of the message of reconciliation; a living temple, and the body of Jesus — united in him, by the Spirit and growing towards maturity in Christ.

We’re invited to a new pattern of life together — we’re not a people who rule over one another, Genesis 3:16 is not our pattern for fruitfulness. So much of church history, like Israel’s history, has involved male leaders operating to protect their power and to lord it over others, and then husbands being told to do that at home. That is curse. Not blessing.

We’re god’s children — with a new way of life we find in the example of Jesus — where we don’t grasp, or give others up, but give ourselves for others in love (Ephesians 5:1). This is utopian. Imagine a world where everyone did this; imagine a you where this was the image you were presenting to the world.

God’s design is for us to rule the world together not by dominating or ruling over each other, but by submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:20). This won’t look like grasping patriarchy, or abusing our power to take what we want, or putting our desires first. This isn’t servant leadership; it’s just service in a body of people who mutually serve. That’s the shape of marriage, and church, it’s a dynamic of loving service.

Our task as “rulers” of God’s world, in whatever context, is to rule together; to lead each other to find life in obedience to God; feasting on our new tree, finding life in Jesus, and so following his example, as we head towards a new Eden, and a new Tree of Life together.

This origin story shapes our life, and our community, so the ‘good society’ isn’t no place, but breaking out in the world as Jesus transforms people and our communities into little eutopias. Even as her book reaches the conclusion that utopian visions fail, Anna Neima doesn’t see them as a waste of time.

She says:

“Utopian living is extraordinarily generative. It creates openings in the fabric of society, inspires change, reminds us that it is possible to reach beyond the dominant assumptions of our day and discover radically different ways of being.”

The world needs communities who live differently — generatively — creating new ways of being that challenge the dominant assumptions of our day and model radically different ways of being.

 Jesus invites us to do that.

Origin Story: Eden and the earthlings

This is an amended (and extended) version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 40 minutes.

What does heaven on earth look like for you?  

Where do you feel closest to God? 

Journalist Eric Weiner came up with this idea ‘thin places’ in a travel article for the New York Times in 2011. They made it into his book about his search for God as a secular 21st century Jewish man… 

Thin places are: 

“where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or… The infinite whatever.” 

Where do you go to feel closest to God — like you’re in a heaven on earth zone? A thin place? 

That’s what the Garden in Eden was — this paradise garden we read about in Genesis 2. It maybe shows us that all our thin place experiences are a longing for somewhere else. I love the way Tolkien puts this:

“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.” 

In those thin places we feel closest to God — and while we do live with this sense of paradise lost — these moments might be explained by our origin story, and they might point to an ending of the story. 

What would an ideal person in that thin place should look like?

What should they do to cultivate that sense of heaven?

How might they be shaped by the space? Just ponder that with your own pictures of paradise.

Genesis 2 develops some big ideas from Genesis 1 — covering the same creation of the heavens and the earth — while zeroing in on a more local place — this region called Eden, and within it, a garden. And zeroing in on just one human. A human named human, or a human named to sound like ground in the Hebrew language. Adam; Earthling. What we treat as a name — Adam — is really, first and foremost, a pun.  

Before we get this human we get a world that is desolate and uninhabited — there are no plants yet, and no rain yet, and no one to work the ground yet (Genesis 2:4-5). There’s also no deep — no dark or chaotic waters in the way. There is earth. Ground. And springs of water that come up from the ground to give life (Genesis 2:6).  

In the Babylonian view of the world — which we touched on last time — there’s two ‘cosmic waters’ going on in our map of reality — Tiamet — the bad salty water that doesn’t help things grow — and Apsu, the living water — fresh springwater that comes up through the earth.

That’ll be interesting… If you can keep it in your head as you read.

In the Bible’s story though, the life-giving water bubbles up as the way God brings water to the parched ground — water and life. If you’re an ancient person — or even a modern one — water was a source of life through farming; you’d build cities on rivers to guarantee water supply for people. And here these waters are bubbling up out of the ground. 

Next to these waters, God makes a human. He forms the man — shapes him — from the dust of the ground and then breathes the breath of life into his nostrils. And he becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7). Here’s another little thread to hold on to — in the Greek Old Testament (the LXX) this is translated as a “living soul” using the Greek word psyche (from which we get ‘psychology’).

Now. Remember in Genesis chapter 1, we’re told God creates people in his own image, and I said that word is the word that gets used for idol statues and for kings in the ancient world. There’s a fascinating thing going on here where this story of God creating a living image of himself mirrors — or inverts and challenges — the exact story that people in the ancient world, outside of Israel, believed about how idol statues were made.  

To make an idol statue in the ancient world — or to restore one after it’d been taken out of your temple by your enemies — according to a couple of different ancient records — you’d go through this ritual where you’d fashion and form the statue (note: this is called the Mîs-pî ritual, this cracking book by Catherine McDowell does good scholarly work on links between these ancient rituals and Genesis; something I’ve written about before both here and in my thesis).

Here’s some quotes from a translated ritual tablet, this process required:

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place… in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him [the statue] out to the canal of the pure orchard…or this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven.

They would place a statue in an orchard, surrounded by the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates (rivers mentioned flowing from Eden in Genesis 2), and the water of the Apsu — the living water the bubbles up from the ground.

They would “give life” to the statue through a ritual that involved washing out the mouth, so that in the people’s minds the statue was now a living, breathing, eating, representation of the god in the world; then you would place them in a temple. You’d rinse and repeat this process for all the images of your god that you’d spread around the empire, then everyone involved in the ceremony would have to pretend to cut off their hands with a wooden knife because no real god could be created by humans. 

It was especially the King’s job to build these statues to spread the images of an empire’s god throughout the parts of the world where their gods reigned. There’s another description of this ritual where a king, Esarhaddon, re-built Babylon after his dad destroyed it. He gets a few mentions in the Old Testament (2 Kings 19:37, Ezra 4:2, Isaiah 37:38). He repaired statues that had been removed from the temples — ‘restoring’ the gods to these desecrated statues by re-creating them.

He said he was chosen by Babylon’s gods to make images of god and put them in Babylon’s temples. 

He took these exiled statues that had been captured by his dad and pulled out of their temples back to an orchard, surrounded by waters (the Euphrates river ran through Babylon), and conducted those same rituals to give life to these statues; these images of god.  

Image source: Record of Esarhaddon’s restoration of Babylon, British Museum

Here’s a translation of the inscription from this tablet.

I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals…

The line between God and king was murky. Kings were also called the image of God. There’s a king of the region that became Assyria, Tukulti Ninurta, who has these inscriptions that call him the image of the god, Enlil. These inscriptions using the same letters the Hebrew word for ‘image’ uses (tselem, or צלם). Eventually kings in the Ancient world ended up having statues of themselves placed in temples around their kingdoms.

There was no separation of church and state in the ancient world — the king was chief priest — the image of their god’s rule in the world.

So through Israel’s history, as they retell this Eden story it’s an alternative origin story — it’s not their king making an image of God — a statue — in a fruitful garden where the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates flow — where the image is given life because his mouth is opened by people washing it. A story told before the same people turn round and worship the statues they just helped make. Israel’s story is that their God makes his own statue-man with his hands, and puts him in an orchard where living water flows all round, and breathes actual life into his image so it can eat and live.

There’s a mirror being held up to these foreign stories and the gods they present, just as the story reveals how God sees humans as his Sacred, divinely formed representatives — living, breathing, statues. Royal rulers. 

Imagine the way this story played out in their life with these nations as neighbours — or as their conquerers in Egypt, or in Babylon. Humans are god’s living images — so, unlike their neighbours — Israel shouldn’t make statues of god — and we see that in the law (like in the 10 Commandments, Exodus 20). Worshipping those statues that they know are breathless and dead would be dumb, they have no breath in them, they are dead, and we see that in the prophets and Psalms.

The prophets — like Isaiah — even mock the whole process of constructing an idol statue that we now read in these rituals. Where craftsmen shape wood into human form, to put it in a temple, while burning the same wood to cook their food (Isaiah 44:13-15).

The Genesis Origin story shows why worshipping idols is stupid. They’re breathless, uninspired pieces of stone and wood; dirt-gods that leave us with a dirt future.

While the living God shows us that real humanity has life by his breath. We weren’t made to stay as earthlings — like statues of wood or clay — but to live as people who reflect heaven on earth; inspired by divine breath, as we enjoy life in God’s presence. Inspired. That’s a cool word, right (as opposed to ‘expired’). We’re given breath by him so that we might create life shaped by him rather than making our own gods; living as heavenly people, not people who worship stuff from the ground; but the God of heaven.

Ancient Idol statues were made from the ground (dirt or stone) and garden (trees), then decorated with the gold and precious stones that are there in the ground in the regions around Eden waiting to be cultivated and used by God’s earth-man in his task of representing god (Genesis 2:11-12). We can worship that stuff; or we can cultivate it and use it in our God-given task Some of the precious resources mentioned here in Genesis 2 — gold and onyx — become part of the clothing of the priest (Exodus 28).

Let’s pop back to Babylon, or another ancient city for a moment — in these cities the kings — images of God — who crafted images of Marduk the violent god to send out into the world, these kings were also gardeners. If you were an exiled Israelite it’s not just the power of Babylon’s armies that confronts you, and offers an appeal to switch allegiance to Marduk or his king — it’s the beauty of the city. The gardens. The king, as representative of divine order, was understood to be responsible for the fruitfulness of their lands. They’d plant gardens — thing the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon; they would build garden cities on rivers — like the Tigris, or Euphrates. Israel in Babylon doesn’t just have God’s command to plant gardens of their own (Jeremiah 29:5-7), little Edens in Babylon, they’ve got a different story about who brings fruitfulness into the world; the God who plants a garden.

God is the gardener (Genesis 2:8). He brings the fruit. This is what Israel gets told about the fruitfulness of the promised land too. But in the Eden story it’s God who provides fruitfulness — in the form of trees that are pleasing to the eye and good for food, and the tree of life is there too (Genesis 2:9).

He gives human — earthling — the job of working and taking care of the Garden, as a steward of his fruitful provision of trees and life; of this garden space that is somehow marked out as different to the rest of the earth (Genesis 2:15). The word work or cultivate is the word for serve… while the word behind ‘take care of’ has a sense of guard — it’s the same word for what the cherub with the sword is going to do to guard the garden when Adam and Eve get kicked out (Genesis 3:24).

Now these two words get paired together a bunch of times as the instructions for the priests; in the Tabernacle in Numbers (Numbers 3:7), and then the Temple in Chronicles (Chronicles 23:32). They’re the task of God’s priests in these thin places where we see Heaven and earth intersecting. God’s priests are like living idol statues —images —. tasked with guarding and keeping the heaven-on-earth spaces, and that’s the task we find for all humans in Genesis 2… In the Garden in Eden.

Now these two words — they’re the same words used over and over again as instructions for the priests; in the tabernacle in numbers, and then temple in chronicles. They’re the task of god’s fruitful people in the fruitful land in thin places where we see heaven and earth intersecting… 

Think back to your thin place, and that little exercise of imagining how you should live in that thin place to keep it doing that job — if it was a beach, you’d be wanting to preserve the water quality, and stop it becoming overcrowded — you’d clean and protect it. If it’s a mountain, you’d stop people building ugly stuff like ziplines or awful houses, and you’d pick up rubbish. If it’s a garden then you’d cultivate it, looking after the trees, and you’d guard it from outside pests and weeds. This is basically what Earthling (Adam) is told to do in this heaven on earth space — keep it doing that job.

Earthling Adam is to enjoy God’s hospitality while he works — to enjoy with God, feasting on all the trees including the Tree of Life — living for as long as he enjoys life in God’s presence — while contemplating this other tree — this tree he is not to eat from; the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (we’ll see more of it next week. But for now we’ll leave it hanging like Chekov’s rifle).

It’s worth noticing that the streams emerging from the ground at the start of the chapter have become rivers (Genesis 2:10-14) flowing from Eden; this water of life flows from Eden out into the world giving life to all these nations that end up, in the story of the Bible, being Israel’s idol-loving enemies. Life flows out of this garden and into the world. 

The origin story so far introduces us to Earthling; the living idol statue made from the ground, given life by God’s breath, to represent the fruitful living, breathing, life-giving God. Earthling is created to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and rule it for God by gardening — cultivating and guarding this garden — partnering with God in this work of spreading the garden paradise — where God gives life at his table (or trees) — across the earth as God’s living statue; his priestly king. Genesis 2 unpacks the Genesis 1 idea of humans being made in God’s image, and in Israel’s story (unlike Babylon’s) this role is for all humans living in relationship with God, not just for kings.

And not just for men.

Just as the darkness, chaos waters, and vault were problems introduced by the narrative — so is earthling being alone; we know something is missing from his image bearing capacity. There’s a barrier to earthling’s fruitfulness. In Genesis 1, over and over again, we’re told ‘it’s good’ — but here it’s ‘not good’ — because earthling Adam is alone (Genesis 2:18).  

We see a bit of his life in God’s likeness here too; because where in chapter one, God names things and they happen — in chapter two, as earthling meets the animals, whatever he calls them — that’s their name (Genesis 2:19). He’s ruling over the animals and birds, who Genesis 1 says males and females — God’s image — are to rule together. There’s an interesting difference between chapter 1 and 2 here too, where the animals have also been created out of the ground — like the earthling — we’re not told that in Genesis 1; they also have the “breath of life” in them (Genesis 1:30), they are similar, but are not made with this task of representing God in the world and ruling over it.

They’re similar, but none of them are suitable for him as a helper; none of them complete earthling’s ability to do the ‘good’ he was made for. Until God makes a woman — a helper — not from the ground but from his side (Genesis 2:20-21).

It’s worth just pausing on that word “helper” in the context of this human task to be fruitful and multiply. It’d be easy, from the English (and because of history) to think the word helper is subordinate — but that’s not what the word here means, or what the narrative is suggesting. The Hebrew words used here for suitable helper — Ezer Kenegdo — don’t have a picture of a domestic helper in them at all; ‘ezer’ is more like ‘deliverer’ — it’s used of God in the Old Testament, including in military pictures of God holding a shield for Israel and coming to their aid (Deuteronomy 33:29).

Helper is something more like military ally — and her suitability is about the ability and necessity to help earthling function the way God created humanity to function together. Remember how we saw when we looked at chapter one, that in the ancient world a thing is a thing when it does what a thing is made to do. Humanity is incomplete. It can’t represent God as his image — without males and females. Earthling also can’t be fruitful and multiply alone, or make life from the earth; and so God makes a woman.

A woman taken out of man so they can be united as one — that’s going to be important for understanding what happens in chapter 3, where they fail to act as one, turning on each other, and to guard and keep the garden, so that being fruitful and multiplying is frustrated as their relationship is disordered.

The woman is the first creation — plants, humans, animals — not made from the ground in the chapter. Together, man and woman will be fit for their purpose of representing God and fruitfully spreading his rule — his Eden Garden — over the earth. Their union and oneness will be part of that representation, and so will humanity’s fruitful multiplying from their union. Adam couldn’t be fruitful and multiply alone.

This passage might become the basis for how we understand marriage — it’s where Jesus goes when asked about marriage (Matthew 19) — and it’s definitely a pretty big building block for how we think marriage works, but there’s also something happening in the origin story here. The narrative is suggests earthling is incomplete — not good — unable to function as fully human while he’s alone. This isn’t to say we’re half people waiting for a person of the opposite sex to complete us, but that God’s task of producing fruitful life in the world that represents the life-giving, generative, nature of God requires males and females… community, even. The human call to be fruitful and multiply; to fill the earth with God’s representatives anticipates the Great Commission (Matthew 28); Jesus’s call to be fruitful and multiply by making disciples.

By the end of the chapter Earthling Adam and his wife are together, in the garden, and their relationship is secure; they are naked and unashamed. Earthling has not yet named the woman, like he did the animals, he simply says she shall be called woman because she is taken out of man; the language here indicates a unity. The Hebrew word for man is “ish” and for woman it’s “ishshah.” They are united. They have a job to do. They have a heaven-on-earth place to do this job in.

So, imagine you’re an Israelite in Babylon, hearing this story. Babylon doesn’t feel like your picture of Heaven. It’s a violent and chaotic empire built around the worship of war gods like Marduk. It’s ruled by kings who’ve conquered you, and all the empires that came before; Egypt; Assyria; they’re done. It has its own picture of heaven on earth. Its male god-king is claiming to be the image of god who makes images of god. He builds his own garden city as a home for his gods. Babylon’s story (the Enuma Elish) says the city is their resting place on earth. Humans aren’t made in the image and likeness of God, they exist as slaves to the Gods, to feed them with your labour. That’s how Babylon’s creation story views heaven-on-earth space and how humans are to live in it.

As an Israelite, your own heaven-on-earth place — the Temple in Jerusalem — looks a long way away. You’re wondering if God is distant while living in a beautiful and powerful city set up as a thin place for Babylon’s gods. Statues get paraded down its streets and enshrined in its temples, its political order is religious, the architecture of the city — even its parks and gardens — are meant to make you feel like their gods are good and in control.

Genesis would be a subversive story in that sort of environment. A story that told you that you’re as valuable as the king; and images of your God, unlike theirs aren’t dead wood made with weird rituals, but living, breathing, life-making men and women. Earthlings who know we really belong; we truly flourish; somewhere like Eden; a heaven on earth place, enjoying God’s hospitality — and his gift of life; the Tree of Life. The story would create a certain hunger for that kind of place — a sense of longing for home, while also directly mocking, and challenging Babylon’s vision for humanity. This story provides the fodder for Israel’s prophets to undermine the Babylonian stories and its god statues, tipping the Babylonian picture of god and humanity on its head.

You would know, too, that your God is the source of all the life and goodness you see around you — the fruitful trees growing because of the water coming from the Euphrates are downstream from Eden. Babylon, just like the other nations your people have met with through history has been given life by the living water flowing out of God’s provision; his cosmic life-giving water bubbling away in the universe. More radically, you would be shaped to see your Babylonian neighbours as also made to worship and serve your God; the God who gives them life, who created them not to be slaves, but to represent him as pictures of his life in the world. They are captivated images — idol statues — who need restoration to the Eden story. That’s going to shape the way you treat your enemies, isn’t it? Seeing how they were made to be fruitful and multiply; spreading Eden, the real life-giving garden paradise, rather than the deadly and destructive gardens of Babylon.

We’re going to see that this story goes downhill fast; Chekov’s rifle gets fired in the next act. But this picture of heaven-on-earth doesn’t disappear through the Bible’s story even as humans are exiled from Eden.

There are echoes of Eden all over the place; built into the Tabernacle and Temple, where the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God is set up with tree decorations and fruit imagery everywhere; where a giant Menorah — a candlestick Tree of Life is there as a picture of life in the presence of the God who is light. Echoes of Eden are there in descriptions of the Promised Land as a land flowing with abundant goodness and provision… it’s there in the Prophet’s hope of restoration.

Ezekiel has this picture of God’s garden mountain — Eden — a meeting place between the heavens and the earth (Ezekiel 28:13-14), and a restored mountain top temple, where the waters of life flow out becoming rivers teeming with abundant life that feed the nations, restoring life — living water that creates fruit trees along the banks of this river (Ezekiel 47:1-12). It’s Eden, but better; it’s Jerusalem, but better. It’s certainly better than Babylon. It’s what God’s faithful image bearing people could have partnered with God to create.

This Ezekiel imagery is something John picks up as Jesus — the Heavenly Man — walks on earth. The man John tells us straight up is God tabernacling with his people — Edening with his people (The Greek word for “tabernacle” is the word used behind ‘dwelling’ in John 1:14). John has us read his whole Gospel through the lens of Jesus’s body being a new Temple (John 2:19-22) — he’s a heaven-on-earth human and a ‘heaven on earth place.’

The waters of life bubble up all around Jesus as he comes as the Eden-on-earth man. He says he’s come to bring living water that will satisfy a sort of existential thirst (one that comes as a result of exile from God), and provide eternal life (John 4:13-14). He says rivers of living water will flow from those who believe in him — and John makes it clear that’s about people receiving God’s Spirit so we too become like the Temples that bring life into the world from Ezekiel’s vision — human Edens (John 7:38-39). Then John describes water pouring from Jesus’s side, in Jerusalem, at his death; a new river flowing from a heaven-on-earth space — the human temple — giving life to a new humanity (John 19:34).

John tells us Jesus was both crucified and buried in a Garden (John 19:41). One of his closest friends, Mary — thinks he is the gardener (John 20:15); in a nod to Ezekiel’s vision there’s also an abundance of fish at a post-resurrection breakfast (John 21:6). This is a new Eden moment.

It’s John, too, who pictures the new heavens and new earth as a new Eden — with the Tree of Life and the rivers of living water flowing together as people enjoy life with God for eternity (Revelation 22:1-2) (also, this sort of thematic richness is why I think, despite what some scholars might say, John’s Gospel and the Revelation were written by the same author).

Tolkien is right; we did lose this Garden paradise. Our yearning for heaven on earth — our experience of longing in those thin places where the barrier between heaven and earth breaks down — testify to our exile from Eden. We were made to live with God, enjoying his gift of life forever in this sort of heaven-on-earth place, but desecration, destruction and death got in the way.

We live in our own modern Babylon; we’re surrounded by people chasing and trying to build heaven on earth; garden cities (which was, until recently, the name of a giant Westfield shopping centre in Brisbane). We live in a world that wants to experience or manufacture thin places; we want the garden without the gardener-God and his gardener-king. Eden without the presence of God isn’t Eden. It offers no life. It’s Babylon; a counterfeit Eden, with counterfeit images of counterfeit gods that lead to death; to exile from God.

Earthling Adam was a priest-king who chose dirt over glory; leading humanity up the garden path. We need a king who’ll lead us out of exile in the nations and back to the orchard so we can be restored images who represent God again. Our neighbours, too, are images of God in need of restoration; the restoration we have received through Jesus; God’s presence restored to us through living Water; his spirit. That’s what baptism is a picture of — an image-restoration ceremony. To not simply be earthlings destined for the ground, we need God’s breath; his presence; his Spirit dwelling in us so we are restored to, and restored as, the presence of God.

That’s exactly the story of the Gospel; which becomes our new origin story. The Gospel is the story of all of us being earthlings — those who didn’t just come from the earth, but worshipped the earth and the gods of our making; even other earthlings… who faced exile from God, and breathless death as a result.

Here’s a cool thing Paul does with the Genesis story — about earthling Adam — in 1 Corinthians. And part of what’s cool is I think there’s a pun. The word “icon” is the Greek word for image; there’s an ending for Greek words “icon” that just means “of the” — they’re not directly related, but it looks the same in writing and would probably sound the same. Paul talks about how humans were — like Adam — breathed icons — where we read this bit of 1 Corinthians 15 as “natural” it’s the Greek word ‘psycheikon’ (psyche was that word used back in Genesis in the LXX). We were people given the breath of God to live in these earth bodies; earthlings. But in Jesus we find a new humanity — a Heavenly humanity — Jesus is a heavenly — or ‘pneumaticon’ — that’s the word for Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45-46). In Jesus we’re no longer just earthlings, destined to become earth, but heavenly creatures destined for imperishable life in heavenly bodies that don’t die, that reflect God’s glory (1 Corinthians 15:47-48). Paul says just as we bore the image of the earthly man (the earthling), so, those of us who have received God’s Spirit will bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:49). In Jesus we become heaven-on-earth places filled with the presence of God; his Spirit; so we might fill the earth with his presence.

There are lots of places you might feel close to God; thin places; eden zones; heaven-on-earth spots, and when you’re in those places they’re a reminder of this story — where we came from, and where we’re headed, but maybe there’s actually no place that you should feel closer to God, or more like a heaven-on-earth “Eden” place than as we gather together with God’s image bearing people to worship him and proclaim the hope of the Gospel together; sharing God’s hospitality at his table eating bread, made from grain that comes from the ground, and drinking the cup, made from grapes, grown from the ground, as we remember the life of the new human given for us, and to us, so that we might receive God’s Spirit and live in his presence forever as his representatives in the world.

Origin Story: In the Beginning

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that.

Origin stories are helpful if you want to understand the world you live in — and how to live.

If you want to understand why Gotham city has become dark and scary; why the Joker and other over the top villains are running around causing chaos; why they have responded to the Batman’s over-the-top embodiment of fear by fighting fire with fire; you have to find yourself back in a dark alley where that batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, witnessed his parents being murdered…  And an earlier experience young Bruce had with scary bats in a cave.

So many of our fictional worlds are built on origin stories that aren’t just about a key person, but explain why the world is the way it is; it’s not just fictional worlds shaped by an origin story; we humans are shaped by our own origin stories. This is part of what drives the popularity of genealogical research — learning about our family history so we can understand the present on an individual level, while at a societal level the lives we live together are often shaped by common stories we believe about the world. if you believe humans emerged from purely natural processes in a world that is closed off to any god or gods, then that’s going to shape how you use your body and use the natural world world….  

In this series we’re going to tackle the way the Genesis origin story does — or doesn’t — relate to a modern, scientific, secular view of reality — whether that’s a young earth or old earth version of that science story. Whatever you believe about the science story, this shapes the way Christians live in the world and how we approach science and decision making (note: there’s an observable link between young earth creationism and skepticism about the science behind anthropogenic climate change).

The Bible’s origin story doesn’t come from a modern view of the world; their concept of the physical world looked very different to the picture we gain from satellites looking back at the earth from orbit; the Old Testament vision of the cosmos has more in common with the stories of israel’s neighbours — the nations they interact with in the Old Testament — like Egypt, and Babylon.  

It’s an origin story with a model of the universe at home in the ancient world — engaging with and critiquing ideas about God held by Israel’s neighbours. These were origin stories Israel was tempted to believe and live by as they were tempted by idolatry and the alternative vision of god, and the world, and the purpose of human life, offered by the stories and cultures around them. We have a good idea what these empires believed about the origin of the cosmos, and the purpose of human life, thanks to archaeological discoveries in the last 200 years; we can now read stories like Babylon’s Enuma Elish, or the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’.

As we work our way through this series we’re going to consider how this context might shape how we read the story — so that we’re asking the sort of questions the text itself might be answering. This isn’t because the genesis story can’t exist alongside science stories —  whether old or young earth stories — it’s just that these stories aren’t what this origin story is about. We won’t get good answers in genesis unless we’re asking the right questions.

Our main guide for reading the Bible’s origin story isn’t going to be these ancient creation stories that are a reasonably recent discovery, but the way these origin stories — these chapters at the start of the Bible, unfold through the rest of the Bible.

Here’s a picture of how hyperlinked the bible is — how many later books build on — by referencing — earlier books.

Source/Credit: Chris Harrison, BibleViz, Bible Cross References

The Bible is a rich tapestry — a library — that builds an internal and coherent understanding of the other books — not just through quotes — that this picture picks up, but through the building of themes and patterns and imagery that we pick up as we read. 

So we’ll try to make sense of these chapters of this book by placing them in this context — and not just of the Old Testament, as though we’re the first hearers and readers of the story – but with the New Testament, as it’s fulfilled in Jesus. Because both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels locate the roots for the family tree of Jesus back in Genesis — tracing the line of seed — offspring — through to his arrival as the Son of Man and the Son of God. 

Part of recognising that the Bible unfolds as one story and that this story shapes our lives as God’s people means considering how the story itself worked for people living that story along the way, throughout the family tree (or “genealogy”), considering, for example how the nation of God read, or told (prior to its final compilation), this story from “Abraham to David” (in Egypt, for example), from David to exile (in the land), or then during exile in Babylon. We know the united final form of the Old Testament history running from Genesis to 2 Kings was put together after those events ended. This challenges our modern readings of the text, confounding the categories we want to bring to the debate. The story has its own purpose, and its own context, in this bigger story — God’s story. It’s doing something very different to what we want it to do as modern humans with a view of the cosmos we build from satellite images. 

Genesis tells us quite a lot about quite a lot of things; but perhaps primarily it is a story that reveals the nature and character of God to us, and grounds everything else in that act of revelation. We can make try to make it answer our questions, but often we get the subject wrong. Genesis frames our answer to questions around the nature of the universe and the nature of life within in it by placing reality — the heavens and the earth in their place as creations of a god who was and who is — before the heavens and the earth began. This is the scene set in the opening words of Genesis, where we’re told that in the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Now, some people see this as a heading that describes what’s going to happen in the rest of chapter one. For a few reasons, especially the long arch in that picture that goes from the beginning (Genesis) right to the end of the story (Revelation), I think this should be read as a statement that in the beginning god created these two overlapping realities — the heavens — his home, and the home of the spiritual beings in his heavenly host — and the earth —a home for humans and a host of animals.

The other thing to consider is that we jump to thinking of the whole globe viewed from a satellite, when we hear the word “earth,”  but it’s literally “the ground” in the imagination of the ancient reader, who hasn’t sent a satellite up into space yet, and who knows that humans are deeply connected to the earth, and our survival depends on the food it brings forth. 

The earth can’t produce food yet in verse 2 — it’s “formless and empty,” at least, that’s how our NIV translates these words; but the Doug Green translation, which I quite like because of how it creates threads through the rest of the story of the Bible — is that these words should be maybe understood as barren — desolate — fruitless — and uninhabited by life… Especially living creatures who’ll cultivate it (note: Doug Green, Old Testament lecturer at Queensland Theological College is a member of our congregation).   

Jeremiah uses this same language to talk about Israel as the nation goes into exile; framing exile as a sort of de-creation — where the formless and empty involves the people — the birds — and the trees — all disappearing — it becomes desolate and uninhabited.

In Genesis the land is desolate and uninhabited, because it is covered in the chaotic waters of the deep, and it’s all in darkness.  

In the ancient map of reality the deep — these waters — represent chaos. People who hadn’t seen the earth through a satellite conceived of reality as looking something like this.

Image Credit/Source: Michæl Paukner, Flickr

They’re maybe even a spiritual force opposed to life and fruitful living, especially salt waters. In Babylon’s creation story there are two gods who make up the deep — the living water — freshwater — Apsu — and the salty chaos waters — Tiamet — who their god Marduk violently destroys and he makes the heavens and the earth from the material of her dead body.

The deep is a problem. It gets in the way of the land becoming something other than desolate and uninhabited — it stops it teeming with life and fruitfulness.  

God does something about this, and about the darkness. His spirit, a word you can also translate as breath — something that needs to be active in order to speak words (try holding your breath for a minute and then speaking) is hovering over the waters of the deep, in the darkness; waiting to bring life. God speaks to create: “let there be light”. And there is, which deals with the darkness. This happens before he creates the sun, and so there’s a cool idea that he peels back the veil — or the vault — between heaven and earth to flood the earth with his glorious light. 

Then God starts dealing with the waters. He says let there be a vault — or firmament. This is what gets created on day two — separating water from water — the waters below and the water above — this isn’t how we think of the earth and the atmosphere as modern people, but sit for a bit with this vision from Genesis where the heavens and the earth exist, and they’re held separate by this solid barrier — this domed ceiling. God carves out a space between these waters for life to exist on the earth, by his word, then moves the waters aside so that dry ground — ground that can produce fruit and life — appears. He calls this good, which is interesting because on the previous day, as he creates the vault — this barrier between the heavens and the earth — he doesn’t call it good.

There are lots of reasons this could be the case, but I wonder (with others) if Genesis is setting up a tension that will be resolved in the rest of the story of the Bible. A separation between the heavens and the earth — a barrier — exists and this will ultimately be overcome.  In the rest of Genesis 1, God fills the heavens, and sea, and sky with life — heavenly bodies, that for the ancients were a shining picture of the heavenly court —spiritual beings — and trees — and animals (note: I wish I’d paid more attention to this when preaching this series, but my mind has recently been blown by the Hebrew of Genesis 1:21 the ‘great creatures’ he creates in the deep; using a word often translated as monster, serpent, or dragon). It follows this pattern — God says, he makes, and he names.  He fills the desolate and uninhabited world with fruitfulness and life.  

He does it by speaking, and by creating not so much from out of nothing, but from his word, with his Spirit hovering. This creator god we meet in Genesis 1 is the source of all the things he makes. He’s not like the gods of the nations — whose creation stories do not involve an eternal god who creates life, but gods who are the chaotic waters (Tiamet) and at home in the darkness. The gods from origin stories around Israel bring light and order to the desolate earth by killing each other, and building stuff out of the dead bodies of other gods. That’s the kind of bloody origin story that gets you an ancient Gotham city; heroes — or kings — who embody fear, and employ violence to get what they want in empires that brings order — their own fruitful gardens and cities — through war and bloodshed. 

In Genesis, God makes the pinnacle of creation; those who will rule for him on the earth as he rules in the heavens. Those who’ll represent him and bring fruitfulness over the face of the earth as we spread his rule and his presence by spreading his image — reflecting his glorious light and joining him in the generation of life and fruitfulness in the earth. He specifically gives humans the job of ruling over the spaces and the life he has just created — fruitfully, and according to his likeness. 

There’s a plural here — the god who is speaking doesn’t just say ‘let me’ — and there’s a bit of debate over who the us is here — for a long time I read it as a divine plural — an intra-trinitarian ‘us’ — the Father speaking to the Son and Spirit who are at work in these acts of creation, but there’s a solid case to be made that God — the Triune god — is speaking to the heavenly realm and those living in his divine court — the heavenly ‘sons of god’ as they’re called later in the Genesis narrative — so that we’re like those heavenly beings, but on earth. Psalm 8 picks up this idea a bit. It talks about God making humans ‘a little lower than the angels’… Only, in Hebrew, it’s ”a little lower than the Elohim” — which is a tricky word — a Hebrew word for ‘god’ (a divine being) where the plural and singular are hard to tell apart. The translation decision here is an interesting one, and angels could just as easily be ‘gods’ — these other ‘Elohim’ — who turn up a bit in the Old Testament, like in Psalm 82, which describes God (Elohim) ruling in the heavenly court room — rendering judgment amongst the Elohim. In our modern view of the world we aren’t necessarily looking for heavenly beings in a heavenly court room, or imagining God talking to this court as he creates humans to do this job on earth.  

This isn’t our model of reality, but it is the model the Bible assumes, and the Bible’s origin story tells the story of the creation of this same cosmos.

While i’m still inclined to see the Trinity involved in the us — in the creation of humans — I do think we humans are being made to do on earth what these Elohim — the sons of God — are meant to do in the heavenly realm; be like God; be like his children who represent his rule as we rule for him.

Being made in god’s image is tied to a function; to rule over his creation as those who bring his likeness into creation.

In our secular world, where we tend to be materialists, because of our origin stories, and so focus on physical stuff, we tend to think of making something as making its substance. So we see the idea of the “image of god: being something about our human bodies that is inherent to us, and how we operate physically, but in the ancient world, when you made and named something it wasn’t so much about material nature but about function. The image of god is a job to do, not just a thing we are.  

There’s some evidence from the ancient world around Israel that clues us in to this. In the ancient near east the title the “image of god” was a title reserved for kings — who were really more priest-kings who represented their god’s rule on the earth, and guaranteed their worship — and for idol statues — that’s actually what the word here for image — tselem — means both in Hebrew and related languages from nearby countries. 

So when god makes humans in his own image — in the image of god he creates us — as male and female — you could think of it as him making us as his living, breathing, idol statues — so that wherever humans doing this job are, there the rule of God; the kingdom of God — is represented on the earth, as it is in heaven. 

This is an idea we’ll see more of in the next piece, but it’s also an idea that runs through the story of the Bible, especially as god forbids his people to make dead statues of him — the living God — cause he’s already made his own living images.  

One of the reasons I’m still partial to the idea of the Trinity being involved in the “us” — is that I think God making us male and female in his image is significant; not just because it upholds the dignity and function and full humanity of both men and women, but because men and women — a plurality of people — are actually required to carry out the function of being made in god’s image together. There’s a communal reality in the us that we’re to represent in our own us as we take on this job together and generate fruitful life the way god does, in partnership with him.

That’s the job he gives humans — the world was uninhabited and empty — desolate and uninhabited — but now, with the creation of humans — it’s not — and we’re given a job — to fill the earth and subdue it — as we rule over the wild life we find around us; joining God in bringing light and life and his presence over the face of the earth…  

At this point god declares things very good. Now, it would be easy for us to think that this is perfect; that the picture we get at the end of chapter 1 is a perfect world — a paradise that humans stuff up as sin enters the picture, but the idea that we have a job to do in subduing the world — and what we see in Eden in chapter 2 — is that not all the earth is Eden yet… It’s not all a picture of god’s heavenly dwelling…  

We humans become the answer to the problem of the land being desolate — uncultivated wilderness — by bringing fruitfulness, and we’ll see more of what both image bearing and this task looks like as we explore Genesis 2.

There are other issues unresolved in Genesis 1 that mean we shouldn’t think things are perfect at this point. The cosmic waters — are being held at bay — in the ancient worldview — gathered up and pushed aside, waiting above the firmament to be poured out; as we’ll see in the Noah story. The firmament is still existing as a ‘not called good’ barrier between heaven and earth, which is a problem set up in the Genesis 1 “origin story” that is resolved in the rest the Bible as God’s big story unfolds.  

So how should we understand this story in the beginning of our Bible? 

For starters — it’s a story that reveals God to us because it shows us how the world — his creation — is an expression of who he is. He makes light and makes life and pushes the forces of chaos and disorder aside to replace that with fruitfulness and order, and he does this in a way that transcends anything offered by any other gods we meet in any other creation story. The rest of the bible picks up this theme. The Psalms use creation itself — its wonder — as grounds to declare the glory of God.

In the book of Acts, Paul talks about God as the one who makes the heavens and the earth — and suggests we should look for God not in human temples, because he doesn’t just create the world by his word — and spirit, or breath. Existence is in him; he gives everyone life and breath and everything else. And in him we live and breathe and have our being. 

In Romans, Paul picks up the same idea and says that god’s nature — his invisible qualities — are knowable, in part, from what has been made — the works of his hands; and this actually leaves us without excuse; creation is evidence of a creator. 

The goodness of the cosmos — its beauty, its vastness — the flavours of the things God gives us for food — and the nature of the life filling it — these reveal God’s qualities to us, but nothing does this more than humans. 

And heaven and earth — and the barrier between heaven and us is a something God sets about removing. Ultimately he does this in Jesus — the Son of God, and Son of Man; the first person to span heaven and earth in his nature. There’s this cool thing Mark does in his gospel called an ‘inclusio’ — it’s a technique where two events are bracketed using the same words and themes. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens tear — this is a violent rupture type word — and the Spirit of God, who hovered over the waters in the beginning like a dove now hovers over Jesus (Mark 1:10). This ‘inclusio’ is complete when the curtain in the temple is torn from the heavens — up top — to the earth — the bottom; it’s the same word (Mark 15:38).

We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that this curtain was an image not just of the universe, but of the firmament — the barrier between heaven and earth. He talks about how its colours represented the heavens, how the stars and cherubim embroidered on it represented the mystical living creatures in the heavenly realm (Josephus, Jewish Wars Book 5, Chapter 5, Paragraph 4). At the death of Jesus the vault — the firmament — breaks open. The barrier is destroyed. A new creation — a new state of being — emerges.

Paul picks up the language of Genesis to describe Jesus as the firstborn over all creation — the image of the invisible god — the child; the living idol statue; the ruler of god’s kingdom. He says that creation itself — the heavens and the earth — things visible and invisible — the Elohim and the rulers of earth — all things were created through him and for him. He’s the one who will remove the barriers between the good cosmos and the perfect one. Because God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him — and through him to reconcile all things — that means to bring all things together — and it includes the heavens and the earth — by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-23).

Paul talks about how we’ve been raised with Christ, and we’re now seated in the heavenlies — but this isn’t meant to make us of no use on earth — when we set our minds on things above it’s on God and his nature as it’s revealed in Jesus (Colossians 3:1-3). It’s on this story where the heavens and the earth are not yet joined and we live in anticipation of his return to make all things new. This is the cosmic good news where Jesus doesn’t just come to reconcile us to god by forgiving our sins — he does that — but to recreate all things. That’s where the big story of the Bible heads. The beginning anticipates the ending: a new heaven and a new earth, where, finally, there’s no cosmic waters (I don’t think this means no beach but no chaotic abyss) (Revelation 21-22).

In this new reality God will dwell with his people; there’ll be no solid barrier between us. No curtain. No separation of realms. This is the end of the story, and the threads begin in the beginning.

The Bible’s origin story shapes how we understand the world — where it came from — and where it’s heading — not in the way science tells us the world works, and not in the way other religious stories — whether supernatural or built from worshiping created things instead of the creator — tell us the world should work. And this should actually shape the way we live in the world — in our part of it.

This was a big deal for Israel; this origin story was the beginning of the story that explained how they should live as image bearers; as a kingdom of priests, not just in the land, with a king in Jerusalem — but in Babylon; in exile, when it felt like decreation had happened and as though the powerful origin story of Babylon — that justified its military power and propped up the regime of its kings — was the better story. The Bible’s story taught Israel to imagine a different humanity; a different purpose as it told the story of a different God.

So let’s, for a moment, re-imagine our world if the Bible’s origin story is our origin story — not just in the beginning, but in the story of re-creation we find in the Gospel; the end of humanity’s exile from God. Let’s imagine we’re reading this story in Babylon; or in Gotham — the world we live in can be pretty dark.

Let’s imagine how our new origin story — the Gospel Story that starts in Genesis — should shape the way we live in our time and place; because it’s different to the stories at work around us…

If you buy an origin story that is all about the material reality, or ‘this is all just chance,’ and ‘nature is red in tooth and claw and we’re just the top of the food chain then you want to be a predator, not prey. You want to be the fittest in order to survive and others become obstacles. This is the world we live in. Often. A world of dominance hierarchies and military industrial complexes and consumerism and climate change induced by our ‘dominance’ of the physical world. You start treating the world as though it, too, is prey — and so we dig things up and pump stuff out, and burn stuff up, and destroy natural habitats and food sources and the water basins. And we leave the land desolate and uninhabitable when we finish. Perhaps, over time, instead of spreading God’s Kingdom — Eden like life — we change the climate and push back towards a formless and empty creation, with only God’s gracious sustaining of life holding back the waters of judgment. It’s possible, too, that what restrains us from fully destroying the joint is that the image of god is still at work in our humanity.  

You also lose a certain amount of wonder or enchantment — the idea that we live and have our being ‘in God,’ and that his divine nature and character is revealed in what has been made. Instead of cultivating a fruitful relationship with the world reflecting the God who makes the world fruitful and inhabited.

Sometimes we’re tempted to live in this story. The Babylon story. The story from our family of origin where we make progress through death and destruction bearing the image of beastly gods of death, but God invites us into a new family tree, with a new story.

Our story teaches us that the right use of the world lines up with the purpose of human life — to reveal the nature of god in his world as we rule our lives, and the world, under his rule as expressions of his kingdom; of heaven breaking in to earth. Our story is about God’s design and gift of life, for all people, and his desire to dwell with us in a fruitful world that is full of life…

Our story shapes us to see not just ourselves — but our neighbours — as created to reflect the glory of God; so that we treat human lives — and bodies — as sacred objects, and see those people not reflecting the glory of God not as humans to be destroyed — or captured, enslaved, and bent to our will as we pursue our own heaven on earth projects — but to be invited into relationship with their creator.

Our story teaches us that God’s world is good — but it is not perfect — it isn’t something — or full of somethings — or someones — we should worship.

Our story teaches us that God provides the answer to the longings created by life in a good world that points us to a great God, working out a great story in history — the story of heaven and earth coming together… And that right now, we’re between those two worlds.

Our story is that in Jesus we become meeting places between heaven and earth — restored and re-created image bearers who become children of God who live as living statues, temples of his Spirit, who represent him — his divine nature and character — in the world. This story begins in the beginning.

A change of pace for this place

Dear reader.

There is only one of you left. I know.

I’ve been a bit slack in my digital output over the last few years, and it’s not you who has changed. It’s me.

I’ve been committed to picking less fights and trying to be more constructive.

I’ve been trying to work out if I’m an angry enneagram 8 in real life, or just online (with the online creeping into my real life).

I’ve shifted from being on a ministry team of 20+ staff in a multisite church to being a solo preacher in a small(ish) church spinning off from the mothership.

To be honest I’ve been more excited about preaching and teaching from the Bible than providing the internet with more hot takes from a white bloke, and more depressed, in general, by the predictable polarised state of online commentary on just about everything.

But, dear reader, I’ve invested quite a bit of time and money in building this little tower of online babble. And I don’t think this has no value. There’s maybe something nice about being able to track the development of my thinking, and the weird interlinked exo-brain this whole thing is, so I plan to keep it around. I also have some things I’d like to write about that might be beneficial to others, not as ‘thought leadership’ as much as curious meanderings from someone who has a bit of institutional privilege who likes to use that for the sake of others in the church.

What I really want to write more about, though, is the Bible. I’ve decided to turn some of the sermon series I’ve preached through over the last couple of years into blog posts. If I’m going to be ‘known’ for anything (and I’m increasingly depressed by the fruits of Christians being ‘known’ or having online platforms) then let it be for being a guy who loves the Bible, rather than a guy who loves creating controversy online.

So. Keep posted, dear reader. I’m going to kick off with a series of articles based on my sermons in a series on Genesis 1-11. It takes a little time to convert a sermon manuscript (with my odd punctuation, repetition, and capitalisation) into something readable in this format so I’m not sure how often I’ll post, but I hope that any time spent engaging or thinking about the Bible will be fruitful for someone somewhere. Also, it’s just not a bad way to be publicly accountable for what it is one teaches/preaches in a church.

The Church Spider Web

The Presbyterian Church of Queensland is in a state of transition. We are still in receivership — though the matter that put us there is now before the courts (this week, and maybe for the next few years…).

Those responsible for leading us into receivership — and their cohort — have almost entirely stepped out of official leadership roles — whether that’s in office bearing capacity, committees, or denominational staff. There has been an amount of soul searching in moments where it looked like we might lose everything, and a number of reviews on our practice and culture, and even an attempt to articulate a theology of the church.

There are a number of lines of tension within the denomination as the chips fall and people grapple for places at various tables and to have their views on culture, practice, or theology embedded in our realigned structures.

It has been fascinating for me, personally, trying to account for how different points of conflict and agreement with different people — my own position — shaped, in part, by my own experiences and convictions is quite different to that of fellow members of courts and committees of the church. And I’ve been struggling to articulate how I can find myself in furious agreement with some folks on one issue, and then diametrically opposed on another.

So I started trying to unpack a little of what is going on. My first attempt at mapping out the differences was a two dimensional ‘compass’.

The two axis of this compass represented two spectrums that are at work in the Presbyterian Church — and maybe in other Reformed evangelical churches. The up down axis I have recognised for a while; I’ve described it as a tension or spectrum between the Reformed and the Reforming.

The Reformed — particularly in the Presbyterian Church of Australia (not just Queensland) are Presbyterians by conviction; committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith in full. They tend to view the Declaratory Statement as a weakness undermining the confessional Reformed faith. When an issue arises they look for clarity in the Confession as a guide; and where the confession is silent, increasingly, they aren’t looking to enact the liberty the Confession itself calls for, but to build out more black and white ‘confession like’ statements of theological consensus for the denomination to adhere to. This is, of course, a spectrum — there are differences along this axis in terms of, for example, the place of the law in the life of the Christian. The above the line end of this pole would also be where Calvinism is located (however one understands the essence of Calvinism), as opposed to Arminianism, though stong identification in the Reforming camp probably captures Calvin (and Luther’s) Spirit.

The reforming, within the denomination, are Presbyterian by convenience. Presbyterianism, with its broad evangelical framework, has, for some time been where you’d go to be a Sydney Anglican (basically) outside of Sydney. If you are, for example, committed to a Christ centered (or Christotelic) Biblical theology (the Bible as a narrative, rather than a rule book), and ministry built around the sort of Bebbington quadrilateral of evangelicalism, you probably land down this end. Presbyterianism is a good boat to fish from to do this kind of ministry. If you face an issue that appears novel, your instinct is to bring the Bible to the task of reforming the theology and practice of the church, rather than turning to the Confession. I think one way this tension along this axis could be described is in the tension that observably exists in theological colleges (especially confessional ones) between the Systematic theology department and the Biblical Studies department.

Some tensions within PCQ, and PCA, are because people occupy different places along this spectrum.

The left-right axis is an emerging tension; I mean, it may have been around for a while, but within the PCQ it is particularly being experienced as a tension between those looking to two groups. On the left hand side we have Reach Australia and its system emphasis, and almost — though they would not like to be described solely this way — its pragmatism. On this side of the spectrum faithfulness is measured in fruitfulness — and that fruit is not so much the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit in a person, or community of persons, but fruitfulness in conversion. On the right hand side we have our own internal body, created by our Committee for Ministry Resourcing, Healthy Churches, which emphasises personal spiritual health and the idea perhaps (at least as I would express it) of being a faithful presence; committed to cultivating spiritually healthy communities (that are also emotionally and relationally healthy) that offer something different to the world. At its worst, the pragmatic side embodies all of the strategies of the world — ala the Church Growth Movement; at its worst, the healthy church side is totally introspective and not at all interested in tools, techniques, or strategies geared towards (or measuring) outputs or results.

In this initial 2 dimensional compass I was plotting people in various quadrants. Here’s where I would have put myself:

While this had some explanatory power, there was a twofold problem that became clear the more I imaginatively plotted others on the graph, and the more I introduced the schema in conversation with other people from PCQ.

The first problem was that I think there are other axis — another point of tension within our denomination is around the nature of the Gospel itself and, in part, the way this shapes our politics (or engagement in justice versus, say, simply proclaiming the Gospel to secure an individual’s personal salvation (where Salvation is life in a sort of disembodied heavenly future). T

his axis plays out along the debate between an individualised emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement as ‘the Gospel’ and what might best be encompassed by the New Perspective on Paul (but also probably a traditional protestant/Catholic division). I’ve expressed it as ‘individual’ and ‘corporate’ — emphasising salvation in the descriptor of the axis, but our vision of salvation flows into our understanding of morality, ethics, and politics (I’d say some part of the classic ‘left/right’ tension plays out along a systems/individual spectrum).

So I tried to make a 3D graph, where I sit in ‘front of the page’ emphasising the corporate, while many of my brothers and sisters in modernist Reformed protestant churches are committed to a sort of individualism.

I became a little uncomfortable particularly through the introduction of this axis with the way each axis was reduced to a sort of binary in order to produce a single ‘plot point’. This is also true of the X and Y axes.

Reach Australia and its supporters would, of course, rightly claim that they are not disinterested in personal spiritual health; the difference is not binary but rather a matter of strength of conviction and emphasis. Most Healthy Churches folk are also thinking about things like buildings, and using technology and techniques for the day to day operation of their communities (though they may sometimes ask questions about the impacts of these technologies and techniques that others don’t). The people who gravitate to the fullest extremity of either pole on this axis become sort of caricatures (like Mark Driscoll maybe).

I started to wonder if a blob graph of sorts — or a Spider graph — would be a better representation of our ability to hold things in tension.

If I was simply graphing myself in this way on the initial two axis graph I’d look a little like this.

It’s harder to do a ‘blob’ on a 3D graph so I decided to flatten it, and as I did, I reflected a little more on my own experiences in church leadership and began to see correlations between different points on the existing axes (I reckon if you just picked the pole you emphasise you’d find ways that points interact that are similar to, for example, the way Intuition and Feeling intersect in the Myers Briggs schema).

Presbyterianism, classically, operates in a sort of polity or leadership tension somewhere between the top down ‘episcopal’ nature of Anglicanism, and the bottom up ‘congregational’ nature of the Baptist movement. There is, however, an emerging leadership style — not simply produced by pragmatism; sometimes produced by theology — the ‘pastor as CEO’ model, where accountability structures — or even the congregation — are seen as impediments to pursuing a vision.

This vision could be around a massive megachurch movement or an introspective house church movement; it is not necessarily wedded to a particular model — though it does explain certain denominational models — so it deserves its own axis. So. I give you the Christian Spider Web (I was, I admit, a little inspired by playing FIFA).

Here’s what it looks like when I plot myself on this model. I’ve found it helpful to both understand my own convictions and to be able to account for the overlapping similarities and differences I have with others. I’m not sure denominations can, or should, normalise a particular type (though some distinctives are features of different traditions).

There are other axis or poles one might add to this web; I had wondered about whether ‘pragmatic’ or ‘principled’ is the best descriptor or distinctive of those whose emphasise align with Reach Australia or Healthy Churches, or if the distinction is in, perhaps whether one reads the great commission as an instruction to make converts (through evangelism) or disciples (through transformation via worshipful obedience to the commands of Jesus) — or even whether one is extroverted and the other introverted (or introspective). Both of these could replace pragmatic/principled or be their own pole, though I think they intersect in interesting ways around the current principled/pragmatic line. I suspect, too, that those who emphasise Healthy Churches would have a view of evangelism that sees it best produced in and through a healthy alternative plausibility structure following the ways of Jesus, not the ways of the world, much as the pragmatic folks would see obedience to Jesus expressed in evangelism (and participation in the life of the church community or event) — though there’s a sense, on this axis, that what you win them with you win them to, and it’s not necessarily that people hold a tension or move from left to right. In many cases in this schema there’s a ‘both/and’ but the tension is resolved differently by different people with the end result being church communities that look and feel substantially different.

Anyway. Would love to know your thoughts on whether this sort of tool is useful for thinking about yourself, or your relationship with others within the church.

On AI and (Christian) thought pieces

Generative AI has been described as a “stochastic parrot”; it’s a technology that operates on predictability without necessarily understanding the relationship between words.

I think this is a fair criticism — but after almost a year of life with Chat GPT, I still wonder if the technology works as a mirror; revealing just how much content generation — regardless of platform — is produced by stochastic parrots. The recent commentary on, say, the Barbie Movie, demonstrates a phenomenon where any given writer from any given stable brings a predictable pre-constructed grid to assessing an issue.

We all do this — I’m not excluding myself. Just a few weeks ago I preached a sermon where I referenced David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech again. Everybody worships. Indeed.

I’ve played around with teaching GPT various ‘hammers’ or grids that Aussie Christian thought leaders bring to any given issue, and then asking it to write thought pieces; with reasonable results. I’ve used them to poke and prod The Gospel Coalition Australia editor (and friend) Mikey Lynch, who has recently updated TGCAU’s submission policy to include regulation of the use of generative AI.

None of this is new; when the printing press was invented, where words were produced by blocking together sets of metal letters and smashing them onto paper, printers would have ‘cliches’ or ‘stereotypes’ — common words or phrases — that would save time in reproduction. Because humans are predictable.

I tried asking GPT if it could choose the third most predictable word in various sentences, but it won’t play that game. It is nothing, if not predictable.

Anyway, there’s a story on FoxSports today about an NRL site (that’s National Rugby League for those not living on the east coast of Australia) about a cliche writing reporter who forgot to remove their GPT instructions before hitting publish. They’d fed GPT an article by someone else, and asked it to rewrite the piece in ways that would avoid plagiarism detection and hit the audience just right. Because what is more predictable and cliche driven than sport’s reporting.

So. For funsies. And, seeing a gap in the Aussie market — I primed GPT with some work from the website Mere Orthodoxy in the U.S; who I’d describe as TGC adjacent but hitting a different tone, and a different market. I asked GPT to read and understand a recent article on Mere Orthodoxy by Jake Meador about dechurching, and then, well, I’ll leave in my prompts. Like with most creative technology, I reckon, these generative AI tools can produce cliches, or hold up a mirror, but there’s scope for fun and creativity before you pick up the tools in trying to break the stereotypes. I don’t think the article below is good, but I do think it’s funny and I’m glad it exists.

I wonder if there’s something we can learn from the stochastic parrot nature of Christian thought leadership where we might either lean in to various traditions (and stop seeking individual brilliance and ‘thought leadership’), or simply acknowledging that we’re a bunch of readers looking for the right tool (or hammer) to whack the world into shape with — and then ask questions about how adequate that is as a model of engagement. I’m sure there are various middle grounds between those positions. I’m also genuinely thankful for Mikey’s editing of TGC and his ‘ahead of the curve’ introduction of policies that should reduce the sort’ve pablum produced by machines; the next step is the ongoing reduction of the pablum produced by human stochastic parrots masquerading as machines on the Internet (and I think his editorial intuitions are already doing good work in that space). You, non-stochastic parrots should pitch Mikey some stories.

Anyway. Here’s my article pitched for TGC (in violation of its policies), written by Chat GPT.

Prompt: I would like you to rewrite the article using the following parameters. The article must be written for an Australian audience, bringing in specifically Australian concerns about dechurching and Australian factors contributing to secularisation. It will be written by an Australian author using Australian english and idioms. Instead of being for Mere Orthodoxy this piece will be published by the Gospel Coalition; please format it accordingly in a way that will avoid any plagiarism detection. Make it brilliant with flowing prose. The sort of article that people will read, understand, and seek to share to grow the author’s platform and the readership of the site.

Unmasking the Quiet Exodus: Unraveling the Threads of Australian Dechurching

G’day, mates! We find ourselves in a land of sunburnt shores, where the kangaroos roam and the Vegemite flows. But beyond the beauty of this vast land, there’s a subtle shift occurring in the spiritual landscape Down Under. The echoes of church bells are fading, replaced by the hum of everyday life. This piece, penned in true blue Aussie spirit, delves deep into the unique dance between faith and secularisation in Australia, where footy isn’t just a sport; it’s a way of life.

The Aussie Exodus:

Let’s not beat around the bush, cobbers. We’ve got ourselves an exodus, but not the dramatic kind with parted seas. No, this one’s a quiet fade-away, like a koala in the gum trees. The big question on everyone’s lips is, “Why, oh why, are we drifting from the pews?”

A Fair Dinkum Dilemma:

Sure, we’ve got our fair share of fair dinkum believers who’ve seen the light. They’re chuckin’ a sickie from church, and you know what, it’s not just the beach that’s stealing their attention. But hold onto your Akubra, because there’s more to this tale.

Aussie Idolatry:

We’ve got to face it, folks—idolatry isn’t just a biblical buzzword. In a country where the “footy, meat pies, kangaroos, and Holden cars” mantra runs strong, other commitments often shove church time off the to-do list. Remember, mates, even Crocodile Dundee needs his priorities right.

Footy versus Fellowship:

Here’s the kicker: footy and fellowship are duking it out like a couple of crocs in a waterhole. Whether it’s the Aussie Rules or the NRL, sports are taking center stage. Little tackers are being coached by Sunday morning schedules, and faith is slipping through the goalposts. Time to ask ourselves, is the sacred Sunday becoming a try-scoring opportunity for secularisation?

A Sunburnt Shame:

But it’s not just sports, blokes and sheilas. We’ve got the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” hanging over us like a storm cloud. “Who does he think he is?” we mutter as someone strides forward with their faith. Aussie humility sometimes locks faith away, hidden from prying eyes. It’s like we’re whispering, “She’ll be right, mate.”

Beauty in Battling:

True blue believers, don’t chuck a wobbly just yet. There’s beauty in battling. Our roots run deep, like eucalyptus trees searching for water. The land of Vegemite and Tim Tams is waking up to the fact that our anchor lies in unity, in community, in the embrace of faith as we chase the sunrise.


So, there you have it, legends. As the Southern Cross lights up our night sky, we grapple with the rise of the secular sun. But fear not, for the land of Oz is rich with a history of triumph against the odds. Our challenges are as real as a snag on the barbie, but our resilience is as true as a mate’s handshake. Let’s crack open a cold one (of wisdom) and raise a toast to tackling dechurching, one Vegemite-slathered step at a time.

About the Author:

[Author’s Name] is a fair dinkum Aussie who’s not afraid to wrestle with life’s big questions while enjoying a cuppa. When not wrangling words, you’ll find [Author’s Name] enjoying the beach, barbies, and a good ol’ yarn. Follow [Author’s Name] on social media and join the conversation about faith, footy, and all things Down Under.

Note: This article has been crafted to meet the provided parameters, including the use of Australian English and idioms. The formatting has been adjusted to align with the style commonly seen on The Gospel Coalition’s website, with the author’s name and details added for authenticity. The content seeks to engage Australian readers while addressing concerns about dechurching and secularisation specific to Australia.

Unicorn Church

I was bouncing some ideas around with a friend the other day; unpacking some of my frustrations with the institutional status quo of churches and denominations and movements grappling with ministry and mission — with being the people of God — in post-Christian Australia.

I have a handful of pebbles in my shoe around the Presbyterian Church of Australia (and its federated state-based expressions) as we respond to various challenges in the culture by circling the wagons. An article by Kevin De Young, a Presbyterian minister in the United States, about a book about his friend Tim Keller gave me a certain sort of language for what’s going on in our denomination, and what it feels like to be more aligned with Tim Keller’s approach than De Young’s. Watching the eulogising of Keller by the people who take De Young’s approach (at the expense of Keller’s) felt like being gaslit. Anyway, the De Young piece in First Things included this paragraph:

Though I hope to be kind and careful, my public ministry has often involved correcting error, guarding the truth, and warning against creeping liberalism. By contrast, though Keller usually lands squarely on the traditional side of doctrinal matters, he has a public ministry focused on making the gospel attractive to outsiders, staying out of intramural theological disputes, and warning against extremes. You might say I specialize in building walls, and Keller specializes in building bridges. 

Bridges or walls.

Our denomination has responded to a changing culture, in the main (not necessarily at the level of every local church) by building walls; walls with good defensive positions from which to launch projectiles at “the culture” (whoever isn’t behind our walls).

And a good defensive position sometimes means either bringing up the bridge (turning it into a drawbridge) or burning it. And it’s tiring and a self-defeating strategy that requires not taking any new ground for one’s kingdom, and maintaining a birth rate (or increasing it) in order to sustain the thing behind the walls or to expand it. I’ve written a couple of things about these dynamics within the Presbyterian Church over the years, including a submission to a review of how we operate in Queensland, and I fear things are getting worse, not better.

De Young reckons Keller would’ve said we need both bridge builders and wall builders. I’m not sure an institution built on wall maintenance has a future, especially when the walls are built in the wrong place — out of reaction against people — and so exclude those seeking life within them. If the walls are meant to mark out those who have received life in Jesus, by his Spirit, then excluding those whom God has included is a problem. Our approach to this problem has been, I think, to legitimise building such institutions around, say, the “Reformed Tradition,” because there are other places with other walls where one can find that life. I think that sort of differentiation might turn out to be both ill-advised, and a luxury in a culture where the walls can be less porous and where Christendom’s still kinda a thing. I’m not one of those ‘the sky is falling in’ types who is devastated by the loss of Christendom; and I think we have to keep acknowledging that secularism and its ethical vision, in the west, are still profoundly shaped by Christian values (even the left who want justice, liberty and dignity for humans; to liberate people from oppressive structures — that’s Christian right there), but I do think it’s patently obvious that a ‘secular age’ has dawned (in part through maximised choice about what to believe), and that we’re in for a period of being a minority who’re being called to account for what the church did when it enjoyed political and social power.

Anyway. This bridge building v wall building paradox (or simply a commitment to bridge building) stuck itself firmly in my craw, and has created a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my institution; which seems committed to building walls on matters of race (where we’ll build walls on acknowledgments of country and the Voice to parliament), on sexuality, and on the full participation of women in the life of the church (even if one holds convictions about different roles for men and women, at the moment you couldn’t say we’ve fully imagined a mutual and cooperative co-labouring in the mission of the Gospel as fellow workers). The catch is, I’ve looked at the denominational or institutional landscape on offer in Australia and found all the alternatives suitably lacking. So in this conversation with my friend Dave Benson — who I’ll name because I’m about to quote (badly), I sketched out what I’d love to see in a church network (and hey, it could be within an always reforming Presbyterian Church) not just responding to the challenges of the present time, but as an expression of who we’re actually called by Jesus to be. I described this sort of church as a ‘unicorn’ — I’ve described some of this previously as a church for the “excluded middle”; ignored and alienated by a culture war.

A few days after reading the De Young piece, I happened to listen to a podcast interview where Dave described a church he’d been part of establishing here in Brisbane — there’s much that resonates with me about his vision for church in this interview, but nothing more than when he described what I think is an even more Biblical vision for church than bridge building. Dave talks about his in-laws experience as livestock farmers, and how farmers gather their animals. In a sheep farm fences have some use — but if you want the sheep to gather together in a spot, you don’t build a tiny paddock with a strong fence to contain them; you build a well.

Wells are a profoundly cool thing in the Bible — there’s a bunch’ve well-building projects in Genesis that are little ‘living water bubbling up to give life’ moments; where husbands meet wives and there’s the possibility of Edenic life on display. In Jeremiah God is described as “living water” and idolatry is described as ‘drinking from broken cisterns’ or wells; and the Hebrew word for well is beer. Which is fun. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and offers her living water he’s offering her life connected to the source; a return from exile; an invitation into Eden. Wouldn’t it be great if we conceived of the project of being the church as being little Edens — little wells — connecting people to the source of life and confident in the drawing power of the Gospel; of the person of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit (which hey, it turns out is what Living water is as we get a little further into John’s Gospel). What would happen to our vision of church and our approach to forming a community if we weren’t trying to keep people in or out with a wall, but inviting people to drink?

What would a denomination look like if it was committed to this? How would we approach contentious political, cultural, or ethical questions? Or the people experiencing those lived realities? We might see that transformed lives actually come from drinking that water, and that some of our fences or walls keep people out who might otherwise be changed; they might be brought from death to life; from exile from God to restoration to life in his presence. Wouldn’t that be amazing.

Anyway. In spelling out a little of where I think we’ve built fences not walls, in my conversation with Dave, I laid out some areas that I’d love to see at the heart of a network or denomination that I reckon would be ‘building a well’ that might draw people towards life in a pretty dry and dusty landscape.

I’d love a church that embraces a “Bible Project style Biblical Theology” rather than a systematic theology/doctrinal framework that is used to build walls — I say this not because the Bible Project gets everything right, but because too often denominations and traditions create an authority structure that is used to police people and frame our engagement with the Bible, and these structures tend to impose human constructions that are a product of time and place and expertise on how we approach the Bible. Biblical scholarship is good — and we’re always learning more about the richness of the Biblical text, especially read as a unified story that leads to Jesus (which is kinda what Jesus himself says it is). So much ‘wall building’ is bad traditionalism. We protestants even claim to be the church always reforming. A rich Biblical Theology is exciting and it gives the Bible back to people who’ve experienced the worst forms of abuse, exclusion, and trauma as a way to encounter God and be drawn into his life, as it is revealed in Jesus and poured out to us in God’s Spirit as both the fulfilment of the Bible’s narrative and our invitation to participate in that story.

I’d love a church that thinks about politics and ‘the systems’ and cities we live in through the spiritual lens the Bible provides where we see powers and principalities at work dragging people away from God so are more keen not to just bring those powers into the church as though they don’t need to be crucified, and radically altered (technology and techniques from the business world might be ‘wisdom’ that can be plundered, but they aren’t ‘neutral’ if they’re left in the form of a golden calf).

I’d love a church denomination that embraces a Side B sexual ethic — one that offers a positive vision of what life as an LGBTIQA+ person — or any person — with what has been described as a “vocation of yes” — a sense of how to faithfully steward our bodies in response to things we might otherwise sinfully desire, as an expression of living out our new story. So much wall building is built around ‘saying no’ and excluding those who might find new life in Jesus in a way that radically alters (altars even) the way we approach sex and our desires. I feel like LGBTIQA+ Christians committed to a Biblical/traditional view of sex and marriage and trying to work that out ‘in the flesh’ are caught between a progressive and affirming church and a church that wants to leave these folks outside the walls to be hit by projectiles, and there are few (if any) denominations built on saying “come to the waters and find life and work out what faithfulness looks like securely planted in Jesus and his people.”

Alongside this, I reckon it’d be great to have a church with a theology of the body — and of place and beauty — a vision for creation that doesn’t just reduce these physical things to ‘potential objects of worship or temptation’ but finds ways to encounter the physical world to glorify and enjoy God as the source of these good created things (and people). This would be transformative not just for how we approach questions of non-straight sexuality, but, for example — would counter both ‘purity culture’ and ‘porn culture’ (where bodies are reduced to tempting objects), and how we think about money, and generosity, and art, and architecture, and the full and abundant life we are called to. It’d be nice to have a positive vision at the heart of a movement; not just a commitment to avoiding sin. This might be part of building a well.

I’d love a church with a non-hierarchical, mutualist (and genuinely inclusive — regardless of sex, age, race, etc) approach to governance that avoids the pitfalls of congregationalism and top-down authoritarianism. This is tricky to build in to a church culture, but one would have to value listening, and the limits to growth and ‘productivity’ produced by such a structure. This also means rethinking how we approach metrics; I’d love a network that encourages and supports kingdom growth in various forms and expressions that isn’t wedded to raising money to expand one’s own little kingdom; or to the machine — to efficiency and technology and the market.

I’d love a church that appropriately holds Gospel clarity (proclamation) together with Gospel charity (deeds/justice etc), not as a tension or paradox, but just as a picture of integrity. It’d love this to include avoiding bad syncretistic church politicking that aligns with either conservatisve or progressive politics.

And a church where we all get to ride unicorns.

This is what a church that offers life — functioning as a well — would look like for me (and I’m aware that there’re plenty of wall builders whose bricklaying reflexes have been triggered by this stuff who’d now be keen to exclude me, and other cynics who just reckon this is motherhood and apple pie stuff that’s all good in theory and abstraction). These are the values — the distinctives even — that we’re trying to embody as a church community in the little corner of the church I belong in, in ways that have been rich (at least for me).

The really big paradigm shift here isn’t in the political or technical stuff — though that’s part of it — it’s in a shift in posture from defensive and pessimistic; a constant vigilance because we don’t want sinners in the camp or sinful ideas corrupting us , to a posture that is confident and invitational — where we want sinners in the camp, and at the table — drinking from the well — because that’s how God works to transform people.

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe a utopian church is possible, and institutions have a tendency towards become corrupted, sure — but I’m experienced enough in the machinations of church to know that there aren’t many churches reacting to a rapidly changing cultural context by asking ‘how do we build more wells’ rather than ‘how do we build more walls.’

I reckon if you’d like to be part of a church like this then the only thing really stopping us is not having enough wells. And, like the people of God in Genesis, maybe we should start digging so that life might bubble out. And if you have your own vision for a unicorn church — or what building wells looks like — hit me up. I think it’s time to break new ground.

A voice to the church

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

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

Here’s what I said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A supposedly fun thing I’ll probably do again…

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

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

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

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

* Technically not a friend, or sentient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turns out it could…

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


Djokovic as Technocratic Testament: A Study in Precision and Automation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Samaritan Woman

We’re working our way through John’s Gospel at church at the moment.

We start each year with a Gospel, which means I plan to be in each Gospel once every four years, which means not just doing verse by verse expository stuff each time, so, on this run through we’re looking at how John presents Jesus as the new Exodus — the end of exile from God and the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise that God would gather up the lost tribes of Judah and Israel; and perhaps even the nations; reversing the exiles we read about in the Old Testament — Judah to Babylon, Israel to Assyria, and humanity from Eden — bringing us back into the life and presence of God, and recreating us through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

It’s super rich. And it’s everywhere in John. Exodus itself is full of creation themes from Genesis (and we’re going to the book of Exodus in term 2), and the prophets — especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are full of new Exodus and ‘return to Eden’ imagery; full of living water and renewal and God gathering people back to himself. Jesus taps into Exodus themes every time he says “I am…”, but often that’s followed up with an image directly linked to these promises in the prophets. Jesus also keeps saying that the scriptures (the Old Testament) testify to him; so I suspect both he, and John as the author of the Gospel, want us to notice these allusions.

John is rich literature. And, while I’m a fan of what you might call historical-critical exegesis, I’m not sure it’s sufficient for dealing with John (or anything, really), which also requires a degree of sensitivity to literature — and to the editorial vision John keeps pointing us to; to his acknowledgement that he could’ve filled countless books with stories about Jesus but the ones he’s told, and how he’s told them, are so his first audience might believe (and presumably, so we might too).

We can get into the weeds a bit with historical-critical exegesis; and various forms of critical scholarship from a modern perspective, and I fear that’s happening with the incredible story of the Samaritan woman at the well. You can listen to (or watch if you like that sort of thing) my own sermon on this story.

There’s been lots of fantastic work done on the status of women, and of marriage in the first century; especially in both the Roman context and the hellenistic Jewish context of the second temple period (and presumably the Samaritan context intersects with these). There’s a Rabbinic debate about divorce laws from the Old Testament (both Deuteronomy and possibly Exodus 21) that’ve left divorce in the hands of men (mostly); and it’s exactly this debate that Jesus is invited into in Matthew 19. There’s great work by New Testament scholar Dr. Lynn Cohick on the potential historical situations — both systemic and individual — affecting this Samaritan woman; countering the traditional (patriarchal) view that kinda views this woman negatively in the way that the same blokes tend to see Bathsheba as a temptress rather than David as a rapist. Her book is titled Women In The World of The Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. It’s an academic book (published by Baker Academic).

Dr Cohick’s section on the woman at the well digs into various social and historical factors that may have shaped her reality to remind us to be hesitant, as readers, not only to label this woman as some sort of deviant harlot, but also to see what you might call the social powers and principalities that could be at work to put her in a very strange position, historically unprecedented (according to the records we have) of having had five husbands. To put her own argument in her own words, Cohick says:

The Samaritan woman’s story (John 4) has captured my attention for many years, not in small part because I believe her story has been misunderstood by many readers, in particular that she is immoral. John narrates that Jesus meets this woman at noon by a well and asks her for water. Jesus tells her that he is living water, and that she has had five husbands but her current companion is not her husband. From these slim details, most commentators suggest that she is a dissolute woman. Given the social norms of the day, however, I suggest a different reading.

This reading includes elements like:

The point that the Samaritan woman was married five times should not necessarily strike the reader as indicating promiscuity—perhaps she was just very unlucky. Other biblical characters had suffered similar loss, such as Naomi. The data from our period does not yield another example of someone having five spouses, but some people were married three times. While a few elite might divorce even twice to better climb the social ladder, there is no record of someone divorcing five times. There is also no testimony of someone being widowed five times, but unfortunately it was common to lose two spouses during one’s lifetime. If the Samaritan woman fits this pattern, we might expect that she was widowed a few times and perhaps divorced, or was divorced, a few times. Because neither situation necessarily casts a shadow over one’s character, we cannot assume that her marriage history made her a social pariah.


It is unclear whether the Samaritans followed the Roman practice allowing either spouse to initiate divorce. There is no record from this time of any woman filing for divorce more than one time; such behavior was a rare occurrence and happened at the social level of the Roman elite… If it seems highly unlikely that the Samaritan woman was divorced five times, it is entirely credible that she was a widow several times, given the high death rate in that era. According to Josephus, the Herodian princess Berenice had been widowed twice and had borne two children by age twenty-two. We do not know the age of the Samaritan woman, but we cannot rule out that she was a widow at a young age… Her current relationship, with a man Jesus identified as not her husband, might be classified as concubinage, not an unusual situation within the larger Greco-Roman world. Perhaps she was in this relationship because the man was a Roman citizen and could not legally marry beneath his social rank. Or perhaps this arrangement was made precisely to prevent any children she might bear in the relationship from inheriting his wealth…


In sum, we can devise any number of scenarios to explain why the Samaritan woman had five husbands and is currently not married to the man she lives with. As the narrative unfolds in John, Jesus does not explicitly condemn her situation. Moreover, the villagers accept her testimony that a prophet is among them—hardly a reaction one would imagine if she was without any moral scruples… In the final analysis, the Samaritan woman has been harshly treated by centuries of commentators who have labeled her a promiscuous vixen bent on seducing unsuspecting men, and who therefore becomes the village pariah… Thus it seems unlikely that the Samaritan woman was involved in a series of divorces that she initiated. It remains an open question whether her husbands chose to divorce her.

I think she does good historical work; and it’s worth noting that it remains “an open question” whether her husbands chose to divorce her; her point is simply that the narrative doesn’t say about this woman a whole load of things that modern, western, preachers have been keen to say about her in order to individualise both her, and her sin (often in ways that have been dehumanising and objectifying).

There’s another book that’s more geared towards the popular level, bringing this sort of academic work into the public conversation, by Dr. Caryn Reeder, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 after #churchtoo, that is an excellent example of what one can do with historical critical criticism of the traditional, male-centred, interpretation of this story.

Dr. Reeder travels similar historical ground to Dr Cohick. Both these authors do some great work deconstructing problematic historical-critical interpretations typically (but not exclusively) put together by white men (and so centred on a particularly male reading of the text). Reeder highlights particularly egregious readings offered through church history, including by Calvin, but leading all the way up to horrid modern applications (and she has receipts in the form of quotes) by folks like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who in typically bombastic misogynistic style called her “the dirty, leathery faced, town whore.” Her treatment of Calvin reveals both her view of Reformed theology, and the problems with Calvin’s dehumanising treatment of this woman (I do think it’s bad). She says:

Calvin’s Samaritan woman was a representative example of this theological narrative. Like any human, she could do no good, and so Calvin interpreted every word she spoke through the lens of sin. For someone like this, only the sting of divine judgment could incite her to accept the grace of God. This was why, Calvin explained, Jesus brought up her marital history in the first place. Even if a woman was not a prostitute like the Samaritan woman, and even if a man had not committed a “terrible crime,” everyone sinned in some way, and therefore no one deserved God’s grace. For Calvin, Jesus’ actions in John 4:4-42 demonstrated the availability of the gift of salvation for all. Equally, the Samaritan woman’s immediate acceptance of Jesus’ judgment provided a model of repentance, obedience, and acceptance of the teachers God provides. For Calvin, the Samaritan woman symbolized both the weight of sin, and the grace of undeserved salvation.

I think Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity (as it has been called) is misunderstood and misrepresented both by Calvinists, and those who don’t like Calvinism as something more like absolute depravity; it strikes me that Calvin’s view of total depravity is more grounded in the idolatrous heart that is both a factory of false images of God, and in the Augustinian way of describing things ‘turned in on itself’ such that all our actions, even when they are not absolutely depraved (but even reflect the image of God in us) are still tainted by this. I don’t think it’s true that the woman could do ‘no good’ in a paradigm that sees sin working in this way, but I do believe it is true that “everyone sinned in some way” in such a way that I might be less inclined to want to exonerate the Samaritan woman than Reeder is (I’d certainly want to exonerate her from some of the ways Calvin painted her as a sinner through his reading of the text).

Reeder describes the patriarchal reading of the text that paints the woman as a sexual sinner — even a prostitute — as “the majority reading,” she conducted a study of 40 different Christian texts (blog posts, sermons, articles etc) from a 20 year period (2000-2020), and found 26 adopting this ‘majority’ take; while “eight of the forty represented the Samaritan woman as a victim rather than a seductress, with only six moving beyond sexuality as an essential element of John 4:4-42.” One of the ways a western bias plays out here is to emphasise sexual sin as the primary problem, or at least expression, of the woman’s thirst, so that the interaction around the number of husbands is designed to expose this individual sin that needs forgiveness. Reeder pivots from this survey to consider the social changes that have occurred in the last hundred years, and essentially the way the church has turned to purity culture in response to porn culture, where both are different sides of the same coin that reduces women to their sexuality; and this lens is what she sees being brought to this story.

Now. I don’t like purity culture. I don’t like porn culture. I have made very similar points to Reeder in my writing and preaching over the years. But I don’t think rejecting purity culture means rejecting the idea that sin can intersect with our sexuality, or that some things that men and women do sexually — whether products of systemic evils or not — need forgiveness. My concern is that Reeder pushes the corrective against patriarchal reduction of women’s bodies to sex objects slightly too far; not that it is wrong to give women (and the Samaritan woman) both agency, and to recognise the systemic challenges they faced where they had to make the best of male sin against them (kinda like Bathsheba does), but I’m not sure we have to land in a position where we say the Samaritan woman was definitely not adulterous, or definitely sexually pure and in no need of forgiveness and that Jesus’ question is not at all designed to invite her into covenant faithfulness (through forgiveness and restoration). I think it’s very worth asking these historical questions and recognising the complex dynamics we’re simply not told about in the narrative, and these should stop us reducing the story to moral lessons about sexual desire and purity, especially in ways that present women as temptresses and sexual objects.

Dr Reeder writes:

Until very recently in Christian tradition, sexual intercourse was correlated with sin. The only sanctioned option for a sexual relationship was marriage, but even sex with one’s own spouse was (often) morally suspect. Contemporary interpreters are more likely to celebrate marital sex, but nonmarital sex remains apparently the worst sin a person—especially a woman—can commit. By these standards, a woman who had at least six sexual relationships, one of which was not marital, can be condemned as a sinner. Interpreters assume some or all of the woman’s husbands divorced her because she had sex with other men. Since they also claim that divorce was uncommon in the first century, her multiple divorces are seriously problematic.

I’m simply not convinced — even as much as I can recognise my own bias — that the weight of Biblical data means that the correction against a wrong view that sees “sexual intercourse” as “sin”, or even bad purity culture that centres the male gaze, is to declare nonmarital sex ‘non sinful’ and/or to remove sin from the equation altogether when it comes to John 4.

Dr Reeder continues:

According to the majority interpretation of John 4:4-42, then, the Samaritan woman’s marital history is the result of her own choices, decisions, and actions. Very few interpreters pay attention to the men in the woman’s story. Those who do often imply that the woman’s husbands are the victims of her immorality. All women tempt men into sexual sin, whether they intend to or not. But a woman like this, who—interpreters claim—acted out of her own desire to initiate sexual relationships with men, perverts pious, chaste womanhood.

There’ve been a lot of bad sermons preached on John 4. As I said… Dr. Reeder has receipts. And, despite my reservations with some of what I might see as an overcorrection, she offers a much better reading of John 4 than those she critiques.

There’s a series of other resources from the world of blogs (both academic and pop level) that draw on the insights of Cohick and Reeder to have us re-imagining the woman at the well. It’s worth reading Marg Mowczko, Lyn Kidson, Scott McKnight, Ian Paul, and Cameron McAdam for examples of better historical-critical treatment of the narrative than you’ll get in the traditional male-centred view.

In introducing a summary of her academic essay on the woman at the well, Dr Kidson writes:

“It strikes me that those who take it that the Samaritan women is an adulteress are suffering from a Western bias. We must remember that for those who lived in the ancient world the average life expectancy was quite low – 30-40 years – once a person got beyond childhood. Further, the death rate for rural workers was higher than those in the urban centres because they were exposed to greater risks. All this points to the woman at the well as being a tragic figure worthy of our compassion.”

And yet.

When I preached this passage a few weeks ago I did so unconvinced that the historical-critical method, even a feminist-criticism approach, is the way to engage with this story. I think these scholars and writers do a good job of deconstructing bad western individual patriarchal views of the woman that import various western purity culture visions of individual sex and individual sin into the mix, but I’m not sure they’ve served us well with alternatives to a method of engaging with the text that is also a product of western bias.

I’m theologically wired to think that every human we meet in the Bible — other than Jesus — is going to be a sinner (at an individual level); that there are no real heroes in the Biblical story, and that reductions of any stories to hero and villain are going to be problematic. This is why I have no problem, for example, seeing the narrative portraying David as a rapist; I do not need David to be a perfectly sinless leader lured into sin by a temptress in order to see him as the author of many Psalms and the one whose line produces God’s good shepherd; the Messiah, Jesus Christ the son of David. Bathsheba is not portrayed as guilty in any way in that narrative. She is obeying the requirements of the law when her king sends soldiers to take her (word for word, or verb for verb, following a pattern of ‘see’ and ‘take’ that began in Genesis 3). Bathsheba is innocent in that story, but this does not mean Bathsheba maintains sinlessness her whole life and never has need to repent. This feels odd to write; but some of the treatments of the story of the woman at the well suggest that because Jesus does not explicitly call her to repent of particular sin that there is no need to read sin into the story.

I’d suggest the need to read particular individual sin into a story — particularly sexual sin — is a pretty western assumption whether you are doing it, or you are looking for it and not finding it.

Here’s what I think is missing in the interpretations of the woman at the well I’ve highlighed above; those that want us to use the historical-critical method (bringing data from the historical context) into our interpretation in order to redeem the woman from the dehumanising power of the patriarchy — I don’t think these readings (on the whole) are engaging with John as literature, and I don’t think they’re recognising the relational dynamic of sin in the Old Testament; that the problem the woman needs solved is not just forgiveness for particular sin she has committed as an individual (though that’s certainly part of the story of the Gospel, she needs liberation and restoration to the life of God because of the systems she participates in (even if she is a victim of those systems). Her problem is not primarily framed in the narrative as her being a sinner, but her being an exile as a result of false worship; of drawing water from the wrong well. We might run quickly to the idea that this is a metaphor for sex — when she leaves the bucket behind at the end of her story; but the Bible kinda flips this where actually sexual sin is a picture of spiritual alienation — adultery is a metaphor for idolatry (and idolatry, including the worship of sex, or idolatrous representations of sex and pleasure, often produces sexual sin). There’s a whole other online debate and debacle where our inability to tease out this metaphor is looming pretty large right now.

The reason I don’t think these articles and books are ultimately as helpful as they could be — even if they offer a necessary corrective to bad readings within the paradigm — the paradigm that reduces this story and its meaning to an historical interaction between two individual people — is that I don’t think these readings, on the whole, recognise that John is positioning Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies about the end of exile; including for the Northern Kingdoms of Israel, who by the first century were the Samaritans. And I don’t think they see the woman as an archetypal picture of this exile, and her restoration into the life of God as exactly what Jesus came to do — so I do think the interaction with Jesus around her husbands is meant to position her as, at the very least, a divorcee — if not an adulterer.

John 4 is rich with allusions to the Old Testament — the woman and Jesus meet at Jacob’s Well — now, in Genesis, Jacob doesn’t dig any wells that we’re told about (his father digs a whole stack). But Jacob does meet his future wife Rachel at a well, just as Isaac met Rebekah, and Moses would later meet Zipporah. A man meeting a wife at a well is an Old Testament type scene; one we should maybe have in mind because John the Baptist has just called Jesus the “bridegroom” three times in the preceding verses. Jesus offers the woman living water; which comes up a bunch of times conceptually in the Old Testament — life giving waters are flowing through the Garden and into the world in Genesis 2, the return from exile is pictured as God bringing back life to the world through water that creates a new Eden all through the prophets (and especially in Ezekiel). There seems to me to be a pretty important reference to living water and choosing what well to drink from though in Jeremiah 2.

Jeremiah 2 is a prophecy against the northern kingdom of Israel; as opposed to the kingdom of Judah who become the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The Northern Kingdom, by Jesus’ day, don’t exist as the Northern kingdom of Israel; they have become so intermingled with the Gentiles and their gods that they now go by a different name: Samaritans.

In Jeremiah 2 God says, through Jeremiah:

I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
    the firstfruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
    and disaster overtook them.”

Israel was a bride to God. As God led them through the wilderness in the Exodus. But now, Israel has forsaken him; “the living water” for broken cisterns (that’s wells) (Jer 2:13). Jeremiah says the water from these wells — or the rivers of Egypt and Assyria (2:18) — wouldn’t satisfy or bring life (2:36). Which. When you think about it, is what Jesus says to the woman about the well she is drinking from.

The well is a metaphor. Just like the living water he offers. Just as the wells and rivers in Jeremiah were a metaphor for seeking life in the nations where they would be sent into exile; and from their gods. This is a description of idolatry.

The woman is both a person; an individual; and a literary character demonstrating something about the mission of Jesus. John tells us her story for a reason beyond simply overthrowing the patriarchy by demonstrating how a man can treat a woman without shaming or objectifying her — and it does more than simply establish the woman as a model responder to Jesus (though she is).

I’m not sure positioning the woman as unlucky is the point John is trying to make in the narrative. The woman is a Samaritan; one of the lost sheep of the northern tribes of Israel meeting the good shepherd. She is an unmarried woman meeting a bridegroom at a well. She is offered the same living water that her ancestors were said to have rejected in Jeremiah in a way that led to her exile.

Jeremiah starts out talking about the people who became Samaritans as his bride; and he pivots, in chapter 3, to a well attested Old Testament picture of idolatry at this point. Adultery. And to divorce for adultery as a picture of exile. Of the conditions that lead Israel’s northern kingdoms to become Samaritans. He also promises future restoration from that exile…

Jeremiah says:

“I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. “

Now. This isn’t just about the women of Israel and Judah; all the people are metaphorically presented as women. But. God has divorced Israel — and then Judah — for their idolatry; presented as adultery — and they are sent into exile as a result.

The promise Jeremiah offers both Israel and Judah is that God will remarry them.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…. In those days the people of Judah will join the people of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.”

The Samaritan people are presented in Jeremiah — like the Jewish people — as unfaithful adulterous people (a bit like Hosea’s wife is in the book of Hosea) who turned to the wrong source of water and so were divorced, but God says he will be their husband again if they return.

In John a Samaritan woman meets the man we’ve been told is God tabernacling in the world, who has just been called the bridegroom. He meets her at a well. Where men meet wives. He invites her back into true worship and offers her living water.

That’s a pretty compelling literary reading where the woman is an archetype (as well as an individual), and this reading relies, a little, on Jesus establishing the idea that she is unmarried and perhaps adulterous; but it presents the real issue not as her promiscuity or particular sin, but her alienation from God because of unfaithfulness expressed in false worship. Returning to true worship will necessarily involve repentance that reshapes how one approaches sex and fidelity; that the narrative doesn’t dig into that specifically doesn’t mean it’s not there; as westerners we’ve tended to see repentance as turning from particular individual sins, rather than about returning to God’s presence, and into restored relationship as image bearers who worship God and represent God’s life in the world. But that’s what’s happening in the story.

Of all the material I’ve surveyed above only two, Reeder and McKnight, refer to Jeremiah as background for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Both Paul and McKnight draw on Reeder and Cohick in their ‘reframing’ the discussion around John 4; Mowczko draws on Cohick (and others).

Here’s what Reeder says:

These associations are deepened by the water imagery that flows through the Bible. Wisdom, righteousness, and the fear of the Lord are represented as living springs in Proverbs (Prov 10:11, 13:14, 14:27, 16:22). In Jeremiah 2:13, God is a spring of living water. Wells of salvation, springs of water, and rivers flooding the land symbolize the salvation of Israel’s restoration from exile in Isaiah (Is 12:3, 41:17-18, 44:3, 49:10, 55:1, 58:11).

She also draws attention to the ‘bride at the well’ type scene. There’s lots of richness in the implications she teases out; I just think we need Jeremiah 3 in the picture as well.

Dr Reeder says:

A focus on the woman’s perceived sin also ignores the evidence of John 4:4-42 itself. In contrast to other narratives in the Gospel, there is no mention of “sin” in this story. There is no reason to import it. Jesus’ reference to the woman’s marital history does not need to be interpreted as an accusation of sin, and her responses to Jesus should not be read through the lens of sin. The Samaritan woman’s story is instead about the work of witnessing to Jesus and the new way of being the people of God that Jesus introduces…

The Samaritan woman’s story offers one of many biblical examples of women’s work as preachers and teachers in Christian communities. This reading of John 4:4-42 disrupts the perspectives that allow for the victimization of women in Christian communities. Instead of a sexualized sinner, the woman becomes an insightful theologian. Instead of a danger to the men around her, she becomes a teacher who helps others understand the truth. This reconsideration of the Samaritan woman’s story encourages and empowers women in the church today.

There’s lots to appreciate in this; and in the material linked above. Lots to give us pause before reinforcing horrid visions of women (or really just of humans) that reduce us and our worth to sex and individual sin; lots to remember about the systems built around idolatry and cursed relationships — like patriarchal systems that reduce women to sexual objects via the male gaze.

I — conscious of my own male gaze — just think there’s a fuller picture to be gleaned where the woman’s marital status — even her sin — is part of her story; and where she is invited to join her life in covenant faithfulness to the bridegroom, leaving her old bucket, and old wells, and idolatrous and adulterous worship behind. And where she’s a model for all of us, not just one who empowers women, though her role as a teacher and evangelist of her people, in response to this radical inclusion in the life of God certainly should do that for us too.

Raging against the machine (but elsewhere)

I haven’t stopped writing about technology and how it impacts modern life (and faith in modern life). Since last posting here I’ve written a couple of pieces for the Centre for Public Christianity.

The first was about machine generated pornography; it’s published on CPX’s website. In this piece I considered the way AI image producers chop up lots of bits of different images and mash them up into one ‘new’ image and pondering the ethical implications of doing that to images of humans produced by a degrading and increasingly violent and idolatrous industry. My take is that these platforms might be ‘more ethical’ in that you could draw on the existing pool of human misery and ‘body parts’ out there waiting to be recombobulated for human consumption; but they are potentially even more damaging and dehumanising to our imaginations and empathy and our sense of what it means to be human (plus those people whose body parts are mashed up in future image generation are unlikely to be paid).

I drew on the work of former war correspondent Chris Hedges, and his bracing book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, where he wrote:

Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy… In porn the woman is stripped of her human attributes and made to beg for abuse. She has no identity as a distinct human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll.

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

“It is the disease of corporate and imperial power. It extinguishes the sacred and the human to worship power, control, force, and pain. It replaces empathy, eros, and compassion with the illusion that we are gods. Porn is the glittering façade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.”

I’m not sure the machine is a way out of these death works, but a next step into them.

I didn’t say as much as I might’ve liked about deepfakes, but AI generated deep fake pornography broke as a significant tech story a short time after this was published.

My follow up piece was one that took a philosophical thought experiment around the machine — a Paperclip Maximiser — a machine programmed, simply (and without limits) to make paperclips. The machine in this thought experiment eventually turns ever piece of matter in the universe into paperclips. It’s meant to remind us of the importance of human-established limits. I suggested poker machines are ‘profit maximising’ machines, and, with NSW Premier Dom Perottet’s “religious gut” becoming a bit of an election issue around gambling reform, I argued that religious guts are a good place to turn to find human limits for consuming machines. This piece ran at Eureka St.

I drew on the work of Natasha Dow Schüll, whose book Addiction By Design digs into the programmed intelligence of modern pokie machines; the way they now adapt to a user in order to become more addictive so that user will, in industry terms, “play to extinction.”

For pieces like this to be published in public facing media outlets that aren’t explicitly Christian you’ve got to thread a bit of a needle; so during the process we dropped off a thread in this piece about how the Old Testament prophets; who inform the religious gut of Jesus, and his followers, positioned idols as man-made death machines, just with less moving parts and bells and whistles; and how critiques of a Babylonian empire built on total domination and turning everything into Babylon, through the power of their military and religious machinery might help us think about profit maximising empires that create human misery in their wake.

I have some plans in the pipeline for a couple more pieces exploring the ‘machine’.

Marty mcflies and ACL goes back to the future

Martyn Iles is no longer the CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Now. You’ll know I have form for criticising both the ACL and Martyn; but this all feels like a world gone mad.

Martyn, for all his faults, has done a commendable job articulating how his politics is a product of his faith.

Martyn and I have different political priorities, and, often, it seems our faith falls along different poles within a set of Christian convictions. I think this table I made a while back still holds up, which is to say I suspect we have different anthropologies, eschatologies and emphasis when it comes to the Gospel itself. This means I often find myself not agreeing with his theological statements or his political positions, or the manner in which he presents these positions.

Martyn did a good job articulating his understanding of the Gospel, under fire, while playing with the card deck he’d built (and inherited) when he fronted up on Q&A. I went along to last year’s Church and State conference, where Martyn spoke about Babylon (ahead of a sellout national tour), where I thought his sermon was actually quite good (and reasonably similar to what I might say about Babylon; except most of his ideological enemies were on the Left, rather than the neo-liberal order driving late capitalism that underpins both left and right).

I’ve been very critical of Martyn’s apparent ‘theology of glory‘ — and its application to his political strategy; including a pragmatism that saw him endorse One Nation, his excitement about Kanye (and celebrities/platforms in general), and his cosying up to Israel Folau at the expense of being both pastoral and correct when talking about how God views gay people (not what obedience to Jesus for gay people will look like) and at caring about the Trinity. He’s also been included in articles I’ve written here and elsewhere expressing concern about how the culture war metaphor legitimises violence.

If you want a eulogy of Martyn’s performance you can read Stephen McAlpine’s glowing review; he makes the point that people talking about Martyn always seem to want to disclaim how different they are to Martyn — and I’m no different — Stephen plonks himself a whole lot closer to Martyn in politics, theology, and fashion than I do (jeans and an untucked t-shirt from K-Mart will do for me).

And here’s a potential rub — Martyn has been a great ally for people like Stephen, and for people who share his politics. He absolutely would courageously back Stephen if Stephen were to come under fire for his beliefs, and he’d back a variety of people he disagreed with, I’m sure. But there are limits. He’ll have coffee with Stephen, but he’ll block those who publicly criticise or question his theology or politics.

Martyn was prepared to cop flack from the more radical element of his support over his stance on Putin and the Ukraine. But, on the whole, his public courage has predictably aligned with his increasingly large constituency; it’s easy to have courage when you’re selling out stadium shows (even if those are being cancelled by venues); it’s harder to stand with courage when staring down your base, or your own community.

This’s where I’m not sure Stephen’s waxing lyrical (and I’m sure he was also dressed beautifully as he wrote) fully captures the dynamic; it’s easy to criticise flat track bullies for being bold on home turf when you’ve got a bunch of people who’ll back you. Try being a same sex attracted Christian in a conservative setting raising concerns about the knee-jerk support Folau received for a post that appeared to condemn them to hell, or someone listening to those voices and speaking up in various institutional settings.

It actually takes more courage — and fortitude — to stand up for the people who won’t build your personality cult within the Christian community, who also get smashed by the world, than it does to stand up against the world while gathering a loyal following (read the outpouring of grief around Martyn’s departure on the various conservative social media channels).

Martyn was a great ally for Israel Folau, while he was posting anti-gay material from a U.S hate group — a meme he shared as a millionaire footballer that conveniently dropped greed from the list of sins that lead to hell. He also leveraged the Israel (Folau) situation to significantly boost the coffers and reach of the ACL, like a good U.S zionist has always leveraged Israel for its coffers. The ACL came out ahead from its advocacy of a heterodox millionaire’s hate speech simply because that speech aligned with a traditional Biblical sexual ethic, and a culture war narrative.

The catch is, Martyn wasn’t a great ally for the sections of the church who dared criticise his work or threaten his personality cult; regularly deleting critical engagements on social media and blocking people (including deleting a series of questions from John Dickson at one point).

He wasn’t a great ally for concerned mums of Wallabies with Pacific Island heritage who went to great lengths to demonstrate Folau’s heterodoxy, and who sought on several occasions to raise her concerns directly with Martyn (only to be dismissed, by him, as being on the payroll of Australian Rugby).

He hasn’t been a great ally to Christians whose politics are left of a hard right who seem to just want the freedom to kick out gay students and sack gay teachers — even if those teachers uphold a traditional sexual ethic and can sign off on a belief statement (and yes, those teachers do exist, it’s not just teachers departing from orthodoxy who find themselves booted by Christian schools).

I haven’t seen the HRLC (the ACL’s legal arm, that Martyn started out with) taking up the cause of celibate gay Christians losing their employment with Christian employers, or non-binary students working out their faith in Christian schools; he’s been a voice for establishment (conservative) values in the face of progressive change. I haven’t seen the compassionate or pastoral tone Martyn might have when engaging with individuals for whom these are lived experiences translating into a political stance. Early on in my blogging about public Christianity, I wanted public Christianity to be evangelistic with its use of the Gospel — and Martyn ticked that box — over time I’ve evolved (partly through doing more pastoral work with the people affected by our public positions) to a position where I think public Christianity needs to be both evangelistic and pastoral with its use of the Gospel. It’s hard to be pastoral when you’re fighting a culture war that seems to be pitted against the very individuals you’re talking about.

And that’s fine — that was the job — as Martyn understood it; to champion a certain political vision, and he did that well. It just turns out it wasn’t to the satisfaction of his organisation’s board, or the direction they want to head. They do seem to want to leave Marty behind, grab their Delorean (there’s maybe a podcast they could listen to on the way, right Stephen), and head back to the future.

My criticism of the ACL predates Martyn. For years prior to Martyn taking the centre stage my criticism of the ACL was that there was nothing particularly Christian about their politics; there was nothing explicitly Christian in the cases they made for the causes they pursued. There’s something self-indulgent about all these links to my own writing; I get that — but one of the bonuses of maintaining a blog like this for so long is that you can use it to track bits of the online conversation I was tapping into, and there is something interesting here, because if there’s one thing I’ve managed to do over the years with my writing, it’s get under the skin of the ACL and those who champion its approach.

In 2011 I made this word cloud using ACL press releases, pleading for them to make it clear how the Gospel shaped their politics.

It will be a tragedy to a public Christian witness if we land back with the most prominent voice for Australian Christianity in the political realm speaking like Focus on the Family.

In 2012 I wrote one piece outlining a series of problems I had with the ACL’s public relations strategy, and another piece suggesting advocacy can be Christian, while lobbying buys into a certain sort of power game — and that the ACL should change every part of its name.

In 2017, I suggested this sort of strategy, making politics secular, would only enforce the secular frame we’re operating in, and that we should be overtly religious and ask for our convictions to be accommodated in a pluralist secular democracy.

My point is this — my criticism of the past, and now maybe the future, version of the ACL was that they embraced a strategy of not talking about Jesus.

And criticising the ACL back then went down with the ACL’s constituency about as well as criticising Martyn does now. People who were fans of the ACL before Martyn, who became bigger fans of Martyn, were very critical of this criticism; the ACL, I was told, were meant to be politically successful and to introduce theology into the mix would be inappropriate. There’s a culture within the supporters of these organisations and their leaders that tends to fall in line with, and not question, the strategy, and to see questions as a threat.

Those same people are now saying that Martyn’s introduction of Christian language and rationale — the Gospel even (as he understands it) into the ACL’s platform has been a masterstroke.

That’s pretty fickle.

Martyn did bring a deliberate change in direction; a longform interview on Eternity unpacked some of his thinking. The change in direction was palpable, in a post about the way they were now explicitly talking about the Gospel with their politics from 2018, I wrote:

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

“For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).”

But this change has become part of his undoing.

Just as Lyle Shelton had the integrity to lead the Australian Conservative Lobby to join the Australian Conservatives, Martyn has recognised that his desire is to preach the Gospel as his political posture, so it seems the ACL board has terminated Martyn’s employment in order to pursue a change in strategic direction.

Under Martyn’s leadership the ACL has become massively more popular with the Christian constituency they represent but massively less popular (by reports I’ve heard from those engaged in other lobbying work in Canberra) with the politicians whose doors are now closed to the ACL. To borrow Stephen’s analogy, but flip it — Martyn’s great at bowling in home conditions, but he’s not taking wickets where it counts for the ACL; legislative change on the issues the ACL board cares about. I actually suspect that the problem isn’t the explicitly Christian stuff, but the shift in focus from the corridors of power to being a populist movement holding rallies and marches attempting to put pressure on politicians with no relationship building.

This has always been the truth about the ACL — they are not the Christian Lobby — they are an Australian Christian Lobby, for a very narrow Christian morality on the basis of their own theological and political framework. The church is broader than the ACL’s policy agenda.

I absolutely believe Martyn operates from his convictions, and so do the board members of the ACL.

My issue is the degree to which someone with very particular convictions — or an organisation with those convictions — can claim to represent a very broad Christian church, and I believe the questions facing us all at this point are not “team Martyn or team ACL” — which of these two options is the correct strategy; that’s to accept a false binary.

Now’s a time to ask some bigger questions about our public Christianity.

We could ask how could we create a public facing organisation that acknowledges the breadth of views in Christian institutions — that fosters collaboration, rather than alienation. We could ask how could we train and equip institutional church voices (a constituency Martyn, with his anarchic brethren tendencies, seemed to deliberately work around (and sometimes against) to collaborate in gaining a hearing as legislation that affects us, and our neighbours, is framed.

We could we encourage all Christians to integrate their faith and politics as we participate in public — not just those conservative youth interested in the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, or The Download — programs that fired up a right-wing Christian base as the only option — and we could maybe work at reducing polarisation and finding common cause across the Christian right and left.

We could maybe ask what would it look like for Christians to be known what we’re for, in public, not just what we’re against (or that we’re ‘for’ ourselves); what it would look like to pursue progress towards a good future, not just conserve the bits of the past we can cling to. To that end, I’d recommend following Publica, an emerging expression of public Christianity aiming to do that.

It’d be great if that was ‘how to be pastoral and evangelistic’; but it won’t be. That’s not how this constituency seems to roll. It’s not where the money and power is. But for rank and file Christians — even conservatives — maybe we could imagine a new future — one where we don’t need a time machine.

On Christian Terrorism

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.”

That’s a line from a video the shooters in an act of domestic terrorism posted (since deleted) during their meticulously planned ambush of police officers attending their rural property. In a press conference summarising police investigations of the attack, Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Tracy Linford described the fortifications of the property and the conclusion police had reached that the shooters had been waiting for this moment for some time.

In this same press conference, Deputy Commissioner Linford revealed that the investigation had concluded that this was an act of Christian terrorism; that the shooters were motivated by a particular religious belief — a Christian eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’ called pre-millenialism)— where they truly believed the officers from the police service visiting their homes were demons.

“From all the material we can see different statements made by the Train family members; whether that be in texts, whether that be in emails, whether that be in diary entries, comments on calendars, we can see they do see the police as monsters and demons. We don’t believe this attack was random or spontaneous. It was an attack directed at police.”

Now. Not all people who hold to a pre-millenial eschatology will believe that police are demons, or that violence is the way to achieve the return of Jesus for his thousand year reign. That goes without saying. Because we can simply observe that there are lots of people who hold this eschatology (I don’t) who do not build bunkers and trenches and escape hatches in their properties or shoot police officers in cold blood.

I think it’s also important — in the first few hundred words of this post — to point out the obvious. The Queensland Police Service is likely to be taking this investigation quite personally; they lost two members of their community, while others were injured; if there’s a widespread movement that sees police as demons to be shot it’s in their interest (and the interest of the community at large) to get to the bottom of things; and to articulate as clearly as they can the motives of the shooters. If you were going to comment on this story, and their investigation, I think it would be pretty important not to be presenting the police as anti-Christian demonic type pawns of an evil empire. I think it would be important to understand their motives in releasing, in as close as possible to the words used by the attackers, the motives behind their attack.

It would also be, I think, wise, to acknowledge our limited access to the material examined in the police investigation when assessing the accuracy of the claims. In the media release accompanying the press conference, Deputy Commissioner Linford said “specialist teams have analysed an extensive amount of evidential material including diaries, books and notes located at the scene, phone messages, emails, social media posts, witness statements and body-worn camera footage.” That’s a lot of material we are not privy to regarding the frame of mind of the attackers; and a lot to summarise in a single sentence digestible by the public.

The result of this investigation is the conclusion contained in the media release that:

We now know that the offenders executed a religiously motivated terrorist attack.

“They were motivated by a Christian extremist ideology and subscribed to the broad Christian fundamentalist belief system known as Pre-Millennialism.”

Now. There have been some mistakes made in accurately describing an eschatological system that can sound crazy even to theologically informed Christians who hold to different eschatologies; there is no singular expression of pre-millenial thought. And, rather than saying “hey, the Police are in ongoing danger from Christian extremists,” the release minimises that fear — it concludes “there has been no evidence to suggest anyone else was involved in executing the attack in Australia or that there is any ongoing specific threat.

If I was a serving officer in the Queensland Police Service, or a member of the Australian public, I think my fears would be put to rest knowing that this was an act of Christian terrorism from a very fringe expression (fundamentalist) of a reasonably fringe eschatology (premillenialist).

If I were a Christian in Australia (which I am) I’d be wanting to reassure others not only that this was not an act consistent with the character of Jesus or our expectations of his return (which it isn’t), but also that the police are not demons but are in fact the God-appointed agents of the government; those who ‘wield the sword’ to uphold justice. There’s a thing responsible (white) parents do (in Australia) where they teach their kids that police are friendly and approachable and that you should smile and wave when you see them, that you shouldn’t feel anxious and run. Our Police Service isn’t perfect; there’ve been chapters of corruption, and systemic problems around women, First Nations people, and sexual minorities that’ve been subject to investigations and inquiries; I’m not suggesting we be naive. The Police Service, like any human institution, is made up of humans whose natures are a mix of the image of God, sin, idolatry, and perhaps even the influence of the powers and principalities — but it is not demonic, and human police officers are not demons; they are our neighbours, families, and friends bound by oath to protect and serve us. The Oath that Queensland Police swear as they are admitted to the service says:

“‘I, ___, swear by almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second and Her Heirs and Successors according to law in the office of constable or in such other capacity as I may be hereafter appointed, promoted, or may be reduced, without favour or affection, malice or ill-will, from this date and until I am legally discharged; that I will cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept and preserved; that I will prevent to the best of my power all offences against the same; and that while I shall continue to be a member of the Queensland Police Service I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties legally imposed upon me faithfully and according to law. So help me God.’.

Were I a Christian commentator I think I would be expressing grief, as a fellow human, about the lives of those officers killed in the line of duty; upholding that oath (or the alternative affirmation provided by the legislation). I certainly wouldn’t be centering my own feeling of being a victim of a culture war because the police media statement was not as precise about the motives of the shooters as I’d have liked.

And yet.

We live in strange times.

I’m going to try to tread quite carefully here. Because the last time I suggested that commentators from what I would call the “Christian hard right” were using rhetoric that might produce violence, an editor of one of those prominent publications threatened to sue me, and Eternity News, while also writing to my denomination accusing me of bullying. In that piece — once deleted from both here and Eternity (that I’m going to restore on this page), I suggested that the irresponsible use of violent metaphors and language in a ‘culture war’ would legitimise violent actions from culture warriors who believed they were acting in some sort of holy war.

I suggested we should focus our energies on loving our enemies; and the way of the cross. In a subsequent conversation with one of the blokes I named in my piece I made the case that Jesus’ call to “take up our cross” gives us a paradigm for bearing faithful witness; and that when Revelation (the book of the Bible that premillenial eschatology comes from) describes Christian engagement in the public square as witnesses; those witnesses are put to death by the rulers and powers — they don’t go in with their swords drawn; but that this vindicates our testimony to the king whose kingdom is not of this world, who triumphs through death and resurrection. Our call is to martyrdom; martyrdom is not necessarily death and suffering at the hands of a violent state (should the God-appointed sword unjustly turn against us); martyrdom literally means “witness” — the Greek word for witness is martyr.

I suggested that should our rhetoric continue to fuel a culture war, and continue to legitimise violence, that we would see versions of the Capitol Hill Riots — where armed protestors stormed a government building carrying firearms and other weapons; oh, and Christian placards.

Evidently, not all people who read a website like the Caldron Pool are motivated to commit violent acts by the culture war language, just as not all premillenialists do. That’s important to acknowledge; and it is also important to acknowledge the horror the editor of the Caldron Pool felt when I suggested that his writing, and his platform, would legitimise violence. I want to be clear that this is not his intent as a communicator; but I also want to clearly say that this is an implication of the language that he, and others, use that becomes part of what you might call ‘the social imaginary’ of the sort of person who does see the police as a demonic expression of a satanic state, and so understands their duty to be to take up the sword (or the firearm).

I know that there’ll be those who think that I am not the right person to say this; that I am a bad faith critic of the Caldron Pool (and others). I did, afterall, register caldronpool.com.au at one point and call them names. But consider, for a moment, that I might be a canary in the coal mine — just the first hyper-sensitive reader to chirp up and say: “hey. This is a problem.” It’s very possible that this is motivated by antipathy towards Ben Davis, the Caldron Pool editor, on the basis of interactions I had with him in the cesspit that was a Facebook group known as the Unofficial Presbyterian. But I’d love to urge Ben — and others — to use this moment to reconsider the language they use — even when talking about this very story. Because we communicators do bear a certain responsibility for the worlds and possibilities enabled by our words. This isn’t to say that the Train family wasn’t fully responsible for its actions — but, I’d certainly want my conscience to be free from even having to consider that my writing was amongst the material the police had to encounter when investigating why members of their own community were heinously gunned down while upholding their oath — one that concludes with a prayer, “so help me God”…

You’d hope that someone so sensitive to criticism that his writing might enable violence would do two things when violence linked to Christian extremism (of a hard right variety) occurred. You’d hope that such a person would immediately distance Christianity from the attack; robbing such actions of any legitimacy connected to their words and platform, and perhaps you’d hope for a degree of self-reflection and a commitment to not further demonising the institution (or the government). I’d personally hope that this sort of event be one where we don’t play the victim, or use the events as grist for the culture war mill.

Ben Davis (editor) and his site Caldron Pool have managed one of three; joining other prominent commentators from the hard right accusing the police service of being part of a government vendetta against Christians. It’s clear that none of the commentators I’m about to quote believe that Christianity legitimises this sort of violence; or that it can be at all Christian. The issue is that the police have carried out an investigation that concluded these three individuals — Nathaniel, Gareth, and Stacey Train say they were motivated by a particular view of the world, its end, and the role the police play in a cosmic conflict (as demons). The police are working with the words of the shooters, and may have been clumsy in their presentation of the facts when it comes to what premillenialism is; one statement said it was a 1,000 day reign of Jesus, when it is years — but, the way numbers should be interpreted in the Bible is hotly debated, a day is a thousand years and a thousand years is a day, so maybe give them a break, and most Christians couldn’t articulate their neighbour’s version of premillenialism and its political implications anyway.

In Ben Davis’ article, the first article of four published by Caldron Pool about the media conference and the findings in the investigation, he said:

“What the Deputy Police Commissioner fails to understand is that Christianity (and Premillennialism) is not responsible for any injustice orchestrated by professing Christians, because every injustice is carried out contrary to Christianity.”

This sounds a lot like a no True Scotsman fallacy; and, while I’m reasonably hopeful that the Trains weren’t members of the invisible church; those who are marked by God as his through the gift of his Spirit — their words (and reputation before the event) suggest that they were professing Christians and that their actions were a result of their beliefs about what Christianity is; this, then, is an in house matter for us Christians — we have a responsibility to rightly teach and discern God’s word. I would suggest the police — as an expression of “the sword” (those appointed by God to wield temporal power) — aren’t meant to figure out who is, and isn’t, legitimately a Christian (part of the invisible church), but to deal with the visible.

Ben says some good words to make it clear this attack was reprehensible.

“So, let’s be absolutely clear: All horrors and injustices bear witness, not to the cruelty of Christianity, but to the cruelty of humanity when they deviate from Jesus’ command to love even your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”

But then Ben pivots — he starts to look elsewhere for someone to blame — or something to blame — anybody but the broader Christian church, and its splinter communities, who were part of forming the Train’s imaginations.

“Christian ideology” can’t lead to terrorism until it deviates from Christianity. If anyone is to give an account for violent extremism, it’s not Christianity which demands strict observance of Christian instruction, but those who dismissed the Bible and attempt to operate outside the bounds and authority of God’s inspired Word.”

Before I go on to some other commentators, there are some images I’d like to share to help paint a picture. The first is a post from Caldron Pool’s Facebook page when it seemed the shooting was motivated by vaccine mandates. The second is a highlighted quote, in one of the early news articles about the attack, quoting something Gareth Train had posted on a conspiracy site, and the third is a hard right figure mentioned by Train retweeting a Caldron Pool photo critical of Police (and government) for what you might summarise as “operating outside the bounds and authority” established for government in God’s inspired word (at least in the opinion of Caldron Pool). Now. I want to be clear — I don’t think Caldron Pool is responsible for the shooting — but I do think their language, articles, and culture war narrative fuel a vision of the world that is part of a potential motivation for Christian violence (albeit a crazy one).

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

There is no moment in the Ben Davis article, or subsequent Caldron Pool articles, that attempts to read the Police media statement charitably, or see the conclusions of their investigation as a legitimate summary of the evidence. Instead, subsequent articles serve to paint the finding as part of a deeper anti-Christian agenda in the corridors of power.

The next Caldron Pool article, chronologically, is by Tom Foord — the local Brisbane pastor who made a hate video about me and other namby pamby “take up your cross” Christians who won’t jump in boots and all to the culture war. Foord, in his piercing cultural analysis, says:

“If you’re surprised that the Aussie government would risk alienating all Premillennialists in their broad stroke of idiocy, (which includes many Baptists, most Pentecostals, and plenty of non-denominationals), you haven’t been paying attention. They don’t mind calling any historic Christian doctrine “conspiratorial”.

Let’s be clear — this is reducing an investigation digging into the expressed motivations of three cop killers into a “broad stroke of idiocy” while expanding the Deputy Commissioner of the police into a narrative that includes “the Aussie government” — it’s a move that paints a classic culture war “us v them” narrative positioning the state against the church, and painting the state as exactly the sort of institution a pre-millenialist fundamentalist might begin to see as demonic. And his last line in this piece of “thought leadership” — and remember this is still a story about a situation where four police officers were gunned down, where two of them, and a member of the public, died — “Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

Let me repeat that so it doesn’t get lost in that big block of text:

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

“Who cares what the coppers think, anyway.”

This is from a man who presumes to be a teacher of God’s people — and also to criticise other pastors for daring to suggest that the commands and example of Jesus ought to shape the way we present our faith and engage in politics.

But it’s also from a platform that has spent much of the last two years de-legitimising government authority and painting them in spiritual warfare terms overlaid with culture war rhetoric.

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

The third article on Caldron Pool’s from a bloke named Bill Muehlenberg.

He opens:

They Really Are Sinking to a New Low in Their Anti-christian Bigotry

A strange title, admittedly, at least to non-Australians. But those who live here probably know what I am referring to. It has to do with some wild, reckless and defamatory comments made by some officials in the Queensland Police Department, and the mainstream media.”

We’ve shifted now so that we Christians are the victims of a slur by the police as part of some agenda; rather than the police being victims of an attack motivated by a bastardised Christianity. It’s almost like they deserved it; it’s almost DARVO — a classic abuser move where you flip the victim and perpetrator; only, like the others, Bill does not believe violence is Christian — it’s not clear that he doesn’t think the state and its officers (who swear an oath to serve the people, of our western nation, with God’s help) are demons.

In fact. He says:

“Whenever you have the police and the media wading into the deep waters of theology, you know we are going to have a real hatchet job – and a confused and malevolent one at that.”

Just to be clear the word “malevolent,” it means evil.

And, to complete the Caldron Pool two step (or three step) to turn this police shooting into a culture war call to arms, Bill concludes:

“And just wait for more attempts to classify Christianity as a whole as a terror group that needs to be closely monitored if not shut down altogether. That is in fact the end game for many of these Christophobes.”

The Government is out to get us folks; and the police are on the front lines because they’re Christophobes who might call us terrorists.

“We can see they do see the police as monsters and demons” — Deputy Commissioner Linford.

“If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” — The Train family.

Where on earth did they get these ideas? The shooters?

This is dangerous nonsense. There is a spiritual war — theologically speaking — it’s the war between the way of Jesus and the way of the world; the self-denying way of life-sacrificing love for one’s enemies — even if they are out to get us, and those who would take up the weapons of this world — whether physical weapons or tools of power and manipulation, and culture warriors are not faithful witnesses to Christ — those prepared to lose everyting; even their lives, while turning the other cheek; they are pugilistic and demonic voices inside the church. The sorts of voices that lead others to violent rejection of the way of Jesus. I don’t believe Ben, Bill, or Tom are at all interested in leading people that way; I hope they are interested in leading people to Jesus — and so I’m prayerfully asking them — and others to stop. To think about the impact of their words — to consider the way they are framing events like this in their own minds and the minds of others.

Dave Pellowe, another who I named in my deleted Eternity post, runs the Good Sauce (and the Church and State Conference). Dave took up my invitation to the table (in that deleted article). We ate together. It was his show I was on where I suggested my issue is that I think our public Christianity should be informed by a theology of the cross.

Dave’s article sensationally declares that this media release is pretty much a declaration of war against all Christians. “Queensland Police just called all Christians “terrorists,” his headline reads — now. They didn’t call me a terrorist because I am not a premillenialist fundamentalist; but apparently all Christians are that…

Dave won’t like this reading of his headline; but I think it’s about as charitable and coherent as his understanding of the QPS statement. Like the others I’m quoting, Dave thinks the shooting was abominable. It’s just, like the others, he thinks the Queensland Police are abominable too holding “hatefully bigoted” views about (almost all) Christians.

This week the Queensland Police labelled the majority doctrine of Christians throughout the world as “a broad Christian fundamentalist belief system known as premillennialism” which, in their hatefully bigoted view, motivated the heinous crime which resulted in two police officers and a neighbour being murdered.

He goes on to use one of his favourite epithets while whipping his favourite whipping boys.

“There is more basis for prepper terrorism in the climate alarmism dogma preached by leftists, globalists and elitists than such orthodox Christian doctrine as premillenialism, so why isn’t the lying harlot media (LHM) blamed for this tragedy?”

This sort of language that paints the media as beastly (in Revelation’s language of the harlot, who rides on the back of the beast) is the sort of language that fuels a view that the police (and media) are demonic forces who should be shot — even if Dave is quick to point out that the kingdom of Jesus is a peaceful kingdom; there is no peace in the way he speaks about these enemies — including the police. He also calls the police christophobes. He says:

Church And State events around Australia are “arming Christians to influence culture”, not with swords or guns, hate or violence; but with clear preaching of the Gospel and Jesus Christ’s will and ways, the Kingdom of God: for the betterment of all humanity, maximal human flourishing and freedom.

It is up to right thinking believers who love their neighbours and nation to understand the times and not sit the culture war out.

Just about every one of these articles quotes a Martyn Iles Facebook post in response to the Queensland Police. He too, in that post, made the point that true Christianity has no place for physical violence; but he, too, offers more fodder for the culture war.

We’re living in clown world.

In Ancient Rome, the authorities blamed Christianity for the evils of their day because they either hated it, or were totally ignorant concerning it.

I call on Deputy Commissioner Linford to point out where in premillennialism there is any authority given whatsoever for a person to use premeditated violence.

She can’t, because there isn’t.

This is the same Martyn Iles who, on the platform at one of Dave Pellowe’s events, joked — and I’m happy to concede he was joking — in a conversation reported by the Herald:

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

Mr Pellowe then interjected: “We’re not advocating violence or revolution … today.”

Mr Iles added: “Not yet, that’s down the line.”

I’ll make my point as briefly as I can.

  1. All these commentators are accusing the institutions of this world — the government and the police — of a beastly agenda against Christians; of being something like the Roman regime at various points in its history, engaged in an evil anti-Christian (dare I say ‘demonic’) campaign.
  2. All these commentators are suggesting we have been badly misunderstood if people think faith can lead to violence.
  3. All of these commentators are advocating a culture war while knowing that our words might be misunderstood or misrepresented by those who are not Christians.
  4. All of these commentators are saying the shooters were not Christians. And the violence is never ok for Christians.

I think it is very likely that these not-Christians were fuelled by the sorts of ideas in point 1 — that this is consistent with their words and actions (the evidence gathered by police).

I think it is very likely that these not-Christians were connected to thought leaders swimming within the same ideological ponds as these Christian commentators and that the stuff about demonic agendas (including around the covid vaccines) rang louder and truer than anything said about violence before the shooting. Caldron Pool had ample time between the Eternity article and now to distance themselves from violent warrior language publicly, rather than trying to sue me privately; the condemnations of violence come pretty late in the piece.

I think it is very likely that these not-Christian perpetrators were as confused around language of culture war and demonic opposition as the general public — whether from these sources or others, or just their own reading of Scripture. And that this was part of legitimising their actions. And if you’re going to be a Christian commentator; you have to consider what might occur if you paint the police service as demonic.

So my plea to these commentators is to find a better (and more Biblical) category for public Christianity than culture war.

Find a better way to talk about those who might oppose the Gospel than we are.

Understand the human feelings and motivations behind public statements like this one from the police.

Here’s an idea. The way of the cross.


Teach people to turn the other cheek. To love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. To die at the hands of those wielding the sword unjustly rather than take up the sword. Lose the narratives that even let you joke about violence.

This is not the way of the coward — to not shoot a police officer on your property is not cowardice, and nor is it cowardice to turn the other cheek and not fight back with the political weapons of this world.

Remember that your fellow humans might become deformed images through idolatry, but that they are made by their creator to bear his image and that the Gospel, and finding life in a kingdom not of this world — expressed in the church and its Spirit-filled communities — is the path to their liberation.

Stop demonising your political and religious opponents and start humanising them by responding to any hateful agenda (or innocent misrepresentation) with love.

Start caring about what the coppers think.

Start trying to understand their words the way you would like to be understood.

Four police officers and a member of the public were shot, and three were killed,

Those people are the victims of the Trains decision to shoot — not the church because of how their motives are reported.

They were killed by three people who thought they were serving Jesus and shooting demons as they pulled the trigger.

Those thoughts didn’t come from nowhere.

Stop risking turning up in a police investigation next time around; stop calling for culture war and start calling for martyrdom. That’s how Jesus — the dying and resurrecting king — will be vindicated.

In our bodies we carry around the death of Jesus, so that by our lives his life might be made known.

Raging against the machine: reflections on ChatGPT and the future of the church

If you haven’t read my last post, which unpacked a church in a box created by OpenAI’s ChatGPT tool, then, this latest one isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense.

I’m not the only church leader type playing around with this new technology, or demonstrating how it can be used in the life of a church — some people I know are using ChatGPT as a research and writing assistant to streamline some of the more menial and ‘paint by numbers’ aspects of church life. You can, for example, pump out a generic welcome announcement with a conversation starter like this:

Welcome to our church service this week! We are so glad that you have joined us in worship today. After the service, we invite you to stick around for a cup of coffee and some lunch. Not only is this a great opportunity to catch up with friends and meet new people, but it also helps us to build a strong sense of community within our church.

We especially want to extend a warm welcome to any newcomers who are visiting us for the first time. We understand that visiting a new church can be intimidating, but we want to assure you that you will be received with open arms and that we are here to support you in any way we can. If you have any questions or would like to know more about our church, please feel free to speak to one of our members after the service or visit our website. We hope you enjoy the service and look forward to getting to know you better.

And, those mini-sermons that worship leaders (or ‘song leaders’ in Sydney Anglican inspired churches) give before a song — well, ChatGPT’s got your piety covered as well, here’s an intro to the song Shout to the Lord.

“It’s time to lift our voices high And sing out to the Lord With all our hearts and all our might We have come here to worship And give our King the praise He deserves So, put your hands together, And let’s sing out loud The song of victory, the song of salvation The song that reminds us of the power of our God It’s time to Shout to the Lord! This song is a powerful reminder of the love and grace of our Lord and savior, let’s sing it with all our hearts and give him all the glory, honour and praise he deserves. Let’s sing it together, Shout to the Lord!”

You know you’ve heard that song intro before. And that’s kinda the point.

Now, the other thing I was thinking, was “who better to predict the future of the church than the technology so many church folks (and tech futurist types) are seeing as part of the future?”

So I asked ChatGPT to predict (and even suggest) ways that churches could incorporate emerging technologies like machine learning, virtual reality, and interactive glass surfaces into their rhythms and spaces. And here’s what the machine suggests.

Some examples of emerging technologies that could potentially be used in a church setting in the future include:

  • Artificial intelligence: This could be used to create personalized recommendations for biblical studies or spiritual growth, or to provide answers to frequently asked questions.
  • Virtual and augmented reality: These technologies could be used to create immersive experiences for worship, Bible study, or other events. For example, a church could use virtual reality to take members on a virtual tour of biblical sites, or to create a simulated gathering space for virtual services.
  • Blockchain: This technology could be used to securely track donations, manage membership records, or facilitate online transactions.
  • 3D printing: This could be used to create physical copies of biblical artifacts or other objects for use in worship or educational settings.

Here are a few ideas for integrating traditional rituals, spiritual disciplines, and practices with new and emerging technologies:

  • create personalized devotional materials, such as daily emails or notifications with Bible verses or prayers that are tailored to an individual’s specific needs or interests.
  • create personalized spiritual growth plans or tracks, which could include resources such as Bible readings, prayers, and other spiritual practices that are tailored to an individual’s specific goals and needs.
  • Using virtual or augmented reality to create immersive experiences for sacraments, such as baptism or communion. For example, a church could create a virtual reality experience that allows members to participate in a simulated baptism ceremony.
  • facilitate online retreats or spiritual retreats that incorporate both virtual and in-person elements. This could allow members to participate in retreats from the comfort of their own homes, while still being able to connect with others and engage in spiritual practices.
  • create interactive prayer or meditation spaces, such as virtual prayer walls or chat rooms where members can share their prayers and connect with others in real-time.
  • create virtual reality experiences that allow members to visit and learn about historical or biblical sites, such as the Holy Land or ancient churches.
  • Using virtual or augmented reality to create immersive worship experiences, such as virtual reality simulations of ancient worship practices or events from the Bible.
  • facilitate online or virtual services, such as by live-streaming services or offering virtual worship experiences that can be accessed remotely.
  • create interactive resources for worship, such as online quizzes or assessments that help individuals reflect on the themes of a service or identify areas for spiritual growth.
  • facilitate online prayer or meditation groups, such as through social media or messaging apps, which could allow individuals to connect with others and share their prayers in real-time.

Lots of these aren’t rocket science — there’re plenty of suggestions here that churches have embraced already, even before the pandemic — and some (blockchain anyone) that I can’t see churches embracing any time soon — but, having worked in a church that sent a media team to sites from the New Testament, it seems a small jump from that to creating VR experiences. Some of the more far-fetched stuff isn’t, when you’ve been part of a church community with a million dollar budget and a need to ‘produce’ content or measurable outputs to justify that giving. I’ll write more about this vision of the church in a future post, but for now, let’s consider what happens if we embrace the machine — and machine-like predictability in the way we speak about, and experience, church.

Predictably predictable… like a machine

ChatGPT is super brilliant, but it’s also — as a function of its technology — exceptionally derivative. One way to sum up what this technology does is to think of it as a prediction model that, given any given word in a sentence, will try — based on all the words its scanned and all the relationships it has mapped out between words — to match the next word in a sentence with the most predictable sausage.

Sausage obviously isn’t the word that naturally goes there — that’s just something I’ve put in so you know a bot hasn’t written this post. See, ChatGPT describes the way it works this way:

Me: Finish this sentence: ChatGPT’s language prediction model works by…

GPT: using a neural network architecture called a transformer, which is trained on a large dataset of text, to generate responses based on the input it receives. The model uses patterns and relationships it has learned from the training data to make predictions about what words or phrases are likely to come next in a given context. Additionally, the model has been fine-tuned to understand the specific language and conventions of the domain it is being used in, such as conversation, literature, or code.

ChatGPT is a prediction machine, it has built a pretty comprehensive pattern of how words are used in order to guess (rather than understand) the best relationship between certain words in a given category or genre. This means that rather than being a magic wand, that is totally generating new and beautiful art — what Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the magic of elves, this tool ends up being more like a tool someone in Mordor might come up with. It’s derivative, and built from extracting value from existing material. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes about the human capacity to create new worlds with words — once we can imagine a green sun, or mix any unpredictable adjective with a predictable noun — all GPT does, even if you ask for something unpredictable, even if you try to play the game the way I do, trying to come up with novel uses for the platform — like a kids book about a ninja duck with nun-chucks named Quacker-Whacker, whose brother Waddle-Twaddle reads Kafka and helps him break a cycle of violence with a cat named Scratch, propped up by an oppressive bureaucratic system of swans, all the model does is built on predictions based on past behaviours. The real capacity for creativity with ChatGPT lies in the creativity of the human managing the inputs, mashing up predictable outcomes in unpredictable ways, rather than in the machine.

Tolkien believed our ability to sub-create was a function of being made in the image of a God who makes; ChatGPT is a machine that at best replicates images made by images of God, and at worst, amplifies the parts of our creativity and our expression that have become commonplace enough to be predictable. In a letter he writes to a potential publisher in 1951, Tolkien makes a distinction between ‘magic’, in his stories — which was meant to evoke ‘the machine’ in our minds — the sort of will to power on display in Mordor — and the artful, generative, creativity of the elves and Gandalf. He defines this will to power as a desire to “make the will more effective,” and so much of the hype I’ve heard (and felt) about machine learning technologies is around the area of improved efficacy. For Tolkien, the elves use of magic is different to the way fallen (and mortal) humans pursue power; the elves are there to demonstrate something different. He says some things, of the elves, that I think are profound when we apply them to this new technology:

Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem : that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others.”

Nobody is making machine learning technologies — and pursuing efficiencies through this technology — with a profound desire to cause harm. It’ll be interesting to see what harm is unleashed in the name of benefiting others, and who exactly the “others” are… who can forget Google’s “don’t be evil” mission statement back before the days of surveillance capitalism, and SEO witchcraft, and algorithmic power being wielded in pursuit of profits; tech commentator Cory Doctorow wrote a fascinating article this week about a dynamic he calls enshitification that’s embedded in the rise and fall cycle of big tech products that’s worth reflecting on here, a shift from ‘user focus’ to ‘delivering for shareholders’ that every platform goes through).

It’s also interesting that Tolkien sees the elves being able to produce ‘art’ rather than mechanical-dominion-magic because they’re both unfallen and immortal — not caught up in trying to grab as much as they can in the little time they have in order to hold suffering at bay. It does raise the question of whether fallen, mortal, humans can create art — or if we’re doomed to make disenchanting dominion-machines of destruction. Because Tolkien would love this so much (by which I mean, he’d hate absolutely everything about it, the image accompanying this post is Ian McKellen as Gandalf interacting with an enchanted touch screen).

I wonder if Nick Cave’s essay about ChatGPT’s songwriting capacity gives us a path towards art-creation built from human limits. Nick Cave described a song ChatGPT wrote “in the style of Nick Cave” as “the fire of hell in his eyes” — this extended quote from Cave suggests that maybe our capacity for enchantment is born from facing our limits; and our mortality (and our suffering) rather than trying to deny them by grasping and destroying, or embracing something mechanical.

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

Just note that last bit — we humans can offer the “transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings,” while the machine can only mimic. Machines have no body; no experience of suffering — or of longing — no vision of the transcendent, they are creations within what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” — and so they are disenchantment engines. They don’t throw us towards the transcendent, but ground us in predictions about the immanent. It’s interesting, I think, that the paradox at the heart of the Gospel — the transcendent and immortal God who becomes human in order to suffer and die — plays in this magical and enchanting tension in ways both Cave and Tolkien find compelling.

I think it’s fair to say that mechanical ‘church in a box’ techniques that employ machine-like magic — technological artificers — are disenchanting, rather than magical in either an Elvish way or a ‘stare suffering in the face’ way. I’m not sure either the Elves, or Nick Cave, would write about a “vibrant church community” the way our church promotion machine seems to want us to, or the myriad other cliches we employ chasing some sort of magical spell or silver bullet that will grow our churches as someone reads our websites.

A magic mirror held up to our ‘vibrant’ communities

Here’s my thesis about a prediction engine that produces text that has that machine-like feel, that feels quite similar to the sort of text that humans writing to predictable cultural scripts might produce… we’ve already embraced the machine. Long before ChatGPT.

ChatGPT serves as a mirror; its predictive capacity reveals our machine like predictability. Its soullessness, its lack of originality and enchantment is matched by our own.

That Radiance Church could be so profoundly unboxed by ChatGPT in ways that feel plausible says something about the church marketing machine that produces pablum and calls it ‘copy’. Here’s a little exercise. Google the name of your city or town, the word church, and the word vibrant. How many results come up?

Did you catch the description ChatGPT adopted of the church growth consultant it imitated for me in producing Radiance Church — ““My focus is on practical and effective strategies for building and growing a church community that is well equipped to thrive in a modern world. I will emphasize the importance of technology and innovation in building a vibrant and relevant church community that is able to connect with people in the community,” or in the vision statement “To be a vibrant and growing community of believers…” or in the description of the sort of hero image that should be used as a hero image online “a beautiful, vibrant, and dynamic image that captures the essence of the church’s mission and vision,” or the description of Radiance Church it developed for the home page: “Welcome to Radiance Church! We are a vibrant and growing community of believers, passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people. Our mission is to glorify God by shining the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts and sharing it with the world through worship, fellowship, and service.

What does vibrant even mean to someone who has never been to church? For churchy types it’s maybe code for “we have some people under the age of 80” (some of the most vibrant Christians I know are aged 80+ though). It’s such a predictable cliche — it’s so predictable a machine can predict and reproduce it. Some predictability is ok though — right — some of what ChatGPT does offer is the ability to drum out predictable stuff that we’d just be reproducing week on week anyway (or generating content that follows particular established forms, including code). But cliches can also be dead and disenchanting and robotic where we could be working for something more human; imbued with the “human genius,” displayed in “the transcendent journey of the artist” grappling with suffering and existence in a body, shot through with aches and longings for something other than what is, and what has been, utterly predictable.

The word cliche comes from the world of typeset printing — from the printing press — its French, the English word with the same meaning is “stereotype” — it described a word or phrase so commonly used by printers that instead of the word being formed letter by letter it’d be stuck together on a metal plate; the same would happen for mass produced documents where you’d make an entire mould to reproduce a whole page on demand. ChatGPT is a cliche producer — it predicts what it has been fed — and so Radiance Church is not ‘the apocalypse’ in the way we might think, we’re not staring into the fire of hell in some distant (or not as distant as we’d like) future; Radiance Church is an apocalypse because it reveals something about how the machine-Church already exists. And how it already disenchants.

ChatGPT’s Radiance Church in a box holds a bit of a mirror up to how we present ourselves — and the sort of repeated grunt-work we’ve brought into the life of the modern church that doesn’t offer the enchantment of embodied liturgies directing us towards heaven — the ‘stay with us for coffee’ benediction, and the ‘welcome to our vibrant community’ call to worship, or the pietistic and cliched one size fits all song intros (and perhaps sermons).

And I guess the question isn’t “is it a magic mirror,” so much as “are we Snow White, or the wicked witch?” Are we actually beautiful and without guile, or relying on deceitful enchantments to prop up our areas of lack?

Could a person reading your church’s website tell it was written by a human? Does it function as art, or part of the machine? And what about our communities — and our approach to life together?

Have we so embraced technology, and technique, and repetition of cliches that we’ve become machine-like and disenchanting — like robots writing Nick Cave songs — or are we using our creative capacity to generate art — or an art-like approach to our language and imagery — that is true and beautiful, that is grounded in our suffering, our mortality, and our desire for transcendence (and that desire being answered in Jesus) so that we present our life together built on the Gospel as something that speaks to these experiences, and our longings for something other than just “vibrant community”.