Are we the good bad guys? A review of Stephen McAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guys

West Aussie blogger-pastor-public theologian-social commentator-runner Stephen McAlpine wears a lot of hats. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma. A Rorschach test. A canary in the coal mine of the evangelical church. Something of a prophet. Legitimately a whistle blower on church abuse. He is an excellent writer. He’s also my friend; we spar occasionally in the ‘commons’ of Facebook, or the comment section of his blog, and I’ve been known to write essay length reflections on conversations he starts, but we also regularly exchange messages and banter in private.

Stephen is a good man. He sent me an advance copy of his new book, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus In A World That Says You Shouldn’t, not with the expectation of a review (though we all knew that was a possibility), but because it’s an ongoing contribution to a conversation we’re engaged in hoping to sharpen one another, and serve our churches. You can pre-order the book from the publisher, or support the good guys at your independent book retailer The Wandering Bookseller. It’s a book that is quintessentially him.

If you read and love his blog, you’ll love the book. If you read and struggle with his blog (because he’s a Rorschach test and you see conservative culture warring at play) then this book might give you extra ammunition — but it might also, over the course of 130 pages — give you a sense that he’s actually doing something a little more nuanced than just being a crunchy conservative.

One of Stephen’s gifts — one that helps him transcend the ordinary punditry you might find on social media and gets him cut through (increasingly global cut through, which is nice to see) is his ability to coin a metaphor, then to put the coin in a slot, then to guide a metal claw into your organs and wiggle it round a bit aiming for your heart. He’s a real skill tester. Some of us are still learning metaphors. Metaphors keep Stephen’s writing punchy and memorable. Another strength is his integrity; he calls out bad behaviour on his (sometimes our) own side of different conflicts. His willingness to call out abusive behaviour in the UK’s Crowded House church (from first hand experience) years ahead of the curve came at great personal cost for him, but was a catalyst. His recent defence of Aimee Byrd after her book publication exposed a pretty toxic culture within the Reformed scene was also courageous. He apologises when he gets things wrong. He doesn’t just chuck ideas out into the aether, but he, with his church community, walks the walk. This isn’t a review of Stephen, but of his book — and yet ethos is so fundamental in the communicative (and interpretive) exercise, and my knowledge of Stephen — even our friendship — does shape how I see and respond to his writing. None of us comes to a Rorschach test as a blank slate, and that’s kind of the point. They expose us, not the people who make the ink blots.

Both these strengths are on view in Being the Bad Guys, from the titular metaphor, through a variety of others he includes in the mix (some favourites — the ‘Schackleton Option,’ ‘the second service Christian’ and ‘renovating the wrong house’), to the way his own life as a good-bad guy plays out. Stephen’s cultural and theological and theological-cultural analysis is always coherent and compelling, sometimes I’m not convinced, sometimes the claw misses my head and doesn’t raise me up, or it drops me early (ok, I’ll stop), but even when I’m not convinced he’s shifting the conversation the church needs to be having in directions they need to go. Maybe he’s making it easier for the next player to grab hold of that plush toy their kids keep asking for in the shops (ok, I didn’t stop). There is more skill than failure in this work, and it’s worth a read (especially because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a one-sit read at 130 pages — and the pace and punch, the timbre, of Stephen’s writing, coupled with metaphor-induced aha moments makes it an easy read).

Here’s where I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced we have to be the bad guys, or that, universally, we are. I still think there’s space for us to reform the church, and so reform public perception, through a commitment to ‘living such good lives among the pagans’ — there’s plenty of room in Stephen’s book to point the finger at the church, not just the culture, for public perception. I think we can point a bit harder to some of our responsibility for our public perception, and repent, and perhaps play a different role in the culture to the one we’ve played, and I suspect there are plenty of people not on Twitter who aren’t as sold on the church being a black hatted villain. This actually just means embracing Stephen’s suggested solutions with a particular sort of zeal.

I’m convinced there’s a certain stream of Christian in the late modern west who are the bad guys, and that sometimes they dictate our behaviour, but also that they’ve (for too long) dictated public perceptions about Christianity. Where I am convinced is that if these Christians were to follow the way of life Stephen describes — both in the posture taken by ‘the church’ (as an institution) and in the posture taken by us Christians (‘the church’) in everyday life in the world (and our workplaces) — then we would stop being the bad guys. At that point, if Christians were known for the things he calls us back to, rather than for being repugnant warriors in a destructive culture war — then, if we keep being perceived as being the bad guys, his book would have an even edgier prophetic thing going on.

For those reading Stephen from a politically conservative angle (and it is blurbed by the former Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the National Party, John Anderson, so that’s an audience), there’ll be plenty in the Rorschach Test reaction that will fuel, or confirm, their fear about the pace of cultural change, especially around the area of sexuality — but for those people, Stephen offers the balm of the Gospel and our hope, and the reality of the kingdom of Jesus being expressed in and through the church. I’d have liked a few more illustrative examples showing how ‘the right’ is actually every bit as hostile to Christianity and destructive to the church (especially post-Trump), because the illustrations are part of the blots that people are going to emotionally respond to — but what I will say in Stephen’s favour is that he doesn’t point the finger of blame at ‘the left’ or even the ‘sexular revolution’. He sees these as symptoms of a deeper problem in the post-Christian west. Following arguments developed by Charles Taylor, Dale Kuehne, and Mark Sayers, Stephen describes the modern ‘iWorld’ as a secular context where loyalty to a transcendent creator has given way to loyalty to the self, but where we live in a post-Christian culture profoundly shaped by Christianity that is desperately trying to cut ties with its parents like a rebellious adolescent. Where once we maybe thought the death of Christendom meant a return to pre-Christendom, and were excited by that — now we’re having to grapple with the reality that the post-Christian return doesn’t move backwards, but forwards.

Sayers gets a lot of credit for his insight about moderns wanting ‘the kingdom without the king’ — and Stephen quotes him, but, credit where credit is due (and, Taylor was also saying this just in a really long winded way), Stephen’s ‘Exile Stage 2’ basically made the same point. Before all these writers though, C.S Lewis made the same observation in his first speech as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, he said:

“Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”

This analysis came from the ‘golden age’ of modernity. The point most social conservatives seem to look back to with fondness as the halcyon days of Christendom that must be recovered — where we can have our modernity cake, and eat it too. I quote Lewis from 1954 to illustrate a point that Stephen makes, while also to suggest that the challenges facing the church are not a product of a recent cultural moment — a precipitous one, even — but an age old one. Lewis, like Jacques Ellul (writing at the same time) point the finger not just at technology but a sort of instrumental or utilitarian framework where we believe, because of technology, that all progress is good. This belief requires (and creates) a shift where we aren’t in an enchanted or supernatural cosmos, where God is the author of life, to one where we are at the centre as authors of our own destiny, pursuing an authentic “identity.” Identity politics, one of the ‘bad guys’ trotted out by conservatives, and Christians, to fight a culture war against the left is a product of this shift, and one of the best parts of Stephen’s cultural analysis here — is that he sees this identity politics, and the underlying cultural shift, affecting both left and right — and damaging the church and our witness. He is genuinely offering a ‘third way’ in the culture wars — despite what our bias might want to hear him saying. He particularly sees ‘identity politics’ problematically playing out around the victim-perpetrator schema made popular by progressive politics (with the same underlying assumption as the so-called ‘conservative’ politics of the iworld — that is, the autonomous self-as-identity).

Here’s an example of the ‘Rorschach Test’ effect in a paragraph.

“We may feel that to allow our opponents to claim victimhood and not to highlight cases of our own is like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. However, to begin with we must acknowledge the very real and painful injustices that most minorities have experienced at the hands of a dominant culture. There have been victims, and the church must recognise that it has a special calling to the marginalised.

Yet, without taking away from these horrific situations, there is an impersonal identity-politics agenda that (ironically views humans in a binary manner. You’re either a victim or a perpetrator, says intersectionality ideology — and who wants to be a perpetrator, right?”

Plenty to offend or inspire all of us… then he says:

“Christians should not play this game. It gives us a losing hand, since other levels of victimhood are seen to have a stronger claim on the chips in the middle of the table. More importantly, it is not a tactic worthy of those whose identity and worth is in Christ.”

While his premise is that the world is more hostile to Christianity and its claims than in previous generations, he doesn’t want us to turn to victimhood, or the idea that we are a persecuted people (explicitly in the west). He’ll go on to say that the story of the Gospel positions all of us as both victim and perpetrator; life is not so simple as the post-Christian iWorld would like it to be.

The premise is that while we aren’t ‘persecuted’ we no longer occupy the central position in society (or even have a seat at the table at all). He’s a little less prepared to place all the blame on this shift on the church and our misbehaviour than I am, and a little more convinced that there’s no way back (or to ‘being the good guys’) than I am (while I am in full agreement with his take that when Christians fully embrace the iWorld and sexular liberation the road to being a ‘good guy’ from society’s perspective becomes fairly wide and clear). He says, for example:

“It is indisputable that the church’s role in our culture is shifting from central to marginal. That drift may take some time, for, as Tom Holland points out, the West is ‘firmly moored to its Christian past”. But these moorings will either slip off eventually, or be cut, and the Western ship will drift into uncharted waters. And they are uncharted… For all of secularism’s self-confidence, we actually don’t know what it will be like on the “other side of God.”

On the whole, Stephen is more pessimistic about the course of life in the world than I am, and though he resurrects the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to describe the current age, I found the optimism of Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, more compelling — even as both it and Being The Bad Guy land in very similar places, from very similar analysis. When I dug back in my archives to find a review of How To Survive the Apocalypse, I found a response I wrote to n earlier version of Stephen’s thesis — one he called embracing a ‘plan B’ strategy. Taylor’s secular age diagnosis includes the idea that we live in after a ‘nova effect,’ with stacks of different options (including spiritual/religious options), which means every belief, every issue, every moment is contested, not all conclusions are foregone. Both Stephen, and How To Survive The Apocalypse end up with different diagnoses, but strikingly similar treatments (the Daniel option, really). And that’s ok. Maybe this is the book to give your pessimistic friends — or those who are too optimistic — because ultimately it pushes us towards genuine hope; the hope we have in Christ, as the solution to our cultural moment.

What we can be sure of in this shift, Stephen points out (eventually also quoting David Foster Wallace), is that the secular future will still be ‘religious’. There is no dogma free public square, “there are only different types of dogma.” This is where the ‘second service’ Christian comes in. Stephen builds this metaphor from the phenomenon experienced in his church, with its evening service, where many attendees belong to another church in the morning and his service is their ‘second service’ — it’s hard, he says, to disciple someone if that’s their engagement with your church community. The problem is that we are all ‘second service Christians’ because we are “immersed in a highly effective discipleship program offered by our culture Monday through Saturday. In everything from our phones to Netflix to advertising and news items, we are being offered a discipleship program that invites us to a completely different way of life, mediated to us through a dazzling array of images, sounds, stories and suggestions.”

Look. People might come to Stephen for a manual on how to fight the culture war — a way to tackle the reality of a hostile frame, or, they might come to Stephen to read someone who, on face value, is a conservative culture warrior saying things that make us uncomfortable and ‘blaming the progressives,’ and, to be clear, the sort of progress Stephen blames for our modern malaise (as Taylor would put it) is not left wing politics (though it includes them, and he often illustrates using them), but the sort of individualism that comes from liberalism, and especially the idea that liberalism liberates us from the divine. You might come with your pre-conceptions framing your reading… but, consistently, what they get in response is a manual for how to be the church. And this book is no different.

“In response, our church gatherings on Sundays must offer discipleship programs that are deeper, richer, and more compelling than those offered by the culture.”

And here’s where I’d offer another little bit of pushback. where, perhaps this is a product of a different ecclesiology at play. Stephen often plays Monday to Saturday against church on Sunday to the point of reinforcing it; both in good ways, and bad. He sees the task of the church as preparing her people to face the workaday world, but it almost feels like he sees us being tasked to face that world alone, as individuals (who might have a few friends in the mix). Part of the thicker discipleship his solutions require (and part of the life he describes) requires discipleship to be the product of much more than just “our church gatherings on Sundays” — he describes, but doesn’t name, the idea that church can’t just be an event on a Sunday (and unfortunately that quote above, in isolation, reinforces that view).

My other bit of pushback is around the idea that the project of pluralism failed us, simply because our opponents act as aggressive monotheists, or polytheists, having learned a thing or two from the Christendom playbook. At one point he describes the missional church’s misstep where we thought post-Christendom would look like pre-Christendom, in this optimism we thought “given the chance to offer our wares alongside everyone else, our products would be more compelling. All we had to do was to strip away the detritus of Christendom that had built up over the centuries — the overt institutionalism, the push for temporal power, the alignment with economic structures that fuelled greed, and the less than attractive liturgical forms. The pure and simple claims of Christ could be presented and examined without prejudice by a culture just waiting for some good news.” This optimism doesn’t appear to have aligned with reality, and now (apart from other evidence), Stephen is ready to declare it a mistake, suggesting that one of the things that got us our present situation was the assumption that “the post-Christian secular public square would be a neutral venue, a space for everyone, where all sorts of ideas would be discussed freely. We prepared our strategies for an open market, never realising that huge tariffs would be imposed on anyone selling their wares in the public space. The public space is not neutral. Why not? Because secularism is not neutral.”

Now. Note again the beautiful metaphor… and he’s right that the public space is not neutral. I’d say one of our missteps as the church is that we assume the neutral public space required we, the church, make neutral arguments — rather than making religious arguments and asking for those to be accommodated as one view among many, we tried to make neutral arguments that would reinforce our authority. We didn’t treat the public space as a free market but as a market to monopolise (see, ‘Postal Survey, The’). I’m also not sure we ever did the reform work necessary across the board, in a way that shifted public perception of the church or the Gospel — and while we spend lots of time calling out bad behaviour of progressives outside the church, and those who give in and join them from the church community, and Stephen does this in his book in a convincing way, I don’t see many Christian voices calling out the Christian right and the culture wars with such explicit vigour. Perhaps because so often our politics and theirs are more aligned. There’s nothing in this book that explicitly names figures behind the ‘progressive right’ — or that side of the culture war; the kind that produces Trumpism, or the ACL (though these are discussed in very general terms), while he’s quite happy to specifically name names and movements from the left (like Rob Bell and Josh Harris, or pressures and examples from outside the church like Roz Ward, or Jazz Jensen).

And the problem might not be that we assumed the public square would be neutral, but that we didn’t act as though it should be neutral; and when others adopt the same aggressive theism that we adopted, and so want to topple statues, and our remove our God, from the public square, maybe the virtuous, true, and beautiful line for us to run is actually to affirm what the public square should be. The catch is, how to do this knowing that though the public square should ultimately belong to the Lord Jesus, who declares ‘every inch his,’ in this world the powers and rulers and people conspired to crucify Jesus ‘in the public square of that great city’ (Revelation 11:8).

The good news is that you don’t have to accept the premise of this metaphor for the book’s conclusion (or even its argument) to be a blessing, and this lies in Stephen’s strength as a prophetic voice who applies Biblical truths about God as saviour and judge to our present times and calls us to repentance and life. It’s Stephen’s integrity as a commentator on both the word and the world that keeps driving us back to Jesus — the good news of the Gospel, but also Jesus as an example for us to follow as we live in a world that was hostile to him (and look, sorry to be self-referential for a moment, but my response piece to Stephen’s very famous ‘exile stage 2’ article was to challenge the premise that the world has ever been something other than the world that killed Jesus. We’ve always, even with the success of the Christian socio-political project, for good and for ill, been operating in ‘Rome-Babylon’ — this isn’t a new cultural moment). Stephen’s consistent antidote to the pressure of the world is what it always has been — from Revelation (God’s actions) to Revelation (the book) — the answer is to see Jesus as he truly is, and so know God as he really is, and to be the people of God he is re-shaping us to be by his Spirit.

Stephen’s call to be the church in a hostile world is not a call to bunker down, or a call to arms, but a call to hold out hope, and, even if people think we’re the bad guys, to live such good lives that we adorn and commend the Gospel. There’s lots to love where Stephen gets specific about what churches and Christians should do as ‘the bad guys’ in our culture’s eyes. Confession. Repentance. Transformation. These are also things that, if you’ve been watching Stephen long enough, he has modelled with integrity. They aren’t silver bullet solutions to win a culture war against secular vampires — they’re a turn to virtue and to doing the business of being God’s people in the world.

His call to create communities that are ‘thick and rich” and “don’t get caught up in the increasingly toxic culture war”  is built on a twin strategy of ‘admitting reality and ’embracing possibility’ — to admit reality is to own our failures, including the way Christian power was used to marginalise or exclude others, and to embrace possibility is to not try to get our seat of power back, but to ’embrace a place at the margins’ (learning from those churches that are already doing this well).

I don’t want to spoil his last three chapters, that are where ‘new’ content can be found for those who are regular readers of his blog, but his call to self-denial in the face of a culture built on self-affirmation or self-flourishing is worth the price of admission. So too, his unpacking of what it might look like for us to be “confusing, intriguing, attractive, and compelling” communities of bad guys (and gals) — those called to “identify not just as “persons” but as a people”, offering hope and life to those the post-Christian culture of radical individualism chews up and spits out. His work on Haggai and Daniel as paradigms for navigating life in exile are helpfully connected to the great truth that, in Jesus, our exile from God is over and we are now citizens of the ultimate ‘new city,’ the city of God. His strategies for renewing the church are wise, creative, and virtuous, whether or not you share the cultural diagnosis that underpins them, and are actually the sort of actions that would be required for us to be living as the ‘good guys’.

Whatever you make of the diagnosis underpinning the book, whatever your ‘default’ Rorschach-like reaction to its framing — perhaps defined by where you stand in the culture war — we’d all be better off if the church heeds the clarion call Stephen offers in the pages of this book, and that he finishes with:

“You can refuse to allow the atomising nature of modern individualism to get its grip on you and pull you away from God’s people. And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be.”

On the need for subversive ideologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a really, really, good essay.

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

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

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

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

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On politics, partisanship, and Christianity

Today I read a post from the ACL’s Martyn Iles, and a piece on Christianity Today about the ‘fight for the soul’ of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States (where a group feel that a broader-than-hard-right political stance is a sign of theological liberalism). I responded to the Iles thread. I often do. But I’m conscious that my responses calling for ‘less polarisation’ are often interpreted as being politically partisan, so, for example, when I commented on a post by former CEO of the ACL, Lyle Shelton, people responded by calling me a leftist.

I’d like to think politics is more complicated than this; and, that, while Christians can (and maybe some should) be partisan, we run into trouble when we think our party platform is the only expression of Christian politics.

Politics isn’t optional for Christians. The belief or affirmation at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord and King of heaven and earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and to give our lives to follow and serve him. The church itself is a ‘polis’ and a political actor in the world as an alternative kingdom, with an alternative king and an alternative way of life (an ethic) to those held by different political structures or empires.

The western world is politically fascinating for Christians because so much of it is shaped by Christianity and its values after the Roman empire was Christianised; so much we take for granted like hospitals, education, and human rights can be traced back to Christian roots in the west. So much of our vision of progress is shaped by Christian conceptions of humanity and goodness and the dangers of power held and systematised by self-interested groups. So much of our vision of what we’d like to conserve in the west is not just the fruit of Christianity but its roots and branches. We can’t conserve those roots and branches by throwing out the fruit, or the fruit by throwing out the roots and branches. One quick picture of the ‘fruit’ of Christianity comes in what the Bible calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, and self control. So little of modern western politics exhibits these fruit; in fact it often feels like the opposite, and we Christians obscure both the fruit and the root of Christianity when we embrace other ways of being political.

Partisanship is optional for Christians. You can choose to be an ambassador for Jesus aligned with either the conservative side, the progressive side of the political contest for the good, and do so from genuine convictions, or be ‘centrist,’ you can even, as a Christian, repudiate state based power as a form of violence and dominion and critique all sides of an increasingly bitter culture war. Those who resonate with the progressive side have to be careful to hold onto the goodness of the roots of Christianity, in order to participate in those systems or parties as a Christian presence, those who resonate with the conservative side have to keep looking to the fruit — the nature and shape of the kingdom of God — and a desire for transformation, to participate in conservative politics as a Christian presence. We need both, or to try to be both (which might limit our presence), those in the centre need to avoid false compromises where one or both sides are embracing, or systematising sin; centrism can’t simply be about synthesis, but about trying to hold truths from the progressive and conservative ‘sides’ in tension. Centrism, ultimately, becomes its own side. Neutrality, or being apolitical, isn’t actually an option; the challenge for all Christians is to be ‘Christ centred’ in our participation in politics. This means we can’t demonise the other.

Our communities — our polis — the church — should be a place where those engaged in politics from the right and left can be corrected, refreshed, and renewed for the task of Christian politics; where we can be re-centred on the call to serve King Jesus and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships and our presence in the politics of the world. If you feel like your politics make you unwelcome in the church, because the church is either ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ and there is no place for you, we, the church, are doing something wrong.

I slip, too often, into demonising those who wed ‘Christian politics’ with one partisan outlook; who make no space for the other. You’ll find me trolling leaders of the ‘Christian Right’ and speaking out against Trumpism and its various international forms. I’m aware that even speaking against polarisation is, itself, polarising… But this is not because I think Christians can’t be ‘right’ or ‘left’, it is because totalising partisanship that goes to war with the political other ends up undermining the unity of political mission and purpose we are to have in Jesus; the work of seeing his kingdom come in the world. It’s also because, while there are lots of progressive ideas I embrace, and lots of progressive voices I value and listen to, I’m actually more inclined to a certain form of conservatism (I am an office bearer in a conservative institution, after all), or centrism.

That said, my ‘politics’ is in no way limited to a vote for ‘a’ party or ideology, politics is the business of shaping a ‘polis,’ my volunteering at our kids kindergarten is also political. In my circles people don’t seem as in danger of fusing their faith with progressive politics, as they are with fusing their faith with conservative politics; but I recognise this is ‘a bubble’ I operate in. Even where the danger is real and present — that our politics is too conservative, or too progressive, and so is distorting how we present Jesus to the world, the antidote is not an equal but opposite reaction, it’s doing the hard work of re-centering ourselves on the politics of the kingdom.

This might look, for example, like calling our brothers and sisters, and being called by them, away from the political methodology or vision of the world, and towards, for example, the fruit of the Spirit, and the unity we’re meant to have that transcends partisanship because it is the unity shared by those in the kingdom of Jesus who share in his Spirit; if you can’t acknowledge that is the case for a partisan other, then this is sad and destructive.

In 2,000 years of the church, Christians, by the Spirit, have transformed political realities in ways that reflect the kingdom; we should celebrate and seek to conserve that, and grieve when such fruit is not conserved; but in thousands of years of politics and empire there is lots of stuff that is anti-Jesus; it was imperial power used to justify his crucifixion; the church has often been too wedded to such power so progress looks like consciously decoupling from such power, rather than embracing it and wielding it to protect our hard won territory, and seeking ongoing partnership and progress in the work of the kingdom, living in such a way that shows we want our prayers to be realised, and trusting that the risen Jesus is Lord and king.

Review: How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy) by Sam Chan

Disclaimer: The review copy of this book was provided to me by Zondervan, the publisher, at the author’s request. There was no obligation for a positive review. You can read my reviews of other works by Sam Chan, on preaching, and evangelism, to see that my review of this work was always likely to be slightly biased.

Sam Chan wrote Evangelism in a Skeptical World back in 2018. It was a hefty tome, that dug deep into some of the challenges for making the good news about Jesus more plausible for a post-Christian, post-everything, world. As a practitioner, a preacher with a bent towards evangelism, I found it profoundly useful.

I worked hard to roll it out in our church community; we spent 2019 working through his book in weekly staff meetings at church, we presented sections of the book in 5 minute highlight spots in our Sunday services, we flew Sam to Brisbane to run a public training night in partnership with another Presbyterian Church up here, and I gave away 30 copies to families in my congregation, and to friends. I am an enthusiastic supporter of Sam’s material. Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a textbook. How To Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism In A Skeptical World is a popular level repackaging of some of the material in the textbook, especially geared at everyday Christians — not just professional practitioners like me.

Sam says:

“One shortcoming of that book was that it served as a textbook that addressed any of the concerns of professional evangelism — evangelism done by those in professional Christian ministry. That’s why I’m writing this follow up book. This book is for everyday Christians, not just those in Christian ministry.”

The goal is to equip such Christians with ‘fresh insights’ so they become more confident and competent in evangelism, and walk away “thinking not just, “I can do that,” but also “I want to do that.”” This is a lofty and noble goal. I’d love just 10% of my community — or the church at large — to be driven to evangelism — to adopting an evangelistic lifestyle — the way this book depicts it. Were that to happen, there’d be plenty for the other 90% to do just in hanging around as part of the ‘plausibility structure’ of the Gospel.

There’s an age old debate in evangelical circles about whether the work of evangelism is reserved for particularly gifted individuals, or whether it is the task of all believers; the beauty of Sam’s approach is that it has space for both views, because it places the task of evangelism in the hands of the community, and helps us see how we might each play a part in the body, and its task of evangelism, but it’s also the work of a professional evangelist who has written, previously, a textbook for the professional evangelist. The question is whether this book makes the jump from ‘professional’ to everyday enthusiast. And I’m not sure; partly because I’m ill equipped to make that judgment from where I stand.

How To Talk About Jesus unpacks key principles in the Everyday Evangelism chapter of the first book, and adds a few insights and ideas that represent developments in Sam’s thinking since its publication. It’s a much more accessible read, coming in at 130 pages, and boasts a stunning line up of endorsements from around the globe including Ed Stetzer (who wrote the Foreword), Mark Sayers, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Glen Scrivener.

People familiar with the textbook will find a package that’s much easier to dig into and discuss with others — partly because it is a much less intimidating form than a book that spends a significant volume of ink justifying its existence by anticipating objections, and working at establishing a model. Those who, like me, see Evangelism In A Skeptical World establishing a theological coherent and sociologically engaged methodology will have confidence to roll this book out in our own lives, and as a resource in the lives of others. The previous theological justification for this methodology is reduced to a couple of pages.

All your (my) favourite ideas from the first book are there (sometimes a little repackaged) — merging universes, go to their things first, coffee-dinner-gospel, listen before you speak, tell a better story, tell a story about Jesus — these were the six strategies in the Everyday Evangelism chapter in his first book; each is unpacked in a chapter, simultaneously tightened up, and expanded to include updated cultural analysis. Lots of Sam’s strengths lie in his whip-smart (though always humble) ability to integrate ideas from a variety of realms, his theology, his personal experience in relationships, his listening to others and their observations, and a reasonable grasp of other disciplines related to persuasion (from speech act theory to sociology). So, for example, his chapter on merging universes includes a section on friendship in the modern world that digs into loneliness that expands on the earlier book:

“Sociologists say that human beings need friendships at three different levels. First, they need a tribe of 150 people for belonging, status, and identity. Second, they need a network of thirty friends. And third, they need an inner circle of five trusted friends — the sort of friends you can call on for a favour, to help you move to a new house, or to babysit your kids in an emergency. Studies are now showing that most people in the West lack this tribe, network, and inner circle… It’s harder now than ever before to make friends because of our fractured, isolated, and transient lifestyles. Studies show that loneliness is the new health epidemic in the West. Sixty percent of Australians report themselves as lonely, and 80 percent say it’s a problem in their world.”

That sort of analysis of the opportunities for Christians to provide the sort of community that the command of Jesus to ‘love our neighbours as we love ourselves’ ought to generate is helpful, so to is how, in a later chapter, he explores the balance between friendship as an ends in itself, and friendship as a means to an ends in a way that stops this being a sort of ‘dark arts of Christian persuasion’ manual. The pub test for an evangelism hand book is, I think, would I be happy for a non-Christian friend to read this to see how Christians think about the purpose and nature of evangelism (and so the nature of those we seek to reach). This book, from where I sit, passes that pub test. Sam’s work incorporating family systems theory into our friendships and where evangelism sits is really helpful, he uses the dilemma of ‘overfunctioning and underfunctioning’ to unpack how we might approach relationships with integrity as people who genuinely believe the Gospel is good news and the source of truth, and life, and hope.

“God has blessed us with great friends We should enjoy our friends just for who they are — a good gift from God to enjoy — regardless of whether we get to tell them about Jesus. But at the same time, we should make the most of every opportunity God has given us to tell our friends about Jesus. If I only see the friendship as a means to tell them about Jesus, them I’m overfunctioning. I’m trying to make something happen that might not be there. And I am using them as a means toward an end… On the other hand, if I don’t try to tell them about Jesus I’m underfunctioning. There will be times when I could have and should have tried to tell them about Jesus.”

The new tips (chapters 7 and 8) are useful additions to the six strategies from his first book; they are ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ and ‘Lean In To Disagreement,’ there are elements in both these chapters in the previous book, but the disagreement chapter perhaps represents some reflections on the ongoing changes happening in the west since the publication of Evangelism In A Skeptical World, which had a significant section devoted to defeater beliefs and apologetics framed on the defensive, this chapter suggests the time has come to adopt more positive apologetics; this observation perhaps owes a debt to Mark Sayers, whose analysis mirrors the analysis Sam provides in the front of the book for a time such as this; namely that the nature of the post-Christian west is that we’ve not moved back to a pre-Christian era, but a world profoundly shaped by Christianity where people now want the fruits of the Gospel without the Gospel, or as Sayers puts it ‘the kingdom without the king.’ There are, then,  actually positive aspects of Christianity that create the sorts of objections people now bring to Christianity (Sam works this through, for example, with the idea that a God should be assessed using criteria like ‘goodness’ or ‘love’). One of the beautiful things about Sam’s methodology — built from his theology of evangelism — is that it lives up to the title; it is relentlessly about Jesus. If you want help talking about Jesus in a way that grapples with the world as it is, in ways that might work, Sam is a good guide.

Chapter 7, ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ is perhaps where the biggest question about whether the book nails the brief comes up for me, but as a bivocational professional, Sam is actually better positioned to assess the questions I have than I am.

Many of the examples Sam shares from his own life involve conversations, and relationships, built from particular opportunities that are created as a result of his profession. It is profoundly easy for me to get into conversations about religion because 90% of my conversations with new strangers involve the question ‘what do you do?’ and the inevitable awkward conversation that develops from my answer; I can relate to lots of the opportunities Sam describes in the book, but it’s harder for people in my church community to pivot those interactions towards the sorts of conversations and relationships Sam describes. It is easy for me to slip into the de facto chaplain role in the lives of my friends — and probably even for him to do this as a bivocational worker. There’s a bit more groundwork to put in that we professionals don’t have to do. And look, a significant chunk of my audience (so far as I’m aware) are professional ministry types — and you guys and girls, you have no excuse. Imagine your community if you modeled the sorts of relationships that Sam describes to the people around you, involving them in the work of the Gospel happening in your neighbourhoods and suburbs.

That said, Sam doesn’t shy away from the fact that the lifestyle change required for the approach to evangelism his book advocates is costly and requires a deep systemic commitment, not just for him, but also for his family. It’s not a set of evangelism tactics, silver bullets, or pre-packaged solutions. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a professional evangelist to practice hospitality, or have a sense of how to listen to others, and ask questions, or to take up any of his other challenges — lots of it boils down to a commitment to people, and to Jesus — I just think it helps. The way of life he pictures is compelling (but probably difficult for introverts, though Sam, himself, is an introvert).

While there are parts of the two final tips that are likely to prove challenging, there’s gold in these chapters that are worth the cover price if you’ve already got Evangelism in a Skeptical Age. The section on ‘How to be a Chaplain‘ and especially ‘how to be wise’ could be titled ‘how to be the things I love about Sam Chan,’ other than the great section on hospitality earlier, it’s the closest he gets to acknowledging that his BBQ obsession is a useful part of his evangelistic tool kit. In my time at Bible College I became pretty convinced about the idea that the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament was essentially Israel’s international evangelistic strategy — that the nations flocking to hear Solomon’s wisdom, in the Bible’s narrative, was a model of how Israel was to be a compelling blessing to the nations, connecting them to truths about the world and the ‘fear of the Lord’ as the beginning of true wisdom, and that the texts in the wisdom literature are deliberately ‘global’ in their approach (so, Proverbs borrows stacks of Egyptian wisdom material and reframes it). Sam finds similar examples in the faithful, chaplain-like, presence of Israelites in foreign courts — from Joseph, to Moses, to Daniel, to Ezra — all of whom were known for their wisdom. You’ve heard of the Daniel diet, here’s the Sam Chan diet:

“I’ve learned so much by going to parenting courses run by experts, most of whom are not believers. I read the New York Times and the New Yorker regularly. And I have a steady diet of podcasts: The Moth, TED Talks, This American Life, Conversations (ABC Radio), Invisibilia, Reply All, Pop Culture Happy Hour, You Are Not So Smart, The Savvy Psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, Planet Money, and Radio Atlantic. And at the same time, I have access to God’s special truth — not only through the Scriptures, but also through the blessings of being a believer — and a Holy Spirit who lives inside me to change me and guide me.”

I know, too, that while Sam was in hospital for a while he didn’t just watch Aaron Sorkin movies (which he describes in the book), he also binged on Master Classes, because the guy is relentlessly curious about the world.

Look, we’re not all going to be Sam Chan. He’s an evangelism genius (probably just a genius genius). And that’s ok, but we could all do with being a little more like Sam Chan, I read this book and I want to be more like ‘that guy,’ it is a guide to better (Evangelistic) living, which makes it a great book for “a time such as this.”

The good sauce: Preaching, Kanye, silver bullets, and the living and active (s)word

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

I love this picture of God’s word. The Bible. Chuck in a couple of other ideas from Hebrews, Paul in 1 and 2 Timothy, and John in John’s Gospel and you’ve got a pretty good rationale for any Christian ministry being about opening up God’s word and hearing him speak; having him do something to us. More on these ideas a bit later…

But for now, lots of Christian Twitter TM (and Facebook) is overjoyed by Kanye West’s public celebration of ‘expository preaching’ in a podcast. Stephen McAlpine has a good take on this over at his eponymous corner of the internet. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to open that in a tab and go read it.

Kanye said:

“One of my pastors, pastor Adam, who is, the way he preaches is called Expository, it’s like one to one by the word. I like all different types of preachers, but there’s some types of preachers, they have the Bible in their hand and they close the Bible and they just talk for two hours. And. Some do have annointing. But the expository preachers go line for line. And for me it’s like, I come from entertainment, I got so much sauce. I don’t need no sauce on the word. I need the word to be solid food that I can understand exactly what God was saying to me through the King James Version, through this translation, or the English Standard Version.”

Cue rejoicing not so much in the heavenly realms, but certainly amongst the reformed evangelical Christians who jumped hard onto the Kanye bandwagon last year. It’s instructive that when I watched this clip on YouTube, the next clip autocued for me was Kanye on stage with Joel Osteen.

Look. Expository preaching is better than the sort of preaching that Kanye describes where a person shuts their Bible and just starts banging on about other stuff; BUT, expository preaching is not a silver bullet or an iron clad guarantee that someone is actually treating the Word of God as it should be treated. Expository preaching is also not made any good-er or true-er because it has been endorsed by Kanye…

In fact, I’d argue that rather than being a silver bullet for faithfulness, or even the best form of preaching, expository preaching is a tool that we might bring to a text only when the genre of the text we’re reading supports the use of an expository model to unpack the meaning of a text.

When Paul talks about the task of the preacher, he says:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15

This was a favourite idea banged into us by our principal at Bible college, especially in the slightly more accurate representation of the Greek, that the ‘worker’ is meant to “rightly divide the word of truth.” Expository preaching takes a particular approach to ‘dividing the word’ — typically working verse by verse, line by line, or sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase, or word by word. It atomises. It treats the truth of Scripture as being found in the detail, properly understood. It weighs all words of scripture equally because one spends time unpacking the meaning of each phrase. A verse by verse exposition of Job is going to get interesting if one fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of the text in Job is bad advice from unwise friends.

At it’s worst (and possibly even at its best, where it is appropriate because of considerations like genre), it sees the task of ‘dividing the word’ as ‘pulling it into pieces to understand them’ not necessarily as ‘seeing how all the bits fit together.’ Exegesis, the work of interpreting every word and every phrase in a passage you are preaching on is vitally important, exposition that simply replicates your exegesis is not; in fact, exegesis needs to balance the atomising of the text into clauses and ideas with understanding the function of a text in its context; sentence, paragraph, idea, book, and canon — and it should ask questions about rhetorical purpose, not just content.

I’m mindful that one could tilt at all sorts of windmills by extrapolating a short quote from Kanye West about the goodness of expository preaching, and using that to critique not just those who’re on the Kanye bandwagon, but to use his definition to misrepresent expository preaching and so critique the whole thing, so here’s a quote from John Stott (quoted in this journal article) about the absolute importance of expository preaching for faithfulness, that contains, I hope, the best definition of what expository preaching is, or isn’t. Stott, up front, is opposed to exactly the sort of exercise this little(ish) blog post represents.

“I cannot myself acquiesce in this relegation (sometimes even grudging) of expository preaching to one alternative among many. It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Of course, if by an ‘expository’ sermon is meant a verse-by-verse exposition of a lengthy passage of Scripture, then indeed it is only one possible way of preaching, but this would be a misuse of the word. Properly speaking, `exposition’ has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prys open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is `imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. But the `text’ in question could be a verse, or a sentence, or even a single word. It could be a verse, or a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it.”

I’m going to suggest that there is more to faithful preaching than simply exposing the text, that is, that preaching is not just about making plain the meaning of the text, line by line, but it involves trying to produce the same impact as the text — that the meaning of a text rests not just in its content, but in its function or purpose. And so, that ‘exposition’ itself, as a technique is sometimes an ‘imposition’ on texts written, as they were, to be read in particular ways and to achieve particular ends.

Here are three reasons I’m not sold on classic ‘expository preaching’ as the only, or most, faithful version of the preacher’s task — sorry Kanye — not just why sometimes you might need sauce (thanks Stephen McAlpine), but why sometimes a burger needs a bun, and lettuce, and sauce to be a burger, not just the meat patty (that I understand some places sell as ‘burgers’). If you don’t bite into the whole thing, you’re not really eating a burger, you’re just chewing on some meat. You’re not ‘rightly dividing the word’ but distorting the ultimate meaning of Scripture-as-Scripture.

It’s a ‘technique’ that we often treat as a silver bullet

Though my talks are often ‘expository,’ or at least parts of them are, I’m not sold on ‘expository preaching’ as the Holy Grail or silver bullet or absolute model of faithful proclamation.

Faithful proclamation is important; and for mine, faithful proclamation involves a faithful proclaimer, faithfully understanding the text and re-presenting its meaning. Faithful proclamation is about more than technique or method; and, inasmuch as it is about content, faithful proclamation — specifically preaching — of God’s word will proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s revealing act through the Scriptures.

The catch is, we live in an age that is obsessed with technique. We want to reduce faithfulness, often, to bringing the right tools to the job. Expository preaching is a reasonable modern tool, when you look at 2,000 years of preaching.

Histories of preaching, like this article, that champion expository preaching, often see a long dark ages in the church starting in the post-apostolic period with true ‘Biblical’ preaching then emerging with the Reformation. What’s interesting to me is that there isn’t a huge amount of evidence in the New Testament that the preaching of the apostolic age looked ‘expository’ (think the sermons in Acts, with their sweeping big picture story-telling of the Old Testament, or from creation (eg Paul in Athens), or the way the epistles use the Old Testament, and especially Hebrews, which plenty of scholars see as a sermon transcript — it might be that it’s a new medium that arrives with a Protestant understanding of Scripture (including the printing press and the Scriptures being available in the vernacular), the church, the nature of truth, and the task of the preacher. This doesn’t make it wrong, it may be that it is a faithful way to proclaim Biblical truth, it just means it might not be the way to proclaim Biblical truth.

Other ages may have brought bits of the world into the pulpit — the article linked above is critical of Augustine and his ilk for emphasising rhetoric and other Greek forms of speech; but that critique also needs to apply to our own modern sensibilities; our fusion of certain forms of speech or persuasion with ‘faithfulness’. Any critique of expository preaching as a product, mostly, of the Reformation — an approach unfamiliar to the people closest to the time the text of the Bible was produced, and the sermons of the first century preached — could equally apply to the historical-critical method of exegesis, and our rejection of any prior model; there’s a sort of chronological snobbery at play in some of our thinking about ‘faithfulness,’ so in that history of expository preaching article, the writer also throws Augustine under the bus because “his interpretations were usually allegorical and imaginative, as was true of others of his day.”

But, what if being imaginative is a legitimate approach to the task of preaching, and perhaps, within some boundaries, the task of interpretation? What if we have to attempt to imagine ourselves into the ancient worldview of the author and audience, not impose ourselves and our modern obsessions on an ancient text?

One of our modern obsessions, described by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society, and rehearsed by others who think about communication mediums from oratory, to the alphabet, to the printed word as technologies, is with finding the right technique. When we drop this emphasis on technology and technique into the church ecosystem informed by the modern world, we get a belief that ‘faithfulness’ looks like employing the right techniques. Expository preaching becomes a particular sort of ‘technology’ or technique we turn to to shape the church, and shape us as people. Here’s Ellul:

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

What if we view the expository sermon as a technique and ask how it has modified our very essence? Our understanding of the living and active word of God? What if we were made for something different and this technique, as a medium, imposes something on us as a ‘force of the modern world’?

If Ellul’s critique of the technological society was on the money in 1954, and others like Neil Postman took up his critique in works like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, then we moderns need to be careful to identify where our particular socio-cultural moment is shaping the way we approach the living and active word of God. We should avoid the mistake of thinking that our particular moment has either the ‘silver bullet’ methodology, or a monopoly on ‘faithfulness’ because we can defend our technique.

The expository talk, with its propositions and focus on the detail, often comes at the expense of sweeping narrative (like the sermons in Acts). It, like the linear nature of the printed word (and how it changes the way we speak and remember), is actually a modern technology that has penetrated and reshaped our psyche.

Expository preaching often treats content — not content, form, and intention — as the essence of the text (and so, the sermon). 

Here is an exposition of a sword. It’s an exploded diagram that names and labels every part.

If a sermon did to a passage what this diagram does to a sword it would leave you with a good understanding of the composite parts of the sword, and maybe even the building blocks to allow you to jump to the concept of what a sword is for. But it’s not going to cut you. Or move you. Or penetrate into the centre of your being.

What if faithful preaching isn’t just a description of a sword, but the swinging of a sword?

What if we were made for the sort of communication that resonates not just with our rational brains, but our hearts, emotions and experience as well; for Logos, Pathos, and Ethos, in the Greek rhetorical schema; or for ‘locution, illocution, and perlocution’ in modern speech act theory? In speech act theory an act of speech is broken down into the content (locution), the delivery (illocution), and the intent (perlocution).

Sam Chan’s Preaching As The Word of God (reviewed here) digs in to some of the issues with robbing the word of anything but the bare ‘locution’ (the words themselves), because to do this limits the communicative act to only its content. It’s a fascinating approach to any sort of media; and not the approach you might learn in an arts degree, or something literary. It feels like a method of preaching divised by engineers who want the Bible to act as something like a manual for life, rather than something like a sweeping piece of artistry; a narrative, or cosmic drama, or even a persuasive text (and, for example, John’s Gospel is up front about its intent — it is written so that we might believe). Sam quotes Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching, which defines the technique of expository preaching, or ‘Biblical exposition’:

“Biblical exposition binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change. Because hearts are transformed when people are confronted with the word of God, expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.”

Sam Chan, in a work outlining how speech-act theory might help us approach preaching faithfully, identifies a few issues with this approach (one of these I’ll unpack a little more below). First he acknowledges a strength, one that resonates a little with Kanye’s appreciation of exposition.

“Although proponents of this approach would never suggest that preaching should be the mere quoting of Scripture passages verbatim (which would be akin to a “dictation” theory of preaching), they are not too far from asking a preacher to merely paraphrase a Scripture passage. The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasizes the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself.”

One of the problems he identifies is that the nature of exposition inevitably breaks down the text into chunks that are then explained, particularly as ‘propositions’; there is nothing inherently wrong with propositions (that statement, is in itself a proposition), but “much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles.” I’m not convinced, for example, that exposition allows the faithful re-presentation of narrative, or poetry.

Part of the issue I have with ‘Biblical exposition’ that focuses on taking up the ‘locution’ of a passage, rather than the preacher faithfully reproducing the illocution and perlocution (or even adapting the ancient model of perlocution with methods that achieve the same outcomes in a different context) is that it has a truncated picture of who we are as humans. It is the product of a particularly modernist anthropology; the sort of thinking about what it means to be human that has reduced the path to formation to education, and that sees education not as an apprenticeship built on life together and imitation, but on getting the right information. We’re not simply computers who need the right data downloaded into our mental hard drives, or brains on a stick who need the right information  in order for transformation to occur. Faithful preaching will recognise the nature of God’s word (as living and active), and the nature of people as living and active, and work to bring the word of God to bear on living and active people — not killing the text, or the hearer.

If Scripture is living and active, we understand it best when it is unchained to do its work on us, not when it is dissected. Dissecting scripture is like trying to understand a lion by dissecting it, you might get some sense of how sharp its teeth are by holding them in your hands, but a greater sense if the lion bits you with its powerful jaws. We can provide diagrams of swords, or textbook descriptions of how swords work, and call that preaching, or we can swing them.

The Bible, God’s word, is God’s word about Jesus — exposition won’t always get us where we need to go

Once one acknowledges that expository preaching might not do justice to a passage of narrative, it also opens up the possibility that expository preaching is an insufficient technique if the Bible has a metanarrative; a big story that each part contributes to. If expository preaching involves an explanation of the particular text and its particularities, then the move to connect the text not just with the immediate, but the canonical, context is already a move away from pure exposition. Without that move one ends up weighting all parts of Scripture equally, and while all of Scripture is God’s word, all verses are not equal in significance.

So, for example, Deuteronomy 14:19 should not receive as much weight, in the diet of a church, as a verse in a Gospel or an epistle. Being good readers, and so good preachers, of God’s living and active word involves understanding how his word fits together. There’ll be more fruit in digging in to a verse by verse treatment of Romans, for example, as a result of its genre, than a verse by verse treatment of Job.

But also, the Bible provides us with an interpretive grid, in the words of Jesus in Luke 24. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets are written about him; our job as interpreters (and preachers) is incomplete if we have not connected the text to this context. Pure exposition of, for example, Isaiah, is not a faithul presentation of the living and active word of God if it does not connect us to the living Word of God, Jesus. And it’s actually this sort of preaching, rather than line by line exposition of the Old Testament, or the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that we see modelled by the Christian preachers in the New Testament. Where expository preaching can essentially be traced back to the Reformation (even by those who believe it is the faithful model), there is a sort of preaching that is faithful to the Old Testament scriptures modelled in the New Testament that looks a whole lot more like swinging the sword around than death by 1,000 propositional cuts.

Faithful preaching properly understands God’s word, and so proclaims Jesus as saviour and king, and calls for a response to him — for repentance and faith; for hearts and minds changed so that we become more like Jesus as we are called to love and worship God, and see our lives the way his story calls us to.

This is the pattern of the sermons we find in the New Testament — whether the teaching of Jesus (repent for the kingdom of God is near — and the Old Testament is being fulfilled), the apostles in Acts (repent, for the kingdom of God has come with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scritures), and in Hebrews — which is soaked in Old Testament quotes and imagery, and shows their fulfillment in Jesus as saviour and king.

An expository sermon can do this, absolutely — but the sermons in the New Testament aren’t line by line expositions of Old Testament passages, they are deep reflections on the entire weight of the Old Testament testimony about Jesus — the law, the Psalms, and the Prophets — being brought to life in order to call people to repentance and faith; they often cut to the heart of the people listening (this is the explicit description of the response of the audience in Acts 2 to Peter’s sweeping re-telling of the Old Testament narrative (quoting Prophets and a Psalm).

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” — Acts 2:36-38

Faithful preaching is preaching that moves people towards faith in Jesus because it does what the Scriptures do, aiming for what the Scriptures aim for… sometimes that will require exposition, other times it will require other techniques. Don’t chop up the living and active (s)word into little bits. Swing it like you mean it.

Halloween, Harry Potter, and the Satanic Panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Think(ing) of the children

Sometimes you have a series of events coincidentally, serendipitously or perhaps providentially landing on your lap and you’ve got to figure out if the connections you build in those moments are like those graphs that assume correlation is the same as causation (like 5G towers and Covid transmission, you know, where the correlation is actually population density), or like those moments where you’re Archimedes lowering himself into a bathtub while thinking about how to measure volume.

Yesterday was maybe one of those for me. So here I am, flying a little kite (this time like Benjamin Franklin), wondering if I’ll get hit by lightning.

As a parent, my number one desire for my kids — above all other desires — is not just that they cling to the faith modelled by their parents, but that they take it up and advance it. Clinging to it would be fine. Sure. But I don’t want the world to be a danger to my kids and their faith, I want them to be a danger to the world. This desire is behind my entire parenting strategy — from schooling decisions, to pedagogy (where I want them to play so they’ll disrupt and challenge status quos, not just be STEM formed cogs in an economic machine), through to what sort of pop culture (or high culture) they engage with, and even their extra curricula participation. I haven’t read N.D Wilson’s book where this quote comes from, but it has long stuck in my head:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

Yes. More of that.

I fear that so much of Christian culture ends up being ‘defense against the dark arts’ rather than ‘attacking the darkness’ — we pull our punches in the formation of kids so that mere belief in a bunch of propositional truths, and knowledge of the books of the Bible and some Colin songs are going to be all they have in the kit bag when they eventually step outside the Christian bubble.

Yesterday my youngest daughter asked a dear friend of ours, an adult — a parent with her own children even — ‘Han, why do you come to church?’… Han gave her a brilliant, coherent, and best of all ‘not from mum and dad’ answer about why church is good not just necessary. Ellie’s own answer was ‘mum and dad make me’ — so we’ve still got some work to do. But she’s five. We might have a year or two left if the Jesuits were right…

We’re in the process of stepping our church community towards independence from our mother ship. We’ve been a campus of a multi-site church that has a well resourced kids program, and pumps out terrific kids curriculum. It’s not a static mega-church monster either; the kids and youth leaders at our mother ship ask hard questions about discipleship, and pedagogy, and are committed to a ‘discipleship based’ model where the relationship between leaders and their kids is a big feature.

We’ve always integrated the teaching program for the kids with what the adults are hearing in the room next door, so that families can have conversations about the same subjects and grow towards Christlikeness together. It’s a great model. It’s hard to duplicate without the resources the mother church has — from kids pastor (who is excellent), to creative people who make videos for kids (who’re excellent), to teams of young leaders who can serve our kids and go to another service in the evening. We’re going to have to step towards an adapted model — and the question is whether we’re going to step back from the pointy ‘cutting edge’ of kids ministry that our mother ship is positioned at, into the slipstream, or run the risk of jumping ahead of the point.

Whatever decision we make is going to rely on our resources, but it’s also going to have to be an expression of our theological anthropology — our understanding of how people (and children are people) are formed, and what we hope to see people formed into. If we want our kids to be dangerous, like I want my own kids to be, we want them to have a cutting edge — we’re making splayds not sporks… or something.

There are a few other building blocks in the mix here for me. First that I want part of the danger my kids bring to the world to be in the form of being both a faithful presence (to borrow from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World), not withdrawn into a Christian bubble or enclave, but working in the institutions that help build a society, or creating cultural artefacts that make Christianity possible, or even plausible, as a way of life and belief. Second, that I want them to be a non-anxious presence, to borrow from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in Anxious Times. I want my kids (and the kids in our church) to be leaders, rather than those who are led by the world (or at least people who follow good leadership). Third, I want my kids to be raised by a village of people — a community — or family, not just by me, to dilute some of my weirdness, but also to build the “plausibility structure” (in Peter Berger’s words) for Christian belief so that Christianity isn’t just something their weird parents buy into, but so many adults they know and love buy into as well; including adults who’ve got totally different lives to us; the lives my kids might one day lead, or that might have more in common with others who might lead my kids somewhere else. More on this later.

David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission builds a little on Hunter’s vision of the church as a place that cultivates the sort of people who might change the world and its norms. In his chapter on ‘the discipline of being with children,’ Fitch talks about the way all our structures actually end up serving not the goal of being a dangerous ‘faithful presence’ but forming people who become anxious that the world is out to get them, and that they need to be protected. He says:

“The world has become a dangerous place for children. So we obsess about everything that could go wrong with our children. We obsess over their education and their ability to compete in the world marketplace for a job. We obsess about protecting them from the horrors of abuse, whether that abuse be sexual, physical, or emotional. We build sophisticated systems of surveillance for child abusers. We spend more per capita educationally in the United States than anyplace in the world. We fund more sports, art, music, and tutoring programs for children than any other society in the world. And yet actual parental time spent with our children might be at an all-time low. To pay for the best sports programs, schools, household comforts, and surveillance systems, the average family must have two incomes.”

That’s surely pretty true here in Australia too. We’re already feeling the pull of extra activities for our kids, and our oldest is only 8.

Fitch builds a system of ministry practices off those times in the Gospels when Jesus says he will be present in his people, for him, this ‘discipline of being with children’ comes from Jesus’ saying in Matthew 18, that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.” I think Jesus is using the child as a metaphor, but this metaphor doesn’t eradicate the place children have in God’s kingdom — the idea that children are part of the body of Christ, and our work as the body towards maturity, not just distractions to be farmed out into some program, seems on the money to me. Fitch describes how they practice ‘being with children’ in his church.

“We decided to resist making children’s ministries into a program. We wanted to lead the community into being with our children. From the very beginning, when we were but a small Bible study, we asked every member, young, old, single, and married, to spend time with the children during a Bible story time. At various times we would say that by being with the children, you were being prepared to experience the kingdom. If you refused, you might be refusing the kingdom itself.”

Bible story time was the part in their service where the kids would go out; it happened while the sermon was happening for the adults. Fitch describes what this commitment for “every member” looked like.

“We adopted storytelling methods based on the curriculum called “Godly Play.” We emphasized adults getting on the level of the child, inviting God’s presence by the Spirit to be with us, then telling the story slowly, allowing space for wondering and questions, and above all being present to God. Adults spent time being with the children as they explored. This space between the adult and the child became sacred. We asked everyone in the church to participate in this ministry with children. There were regular teachers rotating in and out, but everyone was asked to participate. All adults were asked to be in the children’s ministry a minimum of once every eight weeks. They were asked to be present with our children, to know them, to be changed by them. This resulted in a community where our children could grow up recognizing Jesus not purely as a historical person and a doctrine, but as someone present to us in our daily lives. We recognized, in this screen-crazy society, the space for his presence would never be more available with our children than during these early years.”

I read this years ago, and, let me tell you, there are lots of reasons to do this and most people you ask to be involved in kids ministry seem to say no, almost as a reflex. Almost as though we’ve bought into a picture of growth and maturity and the life of the church that says our real growth is going to come through hearing God’s word, rather than participating in Jesus’ body, and that the hearing has to be at a particular level for it to do its work on us alongside our serving the body. Fitch digs into this objection a little, especially (but not only) when it comes to people who say they aren’t ‘gifted’ to be with kids, or parents who want church to be an escape from kids. It’s worth hearing his challenge. He says parents would say:

“We’re with our children six days a week. We’re exhausted. When we come to church gatherings on Sundays we need some ‘Jesus and me’ time.” It was clear that elements of (what I have called) exhaustion mode were at work here. We tried to open their imaginations for something more. We shared how God is at work in this space. That perhaps they could learn a new relationship with their children based not on control but in being with Jesus with them. Perhaps this could change the entire rest of the week they spend with their children. Perhaps various sports and arts programs during the week might become less important. This was the inertia we had to overcome in fostering a community that would be present to their children.”

His answer to people who say being with children is not their gift is brilliant, he says “being with children in our teaching ministry is not a spiritual gift. It is never mentioned in the Scripture as a spiritual gift. Instead, the church brings all its gifts to the space of ministry with children.” This is a big ask, but maybe it’s a necessary one? There’ll be compliance and training to go through to do this in accordance with child safety; and that might be another barrier that we throw up to say ‘it’s too hard’ — but while we’re small and starting out, that barrier is worth tackling head on, and once you start doing that, maybe it becomes part of our culture?

The “Godly play” curriculum Fitch mentions is something I’ve been doing some reading about, even as we think about how we shape our physical space where we meet so that kids feel welcome, rather than feeling like an afterthought. Play is part of Friedmann’s antidote to the age of anxiety. Friedmann says:

“Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem-storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective.”

Play is also part of what might make us dangerous disrupters of the status quo because we’re able to imagine — because we’ve learned to imagine — something different. As Jurgen Moltmann framed it in his Theology of Play, play is liberating. He said “we enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.”

It might even be that an approach to children in churches that aims to make them dangerous to the world in the changes that they might bring aligned with the story of Jesus, rather than the world dangerous to them, and that includes the all members of the body, might actually benefit and form all of us — kids and adults — towards maturity. Maybe we need to become a little more dangerous too — not just in how we raise our kids, but in the example that we set for them as we seek to be a faithful presence in the world.

At the same time that I’m pondering the why and what and how of kids ministry, and our capacities as a small church that has been a bit like a toy boat in Archimedes’ bath, riding the waves as he splashed about following his epiphany, wondering if we’ll capsize, or if the surface of the water will normalise when that big mass is removed… we’re working our way through Ephesians. Which, can I say, is a cracking letter that should probably be immortalised for eternity. Paul has a particular model of formation — both a pedagogy (a method) and a telos (an end goal) — for Christian maturity in this letter. One that maybe could shape how we function as a church community, and how we seek maturity our selves, and in one another, and including the kids in our community in that ‘one another’ as parts of the body.

Paul seems to think that maturity isn’t going to be a product only of what we know, though knowledge is a good and important thing — but of being who we now are in Jesus, and in the body we’re united to by his Spirit. ‘Learning Jesus’ is something we do in community, not just as we receive content, but as we walk together with those in the body and practice the ‘new self’ in our relationships. Paul grounds this new walk in his ‘big story’ picture of reality in the chapters leading up to chapter 4; where he makes the stunning claim that the Christian has been brought from death — and the clutches of Satan — to life in Jesus, and that this isn’t just a future pie-in-the-sky reality, but rather, because God’s Spirit is dwelling in us we are already raised together with Christ, and seated together with Christ in the heavenly realms, such that our unity in him is a declaration of God’s grace, mercy, wisdom, and character in those heavenly realms, made to all those powers that once held us captive. But this new self — it’s worked out in a ‘walk,’ and a different walk to the way the Gentiles walk, it’s the walk we learn as we take our place in the body of Christ, the church, here on earth, and live as children of God ‘walking in the way of love.’

Paul’s pedagogy is a pedagogy built on example and imitation as we live out this story, these truths, together — and this story is what makes us dangerous to the world. It forms us to be a people who get our crap together in such a way that the default and destructive patterns of the world — patterns set up by Satan in opposition to us and to God — lose their power, and even, maybe, that we might be able to challenge them in anticipation of Jesus returning to make things on earth as they are in heaven.

In David Kinnamann and Mark Matlock’s book Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways For A New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, one of the practices Kinnaman and Matlock’s extensive research found produced ‘resilient disciples,’ that they believe is geared to resist a modern world where “screens disciple” our kids more than almost any human relationship, is “forging meaningful, intergenerational, relationships.” So much of our approach to kids ministry (and a reason people leave small churches for large ones) is the desire to find a ‘peer group’ for kids to relate to, Kinnaman and Matlock found that the more important relationships are non-peer relationships. In examining the challenges facing youth and kids growing up in the modern world, they said:

“Consider that this younger generation has grown up in the most corporate (in the business sense) expression of the local church since its inception. Its leaders have often acted more like entrepreneurs and showmen than prophets and shepherds. Meanwhile, churches have lost influence in their local communities. This generation is the first to form their identities—and their perceptions of church—amid high-profile sexual abuse scandals and sky-high levels of church skepticism. At the same time that the church is fighting back perceptions of irrelevance and extremism, social pressure is leading to more isolation. All of this means that young people have to travel a long road in order to find supportive relationships, inside or outside the church. This leads us to the third practice of resilient disciple making in digital Babylon: when isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. Resilient disciples’ connections in the church are far and away more extensive than those of habitual churchgoers, nomads, or prodigals. The vast majority of resilients firmly assert that “the church is a place where I feel I belong” and “I am connected to a community of Christians.”

In their research, conducted by the Barna Group in February 2018, Kinnaman and Matlock found that 77% of those meeting the criteria as ‘resilient disciples’ said they had “close personal friends who were adults from my church, parish, or faith community,” while only 27% of people surveyed who’d left the church said the same, at the same time, 72% of those who met the resilient disciples criteria admired the faith of their parents, while only 16% of those who left admired their parent’s faith. In another study, cited in Faith For Exiles, the Barna Group found that a significant number of us Christians, especially young Christians, believe that ‘discipleship’ is something we work on by ourselves, specifically saying “I believe my spiritual life is entirely private” (41%). Kinnaman and Matlock suggest our practices and programs are part of what has perpetuated this belief, that is profoundly at odds with Paul’s view of how maturity happens in Ephesians. They say:

“Yet so often church is created for the individual. Songs are sung vertically to God; we no longer sing “horizontally” to one another. Even sacraments like baptism are often described in terms of individual spiritual journeys, disembodied from the corporate experience of the body of Christ.”

Paul says:

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” — Ephesians 4:15-16

There’s no age limit on this. This is for adults, and for children. Maturity happens in relationships, in the context of the body; a body that pursues Christ likeness in community “as each part does its work.” Kinnaman and Matlock’s research suggests that this model is actually what keeps people committed to Jesus.

“The top relational predictors of resilient Christians are these: I feel connected to a community of Christians; the church is a place where I feel I belong; I feel loved and valued in my church; I feel connected to people older than me in my church.

Faith communities and Christian households, then, must become resilient villages designed with outcomes in mind.”

So what does this look like for me? As a parent? And as someone paid to pastor my own kids — where a big part of my motivation for having the job is to have a church that will disciple my kids in a world where following Jesus is still hard, and increasingly less plausible because the fabric of society and culture no longer supports belief in things that the Gospel assumes (like the existence of God, or objective moral or natural goods). This isn’t a task I am equipped to handle on my own. I could spend my life trying to convince my kids about sexual orthodoxy and the place sex has in God’s design, not just as a created good, but as something that testifies to and anticipates the new creation. And they might believe me. It’s unlikely. I’m sure my parents modelled some … no… wait… I did not learn much directly about sexuality and my discipleship as a follower of Jesus from my parents. And so, with my kids, I imagine I’ll be part of that picture, I trust, and we have conversations about sex already. But so will single people, young and old, in my church family. So will my, and more importantly their, celibate gay brothers and sisters in our community. And that’s a beautiful thing.

And it’s not just about modelling an alternative, and dangerous, commitment to sexuality. It’s part of being formed to challenge the darkness we find in the world as we adopt an example, or model, for navigating economics, or education, or work in ways shaped by Jesus. In my own life I think it’s true that while I do admire the faith of my parents, their faith, teaching, and example would not have been enough to keep me here (humanly speaking), there were myriad other people who were deeply influential in forming me as part of the body.

The trick is to foster the relationships now, through our structures, in the body of Christ (as a structure) that will help our kids navigate the playground (whether in primary school or high school) or the cultural landscape and pursue Christlikeness through that. That’s not something peers are going to be all that helpful with, and perhaps it’s not something that just one trusted adult can help with. So I think Fitch is on to something.

It’s going to involve a commitment, within a church community, to build trust and relationships and opportunities to ask questions, and to play and serve together, not just to be given curriculum material in a program or something that feels like the Christian equivalent of a STEM class room. It’s not just about rote learning verses abstracted from their context, or answers to catechism questions, or Bible knowathon facts, it’s about learning a walk, a way of life, in relationship with people rehearsing the Christian story until it sinks into our bones and changes us so that we are dangerous to the world because we are agents of his kingdom.

What it might look like in reality is having a few people committed to the ‘storytelling’ aspect of the time that kids are gathered together, and involving a rotation of other members of the church community through that time reacting to the story, playing together, sharing one another’s stories, and answering questions from the kids from those stories, particularly in ways that build plausibility for being part of the body of Christ — a bit like when Paul describes his time with the Thessalonians — where the Thessalonians “became imitators of us and of the Lord” because, he says “you know how we lived among you for your sake,” and “because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”

Maybe this is what it might take for us to do what N.D Wilson suggests when he says, of our approach to kids: “Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

So. Eureka moment, or am I about to get struck down by lightning?

On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

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

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)

My recent trip to the optometrist also included a routine check up, where, it turned out my eyes are aged the same age as the rest of my body. Older. And so, I have ‘presbyopia’ — which is a apparently very common condition, but brilliantly named given my occupation as a Presbyterian minister.

Presbyopia has the same greek root as Presbyterian — ‘elder’ — I have elder eyes.

Eyes that according to the diagnosis are suffering from a physiological insufficiency of accommodation associated with the aging of the eye that results in progressively worsening ability to focus clearly on close objects. Symptoms include difficulty reading small print, having to hold reading material farther away, headaches, and eyestrain.

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

I’ve written a couple of recent pieces about the pastor drought and what might be causing it in our neck of the woods, and about why I’m (still) a Presbyterian anyway, and in some ways I wish I’d had this diagnosis, and so, this language, earlier. 

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

As a denomination we’re increasingly unable to recognise what we’re not seeing because we’re old, inflexible, and tired. Incapable of seeing what’s right before our eyes, and, like me, unaware of what we’re missing. We’re probably not good at reading small print either… 

For various reasons our denomination in Queensland is at something of a cultural crossroads. The ‘pastor drought’ is biting, so there are vacancies popping up all over the state, and filling those vacancies from within the state will perpetuate the problem. There are good things happening in some healthy churches, but some of our larger churches have grown beyond the size our system is capable of accommodating and beyond the size that most pastors are equipped to lead. We, as a denomination, have been wedded to pragmatism in our ‘business meetings’ and even in local congregations, outsourcing theological thought to committees who then deliver reports that most of us are too busy to read or engage with properly, and we haven’t made great business decisions because very few office bearers in the denomination, or members of the courts of the church have been trained or equipped to operate businesses — most of us have been trained to exegete the Bible, and some of us have vaguely relevant pre-Bible college experience that is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, the elders who could be joining our business meetings as a denomination — those with business acumen — are excluded as a function of our meeting times, and our operating rules haven’t found ways to both affirm a theology of male eldership and broaden these courts to consistently include the voices and wisdom of the other 50% of the population. We’ve become stuck in our way of seeing the world, and the world is changing. We’ve lost focus. 

Presbyopia. 

Recent events have been a bit like the eye tests you do at the optometrist where you suddenly realise you’re not seeing what you should, and so we’re conducting ‘reviews’ and ‘think tanks’ and bringing in ‘fresh eyes’ to set ‘new directions’ (the previous ironic title of our denominational rag). But how can we be sure this won’t be a case of the blind leading the blind?

If, and let’s stretch the Presbyopia analogy just a little further for a moment, if the phenomenon of ‘old eyes’ kicks in at around 40 (you know, around my age), then seeing clearly might not just involve people in their late 60s (boomers) inviting people in their 40s (xers) to the table. It’s quite possible those ‘younger’ elders won’t just bring the wisdom of age and experience, but eyes that are already becoming inflexible precisely when we need to shift our focus. 

There are things that are good, true, and beautiful that come from having a denomination where age and experience are valued; elders are an essential part of any community (and family). But there comes a point in the life of a family not only where we don’t let grandpa drive the family car, but when a parent turns to their kids knowing that their eyes might see things with a little more clarity. 

Let me just make some bold assertions (propositions even) for a moment, and feel free to push back if you think these are unfounded. 

Pragmatism of the sort that is producing problems at a local church level and at an institutional level is wedded to a certain sort of modernism; especially a modernism connected to technology and technique. The cultural dilemmas facing our denomination are fundamentally an outworking of an uncritical adoption of modernity not just as a framework for assessing and talking about truth and morality, but for operating in the world. 

1. The shifting cultural landscape and the erosion of the church’s place in society is a product of both our uncritical embrace of modernism, and the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the culture (and, perhaps even the failure of modernism to present a fully orbed understanding of what it means to be human, or to have meaning, or to know truth).

It’s not just that the culture has shifted way from truth (and by that we mean become post-modern and post-Christian), it’s that the shift to modernity was already a destructive shift away from truth and we didn’t see it while we were making the shift (think the disenchantment of Christian belief, where we’re blind to the spiritual realm, and our becoming wedded to pragmatism in our ethics, rather than, say, virtue or working from principles that might produce an action that was ‘right’ but less immediately effective).

An example of this is that modernism is big on authoritative institutional voices, so, we adopted this posture and voice as Christians, specifically as conservative church institutions (not just Presbyterians), when speaking to the world about moral, political and social issues. These areas of life are typically not reduced simply to pure rationality or propositions about science/nature/natural law (like marriage), but that’s the posture we adopted — and people were keen to take away our drivers license because we looked like the equivalent of a 95 year old escapee from a nursing home stealing a car and rampaging through the streets at 10 kph. We did this while simultaneously undermining our institutional credibility (around, say, institutional child abuse and even church finances). Then, as we realised the shift was happening we doubled down on pragmatism. The ‘culture wars’ approach to politics is this paradigm taken to extremes; where suddenly it doesn’t matter what action we take, so long as the outcome we believe is ‘good’ is achieved. Within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland this pragmatism plays out both in terms of how we typically talk about achieving ministry success (more bums on more seats in flashier buildings with better AV capacity), and in how we approach decision making in our courts where questions tend to be about methodology, resource distribution, and wisdom rather than about theological consistency, and where theological thought when it does happen is outsourced to an increasingly smaller group of experts because we don’t have time for that in our ‘business meetings’.

2. Pragmatism, as an outworking modernism, that mostly looks like finding the right lever or silver bullet or ministry model isn’t going to fix this shift.

It won’t fix our internal issues if our internal issues are, in part, that we are institutionally wedded to modernity and to pragmatism, and it won’t fix our external issues if we think the way to respond to the shifting culture is to simply present the unadorned propositional truth of the Gospel (or if we do adorn it, to think that the best way to adorn the Gospel is in pragmatic ways that imitate the ‘excellence’ we find in business and marketing manuals with good technology and technique). 

3. Embracing post-modernity, especially its suspicion of institutions and its paradigm of deconstruction of institutions where reconstruction work is typically aimed around the subjective experience of an individual, isn’t the answer either.

Institutions are good and necessary. Individuals suffer from presbyopia (or plenty of other conditions that limit true seeing of the world). There is truth at the heart of Christian belief that can be expressed propositionally (just not exclusively propositionally). Narratives are powerful, but not only subjectively so. This is where maybe a shift to meta-modernity (or post-post-modernity) would be an interesting step to embrace institutionally.

4. The children are our future (and also our present), and so are adults without presbyopia, maybe they should help set our direction, especially if they can see more clearly than we can.

Our church structures are set up to be conservative (and there’s some wisdom in that so long as we’re conserving the right things), but one way this plays out is that the ‘rooms where it happens’ to borrow from Hamilton typically exclude anyone at low risk of actual presbyopia, and probably also anyone at low risk of metaphorical presbyopia as well (not to mention, in the main, that they also typically (though not in all cases) exclude women of all ages).

There are now a couple of generations below Gen-X who’ve been grappling with cultural changes, and some people in these generations are exceptionally thoughtful and committed Christians who’ve navigated the challenges and tensions in their own lives that we’re now trying to recalibrate our denomination to respond to because we’ve realised we’re not seeing as clearly as we should. Any review process worth its salt won’t just include the next generation down — those who’ve been waiting patiently to become the establishment — but all generations. Instead of viewing these younger generations with suspicion, as though anybody not wedded to the methodology of modernism (propositions and pragmatism) has become worldly (without critically assessing our only ‘becoming worldly’ as an institution that is thoroughly modernist), maybe we could listen to them. One way this ‘suspicion’ plays out, like so much else, is when the modernist v post modernist thing kicks in in debates about sexuality and, for example, the language used to describe one’s experience, where anything ‘post-modern’ is dismissed as squishy or dangerous theological liberalism, when what is possibly happening is a shift in how language is used from prescriptive to descriptive. There are other ways too, but I feel like I need some evidence to support these assertions and one of the first places I think this modernist/post-modernist schism became apparent to me was in the furore surrounding a review posted here some time ago about a thoroughly modernist book tackling sexual ethics produced by another thoroughly modernist institutional Christian publisher.

We need grandpa no longer in the driver seat, and the fresh eyed learner driver to navigate this road trip and keep the car from breaking down or crashing.

5. If we’re serious about a cultural review and ‘think tanks’ and substantial institutional change we need to invite people who are clear eyed (and so under 35) into our processes, and these discussions.

Otherwise we’ll have the blind leading the blind to more of the same, but also, in my own actual (and metaphorical) experience, it’s energising to see the world through fresh eyes. The optometrist was right that my tired eyes were making the rest of me tired too. It’s invigorating both to get glasses that correct your vision and take up some of the strain, and to hear from voices younger than you who help you see the world with a little more clarity.

Two of my favourite parts of the last two years have been regular catch ups with my ministry trainee, Matthew, who consistently probes and prods me to see the world differently, and reading his blog as he’s ventured into publishing some of his thinking for a wider audience. I trust I’m also operating as ‘an elder’ for him, but he’s navigating a thoroughly different world to the one I knew in my twenties. For another eye-opening experience, get a hold of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites for an account of the way the spiritual and cultural landscape has shifted past the kinda hard secularism and skepticism that so much stuff by people over 35 (me included) assumes is the default paradigm, into something quite different.

On seeing… truly (or how my escaping colour blindness is a metaphor for escaping spiritual blindness)

My wife Robyn is an amazing gift giver. She is thoughtful. This year for Father’s Day she exceeded all expectations by giving me a trip to the optometrist and some new glasses.

That might sound like an anti-climax.

New glasses.

But these are magic glasses.

I can now see colours that previously did not exist for me.

Colour blindness is a weird phenomenon to try to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it. I’ve given up. I’ve also given up playing the game where people ask ‘what colour is this’ because I just don’t know, and I can’t see what I’m missing, and I hate that. I hate trying to identify colours, especially around the red/green spectrums, but the way colour works means I also have trouble with purples, and yellows, and other weird colours I’d never expected.

I had a default way of seeing the world. I had no idea what I was missing.

But now I know.

And boy, was I missing a lot.

You can watch reaction videos that pretty much capture my experience here.

It’s crazy to know how much I was missing. One way to demonstrate it, simply, is that I thought I had these apps on my phone’s home screen grouped by colour.

Now I know I didn’t…

One retailer of these glasses, EnChroma, has a video that says that colour blind people see “a world less saturated, less vibrant” and that has been my experience. Apparently you non-colour blind people can experience life through our eyes by looking at the world through a piece of green cellophane.

Even wearing them I spent a bunch of time skeptical that what I’m seeing now is really real, and not just the world through rose coloured glasses (and maybe the person who coined that idiom was colour blind…). But the more I dig in to this reality, the realer it seems. EnChroma has an online colour blindness test. Here are my results without the glasses on, and then wearing them.

I was missing so much. Who knew? Well. Everybody. Everybody who isn’t colour blind that is. And if you are colour blind — those reaction videos are real. These glasses are amazing.

It’s worth seeing the world as it is.

Over the past year or two I’ve been having another experience that feels a lot like this. I think I’m also recovering from being spiritually colour blind.

It started with my deep dive into C.S Lewis’ academic work The Discarded Image, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and their shared analysis of the modern western world; that we’ve chosen a view of the world that is “less saturated” and “less vibrant”; that we’ve, because of our commitment to rationalism and a purely ‘sensible’ world; a world where only what we can sense is real; disenchanted reality. Where we could’ve kept our rose coloured glasses on we’ve reached for (or been given) the green cellophane by a culture, and powerful institutions, and perhaps spiritual forces, that do very well for themselves by keeping us blind to reality as it is. We settle for a less saturated, less vibrant, life and colour blindness becomes our reality, green cellophane becomes our lens.

And this lens effects the way we see everything. Reality as we live in it, but also, for Christians, the Bible and the story of Jesus as we encounter it. One ‘new pair of glasses’ that might help us see the world as it really is, or at least one that worked for me, was Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm, which invites us to free ourselves of the green cellophane view provided by the modern world, and to read the Biblical text the way its first readers would have understood it; part of this exercise is to, with Lewis, Taylor, and Heiser, acknowledge that not every part of our modern, secular, age is a product of a Christian vision of reality, and that not everything modern is truer than the past.

Trying to take off the ‘green cellophane’ of the disenchanted view, or overcoming spiritual colour blindness with this new lens is weird. I spend a lot of time feeling the same sort of skepticism about this way of seeing the world that I now feel when I see colours. Surely this can’t actually be real?

There’s an interesting dynamic here for me where, for example, there’s a temptation to read Genesis 1 as modern people and either say ‘science disproved this, so it can’t be true’ or to read the creation story through the lens of modern science and try to make it cohere, and this is a trap that both the young earth creationist movement and old earth counterparts fall into.

I remember sitting in an Old Testament subject at college scoffing at  ancient conceptual maps of the cosmos with a heavenly and earthly realm like this one, because to take that seriously was to take the Old Testament too literally, when we now have our model of the universe through science, and so our job was to get to the ‘actual truth’ the Old Testament was trying to convey; that God is the creator of a good and ordered world, and we mess it up through sin… but what if one of the big points of the creation story is that there is a heavenly realm, and an earthly one? And what if this is one of the threads that binds the whole narrative of the Bible from first chapter to last chapter together (where heaven and earth are brought together in a new creation)?

The green cellophane view says ‘get to the sensible point that aligns with how we see reality’ — but the rose coloured glasses say ‘sit with the view of the cosmos this text creates and have it change the way you see reality.’

This doesn’t mean rejecting the insights of science around material questions, or even questions about the age of the earth, but it means the activity of trying to approach the text of Genesis 1 through green cellophane is always going to leave you with a less vibrant, less saturated, world.

This is also true of the Gospel itself; if we green cellophane the Gospel stories then reading these biographies of Jesus leaves us looking for the “Jesus of history” and positioning Jesus as an alternative, revolutionary, political leader to Caesar, bringing an alternative economic system that we’d love to see realised in this world as we pursue justice; a moral example; a wise teacher; and maybe at most, still a saviour who’ll bring forgiveness to you in a divine economy or supernatural order that has very little to do with day to day life now (and very little to say about the significance of the Holy Spirit). The stuff about Satan and Demons you shove to the side. Angels become ‘human messengers’ through a little etymological gymnastics (literally what we were taught at Bible college by a former lecturer though), and you’re left with a disenchanted Christianity. The rose coloured glasses view — the more vibrant, more saturated view — sees the Gospels as the story of God’s victory over Satan and his demons; those authorities and powers that ruled the nations, and captured and captivated Israel, exiling them from God, and a victory that means beastly human governments that are built around spiritual powers and authorities no longer have dominion over people. It’s a victory that means not only can Israel come home to God via their Messiah, but the nations can be restored as well, and be seated in the heavenly realms, even now, because of our union with Jesus by the presence of the Spirit.

We’ve been working through Ephesians at church this year, and I think seeing reality this way is exactly what Paul is after when he prays for the church that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17) before launching into the story of how Jews and Gentiles are now united in Jesus, raised together with him, and seated in the heavenlies. He wants this reality to be their view of the day to day world we live in; a more vibrant, more saturated, reality.

Here’s one of the talks I gave in that series where one older, wiser, listener (ok, my dad, who’s got a pretty compelling picture of the way pronouns in Ephesians are used to distinguish Jewish Christians (we and us) from Gentile Christians (you) in Paul’s schema) summed up with the statement ‘who knew the Nephilim were so important for understanding the Bible’… You might think getting to those strange ‘sons of God’ in Genesis is a ‘weird flex’ from Ephesians… and you might be right. Consider this an invitation to put on some rose coloured glasses and take up a more vibrant, more saturated, view of the world, including how we understand politics, economics, and ethics (how we live as people, in communities). It’s straight off our Zoom recording, filmed from an iPhone, so apologies for the quality.

Maybe we need a way of seeing the world that is different to the green cellophane handed to us; a more vibrant, more vivid world. Maybe those ideas of ‘the eyes of our hearts being opened’ and us being enlightened is part of recapturing the wonder not just of the Gospel, but of creation itself.

Perhaps our job as people ‘raised with Christ and seated in the heavenlies’ is to first see the reality of God and his world rightly, through new lenses, and then to see our task as getting the good news and the rose coloured glasses out to as many people as possible; what if we were as excited about the eye opening truth of the Gospel as the people in those reaction videos putting on their rose coloured glasses for the first time?

The trick is that so much of this task actually starts within the church, where, we’ve been so thoroughly schooled from the rational, sensible, secular age outlook that to simply say what the Bible says about the Spiritual realm and its reality, and its interplay with the political or the economic makes you feel and sound like a crazy person. Why settle for a less vivid, less saturated world when you can see truly.

Why be a Presbyterian? (Or why I am, anyway)

I read the story about the Presbyterian pastor drought in Eternity (that I wrote a response to here) was released on the final day of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland’s state assembly. These normally happen in June, but Covid-19, and a few other circumstances, have bumped the schedule this year.

The Presbyterian Church of Queensland is at a bit of a crossroads; we’re putting together ‘think tanks’ and reviews to figure out the denomination’s future and look hard at its culture and structures, we have vacancies all over the the state, including in some of our biggest and most strategically important churches (in terms of pipelines in to ministry, at least).

A huge part of me, reading the Eternity article, while sitting in a room on the last day of Assembly, thought “this,” “this is why we have a pastor drought.” Assemblies aren’t my favourite things. Every year at the State Assembly, or every three years at the General Assembly of Australia feels like a contest to define what the word ‘Presbyterian’ means.

The wagon circling thing I described in the last post is a natural response by a conservative denomination, defined by not going into church union (the Uniting Church), facing a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. But it’s hard, if you’re the sort of person who likes the Protestant Reformation because of the Spirit of always challenging and reforming institutions and status quos because of the fundamental insights that humans are a limited, sinful, mess and the institutions we create often enshrine that limited, sinful, mess, and that the Bible is God’s word and our actual authority on how to live in God’s world. It’s hard if you want to keep bringing the insights of Biblical scholarship (the Biblical Studies departments in our colleges) into conversation with Historical theology (the doctrine and church history departments), to challenge long established thoughts, and patterns of exegesis, with good and robust scholarship. It’s hard if you want to make the case that whole swathes of previous consensus, both theological and pastoral, have been built on a particular interpretation of a contested passage of Scripture because our pragmatism and decision making processes don’t really make space to tease that out, while at the same time we’re under more pressure than ever to codify our positions on particular issues.

But denominations, and Presbyterianism in particular, are worth persisting with. They’re not for everybody. I’m thankful that the richness of God’s kingdom includes other denominations, and those who sit outside denominations as voices in the wilderness calling for reform and repentance and modelling that. There’s a parallel in what one might call ‘church politics’ and how politics in general operate; to take James Davison Hunter’s critique of modern politics, I don’t want to ‘politicise everything’ and so suggest that everyone should be a Presbyterian (or in an institution) because the guide to Christian faithfulness comes in the form of Presbyterianism or the institutional church, but I do think that institutions are a good thing, and there is wisdom and virtue in seeking to be a faithful presence in an institution for its good and yours. In a thing I once wrote on politics I talked about a paradigm of dirty hands, clean hands, and busy hands. The ongoing reform of our institutions will require people to sign up as members, to get their hands ‘dirty’ in the work of compromise and presence and reform, while it will also require some people not to sign up as members, who model and call for change, and others to do the work of building alternative institutions that might challenge all of us to look at how we’re operating (or to jump ship).

So here are some reasons one might consider signing up for the long process of becoming a party to the institution (or edifice) that is the Presbyterian Church of Australia (or Queensland). And while this might feel like a ‘male only’ enterprise, Queensland has its first candidate for ordination as a deaconess in a long, long, time working her way through Queensland Theological College. She was a student minister in our church, and I’d hate for this bold pioneering woman to have to wait another 30 years for others to join her in occupying an official status within the denomination.

And look, this isn’t actually an encouragement for everyone reading to go into paid full time church based ministry. Churches are a body, we have many parts, you have a part to play, a ‘calling,’ if you’re a Christian; that will express itself in the community of the church (the body) and its work; the work of the kingdom. There’s a very good chance you are not meant to be an ordained Presbyterian Minister. The work of the Gospel here in Australia is going to require a lot more work on things adjacent to Gospel proclamation; the sorts of things that build credibility for the message of the Gospel as we regain lost social capital, and challenge a shifting understanding of how the world works to help the categories at the heart of the Gospel to make sense to the hearts and minds of people counter-formed by the idolatries of our time and place. But that sort of work will, I think, also require churches operating as institutions, which could (and I think does) include denominations. Part of the answer to the pastor drought is, and will be, a rediscovery that the work of the church is not the work of a pastor, but the body.

  1. God is at the heart of Presbyterian theology, and the Gospel of Jesus is good news. Look, I recognise that many of my readers aren’t “Team Calvin” when it comes to the conception of God that animates Presbyterian theology, from Calvin, through the Westminster Confession, to us. God is big, and sovereign, and good. He reveals his bigness and goodness and transcendence to us through the Incarnation of Jesus, and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and makes us alive in him by his Spirit, and raises us into the heavenly realm, as the Spirit unites us to Jesus. Presbyterian theology makes much of God as creator and redeemer; and so makes much of Jesus (it could do more with that last bit about the vivifying work of the Spirit, not just that the Spirit moves us towards faith because we are chosen by God, rather than choosing God for ourselves). It could do better at organising revelation as a Christ centred narrative, rather than building artificial constructions around the Law as part of the whole counsel of God, but I could do more with being reminded that God is creator, not just redeemer, and so creation itself testifies to the divine nature and character of God, not just redemption (though they aren’t at odds, nature is oriented towards grace, just as humanity in Adam finds its fulfilment in humanity in Jesus).
  2. The Presbyterian Church of Australia isn’t just ‘confessional’ — its basis of union makes it primarily ‘Biblical’ — as in, the Bible is our supreme standard, and there is flexibility (provided by the Declaratory Statement, that says this), to be present in the Institution and to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the human conclusions drawn by the Reformers, and the Westminster council. It is a good Reformed, reforming, evangelical, and Christ Centred institution, where, if I’m one of the most progressive voices in the mix, we’re avoiding plenty of divisive issues threatening schism in other institutions. Lots of our internal debates are actually about how much weight we give each aspect of those descriptors; how much ‘Reformed’ we put in the mix as we do the integrative work of theology and practice, and how we navigate a fellowship where different exegetical conclusions, from a faithful theological centre, are brought into communion and community.
  3. The Gospel is good news that creates an institution, a “kingdom” even, a community, a church, a body of believers. There is a deep theological and spiritual unity between believers across time and space that institutions recognise; the move to be local and independent and time bound, in critique of past institutions, often jettisons these connections and the deep, encouraging, and formative truth that we belong to a body far bigger than our own.
  4. Institutions are part of the fabric of society; the collectives and communities of people that help us make meaning. They are, in their occupation of physical space and their traditions and practices, and their teachings about the good life, participants in ‘the commons’; they are plausibility structures that give weight, through community and practice, to ideas. They provide a basis for culture making. The widespread distrust in institutions isn’t a reason to walk away from institutions into a new world order of individual autonomy, it’s a chance to ask questions about, and reform, our institutions to be re-oriented towards a good. Institutions are uniquely equipped to both form and change people and communities. The sort of world that wants to get rid of institutions is a dystopian world imagined by the neo-capitalists on one hand, who want the very wealthy to get wealthy through corporations at the expense of all others, and want institutions to be subject to market forces, oriented to that end, or big government types who want ideologically driven government departments to be responsible for setting and dictating norms. Mediating institutions and communities protect us from both poles. They can, and should, be places that serve as a ‘commons’ — spaces where dialogue can happen in pursuit of good, true, and beautiful things and so people are formed. Institutions can and do, of course, become corrupt and corrupting (see Reformation, The). One way this happens is if institutions either change too rapidly, or don’t change at all. Presbyterianism has the capacity, the theology, and the heritage (both in the Reformation, and the situation around church union in Australia) to navigate those twin poles well. Denominations are well positioned in terms of ‘social capital’ and ‘actual capital’ to be beneficial to society as we articulate a particular vision of the good human life built on the truth and beauty of the Triune God and the Gospel. Non-denominational movements have to start the social capital (and physical capital) game from scratch, often defining themselves against institutions; post Royal Commission (and even post plebiscite) this might be a wise and good, even necessary, path of action. But my frustration with how established denominations have acted historically (and even presently) can either serve as an invitation to be faithfully present in, and seek the good of an institution, or to begin that hard work of institution building elsewhere.
  5. Accountability is a good thing; and the Presbyterian system balances local (congregational), regional/national (top down institutional), and historical (confessional) accountability in a way that seeks to be good and true and beautiful. This does make us slow and conservative, and change feel like turning the Titanic around, but it does stop us being caught up and swept around by every cultural change.
  6. The ‘process’ towards ordination is a good thing. Good things cost money. Ministry traineeships, whether you end up in full time paid vocational ministry or not, are a good in and of themselves. I’d like us to talk about them less as ‘means’ and more as ‘ends’ — you can take two years to be paid to do ministry in your church, as a missionary to Australia, and hopefully have that happen in relationship with a community and other fellow workers who will shape you. I didn’t do a traineeship, I don’t think they have to be norms, but I do think they are good. Theological Colleges and theological education could, (and perhaps) should be drastically overhauled (rote learning languages… puh-lease). But this work is happening. Lots of smart people are putting time and attention to it. The financial cost of study both in opportunity cost, and in dollars spent (or fee-helped), was worth it. I would do it again. Four years to interact deeply with centuries of thinking, and writing, with those further along in the journey, and a bunch of peers — that’s not a means to some professional gig, it’s just a good thing in and of itself. The pinch we feel when asked to give six years to a training process is the pinch of stepping out of a particular way of viewing life and success built on money and security. There are lots of ways we might balance this, or stretch it out so that there’s on the job training, or good opportunities to learn using online tools, etc, but theological education and the chance to be formed as a person who thinks, not just as a worker who is equipped for the task of ministry is invaluable; and too many of us are far too pragmatic coming out of college, which means the education and our vision of what education and formation is needs to be revisited. Assemblies are frustrating because they so often are business meetings about pragmatics, rather than asking questions about ‘what a church is’ or what the church could and should be doing. Our anti-intellectual, pro-vocational approach to education is coming home to roost. We Presbyterians now outsource our brains to committees to do our theology work for us, and then nod along (and vote with) the experts who’ve become impossible to challenge because they are the magisterium the experts (which is tricky if we keep tasking one arm of the theological enterprise, the Doctrine/historical theology department, with the task rather than tackling an integrative engagement with the world). If we keep making theological training a ‘means to an ends’ rather than theological formation an ends in itself we will perpetuate the problem, but that there is a costly pathway is not in itself a problem if the pathway is disciple making and inherently good. I am thankful for my education, and my educators. I’m also thankful for the process outside of theological education that goes alongside ordination; that a person in our denomination is not only internally ‘called’ but is ‘sent’ — capturing the two senses of the Greek word in question — that the checks and balances and relationships around ordination involve congregations, and elders, and other pastors, and theological gatekeepers is a good thing, even if it feels like it can be an inquisition rather than an encouragement.
  7. Our polity would be a good thing if we implemented it. Lots of the failures producing ‘pastor drought’ conditions, are, in my observation not so much a failure of Presbyterian polity (though I have some quibbles, like the ecclesiology that has the minister not be a member of their congregation, but of the Presbytery), but a failure to apply Presbyterian polity. We need to do better work to generate healthy local governance, and better culture and practice in the regional and national courts of the church. The priesthood of all believers is a great tradition of the Reformation, Elders and pastors as shepherd like overseers are a good, Biblical, principle. Elders who aren’t just business managers called on to make strategic decisions, but who largely sit disconnected from the nature of ministry because that has been outsourced to staff (whether a solo pastor, or team) aren’t what our polity imagines. Nor are elders, or pastors, who wield positional authority rather than relational authority (or influence) built from personal example (imitating Jesus) and love. We have a system that should protect and support both the shepherds, and the flock. We just don’t trust it, because at times the slowness of this system has been seen to be an impediment to the ‘mission’ (where the mission has been framed as bums on seats, rather than the long and slow work of discipleship).
  8. We do, or have, had a genuine diversity around a shared theological centre. There are those in our fellowship who believe the Declaratory Statement is a gateway to liberalism, and who’d like us to be more tightly Confessional. And those who have expressed a view that we need more ‘Reformed’ in the mix, particularly, to name names, in response to the ground won in and by (often growing) churches who are especially big on a Christ-centred Biblical theology (at the expense of a more covenantal framework); and so who are primarily on about Jesus, and position God as redeemer in a way that emphasises the Gospel, and salvation, with sometimes a thin doctrine of creation (and re-creation). Such churches have been broad and evangelical, and attracted members (and often elders and ministers) who are less ‘Reformed’ and more ‘Evangelical’ in their outlook and expression. Debates about giving communion to children are trickier to navigate in a congregational context where lots of members aren’t operating with a covenental frame, but have Baptistic backgrounds. How much we accommodate that diversity in our congregations, eldership, and even the assembly while maintaining some distinctive from other faithful churches, denominations, or institutions is a challenge. Divisions and ‘poles’ within the denomination nationally, and locally, coupled with our tightening/wagon circling in the face of a changed ministry context, can lead us to culture war type games against one another where we narrow what ‘Presbyterian’ means, rather than accommodate, but our denomination is richer for its diversity of expressions around a shared theological centre than it would be if we tightened the boundaries and saw participation in both our church communities and our courts as requiring full embrace of a particular theological vision. I don’t disciple my congregants using the Westminster Confession, but the Bible, and I do sometimes feel like the discussions in the courts of the church assume a univocality in what it means to be Presbyterian that simply isn’t there.

So. Sign your life away. It’ll be good for you, and others, if more of us do. A small part of the answer to the pastor drought might be sitting there in front of your computer screen, reading this piece.

For my next trick, though, I’m going to suggest that maybe the ‘pastor drought’ is overblown, and we’ve actually got a ‘church glut’ and an assumption that the model we have been using is the model we should be using.

On the pastor drought and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

Eternity ran a piece today on the ‘pastor drought’ not simply being a phenomenon within the Sydney Anglican Diocese, but also within the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales; anecdotally (and I could give firmer evidence) the situation facing the Presbyterian Church of Queensland is similar.

I am a Presbyterian (minister), and the son of a Presbyterian (minister). I have a list of thoughts from my own experience (as one ‘likely’ to be in the sort of stream that produces Presbyterian ministers) that might explain the pastor drought, both in terms of the front door ‘in’ to Presbyterian ministry, and the doors ‘out’ of Presbyterian ministry, and I offer them for the consideration of those who are interested in such things; I suspect there are analogies between our denomination and others in the same situation.

Before I give my reasons, I do not think the issue is that we have upped the theological value of forms of work other than Gospel proclamation, or that we have stopped proclaiming the Gospel (see Philip Jensen’s claims on The Pastor’s Heart, and my response).

I do not think the issue is that people prefer team ministry settings (though I am in the process of moving from being employed to pastor a campus of a multi-site team ministry to being the pastor of an autonomous church plant within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

Some of these issues will be a bigger deal for some people than others. Some will feel ‘worldly’ and those who have a pious response to these ‘worldly’ factors are welcome to quit their jobs and move into ministry to practice what they preach for others…

  1. We have normalised a pathway in to ministry that is financially difficult for those who might otherwise train. In NSW we have “MTS” or Metro, depending on your denominational tradition, in the Presbyterian Church of Queensland we have MTN (the Ministry Training Network). Ministry apprenticeships have become an established part of the pathway to ministry, and while they almost certainly help people clarify their call, these two years make the training pathway into ordination in our denomination a 6 year process of not earning a full time salary for those who are typically tertiary educated (so qualified to work in other areas), and often (though not always) married and starting to have children (though not always). We expect candidates for ordination to move, often from rural or regional areas, to capital cities and to live (in our context) in non-subsidised accommodation for a four year period, where they will be expected, as a candidate for ordination, to change church communities after the first two years.
  2. We sold manses. This one relates to the above in that it’s about the financial side of ministry, but the financial sacrifice caught up with transitioning into ministry continues beyond entry into ministry; where, in the past, churches made taking a call to a new parish possible through the provision of appropriate housing in the community being ministered to, now, ministers are encouraged to purchase or rent their own properties using a ‘housing allowance’. This is all well and good for those with sufficient capital pre-ministry, or a working spouse, who can afford to live within the vicinity of their church’s footprint, but it does make calling a minister, particularly to an urban area, very difficult. Signing up for a denomination means signing up to being uprooted over and over again over the course of six years, being part of up to three church communities, living in up to three houses (with all moves paid for out of your own pocket, probably), and then placed somewhere not of your own choosing, where you’ll have to find your own housing (and pay for it), having spent six years spending your savings in order to live week to week. Signing up to train from an independent church, or as a non-candidate, aiming towards a specialised ministry role within your existing church, or to plant a church in a place of your choosing still involves housing costs, but much more stability and autonomy in the process (and in setting the timeframe, and the flexibility of working arrangements before training is finished).
  3. We have a cultural moment suspicious of institutions, and have done nothing in our culture and governance to make partnering with an institution attractive rather than a burden. Very few ministers in our denomination say positive things about the mechanics of our denomination (the courts, etc). We don’t see institutions as strategic, and champion the ‘local church’ and then wonder why, for example, so many people find ministry in, for example, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches so attractive. We have not undertaken significant institutional reform in response to this cultural moment, and the legitimate causes of distrust in institutions (for example, the Royal Commission, and even, debatably, the political stances adopted by the institutional church in public debates) both within the body of believers, and in the community, in such a way that makes presence within an institution desirable or plausibly better than alternatives. It is hard in this context for a person passionate about the mission of the Gospel to justify fishing from an institutional boat.
  4. We have a church culture that limits the role of senior pastor to the ‘privileged’ — typically those with undergrad tertiary training who approach theological education at a post-graduate level; we are increasingly ‘white collar’ both in our leadership and congregations, and the delivery of training content, to justify and sustain a funding model, is geared around those who can navigate tertiary education with a degree of independence. Some of this might be necessary and connected to how we conceive of the nature of pastoral ministry.
  5. We have a shaky theological anthropology, that comes out of modernity, that produces a shaky pedagogy both in our training institutions and in our churches – our methods for ‘forming’ people as disciples rely heavily on information, not practice, or relationship, or imitation, and so our training models are biased to a certain type of ‘thinker,’ who we then seek to reproduce and plug into a particular pathway, and we have a particular model of discipleship that only really works for that sort of person, limiting those who might be plugged in to the pathway to church ministry.
  6. We have not grappled with the changing cultural, moral and philosophical landscape that help people make meaning and arrive at understanding. Our institutions are thoroughly modernist and fighting a vanguard action to defend the goodness of modernism; while our world is a contested multi-cultural mix of modernism, post-modernism, and post-post-modernism (maybe meta-modernism), and unless our institutions can accommodate different meaning making structures with a shared theological center, we will not attract anybody from outside the status quo culture.
  7. Precisely when we should have been sending wagons out to explore new frontiers, positioning the church for adventure and ministry as an adventure, we’ve circled them. We’ve marked out theological boundaries within institutions to halt and resist ‘progress,’ rather than robustly establishing a theological centre. For Presbyterians this is part of our narrative and a deep suspicion of any of the culture that produced church union; we are institutionally suspicious of anything that sounds ‘progressive’ or of ‘social justice’ or of any statement that doesn’t line up with a conservative theological (or political) status quo. Our public political pronouncements have made it quite difficult for anybody left of Tony Abbott’s version of the Liberal Party to feel welcome in our church communities, let alone to become office bearers. Where the Presbyterian system, in particular, and enshrined by our Confessional standard, deeply values conscience, and liberty of opinion, and where our Basis of Union and the declaratory statement makes it clear that Scripture is the ‘supreme standard’ and that conflicts between our understanding of Scripture and the Confession could conceivably emerge, increasingly the declaratory statement is treated as a gateway to liberalism, and any disputable matters or areas of freedom or conscience are being eroded with black and white documents framed by ‘theological experts.’ We Presbyterians are increasingly operating as though Biblical studies and exegesis were closed by the magisterium now called the Westminster Divines, such that historical Reformed theology sets the boundaries for faithfulness, rather than a theological centre — the Gospel and a commitment to God’s revelation through his word — being the basis from which we explore and engage with the world. In theological institutions, not just in Australia, but around the world, the doctrine/historical theology departments are increasingly brought to bear as authorities over the Biblical studies departments. Our national institution, the Presbyterian Church, is increasingly ‘Reformed’ rather than ‘reforming’.
  8. Our most vibrant church communities are broad and evangelical; whether that’s churches in regional areas that are faithful outposts for the Gospel that attract those from other Reformed, or evangelical, traditions, or churches in urban contexts that have been attractive on the basis of Gospel preaching and programs, and so the ‘pathway’ in to our institutions is not necessarily a ‘reformed’ pipeline, but a broader, evangelical pipeline. The narrower we make our institution, the narrower the pipeline from these vibrant ministries becomes.
  9. Often, the theological training institutions of such denominations have tightened up the faculty so that theological ‘breadth’ gives way to a certain sort of platform or theological vision. The interesting thinkers who challenge the status quo have often been removed, or left these narrowing institutions in response to such movements. This is probably truer in Sydney, in my observations from my time as a prospective theological student assessing my options, than it is in Queensland Presbyterianism. The competition for students amongst such institutions has led to, I think, institutions adopting distinct theological visions or flavours, rather than seeking to give good and broad educations, training people who might hold diverse positions, with a robust theological centre (that arguably should centre on the Gospel of Jesus in its fullness). I would suggest we also have too many theological colleges, and, if I were constructing an ideal educational pathway (assuming a head based pedagogy), I’d pick and choose faculty members and subjects from all over the country (which is increasingly possible with centralised accreditation and decentralised (online) models of teaching). When we make structural and cultural changes to make our institutions narrower we should not be surprised when they attract less people to the pipeline, especially for those people born after a turning point in the culture who can, and have, established a robust Christian faith built within the philosophical conditions of post-modernity, or whatever comes after, and even with an intellectual toolkit created by critiques of modernity (including aspects of Critical Theory, or post-modernity) who are being confronted with institutions that suggest such moves are unfaithful, or implausible.
  10. We have not substantially changed our model or practice of church or ministry in response to the changes in our cultural architecture (our institutions, practices, stories, media institutions, art, etc), social imaginaries (the way we come to imagine the world and what shapes that as a product of both culture and sociology), political moment (the culture wars, polarisation, etc), or plausibility structures (the number of people in communities holding particular beliefs in such a way that those beliefs become plausible defaults), or, where we have changed, it has been to embrace a pragmatism or utilitarianism that does not start with our theological vision, or Christian virtue (that is, we’ve embraced the ‘church growth movement’ and its uncritical, and perhaps ‘toxic’ taking up of worldly models and metrics). Where we should be turning our attention to rebuilding plausibility for the Gospel through culture making, institution building, community development, ‘renewing our social architecture,’ or recouping some of the social capital we burned in the events of the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, the plebiscite, in ways that make the Gospel plausible when those who are set apart to proclaim it do so.
  11. We haven’t asked hard questions about church properties and their function, and how the church growth movement and the building of ‘Westfield’ style churches at the expense of corner store style churches have changed our allocation of resources; maybe we don’t have a pastor drought at all, maybe we have too many church communities/buildings. There’s an assumption behind the question about the pastor drought that the same number of churches we had in a previous cultural moment (or more) is the number of churches we should have in this moment.
  12. We’ve bought into the culture war and seen ourselves not as a peacemaker in those wars, or as a community that might bring people together, united in Christ, across cultural and political divides, and so our institutions throw their weight behind political causes without space for nuance or disagreement, or hospitality and are seen as aligned with one particular pole in a polarised culture. Conflicts within our institutions become about ideological purity and the defeat of the other, rather than breadth or accommodation.
  13. We have framed the ‘mission of the church’ numerically and made it about converts, rather than making it about character or deep discipleship, and measure leaders accordingly. The idea that my success or suitability as a pastor depends on fruitfulness (something like breaking through different growth barriers), other than the fruit of the Spirit being present in a pastor’s life, or the life of those in church community with the pastor, is a pressure too great for most pastors to bear.
  14. Especially because the cultural landscape we’re now called to engage with is remarkably different in ways we are yet to fully acknowledge. We keep expecting the results of the past without diagnosing the substantial cultural changes not only confronting pastors, but members of our congregation. We can have all the reviews about the ‘vitality of ministry’ or the abilities of pastors in the world, but unless we recognise that ‘growing ministries,’ in my observation, are often a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic through transfer growth, rather than the product of evangelistic growth, then those claiming vitality within a particular framework will simply be further enforcing a damaging status quo, and framing the conversation about entering ministry around the idea of joining ministries that replicate such models, or where people are trained to specialise within team contexts in large staff team churches (5Ms or whatever portfolio divisions get made).
  15. We’ve uncritically adopted structures and cultures that have created a culture where very few senior pastors are gifted or qualified to operate in the settings they find themselves, especially managing large and complex ministries and staff teams. This, coupled with unhealthy expectations, metrics, and culture has given rise to the creation of toxic, or narcissistic, systems and structures, unhealthy inter-personal relationships in staff teams, and possibly an increased rate of burnout. The status quo model of ministry, built around the idea that a successful church ministry moves through various stages of ‘church growth dynamics,’ typically led by the same individual transitioning between different functions, is almost unchallenged.
  16. There’s often hushed conversations about a bullying culture in church contexts, but it’s almost never part of the party line examinations of the pastor drought. This isn’t exclusively limited to denominational settings either, the situation around Acts29’s director last year suggests it can happen both in non-denominational ‘networks’ that exist, essentially, as critiques of denominational institutions, and in small house church settings.
  17. Our uncritical adoption of the Church Growth Movement, which is built on bringing forms, systems and practices from the business world, has formed a generation of Christians as consumers, and pastoral ministry becomes about meeting needs or demand, to keep bums on seats, or gain more, often at the expense, rather than in partnership with, neighbouring churches. The pressure to create an ‘event’ that is attractive not just to non-Christians, but to Christians, significantly changes the nature of the task of the pastor, and makes success more about personality than faithfulness.
  18. Coupled with this we’ve embraced, sometimes as a theological conviction, sometimes as a cultural or political conviction, an individualism that damages our shared commitment to institutions, and communities, but also positions the pastor as a ‘solo’ worker; this plays out also in how we view married couples where one spouse is employed in pastoral ministry. This Mere Orthodoxy piece ‘The Church of Individualism‘ speaks into this.
  19. This individualism, as the Mere Orthodoxy piece argues, has involved proclaiming a Gospel that has a “king but no kingdom,” to a secular context that wants the “kingdom without the king.” I’d argue that in the U.S, the ‘king’ part is more obvious because of the close connection between Christianity and politics; but where we have a more rigid cultural separation between church and state, and a more dramatic ‘secular/sacred’ divide (that Sam Chan argues means we operate as a de facto closed country where people only want to talk about religious beliefs in private spaces, rather than in public), I think we conservative evangelicals in Australia have particularly emphasised Jesus as (personal) saviour, not Jesus as king, let alone emphasising the kingdom (this isn’t to say we deny that Jesus is king, simply that we see the Gospel in individual terms with an emphasis on future salvation from sin, rather than present reality.
  20. Conservative denominations have not grappled with what a particular theological position on the ordination of women means for ministry in our churches, or the staffing of our churches. One might uphold the position that men and women have different functions in the life of the church and still imagine other ways to staff and manage church communities. The egalitarian response to “complementarian” denominations who raise the ‘pastor drought,’ that it’s the inevitable result of ruling out half a potential workforce, is a category error, and yet, there is something in the critique.

Support Soul Tread: a new Aussie publication

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

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

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

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

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

The meta-modern church: some thoughts about church in the post-post modern era

There’s a lot of energy being expended by Christian institutions fighting a sort of rearguard action against post-modernity. The assumption seems to be that to be Christian is to be wedded to modernism with its objective (propositional) truths, authoritative institutions, and an anthropology that thinks human change (and conversion) comes through rational argument and information, rather than experience or emotion.

One wonders if the energy being expended trying to fight not just for the Gospel, but for a philosophy and a cultural moment rapidly in the rearview mirror when it comes to how most western humans understand the world and themselves is part of the conditions producing the so-called ‘pastor drought’…

There are reasonable reasons to be suspicious of some forms of post-modernity. Post-modernity is built on the idea that we as humans are limited in our ability to know anything, and are always a product of the perspective created by our own personal experience, whether we know it or not. Some forms of post-modernism deconstruct institutions (like the church), and question absolute truth claims (like the Gospel) on the basis that authority structures are inherently self-interested in perpetuating an objective truth claim they can’t justify. Embracing post-modernity and its emphasis on experience, subjectivity, and the emotions, has led many to deconstruct themselves all the way out of Christianity. And yet, there’s much we should, and could, learn from post-modernity and its epistemic humility (the idea we can’t really come at things totally objectively, and are limited, is a pretty good starting place for figuring out our limits), we humans are wired to learn and be formed by experience and via our emotions, and we will expand our understanding of the world by hearing voices outside our own experience (or tradition) in ways that might help us get closer to the truth.

One of the things post-modernity ate, whether accidentally or on purpose, is not just the idea of objective propositional knowledge about lots of areas of life (perhaps with the exception of math and (some forms of) science) is the idea of a meta-narrative; a grand organising story underpinning reality. It left us with a fractured, pluralist, community made up of individuals and identity groups with many stories shaped by their own experiences. Figuring out how to be the church in a post-modern context, without trying to be a modernist institution wielding institutional authority and making the same old truth claims that nobody wants to listen to (unless they become a sort of archaic modernist themselves, trying to live as an outsider in a brave new world) has been tricky. We probably don’t need to convert post-modernist thinkers to modernists in order to convert them to Christianity; though sometimes it feels like it; instead, we might need to give people the experiential and emotional data that makes belief in the Christian story plausible (and of course, Sam Chan’s book on Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a great companion for this task). Trying to simultaneously deconstruct the church and its (modernist) practices in the face of the critique from post-modernity, and re-construct it as a community plausibly living and telling the Gospel story has involved a clunky gear shift for the church as a whole, and lots of institutional inertia is still pulling us in the opposite direction; this isn’t helped by those who are committed not just to Christianity, or Jesus as Lord, but to modernism itself, as the way, the truth, and the life.

The rear guard action hasn’t really worked by many measures of a healthy or flourishing church here in the west; and perhaps it’s because we’ve put our eggs into propping up a not super-effective construction of church, rather than putting our energies and efforts into deconstructing both the church and post-modernity; this is an area that Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer have been pressing into (explicitly at one point, Sayers says he got tired of his post-modern friends deconstructing their way out of Christianity and decided to shift gears not to deconstruction of the church, but deconstruction of society and re-construction of the church.

And maybe it’s time to stop the rearguard action, and, though it’ll be a massive headspin, jump straight to the vanguard…

The rearguard is the soldiers standing at the back of the army trying to hold ground while the rest of the army retreats to some sort of safety to regroup; the vanguard is those soldiers at the front of the army on a charge; those who blaze new ground for the people behind them to step into.

The thing about post-modernity is that while it has been helpful in a whole bunch of deconstruction work, and brought lots more voices to the table, it hasn’t done much construction. It hasn’t left us with a better picture for how to co-exist in communities of difference (say, the modern secular state), but has created an environment where opposing truth claims are grounds for conflict, where people play the politics of self-interest, and lobby to win not just protection for their own truth, but the eradication of any others. Post-modernity didn’t create the conditions for hope, but for cynicism. One place this is evident is in the TV comedies of post-modernity, and one way a shift in the fabric of society to a post-post-modern outlook, is the death of cynicism (or nihilism even), and the return of hope (often built around communities of difference, where people are joined together in a common purpose (think Parks and Rec, Community, etc); what’s even more interesting is that more recent comedic efforts from the writers who brought us this turn from cynicism have been grappling with the afterlife (in The Good Place, and Upload), and maybe probing a little around the edges of questions about the ‘eschatology’ of the west (will technology save us? How do we live well now given what we do and don’t know? etc). There are still artefacts of a more post-modern outlook (hey there Ricky Gervais), but a shift is happening.

David Foster Wallace made this case a while back in an interview with Larry McCaffery, when he said:

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

“All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

And…

The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. ”

He wrote an incredible essay on the issues with post-modernity and television in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction, where he also said:

“There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the abscence of plot are moods — antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality”

The art, or cultural artefacts, of post-modernity are entrenched in post-modernities defining characteristics; the death of metanarrative and the championing of experience and emotion over ‘integrated plot or enduring character’ — and of course, cynicism, irony, and deconstruction about institutional authority or tradition. The truly post-modern church is a sort of pastiche of the culture it apes; every moment of the service is curated to produce an emotional response, or experience, nothing is long or deep, the over-arching plot of the Bible, or even character formation understood as a long hard slog in the same direction, are replaced with the cultivation of ‘moments’; silver bullet and quick fix self-help sermons, coupled also with a cynicism about the Christian tradition and the practices of the institutional church one’s new ‘movement’ or ‘independent church plant’ is seeking to detach from as it ‘contextualises’ and re-imagines itself in the style or form of modern entertainment.

But there’s a shift. And maybe instead of fighting the post-modern seeker sensitive church, or the deconstructed ’emerging church,’ or trying to idealise (or idolise) some period in history — whether the modernist moment, or the medieval moment with its cathedrals, liturgy, and enchantment, or the halcyon days of persecution and nimble, subversive house churches of the pre-Christendom era — we should ask what we can learn from each era as we deconstruct not just the church with the lens society brings to us, but so that we can see where our churches and our forms, practices, and beliefs have been produced by particular moments in time, and seek to reconstruct ourselves not explicitly in contradiction to the spirit of the age, but explicitly in ways shaped by the Christian story. And if we’re going to get caught up in the war against ‘post-modernity’ — maybe modernism isn’t a great ally in that conflict (though there might be parts of modernity that resonate with us), and maybe meta-modernity offers a more hopeful ‘common ground’ for conversations with the culture and engagement with the form and content of Christian belief and practice, such that in our deconstruction of post-modernity and its truth claims we might help prod people towards this new meta-modern moment.

The shift from post-modernity is happening in those areas that most profoundly shape our view of the world, where once this was the task of philosophers, now it is the task of the TV comedy writer, even politics sits downstream from culture. It’s not just in literature where what David Foster Wallace described as post-modernity’s deconstruction or ‘patricidal work’ has been felt; it’s everywhere. Our literature — even our sitcoms — are part of the culture that shapes our outlook (where culture is at least, in part, a product of shared ‘cultural texts’ or artefacts). And the shift from irony and deconstruction is in full swing. One way this has been described as a movement is as the ‘new sincerity’… Here’s a video exploring how this is working in the world of the sitcom.

The ‘new sincerity’ has, in some quarters, merged into this new idea of ‘meta-modernity’ or metamodernism. Meta-modernity includes a return to a more hopeful outlook, and even to meta-narrative. This shift also accounts for the popularity of those figures who offer a grand, organising, account of life in the world — for example, the Jordan Peterson phenomena.

This isn’t ‘new’ or cutting edge; a guy named Luke Turner published a ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ back in 2011; but it’s slowly (I think) becoming clear that metamodernity’s critique of the deconstructing, cynical, hopelessness of post-modernity, and the identity politicking world it creates, isn’t particularly sustainable, and that a metamodernist approach offers at least one way out of the void that doesn’t require a return to modernity (and a loss of the good deconstructing work that post-modernity was built on). Turner says, of metamodernism:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

From a Christian perspective this is not without problems; but there is lots in the Christian view of the world that ‘oscillates’ (to use a word from the manifesto), or resonates, with the goals of metamodernism.

The conflict between Christianity and metamodernity will kick off, as it does with any other philosophical outlook, with the claim that some ‘objective form’ of the Christian word, or truth exists; the claims John’s Gospel makes when calling Jesus not ‘a’ word, but ‘the word who was with God, and was God’… and that Jesus, the word, is both definitively ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and the one we turn to for the truly good life, or, as Peter says in John’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That said, because we live in a world where the future has not yet been realised — as people who live with the hope that eternal life will be found in Jesus and a new creation — Christians can, and should, recognise that we live alongside those looking for life, and truth and a ‘way’ elsewhere; and where post-modernity deconstructed truth claims in such a way that divergence has bred competition for dominance, metamodernism offers a more humble stance on the idea that we might, as people, pursue grand narratives as valuable and meaning making; and it invites us, as humans, to search for the grand narrative that both resonates with human experience and desire the most, and produces goodness and hope. It adopts a stance that is open to such truth claims, rather than ironic and cynical.

So here’s some ideas for what a church (or the church) for the metamodern world might look like; those who’ve followed along here for a while might recognise some of these qualities being aligned with the New Eden Project as an idea, and it’s true. These ideas are related.

So a church wanting to flourish in a meta-modern world would be a church that embraces and supports, and even, creates, ‘metamodern’ cultural artefacts; those that reject irony and cynicism and replace them with beauty, and a pursuit of something transcendent (even if that search often lands in humanism, community, and relationships, it will engage and critique that landing — resonating with what it can, like Paul in Athens, rather than simply rejecting such texts out of hand).

A church wanting to engage with this world will frame the Gospel as a grand story, or metanarrative, that we are invited to ‘live in,’ not simply a proposition (and indeed, will frame the whole Bible as a story); it will present this story as one that is more compelling than the others, and as the ultimate ‘true’ grand narrative, without adopting a sort of monotheistic zeal that leads to the destruction of all others and their gods (Deuteronomy with sledgehammers style), but will deconstruct other grand stories on the basis that they do not produce the results one hopes for (Paul in Athens style).

Such a church will see itself as a community built around that story to give it plausibility as we embody a certain sort of life together that has both emotional and experiential appeal because it is built on goodness, and hope, and beauty, and character (or virtue, and a rejection of cynicism and utilitarianism.

It will stop thinking that the answer to the shifts in western society is to bring back modernity, or to deconstruct post-modernity, and instead will set out being constructive; and so will move away from purely ‘rational’ propositionalising of the objective truth of the Gospel, and will instead try to match the truths of the Gospel up with people’s experiences and emotions; investing the time and energy of its people into culture making and institution building to produce the sort of cultural artefacts that work alongside the plausibility structure of Christian community to support the truthiness of the Christian story.

It will stop looking to the world of engineering, business, and marketing to shape ‘churchmanship’ and instead will value the arts, and the people industries, seeing church not as an event where a truth is propositionally proclaimed, but a community that lives out a narrative together.

And ultimately, it will engage the world with a posture of hope — in part because of how our story ends, but also because hope is what the world is looking for, rather than despair and cynicism — and even if that doesn’t work to reach more people, it would be a breath of fresh air for those of us already in the church. Wouldn’t it.

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.