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Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.

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Play as a disruptive witness: How Bluey is a great show for parents (and for kids)

I watch lots of kids TV. Usually with the kids. There’s a new hit in our house — we measure the ‘hits’ based on whether one child will round up the other two when the theme song hits.

It’s called Bluey. Each episode offers 7 minutes of laugh out loud fun — and it’s Australian. It’s made here in Brisbane. It’s bouncy and light and ‘Aussie,’ but with no cultural cringe. The settings — like an episode in a local farmer’s market complete with German sausage stand and poffertjes store — are refreshingly relatable. The scripting, especially the jokes, is zesty and nails the pathos required to be ‘educational’ without veering into preaching or too ‘didactic’. In morning TV stakes, Bluey eats Peppa Pig for breakfast.

Here’s how the ABC describes Bluey, the titular character:

“Bluey is an inexhaustible six year-old Blue Heeler dog, who loves to play and turns everyday family life into extraordinary adventures, developing her imagination as well as her mental, physical and emotional resilience.”

Our kids aren’t short on imagination, or on the desire to turn every moment of play time into some sort of story or adventure — they’ve started playing out scenes from Bluey... but Bluey isn’t just a great show for kids; it’s a revolutionary show for parents. Perhaps especially dads.

Dads get a bad wrap on TV — whether its the “stupid white male” trope in advertising, or the animated versions of that trope where Homer Simpson is the archetype, and Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig isn’t far off, the bar is set pretty low for dads when it comes to interacting with their TV progeny. Daddy Pig is flawed, but relatable — and most definitely present in Peppa and George’s life in a loving, but bumbling manner, where he is often the butt of the joke… Bluey’s daddy, Bandit (usually called ‘Dad’ — and voiced by Custard frontman Dave McCormack), is a breath of fresh air. He’s the champion of his children’s play; when he’s the butt of jokes it is usually voluntary and self-deprecating  and for the sake of Bluey and Bingo (there’s one episode that veers into ‘dumb dad’ territory — when he takes the kids to the pool and leaves all the boring swimming stuff like hats and suncream behind), he’s fun (and the show is riotously funny); and he’s an exemplary dad in a television world that is crying out for a character like this. The way the relationship with ‘mum’ Chilli is portrayed is also sweet and refreshing.

While we’ve been discovering the joy of Bluey, we’ve been listening to an audiobook on drives with the kids, Alan Brough’s Charlie and the War Against the Grannies; it contains a little bit of social commentary on ‘digital orphans’ — those kids whose parents (like me) are often present in body, but not attention, with their kids. In a review of the story that touches on digital orphans and our failure to be attentive to our kids, Brough tells a story of what is too typical (and too descriptive of my own addiction to distraction).

“I was at the park with my daughter and there was a guy pushing his daughter on a swing while holding his phone up to his face, checking something… He wasn’t concentrating on the child at all, and at one point the swing whacked him in the side of the head and knocked him to the ground.”

There’s all sorts of research out there about screen time and kids — that I’ve wilfully ignored to date because screen time is so easy and parenting is hard (and also because I figure all the kids of this generation will be in the same boat, so at least some of the problems will just be new norms) — but this new study suggests a link both between screen time and anxiety and depression, and with that, a decline in imagination and all the things Bluey, ironically (as a TV show), aims to foster.

Even after only one hour of screen time daily, children and teens may begin to have less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks

Bluey is an antidote to this malaise — a picture of parenting with verve, and imagination, and the reminder that kids are pretty awesome and often the best thing you can do with (and for) your kids is play with them. This reminder is particularly pertinent coming as, for me, Apple’s screen time tracker is telling me I spend almost a full day a week staring at my phone screen (and it doesn’t measure computer screen time or TV screen time).

It may just be that imitating the sort of play Bluey’s dad engages in with your kids is what fosters their imagination and resilience, not simply watching it, or outsourcing parenting to screens so you can have more distracting screen time of your own… or bombarding them with extra-curricular work (or STEM homework). This sort of play could be the sort of disruptive witness, or practice, that shapes our kids to engage and transform the future. Alan Noble’s book, Disruptive Witness (reviewed here), made the case that our world normalises distraction and disenchantment; this is the world our kids grow up in, and a world that we Christians need to be pushing back against because belief in God requires contemplation and enchantment (a belief in the supernatural, transcendence, and wonder). Noble talks about the sort of practices to cultivate that are disruptive in a distracted world.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

Play is a practice, a spiritual discipline, both for adults and kids because it carves out the space we need to resist the world, and to keep re-forming ourselves to see the world properly. It’s about presence, but it also creates the sort of space for delight and an avoidance of repressing wonder and awe and a belief in magic in order to grow up. Teaching our kids to be present with their good and loving parents is a step in the direction of learning to be present with our good and loving heavenly father. Despite being a cartoon about a family of dogs, Bluey gives some concrete and beautiful pictures of what this could be like.

Disruptive Witness: a review

Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).

His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.

Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):

“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”

Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.

The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:

“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”

Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).

“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”

He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.

“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”

As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five things:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.

Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.

Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.

Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.

And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”

Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.

“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”

On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.

“Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”

This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.  

A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.

“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”

Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:

“I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.”

Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).

“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”

Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.

“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”

My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.

There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).

That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.

“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”

This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.

The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.

“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”

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Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.