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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where I’m not convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of slippery slopes, stairs, and stepping machines: how to be hopeful when the world is moving

The official ‘no’ campaign made their public presence about everything but marriage; they made it about the ‘slippery slope’ — particularly same sex parenting (robbing kids of a mum or dad), and a ‘radical gender ideology’ where ‘genderless marriage’ is the first step towards a marxist/queer agenda that is represented by Roz Ward’s Safe Schools. That is; they created a slippery slope.

The politicians responsible for orchestrating the postal survey and the proposed changes to marriage insisted this was a single issue vote, about one particular thing, the definition of marriage. Now. It’s not wrong to ask questions about trajectories and ramifications, and I do think handling it as a single issue was perhaps naive when it comes to understanding how integrated faith and practice is for religious people, but if you’re looking for the architects of the slippery slope; it’s us; if the no case is correct, there’s now a political mandate for the government to rapidly slide the whole way down the rainbow without each step being checked, weighed, and balanced.

It might feel like this is a slippery slope if we want to feign ignorance (or actually be ignorant) of the campaign for gay rights in Australia; but what if we take a longer term view of things around, for example, one of the key players in the push for same sex marriage. And what if we see this not as the start of a slope, or the edge of a precipice, but rather a next step. And what if there’s actually a legitimate case to be made that at least some of those steps where steps up.

One of the faces of the push for marriage equality was Tasmania’s Rodney Croome. He’s one of the architects of this path (whether slope or steps), and here’s my case that this isn’t a slippery slope — or if it is that it’s an incredibly slow slope with ample opportunity to change course or even stand up… Croome was an activist for gay rights in 1994 (and before that). In 1994, Croome and his partner presented themselves to the police, in Hobart, to be charged with the crime of being homosexual. Now. Maybe that was the start of an inevitable slope that leads to Safe Schools, or maybe it was just one step towards getting rid of some laws that are actually unjust restrictions of conscience that are coupled with a profound and legal right to truly discriminate against somebody for a choice about their identity and community of practice… The longer view makes something like a campaign for same sex marriage seem more like a further step in a journey than like one of those scenes in a movie where the floor drops out from under the protaganist and they endure a rapid descent (hopefully into a pile of freshly made laundry, or a rubbish bin, rather than flames or snakes).

Perhaps if we had this perspective we’d be able to better hear and understand why these LGBTIQ+ activists aren’t content with marriage equality and are moving on to the next thing on their list; the next ‘step’ towards the Australia they want to live in. Perhaps we should see more of an analogy between how they are pursuing their trajectory and the argument we’re making for religious freedom.

The Australian Presbyterian magazine ran a piece about the threats to religious freedom wrapped up in marriage equality. It included this piece. I’d love you to flip the logic and the actors around; picture Croome and his partner before they were eventually successful in decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania.

“It will intimidate religious leaders (and their insurers) with the relentless threat of anti-discrimination lawsuits; traditional moral teaching will become something to be whispered in private. There ain’t room in this village for both state-enforced homosexual orthodoxy and Christian moral orthodoxy”

Let me rewrite it the way I see it… for a bit more context, Croome’s decision to front the police was because the Federal Government brought in (in keeping with the UN) a right to sexual privacy that had not previously existed and Croome wanted to test that this law did, in fact, invalidate Tasmania’s laws (the UN had also specifically ruled against Tasmania’s laws).

“It’s hard to get insurance (or legal recognitions) for our relationship with the law actually declaring our relationship illegal; homosexual relationships are something we only whisper about in private. This village state-enforces Christian moral orthodoxy against homosexual orthodoxy.”

The incline on that slippery slope is pretty steep; so it’s been hard for the LGBTIQ+ community to climb to this point.

I’ve had some pushback in the last couple of days about my commitment to a generous pluralism; here’s a failure of pluralism right here — where it was not offered to the gay community. This is why they are marching (literally at Mardi Gras) towards a particular victorious outcome. Because we weren’t generous or pluralistic. Now that the boot is, perhaps, on the other foot, and coming down on us, we have the opportunity to take our lumps and learn our lesson.

And look, I like religious freedom, I’d like us to use our religious freedom to be religious rather than secular; and I think we get it by better explaining that there is no secular sacred divide for Christians (and we probably need to explain this to Christians as well). I think generous pluralism is actually, short of state controlled monotheism, the only system that will allow religious freedom in a properly secular democracy. It’s also the answer to the potentially new state-controlled monotheism if the doomsday prophets are right.

My favourite book I read this year was Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics, at the End of the World. They make two points that are important for this post. First, that pluralism is the hopeful and virtuous way forward, even if we fail, even if we’re on a slippery slope, or over a precipice. They reject responding to change with fear.

“The better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

… It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

Wilkinson and Joustra quote Alisdair MacIntyre (author of After Virtue) to suggest this dialogue requires “constructive disagreement” where we speak frankly and honestly (and publicly) about “the places people won’t agree, the places we might agree, and the places that will be resolutely ruled out of bounds,” and then we figure out how to negotiate that into how the law works and how public space is stewarded. They quote political scientist Daniel Philpott, who says this sort of rationale requires us to both hear and speak “full rationales — untruncated, unsanitized, unfiltered,” dialoguing towards” mutual understanding with those different views.” I’m not seeing that from either pole in the culture wars, or the fallout of the changes to the Marriage Act, we certainly, as Presbyterians, didn’t practice this seeking understanding in our contributions to the postal survey debate (or participation in the Coalition for Marriage).

Second, and most importantly for the slippery slope v steps debate… Wilkinson and Joustra argue that in the scheme of human history, and also in the divine story of cyclical judgment and restoration, or exile and return, we can be sure that no changes before the new creation are permanent and that monolithic societies are incredibly difficult to maintain (especially in the west with a bent towards individualism). Or, as they express it in a mantra throughout the book:

“Society moves in all directions. It’s not “one thing,” which is to say that it’s not just monolithic “society,” and it’s not headed purely up or down at any moment.”

We’re not on a slippery slope; or stairs; as a society we’re on a step machine… moving upwards and downwards… and perhaps in less binary directions — left and right.

So what do we do with this?

If it isn’t just a slippery slope to our doom; or the air over a precipice where we wait for God to blow us back on to solid ground…

If society is an elliptical machine that gives us reason for hope, rather than despair, so long as we as a community of people bound together by a story and a common practice (being the church) have a vision for where we’re going and how that might be pursued for not just our good but the good of our neighbours.

“In Between Babel and Beast, the theologian Peter Leithart argues that there is both good news and bad news for this new politics. First, the good news — we need not abandon the city. The public work of realizing the best of the motivating ideals of our age is work for religious people, Christians and others alike, that can bear and even has borne real fruit. The battle moves in all directions.

But the bad news: Babylon, into which we may pour our energies here, in our lifetime, will never be the New Jerusalem. We don’t build it, any more than we are the point or end of the story, the lodestar of authenticity. We can sing the Lord’s song, but we don’t build the Lord’s city.

Like Daniel, we must make compromises. That means we must temper our expectations and not become defeated when everything is not perfect, yet. But some compromises are better, and others are worse. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Our popular culture is already very busy trying to discern that. Taylor writes, “As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.”

We might look to someone like Croome as an example; patiently working towards the good and freedom of our community (and surely the removal of unjust laws have been for the good of us all) while working towards the good of his community within that community (and there’s no doubt that the change to the marriage laws and other future agenda items are seen by this community as the path towards their good).

What would it look like for us to do this as people marinated in and formed by the Gospel?

That’s what we have to figure out.