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On the need for subversive ideologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a really, really, good essay.

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

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

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

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

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On rest as re-creation

Last weekend our church had a weekend away. Our theme for the year was ‘Re-Creation’ — I gave two talk type things. One on rest and one on play. Here’s the one on Rest. The one on play will need slightly more tidying up to be in anything like article format. But I’ll post it eventually. We read Matthew 11:25-12:14.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus starts by talking about God’s sovereignty and control (Matthew 11:25-27); God reveals what he reveals and calls who he calls; but part of what we’re called to is rest that satisfies and restores our souls.

There’s a little bit of Psalm 23 in here; and Psalm 23 is in some ways a re-creation Psalm; a good shepherd — God — restoring life to a people who have been exiled — if you were here for Doug Green’s talk last year you might remember that he reads this as being about Israel and Exile, and about Jesus and the resurrection and ascension being the fulfillment of that — but in a bigger sense it’s also the story of our humanity — Adam and Eve were given life by water in a garden when the Sabbath was created; made to rest with God… the good shepherd in the Psalm promises a restoration of that, and here Jesus says he will provide that rest… he is Lord of the Sabbath.

We often think of the Sabbath as legalism; a law we don’t have to keep because of Jesus… but maybe a Sabbath is part of experiencing God’s kingdom; literally a chance to be ‘re-created’ — to get a taste of Eden (as much as is possible) and a taste of our eternal, glorious, future.

Rest has been damaged in two directions by us Christians; Christians in the ‘reformed’ or protestant tradition… first because we have treated the Sabbath as a law; as part of the moral law that has to be obeyed in order for us to be righteous… and then second, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ — which was developed by making all work sacred — not just the priesthood — a product of the Reformation where Luther famously says:

“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means.”

This ended up making work holy, which it is, but so holy that we forget to rest, or we devalue rest by over-valuing work.

The 24/7 hyper-connected disenchanted working world we live in and the challenge for Christians

The Reformation had some unexpected knock on effects to a bunch of things — not all of them good… we Reformed types tend to be less sacramental than our Catholic neighbours; less likely to see spiritual realities overlapping physical ones even though we’ve declared all reality spiritual or sacred (with the priesthood of all believers). We’re less likely to see our bodies as significant because we tend to focus on the brain — on faith as belief from the head alone (and not so much on participation in rituals and practices), unless we jump to a sort of law-based legalism or morality. There’s a philosopher, Charles Taylor, who talks lots about the modern conditions of life in a book called A Secular Age. He — I think rightly — sees the Reformation contributing to what he calls a ‘disenchanted’ world; a world that has closed in so that only the here and now matter; a world that ultimately said that if the sacred isn’t present in a special way on the Sabbath or in ‘priests’ then it really isn’t anywhere… we want to say the sacred or spiritual realm is everywhere and that we are witnesses to that; that we’re a people who have restored souls because we have come to follow the Lord of the Sabbath.

One of the other things that has emerged through the Protestant work ethic — and an individualism that came as people stopped believing our lives are divinely ordered and that we’re born into a sort of caste system — where kings and queens give birth to kings and queens and cobblers give birth to cobblers — where we’re free to work hard to make ourselves — and we have the rise of the ‘self made’ man or woman instead of the God givenness of reality — is a sort of market approach to the self that rewards hard work and ability; it creates this drive to be constantly working to make yourself; to be in control; we all become ‘kings and queens’ and so have to build and defend our little kingdoms of independence.

The world we live in now is hyper-connected; 24-7 and disenchanted. Our challenge is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12 — to ‘not conform’ to the patterns of the world, but to be ‘transformed’ by the renewing of our minds; and rest is part of this; part of both resisting and being formed, or re-created.

Here’s an interesting thing about the way stories in the Old Testament worked alongside practices; the whole Old Testament law is designed to have Israel perform a different story to the nations around them. They are embodied ‘image bearers’ of what it means to be God’s priestly people; the food laws, the ceremonies… and the Sabbath were what marked them out as different. Now these were important while Israel was in the land; they were meant to be part of what drew the nations in to worship God at the temple…

But they’re arguably even more important in exile; lots of Old Testament scholars think exile is when Israel’s stories are finally written down as a unit, not just collections of different books, or stories that have been passed on and retold in the feasts and on the Sabbath; Sabbath was important in Israel, but there everybody did it; it’s even more important in Babylon where the pressure to be like the nations is greatest. I quoted Brian Walsh’s book Subversive Christianity last Sunday… here’s a little more from him after he talks about our buy in to the myths or religious stories about progress, and science and technology, and the economy… he says for Christians being shaped by those stories about what’s good and what it means to be human:

“Our experience is in many ways not unlike the experience of exile for the Jews in sixth-century BC. We live in Babylon. Babylonian definitions of reality; Babylonian patterns of life, Babylonian views of labour, and Babylonian economic structures dominate our waking and our sleeping. And, like the exiled Jews, we find it very tempting to think that all of this is normal…”

We’re in danger of being sucked in to the Babylonian vision of what it means to be human — the vision shaped by exile from God… so our stories and practices are meant to be counter cultural; not just a culture of our own; but distinct and different… Here’s more from Brian Walsh:

“This was also the central problem for the exiled Jews in Babylon. One of the ways in which they dealt with this problem was by constantly reminding each other of who they really were. In the face of Babylonian stories and myths, Jews told and retold their own stories. In fact, it was most likely at this time that they first wrote down one of their most foundational stories—the creation story.”

Justin Earley is a lawyer who runs a ministry called The Common Rule — which focuses on practices and habits that might form us — he’s got a book of the same name, he says when it comes to modern life we think:

“We can work our way to significance. This is what we’re doing when we prove our busyness to ourselves and each other; we’re trying to show that we matter, that the world wants us, that the world depends on us.”

I don’t know if that resonates with you; but I think even our leisure time is often rushed and busy — especially if you’ve got kids and you’re starting to structure your weekends around extra-curricular formative activities likes sport and music (which we might come back to tonight on play).

The world we live in bounces between busyness (and business) and restlessness — even our ‘down time’ is full. We have silence and blank space. You might’ve seen this story from blogger Andrew Sullivan. He was one of the world’s biggest tech bloggers, a hyper-connected internet junkie until he realised it was killing him, his technology addiction was hard-wiring him towards restlessness.

This restlessness comes from our disconnection from God, from the garden, and from Sabbath — it’s a restlessness answered by the Lord of the Sabbath and what he gives us — as Augustine said once his ‘heart was restless until he found his rest’ in Jesus. Sabbath — Rest — then is part of how we show ourselves, and others, that we have been restored; it’s both restorative and formative and performative. It’s also how we teach ourselves that we are not Lord, but Jesus is. Justin Earley says:

“Practicing sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done because that is the way reality is. We can’t do it all. Sabbath protects us from acting out the lie that we can. Sabbath helps us discover the restless soul of which Augustine wrote.”

He also says:

“None of us like our limits. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we are not content to be like God; we want to be God. The weekly habit of sabbath is to remind us that God is God and we are not.”

The Sabbath as a way out of the disenchanted world

The Sabbath — Rest — is part of how we show that we worship — and serve (or serve — it’s the same word in Greek) the “Lord of the Sabbath” not the gods of this world; or the things of this world. It’s a way we say “I don’t have to be in control” or “I am not the king or queen of my own little world”… it’s how we disconnect from the idolatry of our age and form ourselves, but also part of how we hold out an oxygen mask to our neighbours because the idolatrous air is toxic. We were made to rest and without rest we’re not living our ‘best life’ — and we will die. Idolatry kills.

Alan Noble wrote a book called Disruptive Witness, it’s one that I’d highly recommend — he talks about rest or Sabbath as a ‘disruptive’ practice that stops us being formed by the world, but also that offers an alternative vision of life and work and God… he says:

“Setting aside the Sabbath for fellowship, rest, and acts of service deeply contradicts the standard way we understand the modern world. Thus it works to cut through the buffers we are inclined to erect as participants in modern culture, and presents a disruptive witness of the Christian faith… the Sabbath is actually an imposition on our modern lives, in which we work fervently to flatten the distinction between all days. When no days are holy — set apart — then each day and each moment is raw material for us to do as we will… ”

He says this practice of keeping the Sabbath teaches us that time has a meaning; it’s not just a resource that we use for our own ends — and especially it denies ‘the dominant cultural belief that we must always be working and doing…’ he says “a Sabbath rest is an act of spiritual defiance against the ideal of ‘justification through production and consumption.’

We want to say every day is holy; just as we want to say every Christian is a priest… but we end up offering ourselves as sacrifices to the world and its patterns. So deliberate rest — a Sabbath — is part of countering this; and it’s not just a day of doing nothing that does this; that doesn’t push us out of the ‘here and now’ bubble; it’s a day of rest ordered towards the reality that God is sovereign and Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath who came to give us rest and restore our souls. Rest has a purpose beyond just recharging our physical batteries; it is to recharge our bodies and our soul.

One issue with how Christians have sometimes legislated the Lord’s Day and the idea of church being part of what you do is that church becomes another sort of work; a proper approach to rest will resist that.

It’s worth saying too that part of rest is actually the daily practice of sleep; the temptation our world serves up — whether in the name of rest or leisure — is to sacrifice sleep for the sake of distraction; sleep feels like missing out. There’s a book I read a while back on burnout in ministry — and that’s a real thing — but I think the 24/7 hyper-connected world we live in means burnout is a thing for all of us; whether because we’re over-stimulated (and research shows that’s creating all sorts of mental health dramas), addicted to the dopamine hits we get through our screens — whether through gaming, social media, constant new information, Youtube videos, or porn… or just work emails, taking work home, being available after hours… burnout is a real risk… anyway, Christopher Ash who wrote Zeal Without Burnout has two key practices for ministers, that are true for all of us, maybe because we’re all priests.

One. We need sleep. And two: we need a Sabbath.

Ash points to Psalm 121 which reminds us that God does not sleep, and to Psalm 127 that reminds us that we do, and that sleep is a gift from God.

He says both sleep and Sabbath are designed to remind us that there is lots in this world happening beyond our control; that God is at work in every moment. They are practices that remind us that we aren’t king or queen, and that the world is not mechanical — that it is enchanted; or that things are held together in God’s hands — not ours.

There’s something about the way technology reinforces disenchantment and works against both sleep and rest that is interesting too; as we think about what this might look like. Technology — especially phones — stop us resting by keeping us constantly stimulated and distracted. The blue light our screens emit stop our brains shutting down properly when we try to sleep… From the moment we wake until the moment we sleep — this is a point Alan Noble makes in Disruptive Witness — he says the age we live in is both ‘secular’ and ‘distracted’ — and we need practices that deal with both, because both stop us doing the ‘deep spiritual formation’ that is required for us to be a different sort of people to what we might call ‘Babylon’ or the world… if we’re always distracted we don’t or won’t notice that we aren’t different to the world around us.

That blogger I mentioned earlier — Andrew Sullivan — found himself longing for disconnection from the 24/7 world and reconnection with something enchanted, or spiritual… and he sees technology and its constant ‘connection’ as part of what did away with the Sabbath in our cultural rhythms…

“But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.”

He has some ideas about how to respond that are a challenge for how we think about being the church and what we do as we gather on our ‘Sabbath’…

“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary…”

Alan Noble makes some really similar points — that if we adopt the tools of distraction and make them how we rest we’re actually not resting; we’re just maintaining the stimulating busyness we experience outside the church.

What rest looks like

Our practices are formative and our practices — whether alone, or together — are performative — they teach us and others something about who we are and what story we live in.

The Goal here in busy, distracted, work and productivity worshipping Babylon is to be an alternative community with an alternative king. To come to Jesus and receive the goodness of the rest he offers. It’s for us to be a community that realises that we are creatures, that we have senses for a reason, that we have bodies that get tired and need restoration — and souls that long to be broken free of the limits of a ‘disenchanted’ machine like existence; we, and everything we, do have a ‘telos’ — a purpose — existence is shot through with the supernatural world. Whether that’s work, rest, or play…

Some tips.

Allocate time for Sleep.
Even if sleep doesn’t come straight away, you won’t sleep at all if you don’t make time for it… Christopher Ash says:

“It is worth considering how best to wind down later in the evenings, perhaps avoiding stimulants before bed, keeping away from flickering screens, caffeine or things that stimulate the mind and heart too much. Just as a runner winds down after a race, so we need to wind down after the day, to commit people and troubles that are on our minds to the One who does not sleep, and then to go to rest.”

Disconnect.
Physically make space that is technology free, not just time. Here’s Sullivan:

“That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

Imagine if more secular places responded in kind: restaurants where smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, or coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? Or, more practical: more meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill? We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications.”

And some more from Disruptive Witness:

“We might choose to rest from screens or just smartphones and computers, and so create space for contemplation, reflection, and conversation. Alternatively we might restrict our screen time to activities that are intentionally communal: watching a movie together, playing a game together, sharing photos and memories, or video chatting with family.”

Connect rest to the love of God and his work sustaining all things. It’s not a law, it’s just good for us…

What we do as we rest should not just be pointed at the thing we’re doing itself, but we should be able to ‘look along’ our inactivity and remind ourselves that God is at work; that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

Place habits before love, and you will be full of legalism, but place love before habits, and you will be full of the gospel. God’s love for us really can change the way we live, but the way we live will never change God’s love for us.

Deliberately see rest as an important habit that will form you against the busyness the world commands.

“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. . . . But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising… The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” — Walter Brueggemann

Set routine to begin with. Get ‘in a rut.’ Plan your rest.

“One of the first things we learned was that proper sabbathing is much more about doing than not doing. It’s about doing restful things… An ideal sabbath looked like this: sleep in, worship, long lunch with friends, go home and rest, maybe nap, maybe make love, go out and explore some part of the city we hadn’t been to yet or take a walk in a park, and bring a book that is pure pleasure reading. What all these things had in common was not that they involve “not doing” but rather that they involved doing worshipful or engaging activities. They were things that drew us closer to God and others. The rest I needed was not only more sleep, but it was also the rest that comes with unfolding in good friendships or sitting still in God’s creation.”

Rest by doing the opposite of how you work…

Justin Earley quotes rabbi Abraham Heschel, who says: “A person who works with their mind should sabbath with their hands, and a person who works with their hands should sabbath with their mind.

This has implications too, for parents… figuring out how to rest as parents is very difficult, which means Earley suggests:

Balance between resting alone and resting in community.

“You can’t just take a break from children. Consequently we’ve realized two things. First, there are seasons of sabbath. There are seasons when a sick parent, a newborn, a tough new job, or something else will make sabbathing really hard. But remember, one of the most important things to be done in the pursuit of habit is to focus more on the rule than on the exceptions. Developing the background rhythm of sabbath is the foundation. That means that the tough times—where we get out of our routines—become the unusual times, not the norm. However, it’s really important to pursue sabbath precisely in those tough times, for those are the times we’re most likely to run ourselves ragged. Second, communal sabbaths change everything. Community can help you bear burdens in tough seasons so that you can sabbath even though a human life depends on you (for example, new moms). When Lauren and I didn’t have kids, communal sabbaths often meant having a big meal with friends and lingering long to talk.”

Manage ‘togetherness’ in ways that allow extroverts to recharge in company, and introverts to withdraw (this might allow introvert parents some time to re-charge kid free).

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Why, as a Christian, I’m more worried about STEM than Safe Schools

My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.

My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…

At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.

Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’…  The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):

“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”

It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.

The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…

But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.

It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.

What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).

STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:

This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.

This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.

Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?

I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:

  • classic stories from English literature
  • adventure stories
  • accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
  • biographies of significant figures in history
  • traditional fairy tales
  • poems
  • health lessons
  • stories encouraging the development of good character.

Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new

  • provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
  • encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
  • inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling

The ‘Suzie the Scientist‘ series, instead:

  • Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
  • Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
  • In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills

They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”

Spot the difference.

Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.

This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”

And then:

“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.

“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”

He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.

“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”

Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.

One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.

Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.

Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.

What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?

It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?

What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?

What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?

I have some guesses.

We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.

We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.

We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.

We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).

We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.

We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.

We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).

We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).

We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.

We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).

As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.

We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:

Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.

That’d be a revolution.

Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 2 — the drive to work

Part one of this series considered the changing (disrupted) economic landscape and the future of work (and the idea of a post-work future), it suggested Christians might have reason to be optimistic about a disrupted future, perhaps especially if we take up the challenge of being disrupters — challenging the idolatry of work, and profit, the understanding of humanity that suggests we’re fundamentally economic beings, and the routines of work that mean we feel busier than ever. In order to get to a stage where some of these changes become plausible these next two posts are going to step back and consider why we work, what work is (and what its purpose is). 

The drive to work

Do you work to live, or live to work?

Do you work to pay the bills, or to change the world?

How do you think most of your friends would answer these questions?

Our jobs often involve repetition that is frustrating (not to mention the frustration around results) — and its not just the daily routine of alarm clock, breakfast, the commute, the recurring functions of your job (the admin, the reproduction of tasks, the meetings), it’s also the ‘rat race’ the work to eat/eat to work, and work to rest/rest to work cycles built into the monotony that become habitual liturgies in this worship. We’re shaped before we know it, and taught to love things (like money and productivity) by this frustrating and frustrating pattern but we keep doing it. We’re driven to. So why is that? What gives us this drive to work, or rather to ‘work-as-worship’? And why do we want to escape?

This little short animation that ran before Disney’s Moana over the summer is a nice little picture of the tension we live in.

When I ubered to the airport in Sydney a few weeks ago, my driver’s name was Roman. He’d come to Australia from New Zealand, but before that, was from the Middle East. We talked about parenting. About how hard it is. About the pressure society places on kids to grow up to fast, and about how parents get no down time. He loved Uber cause he could be home at dinner time, then head back out. He worked to support his wife and kids. He worked to secure their future. This purpose gave him the drive to do a relatively mundane job (and one he is way over-qualified for).

Here’s why I think we work. We work because we want to change the future; not just the present. We work because we want to carve something out for ourselves and those we love. We want to shape the world in some way — either directly in the act of making things, or creating order, or indirectly in what we use the products of our work for. The way we want to shape the world, the thing we want to carve out, or the version of ourselves we’re working towards are a product of our values (the things we love), and our values are a product of, or ordered by, our ultimate loves (the things we worship).

Work is an act of worship. And I don’t just mean this in the ‘Christian sense’ but in the David Foster Wallace sense of worship being the act of self-sacrifice for the object of our ultimate love. Work either is that love, or it’s a means to serving that love with what we’re paid for work (or both).

Work involves the sacrifice of your time, energy, some sort of ‘presence in order to apply energy’ (even if remotely and via a computer), effort, and intellect; ideally in work that sacrifice reaps something more rewarding than what you’ve invested into the enterprise, but these things are finite. Your time and energy are going to be exhausted. The number of breaths you take is finite. You have an expiry date. And in that sense everything we do is ‘sacrifice’ and the returns are limited. So the decision to go to work is a decision to sacrifice yourself to, or for, something. A cause, a company, your family, your experiences, your pleasure, your empire. If we’re driven to work for some finite thing, especially if we’re driven to work in order to get or consume more stuff because we worship wealth, and comfort, and ‘the things of this world’…. then as Wallace says, it ‘will eat you alive,’ the catch is, if we’re driven to work in a way that consumes us (without giving back), so that we can consume stuff (without giving back), then it’s also likely our drive to work is destroying the planet (ironic really, if we consider climate change and the emissions created by a consumer-first approach to driving to work (where apparently the average occupancy rate per car in Brisbane is something like 1.2 people)).

Brian Walsh wrote this book called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God In A Dangerous Time back in 1994. It’s one of those books that, when read in hindsight, seems prescient, prophetic even, and that you wish had been read more widely and taken more seriously by the church. He writes about work, and how Christians might subvert, or disrupt, how work happens. He talks about how the stuff that drives us to work — that we sacrifice for — is tied to worship.

“Modern culture has entered into a covenant with an unholy trinity. Three good dimensions of creation, three good dimensions of our culture-forming tasks have been absolutised. They have been erected as idols and they demonically distort our cultural lives. These three idols are scientism (the belief that science provides us with authoritative knowledge and functions as the omniscient source of revelation in our culture), technicism (the effective translation of scientific knowledge into power and control of the creation which promises us a scientific-technical omnipotence), and economism (the golden head of the idol that believes that a rising standard of living is the ultimate goal in life and the only route to personal happiness and societal harmony). The question for our time is whether this unholy covenant is still tenable. Do these gods deliver on their promises? Can we continue to make the sacrifices necessary to appease them? My answer to all of these questions is a resounding no…

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good.”

Disrupting this drive to work

Walsh’s analysis 23 years ago is pretty similar to Rod Dreher’s analysis in his Benedict Option (and the observations of a bunch of other modern thinkers. His analysis is that it’s not politics or sex that presents the greatest danger to us in terms of ‘idolatry’ or Babylonian captivity; but economics.

The reason for this state of affairs—nothing less than a spiritual catastrophe in the Western church—is, I submit, the enculturation of the church. As a community of believers and as individuals we have, mostly against our best intentions, been thoroughly sucked in to our secular culture. This is what I mean by the term “enculturation.” Our consciousness, our imagination, our vision has been captured by idolatrous perceptions and ways of life. The dominant worldview, the all-pervasive secular consciousness, has captured our lives. And what is so intriguing about this phenomenon is that we were not taken after a long drawn-out fight. No, it happened in our sleep. You see, while we were fighting with each other about evolution, the infallibility of the Bible, spiritual gifts, and various other hotly debated issues, we were falling into a deeper and deeper sleep in relation to the cultural captivity of our very consciousness. We were asleep to the secularisation of our lives and of our most fundamental values. We simply bought into the materialistic, prestige oriented, secular values of our age without ever noticing that that is what was going on.

What he suggests as the antidote for this captivity is a rediscovery of our own story; our own worship; a new drive to work. If we’re going to disrupt the economic status quo (ala post one in this series) as Christians we need to consider how our drive to work might look different (the sort of work we do, why we do it, and how we do it).

Christians have a different approach to work because we have a different approach to worship (or rather, we worship a different God), and our worship is linked to bearing his image. We work because we’re created to work; created in the image of the God who worked to create the world (and then rested from this work). It’s in our nature. And our approach to work is shaped by our nature. Work isn’t just a thing we do, it’s part of our purpose, and that purpose is shaped by what we worship. Here’s Walsh again.

“When a community in a capitalist society insists that labour—the work of our hands, the toil of our brow—is good, it is being subversive. Why? Because when such a community breaks with the dominant utilitarianism, which sees work as a disutility and consumer goods as utilities, it thereby breaks with the whole movement of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. This movement has propelled us into energy and capital intensive production processes which produce more and more goods at an ever increasing rate, while also decreasing the quality of the products, decreasing the role of human labour, and decreasing the resources of creation. When that is the fundamental movement of a culture, then a community which says that work is good and more and more consumer goods and services is not necessarily good, that community is being subversive. Insisting that work is an integral dimension of human life (not to be contrasted as productive activity over and against consumptive leisurely activity), that it is a form of worship, that it is meant to ennoble humankind, that it should be dedicated to serving one’s neighbour and the stewardly care of the creation—all of these are subversive ideas. But Christianity is not only subversive in a culture such as ours; it is also deeply offensive to the dominant forces in our culture. This offence is related to what the Bible calls “the offence of the cross.”

…Dare we imagine an economics of equality and care in place of the economics of affluence and poverty? Can we imagine what would happen if we began to disciple our children with a prophetic vision and imagination? Can we imagine our work life to be at one with our worship—an act of service and praise, not a necessary evil on the way to an affluent lifestyle? In a production oriented society where meaning and worth are measured by one’s productivity in the market place, therefore defining retirement as a loss of worth and meaning, can we imagine what it could be like if the elderly had an indispensable role in our communities? Can we imagine a society which has broken through its morbid preoccupation with death and truly affirms life, not just at the fetal stage, but in all of its dimensions and stages? Is a relationship of friendship, instead of exploitation, with the rest of the creation imaginable? Is it imaginable that the mass media could be an agent of awakened social, cultural, and spiritual renewal, rather than the one thing that numbs us into cultural complacency and sleep more than anything else? And is our imagination spiritually opened up enough to conceive of a business enterprise that is characterised by stewardship, environmental responsibility, and real serviceability rather than profits, pollution and superfluous consumer goods? It seems to me that, in the midst of a declining culture, these are the kinds of questions that a prophetic imagination raises for us. We are called to be a prophetic community, a prophetic people. — Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity

In the next post in this series, I’m going to suggest that this new drive isn’t just a new origin story (which is where Walsh starts), but a new end of the story; one that brings a new ‘end’ to our work (both in terms of a telos, and an ending of the story we’re living in). It’s not just who God is as we meet him in Jesus that should shape how we work and worship, but where Jesus is taking us, and what work will look like in the future (in this world, and the new creation). This story will change the way we approach work, because it changes the way we worship. It will make us disruptors of the status quo. In the final post I’ll consider what that might look like in real terms.