Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

There’s been a thread running through some of my recent posts that’s maybe not simply a thread, maybe it’s an elephant worth naming. And patting. And seeing if we can teach it to sit and let us give it a good scratch behind the ears.

I don’t believe ‘identity’ is a coherent category for Christians to use; not in politics, or in theology.

I don’t think it’s a category you find in the Bible, and I think when we shoehorn Biblical categories into this ill-fitting modern boot, we end up with terrible pus-filled blisters, and ultimately, deformed feet.

I think we should stop. And here’s why.

I think the Bible has an utterly different concept of personhood — both in terms of who we were made to be in relationship with God, and with what personal choice and the things we might ‘identify’ as indicate about us as people. I think the word is freighted with too much baggage to be a useful word if ‘identity’ is being used either descriptively (ie drawing an analogy between its use in popular psyhcological/sociological/political thought), or prescriptively (ie seeing those psychological/social/political concepts mapping on cleanly to a Biblical anthropology such that the word is something real and fundamental to our theological schema).

When we talk about ‘identity in Christ’ we’re talking about an act of ‘self-definition’ in Jesus, an enshrining of my own personal decision making and my decision to ground my sense of self in Jesus; this might be experientially true, but I’m not sure, for Reformed types, that it is theologically coherent to speak in these terms, and I think it comes with a whole anthropology that, appears to be a fruit of the Reformation but is actually a fruit of Renaissance Humanism (which in turn, influenced the Reformation). I suspect we’re better off talking about personhood as something given and received — even given by false gods — than something self-defined, grasped, activated, realised and performed as an autonomous action.

This might be oddly pedantic for someone who keeps saying that words have a descriptive function, not just a prescriptive one, and maybe we can fight the good fight to reclaim the word “identity” as something given to us by God, or reflective of heavenly, spiritual realities here on earth, not just a thing I self-determine as I project and perform my autonomous self-understanding and desires into the world… but if we’re going to have that contest we need to know we’re having it, and what we’re up against —  what’s ironic is the same people who reject using ‘gay’ as part of an identity statement for a Christian, because of the way it is understood by the average punter, is that they don’t apply the same standard to the word ‘identity’… There’s a whole other compelling argument, made at Mere Orthodoxy, that when we use ‘identity in Christ’ language we do that in a way that can eradicate a whole swathe of creaturely things that are good and God given as part of our personhood in the process, especially when that becomes a totalising weapon used to stop people making identity claims we don’t like (for eg ‘gay Christian’).

I know I’m unlikely to convince many people. But here are some of my thoughts.

The concept of identity is very closely linked to the concept of individuality. The need to define ‘who I am,’ let alone the need to have my answer to that question recognised and legitimised by society and the state (via laws or ‘identity politics’) is a relatively new concept. Previously you knew who you were because that reality was given to you by God, or the gods, or your nation’s god-ordained political system/structure.

The concept of the individual is both new, and humanist. That is to say, it emerged as society sought to decouple our understanding of the self from God and a cosmic order. When I say ‘new’ I mean in the scheme of human history, not relative to my lifetime. It’s new in that we had a really long time, including the periods in which the Old and New Testaments were composed, where people did not think of themselves as ‘individuals’ at all, but rather, as belonging to a series of systems — family, clan, tribe, nation, etc. In 1860, in a chapter ‘The Development of the Individual‘ in a book on Renaissance history, Jacob Burckhardt, a historian, traced the development of ‘the individual’ as a concept, to the start of the renaissance period in Italy. He said:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness — that which was turned within as that which was turned without — lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such.

This ‘veil’ was, in some ways, the idea of a divinely ordered social structure that you were born into, that meant your position in the world, in this system, was given as part of God’s providential design. Now. Maybe some liberation from those structures is good and necessary (and we’ve all benefited), but it’s possible there’s a baby and bathwater situation going on here, because it didn’t take long, once this veil was removed, for us to get quite comfortable not just with the idea that God didn’t have designs for how I lived in my private life, or what I spent my leisure time on, or where I worked, but with the idea that God didn’t have designs for me at all — or, indeed, that God was not in the picture. This sort of humanism is a necessary precursor for the deism that then developed (the idea that God is not actively, or providentially, involved in creation at all — but is distant, having made the universe and then left it to its own devices), and deism was necessary for atheism.

Burckhardt talks about how, at first, this individualism didn’t rock the political system too much; people were content to have private individual freedom, without engaging in conspiracy or revolution. He says “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety. Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State — all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts. The private man, indifferent to politics, and busied partly with serious pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilettante, seems to have been first fully formed in these despotisms of the fourteenth century.”

Now, Burckhardt is writing a sort of ‘history of ideas’ a few hundred years removed from the period he’s describing, writing from a world shaped by the individualism he describes here, and its development through the renaissance, the Reformation, and the enlightenment.

The Renaissance produced ‘humanism’ as a philosophical outlook, this was a product both of the development of the idea of a ‘self,’ and the beginning of a departure from the idea that all positions in society represented a divinely ordained hierarchy. Humanism was, in particular, a product of the empowerment of the lay person rather than the clergy, and so reflected ‘non-church’ or non theological concerns. There are many good things about this move, and yet, the same move involved pushing God to the margins — to the ‘sacred’ space, carving out a ‘secular’ where God was not operating. Humanism was concerned with ‘individuals’ rather than a cosmic ordering of reality, or a system that people were born into.

Humanism eventually produced two lawyers who would reform the church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin (three if you count Erasmus). There’s lots to love about what Luther and Calvin brought to the church — both as lawyers who recognised truths about the Gospel that maybe only a lawyer could recognise, but also as humanists; and the church today would benefit if more people dug deeply into their thinking. But neither Calvin or Luther were infallibly objective commentators, the Reformation has the fingerprints of both humanism and the work of lawyers all over it. Again, these are not bad things where these perspectives gave access to truths about God that had otherwise been missed, but, they do freight in ideas from the Renaissance, and from humanism, that might obscure certain truths if these ideas aren’t held in tension. Like all of us, they brought their personhood into the task of understanding God, and his word.

One additional change brought about by the Reformation, as an implication of the sort of politics required to ‘consciously decouple’ the Catholic Church from state power, was a further breaking down of the idea that all monarchs (and priests) were appointed by God in a reflection of the divine order. The Reformation was another nail in the coffin of the medieval (or more ancient) conception of the world — where kings (and church priests) ruled by divine right and were part of the ordering of society. Luther had a much broader vision of God’s providence in his ‘priesthood of all believers,’ perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Nobility. Luther didn’t want to so much do away with God’s providential ordering of society — he wanted to broaden it, so that the work of all members of the body of Christ, the church, were appointed by God to play a role in the divine order, and, ideally, all people would find life and their purpose — their true humanity — in Jesus. Luther wanted the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ — or the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to be much more overlapping than the church of his day did — he didn’t want the Spiritual removed from the picture all together. He says:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

And, describes his ‘priesthood of all believers’ — “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,” before saying “From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of “estate”; for they are all of the same estate, — true priests, bishops and popes, — though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one “temporal ,” the other “spiritual.” He is one Head, and He has One body.” 

Now, this might all feel a bit repetitive, but the point of the repetition here is that while the Reformation often gets blamed for kickstarting individualism, or discovering that it is a theological truth — like ‘identity’ — that comes when you do away with the old spiritual ordering of the universe, like the Renaissance did, or humanism attempts to, Luther actually had a different picture that wasn’t about individuality, but about being called to an office within a body — whether the spiritual body, or the community. While he elevates all individuals to ‘the priesthood’ (or lowers ‘priesthood’ to ‘the normal’), he doesn’t champion a sort of autonomous ‘define your self with no rules’ approach to life, or give us the building blocks to spiritualise personal identity, he invites us to be people-in-community (or in a system). Luther said all our work, within our vocations either in the ‘temporal’ or ‘spiritual’ realms are meant to be contributions to the health of our body — and he doesn’t just mean our own person… he said: “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 of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

So, to be clear, I think Luther is right — and that the proper re-ordering of the disconnect between the clerical rule of pre-Renaissance Europe and the everyday human was to not create a secular/sacred divide, where the clerics ruled the sacred space but kept their hands off the secular, but a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that held the sacred and secular together, and saw human dignity and value as things given by God along with the call for us to operate in community in ways that reflect heavenly realities. This isn’t to say the humanism of the Reformation did not, at the same time, impact its understanding of the Gospel (for good and for ill). In his landmark essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,’ (a seminal text in the movement now called ‘the new perspective’), Krister Stendahl suggests that the Reformers in general, and Luther in particular, brought their modern, western perspectives (humanist concerns even) to a pre-modern (pre-individual) text.

What’s interesting about Stendahl’s paper is that he suggests a key difference between modern readings of Paul, and perhaps Paul’s own thought world, is that with the rise of ‘the individual’ as a construct, our understanding of our selves, or our identity, or our personhood — what it means to be human — becomes not an act of knowing God and understanding our calling in the created order (and so knowing nature as well), but introspection. When we overlay our method of processing the world onto Paul’s, when that processing of the world is reasonably novel, we end up reading Paul through our own eyes. This is the heart of the ‘new perspective’ as a theological movement — and, you can take or leave its conclusions, but its starting point — acknowledging that modern people think (and so interpret) differently to ancient people seems like a sound starting point.

Stendahl offered an alternative reading of Paul’s writing that challenges, but doesn’t totally overturn, the supremacy of the individual in a particular Reformation schema. This is to say that there is an element of the Gospel that relates to an individual’s position before God, and, at the same time, a corporate or communal aspect of the Gospel that is thoroughly integrated with the individual person. Stendahl says:

“Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s plan for his creation. Or perhaps we should say it this way. Paul’s thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and conscience. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.”

Stendahl’s contention here is that inasmuch as Paul is interested in ‘identity’ it’s about a communal identity found in Christ; rather than in being Jewish or Gentile. That we find who we are as people in communion (or union) with Jesus, rather than through introspection and the pursuit of an authentic expression of an individuated self.

In his conclusion, he says, that when we as readers are conscious of our tendency to impose our own views on the text, and tried to step back, we can observe the way western thought has developed — both theologically, climaxing with Luther, and in the secular frame climaxing with Freud, and then ask whether this trajectory is a valid and glorious one, building on seeds planted in the New Testament, or we can try to strip back those assumptions and understand what the text is saying (or try to do both). There’s almost an invitation in Stendahl to either read the Bible ‘westernotelically’ — where God’s intention was to develop the liberated (liberal) western human, through the intervention of Jesus in the world, or to read it ‘Christotelically,’ and then to keep looking back to the Jesus who arrived in the first century world, understanding the Scriptures as deeply connected to his life, and mission, and our life being caught up in his. Where you land on this question will impact how legitimate the concept of ‘individualism’ or even ‘identity’ is for Christians engaging in theology in the modern world.

Stendahl critiques the Protestant tendency, in individualising the function of the Gospel, to individualise the function of the Old Testament law, such that it exists to teach us how to live morally and so convict our conscience and show us our need for Jesus, but also give us instruction after we trust him (so that gentiles are under the law), and instead suggests we should read the law as a necessary part of the history that leads us to Jesus. Stendahl explores a debate on the translation of παιδαγωγὸς (paidogogos) in Galatians 3:24 in various modern english Bibles as ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘custodian’ and the theological significance of those choices in terms of what gets freighted in to our understanding of the function of the law, he suggests the law is best understood as occupying a holding position for the Jews until their true teacher and king, Jesus, arrived. , understanding that we, as Gentiles, are not under the law, but are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Luther might actually agree with lots of Stendahl’s observations, if not his conclusions. I think Luther gets misread pretty often through the prism of post-Luther Reformed thinking and emphasis, and that he actually grounds his understanding of the Gospel not in justification and its mechanisms, but in union with Christ (where individual justification and sanctification flow from that communal reality), and we see this teased out in, for example, his Letter to the Nobility quoted above. But you also see it in his desire to strip back the text of the Bible from the Latin translation of his day to the original languages; that same impulse might see us stripping back the thought worlds of our day, to the original thought worlds of the Bible.

Luther did, himself, attempt to hold communal realities and individuality (of sorts) together in a theological system, and, if anything, the communal reality (particularly in a social context where everybody was assumed to be part of the body of Christ) still defined the function, even the personhood, of the individual. Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and his application of this to the temporal and spiritual (or secular and sacred) roles people occupied was built from his understanding of our union with Christ, and so, with Christ’s body, the church.

But the reformation of the church, and as a result, the western world, didn’t stop there. And the Reformation itself provided some of the building blocks for ongoing reform outside the church; specifically the foundations of liberalism and the individualism we see at the heart of the modern west. Where Luther challenged the way a divine ordering of reality had been operating in the hands of a corrupt church, modern ‘secular’ humanism challenges the idea of a divine ordering of reality. What we get, instead, as secular humanism captures the imagination of the post-Renaissance/post-Reformation west, is not a ‘priesthood of all believers’ but the divine rule of the individual; the sovereignty of the self. This little snapshot definition of humanism from Oxford has a nice summary of the move involved: “The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.”

When the divine ordering of human society gives way to the all encompassing secular space, built on the bedrock of humanism, the only authority that really matters is ‘the self,’ and any communal endeavours have to be built not on an understanding of, or appeal to, a divine order, or common good, even, but to common self-interest (or coalitions of over-lapping self-interests for the sake of holding power).

After Luther, but before Burckhardt, came John Locke. Locke is one of the founding fathers of liberalism; the political doctrine underpinning both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in modern political conversations in the western world. If the Renaissance created the individual, Locke was important in enshrining the individual as the supreme authority; completing the shift of locating human dignity in the ‘image of God’ imprinted on us, to the idea that each individual is Lord of his or her own domain. Locke spent a fair bit of his time arguing from the Bible to justify his understanding of the relationship between the person and the state, especially in his two treaties (treatises?) of government. In the Second Treaties of Government, Locke argues for certain principles of individual liberty that work to establish the sovereignty of the individual. Locke located legitimate exercises of political power, basically, in the protection of property — starting with the property an individual person has in their own self, and extending to rights for an individual to claim created things where their labour had fused with the created thing to give it a sort of value. Locke says:

“Every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.”

This is an expression of a move from either an understanding of a commons, where natural resources belong to all (particularly as given by God), or an understanding that all ‘property’ is owned by monarchs or rulers (in feudal systems). For Locke, legitimate governments existed to guarantee these property rights (both to the self, and one’s work), and to afford individuals the liberty to pursue life, liberty, health, and property. Again, I’m glad Locke existed and brought a bunch of changes, but in bringing these changes life as individual people became further detached from the providence of God, and the ordering of creation such that our experience of its goodness was seen to flow from his hands. Instead, it flowed from our own individual efforts.

So. What does this potted history have to do with identity? And why it’s a nebulous, and perhaps unhelpful concept to build Christian anthropological (and political and ethical) thinking on?

Well. Identity as a concept is a product of these movements — of renaissance humanism, secularisation, and the development of the absolute sovereignty of the self; sometimes justified with some implications of the Reformation, but often only paying lip service to a Christian heritage and seeking to cut loose from the roots and branches that produced the fruit. In a journal article from 1983, ‘Identifying Identity: A Semantic History’ (that became a book chapter), Philip Gleason traced the development of the concept of identity by tracking the use of the word identity. He found that this word that gets given so much weight in modern Christian theology has a very short history; and that alone should give us pause about how keen we are to use ‘identity’ and how people ‘identify themselves’ (ie with what terms or qualifiers) as a yardstick of orthodoxy. He says the emergence of identity as a concept in politics (or sociology) and psychology is very new.

The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one. It came into use as a popular social science term only in the 1950s. The contrast between its handling in two standard reference works dramatizes its novelty. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, carries a substantial article on “Identity, Psychosocial,” and another on “Identification, Political.” The original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, carries no entry at all for identity, and the entry headed “Identification” deals with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.

This fits with the Google ngram data I posted in a previous examination of how unhelpful the word ‘identity’ is when it comes to a Christian approach to sexuality.

When it comes to the links between the development of the individual, unmoored from a divine order — or a ‘given’ self — Gleason traces its usage back to Locke, and Hume (two key figures in the development not just of humanism, but secular humanism).

“The OED’s first two usage citations illustrating psychological “personal identity” are from Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739). This tends to corroborate Robert Langbaum’s assertion that identity did not take on psychological connotations until the empiricist philosophers called into question what he calls “the unity of the self.” The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway, but it became a problem when Locke declared that a man’s “Identity … consists in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Langbaum argues that Locke and Hume “use the word identity to cast doubt on the unity of the self,” and he has written a book to show how writers from William Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence reacted to this challenge to the integrity of “the self.””

Gleason tracks the emergence of the concept of identity as we might know it from the mid 50s, where he says a book titled Protestant-Jew-Catholic made the case that in a fragmenting culture where personhood had become disconnected from an established order, and was left in the hands of the self, religion was still the most satisfying way for “locating oneself in society” and answering the aching question “who am I?” He quotes a publication from 1963, to demonstrate how ‘Identity’ had moved from the fringes to the centre of moral discourse, and the defining question of a particular age, which asks “who, thirty years ago, would have thought that the problem of identity would become one of the most crucial issues for the searching individual in our society?” 

Gleason then traces the development of the concept of identity (especially identity formation) in psychology, specifically through the work of Erik Erikson (which is about as cool a ‘given’ name as possible for a bloke who then talks about the quest for the development of the self). He says that in the psychological realm, Erikson saw identity formation as a process that “involves an interaction between the interior development of the individual personality, understood in terms derived from the Freudian id-ego-superego model, and the growth of a sense of selfhood that arises from participating in society, internalizing its cultural norms, acquiring different statuses, and playing different roles.”

Charting its actual use in publications, Gleason identifies a contest within the modern understanding of the word ‘identity’ between its psychological and sociological uses, and, indeed, the present use of the word still seems contested in those spheres. This is true even when Christians try to appropriate it in order to ‘contextualise the Gospel’ and speak truths about God’s role in defining ‘the self’ into the modern conversation that often doesn’t realise what is lost through his absence… we use ‘identity’ in either psychological, or sociological ways, or interchangeably without recognising the difference. Gleason says the psychological and sociological understandings of the concept of identity can’t be easily reconciled:

“The two approaches differ most significantly on whether identity is to be understood as something internal that persists through change or as something ascribed from without that changes according to circumstance. For Erikson, the elements of interiority and continuity are indispensable. Working within the Freudian tradition, he affirms that identity is somehow “located” in the deep psychic structure of the individual. Identity is shaped and modified by interaction between the individual and the surrounding social milieu, but, change and crisis notwithstanding, it is at bottom an “accrued confidence” in the “inner sameness and continuity” of one’s own being.

The sociologists, on the other hand, tend to view identity as an artifact of interaction between the individual and society—it is essentially a matter of being designated by a certain name, accepting that designation, internalizing the role requirements accompanying it, and behaving according to those prescriptions.”

Gleason suggests that the incredible spike in popularity of the term identity was that its dual use gave it currency in emerging questions in the 1950s, especially post World War 2. He describes how talking about ‘identity’ replaced talking about ‘character’ and how part of the traction it gained was a sort of reconnection between an individual’s quest for self-hood, and the way social identities (including national identities) were being studied, and/or redefined at the time.

The quest for an individual ‘identity’ alongside a social identity emerges as a significant concept in the west only in the period between 1955 and 1963, but piggybacks off the Renaissance, the Reformation, the work of John Locke, and others, including Freud and Erikson. While it has a heritage that stretches back to the 1300s, it this search is a product of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the secular age’ and specifically the plethora of individual identity-constituting choices that flows out of the rejection of the idea of a God, or gods, providing order and meaning, and a place for each person in the cosmos. Taylor explores this idea in depth in his work The Sources of the Self. Taylor notes that the roles we play in forming our identity after the ‘nova effect’ that comes from the social order being disconnected from a divine order often leaves us with a plethora of choice, and performing our identity not just through rituals (typically non-religious rituals of belonging), but also through choice (and particularly consumer choice).

Gleason’s paper is worth ploughing through, both for its substance, and its conclusion — one that urges caution in employing the word “identity” mindful of the contest or confusion caught up in its use; a warning that we Christians might heed when co-opting the word to use for our theological purposes (or even to try to show how the Gospel of Jesus provides answers to both the psychic and sociological quests for an identity). He says:

“For these reasons, responsible use of the term demands a lively sensitivity to the intrinsic complexities of the subject matter with which it deals and careful attention to the need for precision and consistency in its application. But of course its enormous popularisation has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more of a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage. The depressing result is that a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence, and the historian need not be intimidated into regarding it as more than that.”

When Christians talk about our ‘identity’ in Christ, it’s hard to distinguish what we’re saying at that point from the idea that Christianity is just one ‘choice’ we make, that impacts the role we play and the community we belong to, while we ‘internalise its cultural norms’. The Christian story of who we are as selves, especially selves in Jesus, is something different to this. A Christian understanding of personhood makes space for a whole range of ‘identities’ as descriptions of roles we play in different relationships so that I can be, for example, husband, father, pastor, friend, sport fan, coffee connoisseur, or dog owner as ‘identities’  — I could even be straight, or Australian, or white (or if it were true, gay) and have that as part of my experience or story, and a description of communities I am connected to, without that threatening my understanding of my ‘self’ being rooted in God’s life and providence, and found and redeemed in the body of Jesus, through union with him by the Spirit, and so also find my identity in the body of Jesus, the church, and in the roles God has appointed, or provided, or calls me to in this world as a priest in the priesthood of all believers, in service of the body. I don’t need to claim a totalising ‘identity in Jesus,’ as an expression of my individualism.

That is to say, Christianity has something to say for those who are searching for a sense of self, who want to answer the question ‘who am I’, but the answers Christianity gives might, in their most satisfactory form, not rest in weird ontologically weighted labels around sexuality, race, or even religious belief, and the recognition of one’s individuality, desires, or ‘id,’ but instead might look to a more ancient schema, both in a divine ordering of reality that works its way through to the givenness of our personhood (in an integrated sense of body and soul), and the calling, or telos, we find in Jesus as we are united to him, and called into the priesthood of all believers, such that we can find meaning and purpose in both the spiritual and temporal realms. To push towards that sort of vision of the person might involve pushing back both against individualism (as a product of Renaissance/secular humanism), and identity (as a child of the uncertainty produced by that move), and to something more grounded in the life and providence of God.

Halloween, Harry Potter, and the Satanic Panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upload: the digital good place?

Upload dropped on Amazon Prime this week. It’s like The Good Place, only there’s no twist. Really, it’s not that like The Good Place at all, except that it deals with life after death in a universe where God is mostly absent. Belief in a spiritual afterlife is a quaint hope held by some “Ludds” (from Luddites) pitted against the very real virtual hope peddled in Upload‘s universe — our universe, just in 2033.

There’s some interesting dynamics right up front with this program being on Amazon Prime; Amazon’s end game might look very much like the in show company, called Horizon. Amazon’s smile logo can be found on packaging within the show, but their push into cloud computing, digital media, and Jeff Bezos’ ‘end game’ (not to mention his exorbitant personal wealth — no seriously, click that, spend a few minutes scrolling it, and then come back) make them prime candidates for attempting to produce something like this for reals. It won’t be Elon Musk who does it; probably; he believes we’re already in this future; already characters in a computer program indistinguishable from reality. You can trust Amazon to find ways to keep making money from your consumption after you die.

In Upload, Horizon is the company responsible for the richest afterlife experience (an afterlife experience for the rich, where you have to keep paying for room service and minibar items by swiping left for your virtual pleasures. Horizon’s prime afterlife location is called Lakeview. Residents pay big bucks to have their consciousness digitised and uploaded; stored on servers, so that their lives can continue not in the clouds with harps (like some poor Ludds believe), but in ‘the cloud.’

As far as reviews go, we watched the whole first season over two nights. It’s a fascinating (but not Good Place esque) dig into some philosophical questions about what it means to be human; leaning into Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to suggest that so long as a person’s mind is still active, no matter what happens to their body, the person still is; and later probing whether a soul exists as a thing apart from a mind. We’re in a sort of new gnostic territory most of the time, except that scientists are also working on synthetic bodies that can host a download of the individual’s upload. There’s a hint of the unnaturalness of life without a body, but even the Luddite hope of heaven is the hope of a disembodied soul in the sky when you die (where salvation, and immortality, is not secured so much by wealth, but simply by death).

The show’s main upload, Nathan Brown, is hanging out for the availability of a download because he knows, deep down in his soul, that to exist as a person, a human, is to have a body. He’s also died in a freak self-drive car accident (or was it), and lost some vital memories in the upload that also make him less than him. Uploaded beings are served by ‘angels’ — employees of the ultimate surveillance capitalism firm, who are voice activated. Unlike Siri and Alexa, these are real humans sitting at computers waiting for voice commands from now-digital beings. And so we meet Nora, Nathan’s angel.

The show also has some fun pictures of technology in the not so distant future; including consent cameras for kicking off sexual encounters largely curated via Nitely, a future version of Tinder. The show handles sex and bodies in a fascinating way; the boundaries between the digital afterlife and the real world are almost totally porous, any avatar can cross over and connect in virtual reality, which means your loved one is never truly gone — even if they stop aging (so long as you don’t pay for age up updates). Sex is excarnated, rather than incarnating — though for those on the meaty side of reality, feelings are reproduced by a frankly kinda creepy VR suit. When Charles Taylor observed that the ‘disenchanted’ world we now live in is an ‘excarnated’ world — he was describing a world that pushes us out of being enfleshed in bodies, and into ‘being’ in our heads. Where sex may once have been ‘enchanting’ — sacramental almost — as a good gift from God, in the disenchanted, excarnate, world it is simply transactional.

At one point in A Secular Age, Taylor notes that the more intimately connected we are with a person the less worried we are about cross contamination — we’ll share a spoon with those we kiss — he suggests sex is the ultimate expression of such intimacy, that “love making itself is a mixing of fluids with abandon” — it’s a bit gross; but as we become excarnate, culturally, our approach to intimacy gets a bit blurry, when our bodies don’t matter anymore, we’ll mix fluids with anybody. And yet, the VR ‘sex suit’ proves too much for Nathan’s girlfriend, stuck in embodied life, because she sees them being cleaned in the hire shop — and hears all about the fluids they have to wash out — the suits are also used for people hugging dead grandparents; so there’s a cocktail of snot, vomit, sweat, and other things. Gross. Bodies are gross. And yet, sex-as-intimacy, for two embodied people, can also be sacramental; Nathan’s girlfriend, Ingrid, is prepared to overcome the ick factor because she “misses their intimacy.” Touch matters. Bodies are essential to that, and while our approach to sex (think pornography, hookup apps, consent video cameras, VR suits etc) can ‘excarnate’ — we can push ourselves away from our bodies and into our brains, sex, like other embodied pleasures, has the capacity to re-incarnate us. To remind us of the goodness of our bodies, and even of something enchanted or transcendent; something meaningful. Taylor calls this ‘haunting’ we sometimes experience in the real world — the reminder of something beyond us a ‘frisson’ (sometimes called “skin orgasms“) — that’s the little thrill you get sometimes that makes your neck hairs stand up and your skin get goosebumps. That power of touch — even in the afterlife — gets explored too.

The fundamental question in season 1 of Upload is can a human be a human without a body; what are we? While the eschatological hope served up by Amazon Horizon is frictionless consumption in a digital eternity controlled by a corporation that exists to serve your every whim with a voice command (“Alexa…” I mean “Angel…”), the question Upload asks is just how satisfying such a future can be; and whether a download into an eternal body might not be a more desirable, human, outcome.

Those in the digital world have lost all the limitations of embodiment; there is no longer any mourning, nor crying, nor pain… it’s a world made new. Digitally.

Except, you can pay to be sick — because after a stack of time in the digital afterlife, your yearning for a bodily existence leaves you wanting the feeling of pain or sickness, just to feel alive. So, you can pay to have a headcold…

_______

Zach: “Having a cold is no fun”

Nathan: “Why are you paying extra for this, isn’t it like a dollar a minute”

Zach: “When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll see that having no fun can be kinda fun. My nose is actually stuffed up. Just like real life.”

_______

The conversation pauses here because a new afterlife experience pops up; it’s pay to play, remember.

Trust Amazon Horizon to figure out a way to monetise a sneeze.

One of the more depressing sub-plots (and there are a couple, if you push too hard), is the story of Luke. Luke is a war veteran whose body was broken in conflict; he lost his legs, and rather than suffer life in the body, with no legs, he chooses to ‘upload’ early, and spends his digital life chasing experiences from the other parts of his body he gave up (mostly sex and food). Life without a body isn’t all its cracked up to be in Lakeview. But he’s also just a bloke desperately looking for connection. The show wants love to be enough for him, and for him to find compensation for the other bits, but it also leaves open the idea that life without a body just won’t be enough.

There’s a great dialogue between Nathan, and Dave, the Luddite father of his angel (it’s complicated) about the nature of the person, the soul, the afterlife, and hope.

_______

Dave: “You see Nathan, when you died, your soul went to real heaven, so whatever simulation I’m talking to now has no soul. It’s an abomination.”

Nathan: “Ok, or, there is no soul. And there never was, and in a sense both of our consciousnesses are simulations. Mine on a silicon computer and yours on a computer made of meat. Your brain.”

_______

Dave’s hope is a tangible future where he might hold his wife in his arms again; an embodied resurrection even, but Nathan, like many good moderns, can’t conceive of heaven as anything more than disembodied consciousness; eternal life for the soul, but not for the body. Like in the finale of the Good Place, the message from episode 1, to the end of episode 10, is that heaven is other people; the chance to spend eternity (or as much time as possible) with the people you love. God isn’t in the picture — even in Dave’s heaven — heaven is other people. For Horizon/Amazon — that’s an opportunity to make some money…

There’s an open source alternative to Horizon weaving its way through the storyline of Upload; the good guys who want heaven to be ad free. That might be the truly ‘good place’ — and Nathan hopes to be able to bring some of that open source goodness to Horizon; to hack away some of the overreach of his corporate overlords. Whether or not a ‘good’ digital afterlife is possible, Upload reminds us that we really want bodies for most of the stuff we love; which fits with the Christian understanding of the person. We are not souls in a meatsack — that’s gnosticism or Platonism — we are people who have bodies. The Christian hope is a resurrected body; a body made imperishable because God’s Spirit works not just with our soul, but on our body, to make us heavenly and immortal (1 Corinthians 15).

And while the show is billed as ‘science fiction,’ there are actually people out there seriously contemplating what such a digital afterlife could or should look like. Let me remind you again, Elon Musk thinks this is it; that the digital afterlife, where we exist not as people with flesh and blood, but as 0s and 1s in someone else’s program (with Covid-19 a really weird glitch in the software; a virus even). This was also, taken in a more dystopian direction, the plot for The Matrix.

There’s a question about what a good digital afterlife might look like, if the tech was available. We humans love the idea of being in control of our own end game; being able to work towards an eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’) where we, collectively (or corporately) are gods who can select our afterlife of choice and then consume our way to bliss. That fits the secular narrative pretty neatly. Amazon is a master of that narrative; a master of frictionless consumption and seemingly limitless consumer choice; which makes its involvement with the production of this program quite bizarre to unpack. Is being sucked into Amazon’s mainframe a good death? A good afterlife?

In Greek, the letters ‘eu’ at the start of a word work as a prefix for ‘good’ — so ‘euthanasia’ is a “good death.” In 1993, tech-philosopher David Porush published a journal article titled ‘Voyage to Eudoxia.’ It was an article exploring a potential escape to cyberspace; a good cyberspace. He suggested an obsession with cyberspace emerged earlier than he was writing (almost 30 years ago), after space exploration became a little passe. The next big tech things would be computers. Games were just starting to become ‘immersive’ (though nothing like they are now). He wrote then:

“Eventually, in the far-flung future perhaps, we may all emigrate, at least part time, to this new and gleaming electronic suburb, there to revel in an excess of sensory stimulation that today’s cinema or MTV can only hint at.”

He called this future place ‘Eudoxia,’ after Eudoxos of Knidos, and an invisible city in the work of an author he liked, Italo Calvino who wrote Cybernetic fiction. Porush used the term ‘cybernetic’ to describe a future “Cybernetic Age” where technology might enable us to capture (and maybe understand) the mind and how it works. Porush described a genre of science fiction exploring this potential as “cybernetic (or even better, “anti-cybernetic”)” — Upload joins a long line of stories, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, exploring the potential that technology might free us from our bodies. Calvino, and Porush use the word ‘Eudoxia’ to describe the ability to write and create virtual worlds, or cities, built on ‘good discourse.’

“We now have a word for a magic technology that will create a complete sensorium or virtual reality on a cybernetic platform; cyberspace, an accessible, self-referential, genre-destroying hyperspace, a soaring sensorium that will imitate, model, and link to its mirror image, the human brain.”

Porush believed such a future technology, or place, Eudoxia, would render the story — TV or fairy tale — impoverished.

Lakeview, the ‘heaven’ in Upload, is a picture of a Eudoxia. And it turns out, people still want their bodies. That the mind itself is not enough; and that the sort of ‘transcendence’ Porush dreamed of, where we push out of our bodies and into our brains, is actually disenchanting rather than magical.

In a follow up piece, Hacking the Brainstem, published in 1994, Porush argued that (even then) our “centuries-long romance with technology” where we used technology to, for example, achieve intimacy with others, “has already cyberspatialised us,” preparing the way for us to experience ‘sensuous information bodilessly’ — he breathlessly hoped that cyberspace would help us transcend our bodies. He said in the sort of science fiction that anticipated cyberspace — this cybernetic fiction — “Cyberspace already transcends the physical “meat” body by creating a simulated “meta” body in the brain and communicating with it directly via electrical implants.” He said:

“Eudoxia is presently enacted in video games and cybernetic fiction, which will find their ultimate material marriage in the computer’s cyberspace.”

Whether or not this future can, or will, happen is immaterial. It’s clearly a future that we like to imagine happening; an escape from the meat of our bodies into the meta. Life forever; freed from pain and suffering, beyond death.

That a company like Amazon is going to be best placed to deliver such a future is a scary thought Upload presents us with; but its story, like other anti-cybernetic stories, should cause us to pause and ask if this is the best good place we can imagine.

Porush describes the promise of cyberspace peddled in such stories in this reasonably long passage, it’s worth it though…

______

The imminence of the cyborg is not a matter of speculation, it is a matter of reporting the news, a matter of postmodern sociology and introspection. We are already experiencing the reflux from a time twenty seconds into the future when our own media technologies will physically transcribe themselves onto our bodies, re-creating the human in their own images, forcing our evolution into the posthuman through a combination of mechanistic and genetic manipulations… yberspace will renovate human relations; it will unite art and technology; it will represent an altogether new and radical domain for improved social, psychic, and perceptual transactions. Bypassing the infirmities of the body, cyberspace will free the cripple and liberate the paralytic. Enabling multimedia and sensory access to the entire wealth of world data, cyberspace will deliver a universal education. Through its anonymity, cyberspace will invite the construction of a more ethical code and create norms for human interaction that strip distinctions of gender, class, race, and power. Cyberspace will provide a playspace for the imagination to roam free, liberating the mind from its inevitably neurotic relationship to the body. Cyberspace therefore has untold psychotherapeutic possibilities. Yet cyberspace will incapacitate destructive urges and consequences by removing our bodies. Cyberspace will create the means for a pure and perfect democracy and universal suffrage in which everyone can vote immediately on any issue. Cyberspace will present the possibilities for “virtual communities.” Cyberspace will reconstruct the nature of the relationship between labor and time and labor and space and will reconstruct authoritarian technics as they are manifested in the workplace —although one wonders who is going to empty the garbage and build the roads after we have all emigrated to this new virtual suburb. While cyberspace will undoubtedly present new opportunities for criminality, rape and physical assault will become impossible. Cyberspace will present a new opportunity for our manifest destiny, a new frontier. Cyberspace will make war obsolete by turning it into a Desert Storm videogame. Cyberspace will create a totalized hypertextual platform that will cure what ails American higher education. We will become immortal there. It will enable us to combine work and play in a new way. Even the music will be better there. Cyberspace will be the new, clean, virtual Eden to which we will all emigrate when this physical world becomes an unlivable ecodisaster. In cyberspace we will finally perfect the academic’s dream of sex: we will be able to indulge lust without the involving of our bodies (perhaps I should have said “the dream of sex that’s academic”). The New World, World Without End, amen.”

______

Cyberspace in Porush’ vision, is the cyberspace on offer in Upload. A world built by Horizon Amazon.

In Hacking the Brainstem, Porush makes a pretty interesting point about ‘utopian visions’ served up in our stories; eschatologies, even. He suggests we create utopias, culturally, by ‘modelling our view of human nature rationally and then inventing a technology to control or direct that model’ — by ‘technology’ he says he means “systems that seek and project perfect control” — so when a human is placed in the system the system encourages the “best part and controls the worst part of human nature” while the human maintains the system by their participation. This is particularly interesting when one considers Upload’s utopian vision; a digital world where the technology pictures the ideal human life as one of unfettered consumption in the pursuit of goodness and pleasure, surrounded by those people you love (such that you might consume them too).

The world we live in is one where corporations want that to be our utopian vision; because it’s what keeps them profitable.

The corporate world wants to keep us disenchanted and placing our hope in a technological future — a eudoxia — because if we put our hope in some transcendent otherworld, heaven — clouds outside the cloud — then they lose us now. We no longer want to play in their system.

There’s a reason there’s no God in Upload — that the priest for hire at the funeral parlour offers up factoids about Nathan that he’s gleaned from wikipedia, and no comfort beyond his digital avatar being there on the big screen behind him. God upsets the apple cart of these apple vendors.

Like in The Good Place, the ‘eudoxia’ of Upload — Lakeviewis in need of a good eucatastrophe. A “good catastrophe” — the term coined by Tolkien for the fantastic moment in a fairy story where the failure of our attempts to build our own utopian visions; craft our own ending to the story, our own ‘afterlife’ is met by an interruption; a good catastrophe. Tolkien’s ‘best catastrophe’ — the one that means I’d be banking on fantasy novels outlasting cybernetic fiction — is the enchanting story; the story that reminds us that reality is not all there is; that the physical world points to a supernatural world; that sex in bodies is, like other experiences in our bodies, meant to throw us towards something ‘enchanted’ rather than excarnated, and to remind us that our bodies are fundamental to our personhood. Tolkien’s best version of the good catastrophe is, of course, the version where the story of Jesus is true; where the heavenly future he offers is not disembodied life in the cloud(s), but an embodied life in a re-created and renovated world; this world; not a digital world; not a world fuelled by consumption and the pursuit of pleasure through choice where you have to keep paying a corporation; but a transformed world centred on the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for God and for one another. This is our hope. The real new eden — not the digital one.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:4-5

Who needs a Lakeview when you can have a river view anyway…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. 

Revelation 22:1-3

How the comfort offered by companies is pig slop, and why the church should stop lying down with pigs

Once upon a time there was a boy. He believed the bright lights of the big city and the experiences on offer there would allow him to be truer to himself than the life he had been born into.

He was born to a farmer, all his life to this point he’d been playing out the role he was born into. He found that role stifling. Sure, it involved the promise of one day owning a share in the farm — its success was his success. Sure, it involved security, and family life, and knowing who he was… but the order the lack of choice. This life was oppressive and he had to get out. He had to be free to choose his own destiny. His own identity. So he cashed in his shares from the farm and followed the lure of the bright lights; the city lifestyle he’d seen in advertisements that offered him more than he could imagine. So much choice. The ability not just to experience pleasures previously denied; this wasn’t just about hedonism, but freedom. He could be his own man. He could make choices. He could buy what he wanted, spend time with who he wanted. He was an heroic individual escaping a tired regime, aided by the voices of those who would help him be free as he made his informed consumer decisions to express himself as he fulfilled his every desire.

But then, the money ran out. When that happened he found that the companies that had promised so much — promised to be there for him — were no longer interested. He was no longer in the thick of the action in the big city. And even if he had the money to satisfy his desires, that had all proved less lasting — less good — even, than he imagined. He’d found himself addicted to the fast life; addicted to expressing himself and experiencing momentary pleasure; and he’d ended up essentially giving his whole life, everything he’d worked for, in pursuit of this pleasure to these companies that had promised so much, but delivered nothing.

The fast food and fast women he’d enjoyed with his money didn’t just disappear. In hindsight, the choices he made and the disappointment he felt when they didn’t satisfy left this boy questioning whether they tasted that good at all; they certainly were insubstantial and the flavours had nothing on the flavours that came from a home cooked meal served for him by a family that loved him. The fast food from the big city had an emptiness about it; no nutritional value; nothing lasting. As the city rejected him the boy found himself at its margins; unable to be ‘truly human’ on its terms because he now no longer had power, the boy started tending to the animals that would one day be slaughtered to serve up with eggs. He was once the image of success; an image he projected for himself; now he was beastly. Feeding the pigs and desperate to eat of their food; to become beastly, only, he already had, as a piece in the machine that fattened up pigs for market he was already no longer a free person exercising choice. He was a slave. Robotic. A part of the system.

The boy wished he’d never bought into the hype. Those companies didn’t love him. Their success — and the success of those who owned them, with their big houses and lavish lifestyles, didn’t want him to succeed, they wanted him to be a consumer so that they could consume him. Suck the marrow from his bones, while he ate swill.

This, of course, is something like a parable Jesus told. But it’s a parable for modern times too.

Watch this.

Get the message. These companies have ‘always been there’ for you. On your side. It’s corporations that take care of people — families — as we consume our way to the good life. In times like these, these ‘uncertain times’ — this pandemic — it’s companies who are there for us. In our homes. We can consume even while social distancing. Because these companies are here for us. As they have been for decades… We can count on them to help us get through this. Apple’s ad was, I thought, particularly inspired, and kinda beautiful, even if a picture of how much technology has ingratiated itself into our modern lives.

It’s Apple’s products, of course, that promise to bring us together, much like Telstra suggests it does in its magic of technology ads.

These companies offer the lure of bright lights and pleasure and security and all the tools one needs to survive and thrive as we consume our way to pleasure and express the real us in the midst of this pandemic.

Alongside Arundhati Roy’s optimistic dreams that this pandemic might bring with it a ‘new creation’ where people are kinder and gentler to each other; the sort that requires significant disruption to the status quo (and a ‘probably impossible without a shared grand narrative’ end of the culture wars), I read this piece about those forces — the status quo — that don’t want disruption, and how the manipulation required to stop disruption happening is going to begin with ads just like these from companies who do not want your individual consumer behaviour to change; because they want to keep you desiring things and pursuing the fulfilment of those desires through consumption as they sell you pig swill dressed up as a banquet. The article, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, says:

Billions of dollars will be spent on advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make you feel comfortable again. It will come in the traditional forms — a billboard here, a hundred commercials there — and in new-media forms: a 2020–2021 generation of memes to remind you that what you want again is normalcy. In truth, you want the feeling of normalcy, and we all want it. We want desperately to feel good again, to get back to the routines of life, to not lie in bed at night wondering how we’re going to afford our rent and bills, to not wake to an endless scroll of human tragedy on our phones, to have a cup of perfectly brewed coffee and simply leave the house for work. The need for comfort will be real, and it will be strong. And every brand in America will come to your rescue, dear consumer, to help take away that darkness and get life back to the way it was before the crisis. I urge you to be well aware of what is coming.

For the last hundred years, the multibillion-dollar advertising business has operated based on this cardinal principle: Find the consumer’s problem and fix it with your product.

These ads are the precursor for this project. Peddling the idea that consumption of products — participating in ‘the economy’ — is going to fix our problems.

Look, here’s a disclaimer, I worked in a marketing adjacent role (public relations). I loved it. I believed in what I promoted. Not all marketing is bad. Some products and services are good for you and it is good for you to know about them; but, on the whole, advertising and marketing are the prophecy and evangelism arms of a greedy consumerism that is bad for your soul. It’s possible not to sell or destroy your soul in a capitalist world, it’s just really hard (camel through the eye of the needle hard). Marketing and advertising can be used for good, but as a Christian I want to note that there’s a hint of advertising in Genesis 1, where God declares things ‘good,’ and more than a hint of advertising in Genesis 3, where the serpent creates a desire and sells a product to Adam and Eve.

It’s interesting for me, as an employee in the institution that once occupied this place in the cultural landscape, or the collective psyche, the place that offered comfort and hope in a crisis; and the stability of having been around for a long time… to see companies now jostling for the position the church once occupied. This fits neatly with Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age thesis,’ as I’ll outline below. The nutshell of Taylor’s thesis is that one of the social changes that produced secularism is the explosion of options we have post what he calls ‘the nova’ — options we have to pursue our own authentic self, freed from traditional power structures (and being ‘born into’ a particular station) we now define who we are; we choose our own identity, and we often express this through consumption of the things that we believe are good and true to ourselves. Corporations then play the role of priest, and shops function as temples, advertising becomes prophetic.

There are three take homes for me from this ad.

One, it reveals not a lack of imagination on behalf of the advertising industry; it’s a sign that the corporate world is on message. And its message stinks because it is selling slops not really fit for pigs, let alone humans, designed to fatten you up, so this little piggy can go to market. They’re trying to convince you, in essence, that the little piggy goes to market to buy stuff, which is a naive reading of that nursery rhyme, rather than to be slaughtered and turned into ham. The whole enterprise of finding meaning through consumption of products aided by corporations is hollow and rotten. People have turned from the church in the west for good and understandable reasons; but to turn to consumption and the pursuit of individual authenticity and freedom through consumer choice — that’s made a bit ridiculous when we see what looks like a smorgasbord of options is just the same swill served up in different packaging. There is nothing truly satisfying on offer from the ‘big city’ with its bright lights, desire creation, and consumption.

Second, these companies are part of an economic status quo that will do its best not to be disrupted by this pandemic; they’ll be pouring resources into advertisements and lobbying to get us consuming once again. Because the way the world was set up pre-pandemic relies on these companies occupying a particular place in the landscape. They’ll keep dressing up pig swill as a gourmet meal (the same one over and over again), but it will still be pig swill, and this is an opportunity for disruption.

Third, it’s a mistake for us in the church to think that the way back to relevance for the church is to play the consumer game; to offer ourselves as another option in the pig pen. Our job is to disrupt by playing an entirely different game; not the game where we’re pigs fattened for market to be killed, but children loved so much the father sacrifices a lamb to welcome us home. This comes with an entirely different pattern and pace of living and a different framework for understanding goodness and satisfaction.

Consumer life in the Secular City

Taylor describes the basis for the secular age we now live in as the ‘immanent frame’ — that is, a view of reality that excludes the transcendent (the realm of gods or spirits or non material reality). This is a relatively new thing (which is why it’s interesting to hear companies in the video proclaiming how long they’ve been serving the community, and the oldest you get is ‘over a hundred years.’

In this immanent frame, the previous social and religious ordering that gave rise to meaning, especially the sort of meaning that might help you through a crisis (whether superstitious, or pagan, or Christian, or a combo of all three), are gone and we are left to make meaning for ourselves. We’re cut off from God or gods, freed(ish) from inherited social obligations, free to make our own choices and choose our own adventure. Basically, the immanent frame makes us all like the boy in our story, cashed up with an inheritance from a previous social order, and able to decide what to do next to make meaning for ourselves without dad (or God) telling us what we have to do now. Taylor calls the individual in this situation ‘the buffered self’ — the self shielded from external, coercive, forces.

This isn’t just about individual selfishness. Taylor suggests that for a society wide change in belief and behaviour to take place it has to be motivated by a shifting shared sense of what is good for people; and the shift is a shift against oppressive structures. Some of this is legit. I don’t want to live, for example, in a Feudal society where my station and my professional options are pre-determined by the family I am born into, or a caste system (which isn’t to say our society isn’t structured in similar ways within the rules of the game as the companies we’re talking about want us to play it; enslaved, rather than freed, by personal choice and consumption and only allowed to succeed if we play the game by rules determined by some other).

Taylor suggests our society has turned to authenticity and expressing our true self as the cardinal virtues, and that we use consumer decisions to both discover who we really are, and then to perform and project that identity into the world in order to be recognised.

The post-war era (the time frame that most of those companies in the ad launched) brought with it an ‘affluence’ and a concentration on “private space” where we had the means to fill our own spaces; our castles and our lives; with “the ever-growing gamut of new goods and services on offer, from washing machines to packaged holidays.” Taylor says “the pursuit of happiness” became linked to consumer lifestyles expressing one’s “own needs and affinities, as only the rich had been able to do in previous eras.” Children born after this period became a new youth market, targetted by advertisers as ‘natives’ to this consumer culture; those who would, by default, express ourselves by expressive consumer choice.

The ‘good’ of authenticity was mashed up with a culture of expressive individualism in a framework provided where consumption was the way to discover and reveal your true self. Taylor sees this particularly playing out in the realm of fashion; particularly when an individual makes a consumer choice to express themselves and their identity as belonging to some thing or other that is greater than themselves (a bit like social media likes and posts also work as the performance of one’s authentic self). This effect of shared expression through shared fashion — be it a hat, or Nike shoes (or an Apple product) — is amplified in public places like concerts (band t-shirts) and sporting events (jerseys) which provide additional meaning for our actions and expression, these expressions of solidarity in public spaces are important in the secular world; because they are essentially religious experiences. Where once we might have conducted such meaning making activities in pilgrimages or religious festivals, now we do so in an immanent frame, and it’s our shared consumer decisions (buying the same shirt, for example) that produce this impact. Such moments ‘wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves,’ such that our consumer choices can sometimes in replacing what the transcendent once did for us (in terms of meaning making and connection) give us a haunting sense of what has been lost.

Experiencing this haunting, this sense of connection, those glimpses of the transcendent, may also be what fuels our consumption — and it’s kinda no surprise when those responsible for driving our consumption — advertisers — tap into that, with imagery (or iconography) and the sort of language and purpose you might once have reserved for religious organisations. Taylor says the result of all this is that:

Commodities become vehicles of individual expression, even the self-definition of identity. But however this may be ideologically presented, this doesn’t amount to some declaration of real individual autonomy. The language of self-definition is defined in the spaces of mutual display, which have now gone meta-topical; they relate us to prestigious centres of style-creation, usually in rich and powerful nations and milieux. And this language is the object of constant attempted manipulation by large corporations.

So we’ll either consume as an expression of tribalism where we can mutually display our belonging (like wearing a band shirt to their concert, or the shirt of our local football team), or with an eye to the life we wish we were living (like wearing a luxury brand, or a shirt bearing the logo of a company whose values and prestige we aspire to… and companies will fuel this dissatisfaction in us by seeking to create desires that only their product can fulfill (which is marketing 101).

Tech in the City

You can stack Taylor’s observations against the behaviour of companies a decade after he wrote A Secular Age (so, now). And start to bring in some observations here from other thinkers, especially about the role technology companies play in facilitating modern life. We can now perform our identities online, not just in the public square; which is what telcos are offering us (especially in a time of social distancing), what social media companies facilitate (via your ‘profile’ and your ‘feed,’ and what tech companies (like Apple) provide us with tools for (like phones with cameras). These companies, as much or more than bricks and mortar stores in public places, and large scale public gatherings (especially right now) are providing the ‘social imaginary’ for us, as well as providing the space for us to ‘be ourselves.’ Which is a problem if part of the ‘corporate status quo’ that is making a stack of money off helping us ‘express our true selves’ (and so enslaving us to their own oppressive system) is a sort of ‘Babylonian’ technocracy. I mentioned the ‘technocracy’ idea in yesterday’s post, where I linked to Alan Jacob’s piece about the over-promising made by the technocratic regime about the satisfaction technology might bring us. Neil Postman actually (I think) coined the term in Technopoly, where he described the way tools work in connection to our symbolic performance of things that give meaning. Postman said:

“In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”

Postman, Technopoly

He sees tools — our technology — pushing into the vacuum Taylor observes in A Secular Age, the search for meaning in an ‘immanent frame,’ to become ‘the culture.’

That quote is startling to read alongside the Apple ad above, given what it depicts and what it promises, but unsurprising… because commentators have long observed the religious function of Apple and its mythmaking engine. Marshall McLuhan (writing before Apple was a thing) suggested technology, especially communication technology that embeds itself in our ecosystems and our individual lives, functions religiously, that is, in a technopoly our technologies become idols. And these idols end up enslaving us.

“The concept of “idol” for the Hebrew Psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them. “They that make them shall be like unto them… By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions… Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.”    

McLuhan, Understanding Media

McLuhan also believed escaping this status quo will prove very difficult because of how embedded technology and consumption is in our modern life — and how much they reinforce one another until we become these robotic ‘servomechanisms’ — thoughtless consumers who can’t escape, and probably don’t want to…

“For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their lives by waiting on machines, listening to much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods.”

McLuhan, Mechanical Bride

Scott Galloway, a tech pioneer, entrepreneur, and business academic wrote a book titled The Four, examining the big four tech companies that dominate our ecosystem: Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. He viewed them all through a religious prism, and (following some stuff a while back by Martin Lindstrom around the brain activity of Apple users while interacting with its products mirroring the brain activity of religious people while practicing their religions), Galloway said:

“[Apple] mimics religion with its own belief system, objects of veneration, cult following, and Christ figure,” … “Objects are often considered holy or sacred if they are used for spiritual purposes, such as the worship of gods. Steve Jobs became the innovation economy’s Jesus—and his shining achievement, the iPhone, became the conduit for his worship, elevated above other material items or technologies.“

Scott Galloway, The Four

A call to (secular) worship

These ads aren’t just neutral. They aren’t just designed to keep the economy afloat and people in jobs. They are a call to worship. A call to not be disrupted. To keep eating the pigswill dreaming of a time when you might be at the centre of the city, not its margins, and telling you that it’s consumption that’s going to get you there as a consumer.

David Foster Wallace talks about this status quo in his famous speech This Is Water. He said this pattern of consumption; of worship; is the ‘so-called real world’ — our default settings. He said:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. 

It was this siren call, the idea that he was missing out on the good life, that pulled the boy in our story from his father’s garden-farm to the bright lights of the big city. The call to fast food, fast women, and parties was an invitation to worship at a different sort of temple (and, you know, those activities were actually stock in trade for first century pagan temples). The boy in our story is invited to worship other gods, and they end up treating him the way the gods of other pagan nations, especially Babylon, treat people; as a slave.

Disrupting hollow gods

Our boy found himself feeding the pigs, on the outskirts of the big city.

One day, as he looked at the muck around him, as he noticed the slop looked a lot like the leftovers of the meals he came to the city to eat… he realised he’d been sold a lie. All it took was a momentary break; that moment where he pictured himself on his knees tucking in with the pigs. He new. He knew the city was turning him into an animal. In that moment, the emperor had no clothes. The bright lights of the city were flashy and distracting — just the right amount of visual noise and trickery to keep you from seeing the city’s ugly underbelly. He began to daydream; imagining himself back at home on the farm. The clean air. The clean living. The clean eating. Feasting with his family. Better to be a servant there, in a life giving system, than a slave here, on the path to being chewed up and spit out, he thought. So he hit the road. On his way out the billboards by the road started crowding out his vision; promising fast food; fast women; fast money; fast satisfaction. Doing all it could to claw him back. To gobble him up. He ran.

All he needed was a little disruption. And he was gone.

The city promised our boy freedom, only it didn’t offer real freedom, but a certain sort of slavery. This is the same deal our advertisers offer us now; it’s the same city. The same world.

This is a world that doesn’t want disruption.

This is a world whose gods are hollow; a world that tries to dress pig slop up on a big white plate as a gourmet meal. It’s a bit like Ephesus in the book of Acts — a world that pursues wealth and flourishing from making, marketing, and selling, silver idol statues; that feels very threatened when the hollowness of those gods is revealed by a God that actually offers satisfaction.

My favourite part of This Is Water is not the bit about how ‘everybody worships’ or the diagnosis of what flows from the worship of false gods (dissatisfaction). It’s that all these false forms of worship of things from within what Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’ — the decision to, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship created things rather than the creator — leave us with a ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing,’ but also, that anything immanent we worship, and worshipping anything not transcendent will, in Wallace’s words “eat you alive.” Take that piggy.

Taylor describes this too; he says the turn to expressive individualism — to performing our ‘authentic self’ via consumption actually leaves us hungry. The promises of advertisers and their corporate masters do not satisfy our hunger; they are hollow. This is what the ad compilation reveals. The utter hollowness of the promises of the corporate world; the hollowness of the idea that companies and their products can be ‘there for us’ in a pandemic when we are fearing for our health and our lives, the emptiness of meaning that this turn from the transcendent to the immanent can provide… Taylor says this leaves us haunted and with a sense of lack; not just in those times were previously we’d have turned to religion to help us make meaning (key markers like births, marriages, and death) but “in the everyday” — and actually, it’s in the everyday where we might notice it most. It’s the idea that we feel the lack not just when we’re feeding the pigs from the margins; but right there with the bright lights, in the big city. The emptiness of what we’ve replaced God with bites just as hard as the hunger pangs in the pig pen. Taylor says:

But we can also just feel the lack in the everyday. This can be where it most hurts. This seems to be felt particularly by people of some leisure and culture. For instance, some people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape.

Taylor, A Secular Age

Taylor says this is one of the things that keeps us from defaulting to unbelief in the immanent frame; there’s a contest, and it’s both the haunting — the sense there might be something more — and the hollowness — the “nagging dissatisfactions” and the rapid wearing out of the utopian visions the prophets of the immanent frame cast. It’s precisely moments like this ad montage that pull back the curtain and throw some of us towards faith in something other than consumption.

Stopping to see the cost of the status quo — the price it makes us pay as little piggies — has the capacity to disrupt us. That’s the point of the gaslighting article linked above, and the quick pivot to advertisements announcing that companies are “here to help.” To keep us blind.

Big business is going to want us to forget the almost immediate impact on our natural environment that our scaling back consumption has had. And it’s not just the environment that has felt some of that oppression lift. I’m seeing lots of appreciation for the way this crisis has pushed us towards local relationships. Kids playing on the street. A return of the neighbourhood or village. Taylor saw the ‘nova’ — this explosion of possible choices — produced by technology and cultural changes that allowed us to escape the village. “The village community disintegrates,” first through the “age of mobilisation” and then the “nova” as people are able work and live in different locations, or as people uproot for sea-changes or to pursue employment wherever they choose (again, not all of what he calls the ‘age of mobilisation’ or the ‘nova’ is negative, but our ability to ‘choose’ previously unthinkable options does produce change to village life).

They’re going to want to keep us from finding meaning in village and communal life, so that we’re back stocking up our private castles. Apple can’t make money from me talking to my neighbours. They’re going to want us to slip back into the pursuit of meaning and desire-fulfilment that their machinery creates in order to satisfy its own hunger. It’s not relationships that satisfy, but relationships-completed-by-products that satisfy…

The ‘status quo’ that makes money and gains power from the system staying the same is under threat; disrupted by a pandemic. The cracks are showing, so they’re returning to what they and we know. Inviting us to consume our way to comfort. Reminding us that “they” are there for us (I mean, Lexus has a TV ad inviting me to call them if I want a chat — although this is probably just for people who own a Lexus)… And we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

And more than that, we, the church, should not participate in this system as another product to be consumed, but as disruptors. Like Paul in Ephesus.

Lots of the stuff I’ve been trying to articulate in my last few posts about our need to resist the siren call of technology has been a call to be disrupted by Covid-19 so that we can become disruptors in this manner.

We can’t be like the advertisers offering up Christianity as just another form of pig food, or fodder from a food truck in the big city the prodigal ran to (prodigal means ‘wasteful’ not ‘runaway’ by the way).

We can’t think the way to be an ambassador for home style farm life is to become card carrying citizens of the system; not from home. We’re the farmers coming to town for a farmer’s market, in our farm gear, with our country pace — not salespeople trying to compete ‘like for like’ with McDonalds. We’re trying to pull people out of the immanent frame, not playing in it as though that’s where satisfaction and the good life is to be found.

We must be people who take the opportunity to expose the hollowness of false gods and their noisy prophets. Prophets who without getting together to plan, all produced messages from the same boring song book. These ads are a stark reminder of the emptiness of what expressive individualism based on consumption offers. A haunting moment.

We must be people who point to the redemptive power and value of a home cooked meal with the God who loves us; people who point beyond the immanent frame our neighbours want to live in to the transcendent reality; that there is a God who is not just our creator, but our loving father who wants us to share in his task of cultivating life and goodness in the world.

The problem is, for much of the period the companies in the ad above have been operating (so not for very long — that is, in the post-war period) the church has positioned itself as just another consumer choice in a world where our identity is chosen and performed, rather than as an entirely different way of being. Church has been treated by just one other consumer option, and we’ve jumped in to play that game.

We’ve served church up on the buffet next to other consumer decisions, and so cultivate the idea that we’re just another attraction alongside the bright lights in the big city, and so have become a slightly more nutritious form of pig food; more fodder that just reaffirms that the good life is found in expressive individualism performed by consumer decisions.

Taylor describes this step that kicks in once religious life is approached in these terms:

“The expressivist outlook takes this a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable.”

We treat church like a product, culturally, and so churches start acting like products — or like corporations. Imagine what happens there when church starts to be advertised like every other product. Imagine if you were presenting your online church services in much the same way that products are selling themselves during Covid-19.

Our church has been around for x years. In good times and in bad. We’ve always been here for you and your family. Now more than ever. We might be socially distanced, but you can enjoy God, and our live streamed services, from the safety and comfort of your home… press like to come home. God will see you through these hard times, and will be there still when we get back to normal… we’re here to help…

Applause

Pig slop.

Or at least indistinguishable from pig slop; even it it’s all true. It’s certainly not disruptive; it buys into the idea that church is a consumer decision that will allow you to be your true self. And I reckon I’ve seen a bunch of variations of this theme. People seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity to reproduce the status quo; just digitally.

This is especially true for those churches that have bought into the “technocracy” and the age of expressive individualism and so gone to market to shape church as a desirable big city option, rather than a taste of home on the farm with the father.

The church growth movement and the sort of toxic churchianity that it produces, which then leads us, in a time of crisis, to turn our services into shows that can be consumed using the same technology we use to binge entertainment, buy stuff, and satisfy all sorts of other desires at the click of a link is disrupted church rather than a disrupting church. A church shaped by the ‘nova’ and playing in the immanent frame trying to win consumers. Taylor says this approach produces a spirituality that is individualised, superficial, undemanding, self-indulgent and flaccid.

This is not who we are; at least it’s not who we are meant to be. The whole expressive individualism via consumption enterprise is not who we were meant to be; and that’s part of what we’re experiencing now. The best application of Taylor’s A Secular Age to today’s technocracy that I’ve read is Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness. It’s a call to a thicker, non-consumer oriented, practice of Christian witness in an age where the good life is thought to be caught up in ‘authenticity’ and expressive individualism through consumer choice, and where the church has too often pandered to that framework. He suggests a series of disruptive practices we might adopt, but one of his main points is to stop playing the game of approaching our witness like marketers selling a product. He thinks at the very least a deliberate stepping away from the methodologies of the church will protect our witness so we might disrupt some lives. He said:

“As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths.”

What I found interesting when digging back into the book today, was that his criteria for widespread disruption might just be being met (and this might be why the gaslighting article is worth heeding).

“If history is any indication, the distracted, secular age can only be uprooted by a tremendous historical event that reorders society, technology, and our entire conception of ourselves as individuals: something like the invention of the printing press, the protestant Reformation, or a global war — a paradigm shifting event. But trying to correct the effects of secularism and distraction through some massive event is quixotic at best and mad scientist-is at worst. This leaves us in a difficult position. There is no reasonable, society wide, solution. Which is not to say that we can’t ameliorate the problem through policies and community practices.”

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

There is an opportunity here for us to be disruptors rather than disrupted.

If your church’s response to Covid-19 is to produce anything that looks like these ads, or that plays in the same frame that they do, then you’re doing it wrong.

Our response to Covid-19 can’t be to think ‘how will I turn this into an opportunity to sell my product to people who are scared,’ our response isn’t to get people to add Christianity to their array of consumer choices in the city, a city that wants to fatten them up as piggies going to market, but to invite them to run back to their heavenly father, who loves them, who waits with open arms, who’ll kill the fattened calf (or the lamb) to bring them home.

The boy had been walking for some time. Finally the landscapes around him were familiar. It was getting dark; but that was ok, darkness actually meant the bright lights of ‘sin city’ were a long way behind him. He already felt human again. He found he had no desire to eat pig food. Progress, he thought. His speech for when he came face to face with the father he’d abandoned was running through his head. To take his inheritance and squander it, ‘the prodigal,’ was to say to his dad ‘I wish you were dead,’ he was sorry. He set the bar low; “I’d rather be a servant than a pig being fattened for slaughter” he thought.

The father had been sitting on his front step each day since his son left. Waiting for his son to return; hoping that the light and life and love of home would be enough to bring his son home; knowing that the city talked a good game but that it only offered emptiness; hoping his son had not been destroyed by the endless pursuit of more. He looked up, and saw a figure on the horizon. It’s my son, he thought. The city hasn’t been kind to him. He called to a servant to butcher a calf in the field, and to start preparing a feast. Then ran to his son. Embracing him before he could speak a word.

The boy was home.

The Gospel is not pig slop. We should stop treating it like it is.

The Church and presence: Spiritual, Physical, and Virtual? (doing some ecclesiology in a pandemic)

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The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 John 12

There’s lots of fun new debate in the realms of ecclesiology happening right now. Ecclesiology is our understanding of the ‘ecclesia’ — which is the New Testament word from which we get the word ‘church.’ It’s a word that means gathering. Part of this debate manifests itself in the question of whether what’s happening on Sundays right now is actually church — a gathering — (or just virtually approximates it), and then whether it would be appropriate to participate in the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist depending on your theological tradition).

There has always been a tension in how we Christians understand the nature of ‘gathering’ and what the ‘church’ is. Revelation (also, I believe, written by the same John who wrote the above, though I acknowledge this position is contested) has pictures of a heavenly gathering of all those who belong to Jesus; and this heavenly gathering is one that happens by the Spirit uniting us to Jesus. John records Jesus’ prayer about the church in his Gospel, which includes this bit:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

John 17:20-24

Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ in the world; parts of a body gathered by the work of the Spirit. The church is a spiritual reality; and because metaphors work in a particular way (metaphors are concrete smaller things that point to a bigger thing, or they are exaggerations), the reality of this gathering of the church as the body is a reality in some ways realer than the physical unity of the parts of our own bodies.

The spiritual is real.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

He later says (linking this concept of the ‘body of Christ’ to ‘the church’ in what he writes to a particular church):

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

This is true of the global, universal, eternal church. I, as a Christian in the modern west, am connected by the Spirit of God to Jesus — one with him — but I am also united with brothers and sisters across time and space. This reality is a profound comfort — especially in uncertain moments like this when I can remember that not only Jesus, but those others I am united to, have been through worse than this and yet the church survives and even thrives. And yet Paul also opens his letter to Christians in the city of Corinth by saying:

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours”

1 Corinthians 1:2

There’s a certain sort of exegetical gymnastics some Christian traditions do based on a word study of ‘ecclesia’ to suggest that church is only church when physically gathered; that Paul writes here to an ‘event’ where his letter is read, rather than the people who will read this letter in different physical gatherings — gymnastics that produce a phenomenon known as the ‘Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology’ which is popular amongst a subset of evangelicalism in Australia (specifically those trained through Moore College who are convinced by the ecclesiology taught there, and largely practiced in the diocese). But I think this is essentially an over-reliance on a word study, rather than an observation on the way this letter might have been received within a community in Corinth, and the theology of God’s gathered people and how that spiritual gathering is expressed in communities that are connected to one another in order to carry out the functions of the body that evidently operate on more than just Sundays, and in contexts wider than the Sunday event. In most reconstructions of the church in Corinth from Acts, and Paul’s letters (including the ending of Romans, written in Corinth) he writes to a church that met together in several houses, but also came together as a “whole church” on occasions — Paul mentions that Gaius offers hospitality to the whole church in Corinth in Romans 16:23). I don’t think Paul’s statement about God placing a range of people in “the church” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 can bear the particularity placed on the word by the Knox-Robinson model that sees ‘church’ only happening in the event of gathering. But, criticisms of the Knox-Robinson theology notwithstanding, Paul certainly has a category for church not simply being the universal gathered people of God, but particular people who meet together as an expression of the body of Christ in particular places and times (so he can write to ‘the church in Corinth’ but also to ‘the church that meets in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house’ (Romans 16:5), and he can say ‘all the churches of Christ’ (plural) send their greetings (Romans 16:16). My argument is that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to refer to the ‘gathered people’ (those connected by the same Spirit, as one body), not simply to the ‘gatherings of the gathered people,’ but also he often limits his use of the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) to those who make a practice of physically coming together as one body.

In 1 Corintihans 11 Paul describes this community he is writing to (“the church of God in Corinth”) coming together “as a church.” He writes: “I hear that when you come together as a church…” the ‘come together’ (συνερχομένων) would seem to be redundant if the ecclesia itself is the ‘coming together,’ but what they are doing physically gathering together is an expression of their existence as a particular church.

The physical gathering matters for our understanding of a certain expression of church (those gathered by the Spirit to express their unity as the body of Christ in the world). A local church is an expression of the global, universal, church (those gathered by the Spirit). My particular theological tradition makes a distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church for this reason — to distinguish physical, local, expressions of the gathered people of God — those members of the body directly connected to each other who express that unity by gathering. This distinction is also helpful because not everyone who joins our visible, physical, gatherings is a member of the universal church; not everyone present is a member of the Body, with the Spirit. Which for Paul has implications for how the physical gathering participates in the Lord’s Supper.

I think for John, in the quotes highlighted above, the physical nature of our relationships as Christians is an important expression of our oneness in Christ, by the Spirit, but also of the nature of the incarnation — that Jesus came into the world visibly as a body, a body who dwelled, and that we followers of Jesus are sent into the world in the same way Jesus was. Writing — our disembodied presence — doesn’t cut it. It’s a useful tool, but it is incomplete. Though we might be spiritually connected and virtually present to one another, and this connection might be remembered in disembodied ways, physical presence really matters. We are still the church whether gathered in the flesh or not, but our virtual gatherings, recognising our spiritual unity, are lacking. And I think can only be described as expressions of the visible church, rather than the invisible one if they are reflections of a body that gathers in the flesh. Physically.

Paul explores the ‘presence/absence’ paradigm in 2 Corinthians 10 (it’s also interesting that he often appeals, in writing, to people’s experience of him and his example in the flesh).

“His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.”

2 Corinthians 10:10-11

Something of Paul is absent when he is not physically present; and it isn’t simply that he is not face to face with them; that they are lacking his non-verbal communications (though I think Paul would’ve loved video calls if they’d been around). It’s that physical presence is actually where life together happens. Life together in community as the body; not attending an event.

When Paul writes to “the church” in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1) he describes his life among them, exercising the role of an apostle (you know, the types God gave the church in 1 Corinthians 12), and this makes it seem pretty difficult to justify the idea that the church is just the church when the whole body gathers for an event.

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-6

And then:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

1 Thessalonians 2:8-10

Here he appeals to their experience of his example while physically present amongst them, and then he’ll go on to talk about how much he longs to be with them again, though that desire has been thwarted. He says:

But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 

1 Thessalonians 2:17-18

Would a video call in this moment have cut the mustard for Paul? Would a video call constitute in person, or hover somewhere between ‘in thought,’ ‘in writing’ and ‘in person’?

I don’t think we can argue that virtual presence is presence in a way meaningful enough to make virtual gatherings ‘church’ — but virtual gatherings can be an expression of a church community (not ‘church as an event’). I think this is part of what reveals the hollowness of the Knox-Robinson ecclesiology; if church is just an event then that event can happen online with a tangible, but different, sense of loss. If church is a community, then that community can stay in touch online, but like John and Paul, might see such measures as temporary impositions and expressions of community that prevent our physical gathering for a time but do not stop us being ‘church.’ Online church is not “church,” not because online church is only virtual, but because church is not an event, it’s a community of people who meet together as a discernible ‘body of Christ’ in a place and time, as an expression of the universal, spiritual, union of all believers to Jesus. Online church cannot replace physical church beyond this moment (or even act as a replacement for it any more than a letter replaces face to face embodied presence) because we are sent into the world, by Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, as those who gather physically in life together as an expression of the Gospel that has saved us; that God’s word became flesh and made its dwelling among us, so that we might dwell with him for eternity.

I do think there are implications for the importance of the physical on the question of how the Lord’s Supper might happen during this time. I think it’s clear that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to describe the universal church (to whom God gave apostles, teachers, etc), the local church that comes together as a whole in Corinth, and communities that meet in houses as a sort of household. I believe that the ‘whole church’ in Corinth was several, connected, house churches. I think the example in Acts 2 is of Christians meeting as households (physically) sharing in the physical reminders of the Gospel instituted by Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Different traditions differ on the nature of the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Most modern protestant evangelicals are functionally Zwinglian and so see the Lord’s Supper mostly as being about remembering the body and blood of Jesus, where a more traditional Reformed take sees Jesus as spiritually present in the physical elements of the sacrament, while the Catholic tradition has the elements actually physically become the body and blood of Jesus. The further you are on the spectrum of thinking that the physical elements matter, the less likely you are (I think, at least if you’re being consistent) to think the sacrament can function virtually. The more Zwinglian you are, the more flexible you are. I’m moving from a fairly Zwinglian position to a more Reformed one (partly in recognition that my Christian faith and practice has been thoroughly disenchanted by how wedded we are to the secular age mentality). I’m suspicious of technological solutions to ‘enchantment’ issues because I think technology actually serves to push us away from enchantment by replacing spiritual realities with human endeavour/our ability to pull the right levers of technique and technology. I think technology claims to make disconnected people present to one another, and like a letter, it kinda does, but I think at the same time technology does what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘excarnation’ — it pulls us out of our bodies, out of the physical (enchanted) world, and in to the disembodied (virtual) world. And it doesn’t equip us to navigate the difference between virtual connection fostered by technology or a medium, and spiritual connection. It claims to make us present to one another while at the same time pushing us away from our own bodies (and bodily presence with one another). It’s a terrible analogy, but church via video is in some ways to church in the flesh what pornography is to sex, and what sex is to the consummation of the new creation (you can read my essay on Charles Taylor, enchantment, technology, and sexuality here).

One thing Paul calls the church to do as it gathers as the church and celebrates the Lord’s Supper is to ‘discern the body’ — I don’t believe we can do this virtually; I think it’s actually a task on physical presence with one another, as a community, in more than just the moment that one shares in the meal. And I believe he’s deliberately theologically polyvalent (rather than ambivalent) on his use of the word ‘body’ here, given the context. I think he’s talking about discerning the body of Christ in the bread being broken and in the people physically present to feast on it. Paul says:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

And then:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

So where I land on the Lord’s Supper in this time is that we shouldn’t be doing it virtually where everyone rolls their own elements — BYO bread and wine — in part because I don’t think we can discern the body of Christ virtually; I think that’s centred on a physical expression of a spiritual reality. Like the elements; and like the church community. But then, because of the “priesthood of all believers,” households should ‘break bread’ together participating in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with one another. This is a position different to that of the Westminster Confession, though the Presbyterian Church of Australia has already amended its understanding of this bit because the exceptional circumstances of a world war meant ministers weren’t as available to oversee the administration of the sacrament). For an alternative version of why it might be ok to shift our practices around the Lord’s Supper from institutional to something else, this Twitter thread is pretty great. I think this moment simultaneously reveals the weakness of our ecclesiologies, and the weakness of a society that has flattened ‘households’ (those who live together) into biological, nuclear, families, and one of the best things churches could be doing right now is facilitating shared living arrangements to last this 6 month period.

I think, in this time, we functionally have a collection of house churches (households who meet together physically) within churches (communities that typically would meet together physically) within the universal church (those who will meet together for eternity) in this period. We can express any of these spiritual relationships virtually, but the virtual never truly replaces the physical (there’s another soapbox I could get on about how our approach to this present crisis reveals how Platonic we all actually are when it comes to diminishing the importance of the physical, but I think that critique is assumed in just about everything I’ve written already).

These are confusing times, and every church leader out there is making the best of this situation sometimes coherently based on ecclesiological or missiological principles, and the Spirit of this post isn’t to beat people up with correct theology, but, like my last one on disruption, to keep talking about what we’re doing at the level of principles. My favourite verse about an ecclesia in the whole Bible is this one (note: it’s not a church, it’s an event; a gathering of idol worshippers in Ephesus after the Gospel has disrupted their technological practices and worship, which is the opposite of technology disrupting the practices and worship produced by the Gospel), I just want us to be a little less like this group, and a little more like the throne room of heaven.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

Acts 19:32

Limit your freedoms, and take your time, for the sake of the future of the church (and the world)

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Clocks cause secularisation.

This might seem like an odd flex; but that’s the argument I ended up settling on in an essay I wrote recently in a subject unpacking Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and its implications for being the church in the secular world.

One of Taylor’s basic starting assumptions is that our shared ‘social imaginary’ — the way we approach reality — has been ‘disenchanted’ — and while an inclination towards magic, the supernatural, and even religion might still exist in our world, part of what he means is that even in churches (where some belief in the supernatural is foundational) our view of time and space has been flattened. Where once churches marked a spiritual calendar as well as the passing of actual time, we now just see things in linear terms — and, like the rest of society — we’re increasingly particularly interested in the present reality; in the moment, or the instant. Our horizon for action and decision making has been massively reduced. We see this in the work of other thinkers too, and the way we make short term decisions, the way we view ethics in utilitarian or bureaucratic  terms rather than the virtue ethics of the past where we were less focused on the instant an ethical decision was being made, and more focused on shaping ethical character that would be brought to bear on those decisions. We’ve also flattened out our understanding of space so that only our present, observable, physical reality really matters — not only do we not conceive of space as both natural and supernatural (and of God as being present in the natural world as well as some supernatural order), we seem to have lost the ability to think long term about the shaping of space and its ability to provide for more than just our immediate needs and pleasures (see ‘climate change’).

We live in an age of instant gratification; where our horizons for decision making have been pushed into the very ‘here and now’ at the expense of the future (and certainly with an increasing, often optimistic, ignorance of the past). We’ve lost a sense of time and space being part of some grand narrative; partly because along with that disenchantment of space and time came a loss of the sense that God is at work, playing a very long game, as the author of space and time. The God who meticulously orchestrated history to centre on the death, resurrection, ascension and rule of Jesus — the lamb slain before the creation of the world — has been pushed to the margins, and so too has any sense that the world exists as a stage for a grand story that is bigger than the stories we write for ourselves.

This shrinking horizon is fed by what and how we consume; we live in an age where our whims and desires can be virtually gratified almost instantly; want the thrill of orgasm; no longer do you need to invest years in cultivating a relationship that leads to marriage; you can open your browser and self-sooth with pornography, or there are apps for hook-ups, or apps that take the hard work out of dating. But it’s not just sex, our consumer whims can be satisfied in ways that appear to satiate our hunger temporarily (think Uber Eats), but on that front we’re increasingly removed from the physical means of production of our food (we’re not even going to the restaurant where the food is made any more, let alone the paddock or the meatworks).

It might even be bugging you, as a reader, that you’ve already read 600 words and I don’t seem to have done anything with that initial statement that clocks cause secularisation. You’re too busy for this. Your attention span has been stretched. This format of information delivery does not mesh with your desire to understand the point of this piece right now. Why are you even bothering with this, you might be asking. How many tabs are open on your browser? And how many notifications are displaying on your email tab, or your Facebook tab, just beckoning you to click away (for me it’s 4,300+ on my gmail tab, and (1) on my Facebook tab).

700. How many of those words did you skim?

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff describes the way the collapse of narrative and the rise of the ‘present’ has led to a certain sort of apocalyptic fascination (the type also explored in How to Survive the Apocalypse by Alyssa Wilkinson and Doug Joustra). Towards the end of his book he describes the relationship between ‘present shock’ and living as though the end of the world is imminent; what would you do if you found out you had a day to live? Chances are, you’re already doing it… because that’s how we live.

“Present shock is temporally destabilizing. It leads us to devalue the unbounded, ill-defined time of kairos for the neat, informational packets of chronos. We think of time as the numbers on the clock, rather than the moments they are meant to represent. We have nothing to reassure ourselves. Without a compelling story to justify a sustainable steady state for our circumstances, we jump to conclusions—quite literally—and begin scenario planning for the endgame.”

We don’t say no to our impulses for a variety of reasons; but one of those is that in our liberal, enlightened, secular world — where there is no grand story, no God, no reason to limit our freedoms (or in the Christian version, God died to totally set us free so we can do whatever we want within the boundaries of his love) — we have become the gods of our own lives; the authors of our story. Our job, as humans, is to be who we were made to be (and who our inner self tells us we should be). To be true to thyself; and to express that truth by living freely and authentically in the moment, as an individual.

This is the pattern of this world.

Now imagine applying that pattern to the church.

Is it any wonder that our approach to church — to relationship with God and others — is mediated through the question of what’s best for me in an instant? A church doesn’t have the means to supply my needs or the needs of my family right now, so right now I’ll decide to go to one that does. A church isn’t helping me to grow in my knowledge or godliness or chosen metric right now, so right now I’ll go to one where there’s a better alignment with my priorities. A church doesn’t feel like deep community right now, and I don’t feel connected to the people, so I’ll leave and start a whole batch of new relationships right now hoping for instant community.

We make our decisions based on the minute hand of the clock; not viewed through the prism of a lifetime, but if Rushkoff and Taylor are right this is because we are being formed this way by a culture that has lost its narrative, and that bombards us with stimulus that keeps our social imaginary truncated not just by disenchanting space and time and their relationship to God’s eternal plans, but by promoting both ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ as the essential basis of the good human life, and ‘right now’ as the ultimate horizon for that freedom. This stops us placing limits on our immediate individual freedom for the sake of others, and the sake of ourselves. It means our ethical paradigms and our approach to decision making are built entirely on pragmatics or utility. This is the spirit of our age; this is the pattern of this world.

We’re meant to be different. God’s grand story is one where individual freedom is not the chief value; relationships are. Love is. Love of God, and love of neighbour. The desire for freedom and instant gratification were the motivations behind the fall of mankind in Genesis 3, and they’ve been a debilitating and deadly problem for us ever since. We are not made for freedom but for self limiting for the sake of others. In a great article titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom,’ Brendon Benz makes the case that to limit ourselves, freely, for the sake of relation is to be truly human; to manifest the image of God. Which is to say that the image of God is not something we bear purely as individuals; but something that we bear in communion with one another; which challenges a modern sense of “I” or “self” as God. Benz says of the idea that “that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God,” that this means:

“… An individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation (Bonhoeffer 1997: 64–65; Barth: 228–30; MacDonald: 314–20; Sexton: 187–206). In the words of Moltmann (1993: 218), while “the self-resolving God is a plural in the singular, his image on earth—the human being—is apparently supposed to be a singular in the plural.”

Consequently, the “one God, who is differentiated in himself and is at one with himself, then finds his correspondence in a community of human beings, female and male, who unite with one another and are one.” Such an account serves as an important corrective to what E. Gerstenberger critiques as “the heightened sense of ‘I’ in modernity,” which he partially traces “to Old Testament origins” and “the anthropological doctrine of” individuals “‘being in the image of God’” (287).”

The fall, then, is a failure to self-limit both in terms of humanity’s relationship with God, and this image bearing function, and, to self-limit for the sake of the other; a failure to give up freedom, but instead a choice to be an “I”.

The story of the Gospel is the story of Jesus’ self-limiting sacrifice for our sake; as an act of mercy; with his eyes on an eternal future, not the short game. This is what we’re meant to have in view as we give our own lives in worship to God (and as we do that together — offering our bodies (plural) as a living (singular) sacrifice.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Benz concludes his piece with an observation that our image bearing nature is restored in the church, by the Spirit; which restores our task of imaging God in the world, in and through our relationships to each other — not simply as heroic individuals; and, in fact, not as an “I” at all. To image God we have to give up some of our freedoms to one another, in relationship — our bodies have to become a living sacrifice. Benz sees this transforming our relationship with each other, and with space (so also, with time).

“Thus, in the creative, life-giving encounters among humans, and in the creative, life-giving encounters between humans and the rest of creation, Spirit does not stem from the self, but is present when those involved freely self-limit in order to relate.”

We Christians need limits; not unfettered individual freedom — which is the pattern of the world; the good life according to our neighbours in the secular age we live in where everybody is experiencing present shock, and so feeling utterly disconnected from a big story and living every moment as though it is our last. We Christians have an utterly different view of space, and time.

One of my favourite books this year was The Common Rule by Justin Earley. Earley makes the case that true freedom doesn’t come from doing what you desire in any given moment (in part this is obvious because our desires are so profoundly shaped by external stimulus, especially our environment and culture), but rather from doing what we were made for (or being who we were made to be). His book lines up nicely with the thesis of Benz’s piece.

Earley says the common narrative of our time is that to “ensure the good life, we have to ensure our ability to choose in each moment,” he asks “What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?”

Now. I was accused of sounding like a cult leader in my recent piece about church because I was encouraging people to limit their freedoms; the freedoms won for them via the Gospel. I think this is such an anaemic picture of the Gospel and the Christian life. We are free from slavery to sin and death, but we are freed to become servants of God. We are freed to give ourselves to the life-giving work of the kingdom of God. This is what happens when we individualise the Gospel so that it’s a message of personal salvation and freedom from all responsibilities, rather than seeing the good news as the good news of a new kingdom with a good king. A king who calls us to loyalty, who pours out his life-giving spirit to transform us into his image — the image of God again — and invites us to start living in his kingdom now not just as freed people who do our own thing, but as children of God who are united to God, and so to one another, by the Spirit. The Spirit which is a spirit of unity, that draws us together into the body of Christ so that we might self-limit in relationships to manifest the image of God in the world. If I was wanting people to ‘self limit’ to submit to some human authority or institutional structure (like ‘my leadership,’ or ‘my vision’ or ‘my church’), then that would be cult like. But the New Testament clearly expects us to submit to one another, and that submission, like a marriage covenant, involves a self-limiting of one’s freedoms for the sake of a relationship and a function in the world. My marriage covenant limits the expression of my sexuality, and of my economic freedoms, and all of my decisions really because Robyn and I make our decisions as ‘one’ rather than as ‘two’; and in doing this we reflect the relationship between Christ and his church, but also we reflect the image of God as Adam and Eve were meant to. Church communities, as they come together as the body of Christ, and self-limit for the sake of relationship with one another do the same — and this self limiting starts with the leaders. If leaders aren’t doing this then the community they lead isn’t a body of Christ, it’s a group structured around the leader.

2,500 words, and still nothing about how clocks cause secularisation. So now, let me explain.

The first mechanical clocks were created in monasteries to help the monks track sacred time; they were designed so that monks could follow their ‘common rule’ and pray at the designated times each day. They regimented life in the monastery with a new sort of precision. They changed our ability, as humans, to measure time — bringing more precision, and ultimately they started to shift the monastic account of time from ‘kairos’ to ‘chronos;’ and they spread out from the monastery into the villages. Town squares started being dominated by a large clock, which brought synchronicity to the village’s practices, workers would leave home in lockstep, and arrive home at the same time — becoming more like automatons than people were previously; the way people spent time began to be ruled by these machines that operated like clockwork. Village life began to operate like clockwork. More precise measuring of time made for more precise accounting of time; workers, and then all village life, was ruled by the clock. The more linear and measurable and machinelike time felt, the less enchanted it felt. The pressures of the clock, of being in the right place at the right time, of productivity, of machine like efficiency began to shape people; the mechanical advances that produced the clock began to be applied in factory settings, and soon machines were more prominent features of people’s lives and imaginations. At some point the presence of clocks and their effects on time started encroaching on how people conceived of space; of the physical universe. We started viewing reality as machine like, and God as a clockmaker. The clock, and then other pieces of technology, started to dominate our social imaginary, and eventually the clockwork-like processes of space and time produced deism, the idea that God had created the universe and then stepped back, that space and time were just ‘natural’ products of a God and we didn’t need to worry about an enchanted, supernatural, dimension of space and time, and then eventually we kept the clockwork model but did away with the need for a clockmaker; and as this all happened clocks were becoming more and more precise, and present, ruling more and more of our lives, and ultimately helping to contribute to our fixation with the moment; with the now and what I’m doing this second, at the expense both of an enchanted understanding of the universe where the clockmaker intervenes with reality, and of the future.

The clock began to set a limit for our thinking and imagining, tying us to this space and this time. Flattening and hollowing our experiences and our decision making. Producing (or being partly responsible) for the conditions Taylor describes in A Secular Age and that Rushkoff describes in Present Shock. The patterns of this world.

Patterns we Christians need to break.

Our approach to church, as leaders and members, is so often dominated by the short game. We want silver bullets. We want growth. We see a culture obsessed with the immediate and bombarding us with stuff. There are so many messages out there clamouring for our time and attention in this distracted age and our instinct is to get the Gospel out there amongst the distraction, and the way we think will get the greatest cut through is to compete with that distraction with the forms of the world; the forms that give us 24 hour news cycles with no time for developing connections to a bigger story; that give us ‘instant’ hits for our desires whether via pornography, Tinder, Grindr, or UberEats; that truncate our attention span; that pull us out of any sense of a big story in order to have us consume our way to (momentary) happiness; that rely on our addiction to that happiness with quick fixes and instant gratification; and that then apply this schema to our relationships — whether family, or church, rather than valuing a long, slow, obedience in the same direction with the same people.

The patterns of this world are broken. Deadly.

We don’t need unfettered freedom; the Gospel is not just a message of freedom from your personal sin, it’s a message of freedom to be who you were made to be. And you were made to be in relationship with God, with others, and with God’s world — as cultivators of fruitfulness. People who plant orchards and bed down into places as a testimony to the God who authors a story that takes more than one life time to be revealed, and to the nature of his kingdom. A God who is patient, and careful, who orchestrates, who sweats the small stuff. Who doesn’t value character above results, but for whom character is the result.

There are people out there deeply concerned with how much our clocks are shaping our experience of the world; people determined to break us from present shock. Ironically, one of those people is Jeff Bezos, from Amazon, who ultimately is the person profiting most from the patterns of this world and our obsession with instant gratification, and whose whole company is designed to make consumption as frictionless and fast as possible… Bezos has joined a group of other people sponsoring a clock that aims to alter our ‘social imaginary’ — to break us out of short term thinking; to free us from captivity to the instant and to silver bullet solutions to our problems. This group of people realise that problems like Climate Change are systemic and don’t need individuals making short term consumer decisions (like recycling), that we need more than mindfulness and things that offer momentary escape from the status quo built on self-denial (McMindfulness by Ronald Purser is a good book for showing how much we’re told that individuals are the solution to the world’s problems, and then we’re given mindfulness as a form of medication against the anxiety such an overwhelming challenge produces, by the very corporations who should actually be making the changes). This group wants us to see time differently, to approach problems playing the long game. To encourage us to realise that change of any substance, whether in ourselves or society, takes a long march in the same direction, not a flitting about following every whim, distraction, or better option that presents itself. They’re a group called “The Long Now” and they’re developing a 10,000 year clock; built inside a mountain (pictured back at the top, all those words ago). They’re hoping to shift how we assess our decision making by reminding us that we’re part of something bigger; part of a story even — they want to challenge us to be good ancestors. The inventor of the clock said:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

Perhaps we Christians don’t need a clock because we already have an entirely different sense of time because we know the author of the story, and we know the ending of the story we belong to, but perhaps there’s something we can learn from this project to challenge the way we’ve been suckered into a world dominated by the clock (and then the computer screen, smart phone, and smart watch; the ‘I’ things).

What would happen to our churches if we rediscovered ‘kairos’ time so that we weren’t ruled by ‘chronos;’ and if we organised our lives and relationships, and visions, around the long now, not the present shock we find ourselves living in. What if we need a new sort of monastic approach to life where we refuse to be totally ruled by the moment?

What if at exactly the point we start to feel ‘tired’ of the same people, and routines (or liturgies), and songs, and we’re itching for a change in environment, that’s the moment that those parts of our life are most capable of working on us deeply? What if a rut is a good thing and freedom to choose whatever gratification we’re looking for in any given moment is the enemy of genuine godliness and contentment? And the sort of relationships where we bear the image of God as we limit ourselves?

Maybe the change worth celebrating in the Christian life comes from a deep and abiding connection to God and to his people. Maybe connection to God and to people takes putting down roots rather than chasing a quick fix that will produce fast ‘growth’ in a particular metric. Maybe it’s actually the walking together with your brothers and sisters that produces the growth, the love, and the self-limiting, that will present the image of God to a distracted world disconnected from a deeper sense of time and place; a world that has lost the organising idea of a story for our lives, let alone the idea of a story authored by someone else; let alone a story authored by God, that we’re brought into by his Spirit.

Maybe we need to change our thinking so that our questions are “what will I look like, and this church look like if I’m still here in 20 years” rather than “will this church meet my needs next year”. Maybe we need to imagine our relationships, whether we feel deeply connected or not, with an entirely different horizon to ‘right now’… Maybe we need to give things time to germinate, and flourish, before cutting ourselves off from them and grafting ourselves in somewhere else. Maybe that’s actually what love is — not just a feeling, not just short term gratification, not just an orgasm, but long term commitment through the ups and downs of life; and maybe that’s where transformation actually happens.

So look, to the people who suggested that the Spirit might call us to leave a church, and that this is an expression of individual freedom, I want to say that if there’s a spirit causing disunity, and if that call can’t be discerned by more people than just you — that is, by those you are called to image God with in relationship, as you self limit (or love) for the sake of the long term growth, maturity and fruitfulness of one another — then this is more likely to be the “spirit of the age” than the Spirit of the living God. And you should be careful. Maybe we should take the clocks down, and our watches off, and start measuring time and seeing space differently; as enchanted again; so that we aren’t conforming to the patterns of this world one tick or tock of the second hand at a time.

Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.

Play as Re-Creation

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

What is Play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play in the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

Play under the sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play under the son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Your body as a temple: an essay on Charles Taylor and Tinder (and other ways technology “excarnates” our human experience)

I dipped my toes back into the world of study this year with a masters subject on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age taught by Rory Shiner and Stephen McAlpine. My first essay was on how Taylor’s work shapes a modern approach to sexuality and gender. It’s not the style of writing typical in these here parts, but it was interesting to explore how Taylor’s work and subsequent shifts in technology present challenges to Christianity (and humanity in general) and the markers’ comments implied that I should put it up here, so you can read it as a PDF.

Here’s the abstract.


In A Secular Age, Philosopher Charles Taylor describes a set of conditions for modern life that one sees at play in contemporary approaches to human identity, gender, and sexuality. The conditions he identifies are the result of ‘subtraction story’ that leads to a disenchanted, immanent, universe, that gives rise to a ‘buffered self,’ producing an individualism where people are freed from a transcendent ordering of the cosmos to pursue their desired authentic ‘identity’ through personal choice. Taylor suggests our buffered selves are left seeking ‘fullness’ in this immanent frame, while haunted by what has been subtracted. One way he describes the experience of this haunting is as a ‘frisson’ — a ‘skin orgasm.’

This paper argues that in the technological age of Grindr, Tinder and pornography; things are worse than A Secular Age suggests; that technology amplifies the immanent reality of the ‘buffered self’ and leaves individuals using their bodies to pursue an ‘authentic’ self that cannot satisfy; where sexual ‘frisson’ is increasingly disconnected from ‘fullness’ or any sense of the transcendent.

This essay argues that a Christian response to the contemporary debate around sexuality and gender informed by Taylor’s is to seek to re-enchant our bodies by creating a new social imaginary, by living and telling an enchanted, subversive, counter-narrative that orients us as embodied characters within the divinely ordered cosmos, where our lives — and sex itself — have a sacramental quality and a transcendent telos. In this story, our bodies are temples where the transcendent and immanent come together as we, in communion, ‘image’ Christ, telling and living his story.

How the future of religion in Australia might require a truly multi-ethnic, post-western, community (and how we might get that from migration and why that makes the Australian Christian Lobby’s how to vote card even worse than you thought)

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Here are eleven things that are interesting and more connected than you might think that have happened in the last few months.

  1. A radicalised white man from Australia, with European heritage, walked into a mosque in Christchurch during prayer time and shot 51 people dead (the death toll rose 6 days ago).
  2. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, an atheist (who grew up Mormon) in an expression of solidarity with the Muslim community wore a hijab and called for a united vision of what it means to be human and thus, a citizen of New Zealand, built around unity and compassion.
  3. Polynesian Rugby Union player Israel Folau instagrammed a meme that says “Hell awaits homosexuals (and several other categories of sinner lifted from the New Testament). Several Polynesian Rugby Union players find themselves embroiled in the controversy for liking Folau’s Instagram post. “Tongan Thor” a fellow Wallaby, makes a statement that the ARU might as well sack all Polynesian players who share Folau’s views.
  4. The Australian Rugby Union, in partnership with major sponsor, Qantas, who embody a certain sort of corporate social activism (the sort where you throw your weight around on social issues locally, to turn a dollar, but also partner with nationalised airlines from around the world from regimes that kill homosexuals, also to turn a dollar), threatened to sack Folau, and are now most of the way through their internal proceedings to achieve that outcome. They say the tweet goes against their inclusion policy (which includes sexuality, ethnic background, and religion), and that he should thus be excluded. The NRL and its managing figures pre-emptively expressed the view that Folau would also not be re-welcomed, or included, should he cross codes again. A few people make the observation that religion and ethnicity are deeply intertwined in the Polynesian experience and identity (including me, Stephen McAlpine, and a gay polynesian journalist), some of us asking questions about the legitimacy of corporate, white, upper class people ruling on the validity of opinions expressed from an identity outside their experience, in the name of “inclusion.” Anthony Mundine condemns the treatment of Folau as racist.
  5. Journalists reporting on the Folau story consistently ‘mediate’ it to the wider populace reinforcing the narrative of the harm Folau’s posts do to the gay community, but making fundamental errors about Folau’s religious commitment, some including photos of Folau in front of a Mormon temple as though that is still his religion, others unable to reconcile his actions in support of gay inclusion on the football field with his theological beliefs, others calling protestant church services ‘mass’, all while arguing that this is a critical moment in the conversation about religious freedom in the post-Christian west, specifically in Australia.
  6. Bombings in Sri Lanka target worshippers in church for Easter services, those condemning the attacks, from the ‘post-religious’ west (specifically from America) call the victims gathered in church ‘Easter Worshippers’ rather than Christians, leading to several conspiracy theories about sinister motives.
  7. New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Mormon, Jacinda Ardern, condemned Folau, another former Mormon, who is married to a New Zealand representative netball player.
  8. Former Wallabies coach, turned media personality, Alan Jones, and a bunch of other media commentators, have made this case a religious freedom and freedom of speech case.
  9. Former Wallabies player (under Jones), turned media personality and proud/belligerent atheist, Peter Fitzsimmons has been prosecuting the case against Folau on the basis that his tweets “vilify” the gay community and that the spectre of hell and judgment from religious players (in the junior ranks) contribute to the suicide rate amongst gay teenagers. He writes an article scoffing at religious freedom arguments, and projecting his particular views about the substance and meaning of Folau’s religious beliefs (specifically his position on Hell) into the situation; other journalists and media opinion shapers (not always journalists) express bewilderment that Folau would say such obviously hurtful things.
  10. Former Wallabies captain, Nick Farr Jones, also a Christian, meets with Israel Folau to encourage him to apologise, and comes away supporting Folau’s character and intent. Suggesting he is not homophobic and has been misunderstood by the public at large, and by the administrators at the ARU.
  11. The Australian Christian Lobby produce an election checklist for the upcoming Federal Election in Australia that essentially endorses the Australian Conservatives and One Nation on the basis of a five issue platform, and justify the elevation of One Nation on the basis of the access they give to Christian voices into the political process.

Before I try to weave a thread or two between these events, it’s clear that life in the modern west is still complicated, and despite aggressive secularisation theories, religion is still part of the fabric of life — public life even — in the west. It’s clear that modern life is super complex, and the intersection and overlap between different systems of religious belief and the modern western world is a pretty difficult thing to get your head around. It’s also clear that the western, post-Christian, world simply does not understand the nature of the religious belief it finds itself removed from. The reason people (like Jacinda Ardern, or Peter Fitzsimmons — though I’m less sure of his background) move from some sort of religious conviction or upbringing, to non-religious convictions, does not always seem to include a robust understanding of what is left behind not just from particular religious belief or expression, but from the view of the world that comes with the belief of God or gods. The modern, secular, post-religious, west — and by that I mean the section of the world deeply influenced by the European experience — including Canada, the United States, and Australia (and who knows if European includes England anymore, but for now they’re in that label) — no longer has the categories embedded in our “social imaginary” (as Charles Taylor calls it) or shared architecture for understanding religious beliefs and conversations. By this I mean that conversations that happen amongst people who do not share basic foundational views of the world (religious or non-religious) no longer have the shared scaffolding embedded in those conversations as the framework we use to give words meaning and significance. When a religious footballer tweets about hell, and its significance, a post-religious or non-religious journalist, opinion columnist, or ‘mediator of the public square’ is not equipped to substantially understand what is meant; but neither is a member of the gay community (or any other community targeted by such a post). This is as true of Alan Jones and his making this issue about “freedom of speech” as it is Peter Fitzsimmons and his making the issue about vilification of vulnerable people in gay community.

There’s a fascinating sub-thread around the different way the post-Christian world understands ‘our’ western religious heritage, Christianity (or assume we do), such that it gets misrepresented and treated as a ‘thin’ conviction where you just tick a box in the census and get on with life, and you might be an ‘Easter worshipper’ and how our mediating institutions (the media and politicians, especially post-religious politicians) engage with the non-western, Muslim, experience (fascinating too, that Anthony Mundine, an indigenous Aussie convert to Islam, defies the easy categorisation our media is comfortable with, so that his comments about race can be more readily dismissed as conspiracy). I’ve noted elsewhere that it was interesting seeing how this idea that religion is like a bit of clothing, bling, or flair, that you add to your expression, or performance, of your self, might play out with politicians wearing religious garb in ‘solidarity’ — while, actually, the deep and thick religious convictions of Muslims is actually more directly related to the experience of the deep and thick religious convictions of Christians. A ‘religious’ view of the world — one where the world is not a ‘closed system’ of material reality, but where there’s a spiritual reality or an ‘enchanted’ overlay on our everyday lives — is one we share in common, and one still commonly shared outside the western world; it’s the majority view of the world presently, and historically, and so the onus should actually lie on those in the west who want to exclude religious convictions about spiritual matters from public conversations because of their material effects, but somehow, at least in the west, this has flipped around so that religious people have to justify our place at the table in public conversations, and then the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-secular’ views in the conversation. This is a game we’ve now played for so long as Christians in the secular west that we’ve mostly forgotten alternatives and our titular ‘Christian Lobby’ have so thoroughly adopted the rules of the game that they create ‘political tools’ during election season that are meant to pry open the doors to the table not to make religious arguments about a wide range of policies, but to preserve our space in the world.

How we understand the cause of ‘secularisation’ in the western world, or why we’re ‘post Christian’ (or post-religious) will shape how we understand what is happening in every one of those threads. There are two thinkers I think give us pretty good grounds for understanding the landscape here. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I’ve often quoted here, and C.S Lewis. Lewis’ academic magnum opus was a book called The Discarded Image, it’s an account of how the religious backcloth of the medieval world — where all art and stories and life itself were ‘shot through’ with supernatural significance — has been abandoned in favour of a more mechanical, finite, view of reality. In his first lecture at Cambridge University, Lewis accounted for the decline of religious belief in the modern west as, in part, a turn to a more mechanical experience of life. I’ll quote him at length, because I think it’s great.

I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

Lastly, I play my trump card. Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”
“But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.”

This maps neatly, with a few interesting insights, onto Taylor’s secularisation theory. In a short, Taylor describes the move towards secularisation as we experience it in the west as not just being about the rise of science, or modernity, but also the subtraction of a sense of a God who provides a cosmic ordering; we’ve turned from an ‘enchanted’ or religious view of reality — a backdrop where talking about angels and hell makes sense, and operates with certain shared understandings about reality, to a disenchanted world, where belief is contested but the default is a closed version of what he calls the ‘immanent frame’ — a view of the world that excludes God or gods from the picture, and so makes conversations about hell purely about how we treat one another here and now (and so the conversation in the secular media is, understandably, just about the impact of Folau’s words and his ‘villification’ of a vulnerable community; we don’t have to parse out what belief that a certain sort of behaviour leads to Hell if we don’t believe in Hell). Taylor also says it isn’t just ‘science’ that has done away with religion, and that, in part, the impulse comes from our visions of ‘fullness’ or the good life shifting away from God or from being characters in an ‘enchanted cosmos’… part of the deconversion stories of Ardern, and the aggressive atheism of Fitzsimmons, isn’t just ‘science disproves God’ but ‘the full human life doesn’t lie with an ancient conception of God.’

If Lewis and Taylor are right the West operates with this belief about progress, that it involves leaving Christianity behind, that it’s driven by a machine like, or ‘disenchanted’ view of reality, but this is supported by technological advances and the way they fuel a ‘progress’ narrative that celebrates the new and denigrates the old.

Cory Bernadi from the Australian Conservatives, the party most heartily endorsed by the ACL, has been beating the anti-immigration drum for a while, and while it’s not specifically targeted racially in the words in this particular article, check out the images that support those words.

“The Conservative Party has long called for a halving of Australia’s immigration rate along with a radical reform of all of the visa, immigration and welfare rorts that allow hundreds of thousands more people into the country every year, initially on visas for education and employment.”

There’s also a strange sort of dog-whistling thing going on in Bernadi’s ‘condemnation’ of Fraser Anning’s maiden speech. At this link there are significant chunks of search-engine recognisable quotes from Anning’s speech followed by a non-search engine recognisable video file where Bernadi specifically rejects the White Australia policy. But who can forget Pauline Hanson’s famous 2017 remarks about Islam. Here’s a reminder:

“Let me put it in this analogy – we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it, Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” — Pauline Hanson, One Nation

And remember. These are the parties the Australian Christian Lobby are suggesting we vote for to uphold freedom of speech and to make sure we Christians don’t further lose political influence or a place in society, or even so that our beliefs and convictions about the world are both free to be expressed and more likely to be understood. Make of that what you will, except, recognise that the way we white western people might come at these remarks, in a climate where a white, western person spouting a sort of European ideology, shot people he differed from dead in a place of prayer (and more recently, a member of a Reformed church in the United States opened fire in a synagogue). We’ve got to realise that the ‘disenchanting’ of language includes the de-spiritualising of the significance of words like ‘hell’; it flattens reality so that all battles for truth and supremacy are fought in real time and real space, not just left in the hands of something more cosmic (which isn’t to say that an enchanted view of the world doesn’t produce ‘holy war’ — see the Crusades — but that unholy war is equally terrible and a path to piece might be recognising the potential to sit at a common ‘civic’ table while maintaining our own religious ones in our more sacred spaces).

Here’s my controversial thesis — despite the western world having Christian heritage, such that many of the things we know and love in the west are directly the result of Christianity being practised as a thick religious conviction against a shared consensus that there’s a spiritual dimension to reality, part of dismissing that reality as we turned to a harder secularism in the west means no longer understanding the convictions that drive religious people; no longer recognising the links between belief and action, and severing ourselves, as a society, from the roots that have produced and sustained life. Those roots are pre-western, not western. Those roots are from first century Jerusalem (having come from the ‘BC’ era in a particular part of the non-western world. The way we Christians see the world has much more in common with our Muslim neighbours than our post-Christian, hard-secular neighbours who are now trying to set the rules by which we all live together — including people who live together in religious disagreement. If we want Christianity to truly have a place at the table in the public square we don’t need a whiter, more European, Australia — we need a more multicultural, non-western, religious, table. We need the ‘Asian century’; we need ‘more migration’ from outside of secular Europe, and we need to keep confronting the reality that we aren’t citizens of a western country that gets everything right in pursuit of liberation and progress — fuelled by the infallible churches of capitalism and liberal democracy and the ex cathedra announcements of their popes and mediators (a priestly media), otherwise the deck is stacked, and will become increasingly stacked, against an enchanted view of the world, where one can talk about hell or judgment or spirituality without only being heard on the basis those words might have on other people in the ‘here and now’. The advice to vote for parties who are specifically arrayed against that vision of our nation won’t improve Christianity’s foothold in the west, but destroy it. Bring on non-western immigration — Christian, or otherwise — that’s our best chance at re-enchanting Australia’s vision of the world, and bringing a legitimate pluralism to our public conversations; we won’t get it while post-Christian ‘liberated’ progressive thinkers from the white establishment are setting the rules (or lobbying for them to change). Churches, then, have to get serious about training and platforming non-white, European, leaders who think in non-white, European ways about the world, and how to engage with the political process and public life.

There’s no going back to a purely European, western, ‘Christendom’ (and nor should we want that, probably). There’s very little chance of re-enchanting the western world from within; what it might take is the western world hearing voices from “without” — or bringing those voices and views in and hearing, clearly, about the convictions that drive and shape the majority world towards a different vision of progress. We might colonise other countries with democracy and capitalism, and modernity, but if it comes with the necessity of ‘disenchantment’ — of seeing this world as all there is — then I’m not sure how successful that will be, but we’ll also, essentially, be reprising the role of Satan in the garden, telling people who experience life in a world where God or gods exist as divine beings that they, and they alone, are divine — and all they should be concerned about is what can be grasped here and now.

Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

Hunting paradise in a haunted wild western world (or playing Red Dead Redemption 2, listening to Mumford and Sons, and watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

// Read in Estimated reading time: 34 minutes // // by // Comments Off on Hunting paradise in a haunted wild western world (or playing Red Dead Redemption 2, listening to Mumford and Sons, and watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

But what if I need you in my darkest hour?
What if it turns out there is no other?
We had it all
If this is our time now
We wanna see a sign, oh
We would see a sign

So give us a sign
I need some guiding light
Children of darkness, oh — ’42’, Mumford and Sons

I heard someone recently say that the history of art in the west can be described as a thousand years of religious art and then stripes — the idea being that once the transcendent or sacred disappears from our cultural narrative we’re left with trying to make meaning from the very mundane. It’s an interesting thesis, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny, at least not when it comes to art that is worth one’s time and attention (whether high or pop culture). While stripes abound as a certain sort of artistic response to a reality that is flattened and turned in on itself, modern art is more complicated, more haunted, and less monolithic than such a reduction allows — and good modern art confronts this haunting sense front on, and asks us to consider what we might have lost in our culture that means we produce less overtly religious art.

I heard this idea while my imagination was consumed by the wild west, at least as modern secular artists render the wild west in order to tell stories. I’d watched the Coen brothers’ new Netflix special The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was playing Rockstar Games’ western epic (in every sense of the word) Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve also had Mumford and Sons’ Delta on high rotation since its release — and all three of these cultural texts, these works of reasonably good popular art, push back against the idea that modern art is hollowed because it is no longer hallowed… in this movie, this video game, and this album, all of which, to some extent, explore the wild untamed land of life and death with or without God, there’s a truth that modern art that is worth our attention is not hollow, but rather, haunted.

Two of these texts deliberately and directly interact with an older piece of art, from the ‘religious’ era — John Milton’s Paradise Lost, asking questions about where paradise might be found in this new, wild, western world. The other, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs confronts us with the truth that humans destroy paradise by nature, because facing death without hope destroys us all.

One popular version of the theory of secular, modern life, the ‘stripes’ theory of art, is that religious themes don’t make sense, and that they’re not worthy of being celebrated artistically — there’s certainly lots of ‘art’ and lots of stories that are ‘stripey’ in this sense, but that’s not the ‘secular age’ theory put forward by philosopher Charles Taylor, or unpacked by James K.A Smith in his commentary on A Secular Age titled How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith’s analysis of Taylor’s work was bouncing around my head as I watched, played, and listened to these texts. Here’s Smith:

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.”

Mumford and Sons have always been overtly secular in this sense — the haunted sense — frontman Marcus Mumford’s parents are pastors, and right from their debut album Sigh No More there’ve been religious undertones to their lyrics. The lyrics of their songs are often ambiguous such that Mumford could be singing to a woman he loves, or to God. In this sense the band’s back catalogue, and this current album, function like a welcome reversal of contemporary Christian music, which seems to take the lyrical sensibility of modern songs celebrating sexual love only to replace the ‘you’ — the human other — with ‘God’ (as lampooned by South Park). So much Christian art is, thus, haunted — or colonised — by a modernist ‘stripey’ aesthetic. It adopts the content and form of this ‘secular’ immanent art, rather than pushing us towards the transcendent.

Mumford and Sons’ religious oeuvre continues in Delta where themes of darkness and light play out against the backdrop of songs about finding love and satisfaction through being a ‘beloved’ ‘forever’, while also navigating ‘the wild’ as mortals. In Guiding Light, Mumford expresses a certain sort of monotheistic faith in this awe inspiring one who’ll ‘always be my only guiding light’…

Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind’
Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light  — ‘Guiding Light’, Mumford and Sons

It’s not smooth sailing and light. There are some pretty dark places the album’s “I”— and I say this because it’s not just Mumford, the band write together, and we as listeners who participate in the album by listening are caught up in the story — explores through the musical journey. It’s a journey from the ‘wild’ that “puts the fear of God in me” (The Wild), through a crippling ‘fear of what’s to come’ that is replaced by ‘hope once more’ when the “silhouette” of this loved other, who had been obscured by “blinding light” is “branded on his mind” so as to shine brighter on his “wondering eyes” (October Skies, I’d love it if that was ‘wandering eyes’ but the online lyrics sites are divided) … through to the ‘Delta‘, where the river meets the sea.

The album gets more overtly religious — whether or not its God or a lover in view — when Mumford quotes Song of Songs chapter 2:1 to describe his beloved, in this ‘cursed world,’ as his ‘rose of Sharon’.

And I will surround you
With a love too deep for words
Hold you from the world and its curse
So long as I have breath in my lungs
Long as there’s a song to be sung
I will be yours and you will be mine
Ever our lives entwined
My rose of Sharon
My rose of Sharon
With a love too deep for words
I’m yours forever — ‘Rose of Sharon’, Mumford and Sons

Song of Songs is, if nothing else, an exploration of the place that sexual love occupies in a cursed, fallen, world; a world where we’re inclined to scratch an itch in our hearts with as much sex and love as possible — where it appears the itch is actually caused by our haunting sense of ‘paradise lost’. Song of Songs grapples with the ‘cursed world,’ and uses Edenic imagery — pictures of paradise — to describe sexual love. Asking if it rediscovering human passion is the way back to Eden; the way to recover ‘Paradise Lost.’ The Song invites us to ponder whether the two lovers are a new Adam and Eve; restorers of our fortunes. Ultimately it asks if sex can save us if we don’t first returning to God (such that our approach to romantic love is re-ordered by his love for us). It’s this question, more than any other that subtly haunts Delta. The catch is, that the Song, with its connection to Solomon in the Bible’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Solomon’s loves — his pursuit of sex — don’t restore Eden, but repeat the Fall, carrying God’s people into exile. We’re left waiting for one greater than Solomon to restore us to paradise and re-order our loves.

And lest you think I’m making this undertone, this subtle note, up — Mumford and Sons then quote Milton’s Paradise Lost to make the subtle overt. In Picture You, possibly my favourite track on the album, there’s a darker note underpinning what until this point has sounded like a satisfying and deep love — a relationship that fills this void.

If I could tell you “no”
I thought it best you didn’t know
Don’t see it coming
The darkness visible
But when its eyes fix mine
The silver in its stone
I feel it rising, oh
The gathering storm

And when I feel a darkness is a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to fight it
It’s a heartbeat away
And now
You don’t know me like this
It’s a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to hide it
It’s a heartbeat away

And I picture you
Soaked in light
I picture you
And in you I had no doubt
When the chaos calls me out
And it feels like there is nothing I can do
I picture you — ‘Picture You,’ Mumford and Sons

Light and love is the answer to chaos and darkness. But here, more than ever, the question is — is Mumford singing to his beloved woman, and can she save him — or to God? And who can save him from this darkness? Truly?

What was a foreshadowing, or passing reference to Paradise Lost in the phrase ‘Darkness Visible’ — Milton’s description of Satan’s experience of Hell in Book 1 of his famous poem, is unpacked in the next track as this section of the poem is performed as a haunting spoken word.

“Nine times the space that measures day and night
Rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end still urges
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible” — ‘Darkness Visible,’ Mumford and Sons

If this is the future — if death, and ‘darkness visible’ await — is sexual love worth it? Is replacing God with the best of human love a wise gamble? Can it provide the meaning and satisfaction required for a flourishing life? And even if it can, is it worth it? While the album asks plenty of big questions, it’s interesting that the quote stops there… here’s the next little bit, about what that ‘darkness visible’ does.

Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the center thrice to th’utmost pole. — John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s a high stakes game — this pursuit of life without God, because if God is light and life and love, then the reality of being ‘as far removed from God and the light of heaven as from the center thrice to the utmost pole’ is about being removed from all that this album finds worth celebrating in a temporary reality. Which is where the album now turns, unpacking more of this existential crisis, and the question of where (or whether) paradise — or the good life — can be found in this world. It gives no easy answers, from If I Say I Love You and the lyrics “If you were given one more chance, would you bring me back to life? Bring me back into the light?” to Wild Heart and the line “mortal once again,” questions of life and light and meaning and love are threaded through this album — right up to the final two songs Forever and Delta. Forever is fascinating in that the tension seems to have resolved itself — or at least the choice has apparently been made, though doubt remains — and the answer to this ‘doubt’ is apparently to focus on the here and now so that these days ‘turn to gold’, and yet, the chorus is “love with your eyes, love with your mind, love with you – dare I say — forever.” If these days are all there is, this idea of forever is a nonsense. A platitude. And yet it feels like there’s a resolution to avoid the bigger questions about the way faith, or piety, might reshape our lives and priority — to choose to ‘not be saved’ in order to live quite happily… ‘forever’…

And I’ve known pious women
Who have lead such secret lives
Shameless in the dark, so shameful in the light
And you may not be pious and I may not be saved
But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed — Forever, Mumford and Sons

In Smith’s, or Taylor’s, terms, this seems a resolution to say ‘secular’ — to remain haunted and simply make the best of it, rather than jumping to nothingness or to resolute faith. It’s like the “I” of this album resolves to not resolve anything, but to live in the here and now with these questions still pressing against reality. At this point the album feels lots like the book of Ecclesiastes — a companion piece in the Bible to the Song of Songs, that asks questions about the good life and what that might look like without God (“under the sun”) or with God. But Delta, like Ecclesiastes, has something like an epilogue. A final note exploring just how meaningless that previous resolution to pursue the good life without God, haunted by the absence of that which addresses the ‘eternity written on our hearts’ looks. In an interview I read, Marcus Mumford says he agonises over and overthinks every word he uses, the track ’42’ is the 42nd original song the band has released, it’s also a play on Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDelta, the final track of the album is also the title track — the delta is the place where ‘the river meets the sea,’ a movement from the safety of a river to the wilds of the ocean, it’s also, they say the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and an appropriate title for their fourth album — but there’s another thing the Greek letter signifies. Change. And one wonders if the placing of the song as the last of the album represents something of a denouement after the stormy, doubt-filled, journey through darkness and towards light, maybe ‘Forever’ isn’t the landing place of the album’s “I” — maybe this life isn’t all there is. Maybe the comfort of the Thames and the Liffey rivers — or the arms of one’s lover — aren’t the place to find ultimate meaning and security… the album ends with a staring out into the unknown, a search for a new way, and an acknowledgment that ‘what’s behind I can clearly see, but beyond that’s beyond me’. Delta is, to the album, what the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes concludes with the wise teacher having searched for meaning ‘under the sun’, but with death looming large, it concludes an exploration of the pursuit of paradise, or the good life, apart from the creator with a call to ‘remember the creator’ in order to enjoy the good life.

 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,

    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.

    “Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

A better translation for ‘meaningless’ is ‘breath’ — the idea that this is life, and its good things, are fleeting and temporary and gone in a moment, when we long for ‘forever’. Delta the album, thanks to Delta, the song, asks the questions Ecclesiastes asks about the meaning of pleasure — including love and sex — if this is all there is, when it’s all just ‘dust to dust’. Maybe that sort of life — the ‘dust to dust’ life of Ecclesiastes without the epilogue is meaningless, maybe there is more, and the haunted nature of reality pushes us somewhere beyond ourselves.

“When it’s all just dust to dust
And it’s how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me
When it’s all just dust to dust
And how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me

Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good
Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good” — Delta, Mumford and Sons

Looking for the paradise and love lost in Eden in the arms of a woman, rather than God, is a folly as old as Solomon’s… and one that leads to death, rather than away from it. Something Delta acknowledges as a problem not yet overcome — and not overcome by a ‘love that just makes me feel good.’ The whole album, from the opening song, through to the conclusion asks the question: do you want to be a child of darkness, or light. It posits love — love that is not self-interested, and love directed to some other — as the way out of darkness, but the question is whether it escapes the haunted ‘immanent frame’ to be connected to something transcendent — to the creator of light and light and love.

This question of life in the wild, life in the cursed world, life and love in the face of death, and where a long-lost paradise can be found also occupies Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs too — which is what made Delta such an apt soundtrack for the former, the latter had its own soundtrack of sorts, opening with gunslinging troubadour Buster Scruggs aka ‘The Misanthrope’.

The Coen Brothers’ western anthology is a collection of six short stories seemingly linked by nothing but the bleak message that death comes to us all. This means that comedy can only be black — funny tragedies — because our laughter is always in the face of the harsh reality of death… unless there’s some glimmer of hope — a place where poker is played fair in the “place up ahead”… Which is an idea that at least the concluding song from the first story, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ explores…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K91etXNIkaY

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
I’m glory bound
No more jingle jangle
I lay my guns down
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings —When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The last story is even bleaker — a carriage full of western citizens travel with a dead body on the roof of a stage coach — death looming large over all of them — and this little song  The Unfortunate Lad:

Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
And give to each of them, bunches of roses
That they may not smell me as they go along — The Unfortunate Lad, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Death hovers over us, and we’re left finding ways to pretend it doesn’t. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t let us do that; not for a second. It scoffs at the idea, because death is omnipresent in the movie’s six stories. Its characters, the ones who bring and taste death, are almost exclusively “children of darkness” — and even those who aren’t, those who bring some light, end up dead, and this often at the hands of embodied darkness, never quite as starkly depicted as the black clad gunslinger who takes down Buster Scruggs in the first act.

There’s one exception, perhaps — the old prospector played by Tom Waits, whose story All Gold Canyon takes place in something very much like a wild western Eden. A paradise. His story is rudely interrupted by violence — but this violence does not have the final say. And yet, paradise in Buster Scruggs is only restored to the canyon, that pocket of Eden, when all its human inhabitants depart. The thing about good art created in this haunted bubble is that it’s not so much ‘religious art then stripes’, it’s more like Tasmania’s MONA, it ends up just being art that has to grapple with the good life in the face of death and then the haunting ‘maybe’… maybe there’s more… the hope of the first ballad does seem to give way to the darkness of The Mortal Remains (which, when you squint at it, bears a testimony to a certain outlook in its title, only those who are still alive remain.

Buster Scruggs was a particularly interesting experience for me because its stories were played out against almost identical backdrop to Red Dead Redemption 2, with a startlingly similar aesthetic. Asking similar questions (depending on how much you played the protaganist, Arthur Morgan, in parallel with ‘The Misanthrope’)… Video games are an immersive form of storytelling, and the world building in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just incredible. The game takes place in a vast, carefully rendered ‘wild west’ as carefully crafted as the shots in Buster Scruggs, and if you’re going to explore that sort of virtual world on the back of a virtual horse I can highly recommend Delta as a soundtrack. The story is a prequel to the first instalment of the game (the second if you count a much earlier game in the same world); it’d be almost impossible for a game set in this period to be true to its setting without some nod to religion and the part it played in the fabric of American life; but this isn’t just a story set in the wild west — it’s a commentary on what has gone wrong with the western dream; our grand story of bravely inventing and taming wild frontiers, and the hopes that we could overcome some the ‘cursed world’ — nature and our human hearts — through adventure and technology. Like Buster Scruggs, and Delta, it tackles the reality of death and love and life in a haunted world where belief in God is simply one option amongst many that might deliver the ‘good life’. Like Delta the story is cleverly laced with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost — the levels often have religious names, including ‘Paradise Mercifully Departed’ and references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

The leader of your gang — the man you’re hunting down in the original (albeit as John Marston), is idealist and visionary Dutch Van Der Lynde. His ideal of a wild, untamed, west where there’s ‘no king, so everybody does what is right in their own eyes’ is falling to pieces, and as it becomes increasingly improbable, his fervent, fanatical, behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. While riding towards one of the new cities in the brave new world of progress, Dutch says to Arthur:

“For a long time, I truly believed a paradise lay somewhere in the west for us but I just… don’t know any more.” — Dutch Van Der Lynde, Red Dead Redemption 2

Dutch is looking for paradise — and he’s certainly not finding it in the modern vision of civilisation. Here’s a dialogue with the carefully named ‘Agent Milton’:

Dutch: “This place ain’t no such thing as civilised. It’s man so in love with greed he has forgotten himself and found only appetites.”

Agent Milton: “And as a consequence that lets you take what you please, kill whom you please, and hang the rest of us? Who made you the messiah to these lost souls you’ve led so horribly astray”

Dutch: “I’m nothing but a seeker, Mister Milton…”

Dutch is willing to do whatever he can to keep the west wild in order to find a paradise untainted by greed and the appetites it creates in us for whatever it is we lust after. The problem is Dutch’s own heart is every bit as corrupt; every bit as fixated on his own vision of paradise. If you’ve played the first game to its end, you’ll know there’s no redemption for Dutch — the question is whether those ‘lost souls’ he led could find redemption for themselves. While you control Arthur Morgan, and then John Marston, in this story it’s not just their stories you encounter — and its not just their worlds haunted by these questions of ultimate meaning in the face of death. A friend described this game as “the most profoundly Christ-haunted videogame ever made,” and if you’re looking for the Jesus shaped hole in the world you’ll find it in the questions it asks about meaning, sin, redemption, and repentance.

Dutch’s favourite in-game author (such is the world building) is a character named Evelyn Miller. He makes a cameo in the main storyline, his books are available to read in the outlaw camp, and he’s a substantial character in the playable epilogue where, upon meeting him atop a mountain, he declares that ‘this is God’ — that the splendid beauty of creation is part of the divine, and the hope of humanity; there are echoes of the Coens’ All Gold Canyon here; but these ideas were also developed in the books that shaped Dutch’s eschatology — ‘An American Eden’ and ‘An American Inferno’. These are quite profound little reads offering a diagnosis of the western disease, if not a genuine solution.

“…The delusions that we can compete with God. That our built environments can transcend his. That our factories and the squalid conditions that arise in the towns in which they are built will somehow allow us to be happy. We are fools, for fools cannot see their idiocy…

… By attempting to transform it into a poor impersonation of Europe, we are as Adam, eating once more of the apple, only this time knowing full well of the consequences. To free the American soul, this new world soul, we must free the American spirit from the prison in which we have placed it, we must seek our solace, our comfort, our very heaven in the perfection and splendour of this place.” — An American Eden

You can subsequently pick up An American Inferno lying around the Outlaw camp (and if the first owed something to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the second is a nod to Dante), which describes a trip to New York, the “grand human inferno, the fiery and mediocre hell that is Manhattan.” If we are pinning our hopes of restoration, or a return to Eden, on human ingenuity and city building, Red Dead Redemption 2 wants us to think twice, even if we think a third and fourth time about the alternatives as well…

“A place that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that when left to his own devices, when removing God entirely from his creation, man will induce not heaven, but hell. The gilded inferno. The marbled purgatory. This American churning sea of desire, the place where see we man for what he truly is, and recoil in horror. He is the destroyer of all. Of nature, of course, of his brothers, seemingly as sport, and finally of himself.

Men are fixated on greed, on desire, and on the acquisition not of experiences or pleasures but on the ability to acquire. People are fixated on wealth. Man is reduced to the desire for desire. Wanting is all that matters. No loving, not being, not having, but wanting. We are killers for desire. Even sport would be preferable. This is the grand sickness, the eternal sickness of this land – it is, man unleashed. Man unleashed and turned into, he knows what not?”

… I came to appreciate a hideous truth; the system that allows poverty and degradation such as i saw is wrong, and the impacts of the degradation on humanity are profound, but far worse is the impact of wealth upon those who possess it, who are possessed by it… Manhattan at once depraves the poor and dehumanizes the rich. Its purpose is unhappiness. The nurturing and blooming of suffering. — An American Inferno, in-game book in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Paradise lost, indeed… and a diagnosis of the sort of western disease that produces a President known for building ‘gilded’ towers in the inferno. When you cross paths once more with Miller in the epilogue he has been cast out from civilisation, rejected by the church and his family as a heretic, to live out his days in a cabin seeking hope for humanity. Miller ultimately feels defeated, he can’t escape that haunted sense of having had and lost some infinite thing (thanks David Foster Wallace). In his final manuscript, he writes:

“I am almost entirely consumed by my doubts, yet there is within me still a tiny spark that tells me it is possible, this land makes possible, the chance of absolution. Absolution from the European hell of thought and back to the Eden in which man can live as a sentient, yes, but above all as sensate. As a creature of God, alive in his world.

This world. Pure. Not clouded by idiocy. Not imagining himself as God as so many of us are forced to do, but happy as a child of God. But still my thoughts come upon me like wolves. My needs swamp me. My desires overwhelm me. It is not mortality I now fear but its opposite. That idiots part of me that attempts to convince me I am above mortal concerns. The foolish part of man that tells him he is immortal. That tells him, that whispers like the serpent, that seduces like the apple, that charms like Eve, that tells him he is God. I am not God. In this truth, I will find my absolution.”

This vision can’t animate anybody beyond Dutch (or Dutch himself), progress is inexorable, the landscape of the wild — like the Gold Canyon — will ultimately fall foul to human greed. Paradise is lost. The untainted ‘wild’ is destined to be replaced by our ‘infernal’ cities, hell on earth constructed as monuments to our greed; modern towers of Babel. Paradise is lost, if paradise is a beautiful unspoilt wilderness…

Depending on the choices you make in the game — whether to embrace a life of crime, bringing death and destruction in pursuit of a quick buck, or a life of seeking righteousness, your character, Arthur, is offered different advice on his path to redemption. A chance to trade his spurs for wings, perhaps.

In the penultimate moment in the story Arthur has the chance to give a last confession of sorts, either to the gang’s erstwhile, though ultimately redeemed confessor, Reverend Swanson, or to a nun you may help on your journey.

Reverend Swanson is an interesting character — your first interaction is rescuing him from a drunken binge, and if you find his Bible in camp and open it up, you see that it, like him, has been hollowed out to accommodate his addictions (in the form of drug paraphernalia). But if it’s him who hears this confession of yours, it’s as he boards a train, departing to a new life you can later read about in the in-game newspaper. He ends up in the belly of the inferno; the ordained minister of the ‘First Congregational Church of New York’, where he “delivered an impassioned and heartfelt sermon about acknowledging sin and seeking redemption. He spoke about his own break from faith, a dark period when he could no attend church, falling into sin, depravity, and wanton gluttony.” Swanson finds some sort of redemption in the belly of the beast.

If you’re met by the nun you’ve helped earlier, the dialogue includes her responding to Arthur’s confession that he’s “lived a bad life” by saying “we all sin…” she says “Life is full of pain but there is also love and beauty,” and then she offers this path to redemption.

Sister: “Be grateful that for the first time you see your life clearly… perhaps you could help somebody. Helping makes you really happy.

Arthur: But. I still don’t believe in nothing.

Sister: Often neither do I. But then, I meet someone like you and everything makes sense.

Arthur: You’re too smart for me sister. I guess I, I’m afraid.

Sister: There is nothing to be afraid of Mr Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.”

Arthur is haunted, belief in something beyond death terrifies him. He’s asking how to live in the face of death, and gets this “moral therapeutic deism” so often served up by the modern west — the idea that redemption, the return to paradise, would be found by people resisting the temptation towards greed and its appetites, to instead act in love… that we’re to grapple with the mix of beauty and pain by maximising love, and that this will restore us. But I’m not sure the story, Christ-haunted as it is, lets us just sit with that. To truly redeem, or help, those around him, Arthur can’t just ‘help,’ he has to sacrifice. His redemption is bound up in the end of his story.

It’s not just the name of the agent chasing down Dutch to protect a state-sanctioned vision of paradise or civilisation that tips the hat to Paradise Lost, and that alone might just be a coincidence… but later in the story, when John Marston is travelling incognito he gives his name as “John…er… Jim Milton.”  He’s the last hope Red Dead Redemption 2 puts forward. In the unholy inner sanctum of the gang — Arthur, Dutch, Hosea, Micah, and John — he’s the only one who ‘makes it’ (according to Arthur). His new life was won through Arthur’s sacrifice (though those who’ve played Red Dead Redemption 1 know this hope is temporary). It seems that, almost despite himself, he too has been caught up by Evelyn Miller’s visions of a new, natural, Eden — paradise rediscovered by pursuing goodness and beauty of this world. Here’s a conversation he has with his son about his new life — on the land, farming — his sense of paradise.

John Marston: Pretty countryside ain’t it…
Jack: I guess?
John: The grass and the light. There’s a lot of ugly in this world, but there sure as hell is a lot of beauty.
Jack: Yes.
John: You’ll see it better when you get older. It’s tough at your age. Just, land and light. But to me  it’s, it’s, life. I can’t explain it.”

His assumed name isn’t the only connection to John Milton. Jack is obsessed with heroic tales from King Arthur’s court. Milton contemplated penning an epic Arthurian tale, before writing Paradise Lost, which contains references to the legendary British king who ruled his own, briefly realised, paradise from Camelot. Milton was a fierce political voice, an English republican, whose works also included titles like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,‘ which argued for the freedom and dignity of all humans — that “All men naturally were born free.” This text was hugely influential in the founding of the American political vision, and these ideas seem to permeate the political outlook of Evelyn Miller and Dutch Van Der Lynde when it comes to ‘progress’ under those ruled by desires and passions rather than God. Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the fall — Adam’s ‘original lapse’ in the following quote, damaged true freedom — he sees freedom and paradise being closely linked in both his theology and politics. The damage was done by a departure from reason and the raising up of passions, or inordinate desires — appetites — in the place of reason.

Since thy original lapse, true Liberty
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart Passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.” — Paradise Lost

He saw the resulting loss of freedom corresponding with a rise in tyranny and violence.

Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyranny must be,
Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

A world of death. A world of greed, and human appetites bringing hell on earth. Paradise so lost that there’s no man-made path back. Not love, not proper passionate enjoyment of the things of this world, not a commitment to nature — none of these things will restore the good life, though we might taste it temporarily. Fleetingly. As breath…

What do these stories have in common? A western aesthetic? A sense that the answer to our modern ills might be found in the untainted wilds, away from human greed and consumption? In sacrificial love? A use of the western genre and the frontier, foundational, moments in American (and so western) cultural narratives to critique the modern account of flourishing human life? A playing off of ‘light’ against ‘darkness’ as metaphors for life and death? A haunting sense of loss of something eternal in the face of the death and destruction we bring as we fixate on amassing temporary things to satiate our appetites (that might actually be eternal or infinite longings)… And in two out of three, quotes or allusions to Paradise Lost, and the Bible.

Paradise Lost wasn’t Milton’s only religious poem… It had a sequel. One that specifically dealt with the question of how to rediscover paradise — one that answers the fears of ‘darkness visible’ and our mortality with a commensurate hope of paradise restored, and being returned to the presence of “light from above, from the fountain of light” and life — the presence of God — Paradise Regained. A new Eden being ‘raised in the vast wilderness’. The path to this satisfaction — this restoration, this paradise, was not our getting life right. It was not our redemption or repentance; it was through the obedience of a new Adam. Jesus.

The problem with Christ-haunted art — even if it is more interesting than stripes — is that it might point you towards Jesus, but it doesn’t throw you into his story. Milton sees this paradise regained in Jesus forgoing the worldly temptations that capture our hearts and pull us from God; though this happens ultimately at the Cross, he builds his poetic account of the restoration of all things in Jesus going head to head with Satan at his temptation; where Jesus, in the wilderness — the wild west — is offered all the good things of this world to turn his back on God, and he refuses. Thwarting the plans of Satan. Resisting the lure of those dark voices. Keeping his eyes fixed on the light.

Not all modern art is stripes — but perhaps all great art is religious in some sense. Great art gets us confronting darkness. It asks questions about what haunts our collective imaginations. These texts — an album, a film, and a video game — do that… but it’d be nice to have some great art that throws us into the light and gives us some answers every once in a while though too.

I who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d 
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden rais’d in the wast Wilderness. — Paradise Regained, Book I

Disruptive Witness: a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadchurch and the secular age: the limited value of Christianity without Christ

Broadchurch is the sort of show best watched in small doses — it doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the human condition, and where seasons one and two were about a couple of seedy blokes who’d killed minors, season three was about toxic masculinity and there were only two blokes who emerged relatively unscathed — DI Alec Hardy (the lead), and the village vicar, Reverend Paul Coates.

The final series focuses on a serial rapist, and zeroes in on ‘rape culture,’ and its relationship to porn and the systemic objectification of women (right from the teenage years). It’s hard viewing because just about every male is a suspect (and rightly so, in terms of how they’re characterised), and every woman is either a potential victim of sexual assault, or victimised by the toxic masculinity of the small town’s culture. It’s challenging viewing as a bloke — but with news linking the Toronto incident this week with a ‘toxic’ movement of ‘involuntarily celibate’ (incel) men who believe they’re entitled to female affection (and sex), it’s worth grappling with some of the darker, causative, factors underpinning this cultural moment and what it means to be a man, or a woman, in a world where there’s an ever present threat of rape, and a growing saturated environment where blokes (and increasingly, women) are marinating their imaginations in pornography.

Though the village Rev is depicted sympathetically — and almost positively — throughout the series, I find his character fascinating, and his story arc a depressingly real picture of how the world sees the church, and where the church is failing the world.

There’s a scene early on in series three between the local newspaper editor, Maggie, who’s facing a ‘corporate rationalisation’ of her newspaper, and the Rev, where he reveals his despair at the lack of impact he’s having on the town.

Maggie: Just be glad you’ve got a job for life. People will always need a bit of God.

Paul: I wish you were right. On Sundays now, the church is emptier than before Danny was killed [season 1]. You don’t come. Beth and Mark don’t come, Ellie and half the people that were affected by what happened here. People look to God when they want something and then Well, now they’ve just deserted him.

Maggie: No, Paul, no. People love you. You pulled so many of us through these past few years.

Paul: Exactly. I’m the priest that people look to when they’re hurting and then desert when everything’s OK. I’ve got more to offer than that.

The reverend is having an identity crisis; he’s not ‘reaching people’ or helping people — and he’s less interested in people finding God than in people seeing him as a bit of a hero in a time of crisis. While he’s not ‘toxic’ in the ‘rape culture’ sense of toxic masculinity, this insecurity — when he has much more to offer — is another form of broken masculinity. He wants to be the white knight, to save the town and be there for its victims — for him to be there, not for Jesus to be present in any meaningful way. He wants to be the model man, rather than point people to the model man; Jesus. More of this is revealed in his dialogue with Beth Latimer, the mother of Danny (the boy killed in season 1), who has become a crisis counsellor for a sexual assault support service, and is helping season 3’s victim — Trish.

Beth: I spoke to Trish Winterman, – about you going to speak to her.

Paul: Great, thanks.

Beth: She didn’t want that.

Paul: Oh. Right. OK.

Beth: She’s not religious and didn’t know how much help it would be.

Paul: But you did say it didn’t have to be about that? It’s support.

Beth: I did, I really talked to her about it. She’s not up for seeing you. I’m sorry.

Paul: Right.

Beth: You say that like I’ve let you down.

Paul: No. Not at all. I am so admiring of you. It’s brilliant, the way you’ve turned all of this into a way to help people. People really respond to you.(Sighs) If I’m really honest with you, I’m a bit envious.

If he can’t help people with generic, non-religious, support — then what can he do? Envy the mum of a dead boy because she is able to help people? It’s like he can’t imagine a contribution he might make to the town, or the writers can’t… somewhere between this moment and the end of the series, the Rev decides to call it quits — to leave town.

Paul: How did you know I’d be here this early?

Maggie: Last service in a few hours. I thought, if I was you, I’d be wallowing.

Paul: Hm.

Maggie: Have you got your sermon worked out?

Paul: To all seven who’ll be there.

Maggie: I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.

Paul: (Snorts) No. No. It’s time. To everything a season.

And here’s what we see of his ‘stellar’ last sermon…

There’s a line from Hebrews echoing through my head.
Let us all consider how we may spur one another on, toward love and good deeds.
Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.
But encouraging one another.
Now, I hope that even without me here, you will go on encouraging one another.
All any of us really want are love and good deeds.

It’s a hit with Alec, who picks at the barely closed wound…

Alec: If I’d known you were that good, I might have come more often.

Paul: Oh, thanks very much.

There’s something sympathetic in the way the writers of Broadchurch realise this character; as though this is the ‘ideal’ modern churchman, He was essential in the earlier seasons, offering real comfort to the Latimer family in their grief, but also offering prayerful support to the murderer in prison. He helped Mark (Danny’s dad) not pursue vengeance — a decision still haunting Mark in season 3, but one he remains proud of… but there is no place, no future, for the Reverend, or his church, in this town… and yet, there seems to be something like the passing of judgment on him (and the church) in the way his story arc finishes and how useless he ends up being in the face of systemic toxicity.  When it boils down to it, it’s pretty clear the citizens of Broadchurch (the town) are an irreligious bunch, barely interested in his counsel, and certainly not interested in his religious belief… except maybe if it boils down to ‘love and good deeds’ — they can stomach that, and there’s a reluctant sense that he might have something, a nagging sense that maybe he does offer some sort of traditional wisdom (bereft of any super natural substance, ground he has already ceded).

“We have moved from a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of or “beyond” human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by others which place it (in a wide range of different ways) “within” human life.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

The town, and its reverend, are a living, breathing, example of Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ thesis; and the ‘good’ reverend in his existential crisis is the archetypal image of Taylor’s ‘buffered self’ dealing with the ‘malaise of immanence’ while trying to pursue an authentic sense of self… and that’s no place for a churchman to be… if that’s all we’ve got to offer then we may as well shut up shop and leave town. Taylor describes a world where religious belief is less possible, and where the default way of seeing and being in the world is to not register anything ‘supernatural’; to be concerned with ‘immanent’ things (the things around us) not ‘transcendent’ things (the ‘divine’/supernatural things beyond us), he says this leaves us bereft and cut off from bigger things (and from community built around something beyond us). He suggests this creates a dilemma — we’ve lost something (for good or for ill) with a move to seeing the world in material terms, and we’re left searching for a replacement; he sees “a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world” where instead of rich and supernaturally meaningful we have “a sense of it as flat, empty” and instead of purpose coming from God or ‘the gods’ we’re left with “a multiform search for something within, or beyond” the world and our lives that “could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.”

If that’s the world of most people then what’s the point of church? What place can it occupy in the village? And what’s the point of being a churchman?

This is Reverend Paul Coates’ dilemma. He’s living and breathing in the secular world and trying to authentically take part in that world, rather than challenging the ‘haunting’ Taylor sees as left behind when we encase ourselves in this way of seeing ‘reality’. Taylor says this view of the world creates that ‘malaise,’ but also this pursuit of authenticity on these terms. Again, terrible circumstances for a member of the clergy. Taylor says the pursuit of ‘authentic’ fulfilment, flourishing, or ‘fullness’ on these terms look like a life where:

“we strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practising a vocation which we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

He says this can only work if our daily practices keep our haunting sense of loss at bay, and that they provide a sense of growing fullness — a movement towards something substantial. This is exactly the Rev’s dilemma — he’s lost his sense that he is contributing to human welfare, and so his job is no longer ‘fulfilling’ or inching him towards ‘fulness’ — instead, he feels empty. Haunted perhaps, though he doesn’t realise it.

And I’d like to make the case that this is precisely how a clergyman who has taken his path should feel… that his job, instead, is to point his town to a different picture of fulness and flourishing — and that he has failed the job (and the town), rather than the job failing him.

There’s more to Christianity (and to Hebrews 10, the part of the Bible his last sermon comes from) than ‘meeting together’ and ‘love and good deeds’. I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Broadchurch were being advised by some clergy cut from the same cloth as this character; but the verses immediately around this final sermon are the core truth claims of Christianity that might present a sort of ‘truth beyond ourselves’ that challenges the issues underpinning toxic masculinity and without these claims Christianity is useless, toothless, and should be run out of town. Here’s what Hebrews 10 says is the reason to meet together and encourage each other towards love and good deeds.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. — Hebrews 10:20-23

The church meets together to hold on to the truth that we have been restored to living God’s way by Jesus, there’s a ‘new and living way opened for us’ to be in relationship with God, washed pure… we meet together to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess’ — resurrection from death and total liberation from our own toxic humanity and a world messed up by our shared toxic humanity. Our ‘love and good deeds’ aren’t just random, amorphous, acts of ‘good will’ or ‘neighbourliness’, they’re a response to the hope that we have that Jesus will return to right wrongs and judge evil.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. — Hebrews 10:24-27

A Christianity with nothing to say about Jesus and life in him, and in the hope of his return, is a Christianity with nothing to say in the face of sin — no hope to offer victims, no condemnation and mercy to offer perpetrators, and no new way of life to offer to anybody. A Christianity with no hope, or no ‘day approaching’ is a Christianity with nothing to live for — a dead, truncated, Christianity.

A truncated Christianity is no Christianity at all; and rightly has no place in the village.

Taylor says that one of the problems created by the flattening of reality, for everybody, is that when we pursue fulness in ‘this worldly terms’, when we adopt the ‘secular age’ and its modernist, materialist, ‘immanent’, vision, we end up where the wise writer of Ecclesiastes ended up — with a sense that everything is meaningless. This is, along with the utter sinfulness of the human heart, is the root problem in Broadchurch, and what it depicts so effectively. Even in the ‘best communal moments’ in the series — a walk where the female residents unite to ‘light the night’, and the Rev’s farewell service, there’s an emptiness to what is on offer in the face of the dark reality they’re standing against.

“Running through all these attacks [on the modernist rejection of spiritual realities] is the spectre of meaninglessness; that as a result of the denial of transcendence, of heroism, of deep feeling, we are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot inspire commitment, offers nothing really worth while, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to. Human happiness can only inspire us when we have to fight against the forces which are destroying it; but once realised, it will inspire nothing but ennui, a cosmic yawn.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Broadchurch needs Jesus; any ‘church’ has to be built on something beyond itself… on him, and the hope that he will return.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.” — Hebrews 10:36-37

 

 

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.