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On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

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

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fame does not qualify you to be a preacher

There’s a worrying trend developing amidst the church around a desperate bid for us to be ‘relevant’ and ‘change the culture’ of the world. A trend that is having the opposite effect of changing the culture of the church.

This trend is a through line that runs in the U.S evangelical church’s obsession with Trump, the Aussie church’s obsession with Israel Folau (until this week), and everybody’s new obsession with Kanye West. We want to be noticed and normal. We want to restrain the excesses of our society and we’re so used to the levers of power and cultural influence ‘from above’ — from ‘influencers’ being pulled, that when an influencer becomes a Christian we thrust them off their pedestal and behind a pulpit as soon as we can. We also keep building pedestals and pulpits for fame adjacent Christians — like CEOs of lobby groups who build political platforms for their video “preaching” — but neither being famous, nor fame adjacent, qualifies a person as a preacher or teacher.

Both Israel Folau and Kanye West have pivoted from very public expressions of their Christian faith to the pulpit. Both are now operating as teachers in communities; neither is qualified in any way to do so. The apostle Paul says teaching, or being an overseer, is a noble task but is not for recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6)… or lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3).  Both Folau and Kanye run the risk of damaging the witness of the Gospel if they keep functioning as preachers without being trained or qualified, and we run the risk of damaging the witness of the church to the crucified king if we keep treating celebrity itself as a virtue and so trading on celebrity for our own relevance, or the proclamation of the Gospel.

Character, gifting, and calling qualify a person as a preacher. The ability to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ qualifies a person to be a preacher. Unfortunately it seems that neither Izzy, nor Kanye, nor Martyn Iles (or the Australian Christian Lobby) are equipped to lead the church theologically, as teachers or preachers. And this matters — because both our politics and our witness to the Gospel are actually profoundly theological exercises. We evangelicals, in our desire to win people to Jesus (and to follow Paul in ‘becoming all things to all people’) have somehow baptised pragmatism — the getting of ‘results’ — measured in converts, over the substance of the Gospel message and the way it produces a certain ethos, or virtues, that are to be part and parcel with Gospel preaching.

There’s a deep irony that some of the justification for cultural engagement comes from 1 Corinthians, where Paul starts by outlining how the content of his message is the foolishness of the cross of Jesus, which is the power of God — not worldly power or status. The city of Corinth was obsessed with fame; especially with famous orators; sophists. People who valued style over substance and ability and results over character and conviction. Paul smashes this. He comes to the Corinthians embodying the Gospel of the crucified Jesus; when he writes to them again about their obsession with the ‘super apostles’ in 2 Corinthians, he gives a long list of his foolishness and suffering and being unimpressive as the resume for a Gospel preacher. When he describes himself in 1 Corinthians and his social position as a preacher he says:

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! 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 4:9-13

This is him imitating his crucified king. The one who died a humiliating death reserved for slaves; the scum of the earth, to show God’s upside down world altering kingdom. The power of God is not found in fame. Being famous is not a qualification for being a preacher; our bizarre desire for famous Christians to represent Christianity publicly as though they are preachers, and to not call out the problems that come from that public representation turning into occupying a pulpit and so, potentially, speaking the word of God to his people and the world is a reprehensible departure from the Gospel that mirrors the situation Paul addresses in Corinth.

Stop it.

I understand Kanye’s desire to preach about the grace that it appears has been given to him. But there is no way he is ready for the task of preaching yet.

I understand Izzy’s passion to save people from God’s wrath; but he is not just unqualified as a preacher of the Gospel, he is disqualified because he explicitly rejects the Trinity.

And yet preacher after preacher, for who knows what reason beyond — rejoicing that Christ is preached by a celebrity — have joined the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles in lionising these two figures. Martyn Iles even doubled down on Folau’s faithfulness this week when everybody else in the world was realising that Folau’s brand of religion is a long way removed from the Gospel of Jesus. He did this just weeks after celebrating Kanye’s conversion. The same Kanye who in an interview last week said he’s considering changing his name to “Christian Genius Billionaire West,” and running for president — hardly the response modelled by Zaccheus and promoted in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus explicitly says “you cannot love both God and money.” This week he appeared at Joel Osteen’s church proclaiming himself the “greatest artist God has created” and saying that God now has him on his side. His sermonettes that you can watch online are mostly expressions about him, and the influence he will now bring because he is on God’s side. None of this means Kanye is not a Christian; what it does mean is that Kanye is not qualified to be a preacher of the Gospel, especially not simply on the basis of fame… The rapid endorsement of these famous people as preachers might mean that there are lots of preachers out there whose qualifications need some renewing.

Perhaps the only thing worse than famous people who become Christians who have the task of preaching thrust upon them by a celebrity-infatuated church, is those who cynically resort to the tools of fame and power to build some sort of preaching or teaching ministry. The only thing worse than preachers or leaders getting photo opps with celebrities (think Osteen and Kanye, or Iles and Folau), are preachers who seem to just perpetually post glamour shots of themselves or photos accompanied by pull quotes from Sunday’s sermon. These are the antithesis of the Gospel and the ministry it should produce as we follow the example of Jesus.

We could do worse than looking to the example of Paul as he followed the example of the crucified king. Who was careful to ensure that the ‘noble task’ of leading and teaching be passed on to those recognised by the church communities they taught as ‘reliable people’ who were ‘qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 3:1-3), who charged Timothy to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction,” and to do this because “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

Those teachers might just be celebrities who say that the Gospel is just about personal salvation from hell, or about political victory over the immoral leaders of the ‘gay agenda,’ or about all manner of things that we give a pass simply because it seems good to us that “Christ is preached.” This Washington Post piece on how Kanye, like Trump, has embedded a certain form of ‘evangelicalism’ that focuses on individual salvation and self-improvement, in the black Gospel music tradition, is worth considering. Kanye’s conversion, so far, certainly hasn’t looked like doing anything but switching the market he sells his clothing line and music to — and talking an awful lot about having met Jesus. Our hope for Kanye is not that he might make the Gospel relevant by converting lots more celebrities to bring a revival (as he’s expressed his mission), but that he might be surrounded by faithful witnesses who model humility and the power of the crucifixion to him such that his future suggestions about name changes don’t run completely at odds with the virtues that come from a life led imitating Jesus.

We’ve got to stop expecting celebrities to jump on the celebrity preaching circuit; how much greater a witness to the crucified king would it be for Kanye, or Izzy, to submit to years of training in interpreting the text of the Bible, and years of character formation reflecting on the character of Jesus and keeping in step with the Spirit (as Paul puts it in Galatians 5), before opening the mouth. Silence from Kanye right now would speak volumes; it would perhaps speak louder than his brash, enthusiastic, embrace of the Gospel.

In all this I’m reminded of the strength of the testimony of another celebrity convert. Aussie actress Anna McGahan. McGahan has just, after years reflecting on the experience of meeting Jesus as Lord, released a book called Metanoia — which is the Greek word for repentance. The absolute change in one’s life that happens when we turn from the dead ends of relevance, fame, power, and personal glory, to worship the crucified and living God. McGahan writes beautifully. She has been a faithful member of a church community for years, she has turned down the sorts of roles and trajectories her acting career had her on before her conversion and devoted herself to imitating Jesus in ways she describes in her book. She is qualified, in these ways, to be a trusted witness to the Gospel. A preacher. And her book (and her online writing) are a powerful testimony of one who has rejected fame for the sake of the name of Jesus. McGahan does, by conviction, have a ministry with creative people — some of who are famous — she describes the ethos in her book as: “Fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus.” She describes how this emerged out of realising that she wasn’t whole as a celebrity, out of being broken and remade by Jesus, not just having her fame baptised and turned towards the ends of making Jesus known, but having her life turned upside down because she is now known by Jesus.

We could do lots to learn from at least one Christian who has experienced fame, and experienced the call of the Gospel, so that we stop acting as though fame qualifies someone to preach the Gospel. The results of our pursuit of relevance through Kanye and Izzy will keep coming home to roost if we don’t.

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What is a “Christian” response to Australia’s foreign aid cuts?

Lets face it. I probably wouldn’t have voted for Labor at the next election anyway. Like millions of other Australians, I’m feeling completely disenfranchised by the major parties in Australian politics.

While part of this is because neither side is particularly likeable – and that goes double for the leaders of the parties. Another part of the problem driving my political apathy is that I don’t think it makes a huge difference who is in power in Australia.

Both major parties are essentially centrist. Both parties have pretty sound credentials. And while extremist pundits on either side of the spectrum want to run around saying that the sky is going to fall in if the other party gets/stays in power – it’s simply not true.

We’ve got it pretty good in Australia. Ridiculously good. Our first world conditions are improving. Yesterday’s luxuries are necessities, tomorrows luxuries are becoming necessary quicker than ever before. So complaining about the political scene in Australia where neither major party is out to oppress a minority, or start a war, is pretty much the epitome of a #firstworldproblem.

Because we’re a first world country there are many people – myself included – who think that the decent, and necessary, thing to do is to provide aid to developing countries to help raise the standard of living and save lives across the globe.

This is, if you’re not into altruism, good foreign policy. More stable countries around the globe means less wars, less refugees, less poverty. To channel Toby Ziegler’s “free trade stops wars” argument – we’re better off and more secure when other countries are better off and more secure.

The Labor party has been accused of back-pedalling away from their surplus promise faster than an off balance unicyclist. But at some point, a promise isn’t worth keeping. If the promise shouldn’t have been made in the first place. Sometimes you’ve just got to wear changing circumstances on the chin. Sometimes you’ve got to admit you were wrong – with a flat out mea culpa, a “deficit we had to have” speech, or an explanation that while economic times have changed, and while a surplus was the government’s best intention, certain other social and moral obligations have to be kept… any of these things is a better than the alternative the Australian Labor government has settled on.

How many foreign lives need to be cut short so that Labor gets its $1 surplus? What is it worth to gain that surplus, but forfeit our nation’s soul in the process.

Here’s what’s happening. Labor is cooking the books a little, to allocate $375 million of foreign aid spending to Australia’s refugee program. Ben Thurley, from the Micah Challenge, says this is allowable under Australia’s aid obligations.

He says:

“The Foreign Minister says this isn’t a cut to foreign aid, and in a strict sense he is right. Under Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rules (pdf), governments are allowed to report the first 12 months of in-country support costs for refugees – the official term for “aid”. The Foreign Minister even points to three donor countries who claim more refugee assistance as aid than Australia is reportedly planning to claim, the US ($895 million in 2010), France ($435 million in 2010) and Sweden ($397 million in 2010).”

While it might not “strictly” be the case, it’s pretty clear what the government’s intentions are – a member of their own back bench is speaking out against taking the politically expedient route to a surplus.

This aid saves lives. It improves the status quo in measurable ways. Here are some stats from World Vision, via the Micah Challenge again:

World Vision has estimated that in the last year alone Australian aid money saved at least 200,000 lives, provided education for more than half a million children and gave disaster assistance to more than 10 million people. It is these outcomes that are threatened by this plan.

Aid works. It’s not enough to throw this burden to Christian charities, and support them with your dollars – the same charities, who have people at the coal face in these countries, are calling for the government to be more generous, not less. Compassion has this useful mythbusting post on the benefits of foreign aid.

TEAR Australia is also speaking out against the proposed changes.

They’re calling people to take action – and providing some tips and easy(ish) ways to do it.

Tim Costello, World Vision CEO, wrote this piece in The Agesumming up the situation nicely in terms of how the Australian public at large should respond…

“They know that funds designated for poor communities beyond our shores should not be plundered to support the government’s own political interests. Australians will rightly view this decision as a sleight of hand, not least because it is driven by a desperate political imperative to reach a budget surplus.”

Both he, and the Micah Challenge, point out that there’s a bit of a mystery in terms of what programs are going to lose funding via this move.

Each of these groups is a Christian aid group. Doing good work in less fortunate countries, in the name of Jesus. And making a difference. You suspect if they could do the job without government aid, they wouldn’t be all that concerned about the cuts. But concerned they are.

The Australian Christian Lobby has also issued a statement – calling for the government to rethink.

“The government certainly has an obligation to fulfil its commitment to asylum- seekers and refugees in Australia but to do this at the expense of poverty-stricken communities overseas is unfair,” he said.

He said it’s the second time this year the government has not followed through on its commitment to foreign aid.

“In May the government announced it would delay increasing aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015,” he said.

“Australia’s current commitment stands at 0.35 per cent of GNI – well short of what is needed to eradicate poverty and help developing nations implement poverty-reducing policies,” he said.”

Should Christians respond to these cuts?

Evangelical Christians have been rightly scared by the “social justice” or “social gospel” movement – a product of the approach to mission adopted by the ecumenical movement in the mid-to-late 20th century. Basically people from a bunch of different Christian traditions got together – and because they couldn’t agree on what the gospel was, decided to focus on what they could agree on – looking after the poor. So they saw gospel work, God’s mission, as work on social transformation, the liberation of the poor and oppressed. That’s a little simplistic – there was also a group who genuinely think looking after the poor is all we’re cared to do, with a mantra that goes something like “preach the gospel always, never with words,” it seems they collapse these verses from Luke 4 into just the bits I’ve bolded:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Evangelicals – and I’m one of them – are right to emphasise that part of the church’s role – the defining part – is to proclaim the good news. That’s how poor people, and all of us, are truly liberated.

But as is the case with most correctives – the pendulum has swung to the point where evangelicals now don’t want to touch anything that looks like social justice. Preferring “just to do gospel work.” I read a tweet just yesterday that basically wrote the whole movement off.

This is silly. How can we claim to love people if we aren’t seen to be loving them. This, again, is where ethos – our character, how we live, has to form part of how we communicate our message. We love people because God loved us. But if we want to be loving people by sharing the gospel, part of that means living in a way that makes it clear that we believe our message. That it shapes and excites us.

Social justice – provided it is performed by Christians, operating as Christians, is gospel work. It underpins proclamation. Social justice without this intent is still good work.

Social justice is there, as an imperative, for the people of God, in both the Old and New Testament.

The Micah Challenge, for example, takes its name from a cracker of a Bible verse – from Micah 6:8.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Which, coupled with a little bit of James 1:27…

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Jesus says looking after the poor is a sign that we belong to him… in Matthew 25.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Looking after the poor is part of how Christians serve our king.

How should Christians respond to these cuts

If the charities who look after the poor around the globe – in the name of Jesus – are saying that foreign aid is necessary for making change, saving lives, and caring for people, and if caring for people is something that we’re called to do, then it follows that we, as Christians, should do what we can to see that aid continue… doesn’t it?

But what should we do? As Christians?

Pray. Definitely.

Give. Absolutely. The charities mentioned above do great work, in different and creative ways. So by all means – give directly to these charities. But they’re saying that’s not enough. The small government libertarian in me wishes this was an issue that could be solved without government intervention. By individuals. And there are plenty of generous individuals out there. But it’s not a level playing field – and libertarianism needs a situation where people are treated as equals, and where opportunities are essentially equal across the board – and that’s not the situation here.

Speak out. This isn’t just about awareness raising. This is about participating in a democracy. As Christians, but also as citizens. This is a political decision. The charities I’ve mentioned above have pretty much unanimously suggested that we respond by contacting our local federal members, and the leaders of each major party – which is as simple as googling their name and sending an email.

I think this is a good idea.

I realise I’m turning into a complete lefty at times – which is weird. I’ve only ever voted conservative. But I like to think that there are certain political issues that transcend a really arbitrary political spectrum that has been imposed on us through lack of choice, and the political reality of a two party system. So much complexity gets lost in that pursuit of political simplicity.

I’m hesitant to push hard and fast political conclusions here – but a truly Christian response is shaped by Jesus – who sacrificially gave himself up for those who follow him, out of love. At great cost. We’re called to imitate him. He calls us to love the poor. If the best way to love the poor, around the world, is to encourage the government to spend money on doing that – then we should. Right? You may think there are better ways to do it – and I’m more than open to suggestions. Perhaps these charities are unanimously wrong.

But I think Tim Costello’s right – the public knows this is a politically expedient move to save a stupidly promised surplus – so I wonder if a bit of public pressure, in the media, is called for. So don’t just send your email to your MP, send it as a letter to the editor of your paper, call a talk back radio station when this topic comes up. And if you’re in a situation where you can send a media release, on behalf of a Christian organisation – do that.

Here’s a brief sample. To finish. It covers the bits I’ll be including in my own emails to local members and party leaders. But this sort of thing works best if people are putting their own thoughts into their own words.

I really like something that a very wise friend of mine said on this front recently – he said it’s a real shame that Christians have a reputation for being conservative when it comes to this sort of political or social issue – it’d be great if we could be seen to be progressive.

Church X calls for government to increase, not slash, foreign aid commitment

Church X is dismayed by recent reports that the Federal Government is looking to slash foreign aid spending by $375 million to fund refugee care and in a bid to deliver a surplus.

Church X recognises that economic times are tough both domestically, and internationally, and suggests that wealthy countries like Australia should see this as an opportunity to generously invest, and increase foreign aid.

Church X spokesperson X said that while foreign aid is a smart investment in global stability, it also saves lives.

“We believe in the sovereignty of nations, but we also believe that God has generously provided our nation with wealth, and that this wealth presents an opportunity for Australia to be generous to fellow humans around the world.”

“We are dismayed that the government is looking to cut aid when it is needed most. Times of economic instability are precisely the times when wealthy countries should be concerned about the poorest of the poor.”

“We believe that all human lives are of equal value, because all humans are made in the image of God, and that if it is in our power to save lives – and if this is something our nation is obliged to do – we should be using the resources God has provided our nation to be generous to others.”

“As Christians we believe the ultimate display of generosity has been offered to all of us, through the death of Jesus, on the cross, in our place. This sort of sacrifice for others is the model we seek to follow, and a model that has led to significant social transformation in the last two thousand years.”

“Australian charities, with workers on the ground in those countries Australia’s aid benefits say that foreign aid is essential for saving lives. Our charities do great work. But it’s not enough.”

“On this basis, Church X is calling on the Federal Government, and our local member NAME, to increase Australia’s commitment to foreign aid to a level that makes Australia the most generous nation in the world, not decrease our aid spend in pursuit of a politically expedient headline, or a victory in a weekly news cycle.”

ENDS

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How churches use Social Media

It shouldn’t surprise you that I think churches should be using social media, and the ones who do use social media should be doing it better. Mostly because I think we should be going to where people are communicating and communicating the gospel to people (because I think that’s what Paul models in Acts 17 in Athens, and because I think it’s part of “always being prepared to give an account” ala Colossians 4).

It doesn’t surprise me that the churches that are using social media think that it helps them reach people, which seems to be the implication of this infographic from an American survey that was featured on Mashable yesterday.

Here are some resources for using Social Media for ministry, or thinking about Social Media.

Ten (or more) thoughts on “praying away the gay”

“Pray Away the Gay” was a heading the Brisbane Times used to describe a prayer meeting that some Christians held in the centre of Brisbane yesterday (here’s a follow up). A bunch of young Brisbanites turned out to protest against the prayer meeting on the basis that it was promoting a message of hate and intolerance. And I tend to agree with the protestors – though it didn’t help that the Brisbane Times sensationalised the story with a horrible headline more at home in the Republican primaries in America.

Here’s what the group, led by Christian Democrat Candidate, Peter Madden, from Sydney, said about the meeting (I’m trying to be as sympathetic to my fellow Christians as possible here.

“It is vital that we pray that God will have His way in Queensland in this election against the wickedness proposed by Anna Bligh and others, (who have pushed hard for the evil agenda of homosexual marriage in Queensland, clearly aimed at Australian children and families).

Please pray that God would raise up righteous leaders and remove the ungodly from power would send a clear message to the ALP Federally and in every state in Australia that they must not change the Marriage Act! That they might realise their foolishness and change their party policy back to the way it has always been!”

Now. This isn’t exactly “praying away the gay”… the Brisbane Times headline wasn’t particularly accurate there. I thought this may have been a slogan on the truck. But it wasn’t. This was what the truck, which the Brisbane Times articles suggested was hateful, featured…

Now. These aren’t nice. They’re emotive, and it’s a bit of a moral scare campaign. But they aren’t linking homosexuality to pedophilia, like the spokespeople for the LGBT lobby suggested in the Brisbane Times article. It seems Madden and his ilk are worried about sex ed classes promoting homosexuality as normal.

I’m actually more worried about the language Madden uses in the media release than about the posters.

I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating political quietism, where Christians never speak out on issues, nor do I want to present some sort of trite “Jesus wouldn’t have been interested in homosexuality” approaches to this issue. Neither is particularly compelling for either side of the debate. Both are cop outs. And both fail to comprehend the complexity of governing for myriad competing world views. This post is getting too long as it is, so I’ll try to wrap this up pretty quickly.

I’m fairly convinced that Jesus would have been interested in this debate – following Jesus means ditching your previous identity, and submitting your life to him. That’s pretty much the nature of being a Christian. This means submitting one’s sexual identity to his authority. Which means, if you’re going to take the Bible seriously, fighting against your sexual orientation. Just as if you’re going to take the Bible seriously you need to submit your heterosexual orientation to Jesus. One of my ethics essays last semester pretty much involved exactly this question – feel free to read it here.

So I think that line is a cop out. But it does not follow that because Jesus would have been interested in the issue, we should legislate according to what Jesus thinks, or what we think. If that were the case, for starters, Jesus would have spent a bit more time as a political lobbyist, or revolutionary – rather than calling for people to turn to the kingdom of God and find their identity in him. Here are a couple of problems with the idea that we should be praying for the demise of the Labor party, or the “wicked Anna Bligh”…

1. Homosexual attraction is not (necessarily, or even in most cases) a deliberate or conscious “choice” – this was a big part of the essay I linked to above – attraction is complex, there are all sorts of factors that can influence attraction, potentially including biology. One does not choose one’s orientation in the same way that one chooses their identity – in Christ or otherwise (nor does sexual orientation necessarily lead to identity – this is a bizarre modern western assumption).

2. It follows, that if one has not chosen Christianity, than there is no good case to be made for “praying away the gay” or seeing homosexuality as anything other than normal. The gay community has every right to contribute to a democracy, as do the Christians. Elected officials have a responsibility not just to the special interest group that brought them to power, but to every member of their electorate.

3. It is not “evil” to try to look after the interests of all members of society – especially those who are marginalised, bullied, and at greater risk of suicide or mental illness.

4. Nor is it evil, or “homophobic,” to believe that a particular human lifestyle is contrary to the intentions of God. That something appears “natural” is not a reason to say that this is how things ought to be. That is called the “naturalistic” or “is/ought” fallacy.

5. While the case regarding abortion, that it involves protecting children, is obvious, and potentially democratically legitimate, this doesn’t seem to be obviously the case in the question of gay marriage (no matter what the Christian Democrats might say), unless somebody is forcing children to choose to be gay, so the issue of gay marriage doesn’t really appear to be a political issue. It’s a moral issue, or theological issue, and not one that should necessarily be the subject of political debate.

6. The idea that Jesus would be more concerned about “the gay” than about “the adultery” or “the fornication” is bizarre. I don’t recall any sex ed class I ever went to advocating marriage as the only place for sex. We do ourselves, and the message of the gospel, a disservice if we focus on a particular sin.

7. Because homosexuality, and particularly gay rights and the question of marriage, is a hot-button issue, and a point at which the Christian message is in conflict with the way the world thinks, we’re always going to get hammered when we speak about homosexuality, and any attempt to be gracious is going to be lost in a negative headline. This means we need to be careful to only speak graciously, and not even attempt to talk about morality outside of talking about the gospel.

8. Nowhere, so far as I can see, are Christians called on to pray against the government. The Roman Empire was more opposed to the Christian message than any western government prior to the 20th century. And Christians were called to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-3).

9. The idea that Jesus loved sinners, and that we’re all sinners who need Jesus, gets lost if we keeping banging on about particular sins. And we oversimplify life, and politics in a democracy in particular, if talk as if life is a binary case of good and evil. While this may be true – most Christian theology, in most mainstream denominations (I want to say “all”), begin with the foundation that all people – not just those with same sex attraction, or a homosexual identity – are sinful. Life is complex, and messy, and driving slogan laden trucks around in protest about something is always going to be reductionist, hurtful, and interpreted as hateful.

10. Wouldn’t we be better off focusing our energy on clearly articulating the gospel – on spreading a message of hope for all, rather than anything that could be interpreted as hate for some? I don’t get why anybody would book out a public space in Brisbane to pray against our politicians rather than to meet people and tell them about Jesus in a way that listens to, empathises with, and cares for, the people of Brisbane where they’re at.

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Is it time to do away with “church”?

I was sitting in church this morning wondering why there wasn’t anybody new there. Wondering why it is so hard to get people who aren’t just transfers from another church out the door on a Sunday morning and into the Christian community that goes on in often uncomfortable buildings with a bunch of weird counter-cultural trappings.

I’m wondering if we need a rethink. Not so much in the mechanics of what goes on around the globe on a Sunday morning – I think there’s a pretty Biblical picture of what Christians should do when they gather that most churches are trying to emulate. I’m thinking we need to rethinking our branding.

In the broader non visual identity context, your branding can be defined as “the reaction people have in their head when they think about your product” – it’s like a word association game. And I reckon say the word “church” to most Aussies and you’ll get something like “child abuse cover up”, “money hungry”, or in more positive cases “boring” or “conservative”… I’m guessing an invite to “church” on the weekend is likely to result in a negative response from most people’s friends. And lets face it, nobody wants to invite friends to church these days anyway. Any evangelism I do is more likely to take the form of apologetics with friends who are hostile to Jesus already, or conversations when people find out I’m studying at Bible College. This might be my failing, but I’m pretty sure most people aren’t inviting their friends to church every week. And because I think like a marketer one of my first responses is to question our branding strategy. If people are thinking bad things about church, but still, according to the Gruen Transfer, thinking good things about Jesus, then perhaps we need a change in terminology. It seems like a bandaid solution – but at some point a word just becomes too tainted by negative associations to reclaim.

The whole “marketing Jesus because people still love the idea of him” idea has it problems though. See what happens when people try to make Christianity cool in this article from the Weekend Australian.

“Jesus comes with a large production crew these days. If you doubt it, simply Google churches like Planetshakers, in Melbourne, or Paradise Community Church (Adelaide), or the grand-daddy of them all, Hillsong, which now boasts a global reach to cities like London, New York and Cape Town from its base in Sydney’s Hills district. (And if you don’t know what Google is, good luck understanding this phenomenon; like most of their peers, hip young Christians frame much of their day and establish much of their identity via the internet). Lined up beside each other, it is hard to ignore the similarities between the churches’ websites. From their home pages, each promotes a funky, urban feel with sophisticated graphics, high-quality video clips, stadium-style rock and pop music, and an emphasis on connection not just through Sunday services but an array of smaller social groups and through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

Harder still is any attempt to locate the churches’ denomination on the traditional spectrum, such as that used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As it turns out, all of the churches named above belong to the Assemblies of God tradition, a Pentecostal group which renamed themselves the Australian Christian Churches in 2007. But if their websites are any indication, affiliation with an overarching denomination is far less important these days than cultivating your individual church identity – or brand.”

Now, unlike the Australian I don’t think Megachurches with ridiculously good looking pastor couples, are the answer (but if you want to plant one here’s my guide).

“Another striking finding was that a majority of all denominations agreed it was “OK to pick and choose your religious beliefs”. Among those Gen Yers who do identify as Christians, this openness about specific beliefs – what some critics would call moral relativism – might go some way to explaining the new fluidity around church attendance and the related reluctance to affiliate strictly with any particular church.

In the US, this trend has been tagged the “Love Jesus, Hate Church” syndrome; a disenchantment with old-style churches that lock followers into “us-versus-them” mentalities, both internally, in the form of ancient hierarchies dividing the clergy and laity, and externally, in sometimes bloody rifts with other Christian denominations. In Australia, it manifests among Christian Gen Y-ers as an overwhelming focus on one’s personal connection with Jesus Christ, with attendance at a bricks-and-mortar church seen as only one of many means of honouring that connection. Actual denominations are seen increasingly as irrelevant – if they are recognised at all.”

There’s some truth in this last paragraph, and we’d do well to rethink how we do church in the more conservative and reformed circles I move in. But the start of that quote is problematic. What we can’t do is sell out the truth, and our exclusive claims to truth, in order to be more palatable to the masses. I’ve written previously about a problem I have with only focusing on God’s love in our marketing (the John 3:16 as theme verse thing). That was one of the problems I had with the Jesus All About Life campaign, and it’s a possible problem with any “rebrand” of the Christian message – see the recent hoo-ha about Rob Bell’s decision to sell out hell in the name of a palatable gospel (though read Arthur’s post about how it may not be a good idea to jump in and judge this before Bell’s book actually comes out)

So I reckon the language of church needs to change (and the way we do church, but that’s something I need to think about more, the Total Church model is one idea, this Messy Church concept is something I heard about during the week that also piqued my curiosity). Both of these models clearly have problems. Baby and bathwater problems. But there are some core concepts to them that are good. Ultimately we want people to meet Jesus and have their lives radically transformed. It seems to me that calling what we do “church” may increasingly become a barrier to that. So I vote we change it.

But what to call it? At QTC we’re big on the notion of “family of God” as the basis for our ecclesiology. But that sounds a little bit like a cult. I like the word “community” – but that’s because I’m currently thinking that one connecting point between the church and our culture is creating (or recreating) community for people living in an increasingly individualised society. What do you reckon? Am I barking up the wrong tree? What’s the point of staying attached to a word that etymologically comes from the Greek “House of the Lord” anyway? Gathering, or community, is more biblical.

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John Piper ruins Twitter again…

The impetus for my Mark Driscoll Ruined Facebook post was a post from elsewhere (linked in that one) suggesting that John Piper’s incredibleness had ruined Twitter because he spawned so many imitators.

I’m hoping this tweet doesn’t get repeated too much. There are some Bible verses that just aren’t really cut out for pulling out of context and moralising:

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Some holds barred

Did you know that the term “no holds barred” comes from wrestling? Not the fake stuff. The real ancient art.

I’ve been reading a bunch of articles and discussions online recently surrounding a Christian response to cagefighting. Craig started it in his column at SydneyAnglicans. He suggested we should be coming up with an articulate position on what appears to be a pretty divisive matter of conscience populated by two unbiblical extremes…

For many, their first gut reaction to the sport will define their position. But it may be worth spending some time to work through the issue properly. I predict this sport will become enormously popular in Australia over the next few years, especially amongst young men. If this happens, it will be good if we have done some proper thinking on the subject beforehand.

Now everywhere I turn on the interwebs I’m reading the debate.

Ben commented on it yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about cage fighting churches, Justin Taylor quoted this rebuttal to the kind of Christianity modeled in the times piece and Mark Driscoll has been banging on about UFC for years. Cage fighting is well and truly established there and I haven’t read a middle ground response from the Christian community – you’re either in the Jesus was a cage fighter camp or the sissy pacifist camp… which led to this quote.

It discourages and mocks godly men who aren’t macho. There is an undercurrent of disdain in all of this. Proponents of this testosterone Christianity can’t help but take shots at guys who wear pastels and drink cappuccino. You might not like guys with manicures, but there’s absolutely nothing morally wrong with it. A reserved, quiet, well-groomed man can be a good Christian. Believe it or not.

I think the debate is pretty silly and out of all the Christian interactions I’ve read or experienced they descend in to ad hominem non-arguments the quickest (though arguments about Genesis 1 and alcohol consumption are up there).

From the NY Times:

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”

Some of the arguments for cage fighting are just stupid. Jesus was not a cage fighter. No matter how hard some of the Americans want to believe that to be the case. Being a cage fighter does not make one a man, it does not even make one more manly. If this is just a correction to the feminisation of the church then it’s an odd and ill directed attempt to get more men along – but Craig was right. This is a discussion we need to have. Cage fighting is huge.

While I think some of the extreme positions on the pro fighting side are silly I wonder how much of the bellicose criticism coming from the anti-violence side of the debate is just ill-conceived grandstanding.

Gentleness is a good thing. Sure. And Christians are called on to turn the other cheek. But to suggest that a sporting endeavour where two combatants engage in a competition with agreed upon rules and parameters is somehow definitively ruled out in the Bible just seems odd to me. It’s a conscience issue – surely.

I’m not out to change anybody’s opinion on this matter – if you think violent sports are wrong then don’t watch or take part in them. I watch boxing. I enjoy WWE (which isn’t real). I haven’t watched much UFC – but I don’t have a problem with it – really. It’s just not my preference. I’d rather watch a bunch of other sports. I love the violence and physicality of league. Anybody who says they don’t watch league for the collisions is just a touch football fan in disguise. Does this make me a bad person? Anybody who thinks that league players don’t go out of their way to “hurt” others has never seen a forward make a tackle or a hit up (and they certainly haven’t spoken to any successful league players).

Why are we pain averse? I don’t understand why causing other people pain it’s clearly expected and mitigated by rules is possibly wrong? Is it less good than not causing them pain? I don’t know… but lines drawn in this debate seem completely arbitrary. League is ok (or perhaps Union), UFC is not – where does the line fall? How do you decide? As an aside – in the comments on Craig’s post Kutz suggested we need a doctrine of sport. I like that idea.

The clincher (for me) came up in the Sydney Anglicans discussion. I love the stories of violence in the Old Testament – I don’t glory in them (too much) – but I see them as pictures of justice and of the struggle between good and evil. The Bible contains more violence from righteous men than UFC will ever produce.

If it comes down to a question of “purpose” and violence not being suitable for entertainment then I wonder how many of the brothers coming out against UFC enjoy violent movies or TV shows? How can one affirm the quality of the Godfather while decrying a sport?

If it’s a problem with the unholiness of the entertainment then what about every TV show that contains sexual immorality… if it’s that the sin is real and not imagined then what about game shows where contestants are motivated by greed?

I don’t see why the objections to this passion or interest are so heated and so different to the reactions to anything else – except perhaps for a declaration that one considers the earth to be billions, not thousands, of years old or the suggestion that beer is one of God’s best ideas.

,

In praise of hot wives

Dear person who writes their online profiles mindful that your wife reads it,

We get it. You love your wife. You think she’s hot. That’s why you got married.

The rest of us may be inclined to disagree. We may believe that our own wife is hotter.

The fact that you need to reassure yourself that your wife is hot is great. But it comes across as, umm, a bit overstated.

Regards,
Nathan.

You might be wondering why I’m posting this. Well, I was trawling the archives of the Stuff Christian Culture Likes and came across this post. It’s one of my favourites.

Here’s Stephy’s take:

Fortunately, Christian hotness standards are not quite the same as conventional (secular) hotness standards. Value is supposed to be placed on the person rather than on appearance. Even so, hotness is still a valuable commodity even in Christian culture. The public declaration of a spouse’s hotness is a lovely gesture, but can become disquieting when expressed so frequently and fervently. It can begin to sound as if they are trying to convince themselves of something. Could thou protest too much?

My absolute favourite part though, and the part that makes this utterly postworthy, is if you do a bit of a phrase search on Twitter (I can’t guarantee that the results you get will be the same and/or safe for work/your holiness) you get a bunch of people talking about their hot wives. And a startling percentage are Christians. From my quick profile check of the people at this link I would say that close to 80% of the people using the phrase on Twitter either define themselves as Christians in their little description or tweet regularly about the Bible.

How odd.

For the record, I think my wife is hot – but seriously – I don’t need to tell you that.

An odd Christmas wishlist for the religious

R. Joseph Hoffmann is an interesting kettle of fish – he’s a biblical scholar who in his own words spends time fighting new atheists and old faitheists. Reading his blog, and wikipedia entry, he seems to be a bit of an angry man trapped in a theological liberal’s body.

The blogosphere would be much less confusing if people identified exactly what they believe about the topic they write about in their “about” page.

Anyway, Hoffman has posted a list of Christmas wishes that shows he probably has more in common with the atheists than the religious. Patronising lists like this annoy me.

1. All of you need to relinquish belief in heaven, hell. eternal reward, and eternal punishment. And of any God who participates in such abusive game-playing. These things do not exist except in your head. To the extent any of your conduct–towards virtue or towards killing infidels who don’t agree with you–is motivated by eschatology, you are living a dangerous fantasy and teaching your daughters and sons it is true.

Jesus believed in heaven and hell. He talked about it. You might as how I know this – I know this because I choose to trust the eye witness accounts as documented in history – some no doubt wish to reject these accounts claiming “special knowledge” or casting aspersions on the writers, their agendas, or any claim of some sort of absolute truth from historical documentation. I reject that premise and thus I embrace the accounts of witnesses and doctrines of heaven and hell.

These things exist outside of my head. In the Bible (and in many other religions). If I was making up a religion of my own imagination the benefits would be immediate and intangible. They’d be a psychosomatic peace or tranquility. That would be much easier to sell than the notion of loved ones sent to hell.

2. All of you need to grow up a little. Some religions more than others, some people within each tradition more than the rest. It’s no wonder that some of our best minds since the nineteenth century have compared religion to infantile delusion and childlike behavior. Sorry to say, most of the people who see religion this way have been semi-believers or unbelievers.

But who’d deny that the Taliban behave like two year-olds with guns rather than like men, whether they are beating girls or blowing up Buddha statues in Bamyan. The robust beards are only masks for the deep sense of masculine insecurity they mistake for obedience to God’s will. Their wives will know better.

I’m assuming that by “religion” this writer means “belief in God” – a common use of the word – if he speaks of the trappings that people with beliefs attach to their doctrines – then perhaps we agree.

But working from that hypothesis, I wonder who the “best minds” he speaks of are? That’s such a bold assertion to make with no evidence. I’m sure I could counter any list of “best minds” who think that way with a list of “best minds” who agree with my take on things. That’s pure subjectivity. Of course those people have been semi-believers or unbelievers. The nature of the claim. By claiming that such belief is delusion you distance yourself from that belief. This is an odd statement.

No one would deny that the Taliban are nuts.

3. Value secular learning. I do not know whether the truth will make you, or me, free. I do know that religious truth is normally a shortcut for the intellectually lazy, crafted and sustained by preachers who like one-book solutions to the manifold problems of a complex world.

Both the Bible and the Quran have served that purpose in their time. But Truth in the sense religions try to frame it–as dogma or superior knowledge–isn’t worth a confederate dollar. Knowledge of history, science, and the things of this world will get you a lot farther down the road to true salvation than religion will. Embrace it.

Who doesn’t value secular learning? It’s hard though, for those who believe in a sovereign God to completely remove his influence from human discovery. Once that is your null hypothesis then every scientific discovery is a revelation of the mechanics of this God’s works or design.

I understand that this sort of thinking is not the target of this piece – which seems to be those who are superstitious of anything thought up by humans. It’s hard though when you believe that humans are naturally inclined to try to remove God from the picture.

What purpose did the Bible serve? Why is it limited to a particular timeframe? This is what happens when you read the Bible as some sort of social control mechanism (which it never claims to be), or history book, or science text book, rather than theology. The Bible primarily helps us understand God. That’s it’s purpose. It’s right to understand the world through a lens of understanding God – but I don’t know any farmer who uses the Bible to understand how best to raise sheep – though there is an account of raising sheep in the Bible. Most believers are cluey enough to figure out what the Bible is for. It reveals a God who loves his creation, sustains it and shows mercy to those who follow Jesus Christ.

Learning these exciting secular truths this guy speaks of will no doubt be helpful in the short term – they won’t necessarily help you once you die – if death is all there is. I don’t understand the rational of trying to redeem helpful cultural parts of religion. If I rejected religion I’d do what the Bible suggests is the natural outcome of life without God – I’d eat, drink, and be merry.

4. Don’t rely overmuch on “interfaith dialogue,” the corporate certainties of the religious world, the merging of fantasies in favour of a grandly mistaken worldview and the substitution of “dialogue” for serious reflection and discourse. As religions grow less confident in the twenty first century, at least in terms of their ethical and explanatory value for human life,they will turn again to the arena of martyrdom as a proving ground for faith above reason. Do not be fooled.

Most people who genuinely hold on to a faith – be it Christianity, Islam or Judaism (the three Hoffman addresses in other lists within the post) – aren’t interested in “interfaith” dialogue in the sense of finding a common thread. Sure, there’s common ground on a couple of moral issues (like abortion) – but mostly we agree to disagree and seek to show people where they’re wrong.

Hoffman seems to be holding up strawmen from each belief he picks on – like the bearded Taliban member overcompensating for his emasculating religious beliefs.

All I want for Christmas is for an atheist/liberal/agnostic list writer to actually engage with the orthodox beliefs held by the people they attack rather than with the caricatures. I want them to deal with the thinkers from these beliefs rather than the loony fringe. That’s where the real discourse takes place.

Christianity doesn’t kill people, people kill people

I’m sick and tired of atheists blaming Christians for killing millions of people or condemning the God of the Bible for doing so. It’s not actually a logical position for them to take.

If religion, as they see it, is a baseless form of social control invented by our survival driven minds to make people be nice to each other then it’s not actually “Christians” killing people, or God killing people. It’s people killing people.

If the Christian God is a baseless myth how can he be accused of killing people? If Christianity is a delusion then surely the defence of insanity works for those who allegedly killed in God’s name.

Christianity can not, by itself, be responsible for the death of anybody. It can, at best, be the justification used by a killer for their actions either from a deluded sense of duty or because they’re looking to act in a sinister manner and need a scapegoat.

On one hand atheists will often assert that there is no such thing as evil and on the other they’ll call religion (and especially Christianity) evil on the basis of a few conflicts throughout history that were pretty clearly the actions of depraved and power hungry individuals disguising their ambitions in a cover of religiosity.

The “new atheist” will also claim that all the good stuff we take for granted – like the end of slavery – was won through the “enlightenment”. What they fail to mention is that more people were killed during the enlightenment’s French Revolution (16,000 to 40,000 during the “Reign of Terror”) than during the Spanish Inquisition (3,000 – 5,000).

Jesus: All about life in Sydney

Interesting survey stats about the state of Christian belief in Sydney verses the rest of the country.

Note – this is not the Christians – this is all people in Sydney surveyed as part of the market research for the Jesus All About Life campaign.

Compared with all Australians, Sydneysiders are more likely to believe:

  • Jesus was born of a virgin (56% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus healed a blind man (60% SYD and 51% AUS)
  • Jesus turned water into wine (56% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus walked on water (53% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus was crucified and died on a cross (80% SYD and 76% AUS)
  • Jesus rose from the dead (58% SYD and 47% AUS)
  • Jesus ascended bodily into heaven (55% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus will return to Earth one day (46% SYD and 37% AUS)

Now tell me again why such a disproportionate rate of reformed evangelical workers are required for the harvest in Sydney?

My friend Mike is always keen to talk to people about ministry in regional Queensland – you can find his church website here.

Why I’m not an Atheist #3 – Jesus

Everything Iʼve said to this point you might describe as the negative reasons for my not being an atheist — things which others find persuasive about atheism which I donʼt find persuasive.

But the strongest reason I refrain from choosing atheism is because of Jesus. I suppose itʼs natural for someone like myself to be categorised as a ʻtheistʼ, but I feel no particular attachment to theism per se. I am a Christian — if I am a theist, it is not because I have highly developed arguments for theism which have led me there. It is because I am convinced — rightly or wrongly — that God took on human form in the man Jesus Christ, and that he did so in order to save humanity from his own judgement.

But again atheism is quick to expose my convictions as a delusion.

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history…” (The God Delusion, p. 122)

Why do I hold on to my convictions about the historicity of Jesus Christ when there is so
much scholarship indicating itʼs a myth generated over time?

Well, the thing about this scholarship Dawkinsʼ talks about is that it doesnʼt actually exist.

I donʼt mean that there are NO scholars that propose the kind of things Dawkinsʼ says, but that the claim that ʻreputable biblical scholars in generalʼ say this kind of thing is just not defensible. There are SOME scholars who make those kind of claims, and often do so not in journals but in publishing direct to the public.

But reading a little more widely than just Richard Dawkins, and Barbara Thiering, you discover that within scholarship itself there is large ʻmiddle groundʼ which just gets on and analyses the NT documents in just the same way you would analyse any other document from history — neither to debunk nor to defend Christianity, but to see what they say historically. Sweeping claims that that scholarship slants towards a mythological reading of those gospels is just absurd. It shows that Dawkins is not acquainted with serious historical scholarship, or chooses not to write about.

Terry Eagleton is a marxist scholar who wrote a justly famous review of Dawkins book. In it he had this to say about Dawkinsʼ engagement with scholarship:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donʼt believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday. – Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, October 19, 2006.

In talking about Jesus, I need to address that historical question, because you may be expecting me to defend my convictions about the historical Jesus. But I would suggest the shoe is on the other foot — if you are convinced of the mythology of the gospels, and heir mutilation over time … where have those convictions come from? Why are you so sure of them? Is it because you understand the history, or because you have taken on faith the claims of certain scholars and writers? I know you can run off to the web, or pull out the God Delusion and find someone who agrees with you — but Christians can do that too.

Finding someone to agree with you can help, but it doesnʼt make it right.

For me, there is good reason to understand the documents of the New Testament as providing a historically reliable connection with Jesus Christ. The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus. There were many other gospels, but these were second century documents that synthesised the original Jesus with 2nd century gnosticism — which was the reason for their rejection. The transmission of the documents was not without error, but there are so many copies of the NT from different periods and different regions that the copying errors are pretty easy to identify, and very few of them are of any real significance.

Now they are just claims, and there is historical data behind those claims — I did a whole talk on it at CU last semester called “True Words?”— you can listen to it on CUʼs website if you want.

So when I say that Jesus is the definitive reason that Iʼm not an atheist, I hope you donʼt think to yourself, Well heʼs just deluded, and has an imaginary friend called Jesus, or that Iʼm worshipping some later myth about Jesus. When I say Jesus, I mean the real historical Jesus who I think it is plausible to believe was a man who claimed to be both the son of God and the saviour of the world.

But itʼs not Jesusʼ historicity — itʼs Jesus himself who is the main reason why I interpret atheism’s claims negatively.

I donʼt worship Jesus because Iʼve got good arguments about him — I worship him because he is supremely worthy of worship. He is the creator who has written himself into his creation. I hope you will forgive me if I speak about him!

He claimed to be without sin; he claimed to be God, and did things that only God could do; he claimed to be the only path to reconciliation with God. It was because of those claims that Jesus was treated without compassion. He wasnʼt crucified for telling people to love each other — but for claiming to be the king! He was lied about, arrested, endured a mock trial, beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and a crowd mocked him and spat on him. In the face of that rejection, on the cross, his concern was for the forgiveness of his enemies. In his death, he paid a penalty, enduring our death for us – that we could be forgiven. The creator died for us in order to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus confronts us: he says we are corrupt, not just morally, but intellectually. That in cut
ting ourselves off from God we have forced ourselves into a position of having to invent
alternative explanations for the world that donʼt include God.

So I have a choice — I can listen to what the atheist says about Jesus (a mythological figure, misunderstood by Christians), or listen to what Jesus says about the atheist (humans loved by God but in rebellion against him creating philosophies with which to remove Godʼs influence). Each has an explanatory power about the other — itʼs not an easy decision. I am not an atheist, because I have listened to Jesus and for my part, I am persuaded he speaks truth.