confession

Confession: I am not always virtuous in my online interactions

Yesterday, in my anger, I sinned.

I am spending lots of time angry at the moment. I’m angry at the culture wars; and the way the institutional church — especially the one I am part of — is being co-opted into that war and given a position at the centre of the line on the hard right. I’m angry that this mirrors the way the church got in bed with Trump and we can’t see how that damaged our witness.

I’m angry at our tin ear that is produced by seeing every issue as a battlefront in the culture war that we need to fight with gusto. I’m angry that it’s the people in our communities who are most vulnerable who get caught in the cross fire on these culture wars (the ones who have intersecting interests with the causes championed by the other side of the war).

I’m angry at how little thought goes into the positions we take — whether theological reflection, theological anthropology, or theological ethics. I’m angry that we thought sexual orthodoxy was more important than theological orthodoxy (and even nuance) when it came to the Israel Folau saga; that we couldn’t defend him without making him ‘one of us’. I’m angry at our ethics being utilitarian, where any means are justified by the ends of the culture war.

I’m angry that to speak against the hard right — in a conservative denomination is to be, a bit like the ‘never Trump’ Republican, viewed as some sort of ‘Fifth Column’ trying to undermine the culture war agenda.

I’m angry that people call out my ‘lefty responses’ to influential figures in our denomination — like Mark Powell, or his framing of our Moderator’s email — but won’t ever call out the hard right because they’re fighting the good fight. You know whose criticisms of Trump I valued — not the Democrats; but the Lincoln Projects; not the progressive Christians who’d dismissed the authority of the Bible, but faithful never-Trump thinkers like Karen Swallow Prior, or Alan Noble.

I’m angry that we can’t escape the polarising view of the world provided to us by social media and our current socio-political context — and so, that everything I say about that grid gets interpreted as reinforcing that grid — the same goes for critiquing ‘right/left’ politics as expressions of liberalism; if I’m not ‘for’ one side of the culture war, then I must be against that side. It’s exhausting.

I’m angry too, that in fighting against the culture war, and against the hard right, I inevitably become a player in the culture war and the left keep wanting to make me a champion.

A pox on all your houses.

#teammecutio.

Some people have said that ‘where I’m coming from’ is confusing — or, have demonstrably been confused about where I’m coming from, seeing me as a would be champion of ‘the left’ (almost never of ‘the right’). And that makes me angry too.

So here. Let me confess my beliefs, before I move on to confessing some particular sins from this week.

I am not a theological, or political, progressive — I am sympathetic to causes the progressive side of the culture war has decided to pursue, just as I am to causes conservatives have decided to pursue.

I do not want to be a champion of either the theological or political left, co-opted to fight some culture war against the right. But I am not in an institution with people on the theological left, so I devote my energy and my words to trying to bring reform in the communities and institutions that I have signed up to. I believe the oaths I swore when signing up to minister in the Presbyterian Church. I believe this institution should be broad enough to accommodate Mark Powell and me (and people to my left who stay silent because taking on establishment figures like Mark Powell who spend their time platform building and boundary policing is really costly).

I am theologically conservative in that my beliefs are confessional, and creedal — but I am also committed to the spirit of the Reformation, and the belief that human institutions can build traditions in error and so must constantly ask what it is we are ‘conserving’ and seek to move back to the original teaching and tradition — the Scriptures, and especially, Jesus, the exact representation and image of God. I believe Jesus defies categorisation in modern partisan terms, so his church should too.

This is not to say that I do not like people on the political or theological left, or people on the political or theological right. I believe in loving our neighbours, and our enemies.

I am pro-life, #alllifematters.

I am pro-non-government mediating institutions.

I am pro people being able to form communities that pursue shared beliefs about ‘the good.’

I am pro-religious freedom. I believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe we should revise church traditions in response to worldly progressive politics.

I do believe we should revise church traditions where they are not aligned with the word of God, and, especially the way the word of God — the whole counsel of God — is about Jesus.

I do believe that the Bible calls us to love people, and invite them to submit to Jesus, and That people cannot live as though Jesus is Lord, or even as those in the ‘image and likeness’ of God if they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worship created things instead of the creator.

I believe that the Bible calls us to love the marginalised and the oppressed.

I believe God opposes the proud, and the oppressor, and gives grace to the humble; and liberation to the oppressed. I believe that political and physical oppression are visible symptoms of spiritual oppression; and that Jesus didn’t just come to deal with the ‘spiritual’ reality of sin and our status before God, but also with the way sin impacts individual lives, and systems, and nations.

I believe the Bible pictures sin as both personal and systemic, and that we should recognise both. I believe ‘the right’ reduces sin to the personal, or individual, and that ‘the left’ reduces sin to the systemic, especially systems that oppress.

So, for example, I believe that racism is evil, and that it is not just about individual attitudes, but systems set up when individual attitudes were explicitly racist, and where those systems have been perpetuated in ways that advantage ‘the proud’ and the wealthy, and disadvantage the outsider.

I don’t believe people should be cancelled. I believe that speech should be costly — but the cost of speech is ‘ethics’ (ethos); living up to your words with integrity and sacrifice. I don’t believe people holding different opinions, and holding those in communities-of-difference should be inherently harmful. I believe cancellation is typically ‘religiously’ motivated, and that everybody worships — either the true God, or an idol fashioning God into an image of our making.

I believe there’s a spiritual dimension to our reality where political systems reflect the nature of shared ‘national’ gods — and these might actually be real spiritual beings, not just avatars of human desires, and that ‘human empires’ like Babylon, or Rome, are actually expressions of cosmic rebellion against God, and that religious people through history (think Israel) often get swept up into false kingdoms while believing they are worshipping God.

I don’t believe state power should be used to do much more than uphold a civic space in which people and communities can pursue truth, goodness, and relationship, but I believe state power will almost always serve a ‘god’ or collection of gods, and that politics is religious. I believe our politics should be built on the Gospel, and that we should be more concerned about the pastoral than the political, and, because the kingdom of God is not yet universalised, we should uphold pluralism and the religious freedom of others to pursue life on their terms, as we would have them treat us.

I believe our sexed bodies are realities given to us by God to be stewarded. I believe that the fall effects our biology (including that our bodies die). I believe this means Intersex people are real, and gender dysphoria is real, and that it’s possible that if there’s an intersex body there is an intersex brain. I believe that gender is performed, and constructed. And that most ‘progressive’ thinking denies physical realities — and so is gnostic — while most ‘conservative’ thinking denies social dynamics (like construction and performance) and so is materialist. I believe that it’s possible that people who don’t believe our bodies are given to us by God are ‘acting in good faith’ according to their own religious and political convictions when making laws to protect such individuals, or affirm their vision of the good.

I believe sex — and our bodies — and our relationships to other people (families, spouses, children, and especially the church) to be as central to our personhood (or identity) as our ‘personal desires’ and that our ‘performance’ of our gender should reflect those realities not just our desires. I believe that ‘individualism’ as it applies to the modern, post-Christendom west, is a Christian heresy. I believe that marriage isn’t just a ‘natural order’ biological thing about making babies through straight sex; but a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his church. I believe we are called, particularly as Christians, to be people of good character (who thus make decisions from our hearts) — not to do what gets results.

I believe greed, power, and empire are actually more pressing idols shaping the western world than sexual liberty — and that the church turns a blind eye to those (and is swept up in them), while demonising idolatry in the areas of sex, sexuality, and gender to our detriment. I believe often sex and sexuality are actually functions of greedy power games, including ‘self-liberty,’ and we spend more time on symptoms than on the heart of the problem.

There are many other things I believe. But this is a start.

I am angry at how easy it is for positions like this to be forced into a ‘right/left’ grid so that we might dismiss some other.

I am angry that these beliefs lead to some people calling me ‘a wolf’ and ‘everything that is wrong with the church’ and ‘woke’ and ‘a pharisee’. But I’m not really that concerned about how people think about me. I’m angry that the culture war has a crossfire that catches faithful, orthodox, nuanced pastors I admire from the left, and individuals living vulnerably in church communities, while making the church seem unwelcome to anyone to the left of Scott Morrison, from the right. I have thick skin, and bankable skills. I’m not marginalised, or a victim, or oppressed. I am not claiming victim status here. I just don’t want to be a fighter in your stupid wars, and I don’t want our institution to be a significant culture war player held up as an example by the leaders and media platforms of the hard right.

I’m angry at how our ‘tin ear’ could mean that on a day in which international apologist Ravi Zacharias — championed by political and theological conservatives (like Mike Pence and Martyn Iles) was exposed as a serial predator and rapist, and megachurch pastor Carl Lentz was exposed as a narcississtic predator, somehow those urging peace, or nuance, in a culture war are called ‘the biggest danger to the church‘… And let’s face it — Mark might publicly deny that this is about me, but everyone – including Mark — knows that he was writing this about me. But if it’s not — the great sins that article points out — nuance, a desire to be pastorally sensitive, a desire to enforce one’s ecclesiological structures, and a desire to be theologically accurate in our public engagements — are all apparently dangers to the church because they undermine our culture war efforts.

So, I’m angry. And there isn’t much virtue in anger — and, there’s a warning about this in the Bible that doesn’t say anger is inherently wrong.

But it does say: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

And I am guilty of sinning in my anger in the last few days; in ways that undermine all the stuff that makes me angry.

It is clear that to be angry at the culture war — and to try to take no side — can end up just making you some sort of champion for a ‘third way’ of culture warring, or a mercenary who gets pulled from one side to another. And I have no interest in that.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And so. Here are my confessions.

I find it harder to love my brothers and sisters on ‘the right’ — who should be ‘my friends’ — given that I am part of a confessional, theologically conservative, denomination — than I do to love those on ‘the left’ in the culture war. I find the commitment to justice for the marginalised more compelling than commitments to our own institutional power and Christian morality being extended beyond the church. I speak in harsher terms about their positions — especially those within my institution — than I do about those I believe to be in error on the other side. I do a better job of listening to and engaging charitably with the progressive theological and political positions that I agree with than with the conservative ones — in part because I’d like to present conservative positions without ‘culture war’ engagement, and to cut through the messaging that sees something like religious freedom as a culture war battlefront is difficult without differentiation. I believe there are times where this difficulty produces ungodly and immoderate interactions with others (I had several comments on a forum moderated yesterday because I consistently, and deliberately, misspelled the name Caldron Pool). I can do better at this, and am thankful for friends who call me out.

I particularly have difficulty finding a loving way to engage with those pushing a hard culture war agenda, and adopting the tactics of the Christian Right in the U.S. In my humble assessment these are the greater danger to those of us who are theologically conservative than to become theologically progressive.

I have trouble because I see things in fairly integrated ways, with not disentangling that integration. So. On the day Ravi was exposed in the way he was, as, I think, an indictment not just of Ravi, but of the sort of celebrity power-game culture that Christians have bought into and justified via ‘utilitarian’ arguments (eg, the idea Ravi didn’t need scrutiny because of how fruitful he was for the kingdom), I sinned by commenting on a glowing endorsement of Ravi by an Australian culture warrior made on the day of his death — when the accusations against him were public and well known, but dismissed as part of a culture war agenda against this giant of the faith.

This was cheap and unbecoming. There are more constructive ways to make that point.

I have been so swept up in my anger that I have lost a sense of what is righteous, and taken shortcuts around pursuing what is true. So today, I shared and condemned a tweet that I thought was from an American culture warrior that was actually from a parody account. I took a ‘culture war’ side; not because I think the ‘left’ had things right, but because I believe the hard right to be diabolically in error and problematic allies for theological conservatives. I was quick to speak, and quick to anger. I was deceived.

I could do with meditating more on this passage, that I do believe should guide our interactions on social media.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
— James 1:16-21

So. I’m working on my anger. Working on my peacemaking. Working on being constructive in my contribution to discussions about the intersection between Christianity and politics. Working on my contrarian streak that has me acerbically and cynically pushing back on those with whom I have genuine disagreements. This doesn’t mean that everything I’ve posted, said, or done is worthy of the criticism I’ve received, but that criticism does reflect an area of my life and practice that is worth repenting of, and there are areas that I, like any of us, can benefit from the calm correction of brothers and sisters. It’s that sort of calm criticism — rather than dog whistled, culture war driven, labelling of one another as ‘wolves’ that is likely to produce change; and those friends are the voices worth listening to.

I’m working on this stuff — but I won’t always get it right; and nor do I believe that working on this stuff can be done by staying silent on the damage the culture war is doing to our witness to the goodness of the kingdom of Jesus for all people.

I don’t think talking about virtue ethics requires perfection of virtues — but it does require a commitment to becoming more virtuous over time. And I hope to do that.

The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

For the couple of months I’ve poured more hours than I care to count into The Sims 2. I even built this cathedral with the aim of turning young Jonesy Jones into a mega-church planter (for a while he was appropriately employed as ‘Cult Leader’). In a triumph of church architecture, I built him his own light-filled ‘crystal cathedral,’ with couches for pews, a cruciform layout, a podium as a pulpit, a buffet table as an altar, and state of the art musical instruments in the wings. Jonesy drives a not-too-ostentatious car (the second most expensive in the game, lodged between ‘people mover’ and ‘sports car’ in cost, but high on ‘approval’ from those who track his spending), which is parked in the driveway of his modest, though comfortable, manse, on site.

He, ironically, lost all his friends in the move to this building (I clicked the wrong button), so needs to rebuild his little human empire congregation; though he has maxed out his charisma skills, and he’s a naturally fun guy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s dangerous, because Jonesy Jones also craves human affection, so his happiness is going to depend lots on how people respond to this project.

In short, I’m hoping Jonesy is nothing like me — but there’s a danger that, at my worst, he is a projection of who I think I should be in my darker moments…

It has taken me a little bit to figure out why I find the idea of clicking and controlling the lives of little simulated people so compelling; and to figure out what it is that drives the choices I make as to how they live, and the jobs they do, and the families they create and the homes they build.

So much of it is about control.

Unlike in the real world where I exercise almost little to no control over the lives and decisions of the real people around me — kids, family, colleagues, or congregants — and where that can feel like I’m flinging myself around a sinking ship trying to peg gaps if I’m not careful to remember I’m not God… the Sims lets you play at being God in a controlled environment. Though you’re mostly ‘in control,’ it’s still a matter of ‘life and death’ — a sim can die if you accidentally deprive them of the essentials of life — food, rest, friends, and fun — or if there’s some sort of ‘divine’ action where, for example, repairing an electrical device goes wrong, or a meteor strikes you while you’re looking through a telescope — but you know these risks and love your little sims, so you direct them away from harmful behaviour and towards the straight and narrow… mostly… I might have deliberately killed a sim or two in my time by swallowing them up with a meat eating plant, boxing them in to a room with no doors, or removing a ladder from a swimming pool — I mean, who hasn’t… but I’ve never killed a sim who didn’t deserve it.

I really have been pondering my addiction; there’s perhaps nothing more repetitive than the accretive clicking of the mouse required to build a little Sim empire, and so there’s something oddly liturgical about this game and the story it tells about what life as God is like, or perhaps what life ‘in control’ in the real world might feel like. There’s a danger a game like The Sims feeds a certain dissatisfaction about real life — not just that conflict in the real world can’t be solved by a few pillow fights, or hangouts, or some time around the pool table — but that other people aren’t so easily directed. I can’t just click a mouse and make my problems, or theirs, go away. I can’t organise the lives of others to achieve collective goals or to pursue my own personal narrative.

And, as dad, pastor, and colleague, this bothers me. There are so many spheres of my life where, if I were honest, I’d prefer life to be more like the Sims.  There has never been a time in my life where I’ve felt less in control of the decisions and actions of others, nor more like I’d like to be in control of those decisions in some sort of ‘ideal world’. I’ve been solo parenting two of our kids as part of a 13 day trip for Robyn and our oldest; and our house looks nothing like the carefully curated houses I build in the Sims (with excess space and plenty of distractions, plus a paid cleaner to keep things in order).

I don’t have a highly cultivated ‘personal influence’ ability that allows me to direct and influence sims who aren’t even under my Godlike powers as part of the ‘family’… I’m not a cult leader. I don’t cultivate a following because of my charisma which means people will literally stand for many ‘sim hours’ to hear me speak (I’m lucky if I can hold a room for 15 minutes of my allotted 25 and actual 30).

Our little church community doesn’t have a building to call our own, not a cruciform cathedral with a glass roof like my Sims one, or just a humble hall. And so we’ve been subject to the whims of other hosts (though God has providentially provided an alternative meeting place in fairly bizarre circumstances) — as of January 7 we’ll have moved venues twice in a four month period. We live, it seems, in a perpetual state of spatial flux. Never knowing where home is, and making the best of whatever spot we’re in (or looking for something more suitable), but it’s not ultimately up to us where we land. We don’t own a space, and buying one with the right zoning would require an act of powers greater than mine (both God and the Brisbane City Council).

I can’t click a button to make people sit in the (comfortable) pews. People are leaving our community for reasons from the practical to the political to the theological; and if I could click and send them somewhere — if I were God — I’d keep them and have those decisions resolved around a table and in conversation (or if none of that worked out, my Sims like temptation would be to find some button I could click to make them think like me). People are also joining our community and changing the ‘family ecosystem’ in ways that are great, but also part of the challenge of a dynamic and moving organism — ways that reduce ‘control’ for any one person (me) as we grow.

And yet, in these moments of uncertainty and this growing sense that I’m not in control, I guess I’ve had two options. I could’ve spent these many hours of ‘down time’ responding to these circumstances in many constructive ways (not just virtual reality contructive ways), and yet, I’ve chosen to play a stupid computer game as some sort of catharsis (I’m sure it has worked, and I’m not the sort to be negative about the power of games, or about their entertainment value and the need for rest and recreation). The Sims could teach me to be frustrated about life outside the virtual realm, or it could point me to the one who is in control.

In the midst of my addiction to The Sims I went along to a discussion night on James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love, which, along with Smith’s other ‘Cultural Liturgies’ works provides a useful Augustinian (and Biblical) account of human behaviour and how people change; the idea that we feed our desires and our sense of how life is to be lived by repetitive action — or liturgies — the best, most powerful, and most dangerous of these liturgies, in terms of formation, are the ones that suck us in through our imaginations and our feelings, not through reasoned repetition… but the mindless stuff. When I was asked what habitual actions I hadn’t really assessed in a sort of behavioural audit, I was tempted to gloss over just how many hours I’d spend in this alternate reality. This fantasy world.

This made me wonder what it is my repetitive clicks and the story they are attached to in my imagination — my participation in The Sims and its world and stories — what it forms in my desires and my approach to the world beyond the computer screen. Am I picturing my little sims as real people? Projecting my control into the real world and assessing reality through escapism? Am I feeling dissatisfied that the real world is not like this virtual one? Perhaps not consciously, but am I turning to this game and others like it where I know I am totally in control to escape from a world where I know I’m not… probably… that’s what escapism is all about (and it’s not always a bad thing to escape — a point Tolkien makes brilliantly in On Fairy Stories).  Am I overthinking this? Perhaps… or does this complete control feed a dissatisfaction about the way things are in relationships with real people? Am I likely to idolise control — or a world where I wield godlike power?

Probably.

Is this dangerous?

Definitely.

In exactly the same way as trying to play the superhero pastor… trying to be God, or any recognition that you are not… is absolutely toxic to a healthy life in the real world, but especially deadly in the context of Christian ministry where so many churches have fallen apart because of an approach to leadership that looks just like the pastor is trying to play the Sims with a congregation that isn’t ‘their flock’ but God’s. It’s this desire to be in control (and perhaps a belief a leader should be) that I suspect leads to abusive practices in both public and private. Feeding this desire is dangerous; especially if the desire is focused through a lens of self-pity, or the flip-side, entitlement and self-interest.

There are fleeting moments when I believe I want to be in control. To be able to direct people, to ‘helpful’ places of course. Those are the times when I am sinfully tempted to act like a cult leader, or to get a pattern for leadership from something other than the cross of Jesus. The cross isn’t just a pattern for good Sims church architecture. It’s a way of being in the world; of being ‘in the church’ that teaches me that it’s not by my might or power than anything happens, but by the willingness of God to send his son into the world in a picture of leadership that looks a lot like self-emptying service of others.

I am not in control. I am not the artist or the author — the creator — creating a world with the lives and images of other people.

Other people don’t exist to play my game or be clicked into place.

Other people should be thankful that life is not The Sims, and that I am not the mouse-like God in such a world.

I don’t type these as a mantra to remind myself of things I ought to believe are true (in case you’re worried I’m some sort of narcissist trying to talk myself out of cult-leading). I type these as truths that are fundamental to how the universe actually is… but that are counter to the bit of the human heart The Sims might feed if we let it.

I do not have the sort of control in the real world that I do in the Sims, and I do not want to…

But more than that, I should be thankful that I do not.

What a crushing responsibility that would be to bear — to be responsible for the decisions of every individual in my orbit, or of the rhythms and life of any community or family. I need more chaos in my gaming diet to remind me that I am not in control (so I started playing Zombie survival/horror game 7 Days To Die, which is reminding me that having literally no control over life or death is just as debilitating and frustrating), but more than that I need to keep prayerfully remembering that it is God who authors both my story and the stories of those in my life  — whether they’re in or out of the church community he has placed me in — as part of his story… Or as Paul put it in his sermon in Athens, from Acts 17… that he gives us life, and breath, and everything else — even the sense of how little control we wield — so that we might seek and find him, the grand architect of the cosmos.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

I need to keep seeing my job (as parent, pastor, and person) not as exercising control (or even influence) but as pointing people to the one who is in control. I like another thing that Paul said about how he approached this task knowing that God is God, and we are not. He doesn’t click people into place, or persuade and manipulate through power, coercion, or deception. He lives and preaches the Gospel of the crucified Jesus, and lets God be God.

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:1-2

 

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