hope

Good news for the anthropocene has to be a non-anthropocentric Gospel

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the nature of the Gospel for some time; it’s been one of those intra-Christianity debates I’ve followed with interest because I’m convinced that the Gospel, and how we understand and articulate it, is pretty central to being God’s faithful people in the world. I’m convinced our world needs good news that is both actually good, and that represents, or heralds God’s plans for the world.

The word ‘Gospel’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’ — ‘good news’ — but in the ancient world a ‘euangelion’ had a particular function, especially when brought by a ‘keryx’ (a preacher). A keryx was a herald who spoke on behalf of a king (or empire), and where the keryx proclaimed ‘good news’ it was often the announcement of a victory or the beginning of a reign of a king in the world. The subject of the good news, and the attention of the keryx (or their function as a representative), was about the king, the empire, or the victory — the benefits to the people receiving the proclamation were self evident fruits of that victory.

So there’s this debate about what the ‘heart’ of the Gospel is; and whether it has truly been proclaimed if you haven’t articulated certain shibboleths particularly around penal substitution or propitiation; and so also whether you have made the heart of the Gospel the forgiveness of sins dished out to you as an individual as God’s wrath is turned aside from you and laid on Jesus. The thing is, there’s a certain vision of the Gospel where it is reduced to these truths (penal substitution and propitiation and the individual implications of the Gospel) that becomes not just individualistic but anthropocentric — that is, centered on the Gospel being ‘good news’ not just for us, but in a way that becomes ‘good news about us being saved from sin, and its penalty (judgment).’

An anthropocentric Gospel is good news; but it isn’t all the good news caught up in the victory of Jesus, or even the fruit of that victory. An anthropocentric gospel met with an individualism and a commitment to identity construction through personal choice and authenticity produces a particular kind of Christianity (and a particular approach to Christian mission and discipleship). It can lead us to limit the goodness of the Gospel to the salvation of the self (and selves), and when that’s coupled with a sort of neo-platonism, where we have this sense of salvation being ‘escaping from this world’ into some spiritual nirvana-like heaven, we can end up focusing on ‘saving souls’ rather than ‘making disciples who live as God’s kingdom in his world.’ These arguments are well rehearsed by the likes of Scot McKnight and N.T Wright, and make of those scholars what you will, but there’s one warning buried in their critique that all Reformed evangelicals should hear; that is those of us who are a product of a movement in church history that sees how human traditions and institutions can distort the Gospel and abuse power (that’s the very nature of the Reformation), who with the Reformers (and Augustine) see human nature as ‘curved in on the self,’ and who want to be on about the good news (that’s what evangelical should mean). If we were seeking to be true to these labels (if indeed these labels are useful and good, and if these descriptions are essential to owning these labels), then we should constantly be assessing where worldly ideas and institutions have infected our thinking about the church, and the nature of the Gospel. We should constantly be questioning whether our hearts are pulling humanity to the centre of the story of the world, for our own glory — at the expense of God’s (ala, say, the Fall, and the tower of Babel). We should be sympathetic to critiques that the Gospel we proclaim has become more anthropocentric (about us) than Christocentric (about Jesus).

One way to test the truth of an idea is to look to our source material (the Scriptures), another is to assess the fruits of what is being proclaimed (particularly against the sort of fruit the Scriptures describe), or, to compare what is produced from a Gospel we proclaim versus what is produced if a less reductive Gospel is proclaimed. One can draw a fairly straight line between a Gospel that is reduced to the salvation of souls through substitution and propitiation and an approach to church that emphasises conversion over discipleship, while also buying in to the culture’s expressive individualism and its attendant identity politics and power games. One can then draw a line between this and the sort of politics that sees ‘evangelicals’ aligned with Donald Trump — selling our birthright for a bowl of putrid stew that doesn’t even satisfy our hunger — or with a church culture that promotes narcissism and feeds consumerism and the uncritical adoption of worldly forms and methods in the church. Anthropocentricism is not the way of the Gospel, it is the model of humanity flat out rejected from the opening pages of the Bible, and when our Gospel is anthropocentric it prevents the church embracing the way of Jesus, and it is not good news for the ‘anthropocene.’ It offers no alternative kingdom to the kingdoms that have brought us into this present moment both culturally, politically, and environmentally.

The ‘anthropocene’ is a name that gets bandied about for the particular epoch we’re living through in a ‘big history’ view of the world. It’s the idea, in short, that sees “recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” You can read more about the problems associated with the anthropocene at Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Welcome to the Anthropocene is an exercise in secular prophecy — with a degree of judgment, truth telling, and expressions of hope. It’s promises of hope aren’t ‘good news’ yet, because they are unrealised, and if human hearts are ‘curved in on themselves,’ its chances of success rest on convincing humans as individuals and societies, that environmental action has to be an expression of self interest; which is ultimately self defeating and we’ll just end up with a modified anthropocene, an approach to nature still centered on human flourishing at the pinnacle, or, it will rest in convincing humanity to embrace ‘re-wilding,’ where we submit ourselves to nature and let it shape our paths. Now, this isn’t to say where we’ve over-reached in our subduing of creation, that some ‘rewilding’ won’t be necessary to restore a healthier dynamic of relating, in fact, I’m a fan of the concept as described here, but rewilding, like many environmental programs in a secular world (that is one where the physical world is the only reality and does not, in any way, reflect transcendent or supernatural realities — like a heavenly realm), runs the risk of enshrining nature as the ultimate concern or reality (or a god), and that will shape our humanity, and order our loves and concerns, like any worship or religion does.

The Christian answer to these problems — where we submit ourselves to the God who orchestrated nature, and seek to bring him glory — but where he must first change our hearts by his Spirit, and where we must live in the world first in right relationship with him (which is achieved through the forgiveness of sins and new start brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus) — is genuinely a more hopeful story, for us and for the world, especially coupled with the promise of the Bible that our king, Jesus, will return to make all things new, in a beautiful picture of a ‘garden city’ where built architecture and nature work together in harmony to bring life and to bring glory to God. Welcome to the Anthropocene shares stories of hope, but none is more hopeful as a picture of ecological renewal and harmonious life than the church forests of Ethiopia and humanity’s rediscovery of our task as ‘gardeners’ working in partnership with our gardener king.

Now, in case the idea of human contribution to climate change is something you have theological issues with — let’s just rehearse, again, the argument that the Bible actually lays responsibility for the state of the world — post Eden (and outside Eden) with human sinfulness and God’s curse. The idea that humans are responsible for the state of the world, within God’s sovereignty, is not foreign to the Biblical account of the world. And, anticipating another argument — that creation, Biblically, is anthropocentric — ie, ‘given to man’ where we are the pinnacle or centre of creation — consider that our role was not to dominate or destroy the world, but act as God’s representatives in a world that is his (Genesis 1), that was made to reflect his divine nature and character (Romans 1:20), that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,’ that ‘heaven is his throne, and the earth is his footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1-2)  — the earth itself has a theocentric purpose — to glorify God, and a Christocentric telos, it is being reconciled, redeemed, renewed, and re-created through the death, resurrection, heavenly rule, and return of Jesus. The Gospel — the message of Jesus’ victory, includes good news for the world — when we reduce it just to ‘good news for ourselves’ — making it anthropocentric, we offer no path out of the anthropocene — no alternative kingdom that might offer an alternative paradigm for stewarding God’s world towards goodness, truth, and his glory.

A Gospel that offers hope to the world is a Gospel that is not primarily about us, and the mechanism of our individual salvation (though it won’t deny those truths), a Gospel that offers hope to the world curves our hearts away from ourselves, and away from God’s world and its goodness (these are idolatry) towards the rule of Jesus in the heavenly realm, and the reconciling work he is doing in the world as the children of God are revealed (both now, and when he returns).

Any Gospel that is about escaping the world — rather than its renewal and reconciliation in and through Jesus — is not good news in the anthropocene. It just entrenches a pattern of domination and subjugation of the physical world because it doesn’t matter to God, or ultimately to us.

Any Gospel that is about human individual salvation (or the mechanics of such) is not good news in the anthropocene because the victory it celebrates is not total, without a victory that involves the renewal of all things.

Any Gospel that is not about Jesus — at the centre — is not the Gospel of the Bible, and doesn’t have us escape the anthropocene and its anthropocentric view that everything is about us. We are not the pinnacle of God’s creation. Jesus, in his perfect humanity, and also his divine sonship, is.

The Gospel is the story of God’s glorification of Jesus, the story of God exalting Jesus to the highest place, and giving him the name above all names, so that at his name ‘every knee shall bow’ (Philippians 2) — it’s the opposite of Babel, where people lived for the glory of their own names and tried to exalt themselves. The opposite of the anthropocene. The good news for us is that we’re invited in to the glory of Jesus through our union with him, and invited to participate in God’s renewal project for the world as ambassadors of reconciliation, but this comes as a fruit of Jesus’ glorious victory through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.

We can run all sorts of shibboleth tests around Gospel proclamation, or evangelistic textbooks, but if our Gospel is not Christocentric, and aimed towards the glory of God through the eschatological renewal of all things — not just us — secured through the victory of Jesus over Satan, sin, and death — not just on an individual scale, but a cosmic one, then we’re not really preaching a true Gospel, we’re preaching a true aspect of the Gospel, and we’re not really offering hope to the world, or to the individuals living in it.

The meta-modern church: some thoughts about church in the post-post modern era

There’s a lot of energy being expended by Christian institutions fighting a sort of rearguard action against post-modernity. The assumption seems to be that to be Christian is to be wedded to modernism with its objective (propositional) truths, authoritative institutions, and an anthropology that thinks human change (and conversion) comes through rational argument and information, rather than experience or emotion.

One wonders if the energy being expended trying to fight not just for the Gospel, but for a philosophy and a cultural moment rapidly in the rearview mirror when it comes to how most western humans understand the world and themselves is part of the conditions producing the so-called ‘pastor drought’…

There are reasonable reasons to be suspicious of some forms of post-modernity. Post-modernity is built on the idea that we as humans are limited in our ability to know anything, and are always a product of the perspective created by our own personal experience, whether we know it or not. Some forms of post-modernism deconstruct institutions (like the church), and question absolute truth claims (like the Gospel) on the basis that authority structures are inherently self-interested in perpetuating an objective truth claim they can’t justify. Embracing post-modernity and its emphasis on experience, subjectivity, and the emotions, has led many to deconstruct themselves all the way out of Christianity. And yet, there’s much we should, and could, learn from post-modernity and its epistemic humility (the idea we can’t really come at things totally objectively, and are limited, is a pretty good starting place for figuring out our limits), we humans are wired to learn and be formed by experience and via our emotions, and we will expand our understanding of the world by hearing voices outside our own experience (or tradition) in ways that might help us get closer to the truth.

One of the things post-modernity ate, whether accidentally or on purpose, is not just the idea of objective propositional knowledge about lots of areas of life (perhaps with the exception of math and (some forms of) science) is the idea of a meta-narrative; a grand organising story underpinning reality. It left us with a fractured, pluralist, community made up of individuals and identity groups with many stories shaped by their own experiences. Figuring out how to be the church in a post-modern context, without trying to be a modernist institution wielding institutional authority and making the same old truth claims that nobody wants to listen to (unless they become a sort of archaic modernist themselves, trying to live as an outsider in a brave new world) has been tricky. We probably don’t need to convert post-modernist thinkers to modernists in order to convert them to Christianity; though sometimes it feels like it; instead, we might need to give people the experiential and emotional data that makes belief in the Christian story plausible (and of course, Sam Chan’s book on Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a great companion for this task). Trying to simultaneously deconstruct the church and its (modernist) practices in the face of the critique from post-modernity, and re-construct it as a community plausibly living and telling the Gospel story has involved a clunky gear shift for the church as a whole, and lots of institutional inertia is still pulling us in the opposite direction; this isn’t helped by those who are committed not just to Christianity, or Jesus as Lord, but to modernism itself, as the way, the truth, and the life.

The rear guard action hasn’t really worked by many measures of a healthy or flourishing church here in the west; and perhaps it’s because we’ve put our eggs into propping up a not super-effective construction of church, rather than putting our energies and efforts into deconstructing both the church and post-modernity; this is an area that Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer have been pressing into (explicitly at one point, Sayers says he got tired of his post-modern friends deconstructing their way out of Christianity and decided to shift gears not to deconstruction of the church, but deconstruction of society and re-construction of the church.

And maybe it’s time to stop the rearguard action, and, though it’ll be a massive headspin, jump straight to the vanguard…

The rearguard is the soldiers standing at the back of the army trying to hold ground while the rest of the army retreats to some sort of safety to regroup; the vanguard is those soldiers at the front of the army on a charge; those who blaze new ground for the people behind them to step into.

The thing about post-modernity is that while it has been helpful in a whole bunch of deconstruction work, and brought lots more voices to the table, it hasn’t done much construction. It hasn’t left us with a better picture for how to co-exist in communities of difference (say, the modern secular state), but has created an environment where opposing truth claims are grounds for conflict, where people play the politics of self-interest, and lobby to win not just protection for their own truth, but the eradication of any others. Post-modernity didn’t create the conditions for hope, but for cynicism. One place this is evident is in the TV comedies of post-modernity, and one way a shift in the fabric of society to a post-post-modern outlook, is the death of cynicism (or nihilism even), and the return of hope (often built around communities of difference, where people are joined together in a common purpose (think Parks and Rec, Community, etc); what’s even more interesting is that more recent comedic efforts from the writers who brought us this turn from cynicism have been grappling with the afterlife (in The Good Place, and Upload), and maybe probing a little around the edges of questions about the ‘eschatology’ of the west (will technology save us? How do we live well now given what we do and don’t know? etc). There are still artefacts of a more post-modern outlook (hey there Ricky Gervais), but a shift is happening.

David Foster Wallace made this case a while back in an interview with Larry McCaffery, when he said:

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

“All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

And…

The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. ”

He wrote an incredible essay on the issues with post-modernity and television in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction, where he also said:

“There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the abscence of plot are moods — antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality”

The art, or cultural artefacts, of post-modernity are entrenched in post-modernities defining characteristics; the death of metanarrative and the championing of experience and emotion over ‘integrated plot or enduring character’ — and of course, cynicism, irony, and deconstruction about institutional authority or tradition. The truly post-modern church is a sort of pastiche of the culture it apes; every moment of the service is curated to produce an emotional response, or experience, nothing is long or deep, the over-arching plot of the Bible, or even character formation understood as a long hard slog in the same direction, are replaced with the cultivation of ‘moments’; silver bullet and quick fix self-help sermons, coupled also with a cynicism about the Christian tradition and the practices of the institutional church one’s new ‘movement’ or ‘independent church plant’ is seeking to detach from as it ‘contextualises’ and re-imagines itself in the style or form of modern entertainment.

But there’s a shift. And maybe instead of fighting the post-modern seeker sensitive church, or the deconstructed ’emerging church,’ or trying to idealise (or idolise) some period in history — whether the modernist moment, or the medieval moment with its cathedrals, liturgy, and enchantment, or the halcyon days of persecution and nimble, subversive house churches of the pre-Christendom era — we should ask what we can learn from each era as we deconstruct not just the church with the lens society brings to us, but so that we can see where our churches and our forms, practices, and beliefs have been produced by particular moments in time, and seek to reconstruct ourselves not explicitly in contradiction to the spirit of the age, but explicitly in ways shaped by the Christian story. And if we’re going to get caught up in the war against ‘post-modernity’ — maybe modernism isn’t a great ally in that conflict (though there might be parts of modernity that resonate with us), and maybe meta-modernity offers a more hopeful ‘common ground’ for conversations with the culture and engagement with the form and content of Christian belief and practice, such that in our deconstruction of post-modernity and its truth claims we might help prod people towards this new meta-modern moment.

The shift from post-modernity is happening in those areas that most profoundly shape our view of the world, where once this was the task of philosophers, now it is the task of the TV comedy writer, even politics sits downstream from culture. It’s not just in literature where what David Foster Wallace described as post-modernity’s deconstruction or ‘patricidal work’ has been felt; it’s everywhere. Our literature — even our sitcoms — are part of the culture that shapes our outlook (where culture is at least, in part, a product of shared ‘cultural texts’ or artefacts). And the shift from irony and deconstruction is in full swing. One way this has been described as a movement is as the ‘new sincerity’… Here’s a video exploring how this is working in the world of the sitcom.

The ‘new sincerity’ has, in some quarters, merged into this new idea of ‘meta-modernity’ or metamodernism. Meta-modernity includes a return to a more hopeful outlook, and even to meta-narrative. This shift also accounts for the popularity of those figures who offer a grand, organising, account of life in the world — for example, the Jordan Peterson phenomena.

This isn’t ‘new’ or cutting edge; a guy named Luke Turner published a ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ back in 2011; but it’s slowly (I think) becoming clear that metamodernity’s critique of the deconstructing, cynical, hopelessness of post-modernity, and the identity politicking world it creates, isn’t particularly sustainable, and that a metamodernist approach offers at least one way out of the void that doesn’t require a return to modernity (and a loss of the good deconstructing work that post-modernity was built on). Turner says, of metamodernism:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

From a Christian perspective this is not without problems; but there is lots in the Christian view of the world that ‘oscillates’ (to use a word from the manifesto), or resonates, with the goals of metamodernism.

The conflict between Christianity and metamodernity will kick off, as it does with any other philosophical outlook, with the claim that some ‘objective form’ of the Christian word, or truth exists; the claims John’s Gospel makes when calling Jesus not ‘a’ word, but ‘the word who was with God, and was God’… and that Jesus, the word, is both definitively ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and the one we turn to for the truly good life, or, as Peter says in John’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That said, because we live in a world where the future has not yet been realised — as people who live with the hope that eternal life will be found in Jesus and a new creation — Christians can, and should, recognise that we live alongside those looking for life, and truth and a ‘way’ elsewhere; and where post-modernity deconstructed truth claims in such a way that divergence has bred competition for dominance, metamodernism offers a more humble stance on the idea that we might, as people, pursue grand narratives as valuable and meaning making; and it invites us, as humans, to search for the grand narrative that both resonates with human experience and desire the most, and produces goodness and hope. It adopts a stance that is open to such truth claims, rather than ironic and cynical.

So here’s some ideas for what a church (or the church) for the metamodern world might look like; those who’ve followed along here for a while might recognise some of these qualities being aligned with the New Eden Project as an idea, and it’s true. These ideas are related.

So a church wanting to flourish in a meta-modern world would be a church that embraces and supports, and even, creates, ‘metamodern’ cultural artefacts; those that reject irony and cynicism and replace them with beauty, and a pursuit of something transcendent (even if that search often lands in humanism, community, and relationships, it will engage and critique that landing — resonating with what it can, like Paul in Athens, rather than simply rejecting such texts out of hand).

A church wanting to engage with this world will frame the Gospel as a grand story, or metanarrative, that we are invited to ‘live in,’ not simply a proposition (and indeed, will frame the whole Bible as a story); it will present this story as one that is more compelling than the others, and as the ultimate ‘true’ grand narrative, without adopting a sort of monotheistic zeal that leads to the destruction of all others and their gods (Deuteronomy with sledgehammers style), but will deconstruct other grand stories on the basis that they do not produce the results one hopes for (Paul in Athens style).

Such a church will see itself as a community built around that story to give it plausibility as we embody a certain sort of life together that has both emotional and experiential appeal because it is built on goodness, and hope, and beauty, and character (or virtue, and a rejection of cynicism and utilitarianism.

It will stop thinking that the answer to the shifts in western society is to bring back modernity, or to deconstruct post-modernity, and instead will set out being constructive; and so will move away from purely ‘rational’ propositionalising of the objective truth of the Gospel, and will instead try to match the truths of the Gospel up with people’s experiences and emotions; investing the time and energy of its people into culture making and institution building to produce the sort of cultural artefacts that work alongside the plausibility structure of Christian community to support the truthiness of the Christian story.

It will stop looking to the world of engineering, business, and marketing to shape ‘churchmanship’ and instead will value the arts, and the people industries, seeing church not as an event where a truth is propositionally proclaimed, but a community that lives out a narrative together.

And ultimately, it will engage the world with a posture of hope — in part because of how our story ends, but also because hope is what the world is looking for, rather than despair and cynicism — and even if that doesn’t work to reach more people, it would be a breath of fresh air for those of us already in the church. Wouldn’t it.

The suffocating sense of no safe place to ride and how to breathe again

tyler

Tyler: An exit-door procedure at 30.000 feet. Mm-hmm. The illusion of safety. You know why the put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile, you accept your fate. — Fight Club

The news this week has been awful. It’s awful every week. But this week in particular, for me, because it has reminded me that we exist with what Tyler Durden in Fight Club calls ‘the illusion of safety’… we’re never really safe; and the news this week has so totally robbed me of my sense of safety.

The illusion of safety has been torn from us; and I want an oxygen mask and the euphoric docility it promises. I want to forget the world isn’t safe and to go back to my day to day existence free from fear.

That’s seemed harder this week. First the horrible, tragic, nightmare at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and then today, this horrific, awful, heartbreaking story of a Brisbane bus driver whose life was suddenly and dramatically taken while he was sitting in his bus at the bus stop on the street of a suburb very close to mine. The thing that gets me about these stories is not just the experience of the victims and their families; but the witnesses. And in the bus story — the helpless passengers on the bus not only had to experience the trauma of witnessing the attack, but 11 were treated for smoke inhalation as a result…

I don’t really want to leave my home. My wife and daughter are travelling by bus today, it’s so easy for me to imagine them, or me, being on the bus when that senseless, deadly, act of violence took place. It’s terrifying. And that’s the point. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the passenger seats along with those who witnessed the horror; or in the queue for the ride at Dreamworld… I don’t just feel the shock of grief at the random and pointless destruction of human life; but the fear of witnessing something like that. I don’t want to be confronted with death; I want to stay safe… but more than that, as a parent I definitely don’t want my daughters or son being scarred by witnessing this stuff.

I want to keep them safe.

But I can’t.

I want to ride safely on the bus, or a theme park ride, but I can’t.

Where are the oxygen masks?

When will they drop down to numb this fear; the thing that confronts us when we face up to death and tragedy. I can only imagine the grief being experienced by the family and friends of those killed on that ride, and the bus driver… We can only imagine it, but that is not to say we don’t feel it, the sorrow, the anger, the sense that something is wrong and the world has changed forever through this loss. The imagination is powerful; its how we are able to empathise, but it’s also what makes us feel fear when the world becomes unsafe.

How do we face these realities so that the fear flees? Where do we go to re-capture the illusion of safety? Where’s our oxygen mask? Is there some way to restore the sense that the world is safe, if not make it safe?

The irony is that roller coasters are a sort of controlled environments; or they’re meant to be; a machine made to help us face our fears while being in control. When I heard the story of the tragedy at Dreamworld I had two responses; first, I remembered my one visit to Dreamworld, as a child, and how much our family loved the particular ride. Second, I remembered this obscure interview about how ride designers design rides as stories that I heard on the ABC radio, and this quote about what rides do:

“They are a choreography of movement and emotion. The best coasters know how to pace themselves and pace the rider; not only for the biggest scream, but the biggest highs and lows… Thrill rides are a safe way to do something slightly, seemingly dangerous, even though they’re not. They’re statistically very safe, but they get you close to the feeling of being out of control; the feeling of falling; the feeling of ‘oh no I’m going to die’… Coasters are ‘fear minus death equals thrill’… ” — Dave Cobb, Roller Coaster Designer on 612 ABC Brisbane in January this year.

Statistically very safe. But not totally safe. Sometimes deadly. Sometimes the ride ends in tragedy. Roller Coasters are ‘storytelling machines’ perhaps especially when the statsWhen you get told the risks involved in any medical procedure or activity it’s always ‘1 in x thousand’ and we just write that risk off, but to borrow a line from The Whitlams, if she’s one in a million, then there are five more just in New South Wales.

We live like the passenger on the plane, with the illusion of safety.

And sometimes that illusion comes crashing down.

Well, when we read the news that illusion comes crashing down.

Death sucks. And I mean that both in the ‘it’s terrible’ sense but also in the ‘it’s a black hole that swallows up things that are good’ sense too.

So what do you do when life confronts you with this news; when it feels like it is rubbing your face in it; when you open your browser to your favourite news site and are confronted with death at a theme park, or the senseless killing of a public servant in the middle of a busy suburban street?

Where do we go to feel safe? Is that even possible?

Where are our oxygen masks?

I think there are two real options. Three if you count denial; but I’m not sure empathy really allows that; the sense that it could’ve been me, or I could’ve witnessed it… if we aren’t eye witnesses any more then the media, and social media, is doing a pretty good job of making it just as though we were there; inviting us to relive the moment and take part in a digital post-mortem. There’s CCTV everywhere — and of both incidents. But there are two options. There’s the Tyler Durden option, and there’s the Jesus option.

There’s another pretty big moment in Fight Club where Tyler Durden is training; and breaking; his anarchist recruits. This speech plays over the montage.

“Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart. This is your life. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else. We are all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world. You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes that we wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car that you drive. You are not your khakis. You have to give up. You have to know that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.” — Tyler Durden.

This is Durden’s version of the oxygen mask. It’s meant to buy him an army of soldiers willing to face death in order to ‘live life to the fullest’; at least as his vision of the full life requires; the life lived free from the fear of death, and free from being defined by your possessions; free to experience unfettered pleasure in the moment before death hits.

This is the approach so many of us modern people take; we’ve cut ourselves off from a sense of meaning beyond the material, and beyond ourselves, which means the only way we can face death is pile all the pleasure we can into the moment we have.

Or as Paul puts it, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’…

That’s probably the best chapter of the Bible that points me somewhere safe; an oxygen mask if you like; when it comes to witnessing the suckiness of death and realising that we’re never really safe from its grasp, it could happen any time, even on experiences that are ‘statistically safe’… this is the Jesus option, the one where death doesn’t have the last say.

This bit of the Bible is a good one to turn to after you’ve read the news.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… — 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

It’s that he believes the truth of this message that allowed Paul to stare death in the face, and to pen these famous words that help us face our own death without the same fear.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:55

Death still hurts. It still has a massive cost for us; and especially for those most proximate to it. We’re not meant to turn a blind eye to the enormity of it, or to its wrongness; the Tyler Durden approach might feel true but it ultimately leads to us being totally disconnected from the tragedy of death in the lives of others… which is why ‘members of Project Mayhem don’t have names’… and where the Narrator rebels from Tyler’s design by insisting that Robert Paulson does have a name; he’s not quite ready as his alter-ego to buffer himself off from the reality of death. Being confronted with the reality of death doesn’t mean simply accepting it and embracing stoic fatalism, but finding ways to grieve with and love our neighbours — perhaps especially as we’re grieved by death together — because we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with death. We should lament, but we should also offer the real oxygen masks because death doesn’t have to have the final say.

That’s why Paul is motivated to share the news of life with people; because we have an answer to the scourge of death.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58

We’re handing out real oxygen masks; and the safety offered through Jesus isn’t just an illusion. The promise of death’s defeat is caught up with the promise of life without death, and with God. This is the vision of the good life held up by the Bible and the cause we live for in response to death; Tyler had project mayhem a project designed to strip the ‘illusion of safety’ away; leaving us with chaos. We have project re-creation; the opportunity to point people to real safety.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:3-5

The prayer of Christians facing death has been the same since he left, promising to return; the words the Bible finishes with in the book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

It’s a prayer that recognises the awful suckiness of death; that it is a broken version of reality and that we are right to hate it and feel its awful weight, but that also recognises that God has an answer to death and he gives it to us through Jesus; the one who died and was raised.

Come Lord Jesus.

Not just to bring the illusion of safety; or the acceptance of our deathly fate; but to defeat death and truly make us safe from its touch. Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and John in Revelation, stake the whole of Christianity on their testimony to the truth of this message. This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you witness or read these news stories, or anything that rips the illusion of safety ripped from your grasp, the place to find it again is in the empty tomb of Jesus and the promise that it is the start of something new happening in the world. Jesus is your oxygen mask, but he doesn’t just offer the illusion of safety; it’s real. I’m betting my life on that anyway.

Answering the “why” of tragedy and the “who” of stopping it…

This is the first American school massacre since I became a father. I don’t know if that alone made my heart sink further when we woke up to the news of 20 young lives lost this morning, and the six adults, but holding my daughter as I digested the news brought home to me the sort of range of emotions the parents of these children on the other side of the planet must be feeling.

gun control

Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

I remember writing an essay at uni, back in 2004, about the process the mainstream media moves through when covering a tragic news event like this – from reporting the facts, and just the facts (who, what, when), to reporting first hand accounts (who, how), to “experts” dissecting events and looking for deeper answers to “why” questions. This process has accelerated. Dramatically. Thanks to the internet – such that the facts are available almost immediately, and the democratisation of punditry means that we all have an opinion on the “why” question, and we can all jump on our platforms to not just answer “why bad things happen” but “how this should be fixed.”

The most obvious solutions are pretty obvious. They’re superficial.

We fix shootings by tightening up access to guns. There are secondary solutions – less obvious, and a step or two back on the causal chain – we should fix mental health so that potential perpetrators and sociopaths are identified, and loved – or fixed – or removed from society (and especially from access to guns), before they can lash out.

Some suggest we should stamp out violent video games and change the violent culture that spawns the sorts of people who do this sort of thing. Which seems pretty appealing. Except that this sort of violence predates television, it predates the newspaper, it predates anything that we could meaningfully ban in response.

Sure. Gun control worked in Australia – we haven’t had a shooting massacre since Port Arthur. And it’ll go some way to solving the problem in America. But my Facebook wall is littered with people calling for gun bans, as if that’ll completely solve the problem.

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

That’s cliched. With reason. Cliches become cliches because they describe something true – something that needs to be said often.

We can ban all the guns in the world – but people will look for ways to hurt other people. People will respond to generations of hurt – carrying the baggage inflicted by poor family decision making, absent or abusive parents, generational or systemic mistreatment of people, injustice, bullying, all sorts of pain inflicted by others… People will snap. Will make bad decisions. Will take drugs. Will do all sorts of mood altering things that leave them with a low empathy threshold, or a willingness to inflict pain on others for their own pleasure.

The world is broken.

People in our world are broken.

And giving those people less guns – because you recognise the brokenness is a wise response – but it’s not a solution. 

The only meaningful way to change human nature is to restore it to what it was meant to be before it broke. It broke when we turned away from the God who made the world. The world broke then too.

People were meant to be children of God. Children of God who didn’t turn on each other out of rage or anger. And yet, as Genesis tells the story, almost as soon as people turned away from God – brother knifed brother – you can bet Cain would’ve shot Able if he were able.

The only way for us to stop killing each other is to start not just recognising that we’re all valuable because we’re made in God’s image – and so, shouldn’t be killed by one another – but to start recognising that we’re all, to steal another cliche, family…

And the only way for that to be true is for all of us to turn to the perfect child of God – who not only models being a child of God perfectly, but enables us to become children of God – where our present lives, and future hope, reflect a view of the world that rules out events like this morning’s events.

This future hope makes the present tragedies a little easier to stomach – not easy – because suffering sucks. Tragedies suck. The emotions we experience, even vicariously, in these situations as parents, and siblings, and children of other people – are real. The emotions the victims and their families experience during, and after, the inflicting of horrible human on human tragedy are real – and we can’t play this down. But how can we explain events like someone turning a couple of semi-automatic weapons on children without looking to shortcomings in human nature? Shortcomings described best by the very first chapters of the Bible… And how do we solve them without looking for solutions – solutions described in all the subsequent chapters of the Bible as God began his rescue mission that culminated with the horrific and tragic death of an innocent – Jesus.

He suffered. For the sake of securing a future – for himself, and for those who are in him – as his people. His children. The whole world is waiting for this future. From Romans 8…

17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groaninwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We stop tragedies like this by becoming like Jesus – the true child of God. And while this doesn’t properly happen any time while we’re still this side of heaven, the process begins with following him.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Following Jesus means beginning the process of reversing the human nature that leads to tragedies like this. It conforms and transforms us.

It seems trite. It seems like little comfort to those grieving the brokenness of our world. It seemed a cold comfort to me as I sat nursing my almost 1 year old, imagining a future where something horrific happened to her… but the more I think about it the more I yearn for, and honestly desire the future described in the closing chapters of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, where events like this don’t, and can’t, happen.

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

Here’s the guarantee from Jesus himself, the closing words of the Bible… They’re what provides real hope, and a real solution, in times like these – when the tragedy of broken human nature strikes…

22 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

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