Mark confuses description from some quarters with prescription for all quarters on a couple of occasions; citing examples that back up his claims about pantheism and smoking ceremonies, and then drawing a long bow and shooting arrows into all versions of acknowledgments of country and symbolic uses of smoke. One hopes that he will consistently extend his logic to suggesting we shut down fellowship with the Anglican Church over its use of incense, and stop Presbyterian churches participating in ANZAC Day ceremonies, which are overtly religious and nationalist and just a tiny bit pagan in their remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors. Mark must, of course, be worried about the sort of syncretism that saw the discussion he mentions that happened at our General Assembly happening in a building decked out with the trappings of the ANZAC cult. Pretty much every charge Mark levels at acknowledgments of country can also be levelled at dawn services — so he might, for consistency’s sake, have to reject those syncretistic symbols.
Mark also thinks I called him white in my last post. Having known Mark since I was a kid, and having heard him describe his heritage and his family’s connection to the South Sea Islands during the Assembly, it would be very odd for me to assert that he was white. I didn’t. I said the courts of our church are typically white. I said his impulse to read indigenous practices through a western individualistic political lens was part of the colonial impulse. I hope that clears things up.
Needless to say, I don’t find Mark’s response to the responses very convincing (he has another drive by shot at me over suggesting that there’s a ‘sacramental’ element to nature; to be clear, I don’t think going to the beach is a ‘sacrament’ in the way that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are; but I do believe nature is oriented towards grace; and that the purpose of the natural world is to throw us towards the presence of God in all times and places as the creator who sustains all things by his powerful word. I don’t believe in a secular/sacred divide when it comes to time or place (1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 11:36). If all time and space is sacred, then recognising this, that the transcendent and immanent realities are always overlapping; not bifurcated; is very similar to what we do in the sacraments though those are particularly oriented to the saving work of Jesus (in the same way I’d say marriage is ‘sacramental’ but not a sacrament).
Anyway. My real beef is this.
Mark insists that acknowledgments of country are a protocol that is always inherently religious; particularly because of the claims made by one source on indigenous spirituality. He says this idolatry disqualifies Christians from using the forms of the protocols because to do so is to invite judgment on our heads.
Someone shoulda told Paul.
Eating food sacrificed to idols or acknowledging that unknown God in Athens are the worst forms of idolatrous syncretism Mark can imagine.
There’s two places one might go to engage with Mark’s argument here; one is in Paul’s treatment of food that had been sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy 4; in 1 Corinthians he says ‘the idols are nothing,’ and ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (he does warn about sharing in the cup of demons in 1 Corinthians 10:14-19). Now. If Mark is right and an acknowledgment of country is always idolatrous such that to participate in a prescribed form is to participate in idolatry, then the cup of demons paradigm might apply. If an acknowledgment of country is always to partake at the table of pantheistic indigenous theology (and if all indigenous theology is pantheistic), then we cannot participate. For Mark this idolatry seems to take the form both of indigenous spirituality and the woke, progressive, lefty politics he hates so much… and the same rule probably applies, if participating in a civic protocol is necessarily to be a woke, progressive, lefty, and so cause division in the church with those who don’t share that ideology, then Christians shouldn’t do it for the sake of Christian unity.
But Mark is self-evidently wrong because he admits that the protocol for an acknowledgment of country is not really established; that the first one was a quasi-spiritual welcome put together by Ernie Dingo; and this is exactly what aboriginal Christian leaders are saying — there is no recipe for a welcome to country; no particular spirituality to be ticked; no formula in the words used for the speech-act to have taken place; the fundamental element of an acknowledgment of country is truth telling about our nation’s past (Mark seems to keep wanting to offer an alternative narrative here with his doubling down on wave theory, but we’ll leave that for now). That some acknowledgments of country are idolatrous does not make all acknowledgments of country idolatrous; and that some are idolatrous does not prevent Christians adopting and adapting the forms to align them with Biblical truths.
Mark seems to believe that all the meaning of a protocol is caught up in one particular form, and one particular sort of content, and that you can’t adapt those forms. Which would be news to the Israelites who melted down gold from Egypt to furnish the temple; and Solomon as he copied and pasted a bunch of Egyptian proverbs bracketing them with the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’… both the gold, and the proverbs, had particular idolatrous meanings before Israel co-opted them; just as meat did in Corinth.
An acknowledgment of country, because it can mean something different at each different table where it is offered, by each different host, seems to be much more like idol meat — sure, there might be idolatry involved in some of the application of the protocols (and this is also true of smoke ceremonies), the question is whether the symbolism might be re-appropriated and used to preach something true (like ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’) that invites us to love and serve our neighbour. When Paul writes to Timothy about people wanting to forbid different foods, or practices, on the basis of idolatry, he gives this principle for dealing with created things (particularly things created by God), and their redemption.
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-5
But wait… you might say… this is about food and marriage; things that God created. Sure, it’s obvious that we can redeem those by consecrating them (a sacramental approach to created things if ever there was one) and receiving them with thanksgiving… and acknowledgments of country were created as a civic protocol, not by God. There is a spirituality attached to some versions of both acknowledgments and welcomes to country, and smoking ceremonies (just as there is idolatry attached to Anzac ceremonies, and a political mythology too). The question is whether that spirituality is definitive, and inherent to the practice, or whether they might be re-framed by Christians to bridge the gap to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now. If only we had some example of man made, civic, religiosity, being redeemed, and reframed, to connect people to their creator.
Mark seems to believe that any adaptation and reframing of an idolatrous activity or ‘cultural text,’ such as a smoking ceremony necessarily leads to syncretism. So. I’d like to introduce you to the Bible’s chief syncretist. The Apostle Paul.
Mark says “Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are clearly spiritual in nature. Their goal is to explicitly ward off evil spirits.” I’d suggest this is equally true of the altar Paul found on the streets of Athens to “an Unknown God” — an altar the Athenians used to cover all their spiritual bases and explicitly avoid offending any god they’d accidentally missed. A piece of religious superstition; clearly spiritual in nature. Paul, of course, as a Pharisee, knew what idols were — abominable departures from the truth about God; that when Israel occupied the promised land they were meant to destroy. And yet Paul, in Athens, does not pull out the sledgehammer and condemn the Athenians for their misplaced spirituality; he uses that spirituality, and that altar, to build a connection to the God he knows. The God who created all people; even the Greeks, and who appointed them (and those before them) to live in and occupy their lands. Mark doesn’t believe simply conducting a smoking ceremony — using the burning of a created thing as a picture of God’s goodness — in worship ‘sanctifies’ the act of burning; he says “Just because they are done in the context of Christian worship doesn’t sanctify them.” I’d suggest the reframing offered in the context of Christian worship might explicitly be the sort of ‘consecration’ that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy. Mark also rejects the idea that we might use our indigenous neighbours’ previous beliefs about an ‘All father’ Creator Spirit’ to proclaim the God of the Bible, because that would be ‘precisely what syncretism is’… the problem is Paul’s explicit example in Athens. Now. Mark will appeal to the regulative principle and the nature of Christian worship here, perhaps, but I’m in a slightly more maximalist camp on the question of worship than Mark within our denomination (Romans 12:1). And the issue here is that nobody in our denomination is currently suggesting Acknowledgments of Country happen in worship (ie between a call to worship and a benediction in a Sunday service); the question has been whether we can conduct them at all as Presbyterians. Mark objects to any reframing of the civic protocol because he believes all versions of the protocol are idolatrous syncretism, what he defines as the “fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices!”
Someone should tell Paul that he got it wrong. I mentioned in my last piece that this section at the Areopagus also involves Paul deliberately following the conventions of that court for introducing a new God into the life of Athens. Syncretism. He also favourably quotes their religious philosophers, he, for example, alludes to Zeno the Stoic, who said that the true God doesn’t dwell in a temple, and directly quotes Epimenedes Cretica, a hymn to Zeus, when he says “For in you we live and move and have our being.” Syncretism baby. Pure syncretism. Paul takes the content from a hymn to an idolatrous God, and uses it to proclaim truths about the God of the Bible who reveals himself in Jesus. Syncretism! Or… Pure Gospel proclamation using created things and the humanity of the people he is seeking to reach with the good news.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“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 17:22-31
How could Paul get it so wrong. Doesn’t he know he is inviting God’s judgment on himself by affirming truths that he found with pagan roots?
The test for whether or not acknowledgments of, or welcomes to, country are ‘pagan’ or idolatrous or not is not ‘what are their origins’ but ‘are we speaking God’s truth,’ and the benefits are ‘are we speaking such truth in a way that invites people to know the God who is just, and a father of all nations, who invites us to come home to him through Jesus; the resurrected king.
“The way I look at it is: I have a job to do as a doctor, regardless of my personal feelings about something. It’s not my decision, because it’s not my pregnancy or my body. Ultimately, the one thing God really granted us above anything else is free will.
Early on in medical school, we were not given opportunities to speak with people considering termination of pregnancy. So, as a student, you tend to start off with just your own personal beliefs.
But the more that you interact through your job with these women, the more you recognise it’s just as important to provide people with support and openness, information and guidance, and being Christian shouldn’t stop me from doing that.”
I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position — she has a job to do, and an employer (ultimately the state), who are employing her to do a job; her employer sets the parameters, and, at one level, a Christian wanting to participate in the secular state and its institutions might have to make compromise (that’s my position on why Christians should join the Labor Party rather than abandoning it after Labor changed its abortion policy recently). But there’s ‘compromise’ that looks like working in an institution that conducts abortions while not conducting them yourself, and there’s compromise that is conducting the abortions yourself — the difference to joining the Labor Party is you’d be joining, as a Christian, to give voice to your personal religious convictions, seeing them as a view that must inevitably shape the ‘public’ life of a person, not just as a private matter. We need to be better at making the distinction between participating in institutions that involve sin and participating in sinful actions. So I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position, I just think it is wrong, and I think it would be wrong for our approach to public health to be built from a belief that you can separate private personal beliefs from public action.
Firstly, I think it’s wrong for Christians to adopt a position like this — to think you can have personal convictions that do not shape your public life. The New Testament approaches public ethical quandaries like this one on the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, draws the ethical line when it comes to eating such food at the point at which the people around you see that your public actions (even if they’re in a private home) as necessarily participating in idol worship. So he’ll say ‘eat idol food that is sold in the public market’ and ‘eat with your friends’ until the point comes where your friends believe that by eating it you are participating in the public actions of idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:23-33); and he’ll say ‘don’t share at the altar in an idol temple’ because that is inevitably participating in idol worship (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:14-22). Abortion is a question of idolatry, or theology, because all beliefs about the nature of human life or personhood are implicitly linked to a belief about the nature of God or gods. Our anthropology comes from our theology.
I admit that it’s also hard for me to see a case where a Christian doctor working in a public hospital and conducting abortions is able to make the case that they are doing so according to Paul’s overarching ethical paradigm in 1 Corinthians: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But I can see, further, that for some Christians even working in a public health setting where abortions are conducted and referring people to others, to protect one’s own conscience, is also to be complicit in some process that is not glorifying God, or that is idolatrous. I can see an argument that a public hospital could be analogous to an idol temple on the issue of abortion, if there was a very clear policy that every doctor working there must participate in abortions, and I can see, then, a case for Christian doctors withdrawing into parallel institutions (private hospitals); but so long as a Christian (or Muslim) doctor might be present in that public, common, space, holding and acting according to their own religious convictions about the public good, then we should be able to make the distinction between ‘working in a contested space’ and ‘compromising one’s integrity and so disintegrating one’s self’. Because we see the good of a faithful Christian presence in those public institutions, for the common good (in much the same way that Paul thinks it is a good thing that his friend Erastus is part of the government in idol-worshipping Corinth, Romans 16:23). The danger of creating parallel institutions that just service Christians, or that allow us to operate as Christians without compromise, is that they tend to stop us participating in the world in ways that allow us to bring the sort of change that adorns the Gospel — the sort of change that led Christians to build hospitals where there were none. Hospitals that treated everyone, not just the rich or those likely to get healthy again — that did this because of the dignity of all people, and because our story teaches us that sickness and death are marks of a deep brokenness in the world.
Now, if this position Doctor Portmann arrives at — being a “Christian doctor who helps people have abortions” — is her personal conviction about how faith and public life intersect, that’s fine. If it actually reflects a personal view where she somehow reconciles her faith with the dehumanisation of an unborn child, then it’s her right to arrive at that position and to participate in public accordingly… that’s pluralism. A pluralist approach to abortion recognises that people will come to different (theological) convictions about the nature of human life and that my own personal conviction should not necessarily be imposed on others; there’s a different between imposition and accommodation. A Christian approach to the question of abortion might be one that seeks to impose a view of the personhood of an unborn child on the public, via legislation and persuasion about what is good and true and should be a commonly held and loving position for all in our ‘public’ — but that’s not the only possible approach to a contested public space, nor is it the issue arising from Doctor Portmann’s position. It seems to me that she’s arguing that you can have your own private, personal, conviction about the morality of abortion (and the personhood of the unborn child) and not bring that to the public space or conversation, or your performance of your work, or life, in public. And I’m not sure that is ‘fine’. It’s certainly not pluralism. It’s the eradication of difference in public.
Speaking as a Christian, using theological categories, it seems she has embraced a particular view of God, and the world, that places ‘free will’ over and above any other moral categories. I believe she is wrong to adopt this particular hierarchy, and this particular approach to her participation in public life, and her example is a terrible pattern for Christian medical professionals, or any medical professionals, because it’s a terrible approach to shared, common, public, space for anybody with moral convictions.
Speaking as an Australian, using political categories, I think flattening out personal conscience in pursuit of public consensus, and making no space for objection and participation in public is a shortcut to very bad things. At risk of breaking Godwin’s Law, there’s not a huge jump from acting as though unborn children are not persons, even if you’re personally convinced they are, because the system tells you to, and participating in other systemic evil that revolves around depersonalising or dehumanising other categories of human. It seems more likely to me, at this point, that it’s not so much that Portmann has personal convictions that compete with her public role, but that her personal convictions or personal beliefs are a bit more malleable around the question of whether or not an unborn child is a person.
Now, I’m on the record as not believing abortion is a good thing; because I think it cheapens how we as a society view life, and because, ultimately, I believe it involves taking the life of a person. I would like to persuade our legislators and society to see things my way, but I also recognise that there are competing human rights at play and that the current legislative status quo is more likely to protect the conscience of religious doctors than to enshrine the views or religious people as widespread social norms… but, I hope the argument I make here is one that people of any faith conviction can agree with, and one that doesn’t actually rest on the moral status of abortion, but rather how we as a society allow people to bring their moral convictions into the public square so that each of us is free to act with integrity (within certain limits, for example, to prevent individuals doing harm to others according to common objects of love or broadly shared beliefs about ‘the good’).
I’m arguing that the ultimate good here is not ‘unlimited freedom’ that co-opts the ‘public life’ of all, causing people to act against their private convictions, but ‘integrity’ — encouraging people to live and act with their public and private (or secular and sacred) convictions integrated and aligned; I’m suggesting that forcing people to split ourselves and our convictions into ‘public’ and ‘private’ is actually not a good thing for our secular democracy because we do not want people operating in public against their private convictions. I’d suggest at least three universal reasons this is bad, and two reasons it’s a bad position for Christians to adopt. In the ‘universal’ space I’d suggest it’s bad:
First, because to do so ‘disintegrates’ people, forcing them to act without integrity in order to participate in our common life. We actually want people to be acting with integrity as much as possible rather than harbouring private disagreement that leads to resentment or builds towards a corrective ‘revolution’.
Second, because it turns moral and political issues into zero sum games and creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and an enslaved populace (the minority) who are forced or manipulated into acting against their personal moral convictions — and that’s a pathway to a certain sort of tyranny, or to a totalitarian state where an ideological vision of life, death and morality is imposed from the top down in a way that brooks no opposition, and refuses to make space for any public behaviour outside that norm.
Third, this also forces people who wish to act with integrity, according to their ‘private’ beliefs into ‘private’ practice, fragmenting the ‘commons’ and sending people into ghettoes, which robs us of the benefit of their skills and contribution to life together, and also serves to reinforce the views that keep us apart, and so the polarising division of groups and identities within our community. The choice to retreat into Christian, or religious, enclaves and parallel institutions is not a great one for Christians, or religious people, to make for the sake of the world nor is it a good one for the world if those enclaves are places that foster resentment and disunity where an alternative is a true commons where public life is richer because moral visions are contested and we allow people the space to act with integrity. Our public space becomes poorer if, in order to participate in it, one must adopt the positions or will of the majority against one’s own conscience. This is the sort of social engineering that makes tyranny possible because it makes tyrannical positions unquestionable, and forces people to conform and adapt until they lose their distinctives.
In terms of reasons for Christians not to follow Doctor Portmann’s lead, I’d suggest, firstly, that to adopt her position one is not choosing a ‘live and let live’ approach to public life and difference, but a ‘live and let die’ approach where it’s not just the unborn child, but the ability to believe and maintain that an unborn child is a person that dies with such a capitulation. This is not pluralism, where the public is contested, but capitulation, where the public is ideologically shaped by a particular view of personhood; a view that like all “private views” is inherently theological. Portmann is accepting a division or distinction between the secular (public) and the sacred (private) that is ultimately incoherent, because all public life expresses some view of the ‘sacred’ that is, frankly, both unChristian and unhuman — if we do not publicly embody our private convictions then either we are disintegrated hypocrites or those private convictions aren’t actually convictions at all. This also buys into the idea that there is ‘sacred’ work — that done by clergy in religious spaces, and ‘secular work’ that done by ordinary Christians in public or private enterprise. Her position is the sort of position that will force religious people of moral conviction out of contested public space — into ‘sacred’ or ‘private’ space, and so make that public space uncontested. There’s already a ‘contest’ to do this, without Christian doctors adopting Doctor Portmann’s position (and not just in public hospitals, though this is a particular battleground for a particular ideological ‘culture war’). To force Christian doctors to conduct abortions if they want to work in public hospitals, or even to argue that they should keep their personal convictions out of the job (even if they’re convinced of this stance as a personal conviction) is not a case of ‘live and let live’ but ‘conform or die’. To, act, as a Christian doctor, as though your personal convictions have no place in your public life is to disintegrate your faith from your practice; it’s to buy into a certain sort of secularism that evacuates anything substantial from religious belief. For the Christian, convinced of the moral absolute of the pro-life position, who operates in public as a doctor there are better solutions than adopting a ‘live and let die’ posture; there should, instead, be freedom to clearly articulate one’s convictions, act according to them, and for public patients with different convictions to seek treatment from a doctor who is not acting against their personal convictions.
Second, I’d suggest that her model of public practice is not faithful presence in that while she remains present in the public space, she is not, if she does hold personal religious convictions about the personhood of the unborn child, essentially faithful; her public actions are not her expression of her own faith (as articulated in the piece), but a giving over of herself and her body to the faith, or will, of others (be it the patients or the system). In James Davison Hunter’s work To Change The World, where he makes the case for ‘faithful presence’ as our paradigm for engaging, participating in, and changing the world for the good, Hunter says that while there’s much in the world we can participate in and affirm without question, we Christians — the church — must always remember we are a ‘community of resistance’ — people who act in public in order to subvert and challenge theological or political views of ‘the good life’ that we disagree with; that our job is not to evacuate the commons or the ‘public’ but to participate in it, and in its institutions in ways that are not just negative but creative and constructive. He says:
“…the church, as it exists within the wide range of individual vocations in every sphere of social life (commerce, philanthropy, education, etc.), must be present in the world in ways that work toward the constructive subversion of all frameworks of social life that are incompatible with the shalom for which we were made and to which we are called. As a natural expression of its passion to honour God in all things and to love our neighbour as ourselves, the church and its people will challenge all structures that dishonour God, dehumanise people, and neglect or do harm to the creation. In our present historical circumstances, this means that the church and its people must stand in a position of critical resistance to late modernity and its dominant institutions and carriers; institutions like modern capitalism, liberalism, social theory, health care, urban planning, architecture, art, moral formation, family, and so on. But here again, let me emphasise that antithesis is not simply negational. Subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive. Thus, the church—as a community, within individual vocations, and through both existing and alternative social institutions—stands antithetical to modernity and its dominant institutions in order to offer an alternative vision and direction for them. Antithesis, then, does not require a stance that is antimodern or premodern but rather a commitment to the modern world in that it envisions it differently. Such a task begins with a critical assessment of the metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological assumptions that undergird modern institutions and ideologies. But the objective is to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire; to oppose those ideals and structures that undermine human flourishing, and to offer constructive alternatives for the realization of a better way.” — James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, 235-236.
The tragedy of Portmann’s position, from a Christian perspective (apart from the question of the social cost of abortion), is that it gives up the chance for Christians to be subversive and different — to bring our personal convictions about what is good, true, and beautiful — about what the nature and kingdom of God looks like — into the public domain as we embody it, to settle for some ideal of ‘individual freedom’ as a greater good than the restoration of all things. We Christians have a chance to be different and to model something different to our world, to bring life into our public institutions, but we won’t do this if we don’t act with integrity, acknowledging that our personal beliefs have a public dimension such that they must shape our actions.
But what if I need you in my darkest hour? What if it turns out there is no other? We had it all If this is our time now We wanna see a sign, oh We would see a sign
So give us a sign I need some guiding light Children of darkness, oh — ’42’, Mumford and Sons
I heard someone recently say that the history of art in the west can be described as a thousand years of religious art and then stripes — the idea being that once the transcendent or sacred disappears from our cultural narrative we’re left with trying to make meaning from the very mundane. It’s an interesting thesis, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny, at least not when it comes to art that is worth one’s time and attention (whether high or pop culture). While stripes abound as a certain sort of artistic response to a reality that is flattened and turned in on itself, modern art is more complicated, more haunted, and less monolithic than such a reduction allows — and good modern art confronts this haunting sense front on, and asks us to consider what we might have lost in our culture that means we produce less overtly religious art.
I heard this idea while my imagination was consumed by the wild west, at least as modern secular artists render the wild west in order to tell stories. I’d watched the Coen brothers’ new Netflix special The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was playing Rockstar Games’ western epic (in every sense of the word) Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve also had Mumford and Sons’ Delta on high rotation since its release — and all three of these cultural texts, these works of reasonably good popular art, push back against the idea that modern art is hollowed because it is no longer hallowed… in this movie, this video game, and this album, all of which, to some extent, explore the wild untamed land of life and death with or without God, there’s a truth that modern art that is worth our attention is not hollow, but rather, haunted.
Two of these texts deliberately and directly interact with an older piece of art, from the ‘religious’ era — John Milton’s Paradise Lost, asking questions about where paradise might be found in this new, wild, western world. The other, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs confronts us with the truth that humans destroy paradise by nature, because facing death without hope destroys us all.
One popular version of the theory of secular, modern life, the ‘stripes’ theory of art, is that religious themes don’t make sense, and that they’re not worthy of being celebrated artistically — there’s certainly lots of ‘art’ and lots of stories that are ‘stripey’ in this sense, but that’s not the ‘secular age’ theory put forward by philosopher Charles Taylor, or unpacked by James K.A Smith in his commentary on A Secular Age titled How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith’s analysis of Taylor’s work was bouncing around my head as I watched, played, and listened to these texts. Here’s Smith:
“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.”
Mumford and Sons have always been overtly secular in this sense — the haunted sense — frontman Marcus Mumford’s parents are pastors, and right from their debut album Sigh No More there’ve been religious undertones to their lyrics. The lyrics of their songs are often ambiguous such that Mumford could be singing to a woman he loves, or to God. In this sense the band’s back catalogue, and this current album, function like a welcome reversal of contemporary Christian music, which seems to take the lyrical sensibility of modern songs celebrating sexual love only to replace the ‘you’ — the human other — with ‘God’ (as lampooned by South Park). So much Christian art is, thus, haunted — or colonised — by a modernist ‘stripey’ aesthetic. It adopts the content and form of this ‘secular’ immanent art, rather than pushing us towards the transcendent.
Mumford and Sons’ religious oeuvre continues in Delta where themes of darkness and light play out against the backdrop of songs about finding love and satisfaction through being a ‘beloved’ ‘forever’, while also navigating ‘the wild’ as mortals. In Guiding Light, Mumford expresses a certain sort of monotheistic faith in this awe inspiring one who’ll ‘always be my only guiding light’…
Well I know I had it all on the line But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind’ Cause even when there is no star in sight You’ll always be my only guiding light — ‘Guiding Light’, Mumford and Sons
It’s not smooth sailing and light. There are some pretty dark places the album’s “I”— and I say this because it’s not just Mumford, the band write together, and we as listeners who participate in the album by listening are caught up in the story — explores through the musical journey. It’s a journey from the ‘wild’ that “puts the fear of God in me” (The Wild), through a crippling ‘fear of what’s to come’ that is replaced by ‘hope once more’ when the “silhouette” of this loved other, who had been obscured by “blinding light” is “branded on his mind” so as to shine brighter on his “wondering eyes” (October Skies, I’d love it if that was ‘wandering eyes’ but the online lyrics sites are divided) … through to the ‘Delta‘, where the river meets the sea.
The album gets more overtly religious — whether or not its God or a lover in view — when Mumford quotes Song of Songs chapter 2:1 to describe his beloved, in this ‘cursed world,’ as his ‘rose of Sharon’.
And I will surround you With a love too deep for words Hold you from the world and its curse So long as I have breath in my lungs Long as there’s a song to be sung I will be yours and you will be mine Ever our lives entwined My rose of Sharon My rose of Sharon With a love too deep for words I’m yours forever — ‘Rose of Sharon’, Mumford and Sons
Song of Songs is, if nothing else, an exploration of the place that sexual love occupies in a cursed, fallen, world; a world where we’re inclined to scratch an itch in our hearts with as much sex and love as possible — where it appears the itch is actually caused by our haunting sense of ‘paradise lost’. Song of Songs grapples with the ‘cursed world,’ and uses Edenic imagery — pictures of paradise — to describe sexual love. Asking if it rediscovering human passion is the way back to Eden; the way to recover ‘Paradise Lost.’ The Song invites us to ponder whether the two lovers are a new Adam and Eve; restorers of our fortunes. Ultimately it asks if sex can save us if we don’t first returning to God (such that our approach to romantic love is re-ordered by his love for us). It’s this question, more than any other that subtly haunts Delta. The catch is, that the Song, with its connection to Solomon in the Bible’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Solomon’s loves — his pursuit of sex — don’t restore Eden, but repeat the Fall, carrying God’s people into exile. We’re left waiting for one greater than Solomon to restore us to paradise and re-order our loves.
And lest you think I’m making this undertone, this subtle note, up — Mumford and Sons then quote Milton’s Paradise Lost to make the subtle overt. In Picture You, possibly my favourite track on the album, there’s a darker note underpinning what until this point has sounded like a satisfying and deep love — a relationship that fills this void.
If I could tell you “no” I thought it best you didn’t know Don’t see it coming The darkness visible But when its eyes fix mine The silver in its stone I feel it rising, oh The gathering storm
And when I feel a darkness is a heartbeat away And I don’t know how to fight it It’s a heartbeat away And now You don’t know me like this It’s a heartbeat away And I don’t know how to hide it It’s a heartbeat away
And I picture you Soaked in light I picture you And in you I had no doubt When the chaos calls me out And it feels like there is nothing I can do I picture you — ‘Picture You,’ Mumford and Sons
Light and love is the answer to chaos and darkness. But here, more than ever, the question is — is Mumford singing to his beloved woman, and can she save him — or to God? And who can save him from this darkness? Truly?
What was a foreshadowing, or passing reference to Paradise Lost in the phrase ‘Darkness Visible’ — Milton’s description of Satan’s experience of Hell in Book 1 of his famous poem, is unpacked in the next track as this section of the poem is performed as a haunting spoken word.
“Nine times the space that measures day and night Rolling in the fiery gulf Confounded though immortal: but his doom Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought Both of lost happiness and lasting pain Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes That witnessed huge affliction and dismay Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate At once as far as angels ken he views The dismal situation waste and wild A dungeon horrible, on all sides round Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes That comes to all; but torture without end still urges As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames No light, but rather darkness visible” — ‘Darkness Visible,’ Mumford and Sons
If this is the future — if death, and ‘darkness visible’ await — is sexual love worth it? Is replacing God with the best of human love a wise gamble? Can it provide the meaning and satisfaction required for a flourishing life? And even if it can, is it worth it? While the album asks plenty of big questions, it’s interesting that the quote stops there… here’s the next little bit, about what that ‘darkness visible’ does.
Served only to discover sights of woe, Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes That comes to all; but torture without end Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed: Such place eternal justice had prepared For those rebellious, here their prison ordained In utter darkness, and their portion set As far removed from God and light of heaven As from the center thrice to th’utmost pole. — John Milton, Paradise Lost
It’s a high stakes game — this pursuit of life without God, because if God is light and life and love, then the reality of being ‘as far removed from God and the light of heaven as from the center thrice to the utmost pole’ is about being removed from all that this album finds worth celebrating in a temporary reality. Which is where the album now turns, unpacking more of this existential crisis, and the question of where (or whether) paradise — or the good life — can be found in this world. It gives no easy answers, from If I Say I Love You and the lyrics “If you were given one more chance, would you bring me back to life? Bring me back into the light?” to Wild Heart and the line “mortal once again,” questions of life and light and meaning and love are threaded through this album — right up to the final two songs Forever and Delta. Forever is fascinating in that the tension seems to have resolved itself — or at least the choice has apparently been made, though doubt remains — and the answer to this ‘doubt’ is apparently to focus on the here and now so that these days ‘turn to gold’, and yet, the chorus is “love with your eyes, love with your mind, love with you – dare I say — forever.” If these days are all there is, this idea of forever is a nonsense. A platitude. And yet it feels like there’s a resolution to avoid the bigger questions about the way faith, or piety, might reshape our lives and priority — to choose to ‘not be saved’ in order to live quite happily… ‘forever’…
And I’ve known pious women Who have lead such secret lives Shameless in the dark, so shameful in the light And you may not be pious and I may not be saved But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed — Forever, Mumford and Sons
In Smith’s, or Taylor’s, terms, this seems a resolution to say ‘secular’ — to remain haunted and simply make the best of it, rather than jumping to nothingness or to resolute faith. It’s like the “I” of this album resolves to not resolve anything, but to live in the here and now with these questions still pressing against reality. At this point the album feels lots like the book of Ecclesiastes — a companion piece in the Bible to the Song of Songs, that asks questions about the good life and what that might look like without God (“under the sun”) or with God. But Delta, like Ecclesiastes, has something like an epilogue. A final note exploring just how meaningless that previous resolution to pursue the good life without God, haunted by the absence of that which addresses the ‘eternity written on our hearts’ looks. In an interview I read, Marcus Mumford says he agonises over and overthinks every word he uses, the track ’42’ is the 42nd original song the band has released, it’s also a play on Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Delta, the final track of the album is also the title track — the delta is the place where ‘the river meets the sea,’ a movement from the safety of a river to the wilds of the ocean, it’s also, they say the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and an appropriate title for their fourth album — but there’s another thing the Greek letter signifies. Change. And one wonders if the placing of the song as the last of the album represents something of a denouement after the stormy, doubt-filled, journey through darkness and towards light, maybe ‘Forever’ isn’t the landing place of the album’s “I” — maybe this life isn’t all there is. Maybe the comfort of the Thames and the Liffey rivers — or the arms of one’s lover — aren’t the place to find ultimate meaning and security… the album ends with a staring out into the unknown, a search for a new way, and an acknowledgment that ‘what’s behind I can clearly see, but beyond that’s beyond me’. Delta is, to the album, what the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes concludes with the wise teacher having searched for meaning ‘under the sun’, but with death looming large, it concludes an exploration of the pursuit of paradise, or the good life, apart from the creator with a call to ‘remember the creator’ in order to enjoy the good life.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 12:6-8
A better translation for ‘meaningless’ is ‘breath’ — the idea that this is life, and its good things, are fleeting and temporary and gone in a moment, when we long for ‘forever’. Delta the album, thanks to Delta, the song, asks the questions Ecclesiastes asks about the meaning of pleasure — including love and sex — if this is all there is, when it’s all just ‘dust to dust’. Maybe that sort of life — the ‘dust to dust’ life of Ecclesiastes without the epilogue is meaningless, maybe there is more, and the haunted nature of reality pushes us somewhere beyond ourselves.
“When it’s all just dust to dust And it’s how it will be When it’s all just nothing else That means nothing to me When it’s all just dust to dust And how it will be When it’s all just nothing else That means nothing to me
Does my love prefer the others Or does my love just make me feel good Does my love prefer the others Or does my love just make me feel good” — Delta, Mumford and Sons
Looking for the paradise and love lost in Eden in the arms of a woman, rather than God, is a folly as old as Solomon’s… and one that leads to death, rather than away from it. Something Delta acknowledges as a problem not yet overcome — and not overcome by a ‘love that just makes me feel good.’ The whole album, from the opening song, through to the conclusion asks the question: do you want to be a child of darkness, or light. It posits love — love that is not self-interested, and love directed to some other — as the way out of darkness, but the question is whether it escapes the haunted ‘immanent frame’ to be connected to something transcendent — to the creator of light and light and love.
This question of life in the wild, life in the cursed world, life and love in the face of death, and where a long-lost paradise can be found also occupies Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs too — which is what made Delta such an apt soundtrack for the former, the latter had its own soundtrack of sorts, opening with gunslinging troubadour Buster Scruggs aka ‘The Misanthrope’.
The Coen Brothers’ western anthology is a collection of six short stories seemingly linked by nothing but the bleak message that death comes to us all. This means that comedy can only be black — funny tragedies — because our laughter is always in the face of the harsh reality of death… unless there’s some glimmer of hope — a place where poker is played fair in the “place up ahead”… Which is an idea that at least the concluding song from the first story, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ explores…
Yippee-ki-yi-yay I’m glory bound No more jingle jangle I lay my guns down Yippee-ki-yi-yay He shalt be saved When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings —When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The last story is even bleaker — a carriage full of western citizens travel with a dead body on the roof of a stage coach — death looming large over all of them — and this little song The Unfortunate Lad:
Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall And give to each of them, bunches of roses That they may not smell me as they go along — The Unfortunate Lad, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Death hovers over us, and we’re left finding ways to pretend it doesn’t. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t let us do that; not for a second. It scoffs at the idea, because death is omnipresent in the movie’s six stories. Its characters, the ones who bring and taste death, are almost exclusively “children of darkness” — and even those who aren’t, those who bring some light, end up dead, and this often at the hands of embodied darkness, never quite as starkly depicted as the black clad gunslinger who takes down Buster Scruggs in the first act.
There’s one exception, perhaps — the old prospector played by Tom Waits, whose story All Gold Canyon takes place in something very much like a wild western Eden. A paradise. His story is rudely interrupted by violence — but this violence does not have the final say. And yet, paradise in Buster Scruggs is only restored to the canyon, that pocket of Eden, when all its human inhabitants depart. The thing about good art created in this haunted bubble is that it’s not so much ‘religious art then stripes’, it’s more like Tasmania’s MONA, it ends up just being art that has to grapple with the good life in the face of death and then the haunting ‘maybe’… maybe there’s more… the hope of the first ballad does seem to give way to the darkness of The Mortal Remains (which, when you squint at it, bears a testimony to a certain outlook in its title, only those who are still alive remain.
Buster Scruggs was a particularly interesting experience for me because its stories were played out against almost identical backdrop to Red Dead Redemption 2, with a startlingly similar aesthetic. Asking similar questions (depending on how much you played the protaganist, Arthur Morgan, in parallel with ‘The Misanthrope’)… Video games are an immersive form of storytelling, and the world building in Red Dead Redemption2 is just incredible. The game takes place in a vast, carefully rendered ‘wild west’ as carefully crafted as the shots in Buster Scruggs, and if you’re going to explore that sort of virtual world on the back of a virtual horse I can highly recommend Delta as a soundtrack. The story is a prequel to the first instalment of the game (the second if you count a much earlier game in the same world); it’d be almost impossible for a game set in this period to be true to its setting without some nod to religion and the part it played in the fabric of American life; but this isn’t just a story set in the wild west — it’s a commentary on what has gone wrong with the western dream; our grand story of bravely inventing and taming wild frontiers, and the hopes that we could overcome some the ‘cursed world’ — nature and our human hearts — through adventure and technology. Like Buster Scruggs, and Delta, it tackles the reality of death and love and life in a haunted world where belief in God is simply one option amongst many that might deliver the ‘good life’. Like Delta the story is cleverly laced with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost — the levels often have religious names, including ‘Paradise Mercifully Departed’ and references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
The leader of your gang — the man you’re hunting down in the original (albeit as John Marston), is idealist and visionary Dutch Van Der Lynde. His ideal of a wild, untamed, west where there’s ‘no king, so everybody does what is right in their own eyes’ is falling to pieces, and as it becomes increasingly improbable, his fervent, fanatical, behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. While riding towards one of the new cities in the brave new world of progress, Dutch says to Arthur:
“For a long time, I truly believed a paradise lay somewhere in the west for us but I just… don’t know any more.” — Dutch Van Der Lynde, Red Dead Redemption 2
Dutch is looking for paradise — and he’s certainly not finding it in the modern vision of civilisation. Here’s a dialogue with the carefully named ‘Agent Milton’:
Dutch: “This place ain’t no such thing as civilised. It’s man so in love with greed he has forgotten himself and found only appetites.”
Agent Milton: “And as a consequence that lets you take what you please, kill whom you please, and hang the rest of us? Who made you the messiah to these lost souls you’ve led so horribly astray”
Dutch: “I’m nothing but a seeker, Mister Milton…”
Dutch is willing to do whatever he can to keep the west wild in order to find a paradise untainted by greed and the appetites it creates in us for whatever it is we lust after. The problem is Dutch’s own heart is every bit as corrupt; every bit as fixated on his own vision of paradise. If you’ve played the first game to its end, you’ll know there’s no redemption for Dutch — the question is whether those ‘lost souls’ he led could find redemption for themselves. While you control Arthur Morgan, and then John Marston, in this story it’s not just their stories you encounter — and its not just their worlds haunted by these questions of ultimate meaning in the face of death. A friend described this game as “the most profoundly Christ-haunted videogame ever made,” and if you’re looking for the Jesus shaped hole in the world you’ll find it in the questions it asks about meaning, sin, redemption, and repentance.
Dutch’s favourite in-game author (such is the world building) is a character named Evelyn Miller. He makes a cameo in the main storyline, his books are available to read in the outlaw camp, and he’s a substantial character in the playable epilogue where, upon meeting him atop a mountain, he declares that ‘this is God’ — that the splendid beauty of creation is part of the divine, and the hope of humanity; there are echoes of the Coens’ All Gold Canyon here; but these ideas were also developed in the books that shaped Dutch’s eschatology — ‘An American Eden’ and ‘An American Inferno’. These are quite profound little reads offering a diagnosis of the western disease, if not a genuine solution.
“…The delusions that we can compete with God. That our built environments can transcend his. That our factories and the squalid conditions that arise in the towns in which they are built will somehow allow us to be happy. We are fools, for fools cannot see their idiocy…
… By attempting to transform it into a poor impersonation of Europe, we are as Adam, eating once more of the apple, only this time knowing full well of the consequences. To free the American soul, this new world soul, we must free the American spirit from the prison in which we have placed it, we must seek our solace, our comfort, our very heaven in the perfection and splendour of this place.” — An American Eden
You can subsequently pick up An American Inferno lying around the Outlaw camp (and if the first owed something to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the second is a nod to Dante), which describes a trip to New York, the “grand human inferno, the fiery and mediocre hell that is Manhattan.” If we are pinning our hopes of restoration, or a return to Eden, on human ingenuity and city building, Red Dead Redemption 2 wants us to think twice, even if we think a third and fourth time about the alternatives as well…
“A place that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that when left to his own devices, when removing God entirely from his creation, man will induce not heaven, but hell. The gilded inferno. The marbled purgatory. This American churning sea of desire, the place where see we man for what he truly is, and recoil in horror. He is the destroyer of all. Of nature, of course, of his brothers, seemingly as sport, and finally of himself.
Men are fixated on greed, on desire, and on the acquisition not of experiences or pleasures but on the ability to acquire. People are fixated on wealth. Man is reduced to the desire for desire. Wanting is all that matters. No loving, not being, not having, but wanting. We are killers for desire. Even sport would be preferable. This is the grand sickness, the eternal sickness of this land – it is, man unleashed. Man unleashed and turned into, he knows what not?”
… I came to appreciate a hideous truth; the system that allows poverty and degradation such as i saw is wrong, and the impacts of the degradation on humanity are profound, but far worse is the impact of wealth upon those who possess it, who are possessed by it… Manhattan at once depraves the poor and dehumanizes the rich. Its purpose is unhappiness. The nurturing and blooming of suffering. — An American Inferno, in-game book in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Paradise lost, indeed… and a diagnosis of the sort of western disease that produces a President known for building ‘gilded’ towers in the inferno. When you cross paths once more with Miller in the epilogue he has been cast out from civilisation, rejected by the church and his family as a heretic, to live out his days in a cabin seeking hope for humanity. Miller ultimately feels defeated, he can’t escape that haunted sense of having had and lost some infinite thing (thanks David Foster Wallace). In his final manuscript, he writes:
“I am almost entirely consumed by my doubts, yet there is within me still a tiny spark that tells me it is possible, this land makes possible, the chance of absolution. Absolution from the European hell of thought and back to the Eden in which man can live as a sentient, yes, but above all as sensate. As a creature of God, alive in his world.
This world. Pure. Not clouded by idiocy. Not imagining himself as God as so many of us are forced to do, but happy as a child of God. But still my thoughts come upon me like wolves. My needs swamp me. My desires overwhelm me. It is not mortality I now fear but its opposite. That idiots part of me that attempts to convince me I am above mortal concerns. The foolish part of man that tells him he is immortal. That tells him, that whispers like the serpent, that seduces like the apple, that charms like Eve, that tells him he is God. I am not God. In this truth, I will find my absolution.”
This vision can’t animate anybody beyond Dutch (or Dutch himself), progress is inexorable, the landscape of the wild — like the Gold Canyon — will ultimately fall foul to human greed. Paradise is lost. The untainted ‘wild’ is destined to be replaced by our ‘infernal’ cities, hell on earth constructed as monuments to our greed; modern towers of Babel. Paradise is lost, if paradise is a beautiful unspoilt wilderness…
Depending on the choices you make in the game — whether to embrace a life of crime, bringing death and destruction in pursuit of a quick buck, or a life of seeking righteousness, your character, Arthur, is offered different advice on his path to redemption. A chance to trade his spurs for wings, perhaps.
In the penultimate moment in the story Arthur has the chance to give a last confession of sorts, either to the gang’s erstwhile, though ultimately redeemed confessor, Reverend Swanson, or to a nun you may help on your journey.
Reverend Swanson is an interesting character — your first interaction is rescuing him from a drunken binge, and if you find his Bible in camp and open it up, you see that it, like him, has been hollowed out to accommodate his addictions (in the form of drug paraphernalia). But if it’s him who hears this confession of yours, it’s as he boards a train, departing to a new life you can later read about in the in-game newspaper. He ends up in the belly of the inferno; the ordained minister of the ‘First Congregational Church of New York’, where he “delivered an impassioned and heartfelt sermon about acknowledging sin and seeking redemption. He spoke about his own break from faith, a dark period when he could no attend church, falling into sin, depravity, and wanton gluttony.” Swanson finds some sort of redemption in the belly of the beast.
If you’re met by the nun you’ve helped earlier, the dialogue includes her responding to Arthur’s confession that he’s “lived a bad life” by saying “we all sin…” she says “Life is full of pain but there is also love and beauty,” and then she offers this path to redemption.
Sister: “Be grateful that for the first time you see your life clearly… perhaps you could help somebody. Helping makes you really happy.
Arthur: But. I still don’t believe in nothing.
Sister: Often neither do I. But then, I meet someone like you and everything makes sense.
Arthur: You’re too smart for me sister. I guess I, I’m afraid.
Sister: There is nothing to be afraid of Mr Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.”
Arthur is haunted, belief in something beyond death terrifies him. He’s asking how to live in the face of death, and gets this “moral therapeutic deism” so often served up by the modern west — the idea that redemption, the return to paradise, would be found by people resisting the temptation towards greed and its appetites, to instead act in love… that we’re to grapple with the mix of beauty and pain by maximising love, and that this will restore us. But I’m not sure the story, Christ-haunted as it is, lets us just sit with that. To truly redeem, or help, those around him, Arthur can’t just ‘help,’ he has to sacrifice. His redemption is bound up in the end of his story.
It’s not just the name of the agent chasing down Dutch to protect a state-sanctioned vision of paradise or civilisation that tips the hat to Paradise Lost, and that alone might just be a coincidence… but later in the story, when John Marston is travelling incognito he gives his name as “John…er… Jim Milton.” He’s the last hope Red Dead Redemption 2 puts forward. In the unholy inner sanctum of the gang — Arthur, Dutch, Hosea, Micah, and John — he’s the only one who ‘makes it’ (according to Arthur). His new life was won through Arthur’s sacrifice (though those who’ve played Red Dead Redemption 1 know this hope is temporary). It seems that, almost despite himself, he too has been caught up by Evelyn Miller’s visions of a new, natural, Eden — paradise rediscovered by pursuing goodness and beauty of this world. Here’s a conversation he has with his son about his new life — on the land, farming — his sense of paradise.
John Marston: Pretty countryside ain’t it… Jack: I guess? John: The grass and the light. There’s a lot of ugly in this world, but there sure as hell is a lot of beauty. Jack: Yes. John: You’ll see it better when you get older. It’s tough at your age. Just, land and light. But to meit’s, it’s, life. I can’t explain it.”
His assumed name isn’t the only connection to John Milton. Jack is obsessed with heroic tales from King Arthur’s court. Milton contemplated penning an epic Arthurian tale, before writing Paradise Lost, which contains references to the legendary British king who ruled his own, briefly realised, paradise from Camelot. Milton was a fierce political voice, an English republican, whose works also included titles like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,‘ which argued for the freedom and dignity of all humans — that “All men naturally were born free.” This text was hugely influential in the founding of the American political vision, and these ideas seem to permeate the political outlook of Evelyn Miller and Dutch Van Der Lynde when it comes to ‘progress’ under those ruled by desires and passions rather than God. Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the fall — Adam’s ‘original lapse’ in the following quote, damaged true freedom — he sees freedom and paradise being closely linked in both his theology and politics. The damage was done by a departure from reason and the raising up of passions, or inordinate desires — appetites — in the place of reason.
“Since thy original lapse, true Liberty Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being: Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed, Immediately inordinate desires And upstart Passions catch the Government From Reason, and to servitude reduce Man till then free.” — Paradise Lost
He saw the resulting loss of freedom corresponding with a rise in tyranny and violence.
Therefore since he permits Within himself unworthy Powers to reign Over free Reason, God in Judgment just Subjects him from without to violent Lords; Who oft as undeservedly enthrall His outward freedom: Tyranny must be, Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.
A world of death. A world of greed, and human appetites bringing hell on earth. Paradise so lost that there’s no man-made path back. Not love, not proper passionate enjoyment of the things of this world, not a commitment to nature — none of these things will restore the good life, though we might taste it temporarily. Fleetingly. As breath…
What do these stories have in common? A western aesthetic? A sense that the answer to our modern ills might be found in the untainted wilds, away from human greed and consumption? In sacrificial love? A use of the western genre and the frontier, foundational, moments in American (and so western) cultural narratives to critique the modern account of flourishing human life? A playing off of ‘light’ against ‘darkness’ as metaphors for life and death? A haunting sense of loss of something eternal in the face of the death and destruction we bring as we fixate on amassing temporary things to satiate our appetites (that might actually be eternal or infinite longings)… And in two out of three, quotes or allusions to Paradise Lost, and the Bible.
Paradise Lost wasn’t Milton’s only religious poem… It had a sequel. One that specifically dealt with the question of how to rediscover paradise — one that answers the fears of ‘darkness visible’ and our mortality with a commensurate hope of paradise restored, and being returned to the presence of “light from above, from the fountain of light” and life — the presence of God — Paradise Regained. A new Eden being ‘raised in the vast wilderness’. The path to this satisfaction — this restoration, this paradise, was not our getting life right. It was not our redemption or repentance; it was through the obedience of a new Adam. Jesus.
The problem with Christ-haunted art — even if it is more interesting than stripes — is that it might point you towards Jesus, but it doesn’t throw you into his story. Milton sees this paradise regained in Jesus forgoing the worldly temptations that capture our hearts and pull us from God; though this happens ultimately at the Cross, he builds his poetic account of the restoration of all things in Jesus going head to head with Satan at his temptation; where Jesus, in the wilderness — the wild west — is offered all the good things of this world to turn his back on God, and he refuses. Thwarting the plans of Satan. Resisting the lure of those dark voices. Keeping his eyes fixed on the light.
Not all modern art is stripes — but perhaps all great art is religious in some sense. Great art gets us confronting darkness. It asks questions about what haunts our collective imaginations. These texts — an album, a film, and a video game — do that… but it’d be nice to have some great art that throws us into the light and gives us some answers every once in a while though too.
I who e’re while the happy Garden sung, By one mans disobedience lost, now sing Recover’d Paradise to all mankind, By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t, And Eden rais’d in the wast Wilderness. — Paradise Regained, Book I
My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.
My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…
At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.
Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’… The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):
“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.
Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.
The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.
The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”
It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.
The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…
But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.
It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.
What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).
STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:
This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.
This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.
Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.
Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?
I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:
classic stories from English literature
accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
biographies of significant figures in history
traditional fairy tales
stories encouraging the development of good character.
Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new
provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling
Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills
They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”
Spot the difference.
Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.
This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).
“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”
“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.
“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”
He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.
“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”
Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.
One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.
Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.
Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.
What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?
It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?
What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?
What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?
I have some guesses.
We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.
We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.
We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.
We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).
We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.
We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.
We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).
We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).
We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.
We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).
As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.
We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:
Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.
The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.
At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.
I’m an asthmatic. For most of my life I’ve managed to mostly ignore this, except when exercising in winter, but lately, my asthma has been worse than in the past and I’ve found myself with a preventer — when I remember to take it, things go well for me, when I don’t, well, there’s nothing worse than feeling breathless and scrounging around the house looking for the ventolin inhaler my kids have hidden somewhere. That sense of not being able to breathe is oppressive, and scary, and has me considering the shortness of my breath not just in the moment (when it comes to lung capacity), but in my finitude — I have a limited number of breaths I will take with these lungs before I expire. And asthma — the disordered restriction of those airways — means that some of my breathing is more breathless than it should be; and that those breaths in particular serve as a reminder of my mortality.
When I’m wheezing and spluttering and trying to breath what I need is ventolin. I can definitely reduce the impact of my asthma on my life by taking preventative measures like being healthy. But in that moment of breathlessness; if all you do is hold up a picture of healthy airways and tell me I should do all in my power to have those, I’ll still expire. And you’ll be a massive jerk; especially if you have some ventolin in your back pocket.
In the fallout of a controversial recent post it has been suggested that the framework I’ve put forward for speaking about sexuality in the modern world — that it’s a form of idolatry — is ‘soft pedalling’ when it comes to calling sin “sin”.
The Bible, from start to finish, is pretty sure that idolatry is deadly and destructive — the most deadly and destructive sin — and I’d argue that it sees most sinful actions as a result of an idolatrous disposition. It even gets the top two spots in the ten commandments.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. — Exodus 20:3-6
I’ve written stacks of stuff about how when Genesis says we’re made in the image of God, this uses a word used elsewhere (in the ancient world) for ‘idol statue’ — and our job is to be the living, breathing representatives of God in his world, which is what makes idolatry a particular inversion of the created order where we, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship the creation instead of the creator; this represents a disordering of the natural world — we were meant to rule the world with God, and instead are being ruled by it. The second commandment is a big deal because breaking it turns the created order on its head. As we live in disobedience to this command we’re actually living against the ‘created order’ — our order-bringing mission in the world — which disorders the world, and us. This disordering involves, as Augustine would put it, a ‘disordering of our loves’ — if we were made to chiefly love and worship God, and rule over the creation, but put created things in the God slot in our hearts, we end up living lives that are not optimal but destructive. Or to use the flourishing language that picks up the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command in Genesis 1, we live lives that are not fruitful, and instead spread death. When I say something is idolatry I’m not backing away from saying something is sinful, I’m diagnosing something as terminal, using the same diagnosis the Bible gives. But this diagnosis comes with a particular treatment (as I’ll suggest right at the bottom of this post).
A lot of the debate around changes to the definition of marriage, because they misdiagnose the problem (in my opinion), miss the solution. Lots of people in my theological camp — those who hold Reformed convictions about God and the world — talk about ‘creation ordinances’ — things that God instituted for ‘all people’ not just ‘his people’ ‘in the beginning’ — before people rejected him and the world was cursed — that last beyond that curse (typically largely undamaged by it and still accessible and good for all people). These ‘creation ordinances’ typically are listed as marriage and multiplication, work and dominion, and the sabbath. These are part of how ‘God has ordered the world’ for all people; a sort of ‘natural law’ that should be apparent for everybody.
These ‘creation ordinances’ are often linked to the concept of ‘common grace‘ (wikipedia); they’re part of how God continues to bless all people, and they become the basis Christians in this framework use to assess the work of governments; whose role relates to common grace as they ‘restrain evil’ and who are not just meant to restrain bad things but uphold these basic universal goods.
It’s interesting to consider how far our culture has departed from work and dominion, and from sabbath, and how little we made a fuss about those changes (and other changes to marriage — like no fault divorce) when considering how stridently we argue for marriage now… the onus now seems to be on those who suggest these ordinances are undamaged by the fall to demonstrate how this is the case (not just insist it is), or we need a different model for explaining the world (and the Biblical data).
Now. I have some issues with this basic framework as it has been applied — because I think it misses a couple of important and foundational ‘creation ordinances’ that humanity departs from as soon as we’re given the opportunity; and because we walk away from these, I think this gives us a framework for understanding why humans (individuals, cultures, and governments) walk away from the others; and what is required to have people walk back. I also think these particular commands — pre-fall — are particularly connected to our telos or purpose as humans, and that post fall they are frustrated rather than ongoing; that ‘work’ was meant to be the work of extending the garden of Eden — as the place God dwelled with humanity (like the Temple) — over the face of the earth; that ‘sabbath’ was meant to be the enjoyment of rest with God in this expanding garden, and that marriage was to reflect the image of God in a one-flesh union ‘male and female’; and that multiplication was the multiplication of living breathing images of God who would represent him in his ‘temple-kingdom’ as it spread. Nature is oriented towards a certain function, and that function is broken by sin. So, for example, I see these functions being recaptured in the church — the cultural mandate becomes the Great commission (which sees the ‘temple-kingdom’ of the Church — people with the Spirit — spreading around the globe).
But let’s work with this category of ‘creation ordinances’ being the ongoing things that God gives to all people for our universal good. I think the list is missing a few, and here’s the two things I’d say God gives to all humans that are, perhaps, bigger and more vital to our humanity than those other things held to be ordinances — ‘image bearing’ and ‘breath’. These are two concepts that Christians have used politically in very similar ways to the others — in upholding the sanctity of human life — and they are certainly universal. But they are also closely tied to our created purpose in the world; the other creation ordinances, and those two commandments quoted above.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7
If these are not ‘creation ordinances’ — that are true for all people of all time — then I’m not sure that ‘creation ordinance’ is a valid category.
They’re also concepts the prophets return to as they call God’s people back from idolatry (and arguably at the heart of how Israel is meant to be a blessing to the nations — who share these realities — as they call those nations away from idolatry and to life in God.
Because here’s the thing. Idolatry distorts these creation ordinances. Idolatry literally takes your breath away. It is worse than asthma. It is deadly. And Idolatry deforms us as we are conformed into the image of the images (or other gods) we worship. Idolatry is the gradual process of eradicating God’s image in our lives and replacing it with an idol — a process that is complete when we become breathless.
Consider, for a moment, how the Bible speaks of idolatry distorting work, or the ‘cultural mandate’ — to take the good things God has made and create with them; Genesis 2 speaks of the gold in Eden; look what Isaiah says about those who fashion idols from silver and gold.
With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple. — Isaiah 40:18-20
“Tell us, you idols, what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; whoever chooses you is detestable. — Isaiah 41:22-24
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame. — Isaiah 44:9-11
This is maybe my favourite bit of this extended treatment of how idolatry is fundamentally a departure from not just the creator but these created ordinances, talking about the craftsman who cuts a block of wood in half and uses one half to make an idol and the other as kindling to cook his food:
“Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”” — Isaiah 44:20
It’s not just Isaiah either…
Everyone is senseless and without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by his idols. The images he makes are a fraud; they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14
The thing is; the Old Testament consistently says the product of idolatry is that we become what we worship. And when we worship breathless and dead gods, rather than the living, breathing, God, we become breathless.
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18
Here’s where ‘common grace’ kicks in — for as long as we’re still living and breathing we’re still, in some capacity, representing the God who made us — whether we like it or not — but our idolatry means we’re hurtling towards breathlessness as we hurtle away from the ‘creation ordinance’ of life representing God and ruling over creation (because we’ve made created things our God). And this life and breath is still a good gift from God — a ‘common’ gift to all people.
This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5
Ultimately it’s idolatry that takes us to death as its natural end… it takes breath away, and it takes our bearing the image of the living, breathing, God away. It changes the way we work and rest. Why should it not also threaten how a culture understands marriage and multiplication? At some point in this trajectory from living and breathing and bearing God’s image a person — be they an idol maker, or idol worshipper — sees God’s common grace to them overcome by the effects of their sin and idolatry. This seems to be also true of cultures. At some point, culturally, a shared idol distorts us or deforms us away from the image of God and into the image of a culture’s gods; at some point our shared loves created by cultural stories disorder our loves so that we don’t love God as we were made to and as the Bible commands. The cultures in the Old Testament that were idolatrous were led by kings who were basically the ‘popes’ of their idol cults — who were also held to be ‘the image of god’ in their cultures. Idolatry happens corporately and culturally, and typically around narratives about what a god is and what they require and provide. Common grace is held in tension with the sort of temporal judgment for idolatry Paul speaks about in Romans 1 — where we no longer see the natural as natural — or with what has been called the ‘noetic effect‘ of sin.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21
Here’s how I understand the logic of this passage — God’s invisible qualities should be clearly seen from creation — creation ordinances are relatively logically clear and embedded in nature itself; but oriented towards us knowing God. When we deliberately choose not to know God, culturally or individually, we’re no longer able to see these obvious connections — our thinking and loves — our minds and our hearts — are darkened or ‘disordered’ — and this is ultimately an act of judgment from God. Our breathlessness starts now; the process of becoming what we worship starts now. God gives us what we want. And the result is that we individually and corporately start walking away from life-giving, common grace producing ‘creation ordinances’ and towards death and destruction.
Another way of framing this might be ‘how much uncommon grace is required to pull someone back to knowing and worshipping God’? And then ‘how do we do this’? We’ll get there below. Before we do, there’s a pretty compelling account of how the noetic effect changes the way we see some good things God has made (like moral ordering of the universe) in a different degree to how we see others (like the logical ordering of the universe — eg mathematics) in this paper on how sin effects scholarship; I think it’s worth grappling with that paper and at least seeing that common grace and the noetic effect are held in tension. I’ve written elsewhere how because of the ‘subjectivity’ created by sin and idolatry (following this model), marriage might be more like music than mathematics.
It seems to me that from the limited survey of some Biblical gear above that it is reasonable to conclude that sin changes our ability to know and worship God — it pulls us away not just from the creator but from the ‘creation ordinances’ in their pre-fall state — even if those things are all still good and provide ‘common grace’ benefits to people as a part of what it means for us to be human. The questions for us with this data are: how much is this effect corporate, not just individual? And at what point does the ‘noetic effect’ of sin eclipse common grace in a culture (or an individual)?
At some point we need to be able to account for why it is that the people in our culture are so happy to redefine a ‘creation ordinance’ if the category of creation ordinance is going to have any valid descriptive power when it comes to life in this world. As well as accounting for why our world seems to be departing from these creation ordinances, we probably need to better account for why it’s people who believe in a creator who seem to be less likely to do this (why is the coalition for marriage just a bunch of religious leaders?). It’s not just that these communities are more sold on history or biology. It’s not just that theism comes with an orientation towards the ‘classical view’ of the world; we have to account for why others don’t buy this. I think the answer that best accounts for and describes this reality is idolatry. That’s the diagnosis. It’s serious. And it’s terminal if not properly treated.
Let me be unequivocal in not ‘soft-pedalling’…
The Bible says that marriage is created by God as a ‘one flesh’ relationship between one man and one woman. This ‘one flesh’ relationship is sexual, but also unitive in that it forges a single identity unit of ‘two-persons-as-one’. It is part of how such a man and woman then bear the image of God, and marriage is part of how we humans were to fulfil the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — this isn’t to say that every person has to be married to bear the image of God, or contribute to fruitfulness, or even that children are the ‘purpose’ of marriage or having children its essence.
This is God’s design for humanity and is part of what a truly flourishing society is built on. To depart from this design is sin.
That we have walked away from God’s design for sex and marriage is a result of sin. The deadly sin of idolatry where we’ve, as a culture, decided to worship sex (a created thing); and see the flourishing human life as being connected to love and sex — and so marriage — rather than being connected to God. This is idolatry — it’s not just our gay neighbours who do this (and it’s not just outside the church); this is a culture wide decision to live in a different story and to put a ‘created thing’ as an ultimate good. Part of the problem with how the church speaks about this is that we’re so complicit with the idolatry of sex and marriage — the idea that these are necessary for human flourishing — that it sounds like we’re actually denying a thing we think of as god (or an ultimate good) to others. When we extol the virtues of marriage and family in idolatrous terms — as though they truly satisfy — and then deny them to people who are different to us, we do not sound loving. This is part of why talking about Jesus in this conversation about marriage and sex is not just window dressing…
This sin, or idolatry, is deadly in that it pulls us away from bearing God’s image as it forms us according to a different image or vision of the good and flourishing life. This is why our culture has walked away from God’s design for marriage. We’re pursuing a different God, or ultimate good. Once we, as a culture, pursue that good it makes sense to afford the ‘good’ of marriage to any one of our neighbours who is living in this story or according to this vision.
If what the Bible says about idolatry is true then this is deadly. It’s not soft-pedalling on sin to call the push for same sex marriage a ‘religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ thing; but like any doctor delivering a fatal prognosis our bedside manner is important. Especially if there is a cure and a treatment plan…
At some point sin means our ‘breath’ is more like the breath of an asthmatic on the way to a fatal asthma attack than like a human with a healthy set of lungs — or like the lungs of somebody who has deliberately set out to reduce their capacity by unhealthy living or smoking. When I’m in a state of breathlessness, panicking as I open every drawer in the house looking for an inhaler, I don’t just need to picture what my lungs should be without this disorder. We don’t treat an asthmatic or someone with asbestosis or mesothelioma by showing them a picture of healthy lungs — creation ordinances — and telling them to jump back to living that way; we treat disordered lungs by fixing the disorder, or with a lung transplant.
We respond to idolatry — disordered love — with the Gospel of Jesus, which re-orders our love for God, others, ourselves, and the world.
God restores breath to breathless lungs, and restores his image in us, by the Spirit as it conforms us to the image of Jesus.
Without this intervention we’re holding up a picture of healthy lungs to an asthmatic as they suffocate to death.
Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church.
“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart
Freedom of speech.
It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.
The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.
We’re political captives.
We’re economic captives.
We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.
We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.
But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).
We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.
Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.
Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.
“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.”
We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.
Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’ empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.
“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.”
Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.
We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.
But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.
If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).
There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:
“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”
The Babylonian captivity of Israel
When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.
They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.
They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.
There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…
“When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry.I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5
The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.
“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.
“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax,this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27
Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28
The first Babylonian captivity of the Church
The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:
The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
Babylon the great
the mother of prostitutes
and of the abominations of the earth.
I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6
This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…
“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18
For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.
Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.
An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.
When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:
Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54
This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.
… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7
The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.
But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).
The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):
Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them.Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified.For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.
But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12
Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church
Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.
The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.
Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.
Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.
They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.
They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.
They share a common table, but not a common bed.
They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.
They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.
They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.
They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.
The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…
“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?
You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.
It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”
This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.
Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)
I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).
I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).
It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.
If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.
This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome), but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.
This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).
This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).
This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).
This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising
This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.
This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitarybrains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.
This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’… There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.
Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.
When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…
“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment, “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”
In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.
“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”
“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.
Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.
Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).
What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?
What are we teaching our children?
No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.
This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…
“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.
In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”
Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.
Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:
Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:
“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”
The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.
Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.
Pornography: worship gone wrong
This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.
In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.
Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.
It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…
“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?
The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.
We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.
Pornography is worship.
False worship. But worship.
The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.
Pornography is worship.
Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.
It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.
The war for your worship involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three
So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).
Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.
Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.
This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:
Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.
“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love
Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high. This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).
If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…
We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…
Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith
When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.
In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being
Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25
The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.
“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32
How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?
Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)
1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)
The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…
Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:
“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”
The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.
Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”
If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.
It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…
2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)
David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.
This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.
Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.
But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.
While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’,if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…
Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.
You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator
Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.
Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.
3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)
Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.
You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.
We combat wrong worship with right worship.
The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.
This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.
But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.
We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the “expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.
“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…
To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection
For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.
Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.
Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.
Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.
The sky is falling. We must tell the king — Henny Penny & Chicken Little
I feel a little like I’m a chicken, just kicking back in the coop, chewing some corn or something, and watching Henny Penny running around yelling that if I don’t get off my perch and spit out my corn the sky will fall on my head.
Do you ever feel like that?
There’s a fair bit of hysteria in my coop about life in this new sexular age. The result of the secular world we live in where reality has been flattened so only the material questions of here and now matter, butting up against the sexual revolution, where only sex really matters. Materially speaking. Stephen McAlpine sums this sexular age up best. So read him (see also Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age and James KA Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular). But we Christians are the enemies in this revolution, perhaps rightly so, because we keep standing against it, and when we’re not standing, we’re running around trying to convince one another that the sky is falling in, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.
It makes sense, if this sexular age is a real thing, that the people of this age will seek to indoctrinate the children of this age to worship the god of the age. It makes sense that the people of this age will set out patterns of relationship that conform to the image of their god. That’s how idolatry works. Always. Alternative patterns. What doesn’t work is calling people to follow our pattern of life without giving them the way in. To do that is just cruel.
There’s a fair bit at stake. Potentially. So it makes sense. But I think our best bet, and the thing we’re actually called to do as followers of Jesus, is to spread our wings and give Henny Penny a comforting hug, but also reach out to those doing their best to bring the sky down on us. Those driving the revolution. Because they’ll need a hug when they realise the revolution doesn’t deliver (and it’s just our job, metaphorically) even if they don’t.
Just to be clear — the hug I’m talking about is extending the love of Jesus to the people of our world, the knowledge that he is the real king, and the only lover capable of meeting the expectations people are heaping on their sexual partners. We get so worried the sky is falling in we forget our job is to love those who are afraid, and love those who its going to fall on, even as they pull it down on our heads.
If you’re reading this and you feel like you need a hug because of how Christians keep telling you to live — where you can or can’t stick your bits, or how to think about who you are, then I’m sorry. All this stuff we believe about sex and gender and life in this world we believe because following Jesus makes us see everything differently. If you’re not prepared to accept that God might have something different to say about sexuality to the inner workings of your mind, or to the education system in Australia, then you’ll probably find this post super awful and hate me. I’m sorry. But I’m writing specifically to Christians, basically to tell them to stop telling you to live like you’re a Christian.
I’ve been particularly struck by the intra-Christian hysteria this week when it comes to our snowballing response to the Safe Schools material being introduced in our secular (sexular) schools, and to preparations for the plebiscite on gay marriage. There are plenty of these out there, some of the more measured responses include this blog post from Akos Balogh that has gone a little viral asking for the Christian position to be respected — for our students to be safe from bullying, and this story from the Presbyterian Church’s Moderator General (the guy responsible for chairing our national assembly who functions as a bit of a lightning rod for the denomination) David Cook about a meeting with Malcolm Turnbull seeking clarity about a gay marriage plebiscite.
“We want all students to be safe at school and free from bullying, whatever their identity. But my concern is that your material risks not only causing harm to some of the vulnerable LGBTI students (e.g. through the minus18 website), but it also creates another class of ‘outcasts’, whose only crime is to hold a different view of sexuality/gender than Safe Schools.” — Akos Balogh, Dear Safe Schools: I have questions
David Cook describes meeting the Prime Minister, in a delegation put together by the Australian Christian Lobby. He reports:
The issues which concerned us were:
The framing of the question to be answered in the plebiscite. Would we have input into this so that it did not unfairly encourage the preferred response of either side?
The question of religious freedom both during and after the debate, if the plebiscite is lost.
If the Commonwealth was to provide funding for campaigns, how would such funding be allocated? The campaign in favour of single sex marriage in Ireland outspent the traditional campaign, 15 to 1.
When will the proposed Bill to change the Marriage Act and enable the plebiscite, be available?
Will the PM do all in his power to ensure equal access to media for both sides of the argument? — David Cook, Malcolm in the Middle
I have a huge amount of respect for David Cook (and for Akos), but especially for David’s contribution to the church in Australia in training up Gospel ministers — evangelists. I know both these guys to be pretty reasonable, and what they’re asking for seems so reasonable. Fair even. I don’t entirely share some of their thinking, because I keep remembering how poorly we stewarded the ‘public square’ for the sake of minority groups being safe, when we were the dominant social power. We were probably especially, at least anecdotally, damaging to the LGBTIQA community, who are the primary beneficiary of both these current issues.’
It’s certainly not just Christians who make the world feel unsafe for people at the margins, but we’ve been a bit culpable either in participating in bullying, or not using our power to stop it (and then you’ve got boxing champions and professing Christians like Manny Pacquiao and Tyson Fury kind of proving the point that the link between Christian faith and bullying can be quite direct). This is why we’ve got to be careful when Christians are allowing for hate speech laws to be thrown out so we can debate the plebiscite robustly. There’s a fine line between debate and debasement when some people claim to be speaking for God.
For David Cook, at least, the fear that the sky will fall seems quite palpable, and it seems to miss the point that the sexular age is already here. It’s not going to be brought in by this vote, this vote will simply codify what Australians already think (whichever way it goes). And I suspect because the average Aussie’s pantheon of gods includes freedom, sex, and free sex, they’ll be voting for the side that best represents their objects of worship.
“Changing that Act will change society; genderless marriage will lead to genderless families, no more mothers and fathers, just parents; genderless living will be used to encourage children to choose whichever gender they would like to be.” — David Cook
Both David Cook and Akos Balogh essentially mount arguments against change on the basis of protecting our personal freedom, or liberty, as Christians. Which sounds noble, and I totally agree with their thinking. I just don’t think it’s going to work (have a look at Stephen McAlpine’s aforelinked post for a start). I think we’re trying to topple one modern idol sex with another freedom when they’re so closely interconnected that the alternative idol is more likely to consume us as we wield it, than destroy the arguments we are deploying it against. If this makes sense… An argument for individual liberty ends up becoming an argument for people being free to choose their gender and their approach to marriage.
“There is no doubt we are facing a very different Australia in the future when such curbs on liberty become part of the policy platform of a mainline political party.
Neutrality will not be an option in the debate leading into the plebiscite. The church, usually reluctant to enter into politics, needs to take the lead in having an educative role.
We need to be much in prayer at this time and the silent majority need to speak up.” — David Cook
I’m a bit confused. Do we want groups of people curbing the liberty of others, or not? If we make the argument about liberty and are only worried about our liberty then we’re falling into the trap of being pretty inconsistent.
“I would rather stay home and read a book but that is not an option for any of us.” — David Cook
“The sky is falling in. The sky is falling in. We must tell the king.” — Henny Penny
When the sky is falling in, we certainly can’t just stay home and read a book. We have to do something. We have to change people’s minds! And the Sky is falling in. It is. But we seem to be making Henny Penny’s mistake and turning to the fox — in this case, the state — to deal with the problem, not the king. You don’t help people when the sky is falling by putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
We need to do something, but getting out the vote isn’t it. At least I don’t think it is. When we say things like this and expect to be convincing, we’re missing two fundamental Biblical truths.
In response to human sin. God gives us over to a broken way of seeing the world, with new (broken) hearts and minds (and we used to be part of this ‘them’). See Romans 1.
In the transformation and renewed mind God brings via the Spirit to those who follow Jesus, God changes the way we see the world back to how it should be seen by giving us new (new) hearts and minds. Without this mind following God’s pattern for life is simultaneously impossible and futile. See Romans 8, 12
Idolatry and Double-Think
War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery. — George Orwell, 1984
Up is down. Black is white. God is sex…
This Romans 1 passage works corporately, it’s about all of us in Adam. Since the beginning of the Bible story people are born seeing up as down. Seeing things as God, and God as some small thing. We’re not born knowing who God is from his world, though we might have an inkling, we’re born already suppressing the knowledge of who God is because that’s human culture. That’s how we get sexular ages. Consensus views that are opposed to God. To deny this is to deny that sin affects every human heart and mind from birth. But this isn’t a get out clause because we all repeat that deliberate act of suppression, so Paul says:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20
When we humans invert the created order and make created things into our gods — which is the hallmark of the sexular age, where our worship is directed towards sex, and our sexuality frames our understanding of who we are at our most fundamental level — our thinking changes. It’s natural that our thinking is shaped by our love and habits — by the story we see ourselves living in… but it’s not just that. This re-seeing the world, re-imagining the world, isn’t just us choosing to see the world through the lens provided by our new god — sex — the real God is also, at least according to Romans 1, confirming these new patterns for us. This is part of the judgment of God that comes on people when they turn to idols… There’s this repeated statement in Romans 1, the idea that God gives us, humanity, over to a new way of seeing when we exchange him for idols. He ultimately changes the way humans (and so, human cultures) see the world. Our hearts and minds are shifted by what we worship, and by God to what we now worship, as a punishment.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. — Romans 1:24, 28
This is talking about every single person in this world. The only thing that changes the way we see the world — helping us see war, peace, strength, freedom, and sex, rightly, is that we see the world as God made it to be seen because he first works in us. We can’t do this seeing on our own, nor can we expect our arguments to make people see their own way out of their idolatry. This requires, as an old school Christian dude Thomas Chalmers put it “the explusive power of a new affection’ — until someone loves Jesus more than they love sex, or another idol (perhaps individual freedom), more than they love sex, these very reasonable arguments we make seem like doublethink. I can no more convince someone that I should be free to disagree with their view than I convince them that up is down.
This truly expulsive power comes from one place. God. And it comes as we share the love of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus, not as we call people to simply change the way they see the world starting with sex. We just look like panicked chickens when we do that…
The Noetic Effect of Sin meets Common Grace
There is a sense, I think, where living out and speaking about sex following the pattern of the created order, not our sexular age’s order, does bear witness to God and his goodness. This is why I’m so keen for Christians to stay involved with marriage for as long as possible — rather than pulling stunts like getting divorced or withdrawing from the Marriage Act if our sexular government broadens the definition of marriage. People do still, despite the warping of our minds, have a taste of what has been lost. I think this is actually what Paul is talking about in this hotly contested passage in Romans 7.
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. — Romans 7:18-19
I think what he’s talking about here are two aspects of every person’s humanity — what it means to be like Adam and Eve. We’re made in the image of God, so know what we ought to do; but we’re also made in Adam’s image, and shaped by our idolatrous hearts, so keep doing what we shouldn’t. This reading fits with the way Paul appears to hark back to the Fall and the way he describes human behaviour that parallels the unfolding of human history in Romans 1, and the way he contrasts Adam and Jesus throughout the argument. Plus it works with where he goes in Chapter 8, and the solution to the problem — for both Jew and Gentile — being the Spirit of God marking out the children of God who will restore creation from its cursed frustration.
I think he’s talking about these two big theological concepts — the noetic effect of sin and common grace.
The noetic effect of sin is basically the Romans 1 thing — our ability to know God from what has been made has been utterly frustrated by sin’s effects on our thinking. This effects every sphere, though some smart people suggest it particularly affects issues of morality and the heart, where our idolatry is most likely to be at play, rather than in ‘objective’ areas like math, science and geography, where we’re most likely to be able to infer true things about God’s invisible nature without our human desires and idols getting in the way.
Common Grace is the sense that God remains good and true to all people, even as we become bad and turn on him (even as he ‘gives us over’ to that turning). It’s the sense that God sends rain on everyone, and allows us to figure stuff out about how rain works. It’s that sense that his image remains in each of us, despite our best efforts to shape ourselves into the image of our idols, and that this means we still have some sense of right and wrong…
So in Romans 7, I think that’s what is going on, it’s the tension in every human heart, a tension we appeal to as we live faithful lives and proclaim the Gospel, and a tension that is only really resolved with the solution Paul talks about in Romans 7 and 8. It’s this common grace, the image of God in all people, that gives me some hope in this sexular age, not for the society at large necessarily, but that our faithful witness is not wasted, because God will use our faithful witness to draw people to himself and renew their way of looking at the world by his Spirit.
The Gospel leads to right-think
“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” — George Orwell, 1984
Something massive changes in our humanity when we trust Jesus. Something changes in the way we see the world. We get the ability to start valuing the righteousness of God rather than the counterfeit righteousness and rituals of our idols. Our stories change, our pattern of behaviour changes, our hearts change, our minds change. Not completely drastically, the ‘delight in God’ that is latent in all of us is reawakened by his Spirit.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1-2
Here’s why we’ve got to stop pretending the world around us should live like us, and why we should stop pretending they should think like us or even listen to us, if our message is one of individual freedom, or if it challenges the idols of our age. It doesn’t matter how hysterical we are, or how reasonable… it’s the Gospel that is the ‘best book that tells people what they know already’ — that does what books in 1984 do, opening people’s eyes to the truth… our other arguments will fail. Inevitably. So we’re stupid to keep making them.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. — Romans 8:5-8
We’ve got this whole new way of seeing the world because we’re newly human, so we’re actually meant to look different to the world around us.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2
We serve a totally different God. Our acts of worship don’t look like the pursuit of sexual freedom for all, but the gift of ourselves to God. We’re supposed to love differently. To understand marriage and gender and safety in different ways. Not call other people to sameness, or call them to respect our ways. Our ways are foreign and weird and involve the death of the gods of the people around us…
The way to help people see things this way is right back at the start of Paul’s letter. It’s the Gospel. Not a call to human righteousness first, but to Jesus.
So where to now?
Here’s what got Paul up out of bed in the morning, and got him loving and talking to a bunch of people whose age was every bit as sexular as our own…
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scripturesregarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David,and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake… That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:1-5, 15-17
Maybe if we started being eager to preach this like Paul was, and kept reminding ourselves both who we were, how we became what we are now, and where we’re going, we’d all be a little less anxious about sex, and a little more anxious to see people come to faith in Jesus.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” — George Orwell, 1984
In a real way, both the Henny Penny — the concerned Christian who thinks the world will fall apart if people stop being righteous, and the Winston, (the main character in 1984) the person living in this sexular age, being massaged by the patterns of this world — have confused ideas about God.
Where Henny Penny convinced herself that the sky was falling in, and got in a tizz; Winston in 1984 was the product of a system that was deliberately designed to control people via confusion. Henny Penny misunderstood reality, and needed to be calmed down by the king. Winston needed to be drawn from the way he’d been seeing the world by having his eyes opened, bit by bit. Before their epiphanies, that help them both see the world as it really is, both Henny Penny and Winston need love and hugs from those who’ve already found clarity when it comes to seeing the world, and freedom. They need Jesus. They need to be set free. There are lessons to be learned in both these stories about the way idols, or false ideas, plant themselves in our heads. Whether its by misunderstanding something God made (like a nut falling on your head), or being shaped by an oppressive system (like Big Brother), there are things in this world that shape us and take us away from seeing the world truly.
The danger for Henny Penny, in listening to Chicken Little (who doesn’t know better), and leading a band of terrified animals to find the king, is, as the parable goes, that they end up in the fox’s den. The fox capitalises on Henny Penny’s gullibility, and gets to eat a bunch of scared animals.
They ran to tell the king. They met Foxy Loxy.
They ran into his den, And they did not come out again. — Chicken Little
What Henny Penny should’ve done, in the story, was given Chicken Little a hug. She should have told Chicken Little to calm down; that even if the sky was falling, the King would have things under control.
It’s not that the sky isn’t falling. It is. It’s just that we’re actually Chicken Littles, and if we react the wrong way, we’re leading a bunch of people to their doom, straight to the predator’s gaping maw. Big Brother is real. It’d be naive to suggest that people in our sexular age aren’t going to use their power to conform people to the image of the age. To advocate for their idol. Safe Schools is just the beginning. And that will be painful for us as we resist in our own lives, and as we teach our children to resist (by teaching them to follow Jesus). Costly even. But resist we must — in that we are not to be transformed, ourselves, to be like idols, by these uses of worldly power into the ‘patterns of this world’. That’s a real danger Paul identifies, but the fight is not one fought on our own steam. It happens as the Spirit works in us to shape our minds in a new shape of God’s choosing. That is God’s power. It trumps the power of the world of idols, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I should also say I don’t think resistance means telling people not to be sexular without offering them the expulsive power of a new affection, something to pull them out of their way of seeing the world and into something more positive. This conversation is doomed to failure if we frame it as being about individual liberty — that just pits two modern idols against one another (even if we find one more palatble). So. Since we’re not in the building of wielding human power, but relying on God’s power as we preach the Gospel — the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes
“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” — George Orwell, 1984
Can we please stop calling people to live out obedience to God in their sexuality? Can we please stop acting as though the people we live in are on the same page as us when it comes to sex just because we all live in the world God made? Can we stop acting as though happiness is found in moral obedience, not the freedom the Gospel brings from slavery to idols? Or as though people can simply act their way out of idolatry without God.
If people are worshipping at the altar of sex, or individual freedom, or whatever, then they’re seeing the world through that lens — and God made them that way, it’s unloving to pretend he didn’t, and pretend they should be like us, without Jesus. It’s impossible. So, can we renew our focus on the Gospel, which makes this possible? Which provides the expulsive power of a new affection?
You can, because of your renewed mind, obviously see what sex and marriage are meant to be, and how idolatry smashes God’s design. But if you try to fight the new sexularism, or any idolatry,on your own steam — whether we’re talking about how we understand sexuality in schools, or what we call marriage — you won’t beat it. Not without God transforming a person’s heart, by his Spirit. The way to ‘win’ is by pointing people to Jesus.
Next time someone is running around as though the sky is falling in because kids in sexular schools are being taught sexular ethics can we remember that nothing changes without the Spirit, and it’s faith in the Gospel that brings righteousness, not righteousness that brings faith in the Gospel? Can you just give the Henny Pennys in your life a hug and ask them to calm down for a minute… The king knows the sky actually really is falling in, and he knows what is going to put the world to rights. He’s already done it, and the invitation to safety and true seeing is there for everyone.
Question: What does it mean in Romans ‘governed by flesh’?
What Paul means is basically that our natural humanity, from birth, is caught between two poles that are in conflict with themselves.
The first is that we’re made in the Image of God, and so know what we ought to do, and sometimes do it, the second is that our humanity, our ‘flesh’ has been corrupted by humanity’s rejection of God’s image and desire to craft our own images, or ourselves as images of our own God (sometimes we just want to be God).
So our two natures — or these two aspects of our nature are sort of playing out, in different proportions, in everything we do. As humans, but we’re also always progressing towards being completely consistent based on what we worship — if we become worshippers of the Living God, as we see him revealed in Jesus, Paul says we are ultimately transformed into the image of his son, if, instead of God, we do what Paul talks about in chapter 1 — worshipping created things that can’t bring life — idolatry, which leads to all sorts of bad actions (sin) — we transform into dead people. Our flesh, without God, points us towards death, because often we put ourselves in the centre and worship ourselves. You could say every person ends up with this happening, we all become shaped by the ‘image of God’ we pursue, the question is whether it’s the real God, or a god we make up.
So, whatever we are, before this transformation is complete, is a product of these aspects of our humanity. The good stuff we do is often from mixed motives, like, “maybe someone will notice what a good thing I’m doing” or “aren’t I better than that other person who couldn’t be bothered doing this” — for Paul it’s convenient to describe this as a flesh v Spirit thing, because what he looks forward to is these two parts of our nature being perfectly aligned, rather than in conflict.
The other thing in Romans is that part of the process of becoming like Jesus — our picture of the real God, is that we get a third part to our humanity, a greater part, God dwelling in us, completing us, by his Spirit. This isn’t like a magical thing you feel, it plays out in a reorienting of our lives so that we do Christlike things more over time. We see the Spirit by its fruit — the lives we live reflect the transformation brought about by whatever we’re worshipping. But as a result of the new bit of our humanity, the Holy Spirit, that happens when we follow Jesus, we re-orient our lives both back towards the image of God part that was always part of us, and now also to the image of Jesus, which has become the pattern for future us both in terms of how we live and our eternal connection to God, our ‘fleshy’ lives change too, hopefully, over time and towards eternity, our actions are less and less mixed motived and more and more an outworking of this transformation, but that never fully happens until heaven. I always feel a little bit like this sounds like science fiction, but the ultimate post death reality, if Jesus really was raised from the dead is that we are raised with new ‘flesh’ untarnished by our shared disobedience.
So governed by the flesh, to answer your question, is a description of us putting the ‘not image of God’ part of ourselves in charge at the expense of our image of God part. It’s about us choosing to live how we want while suppressing whatever quiet voice (and as you suppress it it becomes quieter) is in the back of our head saying ‘you were made for more, you were made for better than this’…
An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.
Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.
It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.
It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to “Wear It Purple“ as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:
“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”
This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.
The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.
Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele
“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”
I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%”
Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).
The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.
The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.
Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)
I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).
Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.
Aren’t these good outcomes?
Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?
I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.
I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.
So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.
This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.
It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?
I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.
I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?
Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.
By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.
The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’
This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.
In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.
There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.
Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?
“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?
Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.
The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…
The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.
The “New” Normal
Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31
This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.
People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.
So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.
If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.
The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing
Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.
If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?
“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”
I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it). I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.
That’s not trite. Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture. After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now. Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.
I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.
He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.
This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “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.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 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.27 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.28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “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.30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 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.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32
Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.
Paul really understands.
And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.
That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…
Is it possible that Christians spend far too much time trying to decide whether a particular action or thought is sinful, and not enough time thinking about what sin really is, or what goodness really looks like as an alternative? We’re worried about our hands and eyes, where perhaps we should be more worried about our hearts. Is it possible that we’re obsessively worried about sin, when perhaps we should be excited and thankful that despite our inability not to sin, God forgives us and changes our hearts through Jesus, and invites us to follow his example. Is it possible this worry comes through in the way we present the ‘good’ news of the Gospel?
Sin and defining ‘good’
In the beginning, God looked at the stuff he made in this universe and declared it ‘good’ — but what does ‘good’ mean?
I’ve always injected a bunch of my own understandings of the word ‘good’ into the first chapter of the Bible, which typically revolve around my fairly modern assumption that goodness is a sort of material quality, perhaps even an aesthetic quality. God made a good world like IKEA does not make a good table. God made a good world like an artisan specialty coffee roaster makes a good flat white. It’s good because of what it is, and how I experience it.
But what if ‘good’ means something other than that the universe was, as declared by God, materially excellent? John Walton is a guy whose looked at what the ancient world understood the existence of a thing (the nature of ‘being’ — the fancy word is ‘ontology’). He suggests that if you were trying to define something in the ancient world, the world in which Genesis was composed, you would define a thing in terms of its function, and a declaration by someone who made something that this thing was ‘good’ would be caught up with it being able to perform a function. When God declares the world he makes ‘good’ he is declaring it good for the purpose for which he made it. Walton thinks that Genesis invites us to understand the world being created as God’s cosmic temple, with Eden functioning as the sanctuary in the Temple, and us humans functioning as God’s living images in that temple. The creation of the Temple later in the Old Testament has huge echoes of this creation week, this isn’t a controversial proposal, but it does significantly alter the way we have to read the early chapters of the Bible. Walton’s proposal is one I spent a fair bit of time interacting with in my thesis, and one that I am convinced by (and convinced has massive implications for what it means to function as God’s image bearers, or what being made in God’s image actually means). It’s interesting because our first response as modern readers is to, like I always have, read Genesis as answering ‘material’ questions about the universe, when in fact we should be answering ‘functional’ questions about the universe if we want to treat the text as a product of its world, answering questions its earliest readers were asking (as well as answering questions we should be asking).
When we’re repeatedly told that “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1 we’re being told that the world God makes is meeting the function he has designed for it. When God makes us humans he gives us a vocation — described in Genesis 1 — which outlines the function of humanity (our function is also caught up in the word used for image, and how that word was understood, and in the description of how he forms and places Adam in Genesis 2). We have a good job to do, ruling God’s good world, according to its inbuilt purposes, for and like God. Presumably being fruitful and multiplying, and extending God’s presence as his image bearers also meant extending the garden sanctuary across the whole world. What’s important here is that the nature of what it means to be human — at least in the Genesis 1 sense — involves a created function or purpose. Our own goodness is a product of whether or not we achieve that purpose.
If you had to answer the question “what is sin?” from the first two chapters of the Bible it would be a failure to be ‘good’ in the sense of failing in this divinely appointed vocation. A failure to bear God’s image and represent him. In Genesis 2 we see Adam bearing God’s image by naming the animals (just as God has named the things that he made). All is good in the world. Except that Adam is alone.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
This aloneness doesn’t fit with the Genesis 1 picture of ‘goodness’ — or the function God envisages for humanity. In Genesis 1 God describes humanity’s image bearing capacity, our ability to represent the loving triune God, and ability to be fruitful and multiply caught up in us being made male and female. Not alone. So this ‘not goodness’ is fixed in Genesis 2 when Eve is introduced. Eve is also introduced in the narrative because none of the animals is suitable for the function God’s purposes require. The declaration ‘not good’ is a declaration that God’s created purpose is not being met. So God fixes things.
Proposition 1: God defines what ‘good’ is.
Then we break them. If part of God’s purposes for the world was to defeat evil — especially evil as it is embodied in Genesis 3 by the serpent — by creating and spreading his temple and presence in the world through his image bearing people then things seem to go very wrong in terms of God’s purposes in Genesis 3. Genesis 3 is where we get our first picture of sin. Our first sense of how to answer the question ‘is X sinful’ — but Genesis 3 also massively changes the playing field for answering that question because it massively changes us. Presumably prior to Genesis 3 everything about who we are as people is aligned with God’s function — our hearts, our desires, our thoughts, our actions — after this point, it seems none of those things line up with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying God’s presence as we live out his purposes. At least according to the way the story of the Bible works, from this point on, we all live out our own purposes. Our hearts and desires become evil, oriented to ourselves and to things other than God.
So if ‘goodness’ is about God’s purposes being met by the things he has made, and ‘not goodness’ is a frustration of those purposes, then what is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3? I think there are actually a bunch of things they do wrong in Genesis 3, but the fundamental ‘wrongness’ is actually a failure to live as image bearers of God when push comes to shove. When the serpent enters the scene what he tempts them with, and what they display, is a life where its their own purposes that define ‘good’… and this, is sin.
Proposition 2. God defines what good is, sin is when we come up with our own definition of good, apart from God.
The classic answer to the question of ‘sin’ in Genesis 3 is to identify the specific act of transgression. Adam and Eve disobey God’s clear instruction and eat the bad fruit. And that’s certainly a sin. But sin is more than simply a disobedient act. I think we get into massive problems as the church — and massively confuse people about what sin is — if we run around looking for equivalent acts of transgression, rather than talking about the hearts that produce those transgressions. Here’s something interesting in Genesis 3.
Notice here, in the same words we’ve read already in the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s now Eve deciding what “good” is, and its the opposite of what God tells Adam to do in order to be meet his purposes.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Adam and Eve desired what the Serpent promised — that they would be like God (a thing they already had). I reckon they’ve failed to ‘guard and keep’ the garden, the literal instructions God gives Adam in Genesis 2:15, simply by letting the Serpent in. I think they’ve given the Serpent’s lies more weight than God’s truths, and before they eat the fruit — which is where most people think they sin — they’ve already replaced God with themselves and are living and making decisions according to their own purposes. This becomes evident in their actions, which are the fruit of their hearts. But its their hearts that are oriented away from God and his purposes first. And any action from a heart like this is an action of a person not living according to God’s purpose for humanity.
According to the rest of the story in the Bible, the result of this Genesis 3 failure is that we’re now genetically predisposed to be just like Adam and Eve. To not live like God, but to live for ourselves. Their mistake repeats in every human life, but now its because we’re born inheriting this pattern of life, and born outside the sanctuary of Eden, not image bearers formed in the garden-temple, but people with hearts ready to reflect whatever it is in God’s world that we want to replace God with. The image we’re made to carry, and God’s purposes for humanity, aren’t totally wiped out by our autonomy, that’d give us too much power. His common grace, and his love for people, means that there’s something written into our DNA that means we live and breath and love and do things that seem good, even though our motives always have something of our own interest or desire to autonomously define ‘good’ involved.
Proposition 3. Hearts that define their own ‘good’ define their own gods (and are defined by those gods).
Sin is any product of a disordered heart — a heart that sets its own agenda and produces actions according to that agenda — even if the things we do appear to be obedient to God’s purposes, even if we look like we’re living, breathing, images of the living, breathing, God, if our hearts are pointed towards our own ends as we do those acts, are those actions not infused with and given life by our disordered hearts? In the Old Testament these disordered hearts lead us to produce idols in Isaiah this is literal… and its a parody of Genesis 2 which leads to dead images (and ultimately dead people). Images and idols are conceptually linked through the Old Testament, because when God made us we were meant to be his living images that represented him in his temple — which is exactly what other religions did with their dead idols.
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.
The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.
They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”— Isaiah 44:9, 13, 18, 20
The “they” here is a little ambiguous, and speaks both about the idol and the idol-maker. Psalm 115 makes this connection explicit.
But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see…
Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. — Psalm 115:4-5, 8
In Ezekiel we’re told idols aren’t just physical things a person carves, but the product of hearts turned away from God.
“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the Lord will answer them myself.I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” — Ezekiel 14:7-8
In Romans 1, Paul talks about the human condition in this way too, suggesting that our hearts are darkened because we turned away from God and worshipped the things he made instead.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21
In Paul’s logic in Romans all the things we might use to classify different Xs as ‘sin’ — the moral categories we might use to assess our actions— are said to flow from this fundamental cause. Us exchanging God for stuff God made.
Proposition 4. Hearts that are turned away from God are hearts that are darkened and turned towards death.
All our hearts do this. It’s why God promises to step in and replace hearts shaped by stone idols with living hearts shaped by his Spirit. Interestingly, the sort of process described here (washing, restoring, and a sort of ‘re-breathing’ ritual) is what countries in the Ancient Near East did if their idols were taken during conquest by another nation to re-establish them in their temples. This is a promise to restore God’s people to their created purpose.
“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27
Focusing on symptoms rather than the disease
Just to be clear, I think the answer to the question “is X sinful” is always yes, in this world.
So long as our hearts are still tainted by sin.
Some acts that are clearly disobedient to God and his revealed standards are more clearly sinful than others, but any failure to live as image bearers of God, any failure to appropriately imitate God are failures to live up to the purpose we were made for, and that failure is caught up in the idea of autonomy, or living as though we’ve replaced God, where we live as though we get to make declarations about what the ‘good’ for a thing God has made is (including defining what we think is good, according to our own desires). These failures which definitely include those moments of direct disobedience to specific commands, but will also include disobedience to general catch-all commands like ‘be perfect,’ ‘be holy,’ and ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ In Genesis 3, immediately after they’re caught, but before they receive God’s response — the curse — the way Adam and Eve speak about their bad decision, and each other, shows that their hearts have already changed. They are acting out of self-interest, and not according to God’s purposes. They’ve defined their own good, and their judging each other accordingly.
Proposition 5. From this point on our hearts are a mixed bag. Humanity is still made in the image of God, but we keep remaking ourselves in our own image, and conforming ourselves into the image of our other gods.
A good summary of the Old Testament’s view of humanity (a fancy word here is anthropology) is that we’re a complicated mix of people made by God to do one thing, and we know what that thing looks like, but our hearts have been so frustrated by evil so that we do another. God is patient and good though, and merciful, so he keeps providing guidelines to help people try not to be evil (this just keeps looking like a to do list though). It’s unhelpful, then, to say that sin is simply not obeying the list of rules in the Old Testament law, as though its all about a moral code, when the defining principle for God’s people, following in the footsteps Adam and Eve should have walked in is to “be holy because I am holy”…
I think we get sin massively and unhelpfully wrong when we try to write a list of actions that are, or aren’t, sinful. Our actions indicate our hearts, and whose image we’re bearing, but its this question of whether or not our lives are aligned with God’s purposes that actually determines whether or not we’re sinning.
If all this is right, there are interesting implications in this for how we answer this question, especially in how we deal with the difference between experiencing the results of a broken and cursed world, and deliberate decisions to express our autonomy through actions that have no redeeming features. I can see how this could be heard as being massively pastorally unhelpful when people ask the question “is X a sin?” with an agenda or with a lack of self-insight (such that asking the question is sinful). Often this question has been used to demonise, rather than humanise, another person (and often the people answering the question have not been particularly ‘human’ in their responses). A couple of examples are when people ask “is same sex attraction a sin” or “is anxiety a sin”… it is massively unhelpful to say “yes” to these questions without the massive caveats that “all human sexuality as we experience it from autonomous broken hearts is sinful” and “all views of life in the world from autonomous hearts are sinful”… but I think its safe to say that the diagnosis of the human condition in the Old Testament is pretty consistently a diagnosis that our hearts are fundamentally oriented away from God’s purposes, and that orients us as people away from God’s function.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5
Proposition 6. Sin is: taking a good thing (including people and abstract things like love) that God has given a good function and created to serve a good purpose and using it for some purpose other than the purpose God created for us, in line with our own hearts.
I’ll get to this below, but I think the human reality everywhere, in every heart, this side of the new creation God promises at the end of the Bible, is that every thing we do will involve some bit of our self-seeking, sinful hearts as a motivating factor.
Proposition 7. This is a universal problem and a description of the human condition for all people.
It becomes less and less a motivating factor as we’re conformed into the image of Jesus, but it’ll still be there. Everything we do on our own steam is sin. This is true for things we do for ourselves, and things we do for others. It’s true for things we do by ourselves, and things we do with others. Our collective actions will be a mix of the goodness God made in us raging war with the self-seeking (or not-God seeking) desires of our hearts.
Proposition 8. Because this is a universal problem, and we are affected, we can’t perform heart surgery on ourselves, neither can other sinners.
What wretches this means we are. Who can save us?
How Jesus both cures our sinful hearts, and shows us what healthy hearts looks like
Proposition 9. The answer to Paul’s question posed above — who can save us? — is Jesus.
I think, according to the above framework and the way Paul’s use of Adam seems consistent with it in Romans, that Paul’s description of human thought and life in Romans 7 is about the dilemma we experience as people made in God’s image who are infected with sin — and his cry for help is the cry of the human heart to be restored.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. — Romans 7:22-23
Paul wants out of this way of life.
Which happens when Jesus makes it possible for us to be children of God again through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), as we are transformed into the image of Jesus.
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. 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.
One of the fundamental promises of the Old Testament is that God will intervene with the human condition to give us ‘new hearts’ — reoriented hearts — hearts not shaped by the ‘stone’ dead idols we worship, but by the living God (cf Psalm 115, Ezekiel 36:26), hearts that allow us to obey God — or meet his purposes again (cf Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31).
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26
Proposition 10. Jesus came to fix our hearts because our hearts are the heart of our problem, and make what we do sinful.
Proposition 11. The way Jesus talks about the problem of sin shows that it is a problem of the heart not properly loving God, not a question of a list of rights and wrongs, or Xs that are sinful, or not sinful.
Some people who operate with the assumption that sin is specific transgressions against a particular rule have a hard time accommodating Jesus’ ‘new ethic’ in the Sermon on the Mount. For these people, suddenly thought crime is a thing. But what if Jesus isn’t bringing a new ethic to the world, what if he’s showing people that they’ve got the old ethic wrong, that the way to understand the Old Testament law was that sinless humanity required imitation of God, and what if this is why the Old Testament had a ritual of atonement built into the law, because imitating God and fulfilling God’s purpose for the law is impossible for sinful us. So the rich young ruler who says “I’ve kept all the laws” might be right, but this doesn’t make him sinless? What if Jesus as God’s real image bearer, the one who sees God truly, does fulfil the law in terms of its purpose by ‘being perfect’…
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:8, 17, 48
What if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that X is always sinful, but its the wrong question? What if Jesus isn’t worried about answering the question “is X sinful” at all, but about offering the transformed heart promised by the Old Testament so that “is X sinful” is the wrong question? What if the other bit where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets is related to this idea of fulfilment, and Jesus is the one who perfectly loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and loves his neighbours as himself?
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:37-40
Just remember, the point is not that any individual action is not sinful, but that every action from a heart that doesn’t truly imitate God is sinful. The point of the picture of humanity in the Old Testament is that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. Even in their best moments. Even the best of people. And this is the ‘greatest commandment’ which helps us understand the purpose of all the other commandments, and the law, and the prophets, and so, the purpose of our humanity. This is what living life in God’s image looks like, and its what Jesus does — and in doing so, what he secures for us in him through his death and resurrection (as well as making payment for our failure as a substitutionary sacrifice. We still need atonement, just like people in the Old Testament. Because there’s a gap between how we live and how we were made to live that is expressed in our every action.
Here’s a cool thing. I’ve been grappling with this sin question for a while and wondering how what I think fits with this emphasis on the heart fits with a verse like:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Matthew records this bit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where it fits with this idea that we are imperfect from the inside out, it comes right after Jesus says:
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.“
The heart, mind, eyes and hands are all connected in this picture of what being a person looks like. Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, Mark puts this bit in some of the things Jesus teaches on his way to Jerusalem. He says:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” — Mark 9:43-47
The word behind ’cause to stumble’ in the NIV which is often translated as ’cause to sin’ (see ESV etc) is the Greek word which transliterates as scandalise (σκανδαλίζῃ), it means what we think it means in English, carrying a sense of causing offence. One thing to remember is that the Bible describes sin using a bunch of different words, and we lazily translate them all as ‘sin.’ These passages might seem to support the idea that sin is simply a wrong action (or thought) and leave us legitimately trying to solve for X. So that we know what to chop our hands off for, and pluck our eyes out for… except… in both Matthew and Mark Jesus lays the blame for sin somewhere else. Both Matthew and Mark record this as Jesus answering the Pharisees questions, and correcting their understanding of, the point of the law… The Pharisees are playing the “is X sinful?” game and coming up with some incredibly stupid things to ask the question about, leading them to add stuff to what God has commanded that leaves them imitating man, not God.
So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15:6-20
Mark doesn’t do much more with this, he too records Jesus quoting Isaiah, and then saying:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” — Mark 7:14-23
We don’t need to chop off our hands, or gouge out our eyes. These don’t actually cause us to sin at all, they are instruments controlled by our hearts. Defiled hearts cause scandalous hands. We need to chop out our hearts. Or rather, we need Jesus to do that for us.
Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and their approach to the law — predicated on deciding that X is sinful, but missing the point of the law — is that their hearts are hard. That’s why he says Moses wrote the law (he’s specifically answering a question from the Pharisees about why the law allows divorce) in Mark 10, and again shows they’re missing the point when they essentially ask “is X sinful” (where X=divorce) and Jesus’ answer is essentially that they should be looking internally for sin…
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. — Mark 10:5
Matthew says plenty about the heart too — and the link between who we are as people, and what we do being a reflection of who we are (though also being that which indicates who we are).
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” — Matthew 12:33-37
What we do comes from who we are — if we’re what Paul calls “in Adam” or reflecting the image of Adam, this means we’re a mix of autonomous God-replacing desires and people who bear the image of God, if we’re in Christ it means we’re a mix of this and the Holy Spirit, which is conforming us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that will ultimately be completed in the new creation.
Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees and their approach to their God-ordained purpose in Matthew, but he makes it clear that he is the way back to a new heart he quotes Isaiah and puts himself in the picture as the solution to the problem with our humanity:
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ —Matthew 13:15, which is a slight adaptation of Isaiah 6:9-10 that presents Jesus as the answer to the question “how long O Lord?”
Proposition 12: Jesus came to heal calloused, idolatrous, sinful hearts, and to offer a way for people to be ‘good’ living images of God again, representing him in his world.
A healthy approach: getting the balance right between disease treatment and health
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:13-15, 19-20
There’s a bit of a conversation happening online in Aussie circles at the moment about whether we adequately present the Gospel when we emphasise penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross — that’s the thing Colossians 1 describes above, where Jesus swaps his perfection for our imperfection at the Cross, making atonement for us. The Cross certainly does this. But it does a little more than this, and simply treating the Cross as an antidote for sin leaves us emphasising sin as our problem, and may leave us asking the question “is X sinful” as we live in response to the Cross. But what if the Cross isn’t just about a substitution? One other stream of thought is that the Cross is also our example — often this is held up against substitutionary atonement, almost as an alternative Gospel. But what if we’re actually meant to hold them together, and what if our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is caught up in our obsession with the wrong thing? Not sinning, rather than imitating God. They’re linked. Obviously. Because God doesn’t sin, but sin is also, if the above is correct, the result of not imitating God.
If sin is a heart disease, our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is like fighting heart disease by emphasising the need for a heart transplant. But when you get a heart transplant you also need to know how to live. You need to know the pattern of life that comes from a healthy heart, and keeps it healthy. We can’t hold our need for atonement apart from what the ‘good’ life is meant to look like. Our version of Christianity sometimes feels more like “don’t be sick” than “this is what it looks like to be well” — and I think that’s because we tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement, rather than holding it alongside the example of Jesus (what, in latin, gets called Christus Exemplar). Sometimes the thing we emphasise when we talk about the good news of the Gospel as substitutionary atonement is the Gospel’s implications for us (typically as individuals) rather than the Gospel being centred on Christ. It is good news about him, first, isn’t it?
Proposition 13. The Cross is where Jesus gives us new hearts to re-shape us and recommission us into God’s (and his) image bearers again while taking the punishment for our darkened hearts, and where he shows us what it looks like to live ‘good’ lives as image bearers.
The story of Jesus’ life and his mission for hearts and minds as recorded in Matthew and Mark culminates in the ultimate expression of humanity defining its own good, of humanity rejecting God’s vision of ‘the good’ and what his plans for the world look like. The story of Jesus is not a different story to the story of Genesis 1-3. Jesus is the real image bearer, and we see Adam and Eve’s behaviour fulfilled at the Cross, where humanity collectively (but especially Israel and Rome) rejects Jesus, God’s king. God’s image bearer. We kill God’s divine son. This is Adam and Eve’s autonomous redefining of the good writ large.
Proposition 14. The Cross is sin in its purest form. This is the desire of our hearts being expressed — life without God. But it’s also God’s heart being expressed in its purest form, and his ‘good’ victory being won. It’s where the good purpose of the world is revealed.
The Cross is why Jesus came. It’s, at least according to John (see below), and Peter, the moment the world was made for. And it’s where God’s offer of healing and a new heart is made reality, the Spirit arrives in people’s hearts because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Cross is Jesus imitating God. God’s character is defined by this act of self-giving love for one’s enemies. This voluntary sacrifice —the giving up of everything — is Jesus showing what it looks like to love God, and his neighbours — with all his heart. Perfectly imitating God and fulfilling the law. It’s also where Jesus defeats evil, and through the resurrection and its promise, Jesus re-kindles the hope and promise that God’s kingdom will spread all over the earth.
The Cross is humanity being evil, and Jesus being good, simultaneously. It is victory. It is where God defeats evil. And its an incredible picture of God’s temple harking back to creation as his image bearer dwelling in his world to give life. It’s the moment the world was heading towards, and the moment the serpent is defeated. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve fail. John describes this aspect of God’s plan as Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and in the picture John paints of the significance of the Cross he sees this being the decisive moment that guarantees that the serpent, the Devil, loses and God wins (see Revelation 20).
I wonder if the question “is X sinful,” while well-intentioned, misses the point that in this life our hearts are still tainted by sin, and still a work in progress. We’re fairly constantly called to flee particular sorts of sin in the New Testament, but every one of the sins we’re called to flee is linked to idolatry, which is linked to the orientation of the heart. The sins we’re called to flee are products of our poisonous hearts, and really fleeing this behaviour actually requires us to live life — to act — out of the new part of our heart, not simply to stop doing that other stuff. Christians are post-operative heart transplant recipients. The permanent internal change has taken place but still working their way through our bodies and our lives. I wonder if we’re better off asking questions about what the fruits of our new nature look like — the part of our humanity that is now the product of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Christ.
Paul describes this new aspect of our humanity in 2 Corinthians 3. The internal work of the Spirit on our hearts is different and better than the Old Testament law, because human readers of the Old Testament law miss the point of the law without the Spirit, because our nature — our hearts— get in the way.
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
… Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:2-18
We’re no longer simply a bifurcated mix of image of God and sinful heart — we’re people whose hearts are being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus. To fixate on the broken bit of our humanity misses the sense that we’re also called to imitate Jesus as he imitates God, not just by not doing bad things, but also by doing good things. This, I think, is the right way to think about the social implications of the Gospel (for this to make sense, read Stephen McAlpine’s excellent review of a book by a guy named Tim Foster who suggests the key to reaching urban Australians is to move away from substitutionary atonement and towards what he describes as a telic Gospel (it’s also worth reading Tim Foster’s reflections on some of the reviews of his book, especially this one). This series of posts essentially asks what the Gospel is, and how we should preach it in our context. I know some people (like Richard Dawkins) say substitutionary atonement is an ugly doctrine, but I think our problem is that its an incomplete Gospel. It’s not ugly. It’s too individual in its emphasis, and to focused on the disease and not enough on the cure and the new life the cure brings. The life we’re inviting others to find, the life God created them for. We get Jesus’ perfect life in exchange for our diseased one, and we’re invited to join him in living it. Forever. That process starts now. We’re reconnecting with God’s vision of what ‘good’ is. This is an invitation to have a ‘good’ life.
I think, given the above, I want to go back to Martin Luther, who was big on a Christian anthropology being simul justus et peccator (which in English means simultaneously justified and sinful). I think our anthropology is threefold, and we’re calling people in our world to rediscover God’s purpose for the bit of them that still reflects his image, by connecting themselves to Jesus. In a letter to a preacher friend Luther suggested preachers need to express their real humanity in their preaching. Including their sin (rather than obsessing over is X sinful, perhaps).
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
I’d want to add, as Paul and John do, that justice does reside here a little, in the form of the love of the justified. In us. As we imitate Christ. Especially the Cross. Through his death and resurrection, and the heart-changing gift of the Spirit, Jesus frees us to bear God’s image again as we bear his image. As we imitate him.
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2
Or, as John puts it in 1 John 3… What “not sinning” as God’s children looks like is loving like Jesus loved…
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning:We should love one another.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. — 1 John 3:2-11, 16-24
This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded speech This Is Water
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.
My Facebook newsfeed is awash with discussions about Halal food. Today it’s Halal Easter Eggs (from Cadbury). Last week it was people speculating about links between Halal food and funding for people trying to introduce Sharia Law to Australia, or funding for terrorism.
I think all food is certified by the true and living God, provided it is “received with thanksgiving,”
“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5
And, the ultimate key to “certified,” God-approved, food,” is Jesus, who calls himself the “bread of life.”
“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6
Halal Easter eggs are a great opportunity to love your Muslim neighbours and share the message of Easter with them. But getting to that conclusion, and dealing with some of the objections Christians have to Halal food, might take some doing…
Halal is an Islamic term that means “permitted” it is the opposite of Haram, which means not permitted. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Halal, I’m not a Muslim. It would be odd for me to do so. But, from what I gather, for a food to be permissible for a Muslim (Halal) it simply needs to not be haram — there are certain foods, especially meat, where there are guidelines that must be met to ensure certain boxes are ticked. Outside of this, it seems most foods (those not forbidden) are fair game.
Many Australian food manufacturers seek Halal certification of their facilities and processes, in order to label their products as Halal and ensure they are able to be enjoyed by Muslim consumers. In the same way that food labeled as vegan or gluten-free is suitable for consumption by a broad range of consumers, Halal certified foods are commonly enjoyed by non-Muslims.
For a product to be Halal, it must be as a whole, and in part:
free from any substance taken or extracted from a Haram animal or ingredient (e.g. pigs, dogs, carnivorous animals, animals not slaughtered in compliance with Islamic rites);
made, processed, manufactured and/or stored by using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that has been cleaned according to Islamic law (e.g. not cleaned with alcohol); and
free from contact with, or being close to, a Haram substance during preparation, manufacture, processing and storage (e.g. blood, alcohol, poisonous and intoxicating plants and insects such as worms and cockroaches).
Many foods and drinks, particularly those that do not contain meat or alcohol, are inherently compliant with Halal criteria. Official certification, which may be granted by accredited religious authorities in Australia, any claim of certification is however required before products are able to be labelled as such.
I get the impression that Halal certification is simultaneously a semi-unnecessary marketing tool, and part of an increasingly global marketplace — it seems to me that the Islamic world survived pretty well for a long time without labels on food. But setting up businesses to make it clear that particular food stuffs are free of contaminants is a clever business model for serving the Islamic world.
Business sense aside, there seems to be some “Christian” concern out there about halal food on the shelves of grocery stores in Australia, and in the pantries of non-Muslim households.
These concerns seem to operate on a few levels. At least so far as the social media campaigns and anti-halal campaigners are concerned (I won’t link to these campaigns because I don’t think they need the oxygen).
The costs imposed to “Aussie” businesses and passed on to non-Islamic consumers.
The supposed links to terrorism and Sharia Law.
That Halal food is “food sacrificed to idols” so Christians shouldn’t eat it.
It’s the third point that I think is most interesting, but I’ll deal with the first two first.
It seems to me that Aussie businesses who pursue halal certification are doing so in order to increase their profits, to expand their markets, I’d hope that this means the benefits outweigh the costs and that rather than passing on costs to the non-Halal audience, the costs of Halal certification are covered by being able to sell their goods to people who would not otherwise buy them. I’m yet to see anyone offering anything like proof, and a few spurious economic arguments that seem to ignore the massive commercial benefits for entering this industry, for the idea that these increased costs will impact consumers.
Halal certification is carried out by a range of organisations, some, it seems, are businesses that have set themselves up to supply services according to this new market, presumably, these businesses are operated by Muslims, who, as a result of their faith, give a portion of their income as zakat (much like a Christian might give to their church), others, like Muslims Australia are a specifically religious institution that invest income generated through their certification into Muslim institutions (mosques, schools, etc).
Consumers in Australia (and everywhere, really) are free to make decisions about what they consume, just as businesses are free to make decisions about how best to open up their products to new markets, deciding who to sell, or not sell, to.
Should Christians oppose Halal?
If Halal products are, directly or indirectly, supporting Muslim institutions, and the expansion of Islam, should we, as Christians, not buy Halal? How should we decide what products to buy, beyond this debate? How do we shop in a way that is consistent with our faith?
Part of making this decision will include being educated about what cause the money that goes to a certain company might support, but where do we draw the line? Why are Christians not campaigning about companies giving money to workers who use it to buy cigarettes, or pornography, or who choose to gamble it? Or companies that profit from these industries? Are they not equally harmful to the end user in terms of the soul? And, more harmful, in terms of the body?
Consumer ethics are a pretty massive minefield, and it’s hard to know where to start drawing a line, saying “boycott X, because X is bad,” it’s hard to know whether or not metaphorical fruit that comes from a metaphorical tree we buy from is poisonous because of its roots. It’s harder still to find fruit that isn’t tainted in some way in a poisonous world full of people who do things that are opposed to God, and for their own benefit (not the benefit of others), by nature (though when it comes to frozen berries that carry hepatitis these concerns about poisonous fruit might be justified and non-metaphorical).
It’s good to shop ethically. It’s good to be informed. It’s good to support people who are doing good. It’s also good, I suspect, to support people because you want to love them well and see them be able to put food on the table for their families. But where is the line when it comes to companies supporting religious ideologies? Do we eat Certified Kosher meat? It hasn’t been prayed over during the sacrifice, but presumably the Kosher certification bodies are funding Judaism? What about businesses run by Christians whose teaching you disagree with? I don’t particularly like some stuff Hillsong says, but that’s not what stops me buying Gloria Jeans coffee (the lack of quality does). I think the Seventh Day Adventists teach a pretty messed up version of Christianity, with a harmful approach to the Old Testament, but this doesn’t stop me buying Sanitarium products. I don’t ask every owner of every business how they’re going to spend their profits. If an Islamic business wants to fund their version of Islam, by allowing a non-Islamic business to sell food to people who trust their certification process, then this seems to be the product of a free market. The non-Islamic business is free to make educated decisions about who certifies their food, for whom, and there are plenty of options out there.
We have great freedom, as consumers, to choose what to buy, and what to eat. More freedom than, historically, anybody has ever enjoyed.
I’m not really interested, in this post, in convincing you not to exercise this freedom. Quite the contrary. But I do think it’s important that we’re consistent in how we exercise this freedom, and that we’re not doing it out of fear, or worse, hatred. It’s downright bad for the Gospel when Christians take part in campaigns against companies and people who exercise this freedom when we are operating out of fear or hatred of the other – rather than love.
I think it’s great when Christians campaign against certain sorts of consumption out of love for people (eg when we stand up against gambling, or pay day loans, or pornography, or prostitution, in a way that loves those whose lives these insidious industries destroy). I think false religions — as a form of idolatry — are destructive, but I don’t think the right response to destructive false religions is hate, or fear, but love.
The loving answer to false religions, is Jesus, not wiping out the food supplies as though these religions are a city under siege.
It seems to me that one way to love our Muslim neighbours is to allow them to eat food in good conscience, just as we might feel loved if we are allowed to eat food in good conscience. If halal certification allows that, then I can’t see how, generally, this is a problem.
As Christians we shouldn’t be on about poisoning the proverbial waterhole — limiting a Muslim’s access to food they can eat— but we should be on about holding out the bread and water of life. Jesus.
There is no way that we can equate campaigning against halal food with God’s work. It is not what we’re called to do… God has his own seal of approval, his own certification method, his own version of certified food — it’s from Jesus, and it is Jesus. Here’s a thing Jesus says, just after he’s fed the 5,000 in John’s Gospel.
“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6
Bacon is part of the good news of the Gospel (Why Christians don’t follow the Old Testament food laws)
As Christians, our great desire for people is that they enjoy their freedom, we should, I believe, be promoters of freedom. Promoting the freedom to enjoy the goodness of God, that comes through the good news of the Gospel, news where your standing before God doesn’t depend on keeping a bunch of rules and regulations about what you eat, but on God’s good gift to people in Jesus.
The Old Testament contains a bunch of regulations, like the Halal/Haram food laws in Islam, that guided God’s people before Jesus.
Christians don’t have to worry about food laws. And that’s good news. Christians can speak about finding freedom in following God and truly mean it. Hopefully in a way that shows that certification plans for perfectly tasty food are a bit of a rort.
Ultimately, Jesus being the bread of life, the one who gives life, the one who defines “clean” and “unclean” is going to transform the way the people of God approach earthly food. The Old Testament was full of food laws that marked Israel as different from the nations around them, like this, from Leviticus 11:
And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.
“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales.But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean.And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean.Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. —Leviticus 11
No bacon. No lobster. No prawns. No prawns wrapped in bacon.
But Jesus is a game changer. Here’s a few important bits of Bible.
Jesus says it’s not what you eat that defines you as a person in God’s eyes. You aren’t what you eat, you are the product of your heart.
“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” — Mark 7
What separates God’s people from here on in is not that they avoid mixed fabrics and bacon, it’s that they follow Jesus, are shaped by the Holy Spirit, and love people, one another, and people who don’t yet follow Jesus.
Here’s what a heart like that will look like. Here’s John, who had that stuff about Jesus being the bread of life before, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus…
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” — John 13
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.” — John 15
And here’s some stuff from Matthew
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22
Both John and Matthew are recording words of Jesus from before his death, before his resurrection, before his people are given the Holy Spirit, and all of these statements anticipate the way Jesus loves people at the cross. Just in case we think John is talking about something else, later, in one of his letters, he writes:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. — 1 John 4
Why all this love stuff? What does love have to do with Halal food? What does love have to do with bacon? Hopefully that’ll become clearer, but it’s worth seeing that love, shaped by the way Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, is the foundation for any Christian response to any ethical issue. We do this so that people will know we are his disciples, that we are his children.
This also explains (apart from the fact that most of us aren’t Jewish) why we don’t follow the food laws. The Christian approach to food unites, rather than divides. Sharing food with someone is way of loving them.
There were some pretty major fights about food in the early church. Food was a big deal in both Jewish and Roman culture. It limited who Jewish people could associate with — the food laws in the Old Testament made it difficult to get out and about in Roman culture. Food was an identity marker then, as it is now (Halal food is an identity marker for Muslims, just as freedom to eat anything is an identity marker for Christians). Josephus, the Jewish historian, brags that Jewish food practices are consistently observed throughout the world:
“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed. — Josephus, Against Apion
Philostratus, a Roman writer, says this approach to food alienated the Jews from the Roman world.
“For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.” — Philostratus, Life of Apollonius
This sort of distance is likely to get in the way of the spread of the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. Which explains what happens to Peter as God tells him to go and see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in the book of Acts.
“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.Then a voice told him,“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” — Acts 10
Now, I’m pretty sure the food stuff isn’t just a symbol of the bigger point of Gentiles being included in God’s people through Christ, it’s also part of the means by which this will happen. When the church has to start grappling with how Jews and Gentiles co-exist in the body of Christ a few chapters later, they do away with almost all of the Old Testament food laws, with the exception of some that are linked to the practice of idolatry (and feasts in idol temples).
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.“
There’s a good case to be made that this is sort of shorthand for saying “Gentiles need to steer clear of idol-worship,” and that these are the steps that are required for Jewish Christians who are still keeping Torah (perhaps, like Paul when he visits Jerusalem, in order to preach the Gospel to Jews) to share what’s called ‘table fellowship’ with Gentile converts.
The apostle Paul applies the framework from Acts 15 in apparently different ways in different contexts – in Rome, and in Corinth. I wrote an essay on this in college which you can read online, the conclusion, in sum, is that in both situations Paul wants his readers to promote the Gospel in the way they eat, to eat with love for the other, whether that be eating in a way that is loving to people whose consciences don’t allow them to eat certain things, or eating in a way that allows you to share in the lives of non-believers.
“…if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” – Romans 14
“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8
Here’s Paul’s advice specifically about food sacrificed to idols, which, in Corinth, was just about every bit of meat sold in the marketplace (it comes just after Paul tells Christians not to join in idol worship and idol feasts in temples, possibly specifically referring to emperor worship in the Imperial Cult temple in Corinth.
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 10-11
There’s an interesting tension here, publicly participating in idol worship, in a way that suggests that false gods are real is a problem, but going to a non-Christian’s house, and eating with them, is great, unless they try to make dinner in their house something akin to an idol worship session, and it appears this is only an issue for Paul because it harms Christians who are bothered by it.
The other thing that I’ve always found interesting about these passages is that Paul talks about issues of conscience as being divides between the weak and the strong, but he, one of the leaders of the church, who is writing Scripture, takes a position on these issues that must surely have the affect of persuading some of the weak to alter their position.
Paul warns about people who will try to limit people’s freedom to enjoy the goodness of God. He may well be talking about bacon (although, it’s probably he’s talking about anyone who comes along saying that certain foods are off limits).
“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5
Is Halal meat “food sacrificed to idols” – and what are the implications for Christians?
I think this collection of Bible passages has some interesting implications for Christians as we participate in discussions about Halal food. There’s a whole heap of Halal food that just falls into the “permissible” category for Muslims that doesn’t have anything especially religious done to it. It’s just certified because it’s not banned (and in some cases because it doesn’t contain banned ingredients, where it might). I can’t fathom why Christians are opposed to Halal yoghurt, or chocolate (I can fathom why Islamophobes are, because fighting against Halal certification in any form is striking a blow for that ideology). Halal meat, on the other hand, is meat slaughtered following a process called Dhabīḥah. There are some interesting bits of the Qur’an governing this process, one bit says:
“Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.”— al-Māʼidah 5:3
I’m not an expert on interpreting the Qur’an, but the clause “while proclaiming the name of any other than God” has some interesting implications, it has been held to mean that a specific prayer must be uttered as the animal is slaughtered, or, failing that, the slaughter is to be conducted by a “person of the book”— which includes Christians and Jews — so that there is no possibility the animal has been sacrificed to an (Islamic) idol.
Interestingly, except for the prayer to Allah, this process is pretty much what the Old Testament, and Acts 15, calls for to keep Jewish food laws enough to enable table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. To be clear, I think the freedom the Gospel brings includes the freedom to eat a medium rare steak, but I wouldn’t do this with a Jewish Christian (or a vegetarian Christian), if exercising my freedom in this way caused them to stumble. Even if I would write something like this to outline why I think it’s ok (good even) to eat a medium rare steak as an act of appreciating something delicious that God made.
If the above approach which outlines a consistent treatment of idol food in the New Testament is right, then there are some interesting implications in the Halal debate. Just to sum up in case it wasn’t clear above I’ve suggested that non-Jewish converts were urged to avoid meat linked to idolatry for the sake of fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15), Paul then upholds this instruction in cases where a Christian brother or sister might be lured into idolatry, or disunity, and have their faith destroyed (1 Corinthians 8, 10-11, Romans 14-15), while essentially agreeing with those who take a position that emphasises Christian freedom — provided the food is received with thanksgiving, and eaten for the glory of God (which, could be, in a sense, said to be something of a spiritual trump card that wipes out the prior idolatry, perhaps), and both in Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 10 the eating of previously ‘unclean’ food, and, food sacrificed to idols is part of the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews (provided it doesn’t lead them to get confused about the validity of idols).
The guiding principle is conscience —exercising Christian freedom should never come at the expense of your own conscience or the conscience of others. This seems to be behind Paul’s specific instruction, regarding idol meat in the market place (which was probably all the meat except the Kosher stuff), or, perhaps, Halal meat in the shopping centres.This meat sold in the Corinthian market place was typically meat from the many sacrifices in the many idol temples of Corinth. Presumably the market vendors bought this meat from these temples, presumably the proceeds were funding these temples, and yet Paul says to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
Paul expects Christians to eat this meat with non-Christians. I’m not sure that there were idolators in Corinth who were so pedantic about the source of their meat that they would only eat meat sacrificed to their idol, so it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Paul would have served idol meat to such a person in order to dine with them, and whether that means we should serve Halal meat to Muslims in order to dine with them. But I suspect he would have. He was keen to behave like a Jew to win the Jews, and like a Greek to win the Greeks (1 Corinthians 9), and would obey Jewish laws (presumably including food laws) in order to reach Jews (even though there’s some confusion in Jerusalem, from the crowd in the Temple, as to whether this is the case in Acts 21), and, I think (and this is speculative), given the importance of conscience in his framework, he would want Muslims he was sharing the Gospel with both to see the freedom from food laws that is caught up with the message of Jesus, and for them to act according to their conscience until such time that they wanted this freedom for themselves.
It’s probable that Paul wouldn’t have rocked up in the local mosque to join into the slaughter of an animal in any way that affirmed the truth of Islam, but beyond that, he’d have been keen to win Muslims to Jesus, and to enjoy the delicious meat God made in all its deliciousness as an act of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.
Are Halal Easter Eggs “food sacrificed to idols” and what are the implications
But what about Halal Easter Eggs? If the meat question is a grey area, Halal certification where no sacrificial prayer is offered to Allah, but the certification is purely an indication that nothing Haram is involved is much more black and white.
Halal Easter Eggs are an incredible opportunity to include Muslims in your celebration of Easter. Presumably, as a conscientious Christian consumer you’re not buying into the commercialism, or idolatry, of chocolate at Easter, but you’re enjoying the opportunity to talk about Easter as a celebration of new life, and eggs as a symbol of that celebration, you know, the new life found in Jesus, through his death and resurrection. If that’s the case, and there’s no sense that you might be mistaken for a follower of the idolatrous God of crass commercialism, then I’d recommend buying up big on Halal Easter Eggs and sharing them with the neighbours in your street — Muslim or otherwise — inviting them to enjoy the good news of Jesus, bacon, and chocolate. But mainly Jesus.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I like these videos a lot. I come back to them occasionally. They have pretty huge explanatory power – but they are all sort of depressing and without lasting hope.
Life is amazing. And improbably. And amazingly improbable. And we all have different ways of dealing with the improbable hand we’ve been dealt.
This has been the pursuit of smart people since before the smart guy in Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) – but there haven’t been any particularly new answers. Life as we experience it is a vapour. Nothing is new.
They all kind of remind me of the Wisdom literature – which I spent a fair bit of time reading for my thesis thing. They’re also a bit like sermons. Sermons about what it means to be human.
This is Water
The video misses what I think is the most pertinent point Wallace made in the speech. Which was given to a bunch of graduating students.
“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
He’s so close to nailing the Christian understanding of idolatry.
But here are the other two…
The Time You Have in Jelly Beans
I, Pencil does get a little bit theological.
There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Handat work.
… Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
I tried to find an equally compelling video about life following Jesus – because his arrival on earth changes up the vapour verdict of Ecclesiastes, provides a different understanding of the “water” that surrounds us, that we breathe in, that defines our reality, provides a different way for us to think about our jelly beans or days on the earth, and how to spend them, and his amazingly improbable life – God made man, murdered and resurrected to redefine our humanity – is a greater story than the improbable and amazing story of the pencil. Or any human ingenuity.
The best I’ve got is this one – a sermon Jam from David Platt.
This one isn’t bad either. I don’t mind the “sermon jam” as a genre.
And Francis Chan’s “God is Better” is a nice counter point to “This is Water”…