mark powell

On book reviews… A review of a review of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

My denomination’s flagship old media publication, Australian Presbyterian, that is desperately trying to carve out a niche on new media platforms, has published a review of Aimee Byrd’s book. It’s fighting a losing battle because the market is already saturated with plenty of other old media platforms occupying the same digital space; plus there are all those people whose voices would otherwise be excluded from conversations in our denomination also carving out their own spaces, particularly women. It’s interesting to see an establishment media outlet taking on a woman for getting an audience and not knowing her place; while talking about how men on the internet have been behaving badly.

It’s not a good review.

Both in its take on Aimee Byrd’s book, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which it says is very bad, and in its execution, ie, it’s not a “good” expression of the form, or genre, of the review.

Now, I do my own thing when I write reviews — I’m not particularly interested in assessing the review on my terms; I’m more likely to write something like a review essay – a thing of my own, inspired by the ideas gleaned from the book, and encouraging people to read (or not read) the book in question. Sometimes I write reviews of very bad books, but mostly, I write reviews of books that I think add things to significant conversations, especially conversations in the life of the church.

John Updike, who is a much more significant authority figure on the writing of reviews than I am, as both a writer and a reviewer, came up with six principles for writing book reviews. Now, these aren’t the be all and end all of book review rules; there’s a subjectivity involved in any writing. But they’re interesting principles one might use to assess whether a review is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on some sort of scoresheet.

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio- fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

These are good rules. Mark Powell’s review in the Australian Presbyterian breaks every one of them. Especially the ‘vaguer sixth’…

EDIT: Mark has, since my publication of this piece, suggested that he was not writing a “review” but rather a “reflection” on the events surrounding the book. Whether or not these criteria then apply is up to you (and to me, as the one posting) to discern; I’m comfortable with what I have written, but am happy for Mark’s qualifying comment to sit alongside this… I’m not sure the distinction is quite so fine as he might like, but it does speak to limitations around the word limit he was operating in; his criticisms of the book in the piece are a substantive part of the piece, and as I’ll suggest below, significantly misrepresent the book. Here are some things Mark has said on Facebook while promoting his ‘reflection’:

“Aimee Byrd’s book is deeply flawed, but there are some important lessons for us to learn as a denomination, especially regarding online civility as well as due process, around it.”

“Nathan Campbell you’ve assumed that the above article is a “review” of Aimee’s book and then judged what I’ve written in that light. However, the editor of AP asked me to NOT do another review—because so many competent ones have already been done which I mention / link in the piece—but to instead do a “reflection” on the furore around it.”

“so, here’s my thoughts on Aimee Byrd’s new book and the controversy around it…”

And when one person said “thanks Mark: an excellent review. I don’t think I need to read the book to know that it’s terrible,” he didn’t say “it’s not a review,” he said “part of the challenge here is not giving an unhelpful book undue publicity but at the same time not just dismissing it because we know we’re going to disagree. As Proverbs 26:4-5 says, this requires much wisdom.”

“What I wrote was not a formal book review, but you seem intent on questioning my motives about this. I’ll leave it for those following this thread to make up their own minds as to how successful my reflection was. As I’ve said elsewhere, this clearly has to include an engagement with what Aimee wrote.”

I think I’m hearing him correctly and disagreeing with the distinction he is making between ‘review’ and ‘reflection’ — not because I think if he were to write a more traditional ‘book review’ about the book he would take a different form, but because I think in the world of new media the text we’re asked to review includes the discussion generated by an artefact, not just the artefact itself. For Christian writers to have books published now, publishers require an online platform and the ability to produce online conversations, or buzz; I’m not sure we can separate the buzz from the book (I also made this case around a controversial review I wrote of a bad book, though, mea culpa, part of my assessment of that book was that it did not do what a book on that issue should do, and what it explicitly set out not to do, which is what I’m suggesting Mark Powell has done here).

So while Mark Powell sought to clarify afterwards, I’m not going to go through this piece and replace the word ‘review’ with ‘reflection’ — and I think even in a reflection, the criteria for reviews outlined above (and below) still stand; that we’re to be people who do not bear false witness, so it is important to as best as possible accurately present the views of those we critique; I’ve given Mark opportunity to clarify the things I’ve said about him here (beyond the ‘review’/’reflection’ thing), and edited accordingly.

As a side note — it’s conventional in this sort of writing to refer to a person by their surname alone, or their first name if you know them. I’ve known Mark Powell since I was a kid in regional NSW, but I’m choosing to use Aimee Byrd and Mark Powell in full to continue reminding you, dear reader, of the biological sex of the writer (and I say sex, not gender, because I think as a general rule we’d be better off clearly establishing the very physical givenness of sex, as opposed to ‘identity’ or ‘construction’ — I think ‘gender’ is now a confused and loaded word, especially when one starts talking about ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’ or ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’ and what appropriate expressions of those look like). Mark Powell’s review is a male, in a church context, writing about a female, in a church context, so how he writes, not just what he says, demonstrates something interesting — and that is also under ‘review’ in this review.

Mark Powell cites Andy Naselli’s review of Aimee Byrd’s book as an authoritative critique of her work; Andy Naselli comes much closer to Updike’s list of principles than Mark Powell does, but this, perhaps, is because Naselli has his own principles for public disagreement, that he drew from Tim Keller. And Mark Powell breaks those too.

1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views.

2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own.

3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.

4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.

5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives!

6. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology—because only God sees the heart.

I’d argue Mark Powell’s review fails on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th principles, so he should take responsibility for misrepresenting Aimee Byrd’s views (the 1st).

The thing is; what I’m doing here — and what Mark Powell does in his review — is adopting the fallacy known as ‘arguing from authority’ or appealing to some authority figure whose views might persuade the reader of an argument if your own argument is weak; or your own authority insecure.

The problem with Mark Powell’s review is not that he doesn’t follow the principles outlined by Updike, Keller, or Naselli. It’s that it comes from an agenda never fully disclosed, and at the risk of poisoning the well, Mark Powell is not the man I would listen to on how men and women work together for the cause of the Gospel; he, in his review, assumes his theological platform is normative and Biblical, and Presbyterian, but it is a narrow sort of Presbyterianism informed by a belief in a particular theology of headship. He has principles, drawn from 1 Corinthians 11, about the hair length appropriate for women before they are being sinfully rebellious. Those views are fine for someone to hold; he draws them in good faith from a systematic theology that is integrated and coherent in its own way; but they are not the views of the Presbyterian Church, they are his views as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. Mark Powell doesn’t declare his own hand while operating as a culture warrior in his review (there are bits of Updike’s rules that are just genuinely good principles for engaging with this sort of exercise).

I think I’ve been clear enough, or at least tried, to articulate clearly how I think men and women should be working in Gospel partnership, and how that could play out differently in the courts of the Presbyterian church, and in our gatherings. It’s clear that I come from a different theological starting point to Mark Powell, and that I’m much more inclined to see Aimee Byrd’s book as, if not a necessary corrective for our churches, a good faith conversation starter from a woman who shares a confessional framework that we operate in. I say this to nail my own colours and convictions to the mast so that you can assess whether or not I break all the reviewing conventions I have laid out above…

Let’s do some reviewing of Powell’s review now.

For starters, he sets the context of the book and the discussions around it with a retelling of events in a manner that is problematic (and quite disputed); he takes a terminology (doxing) that I’m not sure he understands, and accuses Aimee Byrd of participating in doxing, when even the accusers he quotes are careful to make a distinction between Aimee Byrd sharing a site containing screenshots of the awful, slanderous, things said about her and Aimee Byrd making a site. He praises elders (men) in Aimee Byrd’s church for taking a stance against the men named in the group; without acknowledging that their names would be unknown if their fruitless deeds of darkness were not exposed; you can’t have your doxing cake and eat it too. Basically, what good Godly men do, from Powell’s view, is to be admired and defended, but women who don’t know their place are to be put back in it.

Mark Powell offers no substantive engagement with Aimee Byrd’s book-length appeal for reform in the church; instead, he misrepresents it (and doesn’t even try to re-present it fairly, he does not quote it at all). He shares the critiques of others. He never properly addresses her arguments (or landing points), in fact, he suggests she is arguing for something she explicitly says she isn’t in the book — and he doesn’t make any attempt to suggest her statements were made in bad faith and that she tried to create particular outcomes flying under the radar. He complains about Aimee Byrd trotting out feminist tropes like ‘the Yellow wallpaper’ — and, without irony, becomes an installer of yellow wallpaper. Even if Aimee Byrd is wrong on a variety of points in her book (and as a human author, whose work is not infallible, this is likely), this is not a good faith exercise in dialogue to persuade Aimee Byrd of her errors; it’s an attempt to stop people encountering her arguments. It is a hatchet job. Even if Aimee Byrd is wrong about everything — the point of Updike and Keller’s principles — is that you treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated; if Mark Powell’s view on women is that we shouldn’t listen to them in case they teach us something, then his review demonstrates the folly of that approach (this, I don’t think, is Mark Powell’s view on women, but in demonstrably failing to listen to a woman who has published a book that he has set out to publicly review, this is what Mark Powell demonstrates his actual view on women is). I believe Mark Powell loves women, and wants to see them flourish; I believe his writing is thoroughly consistent with his framework and how he believes the Bible spells out a pattern for human flourishing. I also believe Mark Powell’s framework is wrong, and while I think he is Presbyterian, and our denomination is one where big R Reformed people with sympathies for the Federal Vision movement, or those who like Doug Wilson, might find a home, I don’t think our denomination is so narrow that only those with this sort of framework should find a home (or a platform). The AP mag has form on this; it was, of course, home to the article that suggested women’s ministry training should be restricted to mothercraft.

In his framing of the debate Mark Powell makes a category error; a sort of error quite common in hard complementarianism. He jumps from a passage where Peter is explicitly talking about the relationship between husband and wives to make a case for how ‘all men’ and ‘all women’ should relate in obedience to Scripture.

“We should clearly and consistently condemn any physical or verbal abuse of another person, and especially when a man commits this against a woman. 1 Peter 3:7—a passage that Byrd strangely never refers too in her book—is more than apt.

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.””

Now, unless Mark has substantially changed his position on 1 Corinthians 11 since last we debated it; he and I read that chapter differently too — I think veils (head coverings) were a first century wedding ring — a picture of the inter-dependence of husband and wife — and that wives in Corinth were declaring independence from their husbands in public by unveiling their heads (a greek word for wife is the same as a greek word for woman, and context shapes how we read it). It’s an approach that has significant implications for how we structure not just church and marriage life, but all relationships between men and women; and that Mark Powell is so quick to use them interchangeably here is at least indicative of a consistency in his approach…

So far as I can tell as an outsider to the life of the Byrd household, Aimee Byrd writes with the full support of her husband. Some of the worst examples of comments on the cesspit, The Geneva Commons, were comments speculating about their relationship and asking “where her husband is” as she writes the things she writes. The issue with the comments on the Geneva Commons, misogynist though they are, is not an issue simply because Aimee Byrd is a woman and the people making the comments are men (though that fits with Aimee Byrd’s call for reforms too), the issue is that Aimee Byrd is a human being made in the Image of God, being transformed by God’s Spirit into the image of Jesus; how we treat her is an expression of our view of Jesus (‘by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love, one for another’). The way we treat our brothers and sisters in the faith (including the way I write about Mark Powell, who I do see as a brother in the faith, just one doing substantial damage to the witness of the Gospel in Australia by playing the culture war game so vigorously both inside and outside the church) reveals how we see Jesus. If Mark Powell can’t bring himself to listen properly to Aimee Byrd’s cries for reform — cries echoed by women in our own churches here in Australia — even if he disagrees; then this review is an indictment of him (and perhaps the platform he is given), not of Aimee Byrd.

His review is a staggering effort to eradicate the voice of a woman, while, at the same time, it is being revealed the length a group of men in positions of authority in a sister church in the U.S were going to to also eradicate her voice. And Aimee Byrd is not a feminist outsider, she’s not even an egalitarian — she is a member in good standing of a Presbyterian Church, a church in good standing with the Presbyterian Church of Australia; how we respond to her is going to communicate volumes to the women in our churches.

Mark’s review is not the same as the comments on the Geneva Commons; I’m not wanting to suggest there’s an equivalence here; but it’s easy for women in our churches (I hope) to see the Geneva Commons experience as an outlier, rightly condemned, than a norm, if the norm isn’t a similar eradication of women’s voices on how our church is structured (and even, how we understand the Bible). Mark Powell was right to unequivocally condemn the Geneva Commons threads; but to condemn that while ‘reviewing’ the book in such a bad faith way (see Keller’s rules, and Updikes), is to be complicit in the same ‘yellow wallpaper’ — just not to the same toxic degree. He says:

How Aimee Byrd has been treated clearly grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:29-32). And the fact that many of the men who are guilty of such sins are office bearers in Christ’s church is a timely warning and exhortation for us all to repent and refrain from any such conduct.

I believe that while his treatment of Aimee Byrd in this review is not the same as the treatment dished out in the Geneva Commonsthat perhaps benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy; and maybe it’s a more damaging expression of that in the long term because I don’t think the Geneva Commons guys are going to get their views platformed in our denomination’s national magazine.

Let me quote another para of Mark Powell’s review. Where he gets into his substantial criticism of her book (points largely echoed in the two other reviews he cites).

“Byrd does a very poor job in handling the Scriptures. Significantly, passages which are integral to the entire debate are completely ignored (i.e. 1 Tim. 2:8-15, 1 Pet. 3:1-7). This is inexcusable, especially when Byrd is arguing that women should take up teaching and leadership roles in the church and that obscure New Testament figures such Phoebe, Lydia and Junia were “church planters” and even apostles.”

Mark Powell does not demonstrate this assertion; he simply asserts it — and maybe he’ll appeal to word limits and the importance of getting his take on Aimee Byrd’s book out there to stop it gaining a foothold in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. His main contention in this paragraph seems to be not so much that she mishandles the Scriptures, with reference to Phoebe, Lydia, and Junia — but that she ignores the Scriptures Mark Powell thinks she should be writing about.

This is Mark Powell complaining that the book does not talk about elephants, when, in fact, it is not a book about elephants at all. Mark is reviewing the book negatively for failing to meet his terms. He misrepresents Aimee Byrd as trying to do something (arguing that women should take up teaching and leadership roles in the church) that Aimee Byrd explicitly says is not her intent. Mark Powell is consistently black and white in his thinking, and does like to put things through a pre-conceived grid while assessing them; Aimee Byrd seems to me, in my reading of her book, to be trying to suggest the grid and the black and whiteness aren’t the be all and end all of relationships between men and women in the church, and that the grid of asking about ‘roles’ and ‘authority’ accounts for 1% of our life together as Christians, and she’s interested in exploring what to do with the other 99%…

He complains that the book is weak in precisely the area the book says it is not addressing. Now, if he wanted to say this book was a Trojan horse that undermines the structures of the 1%, he could’ve just said that.

Mark Powell says:

“Byrd’s treatment of Genesis 1-3 is superficial at best. She argues that there is no creation paradigm involving authority and submission between Adam and Eve. That is patently untrue.”

I’ll just put this here.

“Interestingly, Adam was called to a special submission in three areas. Before the fall, Adam and Eve served in a holy temple-garden. Adam bore a priestly responsibility of the vocation to guard or protect, which is the meaning of the word keep in this text: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15 NASB). Adam was called to submit, or sacrifice himself, in this way. Second, Adam had to sacrifice a piece of his own body for the creation of Eve (Gen. 2:21–22). And third, even in describing the union of marriage, we see that unlike the surrounding ancient patriarchal culture of the time when Moses wrote Genesis, in which the woman left her family and was then under the authority of her husband’s family, the man was to leave his family and cleave to his wife (Gen. 2:24). So if we want to call this leadership, yes, it is the best kind. But it is also submission—sacrifice of the man’s own rights and body for the protection of the temple and home and out of love for his wife. These are proleptic representations of Christ, the true keeper of our souls (see Ps. 121), who left his heavenly home, took on flesh, lived the life that we could not, and died the death that we could not so that he can hold fast to his own bride, the church.” — Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 116-117

This ‘superficial reading’ is consistent with, for example, Greg Beale’s ‘Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission‘ — it’s an expression of good, Reformed, Biblical studies work on Genesis 2, drawing out implications for how we understand the pre-fall partnership between man and woman. Aimee Byrd doesn’t just have a ‘creation paradigm’ for Genesis 2, she has a Gospel paradigm. What Mark Powell means by ‘superficial’ is ‘does not agree with my reading of the text’… And that’s fine. He should just say that.

Mark says:

“Byrd argues for what I refer to as a “sexist hermeneutic”. Byrd believes that Scripture is inherently ‘androcentric’ (male-centred) and that we should adopt a “Gynocentric (feminine) Reading of Scripture”. This is an expression that Byrd uses no less than twenty-three times. Her point is that while women are not the centre of the Bible’s message, the feminine perspective should be one of the grids through which we interpret it. The problem with this approach is that it de-thrones Christ from being the lens through which we interpret God’s Word (e.g. Luke 24:27).”

Aimee Byrd does indeed see Jesus as the lens through which we interpret God’s word; Mark Powell misrepresents her at this point; I believe that Jesus is the objective fulfilment of Scripture, it is written about him, but that doesn’t stop me reading Scripture from a cultural position, in a language removed from the culture and language of the first audience of Scripture. I have to attempt to put myself in the headspace of others to humbly see how Scripture might be fulfilled in Jesus because I am a limited creature, and cannot escape my own subjectivity. My sense of Jesus being the fulfilment of Scripture is aided when I hear the perspectives of others with different cultures and experiences; Aimee Byrd seems to me to be arguing that by hearing the voices of women as they subjectively interpret Scripture from their own creatureliness, we might enrich our understanding of how it is fulfilled in Jesus (something demonstrated, I think, in her treatment of Genesis 2 above). Creatureliness is not a sin — and we can’t insist that a woman read and notice things about Scripture through the eyes and perspective of men — as though ours is the objective experience, or as though we have perfect access to truth, without eradicating their creatureliness and the difference we want to keep affirming. To do so is the opposite of humility. Aimee Byrd isn’t advocating for men not reading the Bible as men, she’s advocating for co-operation in our sitting under the text and looking to find its fulfilment in Jesus. Mark Powell is arguing for the sort of colour-blind, experience blind, black and white approach to truth that again, is thoroughly consistent with the sort of modernism and politics he finds himself drawn to (arguably because of his own creaturely distinctives). An example from my own life and preaching might be a helpful one here — you will, as a man, preach the story of David and Bathsheba, or Absalom and Tamar, differently if you ask women what these stories make them feel and how they’d like to hear them taught. David’s primary failure is not that he ‘betrays his comrade in arms Uriah because Bathsheba belongs to him’ (as I’ve heard it preached). Bathsheba is not a temptress (she’s washing herself according to the requirements of the law). Our perspective on the events of this narrative are limited, and our limitations will affect how we see a story fulfilled in Jesus (that he is not a king who treats women as objects to be ‘taken’ by strength like Eve ‘took’ the fruit she saw and desired).

We, the church, will be richer and have a truer picture of the Gospel of Jesus, if we listen to those given ‘the same Spirit’ who are part of the same body — this is not to jump straight to questions of teaching and preaching in the gathered church, there are a whole lot more options for listening (like, you know, reading books written by a woman, that call for reform, and trying to hear them properly). Aimee Byrd describes the #MeToo movement, for example, as a gynocentric movement — a movement where women are sharing about their experiences of life in society, and the church, from their creaturely perspective — movements like this are a chance to affirm difference, but to be enriched by difference as well.

“This movement is a gynocentric interruption. Women are using their voices and asking men to listen. How is the church going to respond? We certainly don’t want to mimic the culture and adapt the philosophy of the sexual revolution. But in our efforts to combat the reductive worldview of our secular culture, we need to make sure we are not overcorrecting by slapping yellow wallpaper over it. We need to look at our own blind spots and embrace the whole picture given to us in God’s Word.”Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,  93

“We have the privilege of listening from the perspective of the full revelation of the gospel. What do we have to say to our culture now about the holiness and grace of our Lord God? What do we have to say about the value of men and women made in his image? What do we have to say about his household? We live in a time where we can cruise over to Walmart and buy a Bible for $5.99. Now that we are armed with a better idea of how the male and female voices operate synergetically in Scripture, let’s explore Christ’s presence in the Word of God and therefore its relationship to the church.” — Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 94

Sadly this review is an example of the very yellow wallpaper that Mark Powell found so triggering. He says:

“Byrd contends that complementarians are “biblicists” who “emphasize proof texting over a comprehensive biblical theology” and that “they often don’t notice they are also looking through their own lens of preconceived theological assumptions”. Ironically, though, this is what Byrd herself is guilty of doing. Her entire book is framed by the classic feminist metaphor of peeling back the “yellow wallpaper”. And as such, it is her own philosophical feminism which wallpapers over the meaning of the Biblical text.”

I think the quotes I’ve included above already demonstrate a Christ-centred, comprehensive, Biblical theology and even theological anthropology, at the heart of Aimee Byrd’s work. The issue is not that she doesn’t cite passages from the Bible, or have a theological framework — and the issue certainly isn’t the yellow wallpaper metaphor that Mark Powell seems to have misunderstood (which is about the normalisation of the eradication of women’s voices), it’s that Mark Powell doesn’t acknowledge that his own theological system sees women’s voices seeking to ‘teach’ men something as problematic, and so he was never going to be able to listen to Aimee Byrd on her terms.

What we have here, in Mark Powell’s review, is a perfect artefact of approaching a book through his own lens of preconceived theological assumptions. He asserts, without demonstrating, he dismisses, without engaging, he silences, without listening. The reason he can’t see the yellow wallpaper is because he is the yellow wallpaper.

He reads Aimee Byrd’s book through his grid — which is a grid emphasising headship; specifically male headship. A view that ends up centred on the question of authority, and the role of an individual in authority. I’m not going to prosecute the Trinity question around eternal subordination, or functional subordination, or whether the father has authority over the Son and Spirit, and what that does to questions of equality; I just think that’s a weird, western, modernist (and, frankly, worldly or ‘Babylonian’) grid to read back into the relationships in the Trinity. The Trinity as a community is dynamic and relational; the Son submits to the Father, he does not grasp equality with God, while the Father ‘exalts the Son’ and raises him to the ‘highest place’ giving him the name ‘above all names’ — this sort of static authority structure where we’re worried about what individual is ultimately ‘the authority’ is such a weird way to approach human relationships even if you are trying to map them out according to the Trinity. One thing the Trinity should challenge, and so too our union with Christ as ‘one body,’ is our radical, western, notion of individuality, that freights questions of authority with much more weight than they should carry. Aimee Byrd seems to Mark Powell to be undermining authority structures precisely because he has no category for the sort of thick co-operation or even complementarity that Aimee Byrd is calling for. Her vision of the church is not one without male leadership (she affirms the structures of her tradition); it’s one of collaboration and partnership; of listening.

We can even back it up a bit. Do you have only men handing out bulletins, helping visitors to find a seat, and passing the offering basket? Why? What message might that be sending? If Phoebe can deliver the epistle to the Romans, a sister should be able to handle delivering an offering basket. Backing it up a little more, are laypeople teaching adult Sunday school in your church? If so, are both laymen and laywomen being equipped to do that? If Junia can be sent as an apostle with Andronicus to establish churches throughout Rome, then you should at least value coeducational teaching teams in Sunday school. Do the men in your church learn from the women’s theological contributions? If the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nyssa can call Macrina “the Teacher,” showing just how dependent his theological understanding of the Scriptures was on his sister, then the men in your church can learn from their sisters as well. Sisters make great adult Sunday school teachers when invested in well, as well as excellent contributors in class discussion as learners. They could also contribute theologically in written resources the church offers. And helpful women authors should be recommended as church resources. Like Macrina, they may even excel in training other theological leaders. That should all be seen in the dynamics of a typical Sunday in your church, whether you hold to male-only ordination or not—men and women co-laborers serving under the fruit of the ministry with reciprocal voices and dynamic exchange.”— Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 233.

Note, for example, Aimee Byrd doesn’t call Junia a ‘church planter’ — but a sent one (an apostle) who partners with Andronicus to establish churches; she isn’t creating a separate category of female ordination and leadership — she’s calling for collaboration — for being co-laborers. She’s not calling, so far as I can tell, for any woman operating under her own individual authority, but for a recognition of genuine inter-dependence and partnership. This is Aimee Byrd’s ‘trojan horse’ — her ‘gender agenda’ — that we, the church, might partner together in love to make the truths of the Gospel; that together we might be pursuing the example and image of Jesus in our lives, expressed in our relationships.

“Just think of the way Jesus showcases leadership in the washing of feet and how differently he exercises his own authority as the Son of God, in contrast to the one-dimensional ways taught in biblical manhood. He doesn’t play the man card, or even the Son of God card! He serves. He listens. He teaches. He fulfills. He gives his whole self. He equips and empowers men and women. And he calls them to do his work. He does not call them to different roles or different virtues.”Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 123.

On Cultural Marxism, Capitalism and Christianity as a third way

There’s what seems like a coordinated push from hard-right Christian media and social media outlets this week to raise awareness about the dangers of ‘cultural Marxism.’ Here, for example, is a quote from the ACL’s Martyn Iles in his third post linking “Black Lives Matter” to cultural Marxism.

“Black Lives Matter: not what it says on the tin.

It is so important to exercise discernment – a virtue mentioned dozens of times in scripture, essential to living wisely.

There are many labels doing the rounds at present – Black Lives Matter, Safe Schools, Extinction Rebellion, Liberation Theology… and others.

Each of these attractive labels has a surface appeal, but masks what lies within. They are fronts for Cultural Marxism.

The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.

These deceptions alarm people.

They recruit people’s emotional support for an anti-Christ political cause.”

Now. Before I go much further, I think it’s worth making a distinction in our conversations around race issues between Black Lives MatterTM (@blklivesmatter), and “Black lives matter” the statement, and #blacklivesmatter the hashtag. One way to imagine the distinction would look like:

“Because black lives matter that we should rally against systemic racism, and also because #blacklivesmatter, we should ask @blklivesmatter to reconsider its position on abortion.”

This would, as an example, use the phrase to affirm a truth: black lives do matter. Connect the use of that phrase to a conversation on Twitter, where #blacklivesmatter works as a hashtag, and address a concern that one might have with the Black Lives Matter organisation and its vision of the good. One might stand with @blklivesmatter on its diagnosis of the problems in our western society, and the way white privilege works systemically to disenfranchise non-white people, and see how historic injustices like slavery or dispossession continue to work themselves out today (so they’re not really history) without sharing @blklivesmatter’s solutions to the problem.

Others, like my friend David Ould have a principled disagreement (along the lines of avoiding association with evil) that I think is both an example of the sort of prescriptive v descriptive word games I’ve mentioned before, and too much of a concession around terminology (rather than entering a contest) to one party in a conversation. If the meaning of words is contested, rather than fixed, more people are able to enter a conversation, bringing more perspectives and richness to the commons. Objections to participating in the Black Lives Matter cause or conversation tend to, at one level, conflate entity, statement, and hashtag and treat them as a monolithic identity marking thing — and then some, like Iles, jump from that monolith to this idea of “cultural marxism.”

It’s not just Iles who’s on the warpath against “cultural Marxism” — you can find articles in The Spectator from the Presbyterian Church’s very own Mark Powell titled ‘Cultural Marxism’s War On Freedom‘ (and if one was to play Presbyterian assembly bingo you can tick off that box on your sheet just about every time Mark speaks about a social issue), you can follow the dirt sheets at Caldron Pool where, for example, young Ben Davis says “Cultural Marxism is a poison eroding the West from within and we need to know how to identify it,” the definition this piece offers is:

“One of the ways in which relativism has influenced society is through Cultural Marxism, or “Social Justice”. Like Classical Marxism, Cultural Marxism is an inherently divisive ideology. Where Classical Marxism was concerned with class warfare between the wealthy and the working class, Cultural Marxism shifts the focus to imagined conflicts between the privileged oppressive majority and the disadvanced oppressed minorities.

Which category a person falls into is determined by certain aspects of that individual’s identity, such as gender, skin colour, sexual preferences, family, ethnicity, culture, and religion.”

The “Canberra Declaration” an obtuse right-wing Christian thinktank, defines Cultural Marxism as “a secular philosophy that views all of life through the lens of a power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor,” where:

“The oppressor is usually an aspect of traditional Western society such as the family, capitalism, democracy, or Christianity. The oppressed is anyone who is or who feels marginalised by these institutions, depending on the cultural and political debates of the moment.”

Using word or hashtags (like ‘privilege’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘systemic injustice’ or ‘patriarchy’) — even to acknowledge those as categories — can trigger an avalanche of despair from anti-social justice warriors who want to stamp cultural marxism out of the system; and certainly want to prevent anything like “cultural marxism” slipping into the church; in doing so these political activists end up setting up a boundary marker around the Gospel such that anyone to their left is either a ‘woke panderer,’ or partnering with an anti-Christ, or both. Here’s Iles again:

“I condemn Black Lives Matter because they are a Marxist movement.

Marxism is anti-Christ.

They substitute sin with power.

They substitute the individual with the tribe, imputing guilt, innocence, and judgement to collective groups, not responsible people.

They absolve guilt, not by repentance, but by claiming victim status. Sin is justified for some tribes.

They do not absolve guilt for all. It cannot be absolved for the wrong tribes.

They exist to agitate, tear down, create chaos, divide, and destroy. That is the cultural Marxist objective – wreck the joint; destroy the system; do it violently.”

“Anti-Christ” is very loaded and evocative terminology in Christian circles; it draws on beastly satanic imagery (and eschatological conspiracies about end times); and it is pretty much the ultimate statement of anathema. Thing is, the Bible is quite careful to describe the term:

“Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” — 1 John 2:18-23

Now, this isn’t to say that the Bible doesn’t speak about political systems and structures to condemn them; it does; it tends towards describing those structures as beastly, animalistic, following in the footsteps of that dragon/serpent Satan. Revelation is loaded with this sort of imagery with the finger pointed squarely at worldly power. But more on that below…

What it uses the term ‘antichrist’ for is for those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, those that “deny the Father and the Son,” those who were once part of the people of God, who have “gone out from us” — for John this is probably people returning to Judaism denying that Jesus has been raised from the dead (see this post to flesh this out a bit). To be antichrist is to deny substantial and fundamentally important truths about Jesus; it is not to subscribe to a particular political system, or to use terminology to enter discussion with those subscribed to a particular political system.

But interestingly, each of the figures I mention above — Iles, Powell, and the writers of Caldron Pool — have, in the last 12 months, very carefully and closely aligned themselves with one who fits this bill: a Trinity denying modalist who denies that Jesus, the son, came in the flesh, denying father and son (by saying only the father, named Jesus Christ, exists). Iles in particular did his very best to position this figure as a Christian for the sake of his politics and fundraising, despite being given substantial evidence for this person’s theology.

But back to “Cultural Marxism”…

One of the problems I have with the attack on cultural marxism is that part of the critique is a critique of the idea of systemic sin, built on an argument that there is systemic sin at play in our institutions. What the noise about cultural marxism really boils down to is a feeling amongst a subset of conservatives that they are losing the culture war because they’ve lost control of cultural institutions.

If the so-called left, including the “black lives matter” conversation, is suggesting that systemic racism is a problem, and that part of the problem is with a ‘hegemony’ consisting of white people (typically males) who control political, economic, and cultural institutions, and so set patterns of behaviour in order to hold on to the status quo of wealth and power, at the exclusion and expense of others; and if this is “cultural marxism” — then the so-called right is responding by suggesting a conspiracy  where a system of leftists (the cultural marxists) are conducting a long march through the institutions. This leftist system now apparently seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct public belief, behaviour, and discourse. It’s actually “systemic set of sins A” v “systemic set of sins B” — and Christians should have issues siding with either. We have our own kingdom, with our own king.

While I’m happy enough for ‘cultural marxism’ to be a contested descriptor of a certain element of the left, I think it’s dangerous to use it prescriptively, to label and dismiss a group of people (and I’m struck by how often the same people not happy to use Black Lives Matter because of its political association are happy to use “cultural marxism” with no regard to its political associations). I don’t use it as a label or to open up discussions with those on the so-called left because it’s not a description they would typically apply to themselves, and it is a term with troubling origins. Aussie scholar Rob Smith has a long article on Cultural Marxism and its origins as a school of thought in Themelios that concludes:

“Given the existence of conspiratorial explanations of the nature and goals of Cultural Marxism, is there a case for avoiding the term and using an alternative (e.g., neo-Marxism or Critical Theory)? In my view, there is no inherent problem with the label, but Christians ought to be careful with how (and to whom) it is applied. It really can function as a kind of “weaponised narrative” that paints anyone who gets tagged with it as being “beyond the pale of rational discourse.” It can even be a way of dismissing fellow believers who display a concern for justice or environmental issues or who are mildly optimistic about the possibilities of cultural transformation. We should certainly discuss and debate such matters, but Carl Trueman is right: “Bandying terms like ‘cultural Marxist’ … around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.”

One might then ask if the Caldron Pool, Canberra Declaration, Spectator articles and Martyn Iles’ recent Facebook posts manage to clear the jump of ‘avoiding real argument’ and bandying the term around to create a boogeyman, and dismiss other perspectives from fellow Christians.

I was convinced by Christian friends with some Marxist sympathies (especially because of the Marxist critique of capitalism), that ‘cultural marxism’ is an unhelpful pejorative, or snarl, that shuts down dialogue between Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians on the so-called left, so I don’t use it. I was probably more convinced by an analysis of the phrase “cultural marxism” from the guys at The Eucatastrophe (here’s part 1) than I was by Smith’s take. I do use other ‘contested’ terms in order to open up dialogue with those same groups, and I’m increasingly aware that this closes down dialogue with those on the so-called Christian right, either because my use of terminology makes me a ‘woke panderer’ or because my descriptive use of language (and post-modernism) is an affront to their modernist prescriptivism. I’m yet to be convinced that ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ aren’t essentially Biblical terms that align with the Biblical picture of sin. That’s an area for me to consider carefully. I do think the dominant Christian voices in my tradition tend to conflate ‘Christian’ and ‘right wing’ in ways that exclude those on the left so my bias is towards including or embracing those who might otherwise feel excluded by default.

If I were ‘code switching’ and speaking to my friends on the Christian right, or just secular conservatives, I’d be acknowledging a particular agenda from the left wrapped up in deconstruction, and cancel culture, and attacks on free speech, religious freedom (in some forms) and occasional attempts to enshrine a particularly gnostic view of sexuality and gender that denies the reality of bodily sex in favour of feelings. I’d acknowledge that there are certain expressions of marxism, and certainly its solutions beyond the toppling of capitalism and oppressive power structures, that are just as evil.

I’d reject the idea that it might be ‘better the devil we know’ and suggest a Christian approach to politics might be one that seeks to obey Jesus, and for Christians to be people of virtue who practice the “golden rule” while taking up our cross rather than our sword. I’d acknowledge that the secular left is unforgiving, and weaponises shame, having watched cancel culture attack a prominent Aussie barista this week, and J.K Rowling. I’d suggest it’s odd that “the left” wants to pit Donald Trump (the big evil) against Martin Luther King (the big good) in this present moment, while ignoring significant evidence that MLK should’ve been “cancelled” because #himtoo. I’d acknowledge that culture wars and politics as a zero sum game are destructive to civility, pluralism, the ability to coexist, democracy as an acknowledgment of the equality of all (rather than the victory of the winners), and ultimately to our ability to love our neighbour.

These figures on the so-called “Christian right” might pretend to be acting neutrally, but by supporting a status quo (especially a capitalist one as opposed to a Marxist one, as though there are only binary options for our economics) are identifying their own version of systemic or structural sin to condemn the identification of structural sin as antichrist.

What might be true of a leftist conspiracy, where a system is developed to fight a culture war could also be just as true of a rightist conspiracy. The right’s antithesis to cultural marxism, where the so called ‘free market,’ and individual autonomy and the right to own property (including, as Locke put it, the idea that an individual person is a property in their own right) is just as systemic. And ultimately the market is actually controlled by a group of people (those who decide the rules of the game and serve as gatekeepers), and the whole game is rigged to benefit people who fit with, and perpetuate, the status quo (we might call these people ‘the privileged,’ and these people might include me). If the left enshrines various ‘identities’ as idols, the right enshrines money, property, and personal autonomy.

There is nothing sub-Biblical about the idea that sin and curse are enshrined in structures that oppress. This is a thoroughly Biblical idea — and it’s a double edged sword. It cuts down the utopian eschatology of both the left, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if we get rid of some bourgeois class of oppressor and their oppressive structures (especially capitalism), and the right, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if individuals are free to own and accumulate property and wealth according to their ability (with no acknowledgment of the way this might play out intergenerationally, and that greed might occur and massively distort the market at the expense of those without that same intergenerational cachet). Both ideologies are beastly without Jesus, and neither totally align with the kingdom of God as we see it revealed in Jesus in his death, resurrection, ascension, pouring out of the Spirit, and his eventual return to make all things new.

Christians should not be surprised that sinful people form communities (and political visions) around idols, and that as we do this, our sin becomes enculturated and forms the structures and norms of life together.

This is precisely what idolatry does to the nations around Israel, and precisely what happens to Israel when they become like the nations and choose to worship created things instead of the creator. Our common objects of love — and whether we’re in lefty sub culture or righty sub culture — our common political visions — will form and deform us, and they don’t simply do this internally but as we build societies, cultural artefacts, relationships, and systems to pursue these (idolatrous) visions of the good. To suggest that this sort of system is never built along racial lines is to ignore the testimony of the Old Testament; but these systems are also built along ‘market’ or economic lines too.

The Bible is not neutral about questions of power; specifically about questions of dominion, and the abuse of power where instead of cooperating in spreading God’s dominion over the face of the earth as his image bearing gardeners, we turn to seek domination over one another and enshrine that in nation v nation, or culture v culture contests. Ultimately the Bible pits God’s kingdom as revealed in the crucified, resurrected, exalted, spirit-giving, and returning Christ against the beastly kingdoms of this world.

Systemic racism is a feature of the Old Testament; peoples who, by virtue of belonging to one nation, oppress outsiders, is a feature of the Biblical narrative. The answer is not political revolution from one idol to another; the answer is Jesus. Now, Iles wants to acknowledge this too; but his Jesus has nothing to say to those oppressed in this world by power structures, because his system somehow wants to deny that power structures can be oppressive. And this, ultimately, is sub-Biblical — especially in that if fails to grapple with the way “Babylon” and beastliness work in the narrative of the Bible from beginning to end (and Egypt before it). Babylon becomes a cypher for Rome in the New Testament; but it really is just any empire that makes power and dominion — a kind of ‘might is right, take what you want’ mentality its fundamental way of life; it shouldn’t be hard to recognise ‘take what you want’ as one of the most basic pictures of sin (think Adam and Eve in the garden), but here’s a little primer on how all this works; and how the Bible is not just concerned about freedom from slavery to Satan, but about the creation of a world where Satan’s pattern of behaviour does not infiltrate and influence human government (whether in the guise of right or left).

In the Bible’s creation account, God’s image bearing people are given this task of exercising power as God’s agents in the world (Genesis 1:27); they are to use this in life giving ways that allow humanity to flourish and multiply; to ‘fill the earth’ — the picture we get of what a filled earth should look like is in Eden. People were made to cooperate with one another as God’s agents, in partnership with God, working in this garden like world, taking natural resources (Gen 2 mentions gold, etc) to spread the conditions of a good and flourishing life. There’s no sense of private home ownership (or even total self-autonomy here, as Adam and Eve belong to each other); there is a sense of God’s ownership and our stewardship. When Adam and Eve desire and take the fruit; when they usurp God’s rule, part of the curse is that their cooperation is broken, and their relationship will now be marked and marred by how power is used (Genesis 3:16). Later, when humans conspire to build Babel — a towering monument to human achievement — God scatters people into lots of nations so that they might not seek this glory and autonomy again. This is an archetypal storyline about the human condition and our relationship with God as creator; the attempt to build Babel is a particularly obvious example of ‘structural sin’ — of people working together to enshrine particular sins as both a very visible ‘norm’ and an architectural feature that would’ve testified and enshrined a particular story about human achievement, power, and dominion.

We’ll come back to the Biblical storyline in a moment — it’s just worth noting some parallel stories from the ancient world; especially in Babylon (the relationship between ‘Babel’ and ‘Babylon’ is not a coincidence). The Biblical story has an interesting relationship with Babylon’s alternative story — its vision of the good life. The Babylonian story does not have a hospitable God who makes a garden and tasks people with fruitful multiplication; in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian gods are gods of chaos and dominion. The earth is created out of the dead body of a god after a god-v-god war; the winner and chief god, Marduk, gets to build a monument to himself; Babel is ultimately his city, and people are made as servants of this hungry god of power and conquest. This is the story that shapes the life of Babylonian people in the ancient world, and defines their picture of kingship. Those who are outside of this god’s particular people; outside his city; are to be oppressed and conquered and put to work for the people who work for the god. This is based on race. It creates an oppressive group of people and an oppressed group of people. This is before Marx. Obviously.

In the Genesis story, God makes people and eventually these people want to build a stairway to heaven to ascend and take God’s glorious place in the sky; only to have the ‘Babel project’ — their empire — frustrated by God. In the Babylonian world, the gods fashion people but also build Babylon as the city where they descend from the heavens to feast on the earth, enjoying the slave labor of the people they’ve made. The Enuma Elish has Marduk describing his building of the great city of Babylon as a stairway between heaven and earth:

“Beneath the celestial parts, whose floor I made firm,
I will build a house to be my luxurious abode.
Within it I will establish its shrine,
I will found my chamber and establish my kingship.
When you come up from the Apsû to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
When you descend from heaven to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
I shall call its name ‘Babylon’, “The Homes of the Great Gods”

There’s lots of scholarship out there suggesting that the Tower of Babel is meant to be pictured as a ‘Ziggurat’ — a building functioning as a resting place for the gods, and a stairway between heaven and earth; the Biblical story offers a critique of the sort of worldly power and empire of Babylon right from the beginning (including its vision of ‘images of God’ — who is, and isn’t, an image bearer, and how images are made).

God’s people are not to be “Babylonian” — and part of what defines Babylon is the systemic oppression of those who are not Babylonians. Babylon, as the ultimate destination of Israel’s exile from God, is foreshadowed in Egypt. Egypt is its own oppressive system — a system built on structural or systemic racism. Hebrews are made slaves in Egypt by virtue of their ethnicity. They are oppressed. A system of sin and opposition to God is established that enslaves God’s people; and God cares not just about their pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die spiritual salvation from sin; but a fully embodied emancipation from slavery and systems of oppression; and Israel is specifically not to become an oppressive system; remembering how they were treated in, and saved from, Egypt.

Babylon gives was to Persia, gives way to Greece, gives way to Rome — each of these empires is a human empire built on dominion, and power, and systemic/structural institutionalisation of sin via stories about what it means to be human, the nature of the gods, and why their particular culture is superior to all others (as justification for conquest). Empires in the Bible are systematised sin built around idolatrous worship of things other than God. Empires in the Bible oppress and create victims. God’s people — Adam and Eve, Israel, the church — are called out of empire, out of these systems of sin, and into the people of God so that we become citizens of heaven and ambassadors of Jesus, being transformed into his image. While the so called ‘left’ might envisage an empire built on the destruction of a variety of institutions it deems oppressive, and progress through a reconstruction or redistribution of power from the oppressor to the oppressed — the so called ‘right’ envisages an empire built on power, dominion, and money. It wants to conserve an idolatrous status quo.

Babylon never really disappears; as I mentioned above the book of Revelation equates Babylon with the prosperous market-driven, military powered, dominion of worldly kingdoms — specifically those kingdoms that set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of God. Those on the Christian right are quick to point the finger at Marxism for its hostility to Christianity (viewed as an oppressor, post Christendom), but very slow to point the finger at the right’s coopting of Christianity for its own power games (*cough* Trump *cough*), or to deny that the status quo in the west could possibly share anything in common with Rome, or Babylon, and be oppressive in its unfettered pursuit of wealth and the good life here and now. Greed is idolatry. Idolatry is inherently destructive. Politically enshrined idolatry is oppressive and destructive to those ‘outside the kingdom.’

Marxism, “cultural” or otherwise, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Capitalism, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Marxism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct capitalism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

Capitalism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of Marxism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct marxism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

To deny that human systems enslave and create victims, oppressor and oppressed, or to suggest Jesus does nothing but automatically save us and provide the good life, is to preach a Gospel that simply enshrines the political status quo, rather than critiquing it through the lens of the Gospel. It is to promote a gnostic Gospel that is only concerned about the Spiritual dimension of life; not a Gospel where Jesus came to offer a different political vision, to create an alternative polis where power is used quite differently.

And this is exactly what Martyn Iles, in his crusade against “Cultural Marxism” is doing; propping up the status quo — capitalism — by spiritualising the Gospel and denying the presence of “victims” or “the oppressed”… Here he is again:

“You don’t need a skin colour to fall into the victim trap. Every one of us can find a way, because every one of us has disadvantages and setbacks in life. That’s the human condition.

But so long as Jesus lives, you are no victim. Not only do you have all the blessings of God’s common grace each day, but He offers you everything, no matter who you are, when you deserved nothing, no matter who you are.

Like I keep saying, the God of the universe offers each one of us the greatest equality in the world. All of us need to get out of our seat in the dust and realise that.”

Iles does not acknowledge the way sin is not just a spiritual reality affecting our relationship with God, but a reality affecting our treatment of one another; that sin affects the experience of people in the world, and that this clearly affects some people disproportionally (think the Hebrews in Egypt). Faith in Jesus does not automatically end oppression; the return of Jesus to make all things new does; a world free of sin, and curse, and beastly governments. Iles ends up preaching an incomplete Gospel because he has a narrow view of sin, and so a small Jesus. He says of the anti-christ left:

“The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.”

I’d say Iles himself ends up with a Gospel that minimises the importance of the divinity of Jesus and the Triune character of God by elevating the political; with a Jesus more concerned about righteousness, natural order, and sexual purity than those oppressed by injustice the abuse of power, denying the impact of sin on the physical world (whether the environment or human relationships), and a Jesus who is only interested in some disembodied heavenly future. A Jesus you don’t find in, say, Luke’s Gospel.

A Jesus who arrives on the scene as Caesar Augustus is flexing his muscles and measuring his empire with a census; a Jesus whose arrival is announced as an expression of God’s character, the God who, in Mary’s song:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.” — Luke 1:52-53

Who launches his ministry in Luke by announcing Jubilee; freedom for the oppressed, who then sets about contrasting his kingdom to the kingdom of Herod, Caesar, and Satan.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

There’s certainly a spiritual dimension to Jesus’ announcement; he is announcing the end of exile. But there’s also a physical dimension to his announcement; he is announcing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t news to Martyn; the ACL’s whole schtick is attempting to enshrine and create a certain vision of the kingdom of God here on earth, in part through worldly institutions, it’s just this kingdom looks a lot like ‘the right’… and a lot like victory over ‘the left’…

In the meantime, Christians have an alternative political vision to both Marxism and Capitalism; both left and right, and are also free to adopt the critiques of worldly power (and language) from those critiques in order to make the Gospel known. There will be Christians who, because of experience or observations of the world will be particularly attuned to the beastliness of capitalism and the worship of money and power, just as there will be Christians who will be attuned to the beastliness of ‘woke’ marxism and its deconstruction campaign. It serves nobody to label one side of that equation “antichrist” — so long as they’re not denying Father and Son in their politics.

If those on the right feel free to throw around “Cultural Marxism” as the greatest evil, they shouldn’t be surprised if those on the left throw around “Capitalism,” “systemic sin,” “systemic racism” or “black lives matter” in response. There’s a better way than the culture wars, inside or outside the church… The way of Jesus. Who calls us from all forms of idolatry, to have relationships redefined by a new form of worship and a new politics.

Why Christians must never acknowledge an altar to an unknown god

Mark Powell has responded to the responses to his piece about why Christians shouldn’t conduct acknowledgments of country. He’s responded, especially to Fr Daryl McCullough’s piece with the classic ‘double down.’

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.

Why Aussie churches should acknowledge country

We Presbyterians are, next time our General Assembly meets in three years, deciding whether or not Presbyterians should conduct acknowledgments of country, or facilitate welcomes to country, in Presbyterian Church events.

I think it’s a no brainer. Others, including the Reverend Mark Powell, disagree. Mark has rehashed his arguments against acknowledgments of country in a public forum over on Eternity News.

I vehemently disagree with Mark on this issue; which won’t surprise him because we disagree on most things. I think his piece in Eternity is the worst form of religious culture war propaganda (up there with his columns in the Spectator, which are typically just culture war fodder, rather than being explicitly religious). While there’s an ‘opposite’ position already published on Eternity, and while I’d love to hear from Aboriginal Christian Leaders like Brooke Prentis (who Mark names in his piece) and Aunty Jean Phillips (who has been exceptionally helpful to me in ways you can read about here), there is, I think, a place for a fellow Presbyterian Minister to respond (so someone who is definitely a university educated male, and highly likely to be white). I don’t think being male, middle class, educated, and white prohibits someone from having an opinion, or from being right, or from speaking — but I do think when a room of decision makers, like our assembly, is made up almost exclusively of one type of people (men), with a fairly homogenous (though not exclusively western) cultural background, the onus is on us to listen well to those not in the room, not just to each other. I remain optimistic that our denomination will land somewhere good on this issue. I find myself feeling like there’s a similar dynamic going on here that was at play in the same sex marriage debate, where the ‘political ends’ shape our engagement with others rather than pastoral and evangelistic ends; like Mark I believe politics is also a form of love, and an outworking of the Gospel, but I believe our politics are meant to be pastoral and evangelistic as we are ambassadors of Jesus, through whom God makes his appeal for all people to be reconciled to him. There’s a consistency between this Eternity article and what you’ll find in Mark’s pieces on the Spectator; there’s a fusion of a certain form of western individual liberalism, a syncretism even, with Christian theology. I often feel that Mark’s positions are more concerned about politics and winning a culture war (or converting people to a syncretised western individualism and an individualised Gospel), than they are about bringing people into the kingdom; there’s a degree to which to accept Mark’s vision of the truth you must accept his late modern political assumptions (that late modern politics has to some extent been shaped by a protestant form of Christianity is not lost on me).

Here are my arguments against Mark Powell’s arguments.

  1. For Aboriginal Christian Leaders, acknowledgments of country and welcomes to country mean nothing like what Powell insists they mean. Powell reads the culture, and these ‘cultural texts’ through a prism of Western individualism (that comes through in his argument), and an idiosyncratic theological grid. To impose either that social or theological grid on others without listening to them is the very worst of the colonial impulse. Mark would do well to listen to people like Brooke, or even those indigenous men and women serving in our denomination before telling indigenous people what these aspects of their culture actually means or represents. I’ll include an Acknowledgment of Country I wrote, in consultation with Brooke, for a wedding for someone from our church at the end.
  2. The Bible consistently connects identity to land; and has God appointing the boundaries in which different people live and are connected to land. Think Adam and Eve in the garden as ‘gardening’ stewards, Israel in the ‘promised land’ — whose fortunes were intertwined so that blessing would flow from the land to Israel if they were obedient and worshipped God, while the land would become harsh and unlivable if they worshipped idols. But also, this is a point Paul explicitly makes in Acts 17: “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.” Mark makes a very strange argument from the work of Manning Clark to refute this, but regardless of who the original custodians of this country were, Mark’s version of the history of European settlement is a troubling one that seems in part to be based on recognising that to make reparations would be expensive for individuals (who benefit from the historic dispossession of the occupants of this land), and institutions (though Mark’s western individualism is consistently applied here). The Bible consistently recognises the intergenerational cost of sin; from the ground being cursed because of Adam, to Israel in exile, to Pilate’s words about the blood of Jesus being on the heads of those who killed him and on futute generations. The Old Testament jubilee laws recognise an historic ‘birthright’ connection to country, and a corporate identity, closer to indigenous beliefs about connection to country than a western individual liberalism that turns land into something that individuals and corporations can own for perpetuity (not to mention foreign investment).
  3. The Bible has a sacramental, though not idolatrous, view of creation. To make all sacramental approaches to nature idolatrous is to throw out a whole bunch of baby with the bathwater; or to avoid the “abusus non tollit usum” principle (wrong use does not negate right use). If the divine nature and character of God are revealed from what has been made, and if the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, and if the Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by human hands but put people all over the world so that we might seek him; then those places that are recognised as beautiful, that thrust us towards the transcendent as they take our breath away are truly sacred, but also we should not be surprised that such places become ‘sacred’ in idolatrous systems. Regarding Mark’s treatment of Brooke in his piece, Brooke (who was recently appointed as the CEO of Common Grace) says she was drawing on Stan Grant’s observation that ‘the sporting field’ is the most sacred place in Australian culture; she wasn’t even making the theological point that I am.
  4. Acknowledgments of Country, or Welcomes to Country, especially those conducted by Christians, do not deny that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ — in fact they acknowledge that, and the role God gave humanity as stewards or custodians.
  5. Even if there are idolatrous forms of an Acknowledgment of Country or a Welcome to Country, and that is quite possible, there are lots of other idolatrous forms of things we westerners embrace; the Presbyterian Assembly, for example, took place in a church building with a metal archway entrance bearing the words ‘Lest We Forget’ with flagpoles carrying the Union Jack and the Australian flag (but no Indigenous flag).
  6. Even if there are idolatrous beliefs associated with traditional indigenous religion, as there are with every non Christian belief, it is possible for us, as Christians, to hear the existential cry of those practices and show how it is answered in the Gospel by participating in adapted forms of the cultural text or artefact. This, for example, is what Paul does in Athens as he introduces a new foreign God to a place searching for meaning through connection to the transcendent; Paul does this by following the cultural conventions for introducing a new God to the Areopagus in Athens (there’s a paper by Rev. Dr Bruce Winter that makes this case about the structure and content of Paul’s speech in Athens).
  7. There is, perhaps, very good reason historically, but also presently, that Presbyterian Churches are not known for having Indigenous membership that reflects the breakdown of the population in any given area. Many of these are structural — both around building design (our buildings feel ‘institutional’ (the ANZAC arch being a great example), and because of our forms of worship being quite western and structured. But our failure to listen, and indeed, our baptising of ‘not listening’ as something sacred where we came bringing the light of the Gospel such that we should not listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who bridge that cultural gap, insist that people leave their aboriginality behind to become Christians (while not leaving our western individualism and conservative culture war politics behind), seems to me to be a significant blocker to our ongoing witness in partnership with our indigenous brethren, and it stops us acknowledging the historic injustice that so many of out Aussie neighbours are now prepared to acknowledge. Plus, in a week where we’re seeing more ongoing horrific institutional abuse, including deaths in custody, it’s just massively tone deaf to be making such an argument now. It’s possible for us to walk and chew gum; so I’d love to see Mark make some acknowledgment that embodied practices of sin, by individuals and communities and institutions end up affecting systems so that we can speak of systemic sin and its implications on different groups of people within our community. I’d love to hear him explain how deaths in custody emerged as a problem ex nihilo.
  8. Conducting theologically thoughtful acknowledgments of country that articulate Biblical truths is not ‘syncretism’ but an invitation for our community to connect its desire for justice, a connection to country, and a desire for reconciliation to the one in whom God is reconciling all things. The Lord Jesus. We don’t lose anything by taking a form of communication that is not inherently idolatrous, and like Israel with Egyptian gold, and Augustine with oratory, using that gold to preach truth about Christ. An acknowledgment of country is not a golden calf, but a sometimes idolatrous expression of our humanity, that can also be used to connect people with the truth about our creator; as some of our own indigenous poets have said… (Which is, of course, how Paul engages with Stoic philosophy while in Athens).

It’s not that hard to do this. Here’s the wording of an acknowledgment of country I put together listening to Brooke Prentis, reproduced with her permission. I’d love to hear more about how this is awful pagan syncretism… or actually, I wouldn’t.

“We would like to acknowledge the ____ people who are those appointed by God as the traditional custodians of this land — both within the area called ______, which we know as _____, and of this nation.

We would like to pay our respect to Elders past and present of the _____ nation for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, and we extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and those future generations who we pray will continue this task, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.“

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