Tag: public Christianity

Revelation: whose heaven on earth project?

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes.

If you were brought before someone and asked to stand for Jesus or die, would you do it?

That is the situation facing the earliest readers of this letter. Remember, it becomes official Roman policy to execute anyone who refuses to worship Caesar; to fall before him. This is how Pliny describes his procedure to the Emperor Trajan:

“I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.”

Would you stand for Jesus if you were confronted by the beastly power of Rome? What about in the beastly empires from Daniel?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen this theme of beastliness at work in any empire and kingdoms opposed to God’s rule.

Do you think you could stand for God in the pressure cooker of these empires? Like beastly Neduchadnezzar, who commanded worship of his image with the threat of fire (Daniel 3:5-6).

Or beastly Darius the Mede, with the threat of lions or beasts; the famous Daniel in the lions’ den story (Daniel 6:7).

Would you worship the empire, or worship God?

I know what we like to think. We would like to think we would stand.

But what about when that command is coupled with the bright lights and the big city?

The ‘heaven on earth’ offered in the gardens of Babylon? Or the peace of Rome?

The food, the parties, the feasting of the senses, the sex, the promises on offer if you leave the safety of your family home and set out on a big adventure into the city to discover your true self?

The bright lights of our own garden city, and its (food) courts [note: this is clever because our local Westfield was, until recently, named Garden City], and its promise of fulfillment if we buy and sell and work and participate in an economy that is seeking heaven on earth.

Temples were little ‘heavens on earth’ wherever you went, and we still have temples. Garden cities offering a vision of heaven to us if we will just buy into a system of worship.

And now we can do this online too.

The theologian William Cavanaugh wrote a book called Being Consumed, it is great, and so is this article about Amazon as an idolatrous empire. He talks about the way Amazon dehumanizes people, it commodifies by disguising the human involvement in our purchases. We just see the thing, and its price, and have no idea who made the thing, delivered the thing, or even packed it in the warehouse, and we do not care.

Amazon does not even have warehouses; it has fulfillment centers. An interesting choice of words.

Garden city. Fulfillment centers. These are little attempts to build heavens.

But, workers in those centers, like other real workers behind our digital heavens, like the people who decide what images are too much for us to see, these workers are invisible. And Amazon wants its human workers to act like machines. They have even patented an electronic wristband that will monitor efficiency, setting timed goals for them to go through the motions; like machines; like animals. Inhuman.

To serve those in the kingdom, who are the haves, the buyers, the consumers. These workers are probably enmeshed in the system too, using their pay to buy more stuff from Amazon.

It is like the story of the prodigal son and the way he is drawn by the bright lights but ends up living with the pigs and eating their food.

And this is all to fund Jeff Bezos’ dream to create a heavenly future, away from the earth, where we all live in utopian communities on spaceships built and serviced by Amazon. And then there is the idea of digital paradise that is becoming more and more real, especially this week with Facebook’s launching of its little digital heaven. The metaverse.

I do not know if you saw the promos, but the idea is we can escape and be our true selves in these paradise-like virtual environments, and maybe one day we will be able to digitize our brains and live forever in a computer.

And this sort of utopia is a vision perpetuated by every technology ad that tells the story that we can build heaven either on earth or escape to a virtual heaven. One of Facebook’s Meta promos even has a predator lying down with prey, or a weird two-headed beast from Revelation; you decide.

Either way, it is apocalyptic imagery. But as we will see today, this is also because fake kingdoms like Fakebook present fake heavens as part of their appeal. When a beastly empire comes knocking, it is not just with the threat of the sword, but these false heavens, with their beautiful beastly cities and their false messiahs.

Will you stand? No matter the cost, no matter what it means missing out on?

Will you be a faithful witness?

Like these two witnesses, who stand and speak for God, prophecy, dressed in sackcloth, dressed for mourning, not glory.

The Greek word for witness here is martyr (Revelation 12:3). Two martyrs.

John calls them two olive trees (Revelation 11:4). Two lampstands standing before the Lord. Now, there is rich Old Testament background both for olive trees and lampstands, but John has already pointed his lens at some lampstands to tell us who they are.

Remember, this is a letter to seven churches (Revelation 1:4). And in the opening of the letter, there are seven lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13). John tells us they are the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). And, when Jesus addresses these seven churches, he says the ones who do not hear and respond, instead of blessing, they will receive curse. Their lampstands will be removed from God’s presence; they will be exiled (Revelation 2:5). Jesus, through John, calls five churches to repent (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22, 3:3, 19), while he tells two churches to keep holding on, keep being faithful, while beastly forces push against them (Revelation 2:10, 3:11).

Revelation is asking that same question we are asking ourselves today. Will you stand in the pressure cooker of the big city, the false heaven, the beasts surrounding you. Will you speak for God? Now John points the camera at two faithful churches living in the bright lights and big cities of the beastly kingdom of Satan, with all their false heavenly allure and power.

Where these faithful witnesses give their testimony. Prophecying about Jesus.

And when they finish, the beast roars out of the abyss and kills them (Revelation 11:7).

And you have heard about Christianity in the public square. This is what it looks like when truth is made public; not worldly power, but crucifixion (Revelation 11:8).

This is part of our testimony in the public square, martyrdom, being killed, just like Jesus, not living or politicking like the kingdoms of this world, but like Jesus. John sees this in the great city, figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, cities in the Old Testament, that were enemies of God and his kingdom, and experienced his judgment, fire from heaven, plagues, the Passover (Revelation 11:8).

Only this time, the great city is where Jesus was crucified. Here John is identifying Jerusalem, because of its rejection of the Messiah, and the judgment that brought, with the beastly cities of the world. He will go on to talk about the great city of Rome, the new Babylon, and so he is painting Jerusalem as just like these cities, as being in bed with beastly powers. Which is what we see in John’s account of the crucifixion.

It is interesting to read this through the Revelation lens.

Jesus, on trial, declares his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). It is not like the beastly kingdoms of the world, because, if it was, his people would have taken up swords to prevent his arrest by the Jewish leaders. There is an implication that they are of the beastly system here. Jesus’ kingdom comes from elsewhere.

And then the Jewish leaders are the ones who drive the crucifixion even when Rome’s political authority, Pilate, is looking for a way out (John 19:7).

They want Jesus killed because he claims to be the Son of God, and they cannot lose their hold on power or influence, their place in the big city of the world.

Still, Pilate wants to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders keep shouting, and they appeal to beastly human power (John 19:12). If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar. “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When crunch time came, these leaders of God’s people did not stand and worship God.

They did not prophecy about the Messiah.

They proclaimed Caesar as king (John 19:15-16). It is clear which empire they belong to, which king they serve. What God they worship.

These leaders chose to stand with Caesar. To be friends with Caesar; friends with the world; friends with Satan.

And so, those who stand with Jesus can expect to be treated like our king.

The bodies of these witnesses become a spectacle in the midst of a celebration, a fake heavenly party. There is the giving of gifts (Revelation 11:8).

There are people from every tribe, language, and nation, coming together in a celebration of beastliness; the kingdom of the earth and its vision of heaven. Babylonian heaven. Roman heaven. Beastly heaven.

Instead of gathering around the slain lamb like in Revelation 7:9, these inhabitants of the beast’s kingdom gather round his prey, slain Christians, and celebrate in a beastly parody of heaven; a scene we will see repeat in chapter 13.

The city of God, the city of peace, Jerusalem, has become the city of Satan, and death. It needs renewal.

And indeed, John pictures that renewal coming. The journey to the new Jerusalem begins with the resurrection and recreation of God’s faithful people secured by his victory and the day of the Lord. Salvation and judgment.

The faithful witnesses do not stay dead. They are vindicated (Revelation 11:11-12).

They are re-created by the breath of life from God. They stand up again. They are glorified in the face of their enemies, and in John’s vision, there is an announcement.

The kingdom of the world has been replaced by the kingdom not of this world (Revelation 11:15).

But when does this happen?

Is this a future point about some future church, the church in the last days, or is it a picture of reality for every faithful church living in the world marked by Jesus’ victory and awaiting his return?

That is the million-dollar question, and yet, I think Revelation has already answered it in its picture of God and the slain lamb ruling from the throne, and the glorious Son of Man having entered the heavenly courts as king. It has become this.

John wants faithful churches who hang on to Jesus and anticipate life in his city, in the new Jerusalem, to know that this future is already secure, that we are already raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realm. That Jesus already reigns as king (Revelation 11:17). That judgment has already fallen on Jerusalem, that it did at the cross, and in the way the temple curtain was torn, and in the way the day of the Lord came when God’s glorious presence was poured out on people through the Holy Spirit arriving to unite us to Jesus and raise us with him, and in the way it also came for the Gentiles, because Jesus is now king of kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus is both Lord and King and Judge, and faithful witnesses secure rewards, while those who oppose God face judgment. Destruction. Not simply for persecuting God’s people but even for the beastly way of life that destroys the earth (Revelation 11:18).

Now, John turns the camera on these beastly kingdoms.

We meet these new characters, and it is a little cosmic retelling of the story of the Bible, centered on the birth of a chosen king and the defeat of Satan.

It is a Christmas story like you have never heard it before. Make sure you have got a dragon in your nativity scene this year. Because we meet this pregnant woman with 12 stars on her head, and when you see the number 12, think Israel pictured as God’s glorious people, a bride even, clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1).

This is a picture of Israel, pregnant, ready to deliver God’s chosen king to the world.

And she is met, in her labor, by an enormous red dragon, and when we see crowns and horns, their symbols of power and authority (Revelation 12:3).

This dragon is beastly, and like Herod when Jesus was born, or Pharaoh when Moses was born, he is ready to devour this child. That is beastly, right, the moment it is born (Revelation 12:4).

He knows what is at stake if his rule is challenged.

And Israel gives birth to a promised king who will rule all the nations as the prophets promised, and before Satan can sink his teeth in, this child finds himself in God’s throne room (Revelation 12:5).

And that seals the defeat of Satan — the ascension of this king — restoring people of every tribe, tongue, and nation, back to life with God — this ends the power and dominion of Satan (Revelation 12:9).

In John’s vision, this has happened.

The dragon has been hurled down — like lightning — the kingdom of God and his king, the Messiah, has come with salvation and power because Satan has been defeated, and all people can come home (Revelation 12:10).

And how did it happen? How was this heavenly victory won?

By the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11).

Just when it looked like Satan’s minions in Rome and Jerusalem were getting together to kill Jesus and win, they lose.

And how does this victory keep being hammered home?

By the word of the testimony of the faithful people of God who are prepared to bear witness even to the point of death.

And so now, it is not party time in Jerusalem, in a false city of false gods, offering a false heaven — over the death of the faithful witnesses. Now it is party time in the heavens.

And trouble for those who might fall victim to the lure of a defeated dragon and his empty promises about power and glory.

He is on borrowed time. A dead dragon walking.

And what is the call to those of us who live here on the earth and believe that the lamb has won? That he rules on the throne? While this dragon thrashes about and wages war on God’s people — trying to devour us? Hold fast to your testimony about Jesus (Revelation 12:17).

Hold on.

Stand.

When the pressure comes — whether from the sword or the carrot — the lure of false worship, or false heavenly cities — hold on.

Be the two lampstands. The faithful church. Even to the point of death (Revelation 11:4).

Will you stand?

Because beastly empires are going to make it hard. They are going to come for you. They might even hurt you.

But you know what hurts more? Letting go.

John turns the lens on these beasties and invites us to see what is at stake here. He wants us to see the powers and principalities in this world that are not of the kingdom of heaven, but the kingdom of the world — the violent, grasping, dominion systems that dehumanize and devour — even as we worship beastly things that conform us into their image — he wants us to see them as they are, and to stand against them as we stand for Jesus.

So we see these beasts coming out in service of the dragon. First, a beast from the sea. It has ten horns and crowns — just like the dragon — a picture of power, and each head with its crown has a blasphemous name (Revelation 13:1). Each crowned head proclaims itself a false god; a false Messiah. Each invites us to be ruled by someone other than Jesus.

It is beastly — like the beasts in the Old Testament — and it is given its power, and throne, and authority, by the dragon (Revelation 13:2).

Satan gives these kingdoms power to oppose God — he backs their blasphemy.

And remember a few weeks back we looked at how Revelation might work like a lens that helps us look at the world, rather than a code that helps us to see direct links to people; the rubber hits the road on this here.

I think it is a lens that helps us see worldly kingdoms opposed to Jesus as they really are — tools of Satan — but that this lens worked for its first audience as well, and it works for us when we see how it unveiled the powers and principalities at work in the life of the first readers.

And so while I think there is reason to be suspicious about some readings of Revelation that see Rome everywhere through odd mathematical stuff and weird reconstructions around Nero’s death and fears he might return, there are plenty of direct links without having to get out a decoder ring.

Because what is it that reveals that something is beastly or satanic?

It is when people worship these powers or systems or kings instead of Jesus, because of their incredible might, “who can wage war against it” (Revelation 13:4)? Who can resist?

It is empires and systems that are blasphemous — that do not simply operate to bring order and goodness to the world, restraining evil, but that claim the place of God, even through good intentions — slandering His name, and His dwelling place, while trying to set up utopian visions of heaven and heavenly cities without God in the mix (Revelation 13:6).

It is the people who want Eden, only without the presence of God — where actually the presence of God is what makes Eden, Eden.

It is those kingdoms built around shared loves and shared visions of the good life that exclude the lamb — and so inevitably choose violence, like the kingdoms of the world, rather than sacrificial love, like the kingdom of the Lamb who was slain before the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8).

And the message of Revelation is that to choose the beast is to go into captivity — into exile — out of Eden — to not be God’s kingdom and priests — but to be destroyed by the sword (Revelation 13:10).

To be devoured by the devourer — but more than that, to be judged by the one who defeated and will judge the devourer.

And so the faithful witnesses are those who stand.

Those who endure.

Those prepared to be outcasts — humiliated — executed in the public square, in order to bear testimony to the lamb who was slain (Revelation 13:10).

That was the message to the faithful churches… remember…

Be faithful and hold on (Revelation 2:10, 3:11).

Stand.

And then there is a second beast — and this maybe is the one that is the most famous bit of Revelation. This beast from the earth that looks a bit like a lamb, but speaks like a dragon — which I think is again a picture of how much fake kings will set themselves up to mimic the real king, while being serpent-tongued (Revelation 13:11).

So, it can be hard to spot the beastliness if you are not careful.

This second beast makes everyone worship the first beast — it orders them to set up an image to be worshipped — it gives life to the image the way God gave life to people (Revelation 13:14-15).

There are all sorts of possible fits for this beasty for its first readers — lots of commentators identify the first one as Roman political power — the crowned heads with blasphemous names as the emperors — and then this second beast as the imperial cult. Other people see the first beast as Rome’s political power — secured by the sword — and the second as Rome’s economic power.In either case, the idea is that you cannot buy or sell or participate in the heaven-like city of the kingdom without worshipping the king, and John is exposing this heavenly vision for what it is; beastly.

And inviting us to carry the name of the beast, as worshippers, or the name of the lamb, as the people of God who worship him.

Rome is definitely defining the experience of the first readers — but I think we make it too much of a code, and not enough ‘lens’ if we think it is all about Caesar and laws around who can buy and sell in the marketplace using coins with his head on them…

That is a type of beastliness, but it is the political manifestation of a bigger spiritual reality that we will get while the dragon thrashes about.

I think there is a sense that all those forms of power were so deeply embedded, that is the point — but there is also some cosmic stuff going on with these two beasts — they are a bit like the sea and land beasts — Leviathan and Behemoth we see in Job (Job 40:15, 41:1); pictures of the cosmic powers and principalities that we cannot reign in, but that only God can; pictures of the intersection between the spiritual world, idolatry, and the political systems that all creates.

In Job, these big strong beastly powers could only be controlled — defeated — by God himself; its strength was beyond us, and yet puny for God (Job 40:19).

In Jewish thought — and these beasties get quite a bit of airtime in Jewish religious writings outside the Bible — these two beasts were symbolic of the powers of evil, and God was going to destroy them in the final judgment, and this is also part of Isaiah’s vision of the day of the Lord.

God bringing his sword against Leviathan, the gliding serpent monster of the sea — the chaos beasty (Isaiah 27:1).

There is even a belief in the Jewish religious texts that these beasts will be what gets eaten at the feast of celebration that happens; God’s big banquet; his celebration of the undoing of beastliness at the wedding supper of the lamb.

So it might be better not to think of the beasts as Rome, and its emperors, but that John is trying to help us see how Rome and its empire, with all its false worship, is just another in a long line of political regimes animated by this sort of serpentine, beastly, force, and to see these forces all being brought to heel by God through his victorious king.

So what happens when we look at the world through this lens?

When beastly empires want to throw Christians to the lions? Or the fire.

Or kill anyone who will not join their worship?

Where do these forces work for us?

I think they are at work in any political, social, or economic situation — any city or agenda — that offers a false vision of heaven, with false messiahs — false kings, or saviors, with promises that we can take part in that economy if we just worship that way, if we just give ourselves.

It is in the metaverse, or the eschatological vision of Jeff Bezos and others who think we can build heavenly cities — here, and in space, using human ingenuity…

It is the bright lights of the garden city — the promises of advertisers and corporations that they are the path to your happiness if you just consume; devour; destroy the earth —

The new idolatry that invites us to experience satisfaction — build our own little heavens — at the click of a button.

Seeking fulfillment while dehumanizing the people on the other end of the mouse click — turning them into beasts, or robot-like drones who service our desires.

It is the invitation to end up being beastly, dining with the pigs — rather than glorious, dining with the lamb.

It is in the political forces at work in our world — not just in countries where owning the name of Jesus leads to death, but where being faithful leads to ridicule or persecution in the public square; the pressure to conform to the world’s view of sex, or money, or power, or progress, or growth, or politics, to chase Leviathan, and become beastly.

If we can avoid letting go of Jesus to grab these beastly regimes, then we might become faithful witnesses.

We might become martyrs; those who testify to the crucified king as those living in their false heavens pursuing a false Eden — a garden city — without the gardener king mock us, and perhaps persecute us.

If the persecution is not happening — then that is something to be thankful for, but maybe we should also ask if it is not happening because we are not being faithful? If it is not happening because we are being lukewarm?

Marty mcflies and ACL goes back to the future

Martyn Iles is no longer the CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Now. You’ll know I have form for criticising both the ACL and Martyn; but this all feels like a world gone mad.

Martyn, for all his faults, has done a commendable job articulating how his politics is a product of his faith.

Martyn and I have different political priorities, and, often, it seems our faith falls along different poles within a set of Christian convictions. I think this table I made a while back still holds up, which is to say I suspect we have different anthropologies, eschatologies and emphasis when it comes to the Gospel itself. This means I often find myself not agreeing with his theological statements or his political positions, or the manner in which he presents these positions.

Martyn did a good job articulating his understanding of the Gospel, under fire, while playing with the card deck he’d built (and inherited) when he fronted up on Q&A. I went along to last year’s Church and State conference, where Martyn spoke about Babylon (ahead of a sellout national tour), where I thought his sermon was actually quite good (and reasonably similar to what I might say about Babylon; except most of his ideological enemies were on the Left, rather than the neo-liberal order driving late capitalism that underpins both left and right).

I’ve been very critical of Martyn’s apparent ‘theology of glory‘ — and its application to his political strategy; including a pragmatism that saw him endorse One Nation, his excitement about Kanye (and celebrities/platforms in general), and his cosying up to Israel Folau at the expense of being both pastoral and correct when talking about how God views gay people (not what obedience to Jesus for gay people will look like) and at caring about the Trinity. He’s also been included in articles I’ve written here and elsewhere expressing concern about how the culture war metaphor legitimises violence.

If you want a eulogy of Martyn’s performance you can read Stephen McAlpine’s glowing review; he makes the point that people talking about Martyn always seem to want to disclaim how different they are to Martyn — and I’m no different — Stephen plonks himself a whole lot closer to Martyn in politics, theology, and fashion than I do (jeans and an untucked t-shirt from K-Mart will do for me).

And here’s a potential rub — Martyn has been a great ally for people like Stephen, and for people who share his politics. He absolutely would courageously back Stephen if Stephen were to come under fire for his beliefs, and he’d back a variety of people he disagreed with, I’m sure. But there are limits. He’ll have coffee with Stephen, but he’ll block those who publicly criticise or question his theology or politics.

Martyn was prepared to cop flack from the more radical element of his support over his stance on Putin and the Ukraine. But, on the whole, his public courage has predictably aligned with his increasingly large constituency; it’s easy to have courage when you’re selling out stadium shows (even if those are being cancelled by venues); it’s harder to stand with courage when staring down your base, or your own community.

This’s where I’m not sure Stephen’s waxing lyrical (and I’m sure he was also dressed beautifully as he wrote) fully captures the dynamic; it’s easy to criticise flat track bullies for being bold on home turf when you’ve got a bunch of people who’ll back you. Try being a same sex attracted Christian in a conservative setting raising concerns about the knee-jerk support Folau received for a post that appeared to condemn them to hell, or someone listening to those voices and speaking up in various institutional settings.

It actually takes more courage — and fortitude — to stand up for the people who won’t build your personality cult within the Christian community, who also get smashed by the world, than it does to stand up against the world while gathering a loyal following (read the outpouring of grief around Martyn’s departure on the various conservative social media channels).

Martyn was a great ally for Israel Folau, while he was posting anti-gay material from a U.S hate group — a meme he shared as a millionaire footballer that conveniently dropped greed from the list of sins that lead to hell. He also leveraged the Israel (Folau) situation to significantly boost the coffers and reach of the ACL, like a good U.S zionist has always leveraged Israel for its coffers. The ACL came out ahead from its advocacy of a heterodox millionaire’s hate speech simply because that speech aligned with a traditional Biblical sexual ethic, and a culture war narrative.

The catch is, Martyn wasn’t a great ally for the sections of the church who dared criticise his work or threaten his personality cult; regularly deleting critical engagements on social media and blocking people (including deleting a series of questions from John Dickson at one point).

He wasn’t a great ally for concerned mums of Wallabies with Pacific Island heritage who went to great lengths to demonstrate Folau’s heterodoxy, and who sought on several occasions to raise her concerns directly with Martyn (only to be dismissed, by him, as being on the payroll of Australian Rugby).

He hasn’t been a great ally to Christians whose politics are left of a hard right who seem to just want the freedom to kick out gay students and sack gay teachers — even if those teachers uphold a traditional sexual ethic and can sign off on a belief statement (and yes, those teachers do exist, it’s not just teachers departing from orthodoxy who find themselves booted by Christian schools).

I haven’t seen the HRLC (the ACL’s legal arm, that Martyn started out with) taking up the cause of celibate gay Christians losing their employment with Christian employers, or non-binary students working out their faith in Christian schools; he’s been a voice for establishment (conservative) values in the face of progressive change. I haven’t seen the compassionate or pastoral tone Martyn might have when engaging with individuals for whom these are lived experiences translating into a political stance. Early on in my blogging about public Christianity, I wanted public Christianity to be evangelistic with its use of the Gospel — and Martyn ticked that box — over time I’ve evolved (partly through doing more pastoral work with the people affected by our public positions) to a position where I think public Christianity needs to be both evangelistic and pastoral with its use of the Gospel. It’s hard to be pastoral when you’re fighting a culture war that seems to be pitted against the very individuals you’re talking about.

And that’s fine — that was the job — as Martyn understood it; to champion a certain political vision, and he did that well. It just turns out it wasn’t to the satisfaction of his organisation’s board, or the direction they want to head. They do seem to want to leave Marty behind, grab their Delorean (there’s maybe a podcast they could listen to on the way, right Stephen), and head back to the future.

My criticism of the ACL predates Martyn. For years prior to Martyn taking the centre stage my criticism of the ACL was that there was nothing particularly Christian about their politics; there was nothing explicitly Christian in the cases they made for the causes they pursued. There’s something self-indulgent about all these links to my own writing; I get that — but one of the bonuses of maintaining a blog like this for so long is that you can use it to track bits of the online conversation I was tapping into, and there is something interesting here, because if there’s one thing I’ve managed to do over the years with my writing, it’s get under the skin of the ACL and those who champion its approach.

In 2011 I made this word cloud using ACL press releases, pleading for them to make it clear how the Gospel shaped their politics.

It will be a tragedy to a public Christian witness if we land back with the most prominent voice for Australian Christianity in the political realm speaking like Focus on the Family.

In 2012 I wrote one piece outlining a series of problems I had with the ACL’s public relations strategy, and another piece suggesting advocacy can be Christian, while lobbying buys into a certain sort of power game — and that the ACL should change every part of its name.

In 2017, I suggested this sort of strategy, making politics secular, would only enforce the secular frame we’re operating in, and that we should be overtly religious and ask for our convictions to be accommodated in a pluralist secular democracy.

My point is this — my criticism of the past, and now maybe the future, version of the ACL was that they embraced a strategy of not talking about Jesus.

And criticising the ACL back then went down with the ACL’s constituency about as well as criticising Martyn does now. People who were fans of the ACL before Martyn, who became bigger fans of Martyn, were very critical of this criticism; the ACL, I was told, were meant to be politically successful and to introduce theology into the mix would be inappropriate. There’s a culture within the supporters of these organisations and their leaders that tends to fall in line with, and not question, the strategy, and to see questions as a threat.

Those same people are now saying that Martyn’s introduction of Christian language and rationale — the Gospel even (as he understands it) into the ACL’s platform has been a masterstroke.

That’s pretty fickle.

Martyn did bring a deliberate change in direction; a longform interview on Eternity unpacked some of his thinking. The change in direction was palpable, in a post about the way they were now explicitly talking about the Gospel with their politics from 2018, I wrote:

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

“For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).”

But this change has become part of his undoing.

Just as Lyle Shelton had the integrity to lead the Australian Conservative Lobby to join the Australian Conservatives, Martyn has recognised that his desire is to preach the Gospel as his political posture, so it seems the ACL board has terminated Martyn’s employment in order to pursue a change in strategic direction.

Under Martyn’s leadership the ACL has become massively more popular with the Christian constituency they represent but massively less popular (by reports I’ve heard from those engaged in other lobbying work in Canberra) with the politicians whose doors are now closed to the ACL. To borrow Stephen’s analogy, but flip it — Martyn’s great at bowling in home conditions, but he’s not taking wickets where it counts for the ACL; legislative change on the issues the ACL board cares about. I actually suspect that the problem isn’t the explicitly Christian stuff, but the shift in focus from the corridors of power to being a populist movement holding rallies and marches attempting to put pressure on politicians with no relationship building.

This has always been the truth about the ACL — they are not the Christian Lobby — they are an Australian Christian Lobby, for a very narrow Christian morality on the basis of their own theological and political framework. The church is broader than the ACL’s policy agenda.

I absolutely believe Martyn operates from his convictions, and so do the board members of the ACL.

My issue is the degree to which someone with very particular convictions — or an organisation with those convictions — can claim to represent a very broad Christian church, and I believe the questions facing us all at this point are not “team Martyn or team ACL” — which of these two options is the correct strategy; that’s to accept a false binary.

Now’s a time to ask some bigger questions about our public Christianity.

We could ask how could we create a public facing organisation that acknowledges the breadth of views in Christian institutions — that fosters collaboration, rather than alienation. We could ask how could we train and equip institutional church voices (a constituency Martyn, with his anarchic brethren tendencies, seemed to deliberately work around (and sometimes against) to collaborate in gaining a hearing as legislation that affects us, and our neighbours, is framed.

We could we encourage all Christians to integrate their faith and politics as we participate in public — not just those conservative youth interested in the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, or The Download — programs that fired up a right-wing Christian base as the only option — and we could maybe work at reducing polarisation and finding common cause across the Christian right and left.

We could maybe ask what would it look like for Christians to be known what we’re for, in public, not just what we’re against (or that we’re ‘for’ ourselves); what it would look like to pursue progress towards a good future, not just conserve the bits of the past we can cling to. To that end, I’d recommend following Publica, an emerging expression of public Christianity aiming to do that.

It’d be great if that was ‘how to be pastoral and evangelistic’; but it won’t be. That’s not how this constituency seems to roll. It’s not where the money and power is. But for rank and file Christians — even conservatives — maybe we could imagine a new future — one where we don’t need a time machine.

Be good for winsomeness sake

The winsomeness discussion continues rolling on, with Stephen McAlpine declaring it the “Christian word of the year” for 2022. It’s a post worth reading and engaging with even if the debate over a virtue continues to confound me (I’m very much in the “winsomeness is a stance, not a strategy” camp).

“The big take away for 2022 is how Christians can engage in the public square in a way that is winsome. And if that is even possible. And of course the big question: Is winsome a strategy or a stance? We haven’t decided yet. We haven’t decided what winsome actually means. Does it mean speaking the truth in love? And when we’re told that certain truths that Christians hold can’t be loving in the first place, then we’re being told that we’re masking hate in love language. Where does winsome land in all of that?”

I want to offer a two-pronged rejoinder to Stephen’s post — and to the discussion. First up, you’d be forgiven if joining the current discussion around the word “winsome” for thinking it’s a totally new appellation for a strategy Christians have never had to embrace before the culture turned hostile.

Stephen asks:

“As the culture wars roll on, (and on and on) and Christians find themselves in the firing line on ethical matters, is winsome is our ticket out of this? That’s a great question to ask, if only we could decide what winsome actually looks like.”

It is a great question to ask — but it begs a couple of questions, first, are people advocating winsomeness seeing it as a “ticket out of this” firing line (or simply obedience to the Messiah who was met with the equivalent of a first century firing squad), and second, is winsomeness such a new concept we can’t actually understand what it means?

I’m sure some people are seeing winsomeness in utilitarian terms; thinking it’ll soften the blow if we’re nice — Stephen kinda assumes that’s why people do it when he unpacks the response to Tish Harrison Warren’s New York Times piece advocating pluralism that was hammered by an intolerant web-commentariat. But there’s a long history of arguing that winsomeness is a catchall heading for a Christlike virtuous life that seeks to make the Gospel beautiful; that it’s a way to describe a life shaped by the fruit of the Spirit, or cruciformity, in a crucifying world. And I’m not sure how helpful it is to simply assume the debate can be reframed away from the historical context that gave rise to the word.

I also think we have bigger fish to fry — and that’s the second prong of my rejoinder.

The first wave of winsomeness

I was keen to dig in, a little bit, to the history of usage of the word “winsome” — so I used Google ngram to get a sense of when, exactly, it became a part of published discourse. We’re not even at peak winsome — we’re in the midst of a second wave.

It does turn out that lots of the early usage is connected to some Scottish poem, reprinted a number of times over the years, and others seem to be connected to romance novels. But I’ve found some compelling evidence that winsome was being used before the culture wars — back in the 1950s at least — to describe a stance (not a strategy).

In this book Winsome Christianity by Henry Durbanville, published in 1952. Here’s the preface. Notice its emphasis on character.

Character is consolidated habit and is ever tending to permanence,” says Joseph Cook; and the saying is one of the greatest that has fallen from the lips of man. The traits of character that are spoken of in this little book are those which, if they be diligently cultivated and assiduously practised,. will ennoble the humblest life, filling it with radiant gladness and making it eminently useful. Thus refreshed and enriched, Christian men and women will, as they journey through this world to the ” Land that is fairer than day “, become true and effective witnesses to the grace of the Lord Jesus: like Abraham of old they will themselves be blessed and be a blessing to others.

And, here’s a screenshot of the table of contents.

If these character traits were the right thing to do (virtue) back in 1952, in the ‘golden days’ of modernist Christendom then they’re still the right thing to do today; to suggest these character traits were simply a strategy — or are a failed strategy — because the cultural context has changed is to assess character on the basis of utility rather than virtue (or our telos as bearers of the divine image). But I reckon this also suggests the “winsomeness” thing isn’t a fad, it’s a word that has been used to encompass these virtues (and the fruit of the Spirit) for at least 70 years.

Durbanville spends time in his Christlikeness chapter encouraging believers to develop a roselike fragrance of Christlikeness that is consistent in every sphere of life (it’s a stance, not a strategy, or perhaps more than a ‘stance’ that one adopts; it’s meant to be character so embedded in our lives that to present ourselves with integrity is to have these qualities on display in our lives). Christians — whether in public or private — should probably have integrity such that the character of Jesus is on display in us whether that’s a great stance or strategy, and regardless of the audience.

Our King has promised not only to visit us, but also to abide with us (John 14. 23). Is the fragrance of His presence diffused from us day by day ? If so, we shall be following in the footsteps of Paul who said : ” For to me to live is Christ “… There is one other thing which we would do well to note, namely, that a fragrance is the same everywhere. “He makes my life a constant pageant of triumph in Christ, diffusing the perfume of His knowledge everywhere by me” (2nd Corinthians 4, Moffatt). A rose smells as sweetly in the kitchen as in the drawing room; in the house of business as in the prayer meeting; on the playground as in the sanctuary.”

And earlier…

In March 1918, during World War 1, in the journal, The Congregationalist and Advance, in a section titled “In the Congregational Circle,” there’s a prayer recorded that says:

“O God, who in all times hast touched human lives with thoughts of thy kingdom of love, who even in the moments when that vision faded in defeat hast sustained those for whom it appeared, thou who wast in Jesus reconciling our world of error and sin with thy great glory and love suffer us not to forsake the hopes and visions of thy kingdom. Today when many would conclude that the kingdom which Jesus saw will never come, when followers of Jesus are entering into his own experience of defeat and of hope denied, grant us his steady confidence, his faith. Give us the grace to continue winsome and cheery, able still to bear light and love to all who have waited overlong. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

How curious to pray that Christians might continue bearing witness in a world marked by suffering. That’s a modern fad. Of course.

We can go further back. To 1906. To a journal called The Religious Telescope.

On page 75, in an editorial, there’s a paragraph that reads:

“Winsome Christians are a godsend to a church. There are too many sour-faced, solemn Christians in the Church. Fault finding, evil speaking, criticism — these are the shadows that creep over a congregation, embittering the pastor’s heart. Be a winsome Christian in the church circle. Say nice things about people. Talk up the church work and workers. Tell the pastor that his sermon helped you. Give people credit for what they are trying to do. Winsomeness is contagious. It catches like a smile and passes from one to another. The church is too funereal in its services and arrangements. It needs more sunshine and song. Be winsome in church work.”

Winsome Christianity in the 1800s

Working further back… I’m a bit hesitant to share this one, because so many of the ‘anti-winsome’ brigade are against the ‘feminisation’ of Christianity, or ‘beta males’ or whatever, and I’ve got problems with the reduction of women’s ministry to ‘mothercraft,’ but in the magazine Lutheran Witness, in 1893, in a section titled “Christian Motherhood,” you can read this paragraph.

“You may fancy that the play-house is a safe school of morals and that the ball room is a safe school of refinement of manners; but if your daughters shall have learned quite too many things in those schools how will you like the apparel that you made for them? Remember that you are making the coat of character for your children. If you fashion it after a worldly pattern, then they may be poisoned with worldliness; but if you devoutly seek first for them the kingdom of Christ and his righteousness, and if you draw them by the powerful traction of a lovable, winsome Christian example, then you may hope to see them arrayed in the beauty of holiness.”

Again, winsomeness is being presented as a virtue — not a strategy (though, again, what you win people with, you win them to. Virtue is our strategy).

We can go further back, again, to a book, Winsome Christianity, published in 1882 by Richard Glover. It’s digitised on Google Books, and here’s its table of contents.

Again, a list of character traits, grounded in his observations about the character of God, in part as revealed in the person of Christ.

In his opening chapter Glover says:

“I do not mean by the title of this book to discuss so much the abstract beauty of Christianity, as the beauty of it when it is worthily embodied in the lives and character of Christians. In itself, of course, Christianity must be the most lovely and winsome thing the world has ever seen or ever will see. It is the highest and most perfect of all the works that God has created and made, and the lowest of which he pronounced very good. It is the flower or the fruit of all that has gone before.”

He goes on to say, of this beauty, that there are two chief ways it is made manifest in the world:

“One is by preaching, and the other is by the practical exhibition of it in the lives of its professors and disciples.”

And, subsequently:

“It will now be perceived then that what we mean by “Winsome Christianity” is the practical exhibition of Christianity before the world in an attractive and winning form. We do not intend to suggest by such a title “any other gospel than that we have received;” nor that the latter should be denuded of its essentials so as to accommodate it to man’s vaunted moral sense, as so many are attempting to do in our day.

Neither have we any wish to rob it of any of those elements which tend to make it more or less repugnant to sinful men, nor even to keep these in the background in the way of compromise to any human prejudice… when we adopt such a title, we have in our eye those ugly accretions that gather around it through human infirmity, which hide its true and essential beauty, and bring it into an unpopularity that it does not deserve.”

Glover’s aim was to appeal to Christians themselves:

“to point out to them certain defects of character and conduct which tend to make Christianity needlessly repulsive; to urge upon them the solemn duty of trying to correct these, or removing stumbling-blocks and causes of offence, and of putting on the more attractive ornaments of grace.”

The last bit of his intro relevant to conversations about winsomeness almost 150 years later, says “we must never forget that Christianity is in itself essentially repugnant to the unconverted or natural man. This is lamentably forgotten by the advocates of what is called “genial Christianity.” They seem to think that if Christianity be only fairly put before men they will fall in love with it at once. They think the whole fault is in the mode of presentation, and they take no account of the condition of the eye that beholds it. But this is a fatal mistake.”

Winsomeness used to be the word for people who recognised exactly what critics of winsomeness are now saying the ‘winsomeness brigade’ misses — there was already a word for this in historic debates — “genial” Christianity. I’m not suggesting modern bloggers should have read these potentially obscure 150 year old books — but, I don’t think we’re well served by thinking any posture is emerging in a vacuum in our present moment. There’s a long history of using winsomeness exactly the way I argued it should be used and understood in my previous post, and plenty of people using it the same way currently even if others — mostly those shooting at “genial Christianity” want to redefine it in order to police the term.

I’ve quoted these documents at length to make two points: firstly, the use of the word “winsome” has a pretty thick and rich history, we’re not left trying to define it with nothing but etymology and present usage (though someone had a crack at an etymological approach and a history of usage a decade ago). Second, people using the word “winsome” to describe a set of characteristics that “adorn the Gospel” are standing in a tradition that’s at least 150 years old, and not simply a reaction to the modern secular west.

There are plenty more examples from before the advent of the blogosphere and the Christian thought leader. I haven’t found many not making the case for winsomeness as a virtue — even if they link the virtue to how people might respond.

Now, I’m not denying that people are less inclined to respond to our winsome character in the public square in the modern west. I’m making the case that how others respond is not a reason to choose not to be winsome — again, because character matters when it comes to integrity, the Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of people who’re called to ‘bear the death of Jesus in our body so that the life of Jesus might be made known,” and, again, because what you win them with you win them to. I don’t want to win people to Christianity with manipulation, aggression, or a culture war (and neither did the Apostle Paul), but by sharing the Gospel and our lives shaped by the Gospel as well…

What if we’re actually the bad guys for a reason

I think there’s more to it than just ‘the culture is changing so winsomeness won’t cut it’ — and I think Stephen McAlpine’s book title (Being the Bad Guys) offers a prognosis (and a treatment plan), but not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of how we got where we are.

Firstly, if the case that the modern west is still essentially Christian in a whole bunch of ways (including our moral framework) then the standards applied to find us wanting — or to position us as “the bad guys” are essentially Christian. This’s a case well made by Tom Holland, Glen Scrivener, and Mark Sayers in a variety of works — I’m not going to reproduce it here.

We’re being found wanting based on standards we helped build — and perhaps it’s not simply because we disagree with the sexual ethics of our neighbour, but, perhaps because lots of us have settled on pluralism as a strategy a bit like closing the gate after the horse has bolted; after years of using whatever social capital and political power we had to not accommodate the other. Perhaps people aren’t prepared to offer us pluralism now — as the losers in a war, because we wanted the war, and weren’t prepared to offer pluralism as a good and loving option then.

The article Stephen quotes from the New York Times makes a commendable case for pluralism — after Obergefell in the States (and the Plebiscite here), but, to beat my own drum a little — some of us were making a case for a generous pluralism, on the basis of virtue rather than utility, before the law changed, and were shouted down (some good folks even went so far a to label me a heretic and a false teacher).

We’ve been found wanting here — and, without genuine repentance for the way we used power against the interests of those we disagreed with, how can we ask them not to use that power against us, when they have it? Especially if reciprocity (treating others as we would have them treat us) is not just a command of Jesus, but a virtue.

If our neighbours genuinely believe that to not fully affirm and embrace a person’s sexual identity is harmful, what we’ve modelled for them is to use every lever or power at our disposal to stop other people causing that harm despite their personal convictions or experience. And that’s outside Christian community — when I speak to friends whose experience situates them under the LGBTIQA+ umbrella who’re also Christians, who’re also committed to a Biblical sexual ethic as historically understood, I think it’s fair to say that every one of them carries hurt or trauma inflicted on them by the church. When Glover wrote of the “ugly accretions that gather around the Gospel” — this is surely one of them. Brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, who hold to a Biblical position on marriage and sex, can even find themselves excluded from their biological families who claim to be Christian over culture war shibboleths.

We aren’t always the good guys getting the bad treatment that we think we are. Sometimes we’re reaping the whirlwind, and the appropriate posture isn’t simply winsomeness, but a winsome modelling of true repentance seeking reconciliation.

What if we’ve given up on goodness for goodness sake.

The second part of my critique is basically that winsomeness is probably not a cardinal virtue; or, if it’s something we do in public, when presenting the Gospel, it needs to be matched commensurately with the virtue of goodness. We’ll only not be hypocrites so long as people’s experience of our goodness and love makes our words about the goodness and love of God resonate. And that’s just not happening. I think there are two ways that segments of the modern evangelical church — and perception is reality here, really, we’re all part of this church, so I’ll use we — we have abandoned the kind of behaviour that led to the church shaping the west. Let’s call it two ways to die.

The first way is the way of the culture war, let’s call this ACL Christianity, in the Australian context, or Caldron Pool bolshiness, where we attempt to hold on to the power we have accreted, at all costs (and the expense of others).

Our use of power (and influence) has produced great good, historically, but also great harm and confusion about the nature of the Kingdom of God. We’ve failed to do something Glover warned about back in 1882 — we’ve attempted in our approach to politics to clear “away that hedge that makes God’s true people a separated people… a people called out and separated from the world — that is, from those who will not have Christ to reign over them, but who live to self and who serve their own pleasures and their own sins.” That’s a basis of pluralism, actually, recognising that the Gospel — and the power of the Spirit — actually creates a new humanity and a new people who’re defined by separation from the patterns of this world. The pursuit of the reign of Jesus via the means of the state, not the means of grace — sometimes through a post-millenial eschatology — has caused substantial damage to our ability to be seen to be doing good as ambassadors for Christ, rather than as would-be Caesars.

The second way to die is, perhaps ironically, a function (at least in our corner of Australian evangelicalism) of the folks that brought us Two Ways to Live, and a reduction — whether intentional or otherwise, of the Gospel to personal salvation for a pie in the sky future through right belief, rather than being brought into a kingdom through believing loyalty and oriented to spirit-filled action as a redeemed creation. Let’s call the second way to die “Two Ways to Live Christianity”.

This reductionist shift included a turn to pragmatism (what tool’s going to save the most people), and a sort of utilitarian thinking that expands into how we construct church communities, and a turn against good works being “the work of the Lord.” This was, in part, a reaction against the Gospel-denying liberalism of some expressions of the social Gospel. The same thinkers who bring you Two Ways To Live Christianity also tend to insist that ‘the work of the Lord’ describes preaching, or word, ministry in the context of the local church. It’s interesting this then neglects the second way Glover suggested winsomeness happens back in 1882, through the “practical exhibition of the Gospel in the lives of believers.”

When we do the two step of reducing the Gospel to Two Ways to Live, which doesn’t have much of a doctrine of creation (beyond “God made the world”). There’s nothing in the first box about what he made it, or us, for, or a vocational sense of what we’re created to do as image bearers with creation, and then nothing in box six about what we’re re-created to do as people who’re now new creations by the Spirit, except to get to heaven. This, plus reducing the work of the Lord to preaching this Gospel, means we end up with an approach to the Christian life where winsomeness is only important if it helps us get converts, and where good works are somehow secondary to, rather than integrated with, the mission of (and proclamation of) the Gospel. By having a small target Gospel, and a small vision of the work of the Lord, we’ve minimised goodness as part of our witness (and as a quality that someone, or some communities, who publicly (re)present the Gospel should be known for… I made a longer version of this argument, with receipts, in Soul Tread magazine’s most recent edition.

The tl:dr; for this last section is that by reducing the Gospel to just words, and faith(fulness) to ‘belief in those words,’ and the speaking of those words, we’ve lost the impetus that led the historic church to live such good lives that they changed the world by making, humanly speaking, the Gospel more beautiful — by living winsome lives that meant even their crunchy words came with a backdrop of a community of people committed to loving and serving their most marginalised neighbours. Neither of these two ways to die give us the tools to make ‘winsomeness’ an effective strategy, and winsomeness, as historically defined, is an alternative way to live and present the Gospel to these two stances.

We’re told Christians should have a good reputation amongst outsiders, and now our reputation is for being the oppressor of those typically held to be the most marginalised neighbours in our community (though the tide is turning, and the power dynamics have shifted fast, such that we’re now the minority asking not to be oppressed). What are we to do?

I think the answer is the very New Testament idea of ‘living such good lives among the pagans…’ So this’s my argument here — prior to figuring out what it means to be winsome, and what place that has in public speaking about Christianity, we need to get our ethos in order — we need to rediscover what it means to be good; to live lives that guide the interpretation of our winsome words towards positive ends. We obviously can’t control that — to some the message (and way of life) of the Gospel carries the stench of death, to others it is the aroma of life.

As a Reformed Christian I’m pretty convinced, like Glover, that nobody comes to faith in Jesus without the Spirit making a person receptive to the Gospel anyway, and so in all this argy bargy about the changing world and our strategy/stance I’m much more interested in how our lives represent the character of God, and the so-called ‘audience of one,’ than about how we are received, and yet, there’re a few bits of the New Testament I reckon we could take more seriously when it comes to both the stance and strategy we adopt, and where we’re happy to be positioned in society.

There’s lots of people willing to say the church should be militant and aggressive, no matter who we destroy, in order to be faithful to Jesus — but at some point those actions aren’t an expression of faithfulness to Jesus, but faithfulness in the rhetorical equivalent of the sword, and our own strength wielding it. It also strikes me that when public Christianity is coming from Christian leaders, maybe more of us could consider this bit of Paul’s list of qualifications for elders, remembering that he’s opened chapter 2 with a reference to the ruling authorities, and that, in the context, he’s talking about the very same power-hungry idolatrous empire that crucified Jesus and persecuted Christians on and off until Constantine.

“He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” — 1 Timothy 3:7

We’ve kinda tossed this one, haven’t we, except when it comes to “reputation management” when things come unstuck? But by then it’s too late, and it’s reactive, rather than pro-active. For Paul, this’s about how people see an elder prior to and during that appointment, not simply when they’re facing the court of public opinion (where, one wonders how you have a good reputation without something like the winsomeness described through history). We’re now quite happy to have elders and ministers who’re warriors positioned against the outside, with no regard to their reputation, and we’re seeing prominent pastor after prominent pastor fall into disgrace.

How exactly, I wonder, do we see such a reputation developing in a world where the institutional church is on the nose for our handling of abuse (of various kinds), where we’ve often played ‘reputation management’ games rather repenting, changing, and upholding the dignity of victims, and all those in our care? How do we rebuild a shattered relationship while also trampling on LGBTIQA+ people outside the church, let alone those in it, let alone those in it who’re committed to a traditional, Biblical, orthodox, sexual ethic?

Building that sort of reputation requires a commitment to reputation building, not just reputation management or spin, but actually the long hard work the church did for many years that’s left the modern western citizen “wanting the kingdom without the king” as Mark Sayers puts it.

I fear that in all the winsomeness discussion that focuses on how much we Christians’re being crunched in the public sphere — especially on questions around sexuality and particularly those in the LGBTIQA+ community, and their supporters and allies — kinda misses a big part of the point. And we’d be better off working out how to regain a good reputation amongst those neighbours, while living quiet lives respecting and praying for those in authority over us, in order to position ourselves for the winsomeness produced by God’s Spirit at work in us to shine through our words and actions.

Be winsome for goodness sake

Every time a Christian finds themselves publicly crucified in the mainstream — or online — media a debate rages about what posture said Christian should adopt in their engagement with the public.

Its been interesting, for me, to watch the American blogosphere trying to understand the Essendon saga, and City On A Hill pastor Guy Mason’s subsequent Sunrise appearance. One reformed writer opened his piece with:

“I do not follow Australian rules football, the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie but, a month ago, they collided on Australian television”

He’d actually first said:

“I do not follow Australian football (soccer), the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie…”

But someone corrected him in the comments without alerting him to the fact that, to my knowledge, Guy Mason did not collide with anybody named Ryan Kochie. It’s interesting to watch non-sports fans trying to talk about sportsball, but also, it’s worth noting (as we’ll see again below) that some conservative culture war thought leaders looking to drum up angst in their base aren’t going to let a quick fact check, or getting the name of a person or platform right, get in the way of a good story (I am astounded by the number of people who simply can’t get the name City on a Hill right).

Simon Kennedy, an Aussie academic who isn’t a culture warrior with no fact checking capacity, wrote a piece for Mere Orthodoxy — one that echoed Aaron Renn’s ‘The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism’ from First Things back in February, and James Wood’s subsequent rejection of Tim Keller’s model of “winsomeness” also from First Things (I wrote an article on both these articles in an edition of Soul Tread).

The thesis of Renn’s piece is basically that once (pre-1994) the west was positively disposed towards Christianity, as a general rule, then it was neutral (1994-2014), and now, since 2014 “Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity,” and “Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences,” like losing your CEO gig in a commercial sporting team.

Now. I don’t think Thorburn should’ve lost his job. I don’t think woke capitalism and the contracting out of every aspect of one’s life to one’s employer is a good thing (and the left celebrating this turn to capitalist levers for exercising social power is bizarre), I’m also not particularly interested in disputing that the world is negatively disposed towards us; it clearly is — my point has always been that given we Christians (and our institutions) basically shaped the west (and we keep wanting to claim credit for the good bits), we have to recognise that moral condemnation of Christians, by western folks, is coming from people whose moral frame is shaped by Christianity, but we also have to recognise that where genuine injustice (and evil) has occurred in the west, we’ve been, previously, either holding the wheel, or we’ve had means to stop it. Part of the shift to a negative world is actually on us, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to gay rights. Not many of these thought pieces grapple with these twin realities; what they are often doing is serving up a political strategy to regain the wheel (on a spectrum that finishes up with Christian Nationalism, or Trump voting, at one extreme). Renn and Wood were both, essentially, justifying a pro-Trump stance in the American church for strategic reasons.

The thing about strategies is that they’re almost always coming with a consequentialist, or even utilitarian, ethical framework — emphasising results, or output, rather than character, or input in the ethical decision making schema. You can, we’re told, justify aligning with the devil, or just Trump, if the outcomes make it worthwhile (it seems to me that the devil often invites people to control big kingdoms, while forfeiting their soul in exchange for bending the knee to him). So, for example, Renn frames the ‘strategy’ in the ‘neutral world’ as “cultural engagement,” where he says:

“The neutral-world cultural engagers were in many ways the opposite of the culture warriors: Rather than fighting against the culture, they were explicitly positive toward it. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms… the cultural-engagement strategy is an evangelicalism that takes its cues from the secular elite consensus.”

He suggests,

“Under pressure, this group has turned away from engagement with and toward synchronization with secular elite culture, particularly around matters such as race and immigration. Their rhetoric in these areas is increasingly strident and ­ever more aligned with secular political positions. Meanwhile, they have further softened their stance and rhetoric on flashpoint social issues. They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb. While holding to ­traditional teachings on sexuality, they tend to speak less about Christianity’s moral prohibitions and more about how the church should be a welcoming place for “sexual minorities,” emphasizing the church’s past failures in this regard.” 

Now, it’s worth noting here that his assumption is that what’s driving the “cultural engagement” folks (he names quite a few) is the end goal of maintaining a place at the secular table and having respectability. With respect, I think this is a cynical reduction of peoples motives away from virtue/character and towards outcomes, and it predisposes the conversation to treat people as sellouts. The dice when it comes to conversations about how we present ourselves in public are loaded as soon as our posture is about securing an outcome (even a good one), rather than about faithfully transmitting a message in a manner where our medium (our presentation) matches the message. I’m genuinely convinced that the New Testament’s guide for communicating the Gospel calls for us to bring our medium (ourselves as image bearers of Jesus) into alignment with the message we preach (one of God’s victory and model for life in his kingdom centering on the life and love of Jesus displayed at the cross, where the ‘negative world’ puts him to death horrifically). I wrote my thesis on this, you can read it if you want. We can’t, for example, match the message of the cross (foolishness to the world), with the waxy-chested sophistry that was popular in Corinth and was all about speaking with human power — Paul says a whole lot of stuff about the shape of his persuasive ministry — how it’s embedded in the nature of his message, before he talks about becoming all things to all people, and then he calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus. I suspect many cultural engagement folk are embodying their understanding of the Gospel, and, I think, inevitably all models of public engagement (communication modes) form an understanding of the message of the Gospel for both the communicator and the recipient; the more one embraces power-based, or results driven, strategies the more one is conforming their understanding of the Gospel, and the way God works in the world, to their communication medium — especially if they hit their metrics and gain the promised kingdom.

In his follow up to Renn’s piece, James Wood wrote:

“Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today’s world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings and his views on how Christians should engage politics.”

Notice, again, his assessment of Keller’s “winsome” approach is built on metrics (how effective it was in evangelism), and then he builds what I would suggest is a category error separating politics and evangelism; at least as far as the Gospel is concerned. For starters, it’s called ‘winsomeness’ not ‘winallness’ — the New Testament doesn’t seem to set up any expectation that our public witness will convert everybody — or even a majority — it does seem to suggest, in, say, the book of Acts, that faithful representations of the Gospel will bear fruit and lead to a whole heap of people wanting to get rid of you. Secondly, the evangel is, by nature, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that he came to bring God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection, and to invite us to become citizens of heaven who are no longer exiled from God because of sin and death (and Satan), but who now have God’s Spirit dwelling in us so we are united in life and death (and resurrection) to Jesus; so that we’re raised and seated with him in the throne room of heaven, and functioning as ambassadors of that kingdom now; ambassadors and heralds (‘keryx,’ the word for preachers or heralds) were the people who’d carry gospels (evangels), announcements of royal victories, around with them in the ancient world. The separation of pastoral and evangelistic communication is a modern distinction built more off our weird separation of religion and politics (or the secular and sacred, or the immanent and transcendent) in the modern protestant imagination. It’s not a separation that makes much sense outside a particular historical context, and it’s certainly not one you’ll find in either the Old or New Testament.

One way to frame this soft criticism of Keller is that he wants to win people to Jesus as an outcome of his public engagement — whether political or otherwise — which seems to me to be a fair and charitable enough description of the desired outcome of ‘winsomeness,’ when coupled with the idea that a public Christian is hoping to represent the character of Jesus well (perhaps the fruit of the Spirit), and the nature of the Gospel (the announcement of a crucified king who calls us to take up our cross and follow him if we’re going to be his disciples) in their engagement with the world. My contention is that too often this sort of debate about winsomeness only views it through the lens of metrics connected to results — specifically around political influence and outcomes, a place at the public table — without assessing its faithfulness or virtue or the integrity (and ethos) being displayed in a manner aligned with the message we are communicating as Christians.

Wood describes his shift from anti-Trump to Trump justifying through his piece, with little quotes like “Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing,” and “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?”

I’m suggesting these quotes are revealing these problematic assumptions that ‘winsomeness’ is about securing a ‘favourable hearing’. How people respond to our communication is, ultimately, going to rest on them — and it’ll largely be about their heart — our responsibility as public Christians is to represent Jesus well, not to persuade (though not ignoring that persuasion is a good outcome that might come through faithful communication). The kind of persuaded person formed by our presentation of the Gospel will reflect our manner as well; the well-known axiom “what you win them with, you win them to” is true. There’s a reason, I suspect, that churches that have embraced a culture war posture and a certain vision for masculinity (and politics) are growing, but I question whether the people being won by that methodology (or message) are being won to the Jesus who preaches not just judgment on the world, but the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount as descriptions of the way of life in his kingdom. Results are no guarantee of faithfulness; and they’re a terrible way to decide how to be faithful.

Wood notes that “Public witness” most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” I find this interesting. I suspect it is true that I ‘punch right’ so to speak, more than I ‘punch left,’ though I personally tend to punch ‘inside the church’ rather than ‘outside the church’ with my writing and I’m much more profoundly concerned, in my context, with the influence of the secular right (the Aussie equivalents of Trump, and the promise of a kingdom of the earth if we just bend the knee a little) than the secular left.  

All of that serves as background for the renewed debate about winsomeness in the wake of the City on a Hill/Essendon saga.

Kennedy declared “Negative World Arrives in Australia,” as though we’re only just on the pointy end of the secularisation now facing the U.S; or as though this particular interview was a watershed moment… not the Folau stuff, or the Manly Seven, or myriad other moments. Is it really when a white bloke can’t be CEO of a corporation that we recognise that the negative world has arrived? That’s a question less about Simon’s piece, which was a fine response to events, and more about how much our perception of where we sit in society is about what happens at the elite level; there’s a class thing here (not distinctly a race thing), that probably even harks back to Australian settlement where the establishment class was “Christian,” while converts and settlers were at best nominally so, unless they were Catholic rather than Anglican. It’s probably also true that secularisation bites in different ways outside the elite layer of society (or doesn’t really at all in some communities). Personally, I don’t recognise the not-negative Australia (in terms of the public’s approach to the claims of Christianity) as having really been operating in my lifetime — certainly not with my peers — though maybe this’s cause I lived the unsheltered life of a public school educated son of a preacher-man so my faith was always public, and contested (and insulted), for as long as I can remember. I thought acknowledging the ‘negative world’ was the whole point of having (often elite) Christian schools and universities (the same schools now under fire in the negative world context)… so that people could avoid engaging in a public sphere they didn’t control… but I digress.

Kennedy’s take home on the Mason interview is basically:

“What Mason and others need to realize is that in this Negative World public Christianity will by definition be abrasive and possibly combative. It can still be “winsome,” whilst simultaneously being ready to stand firm. If Mason and others aren’t prepared for that, it may be better to not do the interview because the message of “life and love” won’t be heard.

Thorburn’s resignation and Mason’s interview demonstrate that the church needs to face this hard truth: the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it. No amount of “life and love” will change the fact that, in Australia at least, we’ve entered Negative World proper.”

Being ‘nice’ and ‘relevant’ isn’t going to cut it; ‘conciliatory cultural engagement’ has had its day; in other circles — just as in the Wood piece Kennedy links, this’s a reasonable summary of how people’ve positioned the idea of “winsomeness.” As someone who has perhaps encouraged a ‘winsome’ approach to public engagement — though not to the same degree, or with anything like the influence, that Keller has — I don’t think this represents how I, or others in my ‘camp’ might understand what we’re advocating.

Keller also chimed in on the Essendon saga, responding to Kennedy on Mere Orthodoxy (there’s another good piece there on the issue from Jake Meador, and another from Kirsten Sanders and Matt Shedden, responding to Keller, in a way that lands close to this piece). Keller suggests our goal should be to engage with a threefold posture of “a spirit of humility and love (what I will call ‘Affection’),” “Culturally compelling arguments (what I will call ‘Persuasion’)” and “A quiet, courageous confidence in the truth of God’s Word (what I will call ‘Resolution’).” He proposes “that, using Paul’s exhortation, we can find ways of combining the three elements of Affection, Resolution, and Persuasion in our public discourse in a way that many secular people will find moving and some secular people will find convincing.” “Affection” and “persuasion” are probably the bits that get critiqued as “winsomeness,” and to the extent that “persuasion” is about the impact on the listener (rather than one’s intent), I agree with the Sanders and Shedden call for the category of ‘witness’ to be at the fore; but that witness still needs what Keller calls “affection” in order to be faithful, and it’s that posture of humility and gentleness — love for one’s enemy — treating the other as you would have them treat you — that is, I think, what ‘winsomeness’ is.

I am happy to concede that winsomeness, so defined, in our present cultural moment, has little to commend it in terms of metrics — if I was output focused and wanted to be maximally effective politically, or even in terms of bums on seats in a church — I would embrace the culture war and the levers of power.  

I’m also keen to point out that utilitarianism is a sub-Christian ethical framework, and that what we’re called to be in the New Testament is faithful witnesses to the work of God in the world through Jesus, in his life and teaching, his death (at the hands of a beastly Satanic empire) for his people, his resurrection, his ascension, and his joining the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit to give his life to his people in the world. The word “witnesses” in Greek is “martyrs” — we’re called to represent the story we live in by embodying that story; and bringing our bodies and stories into the public square — as our means of persuasion — in the hope that God will vindicate us, and he might even use the way we are received to not just bring him glory, but turn hearts to him through the power of the Gospel being displayed.

Now, I don’t want to centre myself in this story. I’m a pastor with a blog, and a small church. I haven’t written much in the last 12 months for a bunch of reasons that I’ll unpack in coming months. I’m a bit player in the scheme of things, I’m not saying this as an exercise in false humility — or humility at all — it’s just a thing. It’s very possible that in my attempts to suggest that the ‘winsomeness’ position is being misrepresented here, I’m misrepresenting the positions of others — or, that, indeed, there are many who embrace winsome cultural engagement for utilitarian reasons rather than virtuous ones. However, in my observation, there’s a stream of hard right Christian commentators who’re critical of ‘winsomeness’ and ‘niceness’ who’re advocating for a more aggressive form of public engagement to the point that I think the mediums they’re advocating for the Gospel message (or Christian politics) are distorting the message and forming something other than disciples of Jesus who take up their cross and live generative lives that display the fruit of the Spirit. There’re those who suggest ‘winsomeness’ is selling out to the culture who’re embracing a culture war posture that comes from the beastly empire, rather than the kingdom of the crucified king — that looks more like the sword, than the cross — and that will link sword and cross in unhelpful ways, but not totally new ways. This is a perennial problem of the relationship between Christians and empire.

There’re also those who in their bid to commend courageous truth-speaking, neglect love, and those who in their dismissal of ‘niceness’ dismiss ‘gentleness,’ and other fruit of the Spirit — and plenty of other ethical imperatives from the New Testament that guide how we ought conduct ourselves.

I think there are two misfires driving these positions — the first is in our (particularly modernist protestant) decoupling of word (logos) from character (ethos), or medium from message, in our public presentation, such that one can somehow faithfully present the Gospel in a manner just by forcefully speaking truth, in a vacuum disconnected from the embodied witness of our individual and collective lives, that leaves its impact resting on human power, not God’s power. The second is that we’ve embraced an ethical system from the world (especially the realms of politics and business) that measures the goodness of an action in terms of its results, rather than its inherent goodness (or virtue). If we think ‘faithfulness’ is, in any way, tied to establishing a Christian nation, or controlling the levers of power, through our work, then, “winsomeness” is foolish appeasement, that’s true too if our metric is just a place at the table and people not hating us.

There’re also those somewhere in the middle between ‘cultural engagement’ and ‘culture war’ — perhaps like Wood and Renn — or like my friend Stephen McAlpine locally – who’re trying to guide us towards a model of public engagement for our time, one that recognises the ground is shifting.

My suggestion is that our model of public engagement is actually, essentially, timeless; that our job is not so much to be winsome, but to be Christlike, and that obedience to Jesus, and to God’s word, does in fact include considering our reputation amongst outsiders, doing good, responding to evil with good, living such good lives among the pagans, and turning the other cheek responding to curse with blessing — that sort of stuff — when we’re engaged in public Christianity. Further, my contention is that as we live these good lives, some, even those who ‘bear the sword’ as those appointed by God to govern, will crucify us — whether metaphorically or literally, and this is a possible outcome of faithfulness rather than simply bad communication strategy and being misunderstood.

In the fallout of the Mason interview, my friend Stephen McAlpine and I were interviewed by Glen Scrivener, an Aussie living in England, on his show SpeakLife (the name is important). We approached the events through our paradigms — as most people who speak, and write, and think, do. And I think the interview’s worth a watch, even months after the event.

For good or for ill, this interview demonstrates that I find myself in the cross hairs of people in Australia championing the anti-winsomeness approach to public Christianity; those who reckon I’m a capitulator who just wants a seat at the public table. I do, for the record, want a politically engaged public Christianity that is evangelistic and pastoral in nature — but most of what gets interpreted as ‘capitulation’ by these folks is actually more about me wanting to keep carving out space for those already following Jesus — at great cost — to have a space at our table in the church, and to wonder aloud what people we’re excluding through our practices (especially where they align with oppressive and exclusive practices in the world outside the church).

A pastor local to me, Tom Foord, didn’t love our interview. You can watch his 18 minute hit piece on my position here, but, to save you the trouble, here’s a couple of quotes. This first sentence demonstrates again how little interest guys like this actually have in representing truth, or seeking understanding.

“So we’re going over to this Youtube interview that a bloke on Real Life, or Real Talk, or something, a YouTube interview, where he grabbed two not ideal but popular Christian evangelical cultural commentators. Stephen McAlpine and Nathan Campbell. Neither of whom I would agree largely on this whole situation around homosexuality and what not. Campbell’s pretty well known for tolerating same sex attracted pastors, which is a huge issue, he should not be a pastor for even having that position. Anyway, this guy’s asking them a few questions on what they thought about the Guy Mason interview and largely what their read is on the cultural situation in Australia. I thought we’d listen to them say some stuff and take another case study on how this is wrong, and why it’s wrong, and how it’s going to effect your witness…”

He goes on to spear my suggestion that “winsomeness, if it’s Christlikeness, it’s not just a stance, it is a strategy and a victory is actually some form of crucifixion.”

Tom didn’t like this. He says:

“This sounds super holy and pietistic, this’s literally what every failure of a person says, “I’ve failed, let’s redefine what failure looks like. Jesus failed because he died. Maybe failure is kind of an upside down victory. Doesn’t that feel and smell like the Gospel.”

He went on to take my description of another person’s description of a debate he hadn’t watched (the debate, and a transcript, are readily available online), where I said “the best review on Twitter was it was like watching a gentle crucifixion,” and then he used it to attack that other person, in an absolutely specious way. He even says:

“In other words, this dude got his rear end handed to him. I haven’t watched the debate, but if these guys think he lost I think he would’ve been buried. He was crucified, dead and buried, never to rise again…”

Then he goes on — not having engaged at all with the content of the debate — to suggest it failed to convey the content of the Gospel. And then, throws another blow my way.

“This’s the sheer idiocy that cowardice produces. When you have weak men who tolerate homosexuality in the pulpit, who probably entertain homosexual tendencies, when you have weak men who seem more like women, then you start getting them into the pulpits and into the blogs, and into the authorship, and onto the interviews, and they redefine, literally, the commands of God. The ability to convince the people of God that failing to obey the commands of God is in fact how you be Christlike is nothing short of mind control. They failed, call it a failure, he lost the debate, he couldn’t defend the truth. That sucks. Christians are supposed to be able to do that, don’t now turn around in this limp wristed way and say “well, doesn’t it feel like a crucifixion,” no, that’s gay. You lost. The whole posture is in fact a blasphemy to the cross.”

That last bit came with a snide accent that was, frankly, immature and awful, then he takes issue with my saying “we should seek to be obedient to Jesus, and represent him well, by embodying the way of the cross.” He says:

“I’m going to disagree with him, because he’s using Christianish words, but what he means by that is failing to give a good and bold clarity, like clarity about the Gospel message about sin, and the law of God, and justification in Christ, and the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation… that’s not what he means by embodying the way of the cross even to the point of them killing us. He’s saying not doing that and being looked on by people like bully old Tom Foord who’d look at you and say “you failed to do that,” and he would say “I know, wasn’t it like a crucifixion?” No, no cultural enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ, nobody out there is going to look at him and ever think that this dude, or any of us that embody what Nathan Campbell is saying, no one will look at you and think “you’re a threat to the kingdom of darkness,” Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like Nathan Campbell filling pulpits and calling his little community a church. It’s a sham.”

Just notice that last bit — not the attack on an entire community of faithful Christians — but this idea that Satan sends up praises to heaven that there are pastors like me. Wow.

Now. Tom Foord is going to feature on Caldron Pool’s podcast tonight (Nov 28). He’s an emerging voice on the conservative platform that has poured more energy than any other in Australia into the anti-winsomeness/anti-niceness crusade, and, more recently, an explicit pursuit of Christian nationalism. It’d be easy to dismiss these guys as fringe — but Caldron Pool is connected to an emerging network of what you might call “Christian Nationalists” here in Australia; ‘thought leaders’ and people connected to Christian political action groups, think tanks, and the publishing arms of established denominations (including my own); these’re folks taking their lead from American commentators like Doug Wilson and Stephen Wolfe (whose new book, with its problematic racism is currently blowing up Christian Twitter).

These folks, and their churches, are increasingly attracting disenfranchised politically conservative young men; radicalising them with a purpose in a culture war; from all the reports I’ve heard from people who’ve known Tom for years, Tom’s a guy who himself has been radicalised to this point from keen and passionate evangelist to angry zealot. This isn’t a guy you want to be following; follow Jesus.

I’ve been inundated with messages from people whose ministries are being upended by folks radicalised at Tom’s church, or those who’ve left it, or who’ve known Tom from previous churches, who’re deeply concerned about the direction he’s going in. I think it’s clear from his words that he’s not particularly interested in niceness, gentleness, respect, or love — whether that’s within the church, or outside it, but with a strong and persuasive presentation of the truth as he understands it, with all the viciousness (vice) he feels is necessary to muster to secure his desired outcomes. It’s clear to me from his interpretation of my words, but more, from his failure to even watch the debate he banged on about for the better part of 10 minutes (where the Gospel was preached in a compelling way in a hostile room), or even to get the name of the show he was talking about right, that Tom’s not a reliable witness to small truths, but I’m also concerned his approach to both preaching and public Christianity — his ethos — ultimately undermines the Gospel and will win people to a false vision of Christianity, and so, with whatever little platform or influence I have, I’m offering an alternative approach to public communication to Tom, to Caldron Pool, and perhaps to all those who want to throw out ‘winsomeness’ because it no longer seems to produce the desired outcomes.

I understand the desire for our speech to be persuasive; for evangelism that produces results; I can understand why, with all the best intentions, someone might want to do what is most effective for the kingdom; but faithfulness to Jesus isn’t about the volume of fruit you produce — God produces the real fruit — faithfulness to Jesus is about obedience to him; it’s about finding life in his kingdom and his example. We are called to be good; good in a way that is noticeable — in contrast — to the world (and to the way we’re treated). What is ‘winsomeness’ if not seeking to be good, not for the sake of persuading people, but for goodness sake; even for the sake of obedience to God.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-18, 21

Whatever public engagement built on these words looks like; that’s what we’re called to do.

And I reckon if there’re those who think that “sounds gay,” then I’d rather be numbered with my gay brothers and sisters taking up their cross daily, denying themselves, and following Jesus, than the blokes who reach for the sword, or the microphone, to stab other Christians.

#QandA is more like Pokemon than Poker: a review of Martyn Iles’ appearance

Martyn Iles did well on Q&A last night. He articulated some deep Christian truths, the Gospel even, with his feet held to the metaphorical fire. And he did it with a degree of grace.
Here’s a snippet from the transcript:
“Alain, thank you for the question, and it’s important, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer it in front of you and others who are watching. There was a word in the question which I’d like to address first, and then I’ll address Israel Folau, if that’s OK. The first word I’d like to address is the word ‘hate’. ‘Hate’ is a word that is thrown around a lot. I see it every day thrown at me. It’s a very, very serious word. It refers to somebody’s motive. It’s an attitude of heart that would like to see someone else come into harm. Jesus said, effectively, that if you hate your brother, then you’ve murdered him in your heart. It’s a very serious thing. For a Christian to hate is a bad sin. The reality is this – a Christian never looks fundamentally at another person as an enemy to be destroyed. And that’s the danger of politics – that we can get sucked into that. We never look at the other person as somebody who we would like harm to befall. We only ever… And I cannot say this strongly enough. We only ever look at people as souls to be saved, and that includes me, and so…”
Now. I’d say Christians see people as people to be saved, and that this includes bodily life both now and into eternity, not just souls, but I’m not sure Martyn was espousing a sort of platonic dualism in that last bit… But this was helpful. So was his presentation of Jesus’ universal call to repent.
I have some quibbles around his defence of antivaxxers (because nobody asked him to do that), and his ongoing conflation of trans/gender diverse people with a political agenda (ie an approach to the people and questions that is political rather than pastoral).
But he played a tough hand well.
The thing is, Q&A is not poker. It’s more like Pokémon. You bring your deck with you. And Martyn’s deck is stacked, by Martyn.
The tough hand is a hand of his making.
Imagine a Christian at that table with a different hand.
Imagine a Christian, even one with conservative sexual ethics, who represents an organisation that had invested time and energy into loving the LGBTIQA+ community and seeking their inclusion and representation in our democracy, from an organisation known for love and service. Imagine a call to repent in a relational context of love rather than one of perceived self-interest.
Imagine an organisation with a track record of advocating for First Nations peoples, around deaths in custody (last night’s most powerful segment). Imagine if that organisation was known for pushing for the application of the recommendations of a 30 year old Royal Commission, rather than to extend the playing career of a 32 year old millionaire footballer (with heretical views on the Trinity… only Biblical sexual orthodoxy counts).
We shouldn’t have to imagine this. Churches, church run institutions, and church members — Christians — navigate issues across the political spectrum/divide all the time.
Martyn’s statement last night that there are lots of Christian charities addressing poverty and inequality is true.
They are not called ‘Australian Christians against poverty’ though. If it is true that the ACL is focused on the political realm on behalf of Christians then surely racial reconciliation and poverty are issues that have structural and political changes that need making and the ACL, like the church, could walk and chew gum here.
Here’s what Martyn said on this:

“I think everybody would love it if the ACL did exactly what they wanted us to do. The fact is that the top 25 charities in this country, I think 23 of them actually had a faith basis and they work on alleviating poverty. And I say, wonderful work. More power to them. I myself was involved in youth work for a period of six years with disadvantaged kids. There is a huge wealth of Christian charity in that regard.ACL has a certain area that we focus on, which is the political realm, and the reason… I mean, we spent that much money on that ad. I’m here to tell you, we spend many times that on defending Margaret from Blacktown, Patricia from Sydney, Jason from Perth, Byron and Keira from Perth, who are no longer foster-parents, who are no longer medical professionals…”

The issue is that the ACL serves a constituency; it has a narrow political agenda, and that’s fine, but a broad name, and that’s not so fine.
So long as the ACL serves a narrow political agenda, and one that alienated many Christians in its narrowness, when Martyn goes on TV and preaches the Gospel he will align the Gospel with that narrow agenda in the minds of the audience (or public).
And that’s great for those who share his politics, but not so great for those who share his Gospel.

How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)

Izzy is in hot water again with calls growing for the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs to tear up his contract because of his (admittedly clumsy) public expression of reasonably orthodox, mainstream, Christian views about sin and salvation.

The ‘Australian church’ and by that I mean, those who belong, visibly, to the kingdom of God, in both its ‘institutional’ forms and those who gather on Sundays claiming to follow Jesus and to belong to communities of people who gather around certain beliefs (as expressed in statements like creeds or doctrinal statements), has contributed to the mess Israel Folau now seems destined to face alone. I’m defining ‘church’ up front, because many Christians might feel like we, as individuals, simultaneously belong to or represent the church while not being complicit for, or responsible to, Israel Folau… and I’m going to make the case that those of us who share similar orthodox, mainstream, Christian views (and even where we’d quibble) bear some responsibility for the tonne of hate and anger that will now be poured out on Izzy, and that we shouldn’t abandon him even if we profoundly disagree with the way he has expressed himself, in form, content, or forum.

And I’m going to paint with a broader brush and say that an entity, Australia, via its institutions — such as the press (and our ‘social media’), a Rugby fraternity including a governing body and a national representative team, and the ‘market’ — and the way this entity ‘Australia’ responds, to this (and other) expressions of religious belief is also failing its citizen, Israel Folau, rather than him failing us (even if there are ways his expressions of his beliefs, publicly, hurt others and are clumsy or even uncivil). The way we collectively respond to incivility expresses something about our ‘civilisation’.

How the church is failing Israel (Folau)

Our current cultural milieu believes that religious belief is a private matter that shouldn’t be expressed publicly — so Israel is transgressing on this front, and while we might want to point the finger at ‘society’ or ‘Australia’ for this problem, it’s a problem that begins with us; it’s a problem because on one hand we Christians, ‘the church’ have bought into and promoted an individualistic understanding both of what it means to be a human and of what it means to be a Christian; the Gospel Israel preaches is a Gospel of personal salvation, with personal, individual, implications (salvation), and little corporate or communal impact. Israel is a preacher of this Gospel it would seem appointed by nobody except our celebrity driven culture (that cares far too much about what celebrities say or think on instagram), and a church that wants its celebrity members to operate as public champions of Christian belief simply because they are Christians with a platform. If Israel was a Christian whose approach to promoting the Gospel I found more personally compelling (and my take on Israel’s public Christianity hasn’t changed since last time), wouldn’t I be encouraging him to use his platform to promote the Gospel? Of course I would; but is it his responsibility? Is this actually his calling (or the way we view how Christians should operate in the world?).

We fail Israel when we want him to be a solo point-scoring champion for Jesus off the field, rather than freeing him to be point-scoring champion on the field, and part of a bigger team, the church, off it.

I don’t want to be a broken record banging out quotes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World, but he makes a point towards the back end of his book about our particular corner of the church (evangelicals) and our view of work being not super different to an anabaptist view of work (which he takes umbrage with) even while we have a more robust doctrine of creation in the reformed theological tradition. In identifying a certain sort of Christian posture with regards to the physical world, to culture and politics (basically to what we would see as ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’) that he labels ‘defensive against,’ he writes:

“In the “defensive against” paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues. The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (and secular) and private (and religious) life inherent to the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends. Thus, if one achieved some distinction for the quality of one’s work in any field or for reason of an accomplishment, its significance was primarily because celebrity brought attention and credibility to the gospel. As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire, “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!” Likewise, if one achieved any disproportionate influence in a sphere of life or work, this had significance primarily as a bulwark against the tide of secularism or liberalism.” — To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

In sum, for Israel to feel like a full participant in the life of the church — as a good ‘religious’ person participating in a ‘sacred calling’ — we’ve set up the game in such a way that he must necessarily use his platform to evangelise (or to give generously to evangelism), because pursuing excellence of character and performance, and loving the people around him is not enough. Or not all it could be. What sort of pressure does this place on those Christians who happen to be able to make an income in fields that produce ‘celebrity’ and a ‘platform’ — how would my tweets, or blog posts, or social media presence stack up with the sort of audience Israel gets? Is it fair to expect him to champion orthodox Christianity or to ‘evangelise’ simply because he has a platform that most of us do not? Is that what ‘faithful presence’ requires of him; if so, how have we, the church, equipped him for this task?

On the ‘individual’ Gospel front; I wonder if this is precisely both how Israel has been equipped — in terms of how he has been evangelised, and discipled, but also a product of the bifurcation between secular and sacred Hunter (and others like Charles Taylor) observe; the ‘secular age’ we live in makes religion a private matter and ‘salvation’ not a call to belong to some new public order, or kingdom, with an accompanying account for human behaviour and morality that comes from a spiritual commitment or something transcendent that we connect to and belong to (that Christians would typically say comes, literally, from the Holy Spirit and a real encounter with God as a reality not just an abstract concept). We feed that by how we talk about and understand both the Gospel of Jesus and conversion; this failure is one Scot McKnight unpacks in The King Jesus Gospel, a book I might have some quibbles with in terms of the ‘bigness’ of the alternative Gospel he offers (whether the Gospel is ‘Israel’s story’ that began in the Old Testament or God’s cosmic story of redemption that began before the creation of the world). In Dallas Willard’s forward to McKnight’s book he describes McKnight’s work as addressing ‘contemporary misunderstandings that produce gospels that do not naturally produce disciples, but only consumers of religious goods and services’ — that’s not far off the problem the church must bear some responsibility for here (fascinatingly, Folau devotes much more Twitter air time to rebuking prosperity theology than he does to calling out homosexuality as a sin that leads to Hell). McKnight identifies a phenomenon that you might recognise at play in Folau’s own presentation of the Gospel where he says:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”

This Gospel, or this approach to evangelism, also makes ‘repentance’ the act of ‘making a decision’ not the life of turning to Jesus from alternative kingdoms, visions of the good, or ultimate loves. It makes repentance what Folau proclaims it to be — a rejection of sin — without the expulsive power of not just a new object of love, Jesus, but a new way of loving life. An instagram post can’t possibly capture or convey the bigness of what this looks like, or what’s at stake in repentance or following Jesus; but instagram is all the faithful champion athlete has in a world where his religious views won’t otherwise be heard, but he’s told that faithfulness for him looks like using his platform to share his faith.

This is dangerous when coupled with a broader social trend that sees religion simply as a consumer choice in pursuit of the ‘authentic you’ — part of your constructed ‘identity’ or story you tell about yourself — rather than as a fundamental conviction about a bigger story you belong to, that shapes the way you engage with the world as a person, while also seeing religious practice as a ‘private matter’ not something you take with you into the public. If identity construction via consumer choice is where we think ‘it’s at’ and identity is performed and constructed via social media (which it is, when identity is so thin a concept and is about authenticity), then where else should Folau perform his faith publicly? It’s either instagram or the Rugby field with painted on (or tattooed) Bible verses… A ‘decision’ to be religious then is about a personal preference, evangelism about ‘the expression’ of such preference, and we, the church reinforces this in extra-bad ways when we make religious belief — the Gospel message — about personal salvation alone (rather than seeing discipleship as forming persons who participate in public together as members of the church, an alternative kingdom — ie, where I think McKnight is spot on is that the Gospel is not just about Jesus as personal saviour, but Jesus as king of a kingdom).

We’ve also, simultaneously, both had a low view of the ‘church’ so that to even speak of the church being responsible for an individuals actions feels like ‘over stating’ what church is, and we’ve contributed to a view of religious belief that sees the very nature of religion as ‘private’ not public in how we’ve, as an institution, participated in public debate. On the first, point, we’ve arrived at a moment where “church” is either an ‘institution’ that doesn’t speak for its members (because we want to distance ourselves from the worst expressions of institutional church — like the Royal Commission or the way institutions behave in public), or we see ‘church’ as an event that is only constituted in the gathering of people to worship together on a Sunday, not a community of interdependent ‘belonging’ to one another. This latter point would mean that when Israel, or anybody, speaks, he speaks for ‘us’ not ‘him’… but my first response to his instagram post this week was to seek to distance myself from him, rather than recognising the things we have in common as religious believers, and possibly as members of a universal church (though, I believe there are certain heretical beliefs he holds, and beliefs I hold, that would see both of us excluding one another — in that from what I understand he denies, and I affirm, the Trinity). I do wonder what accountability Israel Folau believes he has, as a Christian, to any particular community, tradition, or institution — because in an age of consumer Christianity and individual, personal, salvation that sort of accountability is not a thing we do any more, we don’t belong to a church we choose a church, and we leave if it challenges our ‘personal’ authentic expression of faith in ways we don’t feel comfortable with to find places where we feel a better ‘fit’. On the second point, the privatisation of religious belief, when it comes to not the moral standing of homosexual behaviour in modern Australia, but the spiritual standing of such behaviour — and those other Folau calls out as sinful — we don’t participate in public debates in good faith; ie we didn’t argue against the legislation of same sex marriage on a spiritual basis, or even for a pluralist accommodation of our spiritual position on homosexual relationships; we (the institutional church) argued on secular terms that same sex marriage was ‘unnatural’ and not a civic good (because parenting and gender are ‘naturally ordered’); once the public at large dismissed that view we couldn’t (and can’t) fall back on the spiritual account of such behaviours and expect to be understood or welcomed in society (or its institutions, such as the national football team).

If this comes close to describing how the church conceives of itself — or if it describes a complicated mess of contradictions — which is does — then what else can Israel do as a Christian? There’s no real institution behind him, articulating his views in public or shaping his sense of how to engage in public as a Christian; nobody offering a view of being part of the church that is not ‘being an individual who must save individuals using his individual platform,’ then how else is he meant to act? If there’s no ‘good news’ except ‘repent or go to hell,’ then what else should he proclaim?

It’s one thing to deconstruct how the church has failed Israel, and so, how Israel is failing to articulate the Gospel; both in content — even if what he says is totally true, it is incomplete in a way that is unhelpful and distorting (when it comes to repentance, and conversion, and the relationship between sin and Jesus), and in form, even if what he said was complete, saying it on instagram, as a celebrity, is unlikely to ultimately be helpfully geared towards actual repentance (the sort of turning to Jesus that is about discipleship — the shaping of a life around the Lordship of Jesus), not simply a decision (the realisation that one is a sinner in need of a saviour), it’s another thing to deconstruct the way Australian society is failing Israel and other religious people because of how it has replaced ‘thick’ or substantial religious belief and institutions with ‘thin’ alternatives.

How Australia is failing Israel

When I read people like Peter Fitzsimons go to town on Israel Folau I feel like I’m reading a post-religious zealot attacking a heretic. The church used to burn heretics at the stake because we realised how important orthodoxy was, and pursued unity in that orthodoxy by eradicating anybody who threatened it. This lead to some pretty dark chapters in church history, but since the modern secular mind is so keen to remove any religious influence from the way we do business we’re unlikely to see secular priests and prophets learn from those mistakes. And so, where once we had religion occupying a place in our understanding of what it meant to be human — so that our understanding of personhood came from the divine order and the ‘givenness’ of reality; now we have less inclination to look for transcendence (so religion is just one choice we make about how we understand ourselves, and it’s a private thing… see Charles Taylor, again), but we replace the role religion and religious institutions played in giving us a sense of who we are with other institutions. Like Rugby teams. Where the national Rugby team, or other Aussie institutions, used to be purely secular, operating in society alongside ‘sacred’ religious institutions like the church, they now have to carry a more sacred mythology and purpose to fill the void left by the privatisation of the ‘religious’ sacred (the same is true of things like ANZAC Day, and other common objects of love in our modern world). Where once you were chosen to play Rugby for Australia because of Rugby ability, now you are chosen to uphold certain quasi-religious values and to be a ‘role model’ for those values, especially in public. Here’s Fitzsimon’s pontificating (he’d probably like to be a pope) about Folau’s ability to hold a place in the game once he’s expressed, publicly, his reasonably orthodox, mainstream, even if un-nuanced, religious views.

In the wake of his latest homophobic outburst – gays, among other sinners, are heading to hell once more – Israel Folau has to go, and will go.

Quick. Clean. Gone. At least until such times as he repents.

His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy, or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice. They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.

Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.

This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.

All of the dynamics that applied last year – outrage in the rugby and wider community, people swearing not to go to games, volunteers threatening to leave the game, sponsors looking at tearing up their contracts – apply this year, but there is one difference.

Back then, it seemed it wasn’t clear to Folau what he could and could not do.

Rugby is tolerant and inclusive so long as we’re talking about bits that are public and part of somebody’s identity, not the bits that people should be keeping in private — but Rugby is also now part of a civic religion, and it can’t handle such heretical views being expressed. Because our public square isn’t pluralist, it’s aggressively monotheistic. Its monotheism isn’t the traditional religious monotheism, where there’s a transcendent God who sets moral standards and judges accordingly, it’s the new monotheism, where our personal, individual, liberty — our freedom to self-determine our own authentic identity through personal choice, where nobody but the self can sit in judgment — except against those who reject this view or refuse to conform.

Fitzsimons points out (perhaps poisoning the well) that there’ll be objections to Folau’s dismissal on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ — because all issues are now interpreted through a grid of individual freedom. He’s right that commercial ramifications aren’t actually restrictions on Folau’s free speech, but ‘free responses’ to Folau — that the market will solve the problem (and force the hand of the new ‘religious’ regime which is thoroughly wedded to the market). Free speech and ‘religious freedom’ are ultimately concerns that come from a certain sort of view about ‘the good’ being tied to unfettered personal liberty… But my argument about Australia failing Folau isn’t about freedom of speech or expression, but about a failure to accomodate or understand religious belief (perhaps as a result of the failure of the church outlined above). There’s a great new podcast, The Eucatastrophethat has been exploring some of these foundational issues in recent episodes — which I’d commend to anyone who wants to think more about this stuff.

Australia is failing Israel in precisely the way the church is — in needing a celebrity to use their ‘platform’ to promote a particular sort of ‘gospel’ — but further, in refusing to make space for other expressions of other convictions. The church failed to embrace pluralism when we were tested in the same sex marriage debate; we failed to properly account for our belief in a spiritual order and made natural arguments, and we failed to make space for different spiritualities or understanding of life. We pushed a zero-sum agenda; we pushed for monotheism (bizarrely without making a case for monotheism), and now ‘secular’ Australia, after a decisive public decision making process, has adopted that zero-sum, monotheistic, approach when dealing with opposition. We’re reaping the whirlwind, and it’s unclear how the Australian ‘public’ square is going to change any time soon, especially if we, the church, can’t recognise our failures and shift accordingly.

 

Christmas presents and paradoxes

By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.

Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).


Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.

The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.

This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.

 


Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.

The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.

Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.

“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”

But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.

Try Jesus. Today (an explanation for a new website)

Over summer I read two fascinating books that got me thinking about the role of the ‘physical’ commons; public space, and what it means that public space is now ‘privatised’ in that people pay money to bombard us with messages via outdoor advertising, and screens, and ever more invasive techniques to get us to buy things or see the world a particular way. This is never more truly pronounced than in an election campaign, but it’s actually much more sinister apart from those campaigns (which claim to be about the ‘public good’ of democracy and aiming to somehow help inform our choice as we ‘shape the public life’ of our community).

One book was about how to cultivate an ethic of attention via embodied practices and deliberation — Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, the other was a manifesto for public space activism (graffiti etc) called Advertising Shits In Your Head (free ebook)In one passage, Crawford describes heading to an airport and being bombarded, from start to finish, by advertising — even on the trays you put your odds and ends on as they pass through security — everywhere is ‘noisy’, space everywhere is ‘commoditised’, except where you pay for it not to be — the lounges…

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge.”

This made me think not just about what an uncontested, non-privatised commons would look like (Crawford says public space should ultimately be as freely available as oxygen), but about how to advance what I believe is the public good of the Gospel apart from these commercial pressures (or what I would put into public space to grab the attention of a passer by, for their good).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a fascinating anarchist text that had me thinking of all sorts of ‘reclaiming the commons’ campaigns that would be, I think, basically illegal. I’ve often noticed sticker bomb campaigns on pedestrian crossing/traffic light poles in the city and wondered about a ‘sticker bomb the Gospel’ approach to getting Jesus into the public psyche, or conversation. I wondered for a while if appropriately submitting to authorities, if one believes that the commons should be free not controlled by private interests, is not to not claim a presence, but to pay the fine (or do the clean up time) for participating in a conversation aimed at reclaiming the commons. I think I’ve decided to err on the side of caution on this front… but it did get me thinking; what would I use to draw the attention of the average, distracted, passer by on the streets (or in the ‘virtual commons’ of, say, the Facebook news feed (though this one requires paying for presence, ultimately becoming part of the problem (though offsetting that by offering something that one believes is genuinely a source of ‘human flourishing’ or a social good (less than can be said for Coca Cola (and when I was at uni we were told their ‘outdoor strategy’ is to get the brand in someone’s face close to ten times a day because science showed that was an effective ‘implanting’ tipping point that would increase the chances of prompting a purchase).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a manual for ‘subvertising’, claiming “the modern subvertising movement has consumerism as its target. Many practitioners present their work as explicitly anti-capitalist and almost all object to outdoor advertising as a form of propaganda,” it quotes a guy campaigning to outlaw public advertising, Jordan Seiler, saying “Our acceptance of advertising is testament to how much advertising in general has infused itself into our lives and we consider it to be a medium that is inescapable and just inherently part of the capitalist system…” It says (and I find it hard to disagree):

“It’s not that propaganda, public relations, advertising, or the intersections of all three are inherently evil, it is rather that the system they have been so adept at promoting throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is responsible for economic crises, resource wars, widening inequality, and perhaps most alarmingly, environmental destruction on a global scale. Subvertisers can justifiably argue that propaganda is, once again, marshalling millions to their deaths.”

In short, in theological terms, public advertising is often a tool of ‘babylon’ luring us away from the flourishing life that is found in relationship with our creator, through Jesus, and towards idols that are disappointing and destructive. You don’t need that Tag Heuer watch; nor do you need to desire it.

In the political theology essay I posted yesterday I made the case that Christians should be disruptors of beastly systems — including, to some extent, the sort of ‘capitalism’ built on the idea that we should define our humanity in terms of consumption and the pursuit of happiness through products and services that we pay for and develop using technology (so that we become little cogs in an economic machine). It seems to me that advertising plays a pretty substantial part in keeping us there because it is so rarely, if ever, targeted at the public good rather than some agenda to serve a private good (even doing so by creating a perceived ‘public good’… and even public service announcement style ‘advertising’ from governments is so often coupled with the agenda of winning re-election not by leading a conversation about public good, but by jumping on board such a conversation once the political pulse has well and truly been checked). I’m also a former ‘propagandist’ (at least an ethical one, I hope, and perhaps not entirely ‘former’), and I think there are methods or techniques of ‘propaganda’ that can genuinely put to good use for the sake of the common good so long as they seek persuasion without manipulation or coercion (part of the topic I explored in my thesis about how to ethically and excellently communicate/engage in the public square with the Gospel).

So as I read these books I wondered: what would I do to ‘subvert’ the narrative of advertisers and their claiming of ‘public space’ for their private interests? If I was to invade that space in order to subvert those intentions for the good of my neighbours, what would I do? The answer, of course, is Jesus — who so utterly is at odds with the agenda of ‘Babylon’ or the self-gratifying propagandist, and who does offer, if the Gospel is true, ultimate satisfaction and the ‘abundant life’. I wondered, what would I turn into a sticker to slap up on public spaces, or use as a little ‘tear off’ poster on a community noticeboard? What would I hope might realistically evoke a sense of curiousity, and once evoked, how would I move that curiousity to action (or what marketers call ‘conversion’)? So I started trying to write a website inviting people to try Jesus, and to do it immediately. I wanted to explore the connection between Jesus and the ‘public good’ or the flourishing life, and so focus on the truth, goodness, and beauty of the life, example, and teaching of Jesus (the Gospel) and the life it produces; it’s not that I don’t want to talk about sin and judgment (those are inescapably part of that life), but I want repentance to be more about turning to Jesus than away from sin… and then I wanted the steps towards ‘trying Jesus’ to be more about experiences that give the Gospel plausibility, and more about the heart than the head (though not not about the head — given that those intuitions and emotions are also produced by the brain in response to stimulus and to some extent thought, and also the evidence for Christianity is quite compelling).

So I started a website: tryjesus.today

It’s not complete. It will hopefully evolve. I’d love it to include short video testimonies from people who’ve decided to give Jesus a try (maybe that’s you?), and I’d also love your feedback about what you reckon works, and what doesn’t… and how to do this act of ‘subvertising’ without undermining the message of the Gospel.

A tale of two thieves and three crosses: how we might not be in the spot we think we are when it comes to suffering like Jesus

Jesus says the world will hate us because of him (Matthew 10:22) and that when we are hated we should remember that he was hated first (John 15:18).

There’s a bit of pre-emptive back patting going on at the moment because boy, does the world seem to hate us. We must be doing something right if we’re being crucified… right? Jesus did tell us to take up our cross and follow him; so doing that should always involve crucifixion.

It doesn’t need to be said, but we ought to be careful that we understand our suffering rightly; I’m all for a bit of cruciformity (I even wrote my thesis on how our public Christianity and attempts to persuade ought to be excellently cruciform), but it’s possible to experience the pain agony of being hated and humiliated for reasons other than being faithful to Jesus.

It’s possible that in our excitement about finally being softly persecuted in the public square; of being made a spectacle of; that we’re missing that the reason this is happening is actually because we’re guilty.

I’d be more sympathetic to the idea that the current round of public crucifixions of Christians were because of the name of Jesus and an echo of the treatment of Jesus if the people doing the complaining had done any speaking about Jesus in the lead up to this treatment, not simply spoken for a traditional position in the face of an oppressed and vulnerable minority seeking to establish what they understand as a basic human right.

There were, of course, three people executed on Calvary on that first easter. And it’s easy for us Christians to slip into identifying with the one on the middle, rather than those places on the right and left. And of course, we should. We share in the death of Jesus so that we might share in his resurrection.

One criminal, of course, joined with the crowd — with the whole world — as it crucified Jesus; rejecting him. Hating him. Hating God. Hating truth. Hating the idea that life is only truly lived if it is lived submitting to his rule not our own. That real human identity depends on who or what you worship; that what you worship has consequences; that if you’re not worshipping God you’ve declared war on him… that we don’t just get to choose who to be as the “Lord’s of our tiny skull sized kingdoms” as David Foster Wallace once put it… the world hated that idea and hates it still. The world hated Jesus because he claimed that the flourishing human life was found not in morality or legalism or the laws of the land, not in marriage, or family, or career, or success… but in him, and him alone. In dying and rising with him.

More often than we’d like to admit, we’re like this first guy. We’re on our cross and angry at the world; angry at God… but our anger at the world is because we haven’t been able to use the power of the world to get what we want. These criminals were likely leaders of the same insurrection that Barabbas had been arrested for… people who wanted to overthrow the government to shape it according to their religious beliefs. So we feel a great injustice when we’re being hated because we know, deep down, our convictions are truer than the people who’ve put us there… hating Jesus because he didn’t play the power game. He could’ve overthrown Caesar with the sword, and an army of angels, if he’s really the Messiah, but here he is on a cross… what a disappointment to this thief and his political beliefs.

This criminal hurled words at Jesus; adding to insult to injury, literally. The other criminal understood something about himself and the guy being killed unjustly next to him at that moment.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” — Luke 23:39-41

It’s easy to think that we, like Jesus, are blameless when it comes to the hatred thrown at us. It’s easy to think that we’ve done nothing wrong. But in this little episode we’re probably more like this second criminal; rightly under the same sentence as the one who throws insults at Jesus. Punished justly; hated for things we’ve actually done; dependent on God’s grace and mercy.

If anybody teaches us the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ principle, it’s this second thief looking at the first. He gets it. He gets that the hatred he is experiencing is totally deserved; that he brings nothing in his hands to King Jesus, and so he turns to him and sees something in his unjust suffering that makes something click. He sees some sort of game changer for understanding life in this world against life in God’s kingdom. And he makes a shift from being justly hated, to having Jesus be hated in his place. Because it’s not just the government who weigh up and dish out hate for sin… it’s God…

It’s telling that the second thief, having come to this realisation, doesn’t get into a slanging match, or culture war, with the other criminal. He answers him gently, and with a question, don’t you fear God? He makes a declaration about who Jesus is, followed up by this act of repentance — of turning his life over to the king.

“Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:42-43

To this point in the story the crowd, the state (and its soldiers), and everybody else has been hurling insults at Jesus. Hating him. And straight after the thief getting what he deserves from the state gets much more than he deserves (in a good way) from Jesus, the land goes dark, Jesus dies, and the centurion who’d been standing there for this little exchange; a symbol of power — of the very power overseeing Jesus’ execution, of worldly authority — when he sees how Jesus faces hatred unjustly, he declares “Surely this was a righteous man.”  His testimony echoes the words of the thief… and I like to think this injustice haunted him, plagued his conscience, turned him to the guy on the centre cross. But I don’t think he lost any sleep over the just death of two rebels and the state’s hatred of their crimes.

It’s easy to think we’re suffering for being just like the guy on the middle cross. And it’s great when we do… but sometimes actually recognising that we’re justly being hated for being jerks, and pointing to that guy in the middle and saying ‘you’re innocent and king of the kingdom of heaven, help me out in my guilt’ is actually a greater testimony than claiming to be blameless. Sometimes it might even convince those powerful members of the state who make decisions and stuff.

A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
     
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.

 

 

Hungry Hungry Hippos: The danger of modern politics as a zero sum game, and the need for a more hospitable public square

Did you ever play the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

It goes a bit like this. Only with more punching and tantrums.

It’s a mildly fun competitive board game for kids; my fear is that this is pretty much what has trained today’s adults in how to participate in the public square. Nobody plays Hungry, Hungry Hippos and sets out to ensure an equal distribution of marbles to all players so that everybody wins. We play to get more than our fair share. That’s how you win; in fact, it’s what defines winners and losers. In the ultimate victory in Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’d get all the marbles and your opponents get none.

If I’ve understood the economic theory correctly, and it’s possible I haven’t because I’m not an economist… Hungry, Hungry Hippos is a ‘zero sum game’. It’s a game where my winning is directly relating to the losing of others; every marble I munch is one my opponents can’t munch. I get 1 marble, and my opponent doesn’t just get zero, they lose the opportunity for a marble, so the ‘sum’ of the interaction is zero. Or, as wikipedia puts it:

“Zero-sum games are a specific example of constant sum games where the sum of each outcome is always zero. Such games are distributive, not integrative; the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation.”

Modern politics; or the modern public square, feels like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We play politics these days as a zero sum game; there’s a finite amount of resources available for distribution, or there’s an issue where there’s a clear binary; winners and losers, and the major parties race to pick a side to champion (and therefore one to destroy), and we all line up behind them. We’ve lost the idea of a public square and political realm that operates for the common good of all people and we play the game as though goods are to be distributed in a sort of zero sum way; that’s sensible when it comes to dollars. You can’t just print more money to pay everybody everything they want… but it’s terrible for social policy. We’re perhaps so used to competing for marbles (or resources) when it comes to dollars and projects (whether its playing off health, education, and infrastructure development, against taxation policy) and then distributing those dollars according to priorities with a sort of ‘zero sum’ outcome, that we’ve forgotten that sometimes a commons, or a public sphere, might allow everybody to win, or nobody to win, or even for us to think in terms of things other than winning and losing, and find ways to negotiate towards acceptable outcomes for everybody.

It’s not just our political parties that take the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach to public life and policy making; its lobbyists, activists and interest groups (pretty much all the same thing)… all these groups out to get their fair share of the marbles, or their interests recognised at law at the expense of all the other players. All looking to win. In fact, I’d say it’s the lobbyists/activists who keep us playing this way, they’re often the ones with particular interests, it’s not that our political parties don’t have ideologies (though often it seems our politicians have the ideology of staying in power by being populist, and that’s why there’s a growing disillusionment with the political process in Australia), but in my observation (and dealings with politicians directly or indirectly), often politicians know that their jobs involve compromise; that’s the reality in their party rooms, and it might just be a matter of different interest groups playing a different game and producing creative alternative proposals, that would see more democratic, less ‘zero sum game’ outcomes for people.

Maybe the alternative to Hungry, Hungry Hippos democracy, which is, in social issues, about making sure your views become the views favoured, protected, or enshrined, in legislation; that you not just ‘your fair share’, but a win, is Hospitable Hippos. Maybe this looks like allowing other participants in the public sphere to get their share too, perhaps even get their share first… perhaps even to get their share at our expense, or given to them by us rather than it being something we fight to take… Could this be what it looks like to move from a ‘distributive’ zero sum game to an ‘integrative’ game where the pie is enlarged, or at least we’ve got a better sense of how to eat the pie together in peace and enjoyment.

I wrote the other day about how Christians in particular should be approaching the public square; our ‘common’ life together with our neighbours as though it’s a dining table where we think in terms of hospitality; and I’ve previously written about how real secular democracy that makes space for different views, rather than just imposing ‘majority rule’ (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach) involves a commitment to a generous pluralism. Here’s a couple of principles, from the Bible, that should be governing Christian participation in the public square, or the life of ‘common’ community, that should cause us to rethink those times when we fall into the trap of playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos, pursuing victory at the expense of others (when there might be shared outcomes) in a ‘zero sum game’. The shortcut to thinking about why this might be good and right for all of us, not just Christians, is to imagine the other side winning a total victory and you losing, and using that imagining to come up with something a little more empathetic.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Matthew 22:36-39

(The first commandment is probably not quite so applicable to an atheist, or community of atheists, operating in a pluralistic context).

Here’s a bit where Paul fleshes out what these bits

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4-5

To name the elephant in the room, or the hippo, this is evident in the debate around same sex marriage, which has returned to prominence in the last couple of weeks, and people have been furiously bashing buttons to make sure their little underfed hippos get as many marbles as possible; at the expense of the other players. This debate has been framed by both marriage equality advocates and Christian advocates for maintaining the definition of marriage as a zero sum game.

It scares me, as a Christian, to think what might happen if marriage equality advocates win the zero sum game, and then decide to respond by treating us Christians as they feel like they’ve been treated. There’s a palpable push from some advocates for change to not protect religious freedoms beyond a secular/sacred divide (so people conducting marriages as religious celebrants will be protected) that, as someone who rejects the idea that there’s a secular/sacred divide, or that religion is a private matter within the home or the institution of the church, is threatening… The maw of those hippos, and their deadly, terrible, teeth frighten me a little…

But we Christians are no better. We’ve set this debate up as an all or nothing thing; as though the definition of marriage provided for us from our religious convictions about God, the world, and humanity, should apply to everybody because we say he says it is good for them. No matter how you frame it this is neither hospitable, pluralistic, or generous to those who have a fundamentally different vision of human flourishing. It pushes other views, and the people who hold them, away from the table (which isn’t actually our table), and insists they eat on our terms, or not at all. It is an attempt to define what a ‘fair share’ is that leaves us holding on to more marbles than our neighbours.

By taking this zero sum game approach we’ve essentially invited our neighbours to do the same thing… in fact, we’ve given them no real alternative option, we’ve decided this how the game is going to be played, or we’ve joined in without questioning whether this is how we should be playing it. By approaching the table, the ‘board’, or the public square as a competitive environment rather than a place where we work out how to live together across difference, despite difference, in a spirit of generosity, we’ve invited other people to crush us. To me this seems to fail those two key principles Jesus says sums up the Old Testament law (which is ironic, given where we draw our arguments from), and it’s a failure to truly love the other.

There are other options that might see us keeping our marbles, rather than losing them… there’s an approach to this marriage debate that we could take that would maintain our ability to be different and distinct, but also to share a table (metaphorically and literally) with those who are also different and distinct to us, without seeking to destroy them. It’s possible we could approach this debate with less punching. We just have to change the game.

What does this look like? A hospitable, or generous, pluralism?

It looks like stepping back from fighting to define marriage for everyone, and instead asking that Christians — either in public or private — be free to understand marriage according to our convictions (and that our neighbours with other religious, political, cultural, or moral, convictions be free to do the same). It seems that lots of us think this is the thing we’ll salvage after we lose the big war, by fighting robustly on the definition front to show how much we care — but that’s not how Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or a zero sum game works.

It looks like giving up fighting for our rights to win and define things for everybody.

It looks like recognising that the government are the guardians of the commons; that we live in a democracy (not a populist country ruled by a tyranny of the majority), so that the results of a plebiscite are largely irrelevant if there are even some people in our community who feel excluded from the table by our approach. Democracy, at its best, protects minorities from the majority because it views all people as equal.

I understand that many, many, advocates for the definition of marriage are arguing on the basis of a view of human flourishing connected to the family, to the uniqueness and importance of gender difference, and ‘for the sake of the children’; these are views I share, but they are views that are contested, there are other views of human flourishing held by our neighbours and we get into dangerous territory when we, as Christians, start suggesting that our God’s views, or the views of the majority, should dictate the practices of all (again, ironically, the same people arguing most stridently against marriage definition also argue most stridently against anything that looks like sharia law).

We don’t have to lose our marbles to participate in public life and politics as Christians, but maybe we might consider giving some up? Being less hungry, and more inclined to share the table with others…

 

A tale of two tables: Public Christianity, common conversations, and our place at the table

One of the most telling things about many of the conversations I’ve participated in and watched around the ABC expose on domestic violence in churches in the last week is around the place we Christians seem to want to occupy at the common ‘table’ and the way we then operate our own ‘table’…

A tale of two tables

Bear with me. I’m going to use the table as a metaphor for where these conversations happen. Let’s assume for a moment that the public square is like a dining table; lots of people with ideas clamour for seats. For a long time, in Christendom, the institutional church had one of the prime positions (if not the prime position for a while) at this table. We set the agenda; we were the hosts; it was assumed we would look out for the common good. Over time our place at the head was contested, and we moved away from the head but remained in a position of influence. We were still heard. Now. Well. The table is both ‘secular’ in that our voice doesn’t get a particularly special place, ‘pluralistic’ in that many voices — institutional, and even religious — are welcomed, but there’s increasingly an expectation that religious beliefs are a bit out of touch and probably don’t have much of a place, and we’re tolerated so long as we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is and act to bring change according to an agenda set by the host.

There’s a second table in this metaphor. It’s the table that we run. The one where we invite other people to be part of discussions; where we are the host, and where we should be particularly interested to invite people that the rest of society ignores. Historically this has been where the church has been an excellent force for social change; because the conversations at this second table have informed our participation at the first. But mostly because this table is where we see the power of the Gospel to generally bring people together as family; where the worldly games of status and power get put aside (incidentally, this is why Paul is so keen to rebuke the way status games are creeping in to the share meal in Corinth)… Our literal table is meant to be different as an expression of this metaphor. If the first table is the public square, and the banquet is the communication that happens there; the second is our Christian community and the conversations that happen there. How we approach the first table as leaders or the ‘institution’ shapes the tone of the second, and who feels welcome (because in fact, how we approach the first table should reflect who is speaking at the second).

The dilemma is that not only have we lost our place of honour at the first table — now it’s a place where we’re increasingly losing our dignity. We’re now viewed with the sort of suspicion reserved for the slightly delusional great-uncle at a family gathering. There’s now increasingly a belief that we’re not just delusional but harmful and unwelcome. So we protest like that same great-uncle would about being shunted down the line, replaced by new in-laws, out-laws, and Johny-come-latelys. We’ve lost a bit of status and dignity. We’re really worried about losing our seat; and so we act out a bit, yell loudly about our historic contribution, and forget that a big part of our value was what we brought to table one from table two; that those contributions were noticed and gave us legitimacy. And yet, we do still get seats at the table; our lobbyists are heard, and invited onto TV panel programs, so too are pretty exceptional representatives of the clergy and the church; who are invited to contribute to discussions.

I’m not the first to use these two tables as a metaphor; Jesus was. But more recently there was a great article in Cardus’ Comment Magazine that planted this idea for me. Here’s a bit from Luke 14, where Jesus has been invited into the house of a Pharisee; to dine at the table of a ruler of the pharisees. This is the public sphere; and Luke tells us ‘they are watching him carefully’… it’s the sabbath. And Jesus heals a man with dropsy; an outcast. A man whose illness and physical disfigurement would’ve excluded him from the sort of power and influence his host enjoyed. And at this table, there’s a competition for top spot…

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” — Luke 14:7-14

It feels to me like we Christians are getting bumped down the pecking order in that table of influence; further and further away from the place of honour. And we keep grabbing a seat that’s about where we think we should be and being dropped a peg or two; and the way back up isn’t to noisily defend our honour; but to act with honour and dignity; to present ourselves as more lowly than we actually are… and there seems to be a connection between this picture and the one that immediately follows of hosting a banquet. This is a picture of the sort of literal and metaphorical hospitality we should be offering in this world; of our priorities in terms of the sorts of people whose voices we should be concerned about at our table. 

When it comes to the Domestic Violence conversation, here’s where I think our approach to the dilemma we’re more broadly experiencing around our place at table one kicks in. We’re so keen not to be the crazy uncle, we’re so keen to keep our place at the table, that we lash out at anybody who has the temerity to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with us that should keep us from the conversation. Like the crazy uncle who keeps turning up in his underwear and thinks there’s a great conspiracy to get rid of him when all the rest of the family want is for him to wear pants and behave with common decency; and to stop trying to sit at the head and dictate the conversation for everybody else.

This is what it looks like to me when we keep going after the ABC for ‘bias’ or as though there’s an anti-Christian agenda behind this story or its use of stats (which I do believe were a very minor part of the investigation and the story, they were just the controversy used to sell the story). And News Ltd isn’t helping (nor is our ongoing desire for the institution to be vindicated by the court of public opinion). They’ve found a wedge in their ongoing stoush with the ABC and they’re using the figure of the great uncle to score points against another voice at the table. Every time we try to land a blow on the ABC we’re failing to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to respond to curse with blessing. Every time we clamour for a spot at table one by asserting our dignity and our rightful place there, we’re making table two seem less hospitable to the victims in our communities.

We may well have been misrepresented — certainly the headline and hook sentence of that first article (probably written by a sub-editor, not the reporters) was unhelpful, and Media Watch has rightfully critiqued the ABC’s coverage for that… but what we’re not considering in our attempts to maintain an honourable position at table one, is what the cost is to our ability to run our second table; to being hospitable and welcoming to those we should be hospitable and welcoming to.

Table two should be our primary concern. Table two is the table where we should be making space for the victims; the vulnerable, and the oppressed. And so many of those women, on social media, are reporting that our concern to maintain face and dignity at table one — institutionally — to protect the brand — is coming at a cost of them feeling welcome at table two. Our leaders have been so quick to share criticisms of the ABC article, its methodology, its headline, its use of ‘research’ (and I use those quote marks deliberately because on the one hand we’re dismissive of the year long investigation of actual stories in Australia, and on the other hand I think research from America a decade ago is of questionable value in assessing the Australian scene anyway); and this, in my observations, has been from a desire to maintain the dignity of the church and keep us getting a place at the table. I think it’s a wrong strategy. I think it’s harmful for our table one status; and disastrous for our hosting of table two. And we need to assess our priorities. And the way to do that is to listen to the people who are at our table with us — or should be — the victims; be that in the stories Julia Baird unearthed, or the many victims who’ve come forward on social media. One of my Facebook friends, Isabella Young, is a victim and an advocate for victims in the church; she said the other day:

“This appears to be turning into the rest of the church versus the abuse victims unfortunately. I really don’t care what those stats say, what I do care about is that no one is discussing the individual points raised in the article or documentary. But we all like a fight don’t we?”

 

Our job is to be the hosts of this other table that is utterly different to the table of the Pharisees — the tables that operate in the world of power and status. Jesus returns to the idea of places of honour at banquets a bit later in Luke’s Gospel.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Luke 20:46-47

This is a picture of the status hungry gone rogue — people who in pursuit of their own honour also devour widows houses. People who should be hosts but are wolves and abusers of the vulnerable. That’s what we’re not to be; people who are so concerned with our own dignity and place at the public table — these ‘feasts’ — that we are destroying our ability to be hospitable to the vulnerable.

I reckon that’s a key to this role we’re meant to play as generous hosts to the vulnerable, who are then able to represent the vulnerable well as advocates in other spheres. I suspect the closer we are to the head of table one — the more proximate we are to worldly power — the harder this passionate advocacy is to achieve; much like it would have been harder for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees if he was one. Our relationship to worldly power should be the same, I suspect, as his relationship to the Pharisees; an expectation of crucifixion for calling out when that power is being abused. It’s hard to do that if we’re at the head of that table, or our relationship is too cosy, or if we want to be treated with dignity and respect; rather than seeing our mission as speaking on behalf of those at table two. Our table.

Here’s the thing. Realising that we’re not at the head of the table, or in a place of honour, any longer at table one is vital for our ability to do public Christianity; or participate in the public square; with dignity. Self-protection is a lot like aiming for a place of honour that we don’t deserve; having others protect our dignity is not an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” — if it happens it is nice, and we should be thankful, but turning the other cheek means we don’t use another person’s testimony in our favour to hit back.

Realising we’re not the host of the public conversation also guides the way we contribute to the conversation; its not our conversation to run, it’s not our job to define terms, or to be defensive; our best ‘defence’ is who we host at table two, and how we speak for and look out for their interests. That’s where we gain credibility; that and in our humility which is expressed in treating our host and conversation partners with respect even when they wrong us; even when they’re trying to trap us; even if ultimately they’ll crucify us. That’s what Jesus was doing in Luke 14, even as he implicitly rebuked the Pharisees by healing the crippled man on the sabbath; as he explicitly rebuked them by suggesting his host and guests had their approach to hospitality and honour wrong, and building a table for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” is what Jesus came to achieve; the table he builds is the table of his kingdom; these people are tangible pictures of those who know they need God and salvation in Luke’s Gospel — Jesus has previously proclaimed ‘it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:31), and these are the people Jesus explicitly said he came to liberate in Luke 4. This is the sort of table we’re to be building in our own communities; and our efforts in the last few days, in many cases, have been deconstructive rather than constructive. 

Public Christianity and bearing the image of God: some confessions and a response to the response to Q&A’s Christian episode

Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.

Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.

Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.

Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).

I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.

We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.

It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.

trump

So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:17

I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.

I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms.  The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…

“… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:10-14

Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.

Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?

Did they say “X”? 

Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…

And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20

This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.

This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.

A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.

Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.

In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.

Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.

If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.

Being on message for Jesus without projecting yourself: An interview with David Ould

From time to time – well, twice before, I’ve interviewed people who have stepped out into the public sphere as Christians and stuck to their guns, winsomely talking about Jesus. You can read interviews with Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton and Guy Mason from Melbourne. Today, we’re heading to Sydney. Chatting to David Ould – who has appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project not once, but twice. I wanted to chat to David about what engaging with culture looks like – or, more correctly, what engaging our culture with the Good News about Jesus looks like. What follows are some transcripted highlights from our chat.

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For those not familiar with your story – how did this all happen?

“I ended up on the project almost on a whim. I was driving with my kids, to school, in the morning, and the radio station in Sydney was running a competition. And I thought “I might have a crack at that” – so that day when I got home from work I put together a little application and shot a little video with the kids. I thought there’s no way this will happen. I was absolutely astounded when I got a call three days later.”

Your first appearance you were joining the panel, the second you were speaking about a particular topic. How do you prepare?

“For the no holds barred panel discussion, the first thing I did to prepare was watching it a lot more than I had before, and just trying to get my head around the format, and the style – just getting my head around the temperature, you want to play the ball that’s in front of you.

It was the week of the gay weddings in New Zealand, and I was worried that that would get featured, but they covered that on Monday. You get a briefing pack of the day’s news on the day. That’s how you prepare for it. You read that, and then you just say I’m going to have a bit of fun.

The second time, they called me up, and ran the story by me – about ABS data on religious belief and affiliation in Australia. My brain goes “give them something a bit interesting” – so basically I told them they were wrong, and what the real story was.

One of the things you’ve got to do is think about how you talk about Jesus as positively as possible in front of a lot of people.

You’re always thinking, aren’t you, well you should be, what do I do to talk about Jesus. That’s surely my agenda as a Christian. To talk about Jesus. So then you start thinking – how does this data tell me about Jesus. The census data is really a reflection of nominalism, nominal Christian belief and the way our culture has shifted, people are just being more honest about their beliefs. And genuine Christian belief is of course centered around understanding who Jesus is, and responding to him – and so then it becomes natural to be able to talk about things in terms of Christianity, and then genuinely following Jesus. So that’s what I sought to do in the interview, and also what I sought to do is rather than talking about religion in general, is talk about what I know about. Which is Christianity. Which is still the big major religion in Australia.”

Did you feel like in the background stuff – you had to play down the Jesus stuff and surprise them when you got on?

No. I went in, I applied for the show the first time around with the line that normal Christians don’t get a fair play in mainstream media. I almost dared them to take me on on that basis. I felt no need to play down – in fact – quite the opposite, I felt like that was the gimmick in having me on, not just a Christian, but a minister in fact. So there’s no need to play that down. Is there? If that is your gimmick. So the call back on the second time was on that basis – because I’m a Christian. So, given that they’re speaking to you on that basis that you’re a Christian, and surely your great desire is to talk about Jesus, it seems to me a no brainer at that point, you just go Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Had you done much media before The Project? Are you a media tart?

Not a bit. No wait. That’s a lie. A little bit of local newspaper work on the lower north shore in Sydney. Just the sort of shameless stuff you do to try to get the church into the newspaper. But no, nothing like this.

You did some radio stuff around the project?

Yeah, we did some radio promos around the competition, I was on air a couple of times talking about it, and then we leveraged it into the local newspapers after it.

Some of the leveraging – that was about your charity a little bit?

Yeah, so the point of interest was “local minister on national TV” – so you play that card – but I’m really, in my job, trying to achieve two things – first and foremost I’m trying to achieve the proclamation of Jesus, here in my local community and have that done in a positive way, but also I’m spruiking my charity, which is based on the church grounds, which I’m the chairman of. To me, that’s actually doing the same thing, because to me “they see our good works and they praise our Father in Heaven.” So I have no problem talking about the good works we do in Jesus name. So just keeping those two things tight together in people’s sense of who we are.

Is that a form of cultural engagement?

It’s a form of community engagement.

What’s the difference?

“You can quote me on this. Cultural engagement seems to be a bit of a buzz word these days, I’m all for engaging with the culture. But it’s not a silver bullet. The Gospel is the silver bullet. So it’s important that we understand our culture, it’s important that we critique it, analyse it, but then it’s important that we bring the Gospel to bear on what we’ve observed there. So the question you’re asking, all the time, as you look at culture, is what is the great news, and the answer that the Gospel brings to the conundrums, to the problems, to the questions, that are being raised in the culture. And of course what is the answer that the Gospel brings to the questions the culture doesn’t know it should be asking. Which means, of course, you’ve got to start with the Gospel itself, and use it as the lens. The danger is we get to the position where we use our culture as a lens through which we look at the Gospel. So for example, the great extreme example is something like Liberation Theology – where the experience of people in a culture becomes the lens through which the Gospel is read. Whereas the flipside of that, is the example of slaves in America, where the Gospel became the lens through which they understood their experience. So slaves in the south could sing “free at last, free at last. I’m a Christian, I’m free from sin, and that radically impacts the way I see the world around me” – and Liberation Theologians, and further south, in South America, will look at “free at last” and say well you must be talking about your physical reality.”

Of course, the flipside is that we don’t read our culture at all, and we don’t understand how to talk to our culture at all. So the classic stereotype of sandwich board wearing people standing outside a supermarket shouting “the end of the world is nigh,” reading from the King James. That’s the classic example. But there’s a little bit of me that just wants to go, you know what, good on him. It’s the word of God and I’m not ashamed of the Gospel.

You’ve got to work out what that is – the thing that I fear is that we think it’s some sort of silver bullet, or that somehow we’re going to win people over to ourselves and then import the Gospel in. I think we’re better leading with the Gospel itself.

I’ve been thinking a little bit about the labels we use to describe how we do things this week, because I think community engagement – or social justice – and cultural engagement – are really important, but I agree with you on the dangers. What about using the terms “Gospel Justice” and “Gospel Engagement” to get that priority order right?

Yeah. So. In terms of good works – we preached through James earlier last year – the Gospel tells me that I treat people with grace. I’m a sick people being made well. I’m to treat people that way. James chapter 2 is just really clear – you either get the Gospel or you don’t, and if you do, you treat people in a certain way. I don’t think you need a fancy word for that. And then it’s about that simplicity of preaching the Gospel to a world that is lost, and nothing will save but the declaration of who Jesus is, and what he’s done.

I agree – but when you’re approaching an issue like asylum seekers – I really liked that post you wrote where you retold the Gospel as a refugee story – I’m thinking there’s an art to that, and that’s the kind of social justicy stuff I think we should be doing – social justice that specifically demonstrates the Gospel story. There doesn’t seem to be a huge model for that…

There is a model for that. The Scriptures, not least of which, Jesus himself. It’s a model. Marriage models the Gospel – so when you’re talking about marriage and sex and that kind of thing, you talk about it as a picture of the Gospel. And you’ve got Jesus’ parables, he’ll go “so there was a farmer in the field, and he needs some workers…” – he tells the Gospel of Grace in categories of whatever the debate is at the time. What he never allows those categories to do is distort what the Gospel is. It’s about letting the Gospel shape the way you come to an issue – so you ask “what does the Gospel have to say about this issue?” not “what does moralism have to say about this issue?” that’s the difference isn’t it. The question you need to ask is “if the Gospel were to be framed in the categories that are now in front of me, how would that be expressed?”

Which is what I think was the beauty of that asylum seeker post – it was just here’s Gospel categories applied in this situation. Here’s self sacrifice. Here’s how we as Christians tell the Gospel story by what we say into this situation. It’s the same with marriage equality stuff. The idea that you might sacrifice your sexuality for something bigger – that you might lay down your life to take up your cross – that confronts our culture but also provides an opportunity to express the Gospel through the stance we take.

So, back to The Project, you got the call from them second time around

Yeah. So, a researcher calls me, Monday after Christmas, and says, it’s so and so from the Project – have you got ten minutes? And I thought. I think I do. Sure. He ran me through the story, started to ask some questions, and then started to push me – about the decline in the census numbers – and starts to push me on whether this represents the collapse of Christianity.

And you’d pitched something into them between hadn’t you – about Kevin Rudd’s redefinition of Christianity – because you’d built a relationship with the producer while you were there?

I had five minutes after the show – and I was shameless – I said if you think I did ok, then I would like to talk about religious stuff with you guys again. I think I can give you what you want.

I emailed him about the K-Rudd stuff and he said “it’s over we’re not running it.” I think he thought he’d be voted out in a matter of days, and nobody would care.

I was still surprised to get the call.

Tell me about how you went about building relationships with a view to the longer term – at the heart of my PR advice is that it’s all about relationships. Building relationships with the media and developing trust and rapport.

Well it works in two ways, doesn’t it. It works in terms of just the actual person to person relationships. In which case you’ve got to be yourself, unless yourself is a really nasty and horrible person. In which case it’s over. And all the pastoral stuff you know anyway – everybody has a story, it’s important to be empathetic, to listen – you just want to keep doing that. The danger is that at the end of the day we do things to please people, so part of it is in yourself being confident as a Christian that you can hold your views with conviction, but be pleasant about it. That’s half the battle in our culture anyway – holding our views with good conscience and conviction, but doing it in a winsome and gracious way. So that’s the first way.

In terms of the business side of things – it’s remembering what they want from a guest or an interview. They want a dialogue. They want a conflict story. They want to be told they’re wrong. And they want short snappy sentences – particularly on a show like the Project, and if you can be interesting and funny – then go for it. It’s about working out what they want for that show – and giving them more of it.

Tell me about how you managed to apparently master the form of The Project in two goes?

You’re too kind – I think sometimes we end up doing stuff because they’re natural to us anyway, because it kind of works. It’s my nature to be very serious about things, but also to want to joke and have a joke. It’s my nature to be a bit of a people pleaser and to have a laugh. I’m not sure how that works – but it seems to work.

There is that business side to it – it’s about working out what product they want to buy, and then delivering it. So they want friendliness. They want chummy and matey conversations. They want the conflict. And they want to be able to finish on a joke – so you know, that’s kind of what we got the last time around. We had some serious topics – the topic itself, and abuse in the church and whether that had anything to do with it, and then I ended up trying to convert Dicko. Telling him to give Jesus another go – but doing it with a smile on my face.

You said in the lead up to your appearance you started watching it a bit more. Tell me how you went about exegeting the show, the ending with a joke thing is quite a perceptive observation.

So they call it infotainment – they mash together two things, the desire to be a news show, and entertaining. You can take two attitudes to that. And if you’re a news junky like me, it seems a bit like they’re dumbing it down – and they could be spending a whole hour of hard core news. And they are. But they’re also opening up news to an entirely different audience – people are watching the news again. And more than that, the people giving them the news are actually serious about it. So Carrie is actually a news presenter, and Charlie takes it very seriously, I was so impressed with that when I was there, and even Hughsie, they’ve change around a bit now, but he was there as a “token comedian” – he’s a very funny guy, but he was so engaged. They’re all very engaged around the production meeting table. Thinking things through.

You see that and you go what’s going on here. They want to get the information out, and have fun doing it. They seem to have that balance right. So you just try to mesh into that vibe. If you want to get Biblical about it, it’s the all things to all men thing, isn’t it. I’m never going to be Charlie or Dave – we don’t have to be – we go and meet people half way as an act of grace, we don’t leave behind what is fundamental to us. Jesus is our great model – he goes and he eats with sinners and tax collectors – he’s there with them, and yet he says the world will hate you because it hates me. He’s not going there to be loved, he’s going there to love. Our great danger is we go somewhere and the first thing we say is “please love me” and at that point the world’s affirmation of us is our idolatry, and we’ll rapidly discard anything that will make people not love us. But if we’re not so concerned about being loved, as loving, and revealing the Gospel, then we don’t fall into that trap. In a nation like Australia that’s easier sometimes than we think it might be. Australians like people to be themselves. They know when you’re faking it, and they don’t need you to conform.

In ministry I think we have to operate under the Tony Abbott principle. This has profoundly affected the way I think about doing ministry in Australia. I was in the lower north shore of Sydney, doing ministry, when Abbott became leader of the opposition and the Sydney Morning Herald and all their mates wrote off the Liberal Party until 2020, and the reality was the very opposite. The Liberals jumped in the polls. And we said “what is going on” – and of course, the answer is Australians like it when people talk straight. They hate spin – particularly when it comes to personal presentation. They love it when someone shoots from the hip and is just themselves. This means don’t fudge or undersell the hard stuff. We committed to not pulling our punches in sermons – we didn’t sugar coat anything – we gave it straight, without trying to explain it straight. God was good to us, every time we had a sermon like that we had visitors. I’d go up afterwards and say “it’s not always like that” and the standard response was “no, we loved it… there’s an authenticity.”

Authenticity and not pandering is the way to go.

Which brings us back to cultural engagement…

Yeah, we’ve just got to remember there is a silver bullet – and it’s already in the chamber – and it’s the Gospel. And anything that dilutes that is potentially very dangerous. And my other principle is that I’m seeking to lead with the Gospel. The Gospel is not the last part I want to say – it has to frame everything I’m going to say – now there are practical challenges that come with that, but if I’ve got it in my head, then hopefully that’s where I’ll go. All the PR guys tell you you’ve got to be on message. We’ve just got to work out what our message is. And it’s got to be the Gospel. Hasn’t it. It’s got to be the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus is great. Peter Jensen is famous for how he approached the media. He just said “I’ve got to tell you about three things – God, Jesus, Bible” – I dropped the first one. I just want to go straight to Jesus because I’m not a unitarian.

There’s an appropriateness to that because God speaks to the world in and through Jesus. That is the bridge between infinite God and finite us.

That’s right. That’s Matthew 11 isn’t it. There’s a beautiful logic to Matthew 11…

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

So there you go. What I love is the way Jesus does that. There is no way to know about God other than through Jesus. Which makes sense of the very next thing Jesus says.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Because if you are weary, and you are burdened, and there is no way to get to God other than Jesus, then the most logical, the most loving, the most natural thing for Jesus to say at that point is to say “come to me all of you” because there’s no where else to go. Your proclamation to anybody is those two things – making the exclusivity claim, and making the claim to rest in Jesus. And one hangs on the other.

One of our great idols – we’ve talked about this a little – is to be loved by the world. I think one of the problems that people doing public Christianity face, and this applies to blogging as well, and this is where the ‘cruciform’ thing comes in – it’s very easy to get on a soapbox, it’s very difficult to use that soapbox to deflect attention away from yourself and to Jesus. Can you talk about that? For all the fame and fun that comes from being on The Project – the concept that John the Baptist had “I must decrease so he may increase…”

I remember being in the vestry of a church once, and on the noticeboard was an ad from a magazine to buy a “50 years of Cliff Richard” plate, and somebody had just written, in pen, big enough to see, but small enough to be be discrete “John 3:30” – which is that verse. So that’s your principle. You say “my job is to talk about Jesus” – what’s the mechanism of that, for John the Baptist, all of Judea went to him, so it’s ok for all of Judea to go to you, but not ok if you don’t point to Jesus. And John, of course, is incredibly impressive in the way that he goes about it, because he takes the people with him and he sends them to Jesus, and of course, he gets cut off pretty quickly. But that’s his intention. So what do you do?

You’ve got to stay humble. You’ve got to remember that you’re a sinner and Jesus is your saviour. You’ve got to get a good wife. Who’ll keep you humble. That’s really helpful. You’ve got to spend your time at the foot of the Cross. You’ve got to remember that at the end of the day it really is just about the audience of one – here’s the thing. If I keep talking about Jesus – that’s going to cure me of any desire for popularity. You cannot desire to be popular and pronounce the exclusivity of Jesus, and judgment, in the mainstream media. You can do it in our little Protestant ghettos.

Yeah, but the way you did it, it didn’t seem as offensive as the guys standing on street corners

I just kept saying to myself “keep smiling, keep smiling” – except when I was talking about the child abuse stuff, but that’s a good example to – when you’ve got to wear something, wear it. Greg Clarke was great on that one – when he was doing his stuff on the Da Vinci Code a few years ago, he said “where Dan Brown lands his punches, you’ve got to take them on the chin.” So, where it comes to the treatment of women – we’ve got to absolutely take it on the chin. Concede it. That’s part of the winsomeness. When you’re not being defensive all the time, it’s a chance to go “oh, ok”… it’s kind of the skill of empathy as well. The older you get the more you have heard people’s stories and you get it. You get where people are hurting.

Making stuff not about you is a profound challenge for blogging as well

When you’re doing stuff outside of Christian circles, I’ve got it in my head “the world will hate you because it hated me first” – I’m thinking theology of the cross, not theology of glory. To do a bit of Luther. I think when we’re in our Christian circles, we’re desperate to impress them. Desperate to get it right. And if you are a little bit good at what you do, and people like what you do, then I think that’s where the danger is for us as Christians. There’s a tension. God is constantly using sinners to minister to other sinners. So just crack on with it. It is interesting just trying to work out what it is you want, and what it is you’re trying to do, and who it is you’re trying to impress.

For me it’s finding my rhythm. I just go “I’ve done a lot of stuff, now I’m just going to write about stuff that interests me, and I force myself to get on and blog about the little things that have caught my mind.” It’s about making yourself do it, and people will either like it or they won’t. If you’re purely blogging for the people around you, then I don’t think you’re doing it for the right reason. So blogging is partly my way of having an effect, but also my way of processing as well. I do a lot of thinking that way.

Your blog is very impressive as well – and the danger is you look around at what other people are doing, we look at each other and you go “why am I not doing what they’re doing” so you look at Tim Challies, whose a guy like me who just said “I’m going to do a bit every day” and when you look at what he’s doing, it’s not extraordinary. It’s consistently good. The wrong response to that is to go “well what am I doing wrong” – the right response is to be thankful.

Any last words…

This has been exciting. It’s been really encouraging. One of the sweetest things to come out of all of this has been the tweets, the mentions online and the emails from people. I had some lovely emails from people who really appreciated it, and the consistent thing I got was people saying “Thank you for just talking about Jesus and not being ashamed of it.” So one thing I’d say is, if you see people doing that, in public. Do encourage them. Do thank them for it. Because you do feel like you’re leaning out 90 degrees off Niagara Falls sometimes, and you do wonder who is holding the rope behind you, and just to turn around to see a bunch of people holding the rope is tremendously encouraging, and encourages you to lean out a bit further next time. So do encourage people. That sounds like a shameless attempt to have people write to me…

Don’t worry. I’ll frame it the right way…

Thanks.

Q&A, the other Hitch, and some dangerous ideas…

Did you catch Q&A last night? I’ve largely given up watching Q&A, unless Malcolm Turnbull or Tanya Plibersek are on. They seem to be able to humanise the political catch phrases better than most. Tony Jones irks me. I’m turned off by the turnstile approach to pumping politicians through the panel who simply foist us with whatever party line there is to be foisted upon us, with minimal humanity, minimal engagement, and maximum robotechnics. Nobody seems to change their minds as a result of an hour of twitter interrupted grandstanding, and the show is so pitched towards the self-proclaimed intelligentsia that I actually feel a little bit dirty watching it. A case in point is the sycophantic applause bandied round on Twitter following K-Rudd’s Q&A performance, followed by the panning the general public gave him for nastily and arrogantly going for the jugular when he answered a Christian who held the position on gay marriage that K-Rudd himself had signed up for until a couple of months prior.

Q&A barely has mojo.

But I do tune in when there’s likely to be a discussion about Christianity – as was the case last night, in the Festival of Dangerous Ideas special edition, featuring gayctivist Dan Savage, feminist provocateur Hanna Rosin, feminist elder stateswoman Germaine Greer, and Peter “brother of Christopher” Hitchens.

Peter Hitchens is a Christian. Some time in his history a switch in his head flicked and he went from Trotskyist to Tory, from atheist to Christian. He’s an interesting character in part because he’s elegant and eloquent, but he’s also supercilious and appears curmudgeonly, and in part because he’s got interesting street cred as someone who significantly shifted his position on issues of politics, philosophy, and religion while in the public eye. He changed his mind. There are so few public intellectuals who do that. That alone makes him worth listening to. Even if listening to him is a pain. At times. Because he sounds like such a toff.

Last night on Q&A it was Hitch 2.0 verse the world. The champions of the world were Savage, Greer, and Rosin, with Jones offering a little support every now and then. Hitch held his own – he doesn’t back down from his opinions, he seemingly seems to see no reason to do so – he also refused to make eye contact with his fellow panelists, and was often guilty of dehumanising them or using personal pronouns in a less-than-vaguely dismissive way when referring to his fellow panelists. It was uncomfortable television.

Usually on Q&A there’s someone you can get behind and cheer on, or at least agree with. My ability to empathise with the panelists was pretty lacking last night. I came close to identifying with Germaine Greer, who was at least prepared to admit that the sexual revolution doesn’t come for free. When you read the transcript of the evening, Hitch 2.0 is much more reasonable than his manner suggested, and he was certainly shouted down whenever he spoke – by the other panellists if not the audience.

Hitch 2.0 opened with a defence of Christian morality, and something of a requiem to Christendom.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, Christianity more or less collapsed in Europe after 1914 and the First World War and when it ceased to exist, all kinds of other things rushed in to take its place. But mostly what’s rushed in to take its place is what I call ‘selfism’: the idea that we are all sovereign in our own bodies, that no-one can tell us what to do with our own bodies and that everything that we do is okay, provided we think we aren’t harming anybody else. Quite often the truth is that we are harming other people but hiding it from ourselves.

HANNA ROSIN: But who gets to decide what’s corrupt? So, you know, drinking, drugs, gay sex. I mean sort of where do you draw the line at what seems totally arbitrary?

PETER HITCHENS: Where do you draw the line? You draw the line fundamentally, as far as I’m concerned, around about the Sermon on the Mount and those instructions given to us and I have absolutely no shame in saying that I believe that the Christian religion was the greatest possession which the human race had, which it’s now, in large parts of the world, rather busily throwing away.

His big dangerous idea seemed to be that we’ve got to take responsibility for our actions, and admit that we’re inherently selfish. Which is beautifully orthodox Christian anthropology. He was, by word if not by tone, self-effacing and humble.

“DAN SAVAGE: Consent matters and harm matters. Consent matters and harm matters. If there’s consent and no one is being harmed it’s no one’s business what an individual chooses to do with his or her body.

PETER HITCHENS: Yes, but the question…

TONY JONES: No, I’m going to…

PETER HITCHENS: No. No. No. It’s so essential to answer this. The people who say that they’re not doing harm are invariably deceiving themselves. The people who divorce and say the children are happier as a result, they’re not.

DAN SAVAGE: And the government should rush in to prevent people from being self-deceptive if that’s indeed what they’re doing?

PETER HITCHENS: The teenager who takes drugs and becomes mentally ill and ruins his own life and that of his parents is doing harm to other people, but at the time they do these things they say “No, my body is sovereign. I am a completely autonomous person. I don’t harm anybody else. ” We lie to ourselves about this all the time. I lie to myself about it. You all lie to yourselves about it. You lie to yourself about. We know that we harm other people.”

Hitch’s criticisms of the Savage world view were coherent and are worth hearing. But this quote below is one of the examples of his refusal to engage person to person, as it were.

TONY JONES: Peter Hitchens, I’ll just bring you in here. You listened to that. I mean do you see anything sort of wrong with this concept of hook-up apps?

HANNA ROSIN: You’re setting him up. You’re setting him up. Say no. Just say no. Just for the surprise of it, just say no.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m going to get on grinder and see who’s on right now in this room.

PETER HITCHENS: Do you want me to say anything, or not? It seems to me that when intimacy is something which is profoundly private and often, if people are mistreated when they’re intimate with other people, they are severely damaged and the idea that sexual relations can be conducted in this casual and mechanical fashion is extremely cruel and crude and dismisses the concept of human love from a very important part of our relations and I think that’s a pity. He doesn’t think it’s a pity. He wants a crude and, as far as I’m concerned, individualistic, unrestrained and a totally selfish world.

DAN SAVAGE: And the transcendent can emerge from the crude.

PETER HITCHENS: There is a definite difference between me and him. I’d just like to emphasise it. I think a society in which his ideas rule will be one you will very much regret having created.

Here’s a nice little example of Tony Jones participating in the discussion…

PETER HITCHENS: (Indistinct) No, don’t stop me. The ceaseless (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Excuse me, we have a question. We have a question on this subject.

MULTIPLE SPEAKERS TALK AT ONCE

HANNA ROSIN: Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. Wait. Can I…

PETER HITCHENS: …(Indistinct)…

TONY JONES: You’ll get a chance.

HANNA ROSIN: No. No. No. Just one thing…

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

HANNA ROSIN: One thing.

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

TONY JONES: I’m stopping you to allow a questioner to make a point…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, I know you’re stopping me. I noticed that, yes.

TONY JONES: …you can respond to.

PETER HITCHENS: Right.

Great hosting Mr Jones.

Here’s how Hitchen’s thesis for the evening plays out in his own brand of condescension come self-deprecation. It’s an odd mix for an Australian audience.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries…

DAN SAVAGE: …it will identify itself to you.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries claim to be fighting against the oppression of other people when, in fact, they’re fighting for their own personal advantage.

TONY JONES: On that one-liner we’ll move on.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m fighting for everybody.

TONY JONES: Sorry, go on.

DAN SAVAGE: Well, the gay rights movement is fighting for the advantage of being treated equally and being full members of society. We are not fighting to take anything from anyone else.

PETER HITCHENS: Says you.

DAN SAVAGE: That is not some selfish goal that we had in mind. Oh, it would be really fun to be equal under the law.

PETER HITCHENS: No selfishness involved in it at all. Not a bit. No.

DAN SAVAGE: No. I’m not trying to prevent you from living your life.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, of course I’m selfish but I don’t pretend not to be.

He does present quite a nice warning – he’s not fighting the cultural wars, he’s fighting a desperate rear guard action. This exchange was also a little heated.

DAN SAVAGE: How do you hope to bring about the world – to return the world to the state you would like to see it in without authoritarian (indistinct) …

PETER HITCHENS: Oh, I gave that…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re not going to get the pot out of my hands any other way.

PETER HITCHENS: I gave that up long ago. It would only make me miserable. I know that you people have won. All that I seek to do…

DAN SAVAGE: Which is why you have to be gay married now and do drugs now with the rest of us.

PETER HITCHENS: No, all I seek to do is to tell the truth about you and what you want while it’s still allowed to do so because you are so fantastically intolerant.

TONY JONES: Now, Peter, I’ve got to interrupt. What do you mean when you say “you people”?

PETER HITCHENS: I mean the cultural revolution. I mean the cultural and moral revolution which has swept the western world since the collapse of Christianity.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m not intolerant.

PETER HITCHENS: It changed our societies, as anybody who has lived through it knows, out of all recognition in the course of 50 years and in my view for the worst. He’s part of it. She’s part of it. For all I know you are part of it but I’m not.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re paranoid and you’re projecting by saying we are intolerant. You have…

PETER HITCHENS: See, this is the intolerance. Because I hold an opinion different from his, he has become suddenly a qualified psychoanalyst who can tell me – who can tell me that my opinions which I am entitled to hold.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re entitled to your opinions. You’re not entitled to your smears.

PETER HITCHENS: But are a pathology. And this is the absolute seed bed of totalitarianism. When you start believing that the opinions of other people are a pathology, then you are in the beginning…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re the one standing there pathologising other people’s choices.

PETER HITCHENS: …in the beginning of the stage that leads to the secret police and the Gulags.

DAN SAVAGE: You are the one sitting there saying that society is sick and damaged because other people are now free as white men used to be.

PETER HITCHENS: You’ll have the whole world to yourself soon. You can’t imagine anybody else is entitled to hold a view different from yours without having some kind of personal defect. That’s what’s wrong with you.

And this bit…

“DAN SAVAGE: You sit there pathologising other people’s choices. You sit there saying that other people being free to live their lives by their own light in some way oppresses you, when it oppresses you in no way whatsoever. You are free not to get gay married. You are free not to use drugs. You are free not to drink. You are free to stay married to one person for the rest of your life. You are free to stay home and raise your wife’s children so they always have a parent by their side. You are not free to sit there and say that other people being just as free as you are to live their lives and make their own choices in some way is damaging you personally, in some way is destroying society. People are freer now, happier now. It’s a less intolerant world than it used to be because people like me are now empowered to look at people like you and say you are full of shit.

PETER HITCHENS: This is so personal. Can I respond to it before the…

(AUDIENCE APPLAUDE AND CHEER)

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Okay.

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Hold on. We actually do need to hear (indistinct)…

PETER HITCHENS: While you do this – while you do this I can’t talk. While you do that – while you do that I can’t talk and you know it and that’s to your – and that’s to your shame because silencing opponents is a very wicked thing to want to do.

DAN SAVAGE: You’ve been a lot of things tonight, but you’ve not been silenced.

PETER HITCHENS: You said this is very personal. This is very personal. I’ll reply to it. I am a very rich and fortunate person. I can – and I’m coming towards the end of my life anyway. I can personally escape many of the consequences of this but most people can’t. They can’t afford to and leave aside some of the things you’ve mentioned but a society in which the use of illegal drugs is widespread and unrestrained is one in which everybody is affected by the consequences, whatever they themselves do. It’s like that ridiculous bumper sticker “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one,” to which my reply has always been: “Don’t like murder? Don’t commit one”. The fact is if a society permits – if a society permits things to happen which damage the lives of many people, who, as I’ve said earlier as a result of the selfish unwillingness of those who do those things to recognise that they have consequences, it affects everybody.”

Peter Hitchens also channeled Russell Brand, or more the anti-Brand, with his thinking on the modern political scene.

“TONY JONES: Peter, you did do whatever you could to hasten the demise of the Cameron Government. In fact you…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, not very effective with that.

TONY JONES: Well, in fact, you actually advised people, or your readers, to vote for UKIP, which is a populist party – a populist party primarily anti-immigration in its basis?

PETER HITCHENS: Well, I advised them to do that because I kept saying that they shouldn’t vote at all but they all seemed to think that voting was some tremendous important process, which actually it isn’t. If you go to a shop and you’re offered a load of goods which you don’t want to buy, you don’t buy any of them. So why, in an election, do you vote for people you don’t like?”

Interestingly, Hitchens and Brand had this clash last year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbVNZUHeg6o

And then this one as a follow up…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IqVohFEAfo

But back to Q&A.

Rosin and Savage kind of became one person by the end of the show, or some sort of comedy double act where you couldn’t tell who was playing the straight man. Greer was, at times, incoherently nostalgic, once the show hit its halfway mark she stopped answering questions and started wafting into stories from the good old days. As I said above, Hitch 2.0 wasn’t particularly loving to the other panelists, and for me, that damaged the credibility of what he had to say. It’s an ethos thing. You can’t just carry ethos with the words you say. But boy did he nail the finish.

Where Tony Jones invited the panel to share what they think is the most dangerous idea going around… Here’s the video of the answers, the transcript is below.

I’ll present the answers out of order – so that Hitch gets the last word, which he was so keen on all night. These were a little character revealing.

DAN SAVAGE: Population control. There’s too many goddamn people on the planet. And I don’t know if that’s a – you know, I’m pro-choice. I believe that women should have the right to control their bodies. Sometimes in my darker moments I am anti-choice. I think abortion should be mandatory for about 30 years. That’s a dangerous idea. She wanted a dangerous idea. So throw a chair at me.

 

GERMAINE GREER: Well, I’m always in the same place. The most dangerous idea, the one that terrifies us the most, is freedom – to actually be free – is, to most human beings, disorientating, terrifying but it’s the essential bottom line. If you want to be a moral individual you must be free to make choices and that includes making mistakes.

 

HANNA ROSIN: I’m tempted to say something about the Jesus Christ but being the Jewish one on the panel I’ll let that one go. Given our conversation today, I think I’m going to go with we should watch our children less. We live in a culture which follows our children around, is obsessed with safety, decides everything for our children, doesn’t let them have any freedom. Doesn’t let them wander. Doesn’t let them go anywhere or do anything by themselves and we should, in fact, do less with our children, not more.

 

PETER HITCHENS: The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.

DAN SAVAGE: I’d have to agree with that.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because I think you can’t really leave it there, why dangerous?

PETER HITCHENS: I can’t really leave it there? Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject It, it alters us all was well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.

What an ending. There wasn’t a whole lot to love about Q&A last night. But I loved that.