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.”
“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.