public space

On venues and hospitality

I feel like I’ve written about this before somewhere… but…

This week the West Australian Government banned, and then unbanned, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles’ roaming soapbox “The Truth of It” from two public venues it oversees; the Albany Entertainment Centre and Perth Concert Hall.

They should not have done this — and not just for commercial reasons (though that was the lever pulled, if I’ve understood correctly, by the venue partner to get the event back on — which, if true, just reveals that, as in almost all cases (see: woke capitalism), money is the actual idol at the heart of our culture, not sexual identity… sex sells, as it always has). They shouldn’t have done this because it is a power-hungry expression of something at odds with democracy and true secularism (plurality). They shouldn’t have done this because doing this reveals their own ‘state religion’ — the one they’ve replaced Christianity with.

Now. My take on the ACL is well-rehearsed in these parts — I’m not a fan.

So much so that Martyn has blocked me (or refused to host my views he finds troubling) on his Facebook page. That’s arguably a private space, and, sure, he’s quite welcome to block me if he doesn’t want to hear criticism of his brand of Christianity. That’s his right. I’ve also started limiting who can see and respond to my posts on Facebook too.

As much as I find the personality cult surrounding Martyn and his roadshow personally problematic, a government stepping in to cancel it is more personally problematic to me. This isn’t something to celebrate — especially if you are part of a minority group. This sort of government intervention around the use of public space — the demarcation of who acceptably belongs with a voice in ‘the public’ as recognised by the state — is dangerous.

In our first few years as a church plant, my church family met in a State-government owned theatre, many churches around the country meet in rented public school buildings. Public buildings that are available for hire to multiple faith groups and ideologies are an expression of pluralism and part of the bedrock of civility. We never had any pressure placed on us by our venue (we did, when we moved out due to renovations, get kicked out of a replacement venue because we aren’t an arts group and so were in breach of their leasing provisions). The hardening ‘secular frame’ in Australia which might mean these sorts of spaces become unavailable overnight, and my experience not having our own church property, means I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that church buildings are incredibly important (and we should probably stop selling them). They’re important for practical reasons — but as I’ll unpack below, I think they’re important for political, cultural, and theological reasons (and if we were good at architecture, on the whole, and didn’t just build multipurpose facilities that function as “non places“). Look. There’re going to be lots of generalisations in this post and they are just that… general observations.

My take on cancel culture is also well documented. I don’t like it (and it’s always religious). I don’t like this decision from the Labor Government in Western Australia. Governments, with strong majorities, banning voices who oppose “their views” isn’t just a slippery slope to totalitarianism, it’s an iron clad un-democratic use of power to disadvantage anybody who might challenge your grip on power.

I’m also, I think, on the treatment of public space as a religious contest for victory (toppling statues), rather than for a place where civility and a generous pluralism might play out — I’m not a fan.

I’m especially not a fan when Christians play, or enjoy, all these games ourselves. Toppling statues. Holding up Bibles outside churches after protestors have been tear-gassed. Only advocating for our own Christian freedoms (to the extent that, when we’re advocating for someone who denies the Trinity we’ll call them a Christian just to serve our broader project). Cancelling people whose views we don’t like… that stuff.

Now. Arguably the ACL both wants ‘religious freedom’ for Christians to participate in public spaces (and say whatever they want without consequences from their private employees), and to limit the ‘religious freedom’ of others participating in public spaces (like drag queen story times in public libraries, and gay couples calling their relationships marriage). They have been, I would argue, inconsistent on this principle of freedom in public spaces. Now, as an aside, I’m not saying I think drag queen story times are a public good, but I do think they are an expression of an essentially religious frame, and that anyone who says they’re ‘indoctrinating kids’ while running a Sunday School needs to be able to carefully explain what the difference is without imposing the Christian moral frame that doesn’t want kids grappling with adult content. They’re certainly an ideological use of public space that the ACL has opposed (and, surprise surprise, LGBTIQA+ political groups in Western Australia have supported an equal but opposite reaction against the ACL, celebrating the cancellation).

The secular governments in Australia at the same time have been increasingly treating public spaces as spaces to be free from religion, through an awkward definition of secularism that sees it as being ‘not religious’ rather than ‘not sectarian’, and through a weird secular-sacred divide that we religious people have also often enforced by pretending that religion does not affect every part of our life and being.

In ‘secular Australia,’ Religion is what happens in private places, like our hearts, our religious spaces like our Cathedrals, our Temples, or our Mosques. Or. You know. The prayer room in Parliament House. This decision from the West Australian Government is utterly consistent with other state governments, and the Federal Government, who want to restrict ‘religious freedoms’ to ‘religious spaces’ — because our governments, like most Christians in Australia, operate with this secular/sacred divide. So, we’ll protect (legally) a minister (like me) from conducting weddings outside our theology and “sacred” rites, or churches from employing non-religious people (or employing according to statements of belief and codes of conduct), and some people will even extend those protections to church run institutions (like schools), but we won’t protect a photographer or baker who, through religious convictions, won’t supply a service to a same sex couple (now, again, I think there are principles of hospitality and neighbour-love that mean Christians should feel free to offer those services without feeling like to do so means they suddenly adopt another person’s moral frame). The photographer and baker aren’t offered the protections afforded by ‘religious space’ because they are operating in public (even as private enterprises… it’s confusing). I do wonder what might happen if more churches had on-site bakeries…

The prevailing cultural narrative is that religion happens in private religious spaces, and that it doesn’t belong in public spaces. And we religious people have been part of creating that narrative in a bunch of ways. I’ll pick two. Firstly, “secularism” — including this divide — is a product of Christianity, and secondly, in the way we’ve used our own spaces as private rather than public.

Secularism is a product of the western world, which is for good and ill, a product of Christianity. They aren’t having these debates in Muslim countries. Secularism, depending on which ‘subtraction story’ you believe (those are stories that explain how we got from Christendom (where the vast majority of people and the architecture of society were built on shared religious beliefs) to where we are now (a pluralistic, fragmented nation with contested public space) is a product of explicitly religious movements before it becomes a product of the rejection of religion itself (that’s a bad modern ‘subtraction story’). Tensions between Protestants and Catholics about public space like who gets to build a Cathedral in a public square, or run a school, or influence the King and so win victory over the other are pretty similar to tensions around who gets to read stories in the local public library. It’s just our religious options have massively expanded (in what Charles Taylor calls “the Nova”). This expansion in religious options is also a product of The Reformation, which opened up the possibility of questioning traditional dogma.

Now. None of those historical changes are necessarily bad; as a Protestant, I’m glad we’re not all Catholic. I’m also glad that, for the most part, Protestants and Catholics have stopped killing each other (or even cancelling each other) because of religious differences and that now there’s even civility and dialogue.

What is bad, I think, is that with the disenchantment of space brought about by the Reformation, and the emergence of ‘the public square’ in the west, brought about (at least according to Jurgen Habermas) by the end of Feudalism (a divinely endorsed ‘order’ where space was given to people by divine birthright and there was no public or private, only land ruled by a sovereign monarch and ruled according to their will) and the birth of democracy (where you need space for ideas to be thrashed out and debated). There had, of course, been public squares in Greece, but its version of democracy was less universal than the democracies brought about in the west by the universalisation of the concept of the “image of God”.

Anyway. I digress.

See. The thing is.

Churches have always run their physical spaces as private spaces, as sacred spaces even — only opening the doors (in many cases) one day a week. Reinforcing, perhaps, the secular/sacred divide. Church space is here for you on the sacred day, but the rest of the time, all the other hours of your life, and on all other issues of communal life — wherever other discussions occur, the performing arts take place, or cultural artefacts are presented — that can all happen in secular space, and probably public space at that.

We haven’t been fantastic at bringing our own vision of beauty and culture and truth to the public square in part because we haven’t anticipated and reacted to change around us, in part because we’ve been busy reinforcing the secular-sacred divide in our practices, not only because we haven’t done ‘public Christianity’ well, but also because we just haven’t been using our own spaces well. There are, of course, groups committed to public Christianity — the ACL is one (and if Martyn’s the best we’ve got… then…), but also City Bible Forum, the Centre for Public Christianity, and a bunch of other organisations out there are doing this… but my point is that we haven’t seen the church (our local community, but also the visible church in Australia) as a public institution meeting in public sacred spaces, but private institutions (and often we ‘desecrate’ the places we meet by emphatically saying ‘they aren’t sacred’, rather than saying ‘these teach us how to view all space’).

We haven’t been great guests in the public spaces post-nova, in the secular age, where multiple religious views are brought to market for performance, recognition, and even debate. But, nor have we been great hosts.

We haven’t treated church buildings as public spaces — either as hosts who hold events for the public (outside of Sundays — and here I’m not talking about the way that churches use buildings to funnel people in to a Sunday service, that’s a ‘private use’) but events that use church buildings as a “public square” where other voices can be heard, or by inviting other people to use our facilities (where we might disagree with them). This isn’t universal, there are plenty of church buildings being used as community hubs out there… and plenty of church buildings that lose the Gospel and the call to be different from the world as they seek to play host, and so end up just as secular community spaces.

Churches are (typically) rightly careful about who gets to preach and teach in order to continue passing on the good news of the Gospel of Jesus (and maintain our distinctives), but we also have to figure out how to steward our spaces — whether our buildings will be public or private, or used in a way that reinforces the narrow view of the sacred, or in ways that break the secular-sacred divide.

But I reckon it’s worth asking the question — perhaps especially those in the West at the moment — would your church host a branch meeting of the Labor Party mid week (I’m not even asking about the pulpit)? And if the answer is no, and it’s about values, then we can’t jump straight to “but public space is different” — because we haven’t got a reputation for treating it differently (especially the ACL). Why should we ask the government to act as arbiters of a public square, when we don’t treat it as a truly public square ourselves (in excluding others), and when we aren’t using our own spaces as we’d want the government to use theirs? Why are we assuming that government is ‘secular’ and so ‘neutral’ (again buying in to the secular/sacred divide) rather than religious (and not Christian)?

We have a reputation for trying to exclude visions of human flourishing we disagree with from public life (again, think drag queen story time, or the same sex marriage debate). Public space isn’t different, public space has always been religious. Sometimes overtly, sometimes just because we have a theological frame, as Christians, that means we can recognise that every social political ideology is fundamentally religious, and every public act is liturgical. Because we are worshipping beings (and that’s the heart of being made to image God).

We also have plenty of religious spaces that we can start using to challenge the insidious secular/sacred divide that is so often at the heart of modern political problems; spaces that we can use (even architecturally) to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over every inch and every moment of life, but also spaces where we can make the truth public, and show that this means fearlessly inviting voices we disagree with to the table with us. Rather than silencing the voices of those who disagree.

Why would your people kill Jesus? On statues, culture wars, and modern day politics as religion

When Jesus was executed by crucifixion there were some particularly interesting political dynamics at play. The Pharisees who hated Roman occupation almost as much as the zealots; or pretended to; cuddled up to the Roman empire and got Pilate and co to get their hands dirty in a state sanctioned murder where both sides had political justifications; in Luke’s Gospel we even hear that the execution of Jesus brought Pilate — Rome’s official presence in the region — and Herod — a kind of vassal king — together as friends, where previously they had been ‘enemies’.

It’s funny what a common enemy can do for us, in terms of getting us on the same page.

And so I’m wondering — what would it be about Jesus that would lead your side in the culture war, your politics, to kill him — as a natural extension of what you’re holding dear, or seeing as ultimate? What standard would he offend that would see you join a mob baying for his blood and pulling him down in an act of desecration?

The culture wars that we’re seeing played out in recent times; amplified by race rallies, the destruction of public idols statues, and figures from the right coming out against “Cultural Marxism” and the ‘long march of the left’ through our civic institutions, feel like something out of the pages of the first century A.D, and even before.

The contest of ideas has, almost forever, been fought out in public space. Public space is an interesting phenomenon in the battle between left and right — the question of who owns such space; the public, private enterprise (and its outdoor advertising), the government (on behalf of ‘the public’ at large, or its ideology), is an interesting one, and we’ve very much lost the idea of the commons; but in the past, public space was also contested, and explicitly religious. Now it’s contested and implicitly religious; it has the same function, but we want to pretend that graven icons have suddenly lost their function as permanent visions; images of the good life and our story etched into our public psyche.

The erection and destruction of statues has always been both political and religious, because almost all politics (if not all politics) is actually religious, in that it comes from a vision not just of ‘the good,’ but the relationship of ‘the good’ to ‘the gods.’ In the ancient world we see this in, say, statues of Gudea, a Sumerian king (circa 2100BC) who became a god through his propagation of statues — literally “images of God” — to spread his rule and influence. He was a king (politics) whose reign was justified by ‘the gods’ (religion) who became a god (religion) by spreading statues throughout public spaces in his empire (religion and politics). Here’s a sample of one of his statues and its inscription. This became a pretty solid move in the political playbook in the ancient world; but it wasn’t just rulers-as-gods that propped up empires; an empire’s gods and how widely and well represented they were (partly in public space) propped up political regimes too. So you get, for example Esarhaddon, king of Neo-Assyria (680ish BC), who plays games of ‘capture the flag’ with idols from the surrounding nation; such that we have inscriptions about revivifying god statues that have previously been captured, but returned to life, prominence, and public space, through conquest. In an inscription, Essarhaddon boasts about the restoration of statues in Babylon. An expression of political achievement or dominion over his enemies; and a justification of his reign as ‘beloved by the gods.’

“I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. “

Esarhaddon boasts that his public statues to the gods legitimise his reign; they form part of the story or myth that justifies his political position.

Before Gudea and Esarhaddon, we have Dagon, the “Lord of Canaan.” Dagon emerges in the historical record from around 2500 BC. He’s a reasonably constant visual presence in the public spaces of the Ancient Near East until he pops up in the story of the Bible (he’s around after that for a little while too). Dagon is the god of the Philistines; who play their own political-religious game of ‘capture the flag’ when they capture Israel’s Ark of the Covenant and treat it like an idol. They pop it in their temple (the same temple they later pop chopped up bits of King Saul, a king who does politics like the nations around Israel).

There’s a political-religious critique going on in this story captured in 1 Samuel; and it’s part of the same story that made Israel politically different from the nations; Israel was a country built on a different sort of public architecture; it had architecture that supported its belief; absolutely — the Temple, and its adornments — all of them — told a story in public space. But it had no political or theological statues; no idols (just altars, and the politicisation of altars for personal gain became problematic, again, see King Saul). Israel’s lack of statues was a novelty; but also a profound critique of the surrounding nations. Israel’s God could not be reduced to dead images; Israel’s God was not just represented by one king who was the living image of God; Israel’s God had a whole nation of living images; not a “priest-king” whose reign was justified by the gods, but a “priest-nation”…

Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” — 1 Samuel 5:2-4

Israel was meant to engage in a purging of public spaces; a toppling of statues — because public space, and how we order it, is inherently religious, not just political. Because Israel was to be a monotheistic public space with a story testifying to the one true God, their public spaces — their commons — were not to be pluralistic; they were to destroy all statues (and certainly they weren’t to build their own, see Golden Calf, The).

‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’ — Numbers 33:51-53

They weren’t meant to be worried about preserving history, or ‘preserving the story’ of these other political/religious systems. That was the point; to keep these statues around was to keep these religions alive. To legitimise the story. To be captivated and captured by the gods they were meant to be removing. They were to not make statues or images of living things, or people, and give them religious significance; but they were to seek God by being people shaped by his story and his presence with them, first through the Tabernacle, and then the Temple. They were the images. The promised land was to be their new Eden; where they would be God’s priestly presence to the world. Their use of space was meant to tell that story. In Deuteronomy 4 the Exodus is described as being like the fire used to make statues or images, on Israel as a nation, while they’re told not to make their own images in these fires. And then we get the 10 Commandments restated in Deuteronomy 5 (because remember how well that went last time, see Golden Calf, The).

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” — Deuteronomy 5:8-9

While we’re on public space, it’s interesting to see how the ‘architecture of belief’ is a factor that Deuteronomy raises for Israel; there aren’t really neutral uses of public space, it has to be approached in connection with a story. So Israel will find itself with a new architecture: “a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12), and they’ll be tempted to forget God, the God without statues, and his story, and so be shaped instead by these things (and maybe, any statues they don’t knock down). To help this memory exercise; to help public spaces (and private spaces) testify to their place in the world, Israel was to: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 7:5-6).

Public space matters; statues aren’t neutral or simply ‘political’ — they’re religious. They’re also not simply ‘religious’ — they’re political. They shape our stories and our shared vision of life together.

In the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Israelites have been returned (like a captured flag) from exile in Babylon (then Persia); they’ve rebuilt a temple (see Ezra-Nehemiah (as the separate books in the Old Testament) under Persian rule, but then they’ve been smashed again and occupied. The “Second Temple” built by Ezra and crew (in the 400s BC) has been radically renovated by the Herod family (specifically Herod the Great, in the late first century BC). Before this rebuild the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, learning from the playbook of the ancient world and the religious/political use of public space, has, in an invasion of Jerusalem, set up idol statues on the altar in Israel’s temple, rededicating it as a Temple to Zeus. The book of 1 Maccabees tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world as they knew it, and Antiochus Epiphanes succeeding him as king of the Greek empire; including Israel. It’s here that the writers of the Maccabees see this as the fulfilment of a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a future ‘Abomination that causes desolation’ or a ‘desolating sacrilege’:

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah.” — 1 Maccabees 1:41-54

Here’s a foreign king practicing Deuteronomy style conquest on Israel.

Here’s a foreign king altering (altaring) the public architecture of Israel to change its religion and politics.

Here’s a foreign king conducting the ‘desolating sacrilege’ of altering a people’s public religion by putting up statues.

In the ancient world, politics was sacred business.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t true today. History unfolded religiously, and continues to; the church played a part in this as the Roman empire Christianised. The Medieval period was one where rulers continued to be viewed as those appointed by God to rule (ala Romans 13); the Reformation survived and thrived thanks to the political protection of rulers and movements won over by its theological (and political) vision. In Dominion, Tom Holland argues that even the secularity of the modern west is a fruit of religious convictions (specifically, Christian ones). While our public landscape in the late, secular, west isn’t as explicitly Christian in its architecture (you won’t find many statues of Dagon, Gudea, or Zeus), our public spaces are still surrounded by the architecture of modern religion — city halls, clock towers, sky scrapers, casinos, banks, and statues. Statues of people because modern political-religion in a particularly secular form is not pluralist — we don’t recognise that our culture is one where many religions come together in both contest and tension — it’s humanist, our civic religion doesn’t happen in a contest of “transcendent” visions of the good, where our statues throw us beyond ourselves to a vision of the good that comes from the gods; in our secular vision we are the gods, and these figures from history serve our political agenda; we just forget that our politics is inherently, still, an expression of our religion.

The statues Antiochus Epiphanes erected in Jersualem are part of the city’s history — but they were rightly torn down as its history continued. The tearing down of the statues of Zeus were also a form of desacration — a denial of the sacred vision of the Greek empire; all tearing down of statues is religious and desecrating; because public space is actually sacred space; it’s just our vision of the sacred has collapsed to ‘the political’ not ‘the political as an expression of the religious’… This is a slightly different view of the distinction between secular and sacred offered by, for example, Mirsolav Volf in his critique of those rejoicing that Donald Trump conducted his own desolating sacrilege recently, with his Bible-in-hand photo opp (the criticism that the church he’s standing in front of has long abandoned traditional Christian teaching about the literal resurrection of Jesus is, in itself, another desecration).

Volf says (on Facebook):

“Some evangelicals think that public religious gestures (e.g. Trump’s holding the Bible) will halt secularization. They won’t. They ENACT SECULARIZATION: they put the sacred to profane use that’s contrary to the character of the sacred. That’s desecration and secularization.” 

There’s something to this critique; but it does reinforce a secular-sacred divide that just isn’t actually there. Trump’s act was explicitly political and religious — it just wasn’t Christian. It was more like Gudea, and the conquering God-kings of the ancient world, than Jesus. His act in public space, for an image-opp — creating a statue-like moment in the form of pixels — like the tearing down of statues — was both desecration of a religious view (in his case, Christianity, rather than “secularism”), and its own expression of a view of the sacred. The ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ — locked in a culture war, are actually locked in a religious-political war; a war built on acts of desecration of the other’s religious architecture and attempts to replace those icons with one’s own. Modern expressions of the ancient game of capture the flag; modern attempts to create the most egregiously offensive or “triggering” acts (photo opps or statue destruction) to both demoralise the other and radicalise one’s own base. ISIS has been playing the same game in its destruction of what are now seen as only religious symbols (and only from history) — rather than political and religious symbols of previous regimes; at least they’re being theologically (and historically) consistent.

And so I wonder, if Jesus were to walk onto the battle field of the culture war, would both sides unite to execute him all over again.

Because that’s what happened in Israel.

The side who were all about religious and moral purity and the Temple (but who had turned the temple into a house of robbers; desecrating it) conspired with the side who had built the Temple to secure political power, while killing any from Israel who would oppose him (Herod and family put to death those opposed to their rule on the basis that they were Idumeans, Herod the Great’s son Archelus, erected a statue of an eagle on the temple, killed those who took it down, then massacred 3,000 people in the following riots in the Temple, and then cancelled Passover), conspired with the Romans (who were busy deifying Caesar, installing images of Julius and Augustus all over the empire) and had Jesus executed for political and religious reasons.

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Caesar did too, and the Jews knew he was claiming to be divine, in that claim; a threat to their religious and political status quo.

Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews. Caesar and Herod did too. This was the charge brought to Pilate, who had no choice under Roman law but to crucify someone committing this sort of treason, to make them a public image of what happened to opponents of Rome; a sacred statement, not just a political one, and for the leaders of Israel an act of desecration to remove any sacred claims Jesus was making.

Here’s the thing.

In the Gospels, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple; the ultimate desecration of God’s sacred presence in the world. In John’s Gospel we get the explicit interpretive guide that he isn’t talking about what Rome will do in 70AD, but what Rome, and Israel, will do to him in 33AD. That he is the Temple. That the crucifixion then is the ultimate act of desecration; an ultimate political and religious expression. Perhaps when Jesus, after talking about the ‘destruction of the Temple’ in Matthew 24, says:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand…”

He’s not talking about a new Antiochus, dedicating the Temple to Zeus. He’s not talking about Nero rolling through Jerusalem with his armies in 30 years… He’s talking about the sacrilegious destruction of God’s most sacred image.

He’s not talking about Trump with a Bible.

He’s not talking about the tearing down of statues in public spaces.

He’s talking about the destruction of God’s divine image, orchestrated in the place that is meant to be his presence in the world; by those whose job it is to manage his house, the Temple.

The crucifixion is the abomination of desolation. It is the ultimate statue toppling act. A political and religious statement.

A profound treatment of a religious image — one that has ultimate significance not just to those who worship him; but to God — “the image of the invisible God” — the one true priestly representative of God, the “exact representation of his being”… To follow Jesus and enter his kingdom is both a religious and political act. And the political systems of this world — that aren’t the kingdom of God — are geared up for his execution.

And maybe, just maybe, our politics — as people who claim to follow Jesus — should be shaped by how we treat images of God, and where how we do politics and religion as those made and given the vocation of being images of God; and maybe as our politics gets distorted so that we see other image bearers of God as enemies in a “culture war” so that we get caught up in games of capture the flag or ‘desecrate their idols’ (like those excited at pulling down statues of dead humans) or ‘defend out idols’ (like those excited to keep statues in public spaces to prop up an idolatrous civic religion), while ‘making our own idols’ or defending those who make them (like those excited about Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church and the ‘Christianisation of space’) — maybe we’re just becoming those people who wouldn’t recognise Jesus if he looked us in the eye; but would kill him instead. And maybe that’s what actually unites those people playing culture war politics games, politicising religion — a rejection of the kingdom of Jesus, in favour of little man made gods. It was stupid when it was Gudea; stupid when Antiochus Epiphanes did it; and it’s stupid now.

It’s interesting to ask what political or religious idolatry would lead those on your ‘side’ of politics — of the culture wars — if that’s the game you’re playing — to kill Jesus? Because all the sides of the first century’s culture war suddenly agreed on that being the absolute best thing to do in the moment; so they could go back to fighting each other undisrupted.

You might want to pretend that Jesus plays the culture war for the right team, or the left team. But that’s to create a Jesus in your image. There were ‘righties’ and ‘lefties’ in Jesus’ day too; and the idea that your side has exclusive access to the truth and an exclusive mandate to conduct divine political and religious business here in the world, by building an empire, well… that gets to some ugly places fast in history — and it’s tricky to maintain when other followers of Jesus have different politics to yours.

Maybe our call isn’t to play the game of ‘idol building’ or ‘idol destroying’ but pointing to the one God raised up? Maybe we should trust this to hollow out the value of other idols? Maybe we should see this as the task of building our own alternative polis, in and through the church (as a people).

Maybe we should look to Paul in Athens; who didn’t come in to a public square saturated with political and religious imagery with a sledgehammer; but seeking to understand why they’d carved the things they’d carved out of stone; what good might be affirmed in the quest for truth he saw in their political and religious systems, so that he could connect the good with the search for God, and maybe we could help people meet the unknown God behind their religiousity, their politics, their pursuit of the good, in ‘the man God has appointed’ through his resurrection, so that we might find the God we’re reaching for. Maybe we’re not meant to be culture warriors — because that’s a path to killing a Jesus who doesn’t line up with our cultural expectations — maybe we’re meant to be peacemakers, who follow Jesus and so make space for others. Paul introduces a new God to the Athenian landscape, not by building a temple, but by being an image bearer of that God who speaks in a way that heralds his truth, and tells his story.

When he gets to Ephesus (a couple of chapters later) he disrupts the statue making economy of Ephesus — a city built on a more monotheistic love for one particular God — by, again — proclaiming the one true God. The city riots. He doesn’t smash Artemis statues down, and melt them in the fire, he pronounces a better, more loving, God — the God we meet in Jesus. Public space occupies a profoundly interesting place in the narratives in Acts, and Paul introduces Jesus to crowded and contested public space not by knocking other gods down, but by hollowing out their value, and pointing the hearts that find meaning in alternative religions and political systems to Jesus and his kingdom. By joining, by affirming, but also by differentiating, and offering a better story — not just hard opposition — and he doesn’t even get out the sledgehammer when his (right) methods fail to see others take up the sledgehammer.

He is not a cultural warrior; he’s an ambassador for the crucified king.

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.

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