Stephen McAlpine

Are we the good bad guys? A review of Stephen McAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guys

West Aussie blogger-pastor-public theologian-social commentator-runner Stephen McAlpine wears a lot of hats. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma. A Rorschach test. A canary in the coal mine of the evangelical church. Something of a prophet. Legitimately a whistle blower on church abuse. He is an excellent writer. He’s also my friend; we spar occasionally in the ‘commons’ of Facebook, or the comment section of his blog, and I’ve been known to write essay length reflections on conversations he starts, but we also regularly exchange messages and banter in private.

Stephen is a good man. He sent me an advance copy of his new book, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus In A World That Says You Shouldn’t, not with the expectation of a review (though we all knew that was a possibility), but because it’s an ongoing contribution to a conversation we’re engaged in hoping to sharpen one another, and serve our churches. You can pre-order the book from the publisher, or support the good guys at your independent book retailer The Wandering Bookseller. It’s a book that is quintessentially him.

If you read and love his blog, you’ll love the book. If you read and struggle with his blog (because he’s a Rorschach test and you see conservative culture warring at play) then this book might give you extra ammunition — but it might also, over the course of 130 pages — give you a sense that he’s actually doing something a little more nuanced than just being a crunchy conservative.

One of Stephen’s gifts — one that helps him transcend the ordinary punditry you might find on social media and gets him cut through (increasingly global cut through, which is nice to see) is his ability to coin a metaphor, then to put the coin in a slot, then to guide a metal claw into your organs and wiggle it round a bit aiming for your heart. He’s a real skill tester. Some of us are still learning metaphors. Metaphors keep Stephen’s writing punchy and memorable. Another strength is his integrity; he calls out bad behaviour on his (sometimes our) own side of different conflicts. His willingness to call out abusive behaviour in the UK’s Crowded House church (from first hand experience) years ahead of the curve came at great personal cost for him, but was a catalyst. His recent defence of Aimee Byrd after her book publication exposed a pretty toxic culture within the Reformed scene was also courageous. He apologises when he gets things wrong. He doesn’t just chuck ideas out into the aether, but he, with his church community, walks the walk. This isn’t a review of Stephen, but of his book — and yet ethos is so fundamental in the communicative (and interpretive) exercise, and my knowledge of Stephen — even our friendship — does shape how I see and respond to his writing. None of us comes to a Rorschach test as a blank slate, and that’s kind of the point. They expose us, not the people who make the ink blots.

Both these strengths are on view in Being the Bad Guys, from the titular metaphor, through a variety of others he includes in the mix (some favourites — the ‘Schackleton Option,’ ‘the second service Christian’ and ‘renovating the wrong house’), to the way his own life as a good-bad guy plays out. Stephen’s cultural and theological and theological-cultural analysis is always coherent and compelling, sometimes I’m not convinced, sometimes the claw misses my head and doesn’t raise me up, or it drops me early (ok, I’ll stop), but even when I’m not convinced he’s shifting the conversation the church needs to be having in directions they need to go. Maybe he’s making it easier for the next player to grab hold of that plush toy their kids keep asking for in the shops (ok, I didn’t stop). There is more skill than failure in this work, and it’s worth a read (especially because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a one-sit read at 130 pages — and the pace and punch, the timbre, of Stephen’s writing, coupled with metaphor-induced aha moments makes it an easy read).

Here’s where I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced we have to be the bad guys, or that, universally, we are. I still think there’s space for us to reform the church, and so reform public perception, through a commitment to ‘living such good lives among the pagans’ — there’s plenty of room in Stephen’s book to point the finger at the church, not just the culture, for public perception. I think we can point a bit harder to some of our responsibility for our public perception, and repent, and perhaps play a different role in the culture to the one we’ve played, and I suspect there are plenty of people not on Twitter who aren’t as sold on the church being a black hatted villain. This actually just means embracing Stephen’s suggested solutions with a particular sort of zeal.

I’m convinced there’s a certain stream of Christian in the late modern west who are the bad guys, and that sometimes they dictate our behaviour, but also that they’ve (for too long) dictated public perceptions about Christianity. Where I am convinced is that if these Christians were to follow the way of life Stephen describes — both in the posture taken by ‘the church’ (as an institution) and in the posture taken by us Christians (‘the church’) in everyday life in the world (and our workplaces) — then we would stop being the bad guys. At that point, if Christians were known for the things he calls us back to, rather than for being repugnant warriors in a destructive culture war — then, if we keep being perceived as being the bad guys, his book would have an even edgier prophetic thing going on.

For those reading Stephen from a politically conservative angle (and it is blurbed by the former Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the National Party, John Anderson, so that’s an audience), there’ll be plenty in the Rorschach Test reaction that will fuel, or confirm, their fear about the pace of cultural change, especially around the area of sexuality — but for those people, Stephen offers the balm of the Gospel and our hope, and the reality of the kingdom of Jesus being expressed in and through the church. I’d have liked a few more illustrative examples showing how ‘the right’ is actually every bit as hostile to Christianity and destructive to the church (especially post-Trump), because the illustrations are part of the blots that people are going to emotionally respond to — but what I will say in Stephen’s favour is that he doesn’t point the finger of blame at ‘the left’ or even the ‘sexular revolution’. He sees these as symptoms of a deeper problem in the post-Christian west. Following arguments developed by Charles Taylor, Dale Kuehne, and Mark Sayers, Stephen describes the modern ‘iWorld’ as a secular context where loyalty to a transcendent creator has given way to loyalty to the self, but where we live in a post-Christian culture profoundly shaped by Christianity that is desperately trying to cut ties with its parents like a rebellious adolescent. Where once we maybe thought the death of Christendom meant a return to pre-Christendom, and were excited by that — now we’re having to grapple with the reality that the post-Christian return doesn’t move backwards, but forwards.

Sayers gets a lot of credit for his insight about moderns wanting ‘the kingdom without the king’ — and Stephen quotes him, but, credit where credit is due (and, Taylor was also saying this just in a really long winded way), Stephen’s ‘Exile Stage 2’ basically made the same point. Before all these writers though, C.S Lewis made the same observation in his first speech as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, he said:

“Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”

This analysis came from the ‘golden age’ of modernity. The point most social conservatives seem to look back to with fondness as the halcyon days of Christendom that must be recovered — where we can have our modernity cake, and eat it too. I quote Lewis from 1954 to illustrate a point that Stephen makes, while also to suggest that the challenges facing the church are not a product of a recent cultural moment — a precipitous one, even — but an age old one. Lewis, like Jacques Ellul (writing at the same time) point the finger not just at technology but a sort of instrumental or utilitarian framework where we believe, because of technology, that all progress is good. This belief requires (and creates) a shift where we aren’t in an enchanted or supernatural cosmos, where God is the author of life, to one where we are at the centre as authors of our own destiny, pursuing an authentic “identity.” Identity politics, one of the ‘bad guys’ trotted out by conservatives, and Christians, to fight a culture war against the left is a product of this shift, and one of the best parts of Stephen’s cultural analysis here — is that he sees this identity politics, and the underlying cultural shift, affecting both left and right — and damaging the church and our witness. He is genuinely offering a ‘third way’ in the culture wars — despite what our bias might want to hear him saying. He particularly sees ‘identity politics’ problematically playing out around the victim-perpetrator schema made popular by progressive politics (with the same underlying assumption as the so-called ‘conservative’ politics of the iworld — that is, the autonomous self-as-identity).

Here’s an example of the ‘Rorschach Test’ effect in a paragraph.

“We may feel that to allow our opponents to claim victimhood and not to highlight cases of our own is like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. However, to begin with we must acknowledge the very real and painful injustices that most minorities have experienced at the hands of a dominant culture. There have been victims, and the church must recognise that it has a special calling to the marginalised.

Yet, without taking away from these horrific situations, there is an impersonal identity-politics agenda that (ironically views humans in a binary manner. You’re either a victim or a perpetrator, says intersectionality ideology — and who wants to be a perpetrator, right?”

Plenty to offend or inspire all of us… then he says:

“Christians should not play this game. It gives us a losing hand, since other levels of victimhood are seen to have a stronger claim on the chips in the middle of the table. More importantly, it is not a tactic worthy of those whose identity and worth is in Christ.”

While his premise is that the world is more hostile to Christianity and its claims than in previous generations, he doesn’t want us to turn to victimhood, or the idea that we are a persecuted people (explicitly in the west). He’ll go on to say that the story of the Gospel positions all of us as both victim and perpetrator; life is not so simple as the post-Christian iWorld would like it to be.

The premise is that while we aren’t ‘persecuted’ we no longer occupy the central position in society (or even have a seat at the table at all). He’s a little less prepared to place all the blame on this shift on the church and our misbehaviour than I am, and a little more convinced that there’s no way back (or to ‘being the good guys’) than I am (while I am in full agreement with his take that when Christians fully embrace the iWorld and sexular liberation the road to being a ‘good guy’ from society’s perspective becomes fairly wide and clear). He says, for example:

“It is indisputable that the church’s role in our culture is shifting from central to marginal. That drift may take some time, for, as Tom Holland points out, the West is ‘firmly moored to its Christian past”. But these moorings will either slip off eventually, or be cut, and the Western ship will drift into uncharted waters. And they are uncharted… For all of secularism’s self-confidence, we actually don’t know what it will be like on the “other side of God.”

On the whole, Stephen is more pessimistic about the course of life in the world than I am, and though he resurrects the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to describe the current age, I found the optimism of Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, more compelling — even as both it and Being The Bad Guy land in very similar places, from very similar analysis. When I dug back in my archives to find a review of How To Survive the Apocalypse, I found a response I wrote to n earlier version of Stephen’s thesis — one he called embracing a ‘plan B’ strategy. Taylor’s secular age diagnosis includes the idea that we live in after a ‘nova effect,’ with stacks of different options (including spiritual/religious options), which means every belief, every issue, every moment is contested, not all conclusions are foregone. Both Stephen, and How To Survive The Apocalypse end up with different diagnoses, but strikingly similar treatments (the Daniel option, really). And that’s ok. Maybe this is the book to give your pessimistic friends — or those who are too optimistic — because ultimately it pushes us towards genuine hope; the hope we have in Christ, as the solution to our cultural moment.

What we can be sure of in this shift, Stephen points out (eventually also quoting David Foster Wallace), is that the secular future will still be ‘religious’. There is no dogma free public square, “there are only different types of dogma.” This is where the ‘second service’ Christian comes in. Stephen builds this metaphor from the phenomenon experienced in his church, with its evening service, where many attendees belong to another church in the morning and his service is their ‘second service’ — it’s hard, he says, to disciple someone if that’s their engagement with your church community. The problem is that we are all ‘second service Christians’ because we are “immersed in a highly effective discipleship program offered by our culture Monday through Saturday. In everything from our phones to Netflix to advertising and news items, we are being offered a discipleship program that invites us to a completely different way of life, mediated to us through a dazzling array of images, sounds, stories and suggestions.”

Look. People might come to Stephen for a manual on how to fight the culture war — a way to tackle the reality of a hostile frame, or, they might come to Stephen to read someone who, on face value, is a conservative culture warrior saying things that make us uncomfortable and ‘blaming the progressives,’ and, to be clear, the sort of progress Stephen blames for our modern malaise (as Taylor would put it) is not left wing politics (though it includes them, and he often illustrates using them), but the sort of individualism that comes from liberalism, and especially the idea that liberalism liberates us from the divine. You might come with your pre-conceptions framing your reading… but, consistently, what they get in response is a manual for how to be the church. And this book is no different.

“In response, our church gatherings on Sundays must offer discipleship programs that are deeper, richer, and more compelling than those offered by the culture.”

And here’s where I’d offer another little bit of pushback. where, perhaps this is a product of a different ecclesiology at play. Stephen often plays Monday to Saturday against church on Sunday to the point of reinforcing it; both in good ways, and bad. He sees the task of the church as preparing her people to face the workaday world, but it almost feels like he sees us being tasked to face that world alone, as individuals (who might have a few friends in the mix). Part of the thicker discipleship his solutions require (and part of the life he describes) requires discipleship to be the product of much more than just “our church gatherings on Sundays” — he describes, but doesn’t name, the idea that church can’t just be an event on a Sunday (and unfortunately that quote above, in isolation, reinforces that view).

My other bit of pushback is around the idea that the project of pluralism failed us, simply because our opponents act as aggressive monotheists, or polytheists, having learned a thing or two from the Christendom playbook. At one point he describes the missional church’s misstep where we thought post-Christendom would look like pre-Christendom, in this optimism we thought “given the chance to offer our wares alongside everyone else, our products would be more compelling. All we had to do was to strip away the detritus of Christendom that had built up over the centuries — the overt institutionalism, the push for temporal power, the alignment with economic structures that fuelled greed, and the less than attractive liturgical forms. The pure and simple claims of Christ could be presented and examined without prejudice by a culture just waiting for some good news.” This optimism doesn’t appear to have aligned with reality, and now (apart from other evidence), Stephen is ready to declare it a mistake, suggesting that one of the things that got us our present situation was the assumption that “the post-Christian secular public square would be a neutral venue, a space for everyone, where all sorts of ideas would be discussed freely. We prepared our strategies for an open market, never realising that huge tariffs would be imposed on anyone selling their wares in the public space. The public space is not neutral. Why not? Because secularism is not neutral.”

Now. Note again the beautiful metaphor… and he’s right that the public space is not neutral. I’d say one of our missteps as the church is that we assume the neutral public space required we, the church, make neutral arguments — rather than making religious arguments and asking for those to be accommodated as one view among many, we tried to make neutral arguments that would reinforce our authority. We didn’t treat the public space as a free market but as a market to monopolise (see, ‘Postal Survey, The’). I’m also not sure we ever did the reform work necessary across the board, in a way that shifted public perception of the church or the Gospel — and while we spend lots of time calling out bad behaviour of progressives outside the church, and those who give in and join them from the church community, and Stephen does this in his book in a convincing way, I don’t see many Christian voices calling out the Christian right and the culture wars with such explicit vigour. Perhaps because so often our politics and theirs are more aligned. There’s nothing in this book that explicitly names figures behind the ‘progressive right’ — or that side of the culture war; the kind that produces Trumpism, or the ACL (though these are discussed in very general terms), while he’s quite happy to specifically name names and movements from the left (like Rob Bell and Josh Harris, or pressures and examples from outside the church like Roz Ward, or Jazz Jensen).

And the problem might not be that we assumed the public square would be neutral, but that we didn’t act as though it should be neutral; and when others adopt the same aggressive theism that we adopted, and so want to topple statues, and our remove our God, from the public square, maybe the virtuous, true, and beautiful line for us to run is actually to affirm what the public square should be. The catch is, how to do this knowing that though the public square should ultimately belong to the Lord Jesus, who declares ‘every inch his,’ in this world the powers and rulers and people conspired to crucify Jesus ‘in the public square of that great city’ (Revelation 11:8).

The good news is that you don’t have to accept the premise of this metaphor for the book’s conclusion (or even its argument) to be a blessing, and this lies in Stephen’s strength as a prophetic voice who applies Biblical truths about God as saviour and judge to our present times and calls us to repentance and life. It’s Stephen’s integrity as a commentator on both the word and the world that keeps driving us back to Jesus — the good news of the Gospel, but also Jesus as an example for us to follow as we live in a world that was hostile to him (and look, sorry to be self-referential for a moment, but my response piece to Stephen’s very famous ‘exile stage 2’ article was to challenge the premise that the world has ever been something other than the world that killed Jesus. We’ve always, even with the success of the Christian socio-political project, for good and for ill, been operating in ‘Rome-Babylon’ — this isn’t a new cultural moment). Stephen’s consistent antidote to the pressure of the world is what it always has been — from Revelation (God’s actions) to Revelation (the book) — the answer is to see Jesus as he truly is, and so know God as he really is, and to be the people of God he is re-shaping us to be by his Spirit.

Stephen’s call to be the church in a hostile world is not a call to bunker down, or a call to arms, but a call to hold out hope, and, even if people think we’re the bad guys, to live such good lives that we adorn and commend the Gospel. There’s lots to love where Stephen gets specific about what churches and Christians should do as ‘the bad guys’ in our culture’s eyes. Confession. Repentance. Transformation. These are also things that, if you’ve been watching Stephen long enough, he has modelled with integrity. They aren’t silver bullet solutions to win a culture war against secular vampires — they’re a turn to virtue and to doing the business of being God’s people in the world.

His call to create communities that are ‘thick and rich” and “don’t get caught up in the increasingly toxic culture war”  is built on a twin strategy of ‘admitting reality and ’embracing possibility’ — to admit reality is to own our failures, including the way Christian power was used to marginalise or exclude others, and to embrace possibility is to not try to get our seat of power back, but to ’embrace a place at the margins’ (learning from those churches that are already doing this well).

I don’t want to spoil his last three chapters, that are where ‘new’ content can be found for those who are regular readers of his blog, but his call to self-denial in the face of a culture built on self-affirmation or self-flourishing is worth the price of admission. So too, his unpacking of what it might look like for us to be “confusing, intriguing, attractive, and compelling” communities of bad guys (and gals) — those called to “identify not just as “persons” but as a people”, offering hope and life to those the post-Christian culture of radical individualism chews up and spits out. His work on Haggai and Daniel as paradigms for navigating life in exile are helpfully connected to the great truth that, in Jesus, our exile from God is over and we are now citizens of the ultimate ‘new city,’ the city of God. His strategies for renewing the church are wise, creative, and virtuous, whether or not you share the cultural diagnosis that underpins them, and are actually the sort of actions that would be required for us to be living as the ‘good guys’.

Whatever you make of the diagnosis underpinning the book, whatever your ‘default’ Rorschach-like reaction to its framing — perhaps defined by where you stand in the culture war — we’d all be better off if the church heeds the clarion call Stephen offers in the pages of this book, and that he finishes with:

“You can refuse to allow the atomising nature of modern individualism to get its grip on you and pull you away from God’s people. And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be.”

The good sauce: Preaching, Kanye, silver bullets, and the living and active (s)word

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

I love this picture of God’s word. The Bible. Chuck in a couple of other ideas from Hebrews, Paul in 1 and 2 Timothy, and John in John’s Gospel and you’ve got a pretty good rationale for any Christian ministry being about opening up God’s word and hearing him speak; having him do something to us. More on these ideas a bit later…

But for now, lots of Christian Twitter TM (and Facebook) is overjoyed by Kanye West’s public celebration of ‘expository preaching’ in a podcast. Stephen McAlpine has a good take on this over at his eponymous corner of the internet. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to open that in a tab and go read it.

Kanye said:

“One of my pastors, pastor Adam, who is, the way he preaches is called Expository, it’s like one to one by the word. I like all different types of preachers, but there’s some types of preachers, they have the Bible in their hand and they close the Bible and they just talk for two hours. And. Some do have annointing. But the expository preachers go line for line. And for me it’s like, I come from entertainment, I got so much sauce. I don’t need no sauce on the word. I need the word to be solid food that I can understand exactly what God was saying to me through the King James Version, through this translation, or the English Standard Version.”

Cue rejoicing not so much in the heavenly realms, but certainly amongst the reformed evangelical Christians who jumped hard onto the Kanye bandwagon last year. It’s instructive that when I watched this clip on YouTube, the next clip autocued for me was Kanye on stage with Joel Osteen.

Look. Expository preaching is better than the sort of preaching that Kanye describes where a person shuts their Bible and just starts banging on about other stuff; BUT, expository preaching is not a silver bullet or an iron clad guarantee that someone is actually treating the Word of God as it should be treated. Expository preaching is also not made any good-er or true-er because it has been endorsed by Kanye…

In fact, I’d argue that rather than being a silver bullet for faithfulness, or even the best form of preaching, expository preaching is a tool that we might bring to a text only when the genre of the text we’re reading supports the use of an expository model to unpack the meaning of a text.

When Paul talks about the task of the preacher, he says:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15

This was a favourite idea banged into us by our principal at Bible college, especially in the slightly more accurate representation of the Greek, that the ‘worker’ is meant to “rightly divide the word of truth.” Expository preaching takes a particular approach to ‘dividing the word’ — typically working verse by verse, line by line, or sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase, or word by word. It atomises. It treats the truth of Scripture as being found in the detail, properly understood. It weighs all words of scripture equally because one spends time unpacking the meaning of each phrase. A verse by verse exposition of Job is going to get interesting if one fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of the text in Job is bad advice from unwise friends.

At it’s worst (and possibly even at its best, where it is appropriate because of considerations like genre), it sees the task of ‘dividing the word’ as ‘pulling it into pieces to understand them’ not necessarily as ‘seeing how all the bits fit together.’ Exegesis, the work of interpreting every word and every phrase in a passage you are preaching on is vitally important, exposition that simply replicates your exegesis is not; in fact, exegesis needs to balance the atomising of the text into clauses and ideas with understanding the function of a text in its context; sentence, paragraph, idea, book, and canon — and it should ask questions about rhetorical purpose, not just content.

I’m mindful that one could tilt at all sorts of windmills by extrapolating a short quote from Kanye West about the goodness of expository preaching, and using that to critique not just those who’re on the Kanye bandwagon, but to use his definition to misrepresent expository preaching and so critique the whole thing, so here’s a quote from John Stott (quoted in this journal article) about the absolute importance of expository preaching for faithfulness, that contains, I hope, the best definition of what expository preaching is, or isn’t. Stott, up front, is opposed to exactly the sort of exercise this little(ish) blog post represents.

“I cannot myself acquiesce in this relegation (sometimes even grudging) of expository preaching to one alternative among many. It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Of course, if by an ‘expository’ sermon is meant a verse-by-verse exposition of a lengthy passage of Scripture, then indeed it is only one possible way of preaching, but this would be a misuse of the word. Properly speaking, `exposition’ has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prys open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is `imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. But the `text’ in question could be a verse, or a sentence, or even a single word. It could be a verse, or a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it.”

I’m going to suggest that there is more to faithful preaching than simply exposing the text, that is, that preaching is not just about making plain the meaning of the text, line by line, but it involves trying to produce the same impact as the text — that the meaning of a text rests not just in its content, but in its function or purpose. And so, that ‘exposition’ itself, as a technique is sometimes an ‘imposition’ on texts written, as they were, to be read in particular ways and to achieve particular ends.

Here are three reasons I’m not sold on classic ‘expository preaching’ as the only, or most, faithful version of the preacher’s task — sorry Kanye — not just why sometimes you might need sauce (thanks Stephen McAlpine), but why sometimes a burger needs a bun, and lettuce, and sauce to be a burger, not just the meat patty (that I understand some places sell as ‘burgers’). If you don’t bite into the whole thing, you’re not really eating a burger, you’re just chewing on some meat. You’re not ‘rightly dividing the word’ but distorting the ultimate meaning of Scripture-as-Scripture.

It’s a ‘technique’ that we often treat as a silver bullet

Though my talks are often ‘expository,’ or at least parts of them are, I’m not sold on ‘expository preaching’ as the Holy Grail or silver bullet or absolute model of faithful proclamation.

Faithful proclamation is important; and for mine, faithful proclamation involves a faithful proclaimer, faithfully understanding the text and re-presenting its meaning. Faithful proclamation is about more than technique or method; and, inasmuch as it is about content, faithful proclamation — specifically preaching — of God’s word will proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s revealing act through the Scriptures.

The catch is, we live in an age that is obsessed with technique. We want to reduce faithfulness, often, to bringing the right tools to the job. Expository preaching is a reasonable modern tool, when you look at 2,000 years of preaching.

Histories of preaching, like this article, that champion expository preaching, often see a long dark ages in the church starting in the post-apostolic period with true ‘Biblical’ preaching then emerging with the Reformation. What’s interesting to me is that there isn’t a huge amount of evidence in the New Testament that the preaching of the apostolic age looked ‘expository’ (think the sermons in Acts, with their sweeping big picture story-telling of the Old Testament, or from creation (eg Paul in Athens), or the way the epistles use the Old Testament, and especially Hebrews, which plenty of scholars see as a sermon transcript — it might be that it’s a new medium that arrives with a Protestant understanding of Scripture (including the printing press and the Scriptures being available in the vernacular), the church, the nature of truth, and the task of the preacher. This doesn’t make it wrong, it may be that it is a faithful way to proclaim Biblical truth, it just means it might not be the way to proclaim Biblical truth.

Other ages may have brought bits of the world into the pulpit — the article linked above is critical of Augustine and his ilk for emphasising rhetoric and other Greek forms of speech; but that critique also needs to apply to our own modern sensibilities; our fusion of certain forms of speech or persuasion with ‘faithfulness’. Any critique of expository preaching as a product, mostly, of the Reformation — an approach unfamiliar to the people closest to the time the text of the Bible was produced, and the sermons of the first century preached — could equally apply to the historical-critical method of exegesis, and our rejection of any prior model; there’s a sort of chronological snobbery at play in some of our thinking about ‘faithfulness,’ so in that history of expository preaching article, the writer also throws Augustine under the bus because “his interpretations were usually allegorical and imaginative, as was true of others of his day.”

But, what if being imaginative is a legitimate approach to the task of preaching, and perhaps, within some boundaries, the task of interpretation? What if we have to attempt to imagine ourselves into the ancient worldview of the author and audience, not impose ourselves and our modern obsessions on an ancient text?

One of our modern obsessions, described by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society, and rehearsed by others who think about communication mediums from oratory, to the alphabet, to the printed word as technologies, is with finding the right technique. When we drop this emphasis on technology and technique into the church ecosystem informed by the modern world, we get a belief that ‘faithfulness’ looks like employing the right techniques. Expository preaching becomes a particular sort of ‘technology’ or technique we turn to to shape the church, and shape us as people. Here’s Ellul:

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

What if we view the expository sermon as a technique and ask how it has modified our very essence? Our understanding of the living and active word of God? What if we were made for something different and this technique, as a medium, imposes something on us as a ‘force of the modern world’?

If Ellul’s critique of the technological society was on the money in 1954, and others like Neil Postman took up his critique in works like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, then we moderns need to be careful to identify where our particular socio-cultural moment is shaping the way we approach the living and active word of God. We should avoid the mistake of thinking that our particular moment has either the ‘silver bullet’ methodology, or a monopoly on ‘faithfulness’ because we can defend our technique.

The expository talk, with its propositions and focus on the detail, often comes at the expense of sweeping narrative (like the sermons in Acts). It, like the linear nature of the printed word (and how it changes the way we speak and remember), is actually a modern technology that has penetrated and reshaped our psyche.

Expository preaching often treats content — not content, form, and intention — as the essence of the text (and so, the sermon). 

Here is an exposition of a sword. It’s an exploded diagram that names and labels every part.

If a sermon did to a passage what this diagram does to a sword it would leave you with a good understanding of the composite parts of the sword, and maybe even the building blocks to allow you to jump to the concept of what a sword is for. But it’s not going to cut you. Or move you. Or penetrate into the centre of your being.

What if faithful preaching isn’t just a description of a sword, but the swinging of a sword?

What if we were made for the sort of communication that resonates not just with our rational brains, but our hearts, emotions and experience as well; for Logos, Pathos, and Ethos, in the Greek rhetorical schema; or for ‘locution, illocution, and perlocution’ in modern speech act theory? In speech act theory an act of speech is broken down into the content (locution), the delivery (illocution), and the intent (perlocution).

Sam Chan’s Preaching As The Word of God (reviewed here) digs in to some of the issues with robbing the word of anything but the bare ‘locution’ (the words themselves), because to do this limits the communicative act to only its content. It’s a fascinating approach to any sort of media; and not the approach you might learn in an arts degree, or something literary. It feels like a method of preaching divised by engineers who want the Bible to act as something like a manual for life, rather than something like a sweeping piece of artistry; a narrative, or cosmic drama, or even a persuasive text (and, for example, John’s Gospel is up front about its intent — it is written so that we might believe). Sam quotes Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching, which defines the technique of expository preaching, or ‘Biblical exposition’:

“Biblical exposition binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change. Because hearts are transformed when people are confronted with the word of God, expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.”

Sam Chan, in a work outlining how speech-act theory might help us approach preaching faithfully, identifies a few issues with this approach (one of these I’ll unpack a little more below). First he acknowledges a strength, one that resonates a little with Kanye’s appreciation of exposition.

“Although proponents of this approach would never suggest that preaching should be the mere quoting of Scripture passages verbatim (which would be akin to a “dictation” theory of preaching), they are not too far from asking a preacher to merely paraphrase a Scripture passage. The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasizes the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself.”

One of the problems he identifies is that the nature of exposition inevitably breaks down the text into chunks that are then explained, particularly as ‘propositions’; there is nothing inherently wrong with propositions (that statement, is in itself a proposition), but “much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles.” I’m not convinced, for example, that exposition allows the faithful re-presentation of narrative, or poetry.

Part of the issue I have with ‘Biblical exposition’ that focuses on taking up the ‘locution’ of a passage, rather than the preacher faithfully reproducing the illocution and perlocution (or even adapting the ancient model of perlocution with methods that achieve the same outcomes in a different context) is that it has a truncated picture of who we are as humans. It is the product of a particularly modernist anthropology; the sort of thinking about what it means to be human that has reduced the path to formation to education, and that sees education not as an apprenticeship built on life together and imitation, but on getting the right information. We’re not simply computers who need the right data downloaded into our mental hard drives, or brains on a stick who need the right information  in order for transformation to occur. Faithful preaching will recognise the nature of God’s word (as living and active), and the nature of people as living and active, and work to bring the word of God to bear on living and active people — not killing the text, or the hearer.

If Scripture is living and active, we understand it best when it is unchained to do its work on us, not when it is dissected. Dissecting scripture is like trying to understand a lion by dissecting it, you might get some sense of how sharp its teeth are by holding them in your hands, but a greater sense if the lion bits you with its powerful jaws. We can provide diagrams of swords, or textbook descriptions of how swords work, and call that preaching, or we can swing them.

The Bible, God’s word, is God’s word about Jesus — exposition won’t always get us where we need to go

Once one acknowledges that expository preaching might not do justice to a passage of narrative, it also opens up the possibility that expository preaching is an insufficient technique if the Bible has a metanarrative; a big story that each part contributes to. If expository preaching involves an explanation of the particular text and its particularities, then the move to connect the text not just with the immediate, but the canonical, context is already a move away from pure exposition. Without that move one ends up weighting all parts of Scripture equally, and while all of Scripture is God’s word, all verses are not equal in significance.

So, for example, Deuteronomy 14:19 should not receive as much weight, in the diet of a church, as a verse in a Gospel or an epistle. Being good readers, and so good preachers, of God’s living and active word involves understanding how his word fits together. There’ll be more fruit in digging in to a verse by verse treatment of Romans, for example, as a result of its genre, than a verse by verse treatment of Job.

But also, the Bible provides us with an interpretive grid, in the words of Jesus in Luke 24. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets are written about him; our job as interpreters (and preachers) is incomplete if we have not connected the text to this context. Pure exposition of, for example, Isaiah, is not a faithul presentation of the living and active word of God if it does not connect us to the living Word of God, Jesus. And it’s actually this sort of preaching, rather than line by line exposition of the Old Testament, or the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that we see modelled by the Christian preachers in the New Testament. Where expository preaching can essentially be traced back to the Reformation (even by those who believe it is the faithful model), there is a sort of preaching that is faithful to the Old Testament scriptures modelled in the New Testament that looks a whole lot more like swinging the sword around than death by 1,000 propositional cuts.

Faithful preaching properly understands God’s word, and so proclaims Jesus as saviour and king, and calls for a response to him — for repentance and faith; for hearts and minds changed so that we become more like Jesus as we are called to love and worship God, and see our lives the way his story calls us to.

This is the pattern of the sermons we find in the New Testament — whether the teaching of Jesus (repent for the kingdom of God is near — and the Old Testament is being fulfilled), the apostles in Acts (repent, for the kingdom of God has come with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scritures), and in Hebrews — which is soaked in Old Testament quotes and imagery, and shows their fulfillment in Jesus as saviour and king.

An expository sermon can do this, absolutely — but the sermons in the New Testament aren’t line by line expositions of Old Testament passages, they are deep reflections on the entire weight of the Old Testament testimony about Jesus — the law, the Psalms, and the Prophets — being brought to life in order to call people to repentance and faith; they often cut to the heart of the people listening (this is the explicit description of the response of the audience in Acts 2 to Peter’s sweeping re-telling of the Old Testament narrative (quoting Prophets and a Psalm).

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” — Acts 2:36-38

Faithful preaching is preaching that moves people towards faith in Jesus because it does what the Scriptures do, aiming for what the Scriptures aim for… sometimes that will require exposition, other times it will require other techniques. Don’t chop up the living and active (s)word into little bits. Swing it like you mean it.

Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

 

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.

Why I’m a generous pluralist, not a pluralist by pragmatism (or a pragmatist), and why we should be ready for a diet of worms

Nobody likes me everybody hates me
I think I’ll go eat worms
Long ones, short ones, fat ones skinny ones,
Ones that squiggle and squirm
Bite their heads off suck their guts out throw their skins away
Nobody knows that I eat worms, 3 times a day — A song I used to sing as a kid


Image: WWE’s old worm-eating character, The Boogeyman

 

Stephen McAlpine is always worth reading even though he’s a little older, grumpier and more pessimistic than I am. I like him a lot. In his most recent post asking where the progressive Christian voices speaking about religious freedom are he has a dig at those who write blog posts spruiking ‘a confident pluralism’… I’m reasonably sure he’s not talking about me. But just in case others are drawing a link, I thought I’d spell out what my motivations for generous pluralism are; that it’s not that I expect (necessarily) we’ll get a better deal from those who disagree with us, but rather that it is the right position for us to adopt.

“I read blog posts which predict a confident pluralism in Australia which will only target extreme homophobia, as if the recent brittle pluralism on this matter (Coopers anyone?) is merely an anomaly, a blip on the radar that will magically correct itself with the objective is achieved.”

Just to be clear this is not my prediction; but also to be clear, my diagnosis of most conservative Christian responses to same sex marriage here and abroad is that the loudest voices have not practiced a confident pluralism but a zero sum game (and to be charitable to John Inazu who coined the ‘confident’ qualifier for pluralism, or at least trademarked it, his confidence, like Stephen McAlpine’s is largely eschatological and theological, not political).

The snowball that started the Stephen McAlpine internet juggernaut; of which I am a fan; was his series of posts on life in exile. He concluded we’re not in Athens but Babylon, my response was to suggest that the distinction between Athens, Babylon, and Rome is probably not one that Revelation makes — we’re still in Rome, and the question is ‘how should the church operate when in Rome?’ We should consider ourselves operating in the world that crucified Jesus, despite thousands of years of the church influencing western culture.

My paradigm is not one of navigating the easiest road for the church in these times; but making sure we’re being crucified for following Jesus (doing the right thing), rather than for using ‘the sword’ to try to make other people follow Jesus (the culture wars/modern crusades/wrong thing). If you’re seeing something other than cruciformity driving my agenda I’d invite you to first try to understand my words through that lens, and if you still can’t see it, to call me out.

The Babylonian metaphor Stephen often uses (most recently in his cracking post on Israel Folau) is a useful one, provided we see Babylonian exile as involving powerful counter-narratives about humanity that go a long way beyond sex, and sexual ethics as the last thing the church is being called to give up, not the first. Like Stephen, and others, I see Daniel as a powerful motiff or model for how to respond to life in Babylon, but I see Jesus operating in the Roman empire as a subversive alternative (and victorious) king who wins through crucifixion as an even better model (and Daniel as a ‘type’ of Jesus). Like Stephen my confidence is eschatological, not political. Like Stephen, my solution to this diagnosis is that the church should be the church; and so when I pursue a confident pluralism and generously engage with some of the more aggressive members of the homosexual campaign against religious freedom being exercised I’m not doing it to silence the Christians they are silencing (though I do wish those Christians would practice pluralism), I’m not doing it to secure an easier run from the world, I’m doing it to model an alternative — that I’m ultimately not confident will be politically effective, but I am confident is effectively the right thing to do. I’m trying to practice a political ethic derived from the Golden Rule, operating not just as an approach we take in our relationships as individuals, but corporately.

For the record I think it’s highly likely that it’s going to feel like we’re eating worms, or being fed to them, as Christians in Australia if we don’t radically change our approach (and even if we do). And this might be good for us. It might be deserved. But it might also be the cost of following Jesus.

Why not pragmatism?

Once upon a time, I was reminded the other day, I called myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’ — I thought the best thing to do was the pragmatic thing to do that secured the best results for Gospel proclamation. I wrote about this. I was convinced. And then I went to Bible college and thought more about how important ethos is for our proclaiming of the Gospel (logos), how you can’t just be about results but first have to cultivate virtue, and this virtue then amplifies what we have to say; the ethos of the Gospel of the crucified king is cruciformity. This is why Paul both consistently appeals to the example of Jesus (and his own example) but also retells how the example of Jesus has caused him to be beaten and bruised for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10-11, Galatians 6).

The pragmatic approach described by John Stackhouse in his ABC piece (quoted yesterday), at least as I understand it, calculates a political strategy based on achievable results; it’s is essentially utilitarian, seeing politics as requiring dirty hands or compromise (which it absolutely does), but seeing the potential results as worth it. I can understand people landing on this position, though much of what is good about it you also get with pluralism (which is why I think David Brooks only identified two categories of political engagement in his piece I quoted yesterday). I’m not a pluralism as a ‘dirty hands’ option, but because I think it’s how you best keep ‘clean hands’ in a dirty world (for more on the hands metaphor see this piece). I understand and appreciate pragmatism, having held what I think is a fairly similar position, but I think pluralism (which looks like dirty hands to the idealist) is its own expression of virtue ethics; it says ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ and requires us to set about building our own virtue forming institutions (especially the church), or rather it allows the Spirit to go about God’s business of transforming us into the image of Christ, as God’s handiwork — created in him to do good works, but allows other people the freedom to pursue their own handiwork. This is the best way, I believe for us to be able to proclaim the Gospel, and seek to persuade others to join our communities, or adopt our (true) monotheism.

Why then pluralism? How the Golden rule is different from ‘treat others as they’re going to treat you’

As I articulated in yesterday’s post about pluralism being preferable to idealism, there are many ways one might approach the fractured world we live in where we do face an aggressive polytheism that wants to eradicate a (perceived as aggressive or oppressive) monotheism (this polytheism is especially the secular idolatry of sex and individual liberty, so long as that liberty conforms to the collective mores). I don’t think we can totally blame the other at this point; the church (institutionally) has earned a reputation for trying to make people outside the church conform to our own patterns via politics, and being too slow to let go of that chokehold as our culture has become more diverse. This is where I believe pluralism is the right thing to do, but also why I don’t believe pluralism will achieve a desirable outcome for us politically, because mostly the people who follow the Golden Rule, are those who follow the golden ruler, Jesus, not ‘golden statues’. The golden rule is a subversive ethic because our default isn’t to treat people as we would have them treat us, but treat them as they’ve treated us (or as we’ve perceived it) or as they might treat us in the future. The self-seeking default is to hold on to power and play the zero sum game of ‘I win/they lose’ for as long as possible. Christians still playing this game have not realised that we lost the numbers a long time ago and now we’re systemically losing the sympathy of our neighbours and reinforcing the ‘oppressor’ narrative; so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become oppressed. My concern is that we get oppressed for the right stuff — faithfully proclaiming Jesus. Not the wrong stuff — being political oppressors, no matter how well intentioned, of those who do not worship Jesus.

Pluralism is where I think you  land if you take a communitarian approach to life in this world, and want the freedom for the church to be the church (religious freedom), seeing that as a good thing. Personally, I am ok with the church being the church without religious freedom, that’s been how the church has operated in many other times and places (still); and God will still freely be God even if those proclaiming the Gospel are in chains; his word, as the book of Acts finishes, will continue unhindered.

Pluralism is what it looks like to say “I want our community to have the freedom to define ourselves and live according to our vision of the good, so I will treat other communities built around different visions of the good with the same freedom.”  The government in a secular nation has a responsibility to not have a state religion, the government in a liberal democracy has a responsibility to uphold the freedoms of its citizens but to balance those freedoms with the freedoms of others; this is a politically coherent position in our framework, but building an ethic around what works politically is another form of pragmatism. For me, pluralism isn’t primarily a politically smart or socially defendable position, it is those things because it seems to me to be the right thing to do when you have many communities formed around many religions, and people with no religious affiliation forming their identity around other visions of a good life; pluralism is the right thing to do (as opposed to aggressive/oppressive monotheism or polytheism) because it is what I would have people who disagree with me offer me. It’s the right thing to do even when they don’t or won’t. And let me be clear, I don’t expect them to, ultimately, because I believe pluralism is only really something you can offer from a position of absolute confidence and certainty, or from genuine epistemic humility. You either have to be so confident that your view will ultimately be vindicated (in the Christian case ‘by God’, in other cases ‘by history’ or their gods) that you are able to operate with charity to those you disagree with, a sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ approach; or so genuinely humble about the views that you hold and open to being persuaded that you want to afford the opportunity for people to persuade you to every other group, a sort of ‘it’s possible I only know this by God’s grace, or I might actually be wrong about everything’ approach. It’s possible to be both (which is where I think generosity kicks in over confidence as a qualifier for pluralism). I don’t think modern secular ideologies have either the confidence (built from thousands of years of tradition and a coherent and compelling story) or the humility to play this game. There are certainly good reasons why oppressed minorities don’t feel this confidence based on how they’ve been wrongly treated, so I’m not condemning the passion of those who are fighting hard against their perceptions of an oppressive reality, that’s not my point; my point is that Christians have every reason to be confident, charitable, humble and generous in offering this sort of pluralism even to those who would crucify us, and even if thye do, because our confidence is not in earthly politics and human recognition and affirmation, but in God. I really love this quote I found in a book somewhere a long time ago. I come back to it regularly:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

We can confidently engage with others personally and empathetically — seeking to persuade but not restrict those who hold to other views — and even be crucified, because of the God we believe is at work in and through us.

The Daniel “Diet of Worms” Diet

One of my favourite recent posts from Stephen McAlpine was his ‘four Ds’ look at what it means to be a church shaped by Daniel’s life in Babylon; where the church defies, declares, dies and is delivered. I’ve always found the idea of a ‘Daniel Diet’ (popularised in some books in your local Christian book retailer) a relatively bizarre take on Daniel, but there is a certain sort of ‘diet’ Daniel anticipates for Christians (by first anticipating it for Jesus). I think Stephen nails it. There’s also a certain sort of optimistic mocking of worldly power in the light of who God is and his hand being at work in the world, I like the scholarly view that the Book of Daniel is a satirical critique of human empires and worldly power.

One of the better books I’ve read on political theology and strategy in the secular age is How To Survive The Apocalypse, authors Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra have a slightly different take on the Babylon motiff; they point out that in our modern age we don’t have a Nebuchadnezzar; our individualism means we’ve thrown down any institutional authority and replaced it with all of us clamouring to be king; a sort of anarchy where different communities or tribes (or individuals) are at war, just like in The Hunger Games (an example they cite). This war certainly profits some ‘king like’ sectors of the corporate realm — we’ve replaced politics with the market, or politics now serves the market).

“The question for politics today is how to build Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar has been dragged through the streets and hung at the gates.” — How To Survive The Apocalypse

They’re not pessimistic though, following Charles Taylor they suggest that change always moves simultaneously in a bunch of directions and our modern storytelling reveals a dissatisfaction with this sort of world; there might be a hope that we can patch things back together and that the church might be a part of this. But that will require a sort of uncompromised willingness to compromise; or a ‘faithful compromise’; we need to learn from Daniel, and perhaps, more recently Martin Luther, who has his own ‘diet’ where he pursued faithful monotheism within the confines of the church. We need to be both ‘faithful’ in our own community, and pluralist or compromising in the community at large. Both confident and humble. It is possible. Here’s Luther’s ‘Diet of Worms’ diet for faithfulness (ok, I know this is a bad pun).

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. — Martin Luther, Diet of Worms (like most historians, I don’t believe he actually said “here I stand”… which is a shame).

We need to have Luther’s preparedness to stand for what we believe, and be crucified, but Daniel’s readiness to be part of the world that was happy to throw him to the lions, committed to its good (and optimistic in such a way that it fosters generosity). Here’s Wilkinson and Joustra:

“This may sound a bit unsatisfying, but it’s also the context for the hard work of making culture. It is a call to proximate and slow justice, to work among the ruins of a Secular age because it is our age, and we are responsible to find, restore, and build on the best of its motivating ideals. That’s Chief Astrologer Daniel kind of territory: making faithful compromise, resisting what needs resisting, changing where change can be made, building where the best is already present. Maybe the often-repeated Jeremiah invocation to “seek the welfare of the city” is just a good Hebrew summary of Taylor’s argument to find and build on the best of the motivating ideals of our Secular age. Nobody argues Babylon is or will be the City of God. But it can be better than it is now, and we can be part of that work…”

They touch on pluralism, identifying a sort of listless and historically radical pluralism operating in our world that defaults to ‘no religion’ and the destruction of institutions, but suggesting the answer to a world that probably won’t give us the pluralism we might desire is, counter-intuitively (or golden rule shaped) more pluralism, not less.

“… the better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

This will hurt. It’ll probably be incredibly costly for many of us; but it’s the right thing to do and our confidence is not in the politics of this world, but the polis of the next. Not the cities of our age, but the city of God. But this is both our diet (in the trial sense) and our diet (in the suck it up sense). Here we stand, we can do none else.

 

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

 

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.

On Gayby Baby, sex education, the new normal, and the better normal

An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.

Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.

It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to Wear It Purple as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:

“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”

This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.

The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.

Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele

“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”

I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%

Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).

The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.

The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.

Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)

I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).

Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.

Aren’t these good outcomes?

Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?

I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.

I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.

So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.

This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.

It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?

I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.

I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?

Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.

By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.

The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’

This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.

In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.

There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.

 

Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?

Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.

“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?

Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.

The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…

The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.

The “New” Normal

Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31

This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.

People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.

So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.

If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.

The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing

Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.

If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?

I love much of what Stephen McAlpine writes (he’s posted on Gayby Baby as I’ve been writing this, but his piece on the Sexular Age is pertinent at this point. Here’s a quote:

“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”

I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it).  I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.

That’s not trite.  Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture.  After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle  then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now.  Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.

I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.

He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.

This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32

Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.

Paul listens.

Paul really understands.

And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.

That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…

 

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