The Image of Trump or the Image of Jesus: on Trump’s sacrilege and the toppling of idols

In the last two posts I’ve explored how the practice of destroying statues — the damnatio memoraie — is an ancient one, and how public space has always been sacred and contested (and how when Jesus turns up in a contested public space, both sides of the contest joined sides to kill him).

There’s a picture of this for those who would follow Jesus in the book of Revelation; John’s apocalypse. Up front John writes to some churches in the Roman world. He pictures these seven churches as lamp stands. Churches who are meant to bring light to the world as they reflect the glory of Jesus. By the time you get into the ‘apocalyptic’ stuff — the vivid picture of life in this world that John offered, the seven lamp stands are reduced to two. Two faithful churches — witnesses to Jesus — are pictured as martyrs, and we’re told they speak up, and the beastly world kills them, celebrating the sacrilegious erasure of their voice from the public square like first century statue topplers. John says, of these witnesses, “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” (Revelation 11:8). To follow Jesus in the world is to be treated like Jesus because we act like Jesus because we worship Jesus.

The book of Revelation serves up a picture of beastly worldly power as opposed to God; it ties Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Jerusalem together as pictures of an economically motivated monster opposed to the kingdom of God; in love with the things of this world, and the prince of this world, Satan. The desecration of these faithful churches — these bodies pulled down in the public square is paralleled with the desecration of Jesus, the image of God, in the public square of Jerusalem.

It’s fascinating that the debate about the tearing down of statues — images cast in metal or stone — in public squares around the world — the outpouring of anger of the sort evoked by sacrilege that we’re hearing from one side of the ‘history wars’/’culture wars’ divide because statues-as-history are being destroyed in such a sacrilegious manner, and the outpouring of anger we’re seeing from the other side of the same conflict in the desecrating destruction these of statues happened at the same time that the President of the United States so ‘sacrilegiously’ (or desacrilegiously) set himself up as a pixelated image in a brazen photo opp on the footsteps of a church.

Trump’s photo opp was straight out of the playbook of the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose cultural and religious conquest of Jerusalem was framed by the writer of the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees as “the abomination that causes desolation.”

And perhaps the most distressing part of this scene was not Trump’s following the image-erecting playbook of the idol-kings of the ancient world; it was the way he was cheered on by the faithful — the sort of lamp stands in Revelation who forsook their first love, Jesus, to cosy up with the Beastly Roman empire; the new Babylon, Egypt, and Sodom.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — it’s not pointing to some future moment of cataclysmic end times so much as revealing the cataclysmic results of siding with anybody but God; given that ultimately the victory of Jesus won at the cross will turn the whole world on its head. Revelation talks about the Spiritual reality behind political realities; there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide — everything is religious; every political act is an act of sacrilege or sanctification — an act of elevating some thing or other to holy status, or applying a religious paradigm to the organisation of life in the world, in terms of how we organise communities of people and how we make and enjoy created things. That those kingdoms that set themselves up to oppose Jesus because they love money and the things of this world are collectives of people — systems, structures, cultures — that have rejected Jesus and picked Satan. Instead of being bearers of the divine image — and so being treated like Jesus and executed in the public square; they’re joining with corrupt power in order to reject God’s king and kingdom, and to destroy their own enemies (those who would take from them the things they really love). In Revelation you’ve got the image of Israel as a harlot, jumping on the back of beastly Rome.

1 Maccabees condemns Israel for not being desperately offended by the sacrilegious act of Antiochus Epiphanes; instead of tearing down the idol and seeking to rededicate the Temple to Yahweh (after Antiochus dedicates it to Zeus), “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Maccabees 1:43). Israel’s hearts have been captured by this beastly foreign ruler and his promise of order, and status, and the benefits flowing from belonging to such a powerful empire.

Trump’s photo opp — secured through violent action (this Washington Post composite of smart phone footage and police radio audio puts the idea that he didn’t use tear gas or equivalents squarely in the ‘fake news’ column) — was an act of sacrilege; co-opting the symbols of Christianity — the Kingdom of God — for his own political agenda (so much so that even his military has since distanced itself from the photo opp). This was the digital equivalent of the erection of a statue; a pixelated bust. An image that he hoped might spread frictionlessly around his empire to shore up his rule, and a call to worship his image. In Empire and Communication (1950), Harold Innis argued that empires rose and fell, historically, based on how well and widely they were able to communicate. Statues were an expensive but long lasting way to share an imperial imagery through the landscape an emperor ruled. They were fixed in place, but would last for a long time. They were limited. Trump is the master of harnessing the digital landscape to create imagery and words that spread through the empire; a master of propaganda and pageantry. He doesn’t need statues to spread his image; there is now a permanent picture of Trump with a Bible, in front of a church, engraved in the American pysche. The Roman empire followed other ancient near eastern practice by using coins as propaganda; the emperor’s image was carried in the pockets of the average Roman citizen (see Jesus on coins ‘the image of Caesar’ v ‘the image of God), when Trump wanted his name on the cheques sent out as stimulus to citizens during the Covid-19 lockdown he was again borrowing straight from the ancient playbook.

Just as Revelation depicts a faithful church who stand against the empire and so get slaughtered, 1 Maccabees tells the story that not all in Israel succumbed to Antiochus’ attempts to profane the Temple, while glorifying the image of his gods.

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)”

These were the #NeverTrumpers of the first century B.C.

My observations of peers in the U.S who won’t bend the knee to Trump is that it’s more costly within Christian community to refuse than it is for an NFL player to bend the knee during the anthem. Leader after leader seem to be coming forward to pledge their allegience to the Trump re-election campaign; excited by his fusion of the sword of empire with the sword of God’s word… while ignoring the picture God’s word paints of the empire while telling Christians to submit to its authority — to the point of martyrdom; just as Jesus did. Now, this is complicated of course, and people of God are able to be a faithful presence working for change in idolatrous foreign governments — the guiding principle from Joseph, to Daniel, to Esther, to Nehemiah, to Erastus in Corinth, to the early Christians in the Roman empire — seems to be a refusal to worship at the feet of the emperor because Jesus is their Lord and King — their spiritual and political leader. Daniel, the courtier, was chucked in the lion’s den explicitly for his refusal to bend the knee to the king he served. Serving in the courts of the king isn’t the problem — that’s precisely where God’s people can act as a faithful presence to see actions aligned with God’s kingdom (so when Esther doesn’t mention God, that’s not because God is absent in the story, he’s present through the faithful presence of his people). In Daniel, in case the symbolism needs to be any more overt, Nebuchadnezzar literally becomes beastly as a result of the pride he takes in the size and scope of his power.

“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4:33)

Trump is the embodiment of the worship of the things of this world. He is beastly in every sense of the word, as the Bible describes it. He is the personification of the vice list in Colossians 3 that Christians are told to put off as they are restored in the knowledge of the image of our creator. Find one thing in this list that Trump hasn’t proudly demonstrated in his tweeting, rallies, and photo opps.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices (Colossians 3:5-10)

He is a living, breathing, idol, erecting pixelated statues to himself and inviting all to bend the knee to him (and getting angry when they take a knee to any other god).

But when he stands in front of a church, co-opting it to maintain his position in his empire, church leaders in America aren’t falling in behind the example of the two faithful lamp stands in Revelation 11; they’re the five who left. And it’s appalling. It’s a symptom of a Christian culture that cares more about results and appearance and power than about virtue, and faithfulness, and following the example of a crucified king. It’s the sign of a church who learns nothing from history, because it cares nothing about history; or the role of narrative — both from the Bible, and through history, and its foundational role in shaping character; a church obsessed with technique, coopted by the forms and strategies of the world, because those are the ones that for good and for ill, have provided influence (and, on the whole, less martyrdom).

Christians might ‘bend the knee’ while holding their nose; but there was no space for that in Jerusalem when Antiochus swept to power, and none in Rome in John’s revelation; the faithful church was martyred for its refusal to take a knee. There’s even evidence of this in Pliny’s letter to Trajan. The trial Pliny devised for those accused of being Christians was simple; straight from the pages of Daniel. They were asked to worship an image of the emperor.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Trajan’s response is a model of reasonableness — he doesn’t want a witch hunt; but, if people are accused of being Christians and fail this test, then they are to be punished.

“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.”

There’s a whole swathe of Christians failing this test; putting Supreme Court seats, religious freedom, political influence, abortion law reform, and victory in the culture wars against the evil “woke left” as justification for joining in Trump’s profanity. But it’s not just the church of the right co-opted by the empire… by the lure of worldly power — they’re not the only Christians lured by the sides going toe-to-toe in the culture wars and backing their chosen champion to the hilt; not the only ones taking a knee… There’s a whole swathe of Christians also failing this test by becoming political and spiritual progressives who deny the resurrection, reject any created norms in terms of biological sex, sexuality, or sexual morality, where allegiance to the institutions of the left seems to require a particular stance on the lives of the unborn, who take on the more radical ‘deconstruction’ aims of the extremes of the left not only to dismantle oppression but the idea of any construction outside the self-constructed authenticity we all want to pursue as tribes of individuals… The litmus test might not be invoking the gods in words supplied by the agents of the empire, but it sure feels close; the Christian leaders who paraded out in lockstep to praise Trump’s strong and god-annointed leadership, and to celebrate the photo, have something to learn from Daniel, from Esther, from the faithful Israelites in the time of Antiochus, and from the faithful churches in Revelation…

Both the ‘Christian right’ and ‘Christian left’ — when they’re expressions of the culture wars, and the fight to control the empire (at the expense of the other) — have forsaken their first love. And it might seem like this is a world away from Australia, and America’s narrative — especially when it comes to civic religion — is a very different animal to Australia; but the same symptoms are there in Australia’s own version of political Christianity; especially, I think, on the Christian Right, with the Australian Christian Lobby and a variety of similar bodies spearheading the charge. There’s, frankly, not enough calling this out from leaders of the institutional church in Australia because our temptation to idolatry is often aligned with the right; we Christians (apparently) want a government that will make life comfortable for us (religious freedom), that will keep the invocation of God’s name in the parliamentary process (the Lord’s prayer), and who will give conservative Christian voices access to the throne room (even if it means justifying a vote for One Nation).

There’s another interesting dynamic to Antiochus Epiphanes and his abomination that causes desolation. The temple he profanes is empty. It’s a shell. It stopped housing God’s glorious presence in the exile. When Solomon builds the temple in 1 Kings, the glorious presence of God shakes the foundations of heaven and earth, and God speaks, as he comes to dwell in Israel as their God. The Temple is the seat of his political and spiritual rule; his footstool in the earth. The curtain in the temple marks off the ‘holy of holies’ — as a sort of boundary marker between heavens and earth.

The second temple never witnesses God’s glorious presence arriving (well, it might, I’ll get to this below); the Old Testament ends in anticipation of God gloriously dwelling with his people again. Israel, with the help of the rulers of Persia, rebuild and rededicate the Temple.

There’s a sense in Ezra that things just aren’t the same; first, people who remember the original temple mourn the difference as the foundation is laid: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:12), and then, the whole thing launches with a party without any divine intervention.

“Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:16-17)

And that’s it. It goes off with a whimper, rather than a bang. There’s no ground-shaking arrival of God in his house from the thunderclouds. No cloud of glory. The house that Antiochus desecrates has not yet been resanctified; the Day of the Lord has not arrived; Israel is still essentially exiled from God when this house is renovated by Herod, when Jesus turns up as the Messiah and calls it a ‘den of Robbers,’ he turns up as an entirely new temple.

And, just in case you think this is some weird over-reading of a lack of cosmic fireworks in Ezra, the prophets anticipate a future ‘day of the Lord’ when the temple would be restored…

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai also has this change coming with a judgment on beastly empires.

“I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (Haggai 2:22).

The sort of destruction longed for, and promised, in the closing chapters of Revelation. The one that comes when Jesus returns to ‘make all things new’ — the sort of kingdom — political and spiritual — that Christians are now meant to anticipate that allows us to faithfully avoid being co-opted by the empires of this world.

The same Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Washington (the denomination St John’s, the church in Trump’s photo, is part of), Mariann Budd, who said “Mr. Trump used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands,” also said, in a widely quoted (now deleted) blog post “The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.” There’s every chance Trump stood in front of an empty house, just as Antiochus re-dedicated an empty house to Zeus. Denying not just the ‘in the flesh’ nature of the incarnation, but the resurrection, was something John (who by-the-by, I think is the same John who wrote the Gospel, and Revelation) had pretty squarely in mind when he talked about anti-Christs in 1 John (see more on this here).

I’m not here to play the theological witch-hunt game or to be a watch-blogger railing against the wishy-washy world of the Episcopalian Church; the bishop might have had a bad day, and this might be why that post is now deleted and the quote found circulating elsewhere on the interent. As an Aussie Presbyterian, I don’t have a dog in that fight. But the left hand side of the culture wars demands allegiance just like the right does; you get to be part of an empire on that side if you give up the spiritual reality of the Gospel in order to pursue the political vision of justice that was part of Jesus’ kingdom. Christians explicitly taking sides in the culture wars — championing or being championed by visions from the left, or the right, end up doing eschatologically odd things, and aligning themselves with empty temples. You get a pass from the left for championing feelings and desires above the created reality of our bodies, and the ‘feeling of resurrection’ over the embodied reality of resurrection, and the goodness of humanity over the darkness of sin and God’s holiness and so the reality of judgment (and exile from God). You get a pass for the left for sharing its political vision, and so sharing its spiritual vision — because there is no secular/sacred divide. You get a pass for totally over-realising your eschatology; and, just like the right, seeking to build your vision of the kingdom here and now through whatever levers of power are on offer. So you play your own part in the culture wars, and bend your knee to your own alternative gods when you should stand. And yet, again, a caveat — Christians can be faithfully present in the institutions of the left, just as they can in the right, the question, ultimately, is about allegiance (and one of the signs for who your allegiance is to might be in how you make space for Christians on the other side of the political fence).

We followers of Jesus should have no part in sacrilegious abominations that are not the destruction of our own image in the same way that the image of God was destroyed in first century Israel, in the public square of that beastly city. We’re not meant to jump on board with the erection of other images that represent worldly power; not to nail our colours to those masts; not to bow the knee to other emperors — we’re to stand, and die, with the one who stood and died for us. To pick a side in the culture wars is to pick an idol, and to sign up for a particular form of iconoclasm, and a particular form of idol construction. And the Bible consistently calls the people of God away from idols because to participate in such image making conforms us into a particular image… As Psalm 115 puts it, when it comes to idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You lie down with dogs, you get fleas. You side with Antiochus, you get the Pharisees executing Jesus. You side with Satan, and the rulers who rule using his playbook, you become beastly. You follow Trump and suddenly you lose all public credibility when preaching Jesus. You join young Martyn and his political revolution aimed at securing access in the corridors of power through endorsing One Nation, and you get… And here’s the thing, you sign up as a card carrying supporter of Black Lives Matter, the organisation (as opposed to participating in the conversation and using the statement)… well, it’s very likely you’ll be conformed to its view of the world. The trick is figuring out how to be in an empire but not of the empire; to serve in the government of Rome without worshipping the emperor. To work in the public service without campaigning for the leader, which is hard — a lesson a certain general, and stacks of other ex-Trump staffers have learned the hard way: you refuse to be in the photo opp, or facilitate it, you say “no,” you differentiate yourself in words and actions, you speak up clearly and with conviction to call out bad behaviour, you recognise the good and the humanity not just in your own side, but the other, you love your enemy and practice forgiveness, you draw a line and you hold it with integrity, you preach Jesus even rebuking those in power on your own side, when it costs you everything… You stand when you’re called to bow. And look, I get that my friends on the right see that this is an issue with Black Lives Matter TM, and so don’t want to take a knee — but I’d like them to take the same stance when it comes to those idolators on the right, not stay silent when it suits them. You stand against racism and for the plight of the marginalised and oppressed; and you stand for J.K Rowling as she gets cancelled. You do both. 100%, or 50-50, not chucking stones at the other side and its excesses with a caveat about the goodness of their diagnosis of the issue, not defending the excesses of your side with a caveat that Trump is really bad “but”… You use “and” instead of “but” — a pox on both their houses… Both houses are empty.

Revelation 11 gives us a picture of faithful image bearers of Christ, and what that looks like in the public squares of beastly empires.

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

Right and Left, without Jesus, are just beastly versions of the same beastly game of rejecting God in favour of self; both are insidious expressions of and co-opted to a political system that loves money and power and autonomy; both are idolatry.

We might well get thrown to the lions, but not bending the knee, is also how to patiently and faithfully bring about the sort of change and reform that shook the world, it’s also what we do in the hope of real, embodied, resurrection.

Choosing either side of the culture wars has a cost for our faithfulness, and deforms us into false images of false gods… and I’ll explain in a future post why I write so much more about the dangers from the ‘right’ and Trump, than from the left… but for now let me conclude by saying that Trump’s photo opp, like the original ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is the product of the fusion between the political and the spiritual; there’s no secular/sacred divide.

Trump’s photo opp was a profane and idolatrous act as he sought to glorify himself by creating an image to spread through and support his empire; and that should be massively problematic for Christians, and we should faithfully speak out not just in opposition to that, but to testify to the same Jesus who was executed in the public square of a beastly city by religious people who should’ve kept the faith, but whose track record was being the descendants of those who did not oppose Antiochus. How could they do anything but cuddle up to worldly power?

If you’re upset about statues of ancient white dudes being toppled, but not by this old white dude erecting pixel images of himself while surrounded by symbols of Christianity, then I think you need a little more iconoclasm in your diet.

Images are powerful. That’s precisely why not only are those statues ‘powerful’ — but the pictures of statues being toppled get sent around the world.

And if you can’t bring yourself to condemn Trump’s image-building, without qualification, as an act of political beastliness, rather than godliness — I’d ask you to check your motives. Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend. The lesser of two evils is still evil (and may actually be the greater danger if you can’t call it evil). Trump’s image, because we’re now in the digital age, is likely to be harder to remove than a statue. It will be reduplicated and distributed as part of the historical record; unlike a statue, it’s going to be very hard to erase.

When it comes to the culture wars, without a differentiated Christian presence challenging the idol building game, the temples on both sides are empty; devoid of life and the presence of God. A St. John’s without the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, if indeed this is the case, is a profane building already; empty and de-sacred (‘desecrated’). God is present through his Spirit; his Spirit is present in those who recognise and proclaim the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Trump’s digital statue exercise and rededication didn’t significantly change its spiritual state.

Israel’s exile from God didn’t end with her return from exile; the captivity of their hearts continued. The return, and even the building of an inadequate, empty, temple was a precursor to God’s plans to return to his people and re-create us in his image again; to give us new hearts. The day of the Lord required an empty Temple, so that god’s presence might fill his new temple as his spirit created new images.

And that happens with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I think, for some reason I’d always pictured this moment at Pentecost happening in “the upper room” (because the events of Acts 1 happen there). But Luke is at pains to tell us that the disciples practice was to ‘meet daily in the temple courts’ (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). The events of Pentecost happen in front of lots of people — heaps more than you’d expect in an upper room where the disciples met in Acts 1. There’s chronological distance between Acts 1 and Acts 2. So I think the events of Pentecost happen in the empty-of-God’s-presence Temple; the Temple that was judged when the curtain tore, that has no claim on being the dwelling place of God because of the way Israel participated in the ultimate desolating abomination (the destruction of Jesus).

There, in the temple that had been waiting all those years to be renewed by God’s presence coming back, God’s presence comes to those who believe in the resurrection of king Jesus. It comes in the same glorious firey way that God came into the Temple in 1 Kings, only it lands not in the holy of holies, but on God’s holy people. People made holy (sanctified… made ‘sacred’), by the Holy Spirit. Holy just means ‘set apart’ from the beastly people around them. The Holy Spirit is what gives animating life to God’s living, breathing, images — the representatives of his kingdom — as we live in the world as his ambassadors; those who might be present in the corridors of power in different empires, but who won’t support or bow the knee to the elevation of abominations — those who call people to worship something other than the living God. To pick a side in the culture war — to choose an empire with its associated imagery — and to be excited or upset about the image games played by your side (or the other) — is to choose an idol.

One way to avoid the appearance of picking a side — even while seeking to be a faithful presence within an empire and its machinery — is to call out this idolatry, the idolatry of your own particular political ideologies or inclinations, another is to keep faithfully proclaiming the death resurrection of Jesus and seeing his kingdom as one that challenges the beastly regimes of this world so much that they put him to death; such that to follow him means a commitment to a certain sort of martyrdom; to being desecrated by the world.

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:19-21)

The Worship Wars (4): How to fight the battles, and the win the war in a world full of worship warriors

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“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Paul, as recorded in Acts 17:22-23
worship-wars

Like first century Athens, we live in a world that is very religious. Only the worshipper next door probably doesn’t think of themselves as a worshipper; we’re taught more to think of ourselves as ‘thinkers’ by our education system, as ‘doers’ by the market, as ‘lovers’ by our popular culture, as ‘meaning makers’ by the self-help industry and as ‘consumers’ by advertisers. But at the heart of all these concepts is the engine of our humanity that gives them their power; we are worshippers. We like to tell ourselves that these pictures of who we are, or some combination of them, is what we need to tap into to become better versions of ourselves. We believe we need more education, better jobs, more fulfilling relationships, we need to create something more meaningful of our world, or we just need to buy better toys, and everything will turn out better. These ideas of what it means to be human don’t just create themselves; they have champions. Worship warriors. Carrying the can for their particular vision of the good life and embodying it. Like the personal trainer who very clearly worships at the gym in pursuit of their idealised body, or the university professor who has a pretty clear view of the ideal educational sausage who should be produced by their institution… where Athens had the gatekeepers to the Parthenon and the temple priests on every corner, we have all sorts of people presenting and promoting all sorts of religious visions of who we are; whether they know we’re worshippers or not.

People of the 21st century, I see that in every way, we are very religious.

We use our heads, our hearts, and our hands, our money, our time, and our energy, to worship. Just like the Athenians; only we don’t tend to make statues or altars. We are as some put it ‘liturgical animals’ — we are shaped into the image of whatever it is we pursue with all these parts of us, and all that we have.

This is the fourth, and perhaps penultimate, post in this series which began by arguing that the ‘traditional’ way the worship wars have been conceived; as a battle for the style of music or service in the Sunday gathering, misses the much bigger enemy because the fundamental truth about us humans is we become what we worshipThe second post suggested that how we worship also shapes us, not simply when it comes to church gatherings but our habits or liturgies that we adopt day-to-day; the implications here were that Sunday isn’t enough when it comes to the worship wars. The third post used pornography as an example of an idolatrous counter-liturgy to test the framework and to show what is at stake. In this post I’m hoping to start to flesh out what the implications are for how we fight in the worship wars.

If you think fighting the worship wars; or being equipped to fight the worship wars; is just about the style of service you put on for an hour and a half on a Sunday, or how often you do the Sacraments, or whether the music you play is contemporary or traditional, you’re actually engaging in a civil war; and the real enemy is winning. If you think worship is just a thing you do on a Sunday, and that’s meant to somehow sustain you for a week of running around in a world saturated with other gods begging for your attention and seducing you; if church is a ‘worship’ event for you, and not a community of worshippers; if you think the answer to our problems as Christians, or the answer for your neighbour, is that we should first know more, think more, work more, love more, earn more, experience more, or buy more then you will lose. And you’ll die. And so often these are the answers we turn to when trying to shore up our faith; they’re all part of what it means to be human, and all at the table when it comes to how we change and grow, but they’re all sub-sets of worship; they’re all part of how we organise our living and our loving around some central idea about what real humanity should look like, and where we should be directed so that we flourish.

1. Fighting the war means knowing who we are and knowing our enemies.

‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl — Madonna, Material Girl

It’s an old song now; but Madonna’s Material Girl expresses a perceptive take on reality; on the relationship between us and the world we live in. We’re not consumers so much as conformers.

Our world is not neutral; it shapes us, and it mostly does this subconsciously as we live in it following the script of whatever story we’ve bought into or designed for ourselves about what the good life looks like; which whether we’re religious or not, is ultimately a reflection of the thing we worship, or centre our lives on, as our ‘god’ or ‘gods’… What we do, how we live, how we participate in this world shapes us. You believe the world is material; and it’s matter that matters, then you’ll be a materialistic person; pursuing as much of that matter as you can, probably the sort of matter that delivers you the most pleasure or power. You’ll assess your relationships on the things that ‘matter’ — and that, is it not, is what Madonna’s song is all about?

We live in a world full of scripts; whether it’s the technology we use (where our experience is guided by algorithms on platforms that are guided by commercial imperatives but tell us ‘mythic’ stories about what they might deliver), or the stories we live (religious or just our picture of our own flourishing that guides us), or the media we consume, we’re always taking a next step according to some design (even an attempt at randomness and spontaneity reveals a script of some sort). These scripts shapes us; our world — the stage on which we play — shapes us too. We evolve in a manner shaped by our environment — not just as a species, but as individuals living in our world. This happens as we introduce new tools; a pattern observed in the discipline of media ecology, the founder of this movement, Marshall McLuhan, developed most of his insights from a framework informed by the promise of Psalm 115 that those who worship idols — created things — become like them. McLuhan noticed that our media, in fact, any new technology introduced into an ecosystem, shapes both us and the system (it was McLuhan who coined the term “the media is the message” too). For McLuhan this spiritual and material reality meant no space is neutral; no medium is neutral; everything has the capacity to shape us if we allow it to become our script. Our liturgy (to borrow James K.A. Smith’s insights).

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

One of McLuhan’s followers in the media ecology discipline was Father John Culkin, a Jesuit priest and media academic. He said:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

That’s an axiom that holds when we consider idolatry and neuroscience, and one I quoted earlier in this series. This explains how and why social media changes our brain (the subject of another lengthy series from a few years back).

This is where the key battleground is for the worship wars. Everything in this world has the potential to shape you; because every thing we interact with has its own script; it’s own sense of what the good human life looks like; from Facebook, to pornography, to James K.A Smith’s shopping centre example, to how we do church together; the traditional worship wars weren’t misguided in arguing that how we do church matters; they were just focusing on one battle and missing the war. Fighting the worship wars means first knowing this about ourselves; knowing that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy, that our desires and actions might shape us in ways that take us away from God. You can’t win the war running around blind…

But we’re not the only enemy — the world isn’t neutral, and it’s not just our communication technology or tools that shape us, but our idols, and idols are the tools of the ultimate enemy; Satan. In thinking of ourselves wrongly — as thinking beings or consumers — we’ve thought of the world wrongly; we’ve ignored what’s truly at stake in our interactions with things around us, and in doing so have ignored the reality we can’t see or sense. We’ve so flattened our experience of the world and what we look for — by not thinking of ourselves as worshippers — that we don’t, and can’t, see it. Our ‘disenchanted’ view of the world — and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humanity collectively, but us Christians too — means we run around looking for flesh and blood enemies or fighting about the very tactile stuff we do, without understanding the Spiritual significance of every moment of our lives. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start fighting the real war, on two fronts.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. — 1 Peter 5:8

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” — Ephesians 6:12

This is one field that the real worship war is fought on, because this is the field where the real enemy — the enemy of God, and humanity, from the very beginning, is prowling around seeking to devour, captivate, and conscript worship warriors. People who’ll take the fight up to God because they want to worship something else. The Garden of Eden was the first battle ground in this war; Adam and Eve — God’s image bearers — his worshippers — were meant to take the fight up to Satan, only they sided with him; they became false worshippers, and so tasted defeat. Every human life is a battle ground where this war is waged, because the effects of this first loss was to create a second front for the war; it’s now an internal fight, not just an external one… So when Paul writes about choosing between ‘life in Adam’ and ‘life in Jesus’ he talks about our new default; a default where a war rages within us…

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25

This is us. All of us. Not just post-conversion Paul (in fact not even post-conversion Paul until the last line, and the bit that follows in Romans 8). Not just Jewish Paul under the law. Human Paul. Paul who is just like the Gentiles he’s writing to, as well as being like the Jews. Paul who has been banging on about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve; failed worshippers. He’s talking about the human condition; and about the internal war we’re fighting. It’s the same thing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed when he said:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My neighbours know what good is, sometimes they even do it. But we all sin, in fact, even when we do ‘good’ things its a product of these divided hearts; hearts at war with themselves. And we’re all lured into sin by being lured into worshipping something other than God, so that sometimes we just choose evil. We all know what goodness is because God’s imprint is still left on us; but we also fight a battle that keeps leading us to the sort of deadly idolatry described in Romans 1. There are plenty of other interpretations of Romans 7 floating around, but I think Paul is talking about what it looks like to be made in the image of God (good), and image of Adam (fallen) awaiting the re-creation he describes the Spirit bringing in Romans 8, the delivery that comes through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, which allows us to worship God again and will ultimately make us fully good again, better even (and, spoiler, that’s how we win the war).

2. We win by real worship.

Fighting the worship wars — and taking down the real enemies; our sinful idolatrous nature and the serpent — requires us to be proper worshippers. Thomas Chalmers was right when he said real change requires the expulsive power of a new affection. The way to beat idols is to love something more. Winning the war means changing the script (our story); our desires and imagination, and how we operate in the world (our habits). When Paul describes the impact of idolatry in Romans 1 he shows it totally corrupts our imaginations, and our habits; the way back is a renewal of both via a re-connection with God (that he initiates by the Spirit).

“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.” — Romans 1:28

He comes back to this theme in 8…

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. — Romans 8:5

Where Paul goes in Romans 8 (and what he argues before Romans 7) is that we become true worshippers again; true children of God again; conformed into true images of God; images of Jesus; by the Spirit (Romans 8:27-29).

This is a thread he ties off more deliberately (after dealing with the relationship between Israel and the gentiles) in Romans 12, where he also explores the implications for how we should worship in Romans 12, where he describes real worship as ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ — the habitual, incremental, reflection of the life and death of Jesus while ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ but ‘being transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2). This is how to fight the worship wars; fix your eyes upon the story of Jesus by participating in it as you let it shape your habits in community (the yous are plural in 12:1-2, and then the stuff about the body and how we sacrificially use our gifts for each other is pretty clearly ‘corporate worship’). Here’s his guide to ‘true worship’ from Romans 12, and then from Colossians 3; the sort of things that might shape our liturgies in our Sunday gatherings and through the week (I’ll get to some really practical ideas in the last post in this series). This sure sounds like worship… 

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:9-18

In Colossians 3, Paul opens by calling us to reset our minds, perhaps even our imaginations, and our hearts, or our desires, on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Then he tells us to avoid the habits that come from the pursuit of earthly things via our earthly nature (which he calls idolatry), and the list here sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but also a lot like Romans 1… There’s a bunch of stuff Paul tells us to take off — old habits — and some things we’re to put on… and this ‘putting on the new self’ is how we take part in the worship wars against the enemy within, and the enemy without… the practices he calls us to aren’t particularly new (nor should they be) and singing and focusing on the Gospel story are at their heart (because ‘worship’ as we understand it matters), but our habits should flow from and cyclically create-in-us these virtues that seem to reflect our story and the Gospel becoming our story as we set our hearts and minds on things above, and participate in the re-telling of the Gospel together.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

This doesn’t sound like a thing Paul just thinks we should be doing on a Sunday though… the whatever you do would seem to push worship beyond the boundaries of a 90 minute church service and into the shared practices of our church community every day.

3. Attack is the best form of defence

One of the most profound that has crystalised for me in my understanding of the Gospel in the last few years came from NT Greek Scholar Peter Bolt when he was talking to our team about Mark’s Gospel. He made the point that we often think of ‘repent’ as a call to turn away from sin, when it probably most correctly (and especially in the way Jesus uses it) is a turning towards Jesus and his kingdom (which produces a turning from sin). If we spend all our time worried about stopping wrong worship and don’t spend our time actively replacing it with true worship, we’re in danger of not turning to the right things. This is why Chalmers’ expulsive power idea is so powerful and so important. It’s no good simply switching idols. From sex to ascetic sexual purity, or from gluttony to the idolatry of fitness so prevalent in our age… we need to replace the worship of created stuff with the worship of the creator — and we meet the creator in the face of Jesus, through the Gospel of Jesus, and the story of the Bible (and the worshipping community it creates).

There’s another passage (well there are lots) that talks specifically about fighting against the devil’s schemes — preparing us to fight against that prowling lion who is out to devour us — the Ephesians 6 description of the armour of God. The tools we need to fight, or worship, our way through the worship wars against our real enemies are these ones… This set of armour is what will help you see God, the world, yourself, and your enemies (the things you are tempted to worship by the Devil and your desires) as they really are, and help you put things in their right place… this is what real worship looks like; whether you sing modern songs or old ones, with acoustic or electric, organs or synth, in sandstone and stain glass or a theatre, with the sacraments every week or quarterly will shape you (and you might pick some stuff according to what you find helpful to fix your heart on Jesus in community with people you love), but this is where the action is (and so is much more important when it comes to the question of how we do church).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:10-18