Jesus and Outrage Culture: Introduction (part 1)

Did you know that after Monday 25 April 2016, the Lone Pine Anzac Day Ceremony at Gallipoli will be axed! Federal opposition leader Bill Shorton said this is “sacrilege” to war veterans, deeply disappointing to war widows, and a move which would outrage all Australians.

UN-AUSTRALIAN!

Did you know that earlier this year, Kanye West tweeted that Taylor Swift was a “bitch”. But he has come out and followed that up with a series of other Tweets that say:

“I did not diss Taylor Swift and I’ve never dissed her”

“First thing is I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship”

“2nd thing I asked my wife for her blessings and she was cool with it”

“3rd thing I called Taylor and had an hour long convo with her about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings.”

BURN YOUR KANYE WEST ALBUMS!


These two stories have attracted public outrage and angry media attention. And depending on your politics and ‘care factor’, they range in legitimacy from serious to ridiculous.

The media responses to these stories are examples of Outrage Culture at work.

The West is becoming a shame culture where outrage is the weapon for the self-righteous, fuelled by the 24 hour news cycle and the explosive power of social media.

Slate Magazine tracked American outrage for every single day of 2014. And for each case  they gave a rating of “Truly Outrageous” through to “Totally overblown.” Because, let’s face it, some times we get all in a fizz over nothing, whereas on other occasions, outrage is totally justified.

New York Times writer Tim Kreider came up with the very poignant description, “Outrage Porn,” to describe what he sees as our culture’s insatiable search for things to be offended by. He says that we feed off of feeling right and wronged. “Outrage Porn” is like porn in that it aims for a quick thrill at the expense of another anonymous person, without any relationship, accountability or commitment.

One reason Outrage Porn is destructive is because it can escalate into the public shaming and ruining of reputation. Those who are ‘right’ mob together to label and belittle those are ‘wrong’. This is the ironic consequence of the success of the neo-Marxist philosophy of Critical Theory that, as German scholar Max Horkheimer wrote, seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” These supposedly liberating doctrines of Critical Theory have been made absolutes in popular culture. So if you are caught mislabeling another’s gender, sexual orientation, race, economic status or religion, you better duck for cover.

I do not have a problem with Critical Theory as such. My PhD was in the field of Postcolonialism – which falls under this general scholastic umbrella. Like most humanities students from Melbourne University in the late ’90s, I also studied other Critical Theory subcategories: Feminism, Queer theory and Cultural Studies; scholars such as Focault, Gramsci and Adorno. What many of us predicted was that this broad field of scholarship which sought to expose the politics of culture and society, would soon become a kind of an absolutist force for social marginalisation. This has already started.

New York Times writer David Brooks has been observing for some time now the emergence of Shame culture on campus. If you don’t hold the right views, you will be publicly shamed. There must be, according to Brooks, a set of absolutes that University students are holding to – where have those values come from?

“Some sort of moral system is coming into place,” Brooks says. “Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action.”

In the Atlantic article The Death of Moral Relativism, Jonathan Merritt pondered on this new morality,

America’s new moral code is much different than it was prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Instead of being centered on gender roles, family values, respect for institutions and religious piety, it orbits around values like tolerance and inclusion. (This new code has created a paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.)

Don’t misunderstand me as pining for a return to conservative 1950s values. Rather, for this blog post, I’m simply acknowledging these tectonic cultural changes. And I am suggesting that Outrage Culture is a problem that needs a gospel response.

Outrage and shaming occurs with ease on social media: the angry blog post, the critical tweet, the vicious comment on Facebook. Whatever the method—people try to hurt people. As Relevant Magazine writer Scott Sauls has said, “Sometimes the shaming escalates into a mob, a faux-community that latches on to the negative verdict and piles on.”

We walk around with the messaging of Outrage Culture effecting our world: it pervades our conversations. You might have been talking at work or at a party and had someone give you a death stare for holding the wrong views. You are so liberal! So conservative! So something-phobic! Perhaps you are just wrong according to the outrage machine?

How do we respond to outrage in grace? How did Jesus respond to the outrage directed at him from religious people?

What do we do when we feel outraged? Should we avoid the mob? Should Christians ever dump on others for whatever reason?

What about if you are the target of outrage?

[End of part one]

 

Why It’s ok to Doubt

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” [Dostoyevsky quoted in Harold Victor Martin, Kierkegaard, the Melancholy Dane (1950)]

A key responsibility of a Christian leader and teacher is to present the truth of the gospel with confidence. But if the church leader is honest with themselves, they will know that they too carry serious doubts. How many churches have a healthy culture that allows people to express their doubts?

All Christians will be endangered by doubt and we must realise that this is normal. We will ask ourselves questions about the relevance of our theology, and even the existence of the object of our theology (God). Karl Barth defines doubt as ‘swaying and staggering between Yes and No.’ Doubt may arise from spiritual attack, or church disunity, ongoing secret sins of the theologian and the cognitive dissonance that results, self righteousness, or just a lack of love for other people. Doubt is real, one should have a healthy perspective on it, not entertain it necessarily – have a healthy dash of shame about it – but don’t despair, rather wait while hoping for Jesus to return.

Church leaders must be aware of the damage done in churches that don’t allow space for individuals to externalise or discuss their doubt. There’s nothing that irritates me more than hearing about Christians who have been dismissed by their pious pastor or overly religious congregation members as ‘liberal’ or ‘flakey’ because they admitted to doubting this or that.

The church where I minister, Merri Creek Anglican, seeks to promote honesty in the community about our doubts. Having doubts is not a sign of being a bad Christian. Nor is it a disqualification for ministry. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re a real Human Being living in the ‘now but not yet’ (Romans 8:18-30); it is the reality of worshipping an invisible God. Only in Heaven will faith and doubt be gone, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is important, however, in the midst of your doubts, to humbly trust in Jesus. There is a danger, as the Apostle James writes, that we will be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). The “wave” occurs, when we let the doubts dominate our thoughts.

So how can we manage our doubts? It might sound counterintuitive, but when a person tells a Christian friend that they, for example, doubt the bodily resurrection, or have shifted away from orthodoxy on sexual ethics, or question the teaching of the Apostle Paul, they have more chance of persisting with their faith in the long term than if they kept their doubts private. Externalising doubts enables us to process our thoughts in a supportive Christian context.

On the other hand, when we suppress or hide our doubts, and never speak them out loud to someone in our Christian community, there is a resulting cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is between (1) the mask we put on – which is the confident faith we think we are supposed to show to other people; and (2) the truth behind the mask – the very real doubts we privately harbour about our faith. Thus we experience a deep psychological clash: we are torn up inside, and end up feeling depressed or disillusioned, and have an existential crisis.

In an attempt to resolve this dissonance we say to ourselves: “I’m living a lie to my Christian community, I’m pretending to believe what they (supposedly) all believe, I’m in a different theological place to my congregation, I don’t feel like I belong here anymore.” Once we’ve come to this decision, we usually slide out of church gradually, coming less and less, checking out other churches who might affirm my doubts or changing theology. Or perhaps we will find another community that is not ‘church’ but which will accept us.

This could have all been avoided, if only we talked openly about our doubts to someone, in the safety of a loving and humble church community.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay writes:

Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith not merely into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine that propels and sustains faith. We believe (in anything) precisely because we doubt. This is the great paradox of faith: we yearn to know but cannot know, so we construct or accept, ready-made from an established institution, a set of beliefs that satisfy our need to make sense of what’s going on. If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, the free market, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological or philosophical orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian, humanist – or a moral code we believe will make for a good life and, by extension, a better world … But if we knew as objective facts the answers that faith supplies, there would be no need for faith. And if faith – that mystical, clouded, elusive yearning – is corrupted by the arrogance of certainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes mere delusion … The religious truth-seeker, the pilgrim, yearns to see with the eye of faith but constantly falters. The plea from the father of a sick child healed by Jesus, quoted in Mark’s gospel, captures the idea perfectly: ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

So it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to be a believer who acknowledges their doubts. The highly regarded Emeritus Professor of philosophy from Oxford University, Richard Swinburne, explains that the relationship between faith and doubt is about probabilities. Scientists and engineers work in this faith–doubt paradigm: they create a rocket, for example, and send it to the moon, taking a risk with the lives of the astronauts and billions of dollars of tax payer’s money. They do this having faith in their calculations and the quality of work of the engineers: they believe that it will ‘probably’ get to the moon and back without the astronauts being killed.

A similar argument can be made about faith in God. Just as the scientists and engineers believe their rocket will probably work – the believer trusts that their faith will probably work. The scientists and engineers move beyond believing that their theories work, to believing in their theories by building the rocket. Similarly, Swinburne says we need to consider the difference between believing that there is a god verses believing in God. Believing that there is a god is believing that this state of affairs is true – but you might not respond to this belief. Religion goes beyond this because it requires you to believe in something.

Believing in God means trusting and relying on God. This belief directs your actions – you are guided by your God and your religion. If you were an atheist then it would be foolish to let religion guide your life.

But if you were somewhat unsure, but also somewhat persuaded, then you might think to yourself: ‘if Christianity is probably true, and it matters to me to live a good life, a worthwhile risk for me to take is to invest my life in this religion. I can let it guide my life. I will put my trust in the God of the Bible.’ Swinburne says that this is your calculated risk for a better life – the better life of a Christian disciple who worships their creator, serves other people in dependance on God, participates in the Christian community and lives in an other person centred way – not to mention the better life in eternity with God.

So faith and doubt are natural bedfellows. Don’t feel ashamed or worried if you doubt. This is perfectly normal for any believer who is honest with themselves.

An exercise to help you is to write down all your doubts and share one of them with a Christian friend you trust.

Perhaps you could have a service of lament that has an open mic time of public sharing of doubts?

We are God’s Masterpiece

IMG_4248Masterpieces take a really long time to perfect (so I’ve been told). When I visited Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, it astounded me that building and construction, including extra architectural and engineering work, had been ongoing since 1882, and by 2010 was only halfway through. Even smaller scale masterpieces take a long time. The process whereby Monet painted The Japanese Footbridge took several years: he built the bridge, planted the water lilies, and then finally put brush to canvas. Bruce Springsteen took a whole year in the studio for the album Born to Run (plus six months editing the lyrics to the title track).

A consequence of being in relationship with Jesus is that God takes us like a sketch of an artwork, and slowly brings us to perfection. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”  (Ephesians 2:10).  The Greek word for “handiwork” is ποιεμα (poiema), which translates to “work of art, masterpiece, artefact, or poem.” I love the idea that we are God’s masterpiece – his work of art – his poem. The Melbourne biblical scholar Leon Morris aptly stated God’s creative act: “Salvation is creation, recreation, new creation.” 

Realising that we are God’s masterpiece helps us to understand some of the pain and suffering of life. A masterpiece is worked on and worked on, refined, and fine tuned. Some aspects are discarded to push the work closer to perfection.  C.S. Lewis discussed the implications of this in The Problem of Pain:

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.  Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life-the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child-he will take endless trouble-and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient.  One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommended for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more but for less.

Know that God is working on you everyday. He is editing the lyrics of your life; He is blending the colours on your canvas; He is chipping away at your stonework.  And this will continue until the end of your life. As you experience these changes, even if they are painful, be inspired by The Divine Artist who is perfecting you into His masterpiece.

The Ministry Priorities of John Stott (according to Tim Keller)

Here, Tim Keller speaks at the American memorial service for the 20th century statesman of the Church of England, John Stott. Keller encourages us to imitate the faith of Stott, and makes six observations:

1) He was convicted by his Kingdom vision
2) Cautioned by his cultural learning curve
3) Chastened by his leadership controversies
4) Instructed by his great innovations

  • Reinvented expository preaching
  • Invented the modern center city church (parochial evangelism, evangelistic services, faith and work integration, concern for the poor, balance of word and deed, good theology, evangelism)
  • Used institutions and organisations to put evangelical anglicans on the map
  • Forced evangelicals to deal with social justice issues

5) He created modern evangelicalism (separated it from fundamentalism) – he epitomised the middle space – brought the scholarship to where it was acceptable. He was prophetic from the centre.
6) He is now in glory

Avoiding ‘Bait and Switch’ Mission

What about Bait and Switch?

One of the big concerns that many urban Christians will have with mission, is the problem of the perception of being someone’s friend just so you can then Bible bash them: this is sometimes called ‘bait and switch’.

Christians have a bad reputation for running events that just seem like a bit of fun, and then surprising everyone at the end with “well guys, we’ve been playing a fun game of footy today, and did you know that being a Jesus follower is a bit like playing footy, if you know the rules, then you can be free to kick the goals of life!” We must not see people as gullible ‘conversion targets’.

If you have a congregation of people who are sensitive about authenticity, transparency and community, then you are less likely to succumb to ‘bait and switch’ tactics.

Lauren Vasquez in Relevant Magazine wrote,

Jesus did not minister this way. He had a strong sense of purpose, but He never had an agenda. He loved people where they were, and this is what drew them to Him, not being lured in on a pretext. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church were known for loving people without an ulterior motive, the way Jesus did? He related to people naturally, honestly, with tremendous love. And He wants to impart this love to us.

In His last recorded prayer before his arrest, Jesus prayed, “Righteous Father, … I have made you known to them [the apostles], and will continue to make you known, in order that the love you have for me with may be in them, and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:25-26). We show that Christ is “in us” when we see nonbelievers as people, not as projects, and love them for themselves. Only through love without an agenda will we build a relationship that earns us an audience to share Christ.

Just to make sure you don’t run a ‘bait and switch’ mission strategy there are three things you can do:

  1. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for God. Don’t do mission as a religious person trying to get a conversion score, but as a person who is excited about your faith so much that you want to tell others. This enthusiasm is a fruit of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.
  2. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for people. The life of the missionary disciple of Jesus, is a life of sacrificial love. It will be messy and difficult. That’s what we have been called to.
  3. Always be upfront about being a Christian or the church. That way people won’t get a surprise.

Responding to Secular Extremists

What is ‘Secular Extremism’? Scattered amongst the recent commentary around the intersection of religion and society you will no doubt have heard the voice of a small but noisy movement of ‘Secular Extremists.’ These are fundamentalists whose doctrine romanticises The Enlightenment. Their primary agenda is to marginalise and silence the influence of all major religions on society: everyone from the Pope to local synagogues and mosques – and youth pastors. Key strategies for this campaign of marginalisation include: 1. using ‘professional academics’ who claim to be able to expose the intellectual flaws in religion; 2. humiliation and public bullying using cynical comedians; and 3. scare campaigns about the hidden missionary agenda of religions in public society. Their ultimate goal is to turn the public against religion, and they are making some limited progress. Just last week, columnist for crikey.com.au, Helen Razer, wrote an insightful piece about a recent television talk show panel that included the actor Ben Affleck, controversial American neo-atheist-comedian Bill Maher and one of the High Priests of neo-atheism, Sam Harris. During the discussion, in an attempt to attack Islam, Harris banged on about the virtue of the Enlightenment – reason over religion. Razer points out, however, that in fact, if you think about recent times, the main bodies that are rejecting the findings of ‘good science’ are not so much Isalm, Christianity or any particular religion but are, in fact, governments:

The western failure to act on the overwhelming findings of science is due far less to The God Delusion than it is to the exigencies of a global market, itself a descendent of Harris and Dawkins’ beloved Age of Reason. And the western decision to act, again and again, in Iraq has a fair bit to do with the market as well.

Razer explains that Harris’ big problem is that he wants to replay the ideological war between religion and science that took place during the Enlightenment, and then blame religion for every evil and injustice in the world. But,

when he revives this melodrama by placing himself in opposition to the dumbest fundamentalists he can find and casting them as the Pope, or when Dawkins compares his own fearless inquiry to that of Charles Darwin, he is no longer a freethinker. He is a hopeless, arrogant ideologue who tells us falsehoods about the sites of real power. And he is also a mystic.

Razer’s closing comments are poignant and cutting (emphasis mine):

And no, teapot, I’m not just saying, as others have, that ‘atheists are just as fanatical as religious fundamentalists’. I am saying, in fact, that they are more fanatical because they have evolved such a complex delusion where the methodical doubt they claim to champion is itself impossible. If you convince yourself that you are a champion of pure reason and that reason itself always moves from the laboratory of the individual mind into the world without creating conflict, well, you probably need to go away and learn how to think.

If you watch the discussion you’ll see that what they were promoting was hate speech against Islam disguised as confident intellectual insightfulness. Ben Affleck tried to come to the rescue by calling them out as no different to the other middle-aged-white-racists that are a blight on American society. Unfortunately, while Affleck had good intention, his heated emotions didn’t necessarily help to progress the conversation. For a stronger response watch this example of the American academic Reza Aslan exposing Bill Maher and these CNN presenters as promoting lies about Islam. How should we respond to Secular Extremism? The temptation is to respond to Secular Extremists defensively and to sink to their level. However, I have come up with three simple guidelines:

  • Nuanced Arguments: Secular Extremists might use reductionistic arguments, for example: ‘religion causes war.’  It would be easy to respond by saying ‘what about the murderous atheist-communist-dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?’ Don’t respond to simplistic arguments with a simplistic argument. The better and truer response is that historians know that causation in world history is highly complex and should not be reduced to one throw away scapegoat. Neither religion nor atheism is the simple ‘cause’ of war.
  • Accuracy: Learn your facts. When you talk about other people, make sure you know what you are talking about. As Razer pointed out in her article, Secular Extremists like Richard Dawkins, love to take the eccentric worst example of a Christian loony, and then say that all Christians are the same. Don’t do the same thing. (See the Reza Aslan video mentioned earlier)
  • Cool headed: When applying my second guideline – remember most Atheists are not Secular Extremists. In general, most atheists will be reasonable and respectful of other people’s beliefs. This recent article in The Saturday Paper, which examines Allain de Botton’s School of Life in Melbourne, shows a community of Moderate Atheists at work.

Even as a Christian minister, when I talk to people about my faith I find it daunting: I feel the reality that I am part of a minority. Most Christians I know have this experience. The point for us is not to win any culture war, as such, but to be able to speak in such a way so that others can hear and experience the life changing message of Jesus. Christians are ‘ambassadors for Christ’, and so we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. People may or may not hear the gospel at first, but they will certainly make a surface assessment of it based on our behaviour.

 

Learning Homiletics From Non-preachers: Ira Glass

One of America’s great contemporary storytellers is the hip NPR announcer Ira Glass who is the host of America’s highest podcasted radio show, This American Life.   In the clip below Glass gives some great insight into how to craft an engaging story.

He shows how to take an uninteresting anecdote and to make it gripping by drawing out ‘the universal something.’ Storytelling, in his opinion, is about building empathy. Enjoy!

The Freeing Alternative to Narcissism: Serving Jesus at Home and Work

On 22 July 2011, in the peaceful country of Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, posted online a 1500-page manifesto that outlined his hatred for Muslims, Liberals, Multiculturalists and Feminists. Evoking the spirit of his revered Knights Templar, he then went on a campaign to promote his message.

In a violent rampage that demonstrated his desire for Nordic purification, he exploded a car bomb at government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. Then, armed with assault weapons, he went to the island of Utøya, to a Labour Party youth camp, and massacred another 69 people, mostly teenagers.

In her new book, The Life of I, Australian journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne exposes the rising culture of narcissism in Western culture and begins with this massacre.life of i

Psychiatrists diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder, consistent with the major traits of narcissism: he lacked empathy, claiming that he himself felt disturbed having to watch the violence; he had an inflated sense of importance posting photos of himself as a modern Knight; he was obsessed with his personal appearance undergoing plastic surgery to look Aryan; and he had an outlandish sense of entitlement, demanding a better view from his prison cell. Breivik believed himself to be far superior to others, was self-aggrandising, and had a “destructive rage.”

Pathological narcissism is a disorder predominantly found in men: in particular, their ability to love is greatly restricted.

While narcissism might be a pathological disorder, its seed is in all of us. The Bible calls it ‘sin.’ From the earliest chapters of Genesis, man and woman declare that they want to be God.

Adam and Eve believed that, despite God’s clear instructions to the contrary, they were entitled to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their son Cain, in a destructive rage, took the life of his brother Abel. And so the pattern of human self-obsession was set. By the time of Noah it had become an epidemic, and God responded in judgement.

What was evident in Noah’s day, is clearly still evident all around us today. Yet deep in our psyche we know self-obsession is wrong. In the opening chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls our innate sense of morality ‘The Law of Nature.’ Lewis also points out, however, that none of us can keep the natural law. The dissonance between these two truths form the foundation for humanity’s need for redemption.

This redemption has come by way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that Christians should be able to resist the narcissistic urge and say: “I am not the most important person in the world, rather I know that I am part of a bigger story. I am part of a community who submits to Jesus as Lord. When I sacrificially and humbly love and serve others and God – when I die to myself – I truly find life.”

In Colossians 3:18-4:1, the Apostle Paul offers a Christlike vision for human relationships. Paul has already told us earlier in 3:1-4 that we can keep our faith on track by keeping our hearts and minds focused on God. We have a new life as a Christian – a new life in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

We need to remove our ‘old clothes’ and put on the ‘new clothes’  (3:8-14). Here, then, is a practical application of what that looked like in the extended first-century Christian household which included family members and slaves.

We are Really Serving Jesus

In Colossians 3:23-24 Paul says:

23. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24. since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

This sets up the Gospel logic for a new way of relating. As we live in our ‘new clothes’ as children of God, we must remember that we only have one master: Jesus Christ.

This is going to be important because it’s going to help us when we are in hard situations at home and at work. It will also establish a pattern for human relating that is characterised by justice.

The reality in most human relating, whether it be at home or at work, is that there will always be power differences. But if we constantly remind ourselves that we ultimately serve Christ, then both the more powerful and the less ​powerful will relate in a sacrificial and humble way.

This is truly what it means to have spiritual freedom. There are three ways this makes us free:

  • We are set free from having to please people because ultimately we are geared towards pleasing God.
  • We are set free to work wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly (because of who we serve).
  • We are set free from worrying about our reward because we have the ultimate reward of inheritance from God.

Paul is more concerned about the Colossian church’s relationship with God than their relationship with each other: he wants that to be set right first. His concern is also for their present situation rather than changing the future. Thus he applies his principle to slavery (rather than trying to abolish slavery). This message, if lived out, would bring the Colossians happiness no matter what context they found themselves in.

Serving Jesus in the Household Politic

Thus, verse 18 which says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” should not seem so controversial to the postmodern mind. If you weren’t thinking clearly, you might come to believe that this passage is not about freedom, but it is about defending patriarchy and slavery. In truth, it offers freedom and hope for people living with both of those social problems.

Paul advises husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20); fathers should not discourage their children (3:21). The fact that he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ is simply because of his cultural context — in this society, fathers ruled, and they needed to be told how to do that in a Christian way.

You might say: “shouldn’t Paul be setting up a new post-patriarchal framework for the family?” No, that’s not his purpose. His purpose is to work at a higher level than that and offer discipleship principles that can be applied — in any cultural context.

The big Kingdom of God principle Paul is presenting is: all human relationships have power differences –  so no matter where you are on that scale of power – you should treat the people around you as Jesus would, remembering that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

Everyone in an Ancient Near-Eastern household understood their place in the heirarchy: from Fathers down to children, and slaves down to the children of slaves. Nobody was challenging this social system. So Paul can say “wives submit to your husbands in a Godly way.” To the women in Colossae, the controversial part of that direction is “in a godly way” the word “submit” was a given.

The rule of the husband over the extended household was expected. What was unexpecteded, however, was Paul’s challenge for them to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes further by pointing to Jesus as the model for husbands: they must be willing to sacrifice everything for their wife.

But let’s think a bit more about our own context. The power dynamic between men and women is complex. It’s not always clear in a twenty-first century western household who is always actually more powerful and less powerful.

In my relationship with my wife, I am physically more powerful, that is clear. Also, at the moment I bring more money to the family, but this might not always be the case. We have different intellectual strengths. For some of the ‘intelligences’, she is stronger, for others, I am stronger. In the sphere of parenting, she has more power. These power structures are always shifting in our marriage. The point is, whether I have more power in a given context, or whether she has more power in a given context, we both need to remember that we are free because it is Christ who we ultimately serve.

That there is a complex power dynamic at play explains why both men and women find themselves being abused in unhealthy marriage relationships. While it is men who have the worse reputation for physical abuse, women also can be selfish and abusive in their relating; manipulating sexually and emotionally.

We are released from feeling like we need to constantly make each other happy by pleasing each other  – which sets up an unhealthy dynamic – because both of us ultimately live to please God. I please my wife because my love for God and God’s love for me makes me want to please her.

We are both free to serve each other wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly, because ultimately we are serving Jesus. So, for example, I hate changing the sheets on the bed. But I should do that wholeheartedly, rather than begrudgingly, because my act of changing the sheets, is actually serving God. My wife and I both hate cleaning the kitchen. But we need to learn that our act of service is to bring honour to Jesus.

What if you are trying to live this gospel principle out but your partner, or other members of the household are not? Surely this is unfair? While I sympathise with your sense of domestic injustice, God calls to apply his gospel vision no matter what your context. You don’t want to give away your role as a disciple to anybody else.

If you are a martyr at home (and there are lots of us around!) confess this to God. Stop saying to yourself: “I am the only one who does any work around here. If I don’t do it nobody will.” Rather, see yourself as quietly serving Jesus. Stop worrying about your hard work being noticed by your family: “Did you see that I mopped the floor?” Stop moaning and groaning, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart as you remember that you are serving Jesus. You have been set free. You will be rewarded. You will receive an inheritance of eternal life because of what Jesus has done for you.

Sure, you might have a case for feeling annoyed. It is true that many of us don’t do our fair share in the household duties. I have been reprimanded several times throughout my marriage for my laziness with the chores. There are constant surveys demonstrating that women still do a lot more household chores than men. Paul is not providing excuses for selfish men — he is, in fact, doing the exact opposite.

Moreover, I must emphasise that Paul’s teaching to the family does not endorse dysfunctional or abusive relating. If you are in a bad situation at home, you need to tell ​someone and get help. If you are being abused, physically, verbally, or psychologically, it is important that you ask for intervention. Children who are being abused by their parents need to be rescued from that situation.

Serving Jesus at Work

The second sphere to which Paul applies his principle of Christlike relating is slaves and masters. Colossians 3:22 says:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

and 4:1 says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Because of a misunderstanding of verses like these, some have confused the Bible as being pro-slavery. Recently on the ABC television program Q&A, one panelist defended the place of Christian education in the school curriculum because, in his opinion, Christianity has been a positive force in Western culture: “it brought about the abolition of slavery.” Just after he made his point, a tweet appeared on the screen: “Christianity invented slavery, just look at the Old Testament.” Which was wrong for several reasons that we don’t need to prove here.

The important point is that Paul lived in a context where slavery was a reality. He was bringing the Kingdom of God to that context and reinventing it, providing hope for the slaves and compassion in the masters. This new freedom given to both the master and the slave set culture on a trajectory that would one day make slavery illegal in the Christian world.

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’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen

The gospel brought freedom for the slaves first, and for the masters second. The slaves got it first. If you have seen the incredible movie 12 Years a Slave, you can see that the slaves, who the masters treated like animals, used their faith in Jesus to give them a sense of freedom and hope inside the persecution. It didn’t mean that they did not suffer, they did, and many were killed in the process. But while still living, the Gospel gave them a sense of higher purpose. And so they could sing, “We shall overcome.”

The application today is straightforward. If you exercise power over someone at work – as a boss or a manager – create a context of justice because you know that you serve your master Jesus, and that is what he wants. Pay your workers equitably. Let them have their holidays. Honour the contractual arrangements with women when they return from maternity leave. Don’t speak harsh words to your staff or ask them to do anything illegal, immoral or unjust. Bring the Kingdom of God to your workplace.

For employees, you have three new freedoms at work. Firstly, you are set free from having to please the people in your office because you too ultimately report to Jesus and only have to please him. So don’t get caught up in office politics. Treat your boss or your manager with respect. This is what it means to be ‘heavenly minded’ and to ‘put on your new clothes’ as a disciple.

Secondly, you are set free to work wholeheartedly. Instead of going to work with a frown on your face, know that you ultimately serve Jesus, so be positive. If you hate your job, you can always look for another. Thank God that you are not a slave. But even if you were, Jesus still calls you to work wholeheartedly for him.

Thirdly, you are set free from worrying about your pay or status in the workplace. Whatever your income or position is in the organisation, you have the ultimate reward of your inheritance from God. You can still work hard, aim for promotions, ask for pay rises, but don’t put your self-worth or identity in these things. Know this freedom that you have.

Yes, there is a culture of narcissism going on in our world. But a narcissistic culture only brings destruction, injustice, and unhappiness. God is calling us away from the self-obsession of Adam and Eve to his Kingdom, where the pattern for life is Jesus and his self giving death on the cross. We live and work for him, and in doing so, we end up living and working in a just and positive way for others. This will transform our families, transform our work, and give us freedom.

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 5, The Essence of Gospel Renewal.” Reflection

Chapter 5 introduces an important corrective to evangelical thought – there are not two but three possible human responses to God.  Keller draws from the writings of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards to build a case for what has become key to his preaching.  The responses are:

(1) A gospel motivated heart response to the grace of God

(2) Moralistic Religion

(3) An irreligious rejection of faith

Churches are filled with two types of people who behave Christianly (1) and (2), “Yet they do so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, and resulting in radically different kinds of inner personal character” (p.63).  Those who respond religiously think “I obey; therefore I am accepted” – thereby rejecting Christ and becoming their own saviour.  While they may look obedient, they are in fact “avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he “owes” you.” (p63)  Thus, there are two ways to reject God – religion and irreligion.  The way to truly accept God is by a heart response to his grace.  These people have the epiphany, “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.”

Keller focuses on exposing religion because it is one of the Church’s biggest problems.  Even for people who have once had a genuine heart transformed gospel response to God, they can easily slide into religion because as Luther has argued, religion is the default of the human heart (p64).  This default position can cause the Christian heart to be divided between religion and the gospel. Churches must, therefore, always be on the case against religion through prayer, teaching and discipleship.

I have found amongst young adult Christians, strong evidence of the religious.  For most young adults that I meet and counsel, their motivation for obedience is driven more out of fear of the shame and loneliness that might come from rejection by their community.  The problem of course is that the community can quietly shift its own standards.  If enough of the young adults from church go out and party and get wasted, then that becomes socially acceptable amongst the church community, so drunkenness comes off the sin list.  In the last few decades, there has been a liberalising of the consensus amongst evangelical young adults about what sexual behaviour is acceptable before marriage (see Relevant Magazine and ThinkProgress.)  This has resulted in a culture of don’t ask don’t tell. These young adults are religious because they keep coming to church and performing the Christian activities, but they don’t have heart that has been transformed by the grace of God.  Their desire to be obedient is ultimately driven by selfish motives.  They keep coming to church for lots of complex reasons, one of the main being that their identity has become “Christian” because of family upbringing etc… and they find it hard to let go of that. What they need is to experience gospel renewal: they need their hearts reset by God’s grace.

The case for the gospel heart response to God can easily be found in Scripture. God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them into the desert, and then gave them the law.  Their obedience to God’s law is because of their deliverance not the cause of their deliverance.  But God warns them that they can be circumcised in the flesh and not in the heart (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).  In Philippians 3:3 (and Romans 1-4), Paul lays out the three responses to God: uncircumcised pagans, circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart (proving their worthiness to God through law keeping), circumcised in the heart (obedience to God as a heart response to their salvation in God).  Why is religion a flawed response to God? Because “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one… who seeks God’” (Rom 3:11).  Religious people, according to Paul in Romans, will really find salvation by approaching God through Christ – through grace alone and faith alone. (p64)  Of course, Paul is borrowing from Jesus who contrasts the religious and gospel heart response:

Religion: The Pharisee (Luke 7, John 3), The respectable crowd (Mark 5)

Gospel: The fallen woman (Luke 7) or the immoral Samaritan woman (John 3-4); The demon possessed man (Mark 5).

In case we still haven’t understood, Keller sets out a helpful table on p.65 comparing religion and the gospel.  He follows this with one of this book’s most important words of application for teachers and preachers:

…If you are communicating the gospel message, you must not only help listeners distinguish between obeying God and disobeying him; you must also make clear the distinction between obeying God as a means of self-salvation and obeying God out of gratitude for an accomplished salvation. You will have to distinguish between general, moralistic religion and gospel Christianity. You will always be placing three ways to live before your listeners. 

The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people, confront nominal Christians, wake up “sleepy” Christians, and even delight committed Christians – all at the same time – is to preach the gospel as a third way to approach God, distinct from both irreligion and religion. (p.65)

…Moralistic behaviour change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape.  But this does not work.  If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position…Many people, after years of being crushed under moralistic behaviourism, abandon their faith altogether, complaining that they are exhausted and “can’t keep it up.”  But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape.  The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude – new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration. (p.67)

People need the heat of the gospel to melt them into a new shape.  As Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, by focusing on God’s grace, your heart will change.  And, through ongoing discipleship and encouragement from the Christian community, good teaching, and the Holy Spirit, we will start to understand and overcome our idols.  When we apply the gospel to the idols of our heart, and the Holy Spirit works to change us, the idols will be rooted out and we will stop prioritising other things above Jesus, and stop pursuing self-salvation (p.71)

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch 4. Gospel Renewal,” Reflection

In the fourth chapter of Center Church, ‘Gospel Renewal’, Keller examines what happens when the gospel takes effect in the life of the individual and a community.  The gospel is no longer simply an intellectual concept: now it is a “life giving force.”  When gospel renewal takes effect, (as if for the first time) a light is shining on a person’s sin, and on their deep rooted idolatry and attempts at self-justification. This new self-sin-awareness creates a strong ache to experience spiritual, psychological and even physical healing.  Renewal occurs when the individual abandons their self-loathing and modes of self-justification, and surrenders to Christ in faith that only He provides that healing and new life.  This results in a profound and overwhelming knowledge of divine grace and love.  Keller makes a distinction between the (unconverted, or at least spiritually anaemic) religious Christian who intellectually understands the gospel and grace, and the truly renewed Christian who has a “new clarity” about what it means to rest in the work of Christ, and “a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.” (p54.)

“Corporate gospel renewal” is Keller’s phrase for revival, which is “an intensification of the normal operations of the Spirit (conviction of sin, regeneration and sanctification, assurance of grace) through the ordinary means of grace (preaching the Word, prayer, and the sacraments)” (p54.)  While revival should see the conversion of new believers, one of its main functions is to see the spiritual energising and heart enthusiasm of already existing church communities who had sunk into the apathy and cynicism of religiosity: revival brings the Christian community and its individuals back towards having a deep transformative knowledge of  divine grace and love.

All churches should desire revival because, in all likeliness, while their members might have once known the gospel, it is quite likely many have also forgotten.  This forgetting is not necessarily an intellectual forgetting – although it might be.  Rather, in most cases it is a “deep psychological forgetting.”  A bible believing Christian might be able to rattle off the doctrines like grace and the atonement, but at the same time be operating in serious modes of self-justification, idolatry or self-loathing.  They might be able to articulate their belief in God’s love for humanity, quoting chapter and verse, and at the same time hold on to hatred and un-forgiveness for a Christian brother or sister.

The solution to this dilemma is a kind of preaching and teaching that doesn’t simply teach the gospel as doctrine, but as a renewing force that changes lives.

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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:5, that the gospel he preaches is one that is “the power of God.”  Churches should expect this power to be at work.  Of course to be able to do this, the preacher and teacher needs to deeply know that renewal in their own lives.  If you find yourself as a preacher/teacher experiencing “dry toast” faith – then you need to experience gospel renewal yourself.  Go on a retreat, fast and pray, see a spiritual adviser, repent of your sins, take a holiday.

Revivals and Catechism

Keller goes on to discuss the nature of revivals.  In my Australian state of Victoria there were several recorded revivals such as: the Warnambool and Portland revival of 1858; the 1861 revival in Daylesford; 1863 revival in Fitzroy; and through the evangelists “California” Taylor and Matthew Burnett, to name a few (for a comprehensive examination of revivals in Australia see Robert Evan’s work.   Revivals have happened at different times and places across the world under different conditions.  Keller points out, however, that revival often does not occur under the razzle-dazzle spiritual context that one might expect.  He points us to the book by Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer who encourage churches to re-embrace and reinvent catechism (catechism is a summary of the major doctrines of faith often used as a curriculum to prepare people for baptism or confirmation.  A modern catechism is Alpha).

I have become converted to the importance of catechism.  After leading a large university and school aged congregation through the 2000s, I have come to see the consequence of not having a structured bible and discipleship curriculum.  In response to what I thought they needed, I preached through Bible books and topics, set small group material, and used guest speakers from the local bible college for camps.  But at the end of the day, some very smart kids can still have a vague grasp of the gospel.  Why? Because if I teach you calculous and you have not yet grasped division and multiplication, then you probably haven’t understood the calculous – all you have had is the sensation of being treated as a serious student of maths.  Catechism is the obvious compliment to a responsive teaching curriculum.  Catechism should improve your chances at helping your congregation stand strong in the face of the challenges to their identity and the allures of the culture and competing world views. Christians need to learn the Christian faith, with the same pedagogical approaches that they learn to do the three Rs.

Keller’s discussion of catechism comes as part of a bigger argument around genuine revival.  He warns against the shallow individualistic revivalism in the contemporary church that gets many conversions but fewer long term disciples.  But he also warns against a culture of no conversions: having no opportunity for people to respond.

The Heart

The church – especially the non-charismatic church – needs reminding that “gospel renewal focuses on the heart.”  As Romans 10:9 says, you need to believe in your heart as well as confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.  By “heart,” Paul (and Keller) mean not just our emotions but that deep place within us that drives our decisions, our longings and convictions.  The act of calling Christians to revival is consistent with the Bible; Jeremiah called the circumcised Israelites to “circumcise your hearts” (Jer 4:4; 31:33),  Paul contrasts the outward and inward life of the believer and required that disciples have hearts that are circumcised by the Spirit (Rom 2:28-29 see also Phil 3:3 and Jesus’ words in John 3:7).  A heart response is required for genuine repentance to take place.  This kind of heart faith is required for all believers new converts and old.

What Keller ultimately wants is “balanced revivalism – a commitment to corporate and individual renewal through the ordinary means of grace – [this] is the work of the church.” And it is crucial because of the unfortunate reality that “it is possible (even common) for a person to be baptized, to be an active member of the chruch, to subscribe to all biblical doctrines, and to live according to biblical ethics, but nonetheless to be wholly unconverted.” (p.60).