Category Archives: Culture

Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

David Ford Lectures

David FordThis week I have had opportunity to attend two events with Professor David Ford from Cambridge. The first was a seminar for faculty and HDR students from the various theological institutions around Perth. The theme of the seminar was a theological hermeneutic for reading the gospel of John. Professor Ford has been writing a theological commentary on John—for many years now—and brought a wealth of reflection on John’s gospel to the seminar. The second event was a public lecture at Murdoch University on “Healthily Plural Civilisation,” the third in a series of lectures on the theme Religion, Violence, and a Vision for Twenty-First Century Civilisation.

The public lecture began with a reading of the epigraph of celebrated Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail’s forthcoming The Five Quintets. The poem, apparently, rehearses the history of modern western culture through engagements with luminaries in the fields of the arts, economics, politics, the sciences, and philosophy and theology, posing a vision for the humane continuation of the civilisation. It sounds like an extraordinary achievement.

Ford exposited the eight stanzas of the epigraph to distil a series of mottos or “headlines” toward a vision of peaceful and flourishing civilisation in the twenty-first century, with a particular appeal to the religions and the universities, the two locations of his life’s work. The eight mottos are

  • Inspirational wisdom
  • Imaginative creativity
  • Generous economics
  • Covenantal politics
  • Wise sciences
  • Deep reasonings
  • Peaceful intensities
  • Celebratory delight

I especially appreciated Ford’s implied exhortation to take daring risks for the sake of building peace-filled relationships and communities, and his insight that genuine formation occurs through intentional practices of face-to-face intensive conversations with colleagues and peers, and across generations.

Ford, I think, practises what he preaches. He regularly participates in inter-religious groups reading one another’s sacred texts and engaging in dialogue with them. Thus he reads Christian scriptures with Jews and Muslims, and presumably, Jewish and Islamic scriptures with the same groups. In a social context he tells of spending a week in a US prison with inmates gaoled for life, exploring Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It seems he has drunk deeply in the wells of the Christian scriptures and tradition and has found a means of expressing that tradition in faithful and joy-filled life in and for the world.

I reproduce here the first and eighth of the stanzas from O’Siadhail’s epigraph:

Be with me Madam Jazz I urge you now
Riff in me so I can conjure how
You breathe in us more than we dare allow…

In all our imperfections we advance
Trusting in creation’s free-willed chance;
Sweet Madam Jazz in you we are the dance.

Up-Coming Events in Perth

ac-graylingA few different kinds of events are coming up in Perth in March.

First, the British humanist-philosopher A. C. Grayling is visiting Perth (Friday March 31) to promote his new book The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind. Grayling is not usually included amongst the new atheists, as far as I am aware. He does, however, write books such as The God Argument: The Case Against God and For Humanism and The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I have not read the book but it looks like an appreciative treatment of the Enlightenment in western culture in the seventeenth century.

Second, the Murdoch International Theologian Programme is scheduled for March this year with Professor David Ford from Cambridge presenting a series of lectures around the theme of Religion, Violence, and a Vision for Twenty-first Century Civilization: How might our world and the societies within it be healthily plural? Click on the attached brochures below for details.

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Third, Ravi Zacharias Ministries are presenting an apologetics evening for youth and young adults entitled Is God Relevant? on Friday March 17.


Vicki Lorrimar on Science & Faith

Vicki LorrimarThe first issue of a new magazine “connecting” science and faith has been released in the UK. The opening article is by our good friend, Vicki Lorrimar.

As Christians we are all amateur theologians, seeking to know and understand our maker. Perhaps we should extend this view to consider ourselves as amateur scientists too. God equips us with curiosity and imagination to seek out answers, to understand the created world and our place within it, and to do our bit in helping the whole of nature to flourish. Thus science and faith are mutually enriching, vital dimensions of human relationship with the Creator and his creation.

To see a previous two-part article Vicki wrote for Theology and Church, see “Can Science Determine Morality?”

Social Justice and Christian Faithfulness

alysia-harris2Our new little small group read “Justice is more than a political issue now—it’s a spiritual one.” Alysia Harris is an award-winning poet whose poems “come from a love for the world and from a desire to see it transformed” (from her web-page). She is also an educator, scholar, and activist. Until now, I had not heard of her, but some of the lines of poetry on her homepage are extraordinary:

Obese as the night sky is, its greed does not outweigh the first mouthful of dawn.

We ain’t no Medusas here but each one of us got a stare that could cut glass.

I like much of what Alysia has said, including her (very radical) commitment to reconciliation, and to acting locally and relationally, her recognition that the state is not our liberation, and her conviction that social justice must “be done” through a theological lens.

I would have liked to see more about the church, the community of Jesus, as the place where those commitments are to be realised – if we are to “turn again to” and follow the way of Jesus. And I cannot help but wonder if making Christian faith a subset of “my identity” will ultimately subvert the gospel – if “I” rather than Christ remains the centre of my identity and agency (see, e.g. Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 3:20).

There are important issues here, including the slippery relation between Christian faithfulness and progressive politics. (See my recent post on Relevance or Resilience).


Hanukkah WindowThis article from the British Guardian argues that it not only okay, but necessary that Christians be allowed to celebrate Christmas without fear of offending anyone: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy.” It further argues that there is a place for Christianity in society, in the manner of virtue formation. I do not agree that Christian virtues ultimately derive from Socrates and Aristotle, although there is no doubt that Christian understanding of the virtues has been greatly influenced by these philosophers over the centuries. What I liked about the article was its insistence that

The central insight is that both individuals and societies, or social groups, develop their values by living them. Moral questions cannot be answered entirely by reasoning: we discover what kind of creatures we are by living; we develop virtues, like vices, by practising them.

A second article, also from The Guardian, is written by an Anglican minister married to a Jewish woman. He notes one way in which Jews and Christians differ: in the relation of their faith to their home life.

My Jewish relatives are all secular Israelis – yet it is they, not I, who have introduced religious liturgies into our house. And I thank them for bringing God home.

Finally, this article, written by woman, considers the seemingly all-pervasive reality of internet pornography, its effects, its widespread use in evangelical Christianity, and what response to it may look like. It is concerning, and a sign of the colonisation of the church by the culture, that many Christians consider “not recycling” a greater sin than use of pornography. Or perhaps it is a shamed conscience.

The commentators and researchers are, in part, right: Porn isn’t just an individual moral problem. It strikes to the heart of what it means to be human. This is why Paul urges believers to “flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). Sexual sin can affect us in profound and devastating ways. Some sins we can fight. Others we must flee—even when temptation is only a Google search away.

Relevance or Resilience?

Mark SayersMark Sayers from Red Church in Melbourne wrote an interesting article for Christianity Today (July/August 2016) entitled, “Creating a Culture of Resilience.” The article argues that the Christian strategy of being culturally relevant in order to win converts, that is, of reducing the cultural distance between the believer and unbeliever, is unlikely to prove effective in today’s “progressive” culture. It is not that relevance is not a strategy that can be applied in some contexts, but the progressive culture sweeping the West is fundamentally post-Christian.

The emerging progressivism has tapped into a long-repressed desire, particularly in the young, for a radically different and better future. In the new progressive cultural mood, Catholic writer Jody Bottum sees a facsimile of Christianity, in which the categories of sin, shame, guilt, salvation, and the elect return, shaped around not theology but the goals of progressive politics. Every missionary tries to build cultural bridges in order to communicate the gospel. But the new progressivism subverts and frustrates this search. It is precisely the church, after all, that progressivism judges as immoral and sinful. The new progressivism is ultimately a form of post-Christianity. It is a new faith that attempts to achieve some of the social goals of Christianity—especially the elimination of oppression, violence, and discrimination—while moving decisively beyond it. For many young adults, leaving the church is less a leap into apostasy than a step toward social aspirations the church imperfectly realized, while subtracting dubious religious restrictions and the submission of the individual will (59-60).

He warns that when the church seeks to evangelise the progressive culture by means of a strategy of cultural relevance, it is likely that the church itself will be colonised by that culture. Instead, he counsels a strategy of resilience, which he defines in terms of faithful and courageous commitment to what the early Christians termed “The Way”:

An overriding commitment to church and Christian community, seeking to follow Jesus with the entirety of one’s heart, soul, and mind in the face of endless choices and options. The commitment to surrender one’s will to God, sacrificially following him as a servant. The decision to live fully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in a world of anxiety, fragility, and emotionalism run wild. … True relevance to this culture will not come by accommodating its demands, but by developing the kinds of people who can resist them. … Resilience amid the third culture will require the patient and unyielding demonstration of human flourishing, the kind that comes only from embedding our personal freedoms in Christian commitments (60).

Blue & Lonesome

Rolling Stones Blue and LonesomeIt’s been a long time between drinks for Stones fans—eleven years. So when I heard a couple of months ago that a new album was on the way, I knew I would be getting it.

Blue & Lonesome must be the most uncommercial album the Rolling Stones have ever produced; uncommercial in the sense that it has no typical signature songs, no “generic Rolling Stones Rockers,” no attempt at writing a hit or a melodious ballad, in fact, no Jagger-Richards tunes at all. It is an album entirely of covers, old blues songs that take the Stones back to the music of their youth, the music that inspired them then, that got them going, and evidently, still inspires them now.

Uncommercial? It is going for No. 1 in the UK

The Stones have always played covers. Their debut album in early 1964 had fourteen tracks, eleven of them covers, and only Tell Me somewhat memorable. The second album, 12 x 5, had five originals only one of them somewhat memorable. Their third album had four originals including the quite memorable Heart of Stone, a promise of things to come. In 1965 the Jagger-Richards song-writing team hit their stride first with The Last Time, then Satisfaction. Every song on the 1966 Aftermath was an original; same with the 1967 Between the Buttons. The great Stones albums were those from 1968 to 1972, from Beggars Banquet (their best album, in my view) through to Exile on Main Street (the album generally considered their best). On each the band covered an old blues song: Prodigal Son, Love in Vain, You Gotta Move (not a very good arrangement; go to the Love You Live version for searing guitars and blues piano), and two on the double-album: Shake Your Hips and Stop Breaking Down. There were Motown covers and a reggae cover on the mid-late 70s albums.

Love You Live (1977) was a double-live album with one side entirely composed of old blues covers. Their live concerts often included a blues number, whether Little Red Rooster, I Just Want to Make Love to You, or Champagne and a Reefer. “The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll,” said Muddy Waters, who also gave the Stones their name. Maybe the Rolling Stones were mid-wives.

This was not a record the band had planned on making. According to [Don] Was [the producer], “We were recording some new songs and we just hit a wall on this one particular track. We needed to ‘cleanse the palate’ and the ginger for the palate came about when Keith said, ‘Let’s play Blue and Lonesome.’” Thankfully Krish Sharma, who recorded the album, kicked it into record and what you hear is this one and only take of this song. [From the album liner]

Something clicked, and for the next three days they played some more blues songs, recording them without any overdubs, dragging Eric Clapton in to play on two of them (he was in the recording studio next door). The result is a down-to-earth, rough-and-ready collection with Jagger in fine voice, Charlie and Darryl solid as ever, and the guitars weaving, whining and strutting with Keith and Ronnie playing off one another in song after song. It’s swampy. It’s raw. It’s primitive. It could be 1964 all over again, but now with 50+ years behind them. This is the Stones before they were the Stones, the Stones channelling their heroes. This is the Stones now in their twilight simply having fun and making the music they love.

The reviewer for The Times said this was the Stones’ best album since Some Girls. That album, too, was a return to their roots, stripping away the glamour but not the swagger, that attached itself to the band in the mid-70s. I don’t know that I can compare it to any of their albums: it’s very different. It is closer to Blues Blues Blues, the Jimmy Rogers tribute album, that Jagger and Richards both feature on. It’s a blues album, rather than a rock and roll album, but unmistakably, the Rolling Stones.

“I like it, like it, yes I do.”

Only thing I want to know now is when the next album will be out, the one they were actually trying to record. Perhaps it will never see the light of day. But one can hope…

The Essence of Christianity?

Computer and PenThe June edition of Christianity Today had a small report called “Daily Devotion” which asked the question, What’s essential to being a Christian? It was actually a report on a Pew Forum research project on how American Christians of all denominations apply their faith in daily life. The results are interesting and perhaps a little sobering as well.

Respondents answered, varying widely on church attendance and Bible reading, but held similar views on prioritizing family, being grateful, and exercising.

Highly religious evangelicals are also more likely to say honesty, forgiveness, controlling one’s temper, dressing modestly, and physical health are essential to Christianity. Evangelicals were least likely to agree that working to help the poor, protecting the environment, and buying from companies that pay a fair wage are essential to being a Christian.

In some respects, virtues such as gratitude and forgiveness are important aspects of what it means to be Christian. So is faith in God. Conspicuously absent are ideas such as obedience to Christ, keeping God’s commandments, worship and witness in the community of faith, and so on. What do you say is essential to Christianity?

Further detail from the Pew study can be found here.


CrucibleThe November issue of The Crucible has now been released, with articles on New Testament hermeneutics and growing in the midst of suffering, as well as some Australian ministry resources and book reviews.

Ed Stetzer gives his opinion on some PhD dissertations that are needed today. I do like his final paragraph: “It’s worth remembering that Ph.D. work on a specific denomination is not as helpful as research projects on likeminded people across denominations. Be an expert at something where you can make a difference for the kingdom.”

Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, has written a blog post entitled, “Leading out of your marriage“. Evangelicals are sometimes accused of making an idol of marriage and family. I am not convinced by those accusations, though I do sometimes think that evangelicals’ emphasis marriage and family is more culturally than theologically grounded. Scazzero’s table suggests he may have a more sacramental understanding of what marriage is. “But I speak of Christ and the Church…” (Ephesians 5).

Marriage chart1

Bruce Springsteen is coming to town in January and I have a ticket! He has been in the press a great deal just lately because of his support for Hilary Clinton, and more likely, on account of the release of his autobiography. I don’t know a lot about the man, but do enjoy his music! Favourite song? Hard to say. Born to Run is a classic. Everbody’s Got a Hungry Heart is true! American Skin is haunting, as is Streets of Philadelphia. I first heard Prove it All Night and Blinded by the Light as cover versions by other artists (Patty Smith and Manfred Mann) and loved the songs not knowing they were Springsteen written. After 2001 I enjoyed Mary’s Place from The Rising. But the song that always strikes a chord is The River. Hope he plays it.