Bibles, beer and blindness

OK. I’ve been listening to this debate raging among Christians as well as in the general community – all without actually watching the video clip – until now. I’ve just watched it. And I think in this case I’m glad I’ve done it in that order. I’ve watched it with an eye to both (all?) sides of the debate, and I think I can see totally valid points in defense of both the Bible Society-Coopers ‘deal’ and the production of the video. But I can also see very compelling arguments by Christians and non-Christians alike, pointing the other way, suggesting that parts or all of it have been at best ill-judged or at worst a disaster of, umm, ‘biblical’ proportions.

I’ve chosen the words ‘valid’ and ‘compelling’ very deliberately. The central observation many of my fellow ‘conservative’ (relative and over-simple term) Christian friends are making is entirely intellectually valid. The hotly contentious video clip does indeed feature a civil discussion between two protagonists, who differ significantly on a few substantial criteria. It is indeed a cause for sadness that such an event could elicit public anger, opprobrium and even vitriol. It ‘ought’ to be otherwise; it ought to be celebrated rather than condemned.

But what I’m finding increasingly compelling is the metanarrative others are pointing to. I’ll mention two elements in reverse order of significance, as I perceive them. First, a political misjudgement. If Christians want to engage the public in useful dialogue on whatever issue, it’s a good idea to be astute about perception. It’s unfortunately not a good look that the two interlocutors chosen are not only both MPs, but also of the same party – and to wit the party currently in government, and the one most closely aligned with the ‘traditional’ position. We, the Christian community, could seriously do without a public perception that we’re aligned with one (doesn’t matter which one) side of politics. The danger is that that becomes a distraction from the issue itself, or worse – it actually becomes the issue.

And so to the second and I think most compelling metanarrative point. We the Christian community have not covered ourselves in glory when it comes to demonstrating God’s love for LGBT+ people. Plenty has been written and spoken on this point, so I won’t elaborate it in detail. But briefly, we’re fighting a clear public perception, forged over decades, that Christians don’t like gays – as people. Many of us are now working hard to reverse that perception. But as it took decades to establish, it’ll likely take decades to dismantle.

That, as several folk are telling me, is the big metanarrative. Thus when LGBT+ people or their advocates see a Christian organisation having a public discussion on a subject they hold very dear – and on which the general orthodox Christian position is both well known and unfavourable, the metanarrative carries the day. The civility or otherwise of the featured discussion is simply invisible beneath the torrent of long-established distrust of Christians.

That’s how it’s looking to me, anyway.

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Video

Mercies in disguise

Being a fogey I naturally don’t keep up with the latest in contemporary Christian music. So an awful lot passes me by, interspersed with haphazard moments of discovery.

A couple of weeks back I happened to be driving and chanced upon a Christian radio station. A song I’d never heard was playing, and I was transfixed. The song was released in 2011, and deservedly led to awards and heightened recognition for the artist, Laura Story. (Yep, you guessed it .. I hadn’t heard of her either. That will let younger Christians know what sized rock I’ve been hiding under.)

The song is simply titled “Blessings”….

 

It’s seriously one of the most moving and theologically satisfying songs I’ve ever heard on the theme of suffering in the journey of discipleship. As so often with musical or other reflections on suffering throughout Christian history, the rich biblical insights the song expresses are borne of real trials in the life of the artist. The following line from the refrain says so much …

What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?

This song ministers mightily to my spirit, as it clearly has done to many many others over the past 5 years. Highly recommended to any who’ve been hiding under the same rock as I …

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Batting for Jesus on a rough wicket

The teacher set the class the common task of designing their own respective coats of arms and matching life mottos. Our son’s motto was simple and to the point:

Cricket. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cricket always was a metaphor of life, and that includes the Christian life surely. Listening to the commentary, one learns that there are many types of wickets. Flat wickets, grassy wickets, crumbling wickets (and that’s quite apart from the dreaded and proverbial ‘sticky wicket’).

Another is the rough wicket. The kind you might get on day 3 of a test match, but never ever for T20. Spin bowlers relish it. No one wants to bat on it. But alas, that was just the kind of pitch prepared by the curators down at the ABC for last Monday’s test match under lights, otherwise known as Q&A. And a handpicked Christian side were sent in to bat. No one saw a pink ball, but it was tough out in the middle.

But as often happens at the cricket, the crowd reaction was at least as interesting and varied as anything on the ground. The reaction of fans was richly varied; everything from those who rated the batting side’s performance a raging success to the ones who felt utterly let down by a singular lack of courage and not a single boundary.

Now one can understand the disappointment, the sense of lost opportunity. But here’s a thought … Maybe the most dejected fans were the ones who hadn’t thought carefully enough about the batting conditions. Nowadays rough pitches are the norm for Christian batting in what has become a very secular game, in which we’re by and large the minnows. That’s a frustration for those who recall the glory days of Christian ascendancy in the public sphere. And it’s a bore for those who now think the real action is in T20, where every second balls is lofted into the stand.

On my take, the batting conditions for Christian engagement in public discourse today (of which Monday’s match was but a single session in a very long game) are like this: The program’s brief was to evaluate Christianity’s contribution to modern Australia. A utilitarian approach, in other words. That means the secular world’s asking the questions, and we’re answering on its terms. That’s a big determinant of what can possibly be said (what kinds of strokes can be played). I thought the panel did pretty well with the rough wicket they were batting on.

Or to put it another way — The Q&A setup is more a test match pitch with mainly spin bowling, meaning a batsman who expects to hit 4s and 6s won’t last long. 2 runs an over and maybe the occasional 3 all run is a good strategy, even if the crowd does get bored and start throwing beach balls. 

I suspect many Christian critiques of the program come from folks who’ve gotten a little too used to T20.

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Gun control and all that – a critical response

On the Second Amendment

In the course of a discussion on Facebook the other day, a friend referred me favourably to the above post, asking my opinion. In reading and then pondering it, it occurred to me that my gradually forming response to the article might of itself be worthy of my own published reflection. So what follows is in one sense a respectful critique of the article, but also more broadly an expression of my own thinking on the current gun control debate, especially in the US.

I want to emphasise at the outset that I greatly respect this writer, whose public profile is considerably higher than mine. I respect him as a Christian brother, with whom I profoundly agree on many matters of current public discourse, not least the fundamental integrity of faith-driven perspectives and hence their right to an equal and respectful hearing in the public square. It’s out of that personal respect that I’m omitting his name from this critique of mine, even though his identity is no secret in the article in question, published on his own blog.

I’ll follow the formal convention of calling him simply ‘the writer’. Notwithstanding all I’ve just said, I have to say I’ve found his approach here quite disappointing, and will now elaborate on why.

The heart of what disappoints me is that in this and sadly also several other articles, the writer has surrendered to the ‘left is bad, right is good’ temptation. So ‘lefties’ are anarchic extremists who want to rob society of all that’s right, good and true, out of a worldview built on naive simplisms. Conservatives, by contrast, are savvy, well-informed guardians of the good, drawing from the deep well of cultural history. What this polarisation too often produces is a style of writing that holds one’s opponents up to ridicule, as simpletons whose opinions don’t deserve the time of day from thoughtful folk.

Such an approach ignores the reality mature Christians should instinctively know, that all humans are sinners, having a universally compromised grasp of what is good and real, and imperfect in their living of it. One learns that one’s opponents sometimes get it right. It’s therefore wise, quite apart from simply kind, to treat them and their views with the kind of evenhanded patience one hopes to have returned. Ridicule fails to produce helpful public discussion, because it commonly portrays the opponent with a kind of caricature, which in turn results in a failure to interact with the real substance of their case. The caricature becomes the entire object of engagement.

Such an approach is disappointing at the best of times. But what makes it most saddening in this writer’s case is the irony that this parodying style of argument is precisely the kind widely used against Christians by the most aggressively atheistic sectors of the media. Make all people of faith look like gormless simpletons, so no one will take us seriously. Christian writers, of all people, should avoid emulating that style of discourse.

Now to the subject itself: the ‘Second Amendment’ to the US Constitution, and the modern-day question of gun control

There may well be a class of agitator who seeks the dismantling of the 2nd amendment in the name of pure pacifism. But I at least have yet to encounter any such participants in the course of the present gun control debate. The mainstream of gun control advocacy is frankly uninterested in the 2nd amendment, for or against. Our concerns are almost entirely with the pattern of random mass murders of innocents, carried out with semi-automatic guns.

It’s therefore simply perplexing that an article such as this from this writer, published only yesterday right in the thick of the aftermath of the Connecticut school shooting, would address the gun control debate entirely on the 2nd amendment and with not so much as a mention of this or any other mass civilian killing.

Right about the middle of his piece (the 14th paragraph), the author reduces the entire gun control position to a single sentence comprised of three snappy but very simplistic sub-clauses – and then responds to that, as if it were the whole substance. For just one example, I’ll take the aspect in my view most central, namely the 2nd clause of the three: “that [the 2nd amendment] only applied to weapons of the day”. That, with respect, is a lazy parody of the point gun control advocates are making. The real point is about the contrast between the firearm technology of the late 18th century and that of today. The “arms” the writers of the US constitution were referring to – the only kind in existence in their time – were muskets. Even in the hands of the most skilled marksman, a musket could fire two shots in a minute, at best. Put that beside a semi-automatic assault rifle of today, and there’s simply no comparison for destructive power.

The fathers of the US could not possibly have conceived of such weapons even being developed, much less the scenario of them being in the hands of hundreds of thousands of citizens. It seems extraordinary to appeal to the 2nd amendment, which is about military defence against national tyranny, to oppose any restriction on weapons which are now being used to kill numbers of defenceless non-combatants on the random impulse of a lone gunman. Liberty and security are not about enabling or even allowing citizens to kill eachother in peacetime.

These perspectives have been expressed far more eloquently by any number of writers, recently and in the past. Here is but one, which I commend: How the Right Has Twisted the 2nd Amendment.

More broadly I urge all reasonable people, and Christians most especially, to think very critically about the linking of the 2nd amendment with gun control, for which we may thank the National Rifle Association. The uncritical adoption of such an association has resulted in the extraordinary modern phenomenon of people, who by all accounts should passionately champion the defence of human life, defending instead a position which demonstrably serves the opposite end. In this strange new world, people who denounce late-term abortion can be the same ones who defend a ‘right’ that makes ongoing multiple child murders all but a certainty. Simply senseless.

To close very concisely: Why should Christians, above anyone, support gun control? Simply because our Creator God sets the highest value on all human life. (Gen 9:5-6). No person’s life is of lesser worth than internal security.

 

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A bigger vision

Australian Marriage Equality convener, Alex Greenwich (The Age, 5/1), needs to listen a little more to religious community concerns on gay marriage. Proposed legislation “assur(ing) churches they would not be forced to marry gay couples” may offer some consolation. (Although overseas experience suggests such protection may be temporary anyway.) However for those people of faith who oppose the redefinition of marriage, the central concerns are broader and deeper than the impact of gay marriage on the church itself or it’s ministers. We believe such a change would be to the profound detriment of future generations and of our whole society, not just ourselves. Others are fully entitled to disagree with our worldview. But any serious discussion of this vexed subject must reckon with the scope of our unease, which will not be assuaged by some self-directed political deal.

Generally speaking, the more profound the proposed cultural change the longer and more patient the debate required, if trust is not to be a casualty. This national conversation has barely begun. Now is not the time for legislative haste.

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Let’s have a real debate

The recent publication of Lindsay Tanner’s “Sideshow” has in some sense given us all permission to question the health of politics in Australia, and especially of political coverage by media outlets. Tanner’s very valid concerns have a much wider application, however, than politics itself. The age of instant global communications – with it’s doorstop interviews, sound bites, tweets, banal slogans, character attacks and spin, is fast altering the complexion of public discourse on all manner of subjects. It’s largely not for the better, and intelligent debate is one major casualty.

The present assault on religious education and chaplaincy in state schools is but one example, and part of a wider media phenomenon. In a free, democratic and diverse society it’s only to be expected that the place of religious belief in public life will be debated. This is as it should be, and neither Christians nor other faith believers should fear such engagement in the public square. However in the interests of balanced and informed dialogue a bit of common wisdom in how the debate is conducted might go a long way, if it is to merit the term “debate”.

The basics of constructive debate include inter alia caution with hearsay, resisting conspiracy theories, attention to the meaning of language peculiar to certain groups, and great care when quoting phrases without a context. What is frustrating about much of the coverage thus far in the print media generally, and The Age in particular, is the singular lack of attention to such values, even by seasoned commentators. It shows in some of the alarmist and polarised language now being used by columnists and taken up by some among their consumers. The subject is too important, however, to be reduced to trite sloganeering or half-baked analysis.

Recent reporting, for instance, has rendered famous the use of the phrase “make disciples” in connection with the work of Access Ministries in Victorian state schools. Fuelled apparently by apocalyptic visions of defenceless children before an invading force, armed to the teeth with black bibles, handcuffs and mobile pulpits, angst rages through letters columns and talkback radio segments. Digital space is all abuzz with lines like “Lie to kids”, “Out to convert” and “Caught lying again.” Not so very different from the political headlines we see these days, and hardly more sophisticated. What’s also in common is the creeping replacement of thoughtful social analysis with sound bites targeting people and denigrating characters, but yielding little actual insight.

Like any organisation or professional circle, the Christian community uses peculiar sets of words, phrases, images and metaphors, some drawn from the Bible itself, others from a variety of contexts in Christian history. Just as it would be unwise for a layman to draw conclusions from language used in a medical conference, a constitutional debate or a sci-fi chatroom (among an endless list), so it serves none of us well to lift an evocative phrase from a very specific faith context, and broadcast it in the public domain without the most careful of research. Doing so may make for arresting headlines, but it too rarely serves the cause of truth. Without truth, trust diminishes and constructive debate becomes impossible.

Slogans commonly represent a rejection of historical context as something that matters for current application. If a phrase is deemed useful as an ideological mantra, then no one wants to know where it came from or how closely the new usage resembles the original. If one wants to rid the world of the scourge of religion in the quest for some global atheist Utopia, then “secular” makes a great mantra, especially when combined with the words “education” and “free”. It doesn’t matter that the drafters of Victoria’s model for state education had neither faith nor ‘un-faith’ in mind when they envisioned a system “free and secular”. What matters rather is the usefulness of “secularism” to the cause of messianic atheism. Atheism per se is politically naked; secularism, which essentially means plain boring impartiality, provides it a fine respectable suit of clothes to wear to the public square.

Nor is the religion in schools “debate” the only context in which today’s beloved sloganeering style of journalism puts a damper on intelligent dialogue about religion. The phrase that’s really had the fourth estate all agog in the past decade is “separation of church and state”. It’s become as irresistible to crusading social commentators as a solitary bush dunny to a swarm of blowflies. It’s so exquisitely utilitarian to the pursuit of blessedly God-free public discourse. Pertinent facts include: (1) that no such phrase appears in the Australian Constitution which in fact protects religious expression;1 and (2) that it’s US origins have to do with keeping the government and any religious group organically distinct from eachother, particularly in contrast with the British model of an ‘established’ church. None of this is any challenge at all, however, to members of today’s commentariat for whom the only history that isn’t all ‘crap’ anyway is the convenient kind.

The socio-political landscape of today’s Australia is perhaps more complex than it has ever been, and this will hardly diminish with time. In the interests of harmony and cohesion, we all need and deserve the kind of public discourse that arises more naturally from even-handed research and careful scrutiny, than from two-second quotes and endless tweets. Only then can we have public dialogue with substance. Let’s have the real debate we need about religion in schools specifically, and public institutions generally.

One thing’s for sure. When words like “preacher” start to be applied to the Grade 1 religious education class at the local primary school, it’s time we all asked questions.


  1. The Constitution enshrines a “principle of state neutrality” as distinct from “separation of church and state”. Reference: Ch 5 § 116 The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state#Australia

Published today at onlineopinion.com.au

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Words and conspiracies

In a free, democratic and diverse society it’s only to be expected that the place of religious belief in public life will be debated. This is as it should be. However in the interests of balanced and informed dialogue a bit of common wisdom in how the debate is conducted goes a long way. Respected organs of media should set the standard.

The basics of constructive debate include caution with hearsay, resisting conspiracy theories, attention to the meaning of language peculiar to certain groups, and great care when quoting phrases without a context. The present debate about Christian teaching in schools has too often lacked attention to such concerns, and it shows in some of the alarmist and polarised language now being used. This will serve none of us, our children included.

Like any organisation or professional circle, the Christian community uses peculiar sets of words, phrases, images and metaphors, some drawn from the Bible itself, others from a variety of contexts in Christian history. The world could not contain the conspiracy theories that might arise from a layman’s hearing of language used in a medical conference, courtroom or mechanical workshop (among an endless list).

When words like “preacher” start to be applied to the religious education class at the local primary school, it’s time we all asked questions.


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Anyone for a truly secular long weekend?

Thanks to 2011’s happy confluence of the lunar cycle, a Christian festival and the Australian calendar, Australians have enjoyed the mother of all long weekends. If the current tsunami of secularist zeal achieves its utopian dream of a land free of any public religious expression, then let’s hope this was a good one.

Observant Jewish Australians have always been resigned to taking religious festivals out of their normal annual leave allocation. Do we want a land free of the alleged “discrimination” that favours Christians over other religionists? Well then, we’d better abolish public holidays associated with the Christian calendar.

Could be a worry though, this brave new world that beckons. Consider the impact on the retail industry if the great festivals of the jolly fat Santa and the chocolate-laying bunny had to come out of annual leave. (No discrimination, please. We’re secular.) Avvagoodweegend! (And do pray it’s not the last.)


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Be sure your tweets will find you out

Before the commentariat, Christian and other, condemns the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace as a loony fundamentalist bigot, let’s all take a deep breath and consider …

This is the Twitter age, and we’re all still meeting its perils along with its undoubted benefits. Staff and readers of The Age should be especially attuned, given the dismissal last year of an outspoken journalist after a similarly careless post on Twitter, amidst the frenzied online banter occasioned by the ABC’s weekly Q&A program.

If, as one of the anonymous millions, you forget who you are while tweeting in under 140 characters at the speed of light, you should consider yourself lucky merely to see red cheeks in the mirror. The same misfortune bears the sword of instant professional death if you happen to have a very public profile. Catherine Deveny and Jim Wallace make the strangest of bedfellows. But they merely share the doubtful honour of learning a most common lesson before a million judges. Let’s be slow to condemn either.

Let the twitterer without sin cast the first stone.

 

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