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.

Cakes, weddings and Jesus

I’d like to raise a question I haven’t raised before anywhere. I’m thinking aloud, so this isn’t a ‘position’ in any sense. More an exploratory question …

To date I’ve shared common Christian concerns for Christian bakers, photographers, etc as we anticipate an altered social and legislative landscape with ‘same-sex marriage’. And I do want to see religious freedom appropriately enshrined in our democracy. Among other things, I want our’s to be a society where the bakers and the rest are able, should they so choose, to make socially unpopular decisions according to religious conscience, without fear of prosecution.

But all that said I’m just wondering whether our approach to the matter needs a rethink, at least in part. It’s one thing to want the protections I’ve just referred to, to be in place. It’s another to recommend that such stands as those taken by the now proverbial bakers, necessarily be taken.

I’m thinking about where we are now socially, versus maybe 50 years ago, re de facto marriages and single parenting. Back then (ok, so I was only 7) it wasn’t uncommon for clergy to insist that a non-church couple living together separate and/or cease intimate relations as a condition of a ‘church wedding’. Likewise some would refuse (politely or otherwise) to consider baptising a child whose parents weren’t married. People living in de facto relationships and unwed mothers had good reason to feel uncomfortable in churches. They commonly felt they were being gossiped about and judged; and they were probably right very often. Similar observations could have been made in the wider community among professionals such as teachers, doctors or even shopkeepers; the more so if the service providers were evangelical Christians, but not them only.

To relate the matter more closely to the subject at hand, I’m wondering how a Christian baker in 1950 might have taken a request for a ‘Christening’ cake for a child whose parents weren’t married. Yes, it’s a hypothetical; people didn’t have parties and cut work-of-art cakes every 5 minutes back then. But if such a thing did happen, my guess is an awkward transaction at the very least, and maybe even a decline.

The picture nowadays is I think rather different. It’s not that evangelical pastors, churches or people have watered down our moral convictions about godly living according to Scripture. We still teach and disciple our church members by the same standards as our forebears did. But what has happened, as I perceive it, is a realisation that we ain’t living in Christendom. We don’t expect regenerate lives and behaviour from unregenerate people. We haven’t decided that de facto marriages and single parenting are perfectly ‘ok’ now. But at a pastoral level we’re inclined to live with some moral ambiguities, even if only as means to the end of people being among us long enough to see Jesus’ lovely character in us, and of us having an opportunity to invite them to receive salvation in him.

So my question is for the Christian community generally, as we anticipate the altered landscape that’s likely ahead – and that won’t be a passing phase. I ask it of Christian providers of goods or services to the general public, and I ask it of my fellow pastors – we who will counsel, disciple and encourage the former among us. Will it be biblical and best serve the cause of the Gospel, for Christian providers of goods and services, particularly but not only in the ‘wedding industry’, to decline service to same-sex couples or families on grounds of conscience? Or might we rather serve graciously and generously, regardless of our vastly differing moral convictions, so as to be able to serve the Gospel? I submit that we’ve largely adopted the latter perspective with de facto couples and single parents, and rightly, in my view. Is it not likely that the same will become our approach to same-sex couples and the children they raise, in a world where – failing an extraordinary work of revival – we will be increasingly peripheral?

Mobilise the grannies

I quit smoking 40-odd years ago, aged 11, and haven’t looked back. That surely qualifies me to offer a suggestion or two on finishing off the tobacco industry. It all happened the day my grandmother sprung me with a lighted Cambridge in my mouth, in the garage on a rainy day. The ensuing tongue-lashing was more than sufficient to nip my dreams of accelerated manhood clean in the bud.

So I suggest the Federal Government could do far worse than mobilise the Grey Army to the cause. Deploy a platoon of grannies armed with sticks and megaphones on suburban streets across the nation, and just watch British American Tobacco shares head south in quick order. Taking a queue from Victoria, they could be called Pleural Service Officers (PSOs). And believe me, they wouldn’t need guns.

We’re all psychics now

Some still valiantly persist in calling it a “news” cycle. But the tidal wave of reality is thinning their numbers. Increasingly now it’s just a stock exchange of opinions, peppered with the odd objective fact, drowned in a stew of speculation masquerading as fact. Anyone with a keyboard or smartphone can play the game, and that’s pretty much anyone at all these days. On this exchange, the stock is grossly overvalued, but trading is as fierce as any. Rather a pity really. The casualties include fine people, truth and the common good. But it’s what passes for the exchange of ideas in the soundbyte age. You may as well join in, or your voice will barely be heard at all anyway.

Of course, the brave new media world does have its critics. Occasionally one pops their head above the parapet; more occasionally it doesn’t get either blasted off on the one hand, or left to shrivel in the sun on the other. If they are heard, they might be highlighting the preference for spin over substance, the media game of trapping public figures with doorstop verbal slip-ups, or the popular penchant for attacking people’s characters regardless of their words. All of these have weight. There’s one that’s rarely mentioned, though the latter points to it with a dim light. It deserves consideration, not least because it undergirds a great deal of what gets said, written, tweeted and believed, through broadsheets, tabloids, blogs and social media comments, alike. It is the common assumption that the writer or tweeter knows what lies deep in the psyche of … well anyone at all, really.

If editors and blog owners banned tomorrow the posting of opinions predicated on the poster’s knowledge of the inner thoughts of one or many someones they’ve never met, we’d all be reaching for our hearing aids in the public square. There’d be remarkably little to say, in the vein of current discourse at least. Denied the opportunity to tell us what Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, or their hacks are plotting and thinking in private – because they don’t in fact know, political journalists would be forced to resume the antiquated and prosaic practice of analysing public policy, leaving the outcome of next year’s election to the fortune tellers and astrologers. With uncorroborated conspiracy theories left to gather dust, general discourse could become almost unrecognisably civil. Heck, it might even become possible to conduct intelligent, respectful and thoughtful community debate on matters such as asylum seekers, the nature and definition of marriage, the rights of indigenous Australians, religion in state schools, the sharing of the national wealth, and the future of the planet.

That’s why it’s of more than passing interest. The last thing our community needs right now is a continuation and escalation of the polarisation which has latterly taken hold. Yet as night follows day, polarisation is a certainty when it’s fashionable to portray the unknowable about people as established fact, without evidence. The problem with relying on speculation about the inner motives of other individuals or community sectors is that we wind up with an abundance of anonymous ‘enemies’, whose imagined agendas are so heinous that their voices must be silenced. That state of affairs looks like justice to the ‘good guys’, but anything-but to the judged and unheard, whose frustration merely generates further heat with no light. A national cold shower might be just the ticket for the common weal, followed by a great deal of mature and even-handed listening. Will it happen? I hope so. But the thing is, we’re all psychics now.

God-talk on Facebook

Some thoughts by one recent Facebook returnee …

Facebook has without question become one of the key places where the world hangs out. (e.g. a recent newspaper article reports that a third of the Australian population now has a Facebook account). So whatever misgivings one may have about Facebook (and I certainly have some), my personal conclusion is that Christians generally, and leaders especially, should be here for the Kingdom’s sake.

But questions remain, and here is but one of them. From a Kingdom point of view, what is the most helpful approach to open discussions (such as occur frequently on one of my friends’ wall) between members of the Christian community, where folks who may not call themselves Christians are listening in and sometimes participating? Is this the right or best place to discuss especially matters of serious contention between believers? (NB: I’m asking this openly, with no assumed ‘right’ answer!)

It’s not that there needs to be a problem with spiritual seekers seeing that Christians have disagreements. And indeed, thinking in terms of Paul’s engagement with the Athenians (Acts 17, second half), there’s something potentially very exciting about taking the Gospel and it’s ramifications into the public ‘marketplace’ of ideas.

But one question that arises is the risk of misunderstanding in this very detached medium, where it’s no simple matter to convey all the nuances of meaning. e.g. To a listener who doesn’t know the wider context or the range of what’s assumed among Christians, a positive comment based on an orthodox understanding of the Bible could well read as hopelessly bigoted or arrogant.

Or to look at it another way, if we’d at least think twice before passionately debating it in a café, should we debate it on Facebook?

My purpose is definitely not to draw lines in the sand. But I hope this may generate some thoughtful reflection.

Relativity in sport

As erstwhile founding father of the Anti-Football League, Keith Dunstan (Opinion, 29/12) is well placed to comment on some of the excesses of Australian sporting fandom. However he, like Guy Thevenet (Letters, 29/12), might do well to recognise that the true thinking behind some of the more flowery commentary on Australia’s Ashes performance is far more varied than meets the eye.

To be sure there are some Australian sports fans – too many probably, for whom life itself is worth living, or not, according to the colour of the medal or which captain finally holds aloft the trophy. The sooner they get over it, the better for us all. But many who share their vocabulary do not share their myopic passions. We join in the collective banter, the language of the herd, not because the scoreboard ultimately matters but because our sense of mutual belonging matters profoundly.

Sport is one of the great levellers of our culture. There are probably few subjects that so quickly and painlessly make friends out of strangers, regardless of estate. Ignore the language. It’s just sport.