The Radical Act of Remembering

“When we are young we are fascinated with our future worlds. That’s natural, since when we are young we possess no past, or none worth mentioning; but we possess an endless future stretching before us. But I am no longer young. When we are old, the future vanishes from our life to become replaced with death. Accordingly we become intrigued, rather, with the past. We have the same escapist urge we had as youngsters, but it takes us back, into memory”

Adam Roberts. Yellow Blue Tibia

“When your’e young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car.”

Margaret Atwood. The Blind Assassin

About ten years ago I saw in a magazine a list of what experts thought were the best 100 novels of the 20th century. I have since tried to work my way through most of them. As I did, I noticed that a theme kept creeping up again and again – the theme of memory. So many of the great works of art explore the idea of of time passing, the past and the act of remembrance.  Most of the writers who explore this theme I noticed were older, writers who were younger were far more interested in the experiential, be it romance, sex, war and adventure. But it seemed that ageing sharpened the senses, helping people realise what the real issues and questions of life were. I think this is in part what Proverbs 20:29 is getting at

The glory of young men is their strength, grey hair the splendour of the old.

Popular culture with all of its obsessions with Youth only focuses on the first part of this verse. Thus we are rarely confronted with the idea of remembering, instead Pop Culture focuses on the immediate and the sensate, demanding that we view the world through a myopic lens thus leading us up a garden path when it comes to our lives and our faiths. The Bible has a very different idea, it is a narrative which encompasses the past, the present and the future. It is future orientated but it also values the radical act of remembering. Israel was commanded to practice the passover each year in order to remember. Passover was and is a deeply counter cultural act of protest. It, through a wonderful set of symbols invites the participant to remember what God did in order to save Israel, it is a reminder that the the power of God is greater than the powers of the day.

Communion acts in the same way, it is a lived symbol, a reminder of Christ’s work on the cross, his defeat of sin, the powers and principalities of this world, and of death. When we partake of communion, we place ourselves in a long spiritual linage, with millions of others throughout history, it is a reminder that we are not just rugged individuals bumping around an atomised universe. Rather we are part of the fabric of God’s redemptive purposes in history.

Therefore the empires both governmental and media, wish us to remain in the moment, to stay in the ephemeral, to focus on their promises to deliver us a glitzy, wonderful future. The radical act of remembrance, reminds us that God has acted in the past, and that is why we know he will act again in the future. It reminds us that humans are fallen, that we cannot keep making the mistake of the builders of Babel. That our hope comes from an act that occurred two thousands years ago on a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem.


God’s Subversive Cells

What is uncool? Families! Nothing is as Unhip as a Honda Odyssey. Yet strangely despite our misgivings about family, the bible positions the family against the power of Empires and Nations as a subversive cell of change, a small grouping that contains the seeds of God’s redemptive action in the world.

The Multiple Life Crises

We are all familiar with the idea of the mid life crisis which hits around the mid forties. Recent years have also seen a number of books written about the quarter life crisis that hits young adults at age 25, and of course there is the crisis that many twenty somethings hit as they turn 30. New research has found that now increasingly men are having crises at age 35.

Well is this all an attempt to sell books and newspapers. Well partly, but also I think that these crises which are essentially existential, are never really addressed at their cores. Thus our culture offers kinds of off-ramps from the freeway of existential crisis. In the past when you hit an existential crisis, you asked the deep questions of life, you examined your mortality, searched for God, stared at the stars and meditated on your cosmic smallness. Now when one of these moments hits, when the weak story that we are given by 21st century culture is exposed, instead of plumbing deeply for meaning, we exit at the off ramp – we leave our boyfriend/girlfriend, go backpacking across Chile, or join a Zumba class and wonder why these life-tweaks don’t provide us with deep meaning.

Without truly looking at our culture’s meaningless malaise we will continue to have these crises every five years or so. To have a life of meaning, is to live fully in a story. The narrative of scripture provides us not with off ramps but with a redemptive, robust story that we can truly live out of.

Spiritual Consumption vs Production

How are out spiritual lives like failing economies? What happens when contemporary faith becomes all about consumption but not about production? Is spiritual bankruptcy the inevitable result? How can the difference between Abraham and his father Terah help us sort ourselves out of our spiritual debt crisis? Why do I keep asking so many questions in this post? Check the vid people! Plus here are the photos of Detroit’s decline that I mention in the video.

The Flaying of the Missional Church Upon The Cathedrals of the Self

During the middle ages throughout Europe cathedrals sprang up, towering above villages, casting their shadows over the cities that had begun to emerge from the chaos of the Dark Ages. In contrast to the crumbing Roman structures that spoke of the past glory of the cult of Rome, these buildings were living manifestations of Europe’s fascination with the transcendence of God.

The building of a cathedral was a matter of great civic pride, their constructions by armies of artisans were high drama (as Keith Follet has illustrated all the way to the bank). The cathedrals were three dimensional teaching tools, they were medieval multi media presentations, evangelistic tools that attempted to woo and win over converts with their liturgical and architectural campaign of shock and awe.

To the contemporary missional thinker such an approach reeks of the dreaded concept of ‘attractionalism’. Cathedrals are seen as representing the worst of high medieval thinking in which the church was at the centre of culture and all were expected to come and pay adherence. Thus we are told that we are in a post-Christendom culture, in which the cathedral now operate as a kinds of spiritual museums. They are relics, they may be beautiful, but they are relics none the less. So the alternative to the ecclesiological arrogance of the cathedral/christendom approach we are told is to be missional, to ‘go’ rather than to expect people to ‘come’, to be sending rather than missional.

This approach makes sense, its advocates point to the way in which the non-western mission field has rightly redefined our understanding of the positioning of the Church. Yet the sending/missional posture can find itself seriously compromised if it thinks that the concept of the cathedral is dead in Western culture. In fact in comparison to the middle ages in which there were thousands of cathedrals, there are millions of cathedrals being constructed daily in our culture. They are not Gothic or Romanesque in construction, they are not made of stone and wood, rather they made of flesh. Or perhaps more correctly they are constructed in the psychic space that surrounds contemporary citizens of the 21st century developed world.

The individual now operates as a kind of personal cathedral. Social media arms and aids the growing sense of entitlement in the contemporary therapeutic self. The individual creates a facade that will shock and awe. An exterior that will garner respect and acknowledgement. If the medieval cathedral was an attempt to connect with a palpable sense of the transcendent, the contemporary self attempts also attempts to create a sense of transcendence through the correct assemblage of consumer experiences.

The difference between this and the medieval vision is that the contemporary cathedral of the self is religion free, instead it seeks to eek out transcendence in what David Brooks calls a ‘low-ceilinged world’. Instead of plainchant, stained glass windows and the drama of the liturgy, the modern self attempt to find transcendence in budgets breaks on the beach in Thailand, 3D movies, killer Ipad apps, and in the torque of a SUV.

The cathedrals of the 21st century self like their medieval counterparts demand that you come to them. They demand to be taken seriously. They insist on being the only show in town. Therein lies the danger for the missional church. The missional church which attempts to incarnate, which tries to ‘go to’; can find itself shifting from an attractional mode of church, to becoming enslaved to an attractional view of the self. Incarnation can quickly degenerate into syncretism for the missional operator who is unaware of the cathedral of the self.

Many missional leaders who have critiqued the therapeutic and individualist tendencies of the contemporary church growth movement, can easily and naively find themselves serving an even more pernicious expression of the therapeutic self as Church is completely taken to and rearranged around the habits, locales, tastes and wants of the individual in the name of incarnational mission.

The church moves into the cafe, the pub, the home, and the sporting club in the name of mission and as a protest against attractional concepts of Church. Yet the individual sense of entitlement is never truly challenged, there will be much focus on the immanent Jesus who is our friend, yet little emphasis on the transcendent ‘otherness’ of God who reminds us of our falleness and cosmic smallness. The huge danger is that whilst the incarnational, missional approach rejects the idea of the medieval cathedral, the cathedral of the self is never truly dismantled.

Boundaries vs Meat Bikinis

Last week Lady Gaga incensed animal rights activists by appearing in an Italian magazine wearing a Bikini made of raw meat. This was the latest effort a long line of media attention grabbing stunts in which various cultural, religious and sexual boundaries were crossed by her Gaganess. However the obsession with pushing boundaries and crossing lines in not restricted just to Lady Gaga, paradoxically it is tradition within modernity. In fact, Peter Gay subtitled his history of Modernist Art – The Lure of Heresy. Our contemporary culture mocks those who wish to maintain age old distinctions and boundaries.

However boundaries are essential to human life. Distinctions and separations are key not only to human life, but to the whole of creation. The piercing truth of this reality was brought home to me recently as I accidentally opened the unlocked door of a plane bathroom to be greeted by the shocked face of a woman – how shall I say? – not expecting to be disturbed. This moment of embarrassment reminded me that boundaries offer us dignity, they make us human.

In his brilliant study of the book of Genesis Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the account of creation begins with a set of separations and distinctions. Sea and sky, light and day, animals and humans, chaos and creation. The most profound distinctions are to be found between God and humans and between heaven and earth, and between the unique personalities of humans. Rabbi Sacks observes that this distinction in unique amongst religious world views, the pagan beliefs which surrounded Israel did not delineate between gods and humans, creation and chaos, heaven and earth.

Therefore the primary sins of humanity are attempts to cross these boundaries and merge these distinctions. Adam and Eve attempt to merge humans and God by eating of the fruit ‘so that they may be like gods’. Cain breaks the distinction between individuals and kills his brother Abel. The builders of Babel attempt to breech the boundary between heaven and earth with their structural monstrosity.

Rabbi Sacks points out that in many ways the story of Babel echoes many of the horrors of the 20th century perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead and challenged humans to take his place, and thus laid the groundwork for the horrors of the Third Reich who dehumised entire races.

In attempting to transcend their humanity and become the god like uber-mensch ironically the Nazis became less human. We see our culture constantly falling into the same traps, trying to construct our own worlds in godlike fashion, however we cannot but help falling into the trap of dehumanizing ourselves or others in the process. Rabbi Sacks writes

Only when God is God can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organizing the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings destroy themselves…A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits. Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both nature – the world God creates – and culture the world we create.

Our culture with its craving for the crossing of boundaries and the ignoring of limits reveals itself as truly neo-pagan, not in the sense of a bunch of people with dreadlocks dancing to bad german techo out in the forest, but  deeper more dangerous and insidious paganism. A paganism which threatens to dehumanize the whole of humanity, and to uncreate the whole of creation. And so we are back at Genesis one, we need again the spirit of God to hover over the formless, dark chaos of the world. We need God again to breath his life giving breath into us. And we need believers who understand and artfully respect the God given distinctions and limits in the world.

Predicting the Future

I normally don’t like futurists. I guess when I was younger I used to love reading about predictions of the future, but so often I felt let down as the future arrived and it was nothing like what they predicted (where is my flying Delorean?) But this is pretty weird. It is science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicting how life in the 2000’s will be changed by technology.

More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians

From must read article on CNN.

Your child is following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.

Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of “Almost Christian,” a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.

She says this “imposter” faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches.

“If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,” Dean says. “Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”

Read the whole piece here. (H/T Dave)

Tall Poppies and Church Planting

Mark Driscoll caused some ripples here in Australia with his observation that the tall poppy syndrome ( in which the successful are cut down) worked against the entrepreneurial spirit of Church planting. Driscoll noted that this cultural trait needed to be resisted by Australians. Driscoll pointed the finger at socialism as the cause of this quirk in Australian culture, in contrast to the more entrepreneurial spirit of American culture. This got me thinking, was socialism in Australia to blame? And was the tall poppy syndrome something that we Australians needed to ditch in favour of a more ‘go get em’ American style of success and leadership?

Lets start with the cause. Is socialism the cause of the tall poppy syndrome? Robert Hughes in his magnificent history of Australia, described the way in which Australia’s convict roots shaped our culture, especially the way in which criminals were put in work gangs of four regardless of race, ethnicity, language or social class. Thus a natural flattening occurred, and anyone who put their ‘head up’ was pulled down. So maybe the real cause of the tall poppy syndrome is Australia’s convict heritage? Well this is the point in which the New Zealanders will put their hands up. Many Australians who have spent significant time living in New Zealand will often note how the tall poppy syndrome is more entrenched in Kiwi culture than in Australian culture. And as any proud Kiwi will tell you, New Zealand in contrast to Australia was never a penal colony. So that scrubs that one off the list of possible causes.

So is this just a trait then of living down under? Is it a cultural anomaly caused by the fact that Australians and New Zealanders live at the bottom of the world, away from the cultural action of Europe, and North America? Well no, the tall poppy syndrome, is also found in the UK. As I discovered when I recently visited it is also entrenched in Denmark and Scandinavia, where it is known as the ‘Jante Law’. The tall poppy syndrome can also be found in the Netherlands where it is known as ‘maaiveldcultuur‘.

Now we are starting to get somewhere. Any good student of Church history will be starting to note a pattern. With the exception of Catholic Ireland (which probably says more about it’s historical relationship to Britain) the tall poppy syndrome seems to take root in protestant countries and cultures affected by the Reformation. The natural suspicion of papal authority flows into a wariness of earthly authority both sacred and secular. The simmering distrust of authority in European culture could of course be seen in the feasts of fools, held regularly in pre-reformation Europe in which Church authorities were mocked on specific days during the year. But such sentiments obviously came to a fore in the Reformation as northern Europe instituted a corrective which reminded it’s citizens that ultimate authority resided on heaven and not on earth.

So then is the real cause of the tall poppy syndrome the Reformation and is Driscoll wrong then about socialism as the culprit? Well yes and no. Archie Brown in his history of communism notes that the initial inspiration of socialism was the early church (particularly Acts 2:42-47). Brown also observes that the later revolutionary, and anti-authorative spirit of the Reformation was also a primary influence on the development of socialism. Thus one of the most powerful early streams in  the birth of socialism was the Christian socialism of John Ruskin (that is until Marx and Engels begun to lay the frame work of a materialist socialism and Lenin worked in the Second International to undermine the faith based Christian and Jewish socialists) . So a more accurate statement would be yes the tall poppy syndrome was influenced by socialism (which was itself influenced by the Reformation) but to a greater extent it was influenced by the effect that the Reformation had upon the way that protestant countries viewed authority and leadership.

So why then does the United States buck the trend? It is a country that was settled by large amounts of people from cultures such as Britain, Ireland, Holland and Scandinavia which valued the egalitarian ethos of the tall poppy syndrome? It was also a country in which a major founding influence was the Puritans who carried the Reformation’s suspicion of papal and governmental authority. Well probably at its beginnings, the social sobriety of the tall poppy syndrome would have been evident in American culture. But as American culture developed, certain influences gave birth to the more culturally respectful view of leadership that we see today. Jay Winik notes in The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World that the United States as an infant democracy in a world of monarchies had to give weight to the office of President to avoid international diplomatic isolation. There was even a move to address the office of President as ‘his majesty’.  Therefore positions of leadership in the United States developed a greater sense of public respect than in other Western Countries.

To fully chart the emergence of the unique mix of entrepreneurialism and rugged, expressive individualism that America has given to the world would take too much time here. ( If you are really interested Neal Gabler and Barbara Ehenriech do a fairly good job.)

So putting causes aside is the tall poppy syndrome something that the Church in cultures that posses it need to work against? Well I think that it is all down to extremes, at its worst it can be a poisonous response which alienates the innovator, the change agent and the creator, it can be a deadening device which creates a banal culture of the lowest common denominator. It can be sinful expression of what the Germans label Schadenfreude, that is a delight in the misfortune of others. However a dose of  the tall poppy syndrome taken sparingly can be a great antidote to the messiah complex and the idolisation of leadership. It can remind us of the great biblical truth that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and that every one of us in a position of leadership and influence is still a sinful being, who at times will bring that dysfunction to our positions of leadership.

Equally so the American spirit of Entrepreneurialism can have its benefits, it can foster great social change, it can free the individual to innovate and create without fear of retribution. I often note when I am in the United States that I don’t have to play down the fact that I have written a couple of books, something I find myself doing here in Australia. However taken to it’s extreme it can also have a dark side. It can result in a slavish, idolatrous and dangerous view of leadership. It can make us look for a Messiah figure in someone apart from the genuine Messiah. It has also given birth to the cult of celebrity worship that we see spreading across the world, and sadly infecting the Church.

So I think that for Church Planters in cultures that possess a tall poppy syndrome, it is about redeeming the cultural value. Putting the value back in its correct place.  It reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously as leaders, to remember that we are called to be a new kind of leader, that is a servant leader who does not think of themselves as better than others. The same applies for the American value of entrepreneurialism, in its right place it can be a wonderful gift. As with almost anything it is about putting this in their right place. As G.K Chesterton in Orthodoxy rightly observed the problem with the world is not the vices but the virtues that are out of their right place.  So it is all a question of bringing any cultural trait or value under the Lordship of Christ.

But hey what would I know? (Note Aussie ‘tall poppy syndrome influenced’ self effacing end this post)


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