It’s not the wildlife you have to be afraid of in Sydney, it’s the Baby Boomers…

So. That might be a controversial title. But I’ve just been to see French economist Thomas Piketty speak at the Opera House, and I thought I’d share a little of my thoughts.

In the audience were a lot of economists, some socialists, and two Pentecostals.

Classily, as we were assailed on the front steps by the Socialist Alliance paper, Dreu quoted Oscar Wilde “…the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” Which we laughed at because so does Pentecostalism, actually. There’s a lot of dancing, and giving, and … oh well back to the topic.

I actually find macroeconomics very sexy. Oh, speak to me softly in Keynesian. I did a political economy degree at the University of Sydney, and I very nearly did my PhD in it.

Instead, my PhD is situated at the intersection of anthropology and development, and charts emergent ways that Aboriginal Christian leaders are using their congregations to insulate themselves from the devastating policies that increase Australia’s racial inequality, or “the gap.” During my studies, I spoke with 88 Christians attending churches with Aboriginal pastors. They spoke about the intersection between Dreaming culture and Christianity, and the ways they help people in their community get car licenses, stop smoking, do aerobics and work for NGOs. They are reducing inequality. This is the invisible Australian church.

Anyways, the summary of this Piketty presentation is that global inequality is rising, and in some places around the world has gone back to levels before WW2. Inequality is most troubling, interestingly enough, where there is oil revenue – e.g. in The Middle East, where the top 10% of income earners take almost 60% of the income.

Piketty doesn’t want to predict another war, of course, but at the same time, he provides historical links to inequality (of both income and wealth), characterizing this as “instability” that may give rise to conflict. Which certainly stacks up with development theorists.

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There was something very interesting about sitting with thousands of people in the Opera House listening to this presentation.

It felt like church. Although the Today Tonight crew are desperately against more progressive Pentecostal religiosity, the reality is that it provides a collective identity, and a motivation to redistribute wealth. Jesus is a pretty compelling reason to limit your income, particularly for those at the top of the income ladder. And, it turns out, the poor in Pentecostal churches actually do see a material gain in income. If you’re desperate for stats, I can point you to many, from all over the world.

The true problem of our world is that the rich cannot see how rich we really are.

It is a virtue to truly be able to see yourself. This kind of sober judgment doesn’t come overnight.

The irony is that due to negative gearing and 0% tax on wealth inheritance (which Piketty made into a lovely joke), those who could attend this seminar in the Opera House in Sydney are truly the 1%.

I love the city of Sydney. But let’s be honest, it’s no longer tenable to live in. Without inherited wealth or a wealthy benefactor, you’re unable to afford the city at all.

For example, we live three kilometres out of the CBD in the converted basement of our besties: a surgeon and a business consultant. They got into the market well before the heist. But a 2-bed apartment-no-car-space across the road sold four months ago for $1.1 million.

There are thousands of apartments going up in our area. Three blocks away, there is a 2 bedroom faux-terrace that real estate agents predict will sell off plan for $2 million. It might lie vacant until the buyer deems they have made enough profit from it to resell.

The reality is, most Australians simply can’t afford to slap down $1-2 million on an apartment and let it lie vacant. 

But this is how it works at the centre of our city.

All the workers that staff the shops, the university students at major institutions, and most of the CBD professionals now travel in from other precincts.

I can only reflect upon my own journey. After giving six years of my life to administrating United Live unpaid, which turned out to be one of the most successful musical exports of Australia (don’t worry, I didn’t get a cent, or a movie ticket, so obviously I was only imagining how important it was for me to be doing those 80 hour weeks, which is reassuring), I walked away without any superannuation, and decided to complete further study. But there is no incentive for young people to pursue the Arts in inner-city Sydney anymore.

My husband works with youth at risk in the Chatswood area. His organization does not take a cent of government funding. They raise it all themselves. Which means that we often brush shoulders with the philanthropic set, usually when they are highly inebriated, which of course helps make them feel compassionate towards street kids. There is no incentive for people to create innovative social services in inner-city Sydney anymore. 

There is no incentive in Sydney other than money.

You either play to existing rules, or you’re forced to move out.

The five km radius from the CBD creates the perfect city for Baby Boomers with inherited wealth who want freedom from millennials. And children. And anything else that challenges the idea that this isn’t really “the good life” that they paint it to be.

I’m not suggesting we run screaming down the street aka Chicken Little, but I am suggesting that we look very seriously at the spirit of our city.

Or, if you still refuse my assertion that there are some benefits from participation in a religious community, then at least read Thomas Piketty.

Peace on Earth (Or In the West)

Today, in the wake of Brussels and Istanbul attacks, I can’t help but think about the virtue of peace. The Christian religion, despite all accusations from its detractors, largely advocates peace.

Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV)

Hebrews 12:14 “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness noone will see the Lord” (NIV)

But religion does not always create peace, and this is a cost of faith commitment, which Jesus acknowledged to his disciples (Matt 10:34). Families may become divided on religious lines. And even Christians are divided – some will use Scripture to argue that Islam is the enemy of the God-fearing Christian and must be vanquished, but I think that is a mistake.

Why? I am brought back to the broken body of Christ, the central Christian symbol that we remember every time Christians take communion together. Dying at the hands of his enemies, Christ revealed a power greater than retribution. God outworks justice in its fullest sense, not just its counterfeit, vengeance.

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Whether it be a numbing effect of wealth or just our naiveté, those of us from “the West” often mistakenly believe we are entitled to peace, that we deserve to be safe at all times, while “the others” in the rest of the world may experience constant terror of bomb threats and landmines, and may even run for their lives from the tatters of their villages and cities.

We often characterize it as fundamental difference – Western society is so good, so peaceful. But is it peace we are experiencing in the successfully hidden violent turmoil in families, in corporate greed, in the devastation of the environment, in racial segregation?

The West does not deserve peace because it is better than those in conflict zones. And I’m not even sure that we have it yet. No, peace must become our quest, as it is a quest in many parts of the world. It must be something we actively seek out. It must be pursued.

We must become peace-makers.

As we lament those affected by violence across so many times and places, and even as we add to the list of cities affected by this particular strand of global terrorism, Christians must practice a Christianity suitable for times of war, as in much of the rest of the world.

Europe of all places understands violence. It is not new. But many of us with European heritage have forgotten how to turn conflict into the catalyst to strive towards something better.

Our grief must propel us towards practices which will embody the peace we so desire.

We are not entitled to it. No, instead it must become our quest. I will leave you with the quote that inspired my thought today:

“It is clear the medieval conception of a quest is not at all … a search
for something already adequately characterized, as miners search for gold or
geologists for oil. It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various harms, dangers, temptations and distractions
which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the
quest is finally to be understood. A quest is always an education both to the
character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge.” – Alasdair MacIntyre.
 And here’s a video from Common Grace, which seems prophetically perfect for today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auX1gFsmmxA&feature=youtu.be

Wheaton, Christian Evangelicals and Islam

This whole Wheaton thing. I’m reading every press release perched on the edge of my chair, and holding my breath. I feel like I’m watching a car crash in slow motion, tumbling and turning.

Exhibit A – Professor Larycia Hawkins attempts to send a message of solidarity to Muslim people by wearing a hijab, and posts a statement to encourage her students to do the same. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

Exhibit B – Wheaton leadership find themselves in a publicity mess with donors and decide to terminate her employment. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

First up, I understand that any Christian institution, whether it be church, university, sporting group or prayer ministry has a right to set common guidelines for staff (and to be in charge of their brand and public image). That’s a given as far as I’m concerned. And someone has to monitor those boundaries.

But honestly? I’m weeping tears for Dr Hawkins. I can see her as a younger Christian scholar, becoming concerned about religious interfaith dialogue and perhaps reaching for her very first book on the topic. I see her, sitting prayerfully reading the Koran. I see her trying to reconcile her pastor’s sermons with larger global trends, and the confusing media coverage. I see the long years she traveled to sit in conferences and listen respectfully to people she did not hold the same faith as, and the first article she sent trembling to her editor, after researching and writing. I see her thinking maybe one day her work would be important, and contribute to something as ‘big’ as American religion and politics.

And then years later, she realized the people she was researching were suffering in her own local city. So she decided to wear a hijab. She posted a message. She covered her own Christianity with a symbol of those she was trying to reach. And she suggested her students do the same.

Maybe her particular choice of words was ill advised, and her forum of Facebook too explosive, too new, too unproven. But she’s since provided an extensive outline which shows that she was not intending to challenge the institutional Statement of Faith. Her words are intelligent, nuanced and clearly researched.

I’ll be honest, her actions speak of a particular graciousness I long for in the Christian community. I want to be able to communicate to people that they are loved because the image of God rests within them.

I do not want to be taught to love people in hope they will turn and accept our Christian language, our Christian conferences, buy our Christian CDs or turn up at the same service I’m attending so they can sing along. If this is evangelism, then it doesn’t seem very respectful.

Let me be clear, I believe that an encounter with Jesus is transformative. The Bible is the revealed word of God. I hope that each and every person would have the same transformation I’ve experienced.

But I don’t believe for a second that I (or the Christian church) have a monopoly on God’s Spirit. I’m simply someone who wants to partner in the mission of God on the earth, Missio Dei.

There are common spaces, infused with enspirited life, where the Holy Spirit lives outside of the church. God is not sitting in the church by the pulpit waiting for us all to turn up. God the Spirit is the Creator and Giver of Life that sustains all things. Even in darkness, grace abounds – and maybe it intensifies (Rom 5:12).

Surely there is something that can be shared in return? Something life giving in the other’s prayers, even moments from our common history?

I feel the hopefulness in the Muslim community as they see Dr Hawkins’ action, potentially able to move Church and Mosque towards some kind of relationship that could be life-giving for both. And I know this hope will probably disappoint, that Doc Hawkins’ employment will be terminated.

Most North American PhD students have come to realize that they will not get tenure track at a university. The odds are simply against them, as institutions do not need to cover the health care of employees working less than 20 hours a week. These are called “Adjunct Professors”. Many scholars just want a job, so they give in, and adjunct at a number of institutions. Universities have a constant stream of adjuncts as potential employees desperate for positions.

But Dr Larycia Hawkins made it up the ladder, and she was employed by Wheaton College full-time, tenure track. Until she decided to communicate solidarity with Muslims.

Perhaps in time, she will think the cost was worth it. Right now, I’m sure she is barely making it through each day.

All I can think is “Lord, have mercy”.

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A Good New Year’s Resolution for Christians

I’ll be honest, I’ve kinda lost it online in the last couple of days. Something is bugging me a *lot*. And I’m hoping I’m not alone in these thoughts. So, can we make a real New Year’s resolution, my Christian friends?

First, to get rid of any shaming, let’s start with a beautiful verse in the biblical book of Lamentations (3:22-23). In my opinion it’s best sung:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

We can just make this a resolution for each new morning, because I suspect we’re going to mess up.

What resolution are we making, you ask? It’s this. Can we agree that this will be the year we act with more grace towards other Christians on social media? 

I think maybe it starts with refusing to press ‘share’ on articles about how other people’s worship style is wrong. And it ends with a deep hospitality of the ‘other’, which leads to radical love. You know, the type of love shown by Jesus.

There’s this rule I’m holding myself to now. I’ll only comment online about what I know is true. I want to be the comment that turns each thread towards graciousness. I guess this is a version of the Golden Rule of reciprocity used to argue for religious tolerance. But I’m not trying to tolerate, but instead love people better – because I’m a Christian.

It’s a pretty high bar, but you can keep me accountable this year. You can say ‘hey! that wasn’t loving’ or ‘that wasn’t very true’ or ‘that just wasn’t beautiful’. And if you want me to watch for your comments, let me know.

I’ve learned a lot from the discipline of social anthropology – a scholarly study (not of ants but human people and cultures i.e. anthro). Broad generalizations are not always true in reality. All black people don’t necessarily like rap music. All white men don’t love their guns. Even if we can say the majority of them do, some black people despise rap, and some white men refuse to use guns. If we keep it just at the level of generalizations, those realities are silenced.

Similarly, broad generalizations we find online about churches or religions aren’t always true when you turn up. Some points may be valid. But, culture is contested. Development scholars say it this way, “community is a myth” (Guijt and Shah 1998). That just means that in every culture you’ll find people both for and against any issue. But we’re sold a certain structure: elites who abuse power, and the majority who are duped and passive.

Every religious community is diverse, it is a living organism. There are influences that move it towards good, and also away from it. But in the online space, it’s hard to verify anything. Personal experience is key. And so, by retelling stories about people we don’t know and cultures we haven’t learned to read, we only become more attuned to the facts that reinforce our pre-existing perceptions.

This changes us, into seeing a bland majority rather than a beautiful, diverse and complex reality. More importantly, it’s hard to be attentive to themes of redemption or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases Phil 4:8, “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

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I’ll make this personal for illustration’s sake… my church has had lots of press in the last six months; everything from a bad Christmas carol through to gay choir directors (if you know the Arts world, wow a huge shock right?), to police removing critics from the venue and prosecuting them. Pastors have been called to the stand for events in 1999 resulting in a censure from the Royal Commission, and a berating from the weekend paper.

Some (not all) of this stuff is normal to churches. If you’ve recently been a pastor, you’ll know most have an AVO (apprehended violence order) list in the foyer, that the choir don’t always sing in key, and that Christians aren’t perfect. In this list we’re scraping the tip of an iceberg on what people are capable of, and messes they get themselves into.

But it’s weird because it’s different when it’s posted online. I’m reluctant to put forward what I know, or even say the name of the church on my blog, because it’s easily replicated out of context. There’s a certain website I’m trying desperately to stay out of, that will publish what I say. It doesn’t deserve promotion, because some of what it says is not true, and those parts are crucial. So when you hear about my church, you hear it from critics or publicists rather than ordinary people like me.

I’m not saying everything in this list is good. And, over a coffee I’ll sit down, and tell you what I think – and let you tell me what you think too.

But it’s not easy to know what the end game is online – what is an ordinary attendee supposed to do with these articles, other than force them upon their leaders, or disassociate by leaving? When I spend time talking with critics, especially Christians, they want the pastor fired, or the organization to go away. But I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

This has been a fascinating window to see how social media works. After interacting a lot online and trying to present the facts as clearly as possible, I’m starting to realize that people have emotion associated with my church’s name. And that emotion is very difficult to change. It’s generated within images and posts that have accumulated over a long period of time. Whether true or not.

It taps into how they feel about contemporary worship, and how betrayed they feel about clergy abuses. It’s how they feel when told about pastors who own houses in wealthy suburbs when they work so hard just to get by.  But this emotion has little to do with the reality of the ‘other’.

I’m not writing this because I’m trying to deflect from real issues. There are all kinds of things I find deplorable in this world, and that I believe deserve to be denounced. Sexual abuse, every time. Violence in the home. Genocide. But we have to work out how to do this. And I think yelling about carols is simply a distraction.

Christians have developed a passive-aggressive way of dealing with things and people we don’t like (everything from Islamic violence, halal foods, to boring worship songs and PEOPLE NOT SINGING IN WORSHIP).

It’s become a new liturgy for us. 

We practice the art of critiquing things online, and claim we are justified in doing so because The Reformation. And The Bible. But it doesn’t really add up with biblical verses on judging others, or Paul’s hopes for the church as a new and different community.

I’m not sure why this behavior is now definitional of Christians. But I suspect it’s because we want to feel like we are righteous, meaning ‘in the right’. Righteousness is an important part of the Christian faith. Posting things about other people deflects from problems in our own lives and churches.

It’s sad, because that’s not really what Jesus was on about, is it?

It’s only self-righteousness that we’re generating. 

We are working as hard as we can to turn right attitudes and thoughts into right behaviors. But I think maybe we should go back to the beginning, and draw from what the church does best – liturgy, or worship. Worship is about practicing right behavior, not just once but regularly, until it shapes us. In Christianity, we’re measured primarily by our actions, not on our attitudes or ideas.

We desperately need a better online liturgy. Because we will become righteous by behaving right, which will eventually change into right attitudes and thoughts.

This year, let’s stop and think about what we’re posting.

Let it be grace. grace. grace. grace.

Religion, Not-for-Profits, and those “endlessly-advertising Christians”

This week I thought a bit about social media, particularly for generation X & Y. Obviously, many of our interactions changed by moving online – but now, our online lives also affect our offline lives. For example, I’ve recently experienced awkwardness at what was once a very normal face-to-face question, “So! How have you been?”

It’s more difficult to answer when we regularly publicize personal information. To repeat a list of top recent statuses may result in a frustrated “oh. yeah, yeah, I know! What else is happening?” But, asking “umm… have you read my updates recently?” could be taken as an act of arrogance, and even set off a “Oh! I’m not into social media [rant]”. One small example of how real life interactions are changing.

It’s not only personal, but also group interactions. We’re now more likely to read the same media sources our friends read — especially when they actively share them on our timeline or tag us in a post. But conversely, I don’t know if you’ve also recently wondered “where do they get that from?” after stumbling into a conversing group from another industry, or the opposite political persuasion. Yet, everyone else is nodding along with the conversation.

Because I’m a student of Christianity (and its culture), I’m interested in the impact changes are having upon our faith commitment, and the reverse – how religious groups shape our world(s) through new media. I’m especially interested in how globalization affects the world’s margins, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Today, I read an article that discussed social media use for high profile Christians. It describes what I call “preach-tweets”. You know, a statement intended for instruction or teaching. Christians commonly receive this type of communication in a sermon. I actually don’t mind a strong “preach-tweet” from my pastors, or the theologians I follow.

But I find unsolicited “preach-tweets” hard to take. Perhaps because I don’t actually want, nor can I take advice from everyone.

The thing is, Sunday sermons once were relatively closed communication, meaning that the audience was mostly members and a few observers (often called “soon-to-be members”). It’s now the total opposite, we are broadcasting our sermons online and on YouTube to people who are not Christian (or at the very least, not attendees of our congregation).

However in the new world, the playing field is level – everyone is equal as a content creator. So there’s no easily discernible difference between a seasoned, seminary-trained pastor and an ordinary, enthusiastic lay Christian “preach-tweeting”. My atheist friends can’t even see the difference between a Westboro Baptist Church member and Miroslav Volf. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Discussion of media use for religious groups is a boom area for the academy. This is probably fueled by the fact that the Christian message has been conveyed incredibly successfully over two thousand years, with relative little attention paid to the “marketing techniques” of Christians.

You see, Christians long used mass-media to get the message of Jesus out to the world.

Apparently the mailing list kept by the leaders of the Asuza Street revival at the turn of the century is perhaps why many credit this site as the birth of Pentecostalism, despite many similar global movements. Just up the road in Pasadena, Charles E. Fuller was a simple orange farmer who pioneered an evangelistic radio show in 1937 – his name is now associated with the world’s largest evangelical seminary. Aimee Semple-McPherson broadcasted the Christian message from the 1920s through to the second world war with tours and publicity stunts. Billy Graham’s mass evangelism campaigns were unprecedented in size, and often televised. Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts… The ethos of these Christian greats continues into the late modern (or post-modern) era.

But I wonder whether a serious change in media platforms requires Christian leaders to now make serious shifts in how they communicate. Not just that, but push themselves beyond simple participation towards adopting, or forming strategies that convey their values.

I’ll explain..  in my four-year MPhil thesis undertaken at the Australian Catholic University, I outlined some marketing strategies of Australian church Hillsong as they grew exponentially between 1996-2006. The music was evangelistic, but with a twist – it was explicitly made for corporate use, in Christian communities. There is no doubt that excellent marketing of this music contributed to its success.

But most contributors I interviewed admitted they never expected the kind of success they achieved. All the people I spoke with would concede is that they consciously tried to evolve an inevitable need for publicizing their music releases (they use the word resource) into something that felt more authentic in the public space. For example, they wanted to value the key contributors but also challenge North American individualistic celebritization. They didn’t want young families to have worship leader parents on the road for forty weeks of the year, and so they slowly de-emphasized tours. They started a conference in their home town. Incredibly, Hillsong’s “marketing strategies” now are the model for the Australian church.

To me, it’s clear that if your church is creating music CDs with the intention of becoming “the next Hillsong”, you’re not only the gambling type, but probably ignorant as to what that even means.

How should we strategize, as people professing faith? Should Christian people (or leaders of churches) market their teaching or music? For example, should I promote my own CD? And if so, what are the right motives for marketing it? How widely should I push it? And which avenues should I use? Biblically, and ethically, it can be very unclear.

After writing my thesis, I met a scholar (genius) friend Tom Wagner, based in London. He had a deeper grounding in communications and marketing. We talked a lot about this, and agreed that Hillsong had strategically moved from marketing to branding, which also allowed it more authenticity regarding its message. As it moved from iconic-celebrity-heads CD covers towards a name, a logo, and cover art that vaguely depicted a community, most consumers became aware that Hillsong was not Darlene Zschech’s band, but a group of Christian believers, i.e. a church. We wrote an article on this, published in The Australian Journal of Communication.

However, the question about ‘best Christian practice’ still niggles at me. Of course, it also plays into the globalization of religions. On one hand, many would like Christians to abide by a ‘no proselytizing’ rule. This is the type of rule seen in France, and apparently one third of the world’s countries. The idea is, any communication directly intended for conversion shouldn’t be broadcast into the public space (usually because the public space is seen as an extension of a person’s personal space)

This is kind of what I want to say to the men wearing chicken costumes that ask me for donations “for the environment” when I’m on my way to the car with my hands full of groceries.

On the other side of the spectrum we have die-hard telly evangelists that want to take over every radio and television channel at once to present their summary of the gospel message – because people die daily without an opportunity to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. They would maybe follow a media shut down with a black screen and scrolling sinners’ prayer. Well… that’s seen as propaganda by most media people I know. It’s one thing to promote the name of Jesus briefly in Times Square, or put a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but it’s another to have this type of communication as an aspiration. For the record, I don’t know any Christian in Australia that seriously believes they have the power to make this happen. So despite all joking, it’s not a serious position.

A personal clue I’ve clung to that helped me navigate this over the years was a small comment in the margins of my MPhil thesis, written by Australian Catholic liturgist Gerard Moore. While he noted that I had successfully charted the development of Hillsong’s marketing, he wanted to know how this information connected to the spirituality of the organization. He seemed frustrated that I had spent all my time outlining a mode of communication with basic content (entry to the community), but never really getting into the feedback loop regarding Hillsong’s implicit model of a human, or evaluating the effect its music has had in forming its ideal Christian character.

You see, the problem with Christian scholars viewing the “marketing practices” of a church through a secular communication lens is that it doesn’t answer the question “what does this church/congregation/organization believe a Christian to be?”

Being or becoming Christian is a theological inquiry – but we can ask the question more precisely, “How does this [Christian person/organization/NGO]  form its people to be Christian?”

… that is a liturgical question. And one I can’t answer here in this blogpost, so I won’t even try.

Recently I’ve connected with more theologians and pastors on my facebook page, and followed them on twitter. I’ve watched as they engage public conversations. My continued interest is in the religious values that drive Christian desire to communicate their faith with other people, and evaluating whether or not the methods they choose are conducive to

a) communicating the content they desire, and

b) forming themselves and other Christians in line with the values they hold.

While the medium is the message, according to Marshall McLuhan, neither mediums nor messages are the whole picture.

I think there are a number of theologically defensible reasons as to why Christians (particularly preachers and theologians) advertise Christianity as a product. And why they appear as corporations. Some seminaries and churches loudly communicate these reasons as the key identity markers of Christianity. The most obvious is that all media produced by or that publicizes Christianity is (by extension) spreading the core Christian message of Jesus, i.e. is an act of ‘evangelism’. Presumably this is the core motivation that causes a pastor to start a television ministry, or print tracts, believing this act to be essential to their Christian faith.

The question is, is this type of “preach-tweet” catching millenials?

All millennials now understand that with social media platforms, it’s easy to advertise a religious community’s events and products to its members. Email is a great example… Free! Facebook groups… Free! Even group smses are low cost. In regards to local evangelism, you can run off pamphlets and the Post Office will deliver them for you. All of these mediums have their drawbacks. But, by far the greatest costs incurred are in extending the message beyond your existing community to a city-wide, national or even global stage.

Today I scrolled down my facebook and twitter feeds – and found status after status advertising church events. Books. CDs. Teaching series in corporate-looking video links.

Do we really think that one-way blasts about our products satisfy the deeply-held Christian imperative of evangelism?

And this also made me ask my liturgical question: how is this use of media forming us?

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) show that Jesus had a group of small disciples with whom he spent most of his time. Most of his energy was spent in two-way communication, with a much smaller portion on mass-media type “preaching”. He didn’t seem to market himself much at all. You can imagine disciples yelling out during the beatitudes, “Mmmhmmm… that’ll tweet!” … but most of their personal development was in the context of his accessibility to them for dialogue.  This sets up a biblical value of discipleship. There’s no manual given for this in scripture, but it’s clear that conversation was an incredibly important teaching tool for Jesus.

For me, this begs the question, are we Christians placing enough importance, time and effort on two-way communication? Or are we just blasting at our friends, workmate and neighbours?

Because maybe that’s one key difference between the type of communication seen in a corporation, and that seen in the Bible …??

How do you navigate these tensions in social media?

Dear God, please don’t get all political on me…

I hate twitter. There, I said it. Please forgive me for this counter-cultural idea, I’ll explain. I believe the point of expressing yourself to another human is to converse, learn and grow. That may happen on twitter, but it’s not the goal. It’s more like a one-way blast into outer-space, in hope that a few random Martians are knocked over by a particularly witty statement. I still do it (@tanyariches if you want to help me make it more worthwhile), but as a social experiment. I ask myself all the time – why do I tweet? My answer: because friends tweet. An interesting observation – lots of pastors use twitter, but not so many academics. I’m not sure what that says. I have loved connecting with tweeting indigenous leaders, which alone makes it worth it. But, there’s now an emotional disconnect in my feed – between tweets about land rights, human rights abuse, and “10am church will be phenomenal!!! :)” After reading an article that the most “successful” tweets are up-beat, I tried a couple of times but failed, and then decided to follow @NeinQuarterly, the fictional depressive German academic featured in the New Yorker. I was thought I would just struggle through with these strange disconnects. That was until a couple of weeks ago when I found God.

It’s not actually God. I guess I should say that. An atheist comedian, David Javerbaum, uses the twitter handle @TheTweetofGod in ingenious ways. Mainly to discuss the types of hangups people generally walk out of a church with. I enjoy it, it’s refreshing. After attending seminary for a really long time, reading God’s thoughts as an atheist cracks me up. It’s an antidote to preachers that condense the bible happily down to 140 characters while I’m sitting with 60 page assignments on those same topics. God says things that are complete heresy at times. But I firmly believe a conversation about God dominated by atheists is pretty much what every Christian needs. It’s amazing what atheists walk out of the church thinking – There are tweets about masturbation, homosexuality, sex, selfishness… and then just funny ones, like this:

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He has 1.32 million followers, so I guess other people are laughing too. I love most when God’s theology is mixed up – Roman Catholic and American Southern Baptist notions feature quite heavily. Like this: Image

featured just before this one:

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Like Florida???! …Let’s say, it was all going along swimmingly until God started tweeting about gun rights following the U.C. Santa Barbera shootings recently. He tweeted:

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But at that point, American national identity was challenged … by God. People became conflicted, The tweeters knew it wasn’t actually God, but it seemed disrespectful to respond to this like he was an ordinary human. They wanted to defend their rights to have and own guns. Some were angry, and swore. Others of them were upset that the angry tweeters were swearing at God. Then there was this tweet, and I felt that it summed up my generation’s perspective completely.

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But it struck me – I see this all the time. Christians want their Christianity and their concept of God to be ‘neutral’. The thing is, when we say that, we’re actually just asking God to reinforce our own political views. It just means we don’t want to be challenged.

The reality is, everybody is political. We live in a global order that benefits some and exploits others. We walk past the poor every single day, and we don’t always act on their behalf. But, this made me stop and think. Perhaps it’s a good time for us to take a couple of moments to #Selah. Would we be OK if God “gets political”?

Dreaming of Peace for The Philippines: Typhoon Haiyon

Today, I’m heartbroken to see so many houses in The Philippines flattened by Typhoon Haiyon. I’ve traveled there three times over eight years, sharing music, prayer and spirituality with Filipino people. People I’d never met became my firm friends in The Visayas region (mainly Dumaguete), and Manilla. Later, Tim also spent some weeks there also over a few years — in Bohol, and the chocolate mountains. We have never traveled together – but our separate experiences account for a deep love.
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I still receive little messages from Filipino friends I spent time with, who were generous in sharing culture and their cities. I loved Pastors we met, amazing men and women of courage. But it wasn’t just those I laughed and sang with – I also loved the silent hands that removed large purple flowers which fell like stars from tree boughs overnight in the hotel gardens, and those that raked grass into perfect lines while we slept. I loved the little geckos that called out to each other in the night (I called one of my Filipino friends Gecko, his fingers were shaped so much like theirs). I loved Joe’s chicken shop, and a lady who sold caramelized bananas. I loved the guards, who carried M16s but would not discuss their guns, and spoke freely of political corruption. They insisted their presence was necessary while we were on tour. I loved the women that sold necklaces by the seashore – so much so, they featured in a song I recorded with my indie band, Speaking of Sarah, called ‘Castle of Sand’. The Philippines served as a backdrop to my devastation of a failed relationship, but in all honesty, if I thought I had lost The Philippines that year, it would have been far worse for me.

I remember when my friend Miriam Webster publicly announced I had written ‘Jesus What a Beautiful Name’ in the shower, before a stadium full of 3,000 people. We both realized this was a mistake after she said it. She whispered off microphone, “Should you now stand behind the pot plant?” We couldn’t breathe for months after conference – talking about Albert, our sound man, who wore the largest hat I’ve ever seen, and appeared as a shadow at the top of the venue. We didn’t know if he had heard us most times and Miriam tried to teach him to nod so that at least we could tell whether his hat had received our monitor/foldback requests.

My Italian pastors, Fay & Daniele Recca found my Christian congregational song ‘Jesus what a Beautiful Name’ playing on a karaoke television while on mission in the Philippines working with a group of children this year. Behind the song were rampaging dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex eating Brontosaurus. Pastor Daniele showed me the clip for my birthday this year – he said he felt sorry about the dinosaurs, but I felt happy. That is the Philippines to me.

This week, I’m heartbroken for The Philippines because this is one tragedy on top of so many, over the many years. It’s only weeks ago that our friends and I found out about the Bohol earthquake and the needs of our friends there. But I know you all will rebuild, and become strong again. You have our prayers. And I can’t wait to see you again.

A link to donate towards those affected by the Typhoon: http://www.abc.net.au/appeals/

The Proverbs 31 Man: Lemuel and a two-fold approach to wine?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Proverbs 31 recently, and thought I’d share my unfinished thoughts. I don’t usually do that – I have reservations making this exception, but think I may gain from some wider input into this topic. We’ll see.

The Proverbs 31 biblical chapter is most cited in relation to women. Women’s ministry leaders everywhere breathe a sigh of relief at having a fall-back text while their children are feverishly teething. It forms a manual of sorts for Christian women wanting to be great wives. An important question to ask here I think is, great from whose perspective? I’ve always hated hearing this passage preached by women to other women. I’m married, but my husband has yet shown no desire for me to dress him in scarlet. Luckily, though, most use this text to bounce into talks on interesting and useful modern-day feminine realities. Although the verses remain a Christian wifely measurement of sorts, I’m yet to attend any women’s meeting that provides information on how to do the things featured in Proverbs 31; trade property, plant a vineyard or use a spindle.

As the preceding passage is addressed to King Lemuel, it suggests the instructions weren’t actually written for women to pore over, measuring each other’s capabilities – but were intended for men. Importantly, a king – i.e. a man with a significant amount of capital. (Just quietly, if you give me a lump sum, I’ll see what I can get out of a merchant ship). And it does seem the text is best-suited for this original use – to inform men seeking wives. Given that most married male preachers in Los Angeles are incapable of refraining from sex jokes, perhaps it’s now counter-cultural and better than the advice men currently offer men. Turn to the Word, fellas. I guarantee no man has read this passage and googled “flax”, or tried to assess a lady’s true potential to “rise while it is yet night”. However, if we are going to continue to go there, as King Lemuel’s mother was specific in advice to Lemuel about the traits to look for, I’m sure she was similarly clear with her daughters on how to make bed coverings. Unfortunately, as that information was lost, I think we should cut women a little more slack.

Most interesting  to me is the preceding section addressed to Lemuel, the center of which concerns the use of wine. Here’s the text in context:

Proverbs 31: 1 – 9 The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.

Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.

It is not for kings, Lemuel—
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
    wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

There is a two-fold response to alcohol offered by the King’s mother in this passage. It advocates a “double standard” of sorts, one for Kings (as power holders), and another for oppressed peoples. This is interesting, as I am reviewing the role of religion in development, through outside eyes – for example, in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This classic text argues for different categories of churches – ones that maintain an oppressive status quo, and ‘prophetic churches’ which encourage people to transform. I’ve also researched the “Pentecostal uplift” within Pentecostal churches in the majority or developing world. Robert Brenneman in Homies + Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is one text that relates the economic uplift so many Pentecostals experience directly to church social norms that reduce, if not end alcohol consumption.

I’m struggling to know what to say as a researcher. I grew up in pretty conservative Pentecostal churches, where drinking was not OK under our denominational charter, so pastors and members drank secretly if they did at all. Then, our rules changed to allow for drinking in moderation. When I was twenty-three, I tried red wine. Mainly because I was in Italy, and it was culturally very normal. Plenty of verses include drinking wine, and indicate that in fact Jesus Himself drank (John 2; Matt 11:18-19; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:23; Luke 7:33-34). Wine “makes the heart glad” (Prov 104:15) but it’s drunkenness the Bible warns about (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; Peter 4:3). When I’m with people who don’t drink, I don’t. But I’m not a teetotaler.

This verse is different from most of the teaching I’ve received, however, because it acknowledges there is a social use for alcohol, in particular for those who are oppressed. Lemuel’s mother suggests wine is okay in the second instance, but isn’t great for Kings. She doesn’t say “Lemuel, as the King you have to get those peasants to stop downing the mead so their lives improve”. She sets a rule for how he is to think about himself, and how he is to think about others. There’s both restriction and permissiveness regarding alcohol in this chapter.

I know Pentecostals teach people to “think like kings”. But let’s be honest, most of them do not actually become kings. They become the middle class. Which is King-like, maybe, given our comparative wealth in this era of history. Statistically, in the end, we are talking kingly metaphors. It’s positive because there is measurable economic uplift, but I’m confused as to whether the approach we are using is maybe… anti-biblical. Either way, it works. And I’m all for ending poverty. I’m just confused.

Coffee … and global cross-cultural interchange.

Following last week’s discussions on culture, I’ve had some thoughts on this topic since returning from Italy. They are easiest to illustrate by talking about coffee… which is what I intend to do here… so if discussion on coffee annoys you, check back for my next post.  Or read on to find out *why* it might annoy you so much.

I recently got home from Ragusa, Sicily where Tim and I partnered with a church for almost ten years. One of the main reasons I was easily convinced to begin this love affair with Italy was, I’m ashamed to say it, coffee. My mother drank copious cups while she was pregnant with me (6-8 cups a day, which I eventually worked out was one every daily appointment she took as a psychologist) and while I don’t reach her incredible levels of consumption, I enjoy coffee. I drink a cup every morning, and because I enjoy quality over quantity, I usually find a cafe in walking distance and stay pretty loyal to it. This first started when I lived in Newtown, Sydney. I had a great selection of walkable cafes, and I loved a good “skim milk latte take away”.

However, in Italy, the further south one travels, the smaller the coffees get. By the time you’re at the bottom of Sicily where we go, coffees are short espressos – the size of two teaspoons and black as mud. We’ve learned to drink them – the key is to throw them back quickly and savor the aftertaste. A ricotta canoli helps too. And, if you’re in an espresso bar, they offer mineral water free with your coffee, so it’s a win-win. But there are also cultural norms about which drink you drink when. In the morning for breakfast, you are allowed a latte, and somewhere mid-morning you switch to cappuccino, and by lunchtime you’re expected to drink the classic espresso, which are served well into the early hours of the night. They don’t offer them all at once, ever.

Back in Orange County, America where we live now, my cafe of choice is “Bliss”. It serves great salads, and is mainly organic, with a wide variety of options for vegetarians and those with problematic food allergies … Yesterday, I was standing waiting for my standard (nut-milk latte), and three men came in. They had a long discussion in a foreign language around the menu board, and then one asked…

“Can I have a macchiato with three espresso shots?”

The barrista looked up, and said “um… are you sure?”

“Yes!” the man retorted quickly.

Barista: Um… you know that’s *super* strong?

Man: Yes!

Barista: Uh… I don’t think you actually want three shots.

At that point, I had heard certain vowel sounds that made it clear to me that they were speaking Spanish, and their clothes were clearly not North American. What I was hearing in the order was “I’d like my coffee like mud from home but with a dash of milk”. So I had to step in.

Me: Uh – I’ll vouch for them. These men are European. They really do want three shots.

Man: YES! Thank you!!!!

Barista: They aren’t mistaking a macchiato for something else?

Me: At a guess, I’d say nope, they mean it.

The barista shrugged and agreed to their order. He and I had a friendly interchange about the prevalence of Starbucks in America, and how many people come in asking for a caramel macchiato, but actually mean a large amount of foam, sugar and hardly any espresso. I smiled because I knew that what he was saying was true. But, it’s interesting when Starbucks is the yardstick by which a European’s coffee order is measured in the States. Ironic? I think so, just a little bit.

Fast-forward to Saturday. As usual, I stood waiting for a coffee (an Americano, or “long black” in Australian coffee speak) while customers piled in and ordered brunch. A family of three picked up their coffees from the counter. The man took three steps towards the door, then doubled back and, as loudly as he could said:

“Uh… this coffee is really NOT hot enough”.

The lady at the counter was apologetic, and he was appeased only by the thought of a replacement coffee. He turned to his daughter, prompting her; “Darling, if yours isn’t hot enough, you can say too!”. She shrugged, and continued drinking.

At this point, the regulars in the room kind of lifted their eyes from their ipads/books/conversations with friends. The barista adjusted his other orders to address the issue immediately, and handed over a new, appropriately piping hot cup in its little recyclable paper cup.

I’m an admitted coffee snob, but I’ve never had a ‘cold’ coffee from this shop. It’s coffee law in Italy that overheating the milk ruins the taste… I wondered if this man had come to the wrong shop. Again, Starbucks is the production line of extra hot – more foam – three pumps caramel – latte twist – low caffeine options. And I LIKE that sometimes. In fact, a good Cinnamon Dolce Soy Cappucino is exactly what I feel like … sometimes. But I know which shop to turn up at in order to ask for this.

It made me feel sorry for everyone involved – the barista, this man, and the Europeans. We are living in a global world in which coffee has been co-opted, changed and adapted into so many cultural forms, that there’s no getting it back into one, unified picture.

The expectations we bring to that little cup of coffee are so vast, so differing, so profound that it’s almost ridiculous to expect what we do from the experience. And yet, a local barista has to negotiate the various visions of the one “perfect cup of coffee” from the general public. He is set up to either win or fail by his manager who chooses the beans and the “vibe” of the shop in which he works.

This metaphor applies easily to the church. The expectations we bring are so wide and varied that we almost have to put in a footnote each time we say ‘worship’, ‘gathering’, ‘pastoral care’, and ‘concern’.

So, before you raise your voice in exasperation in a cafe (or for that matter, a church office), bear a thought to the global context in which you’re in, and your own expectations. When it comes to coffee, it is, after all, only just a little bit of flavoured water. But we humans seem to care about it a LOT.

Reflecting upon Culture: Is Disneyland Real?

I live with a constant niggling fear, not of the bad sort but the propelling sort. This fear arises from continued accusation that academics are useless, and I live with a constant thought that my PhD project may also be useless, or even worse, self-serving. But if nothing else I am glad that I have this feeling, because it makes me attempt to reorient myself towards usefulness, and helping people. At the same time, it causes me to come across as slightly… neurotic. In coming to grips with what “Australian” means, I thought I’d share a journal entry written in 2011 during my first year of study. It was written after my first visit to Disneyland.

JOURNAL  – 24th December 2011:  Yesterday, we visited Disneyland in Anaheim. It was a big day – we were given a one-park pass as our Christmas present from my parents who think I am studying too much (probably true), and want my husband and I to take a break. I was fascinated by many things, but viewing the park as an Australian was interesting, and unavoidable. It made me feel ‘outside’ of this experience in many ways, which is clearly also a celebration of America, and perhaps California. The values of the twin cities Los Angeles and Orange County (as well as Walt Disney, and the entertainment industry of L.A.) were conveyed loud and clear. It is a family-friendly park where people gather for one purpose – to have fun. But the diversity of the people drawn here is astounding! As such this is a cross-cultural experience, and I am beginning to actually see these values. In many ways, this is what I will be doing in my future fieldwork as I listen to the values of Indigenous Australians, so I welcome this experience.

Firstly, I couldn’t help notice a strange European influence in the Castle, and a Germanic influence in most of Walt’s fairy tales. I have seen no castles in America, and yet the idea of “Disney Princesses” is firmly ingrained in the American psyche. Perhaps this is due to the European heritage of many Americans, as my friend Phil Towne mentioned to me in class. He only knows he’s German because of an almost obsessive family tradition of baking cookies every Christmas. I find this strange when I contrast my experience in Germany and with Germans I have known; there are many values I think they would not want to part with; their efficiency, many other unique foods (and beer!!), their sports. This of course is stereotyping, but if there was one ceremony they kept, would it be Christmas cookie-baking? I stood looking at the castle and wondered whether Americans minimized their German-ness in the World Wars as an intentional separation from their homeland, out of fear. Did they hide their German heritage intentionally?

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If so, they didn’t hide it very well… with a big pink castle! In Walt’s case, perhaps he did just genuinely admire The Brothers Grimm tales. Is this the elusive “Western culture”, I wonder? Well, as Australia has no castles at all (the movie ‘The Castle’ is a humorous statement on our homes as the “people’s castles”), it makes me wonder, are we actually Western?

Another moment of interest to me was the Enchanted Tiki Room performance. Most people would walk past this small “ride”, it is old-fashioned, and reminds me of the 1920s, with its mechanical singing flowers using vibrato tones (obviously a prerecorded track). Our continent is considered “Oceania” in my American library, and so Australia is just another island (“a bloody big one” my Aussie friends say).

Thus, I was very interested in how an ‘Islander’ is represented in Disneyland. I miss my indigenous friends and family from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji. My husband and I traveled pretty extensively through “Oceania”.  We therefore have plenty of diverse memories to draw from; as a tourist, visiting my family’s village, performing in churches and talking with church leaders, and my husband’s development work. But none of our real experiences fitted what I saw in the Tiki Room! There was firstly a mix of the many beautiful island cultures into one narrative (Vanuatu differs greatly from the two islands I’ve visited in Fiji, different again from Papua New Guinea and the autonomous region of Bougainville, different again from Hawaii). There were volcanos and hurricanes, hula dances, colourful birds and monsoon rains. This made it feel very strange! Like it was some kind of imaginary “super” island. Also, there was an almost manic happiness displayed from the Islander characters. This doesn’t fit life as I know in these places. I’ve often wondered if the laid-back attitude of islanders is a type of coping mechanism, as poverty looms on the near horizon. Unemployment can be high, and education is often low. Yet, I see dedicated commitment to traditional arts and an embrace of technology that allows many of these island nations to connect into the world in ways never before possible. But this happy mania was a strange take on island life.

By the time we got to “It’s a small world after all”, I was internally disturbed. It might have been the again, crazily happy kangaroo we saw on the way in… (has anyone ever sensed an emotion from a Kangaroo?) Thus made me ask myself — Is Disney actually a celebration of essentialism? If I don’t feel we are adequately represented by the two strange figures in the Pacific section – Australia is indicated with two grass-skirted (?!?!) “Aborigines”, is the alienation I feel a product of being a part of a ‘white diaspora’? Does the feeling say more about me, or about this foreign culture that is trying to represent me? It’s impossible to convey an experience of what it is to live in Oceania within one small moment – so, I wonder, is it even possible to share culture this way without a type of essentialism? And, through my academics will I indirectly expose Aboriginal people  to the equivalent of boat loads of tourists taking pictures and singing a simple tune like ‘it’s a small world after all’? I’m beginning to think it’s a very large world, and perhaps it is only our minds which are small.

In rereading this review from last year, I guess I’ve realized that I was shell-shocked by the cultural differences living in the States. I’ve now come to realize that Disneyland is entirely real. This is because it lives in the minds of the imagination of the Californians, and now the rest of the world. There is a difference between representations of places and the places themselves, but all I can do is recommend that, instead of (or as well as) visiting the Tiki Room, visiting Hawaii or Vanuatu – or perhaps connecting with a family from the islands that attends your church or your school. Hearing about the experience from them might broaden the take Walt Disney had. But, I realize that Walt Disney was an incredible man with a huge dream – and the fact that we can sing “It’s a small world after all” does prove that maybe, it is.

P.S. The Australian accent in the Nemo ride is clearly fake – but come on – who doesn’t still love Disneyland!!! 🙂