Religious Truth, Criticism and Holding it All Together

Today the journalist Jonathan Merritt released a much-reposted piece about Christians and criticism. More specifically, The Gospel Coalition and criticism. His point was that while the common thread of their posts is an “air of rebuke”, many in this group of evangelical Christian leaders are bad at receiving criticism. And while they happily accept the preaching platform, as well as Christian people’s admiration and trust, they don’t respond well to correction from the same people who give them authority, even when their teaching is harmful, and criticism may prevent them hurting others.

There’s plenty of questions in there about what builds a church platform, who has authority to speak on behalf of God, and various other issues. But I’m most interested in the notion of criticism, and how it can either destroy us or make us better.

I’m not removed from the game of criticism. I read this sitting at a desk with many projects on it. To be precise, there’s a PhD, a book, a chapter, a peer reviewed article, a teaching contract, and two media pieces. It’s like I’m waiting for projects to hatch.

But I honestly didn’t intend for it to be like this. In fact, I had high hopes I could finish my dissertation writing phase by working insanely hard on it last year, when … well, life happened.

… And I was left with a group of jagged, fragmented sentences that outlined the shape of my body on the pavement. It was a caricature of me, but it wasn’t breathing. A loud gang of personal, and existential criticisms questioned whether I could write, whether I would pass this course, and whether I should pursue a scholarly career at all. After four years of Seminary.

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I added these words to an imaginary folder of “critique” I’d collected during the PhD program. And, to be honest, from time in ministry before that as well. In this folder were small pieces I needed to remember. Some warned me when my writing style was too scholarly, while others reminded me it was not scholarly enough. If I flick through the imaginary pile, I recount the times it’s been said I lack logic, probably because I’m creative. And inferences that I’m not very creative really, considering I’m a songwriter! There are notes reminding me not to be unrealistic. And little encouragements to push hard for my career because boys will be assertive and take the first teaching positions, whether qualified or not. Comments in there caution me not to be elitist with colleagues. Still, these notes write, you don’t have an Ivy League education, so you don’t have full access to all the ideas. And, of course, the clincher: ministry is not about the money.

Although the notes barely fit into their folder, I can normally close them up and store them away until I figure out what to do next… they help me in many ways.

But in December the folder flung open, and just wouldn’t close.

This took the gloss off my newly minted “All But Dissertation” status, and I had to remove my friend’s “Congratulations!!” card from the windowsill. I knew I deserved this title along with other candidates in my course, particularly considering I had 100 extra compulsory exam books allocated during the ridiculous gymnastics of changing PhD disciplines.

There were many good reasons I was in this situation, but knowing them didn’t help. I cried many tears over discouraging words that wouldn’t go away. I would be sitting at my desk normally, and then I’d be crying, and only realize when the computer screen became blurry.

If this is depression, I thought, it’s situational depression, because I can point to the place where the dam wall collapsed.

But that didn’t make it go away either…

And, unfortunately I’d already bought a plane ticket to California a week earlier, when I thought I could put a date on my dissertation defense – or at least, the final stages of editing the PhD. So, this date came, and I got on the plane, but with a deep sense of dread. The last place I wanted to go was back on campus.

But, of course, this was the best medicine. And I acted as though I had never cried a tear, not even one. I turned up for all my meetings, and I stilled my racing heart, and I listened to all the new criticisms, and I put them in their little folder, and I closed it somehow and I went off to the conference to present as if I was a professional, not a known fraud wearing high heels and a suit jacket.

At the conference I reconnected with Australian scholars who knew all my flaws but who were ecstatic to see me, and I finally admitted out loud where I was really at. I lamented the comments in the folder, and this helped remind me that I wasn’t actually dead, but being inducted into a community of scholars, and that this was the entry fee.

And, at the conference I met some new sister-friends. A beautiful new friend, Joy, picked me up every day and we talked very honestly and even wept a little. And then I found myself in a lounge with some girls laughing before our scholars dinner, and we talked about crazily unhelpful feedback, and infertility, and teaching young men in the Bible belt. And that night one of us won the conference book prize, and I felt as proud as if I’d done it. Because she’d admitted that she also had a little folder in her heart, and she’d worked slowly through each note, and she’d used those words to create something profoundly world-changing.

I know that criticism can be absolutely and completely unnerving. But somehow the Christian church has to get better at speaking about what is real. Without the barbed wire existential destructive bent. And it also has to get better at receiving comments and applying them within some kind of spiritual process that helps us get better, not bitter.

Why did it take me six months to admit that I wasn’t on top of these criticisms? How did I lose this much precious time?

Well, first I had nobody to tell. There were too few friends willing to stand with me while I gingerly took out the words and read them aloud like bad fortune cookies. When I am around other Christian friends, I have to be really careful. I have battle wounds, and I assume that everyone knows what that’s like. They don’t.

I’m not saying that people’s every day lives aren’t hard. As in, maybe the mundane actually forms a parallel to criticism in shaping our soul. But it seems like some women sit around and plan making pink frosted cupcakes all day. They could be blown over by a feather of opinion. Meanwhile, other parts of the church are like a war-zone. And there’s not a lot of in-between spaces.

I honestly have no idea how it happened, or how I failed to keep my junk together for six whole months, but I think we need to think about turning Christian conversations into places of deep nourishing moments of spirituality.

If someone’s asking, we need more resources for that.

This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I’ve decided to get around it all by thinking about scholarship as just one role I play. Another is that I might be the friend you call if you want to work through deep existential pain (after your therapist!).

I’m honestly not judging but please forgive me if I vague out while sitting at a women’s ministry event and you’re talking about your six year old’s birthday party and which colour of bunting you like best. It’s just not one of the roles I play.

I’m trying really hard. I’m not always able to pull off the disconnect. I’d like to think I’m piecing together all the ferocious, terrible words for your daughters and grand-daughters, and I’m trying to work out how to make something that we can hand them.

So in that sense I guess, it’s really same-same, right? Some of us nourish the next generation of the church while rocking babies late at night and singing lullabies. Some of us are tracing out the lines of the conversation that build the pastors of tomorrow.

But I’ll admit I’m struggling to hold the spaces together. And at the moment this role idea is the only way I can work it out without becoming really angry and lashing out at everyone and everything around me.

So, today I’m feeling more empathy for the Gospel Coalition leaders than I care to admit. Sometimes, you just want a block button for all the pieces of the world that you don’t know how to deal with yet.

Am I Oppressed? A Handy Guide for Christians

In this day and age, it seems genuinely difficult to know if you’re oppressed or not. And fair enough too. The world has changed, and we need a quick rule of thumb to evaluate the  claims of marginalization many groups now make. This post intends to help all those wondering, “Am I oppressed?”

Oppression is not unique to one society or people group. It’s human nature to form groups, and work towards collective aims. In doing so, other groups are excluded, whether intentionally or not. As Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal” … And by that he meant, of course, that both men and women were social animals, but at that time women were excluded in both language and society… case in point, really.

Western civilization promoted strong social coherence or unity by depicting an ideal, and encouraging members to adhere to it. During colonialism, encouragement for “natives” was mainly via force. The model was forged in Europe’s heartlands, within a crucible of religious, political and cultural encounters, resulting in the modern nation-state.

Strength of society, it was argued, came through people attributing authority and power to the King, and receiving various benefits from him in return – usually security or peace. This ensured people could get on with their very ordinary lives. It resulted in the elevation of one great man…. versus the rest.

So, the characteristics associated with Europe’s ideal King (white, male, Christian, physically strong warrior, sexually virile and thus able to produce enough heirs to withstand plagues and famine, wealthy, educated and well-spoken) were upheld as aspirational. But of course, not everybody could be King.

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Frederick II and his subjects, Biblioteca Capitolare, Salerno.

The ideal survived various revisions throughout the centuries. At times no King was available, and so a Queen was instated. Eventually, authority associated with a monarch was conferred upon representative elected leaders, in parliaments. And, despite the breaking down of Christendom, some power was retained by religious leadership. Over time, it was also attributed to the heads of other organizations and business leaders, as our world globalized.

Some enclave communities manged to continue to believe in authoritarianism, or the divine right of God conferred upon the ruling authorities via religious priests, and to assert the role of the man as head of the household. These traditional, hierarchical ideas are usually associated with the more “conservative” end of the political spectrum.

But there is no doubt that this type of society is now directly under pressure through “the politics of difference”. In successive waves, we have seen women, people of colour and those holding various alternative sexual identities assert loudly that they are not served by this status quo. We have seen groups organize, forcing change upon society as they enact their freedoms.

And as the once-marginalized ‘others’ begin to gain economic and cultural space, they assert themselves into the Western narrative as its leaders, rather than subjects. While MLK dreamed of a Black U.S. President, we now cite Barack Obama as reality, with presumably more Black Presidents to come. We will potentially soon have a female in this role, and thus, the term POTUS will no longer evoke its once-dominant image of raw masculine power.

In government, business, and religious institutions there are now multiple ideals in leadership, and no single overarching story to which we all adhere. This is at times frightening for conservatives who want retain the dominant narratives, but are forced to accept comparative losses of power, at the expense of ‘the others’.

Some resent that their right to dominate in boardrooms is limited due to affirmative action legislation promoting women. Some disagree with state involvement in the family via divorce settlements, or feel disgruntled at the amount of minorities coming through universities. They may vehemently disagree with same-sex marriage introduced by states. Many feel angry at even having to change their language that once felt so natural, but is now disputed.

The result is that some vocal white male evangelical religious leaders in the US and Australia have likened themselves to the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the Nazi regime. Speaking out against the oppression of the Jews, Bonhoeffer suffered and ultimately died for his convictions. For most, it is a far-fetched analogy. Still, some older, white leaders do indeed feel a very real rage resulting from their loss of power. And some white communities have even announced, “I think we’re being oppressed!”

Let’s be honest, there are limits to this declaration. But it’s hard to know where they are. So, the social theory of oppression is used by researchers to work out who is actually “oppressed”. And I hope mapping out a definition used by many researchers helps you too.

1. First, understanding stereotyping is very important in how we make groups.

The first aspect of this definition relates to the way our brains organize information. Humans are predisposed to short cuts when it comes to identifying groups, and we often condense a group’s aggregate information and place it on an individual. This is called “stereotyping”, caused by a “schema” of associations.

In other words, we are simply unable to remember individual characteristics for every person we meet. So, we rely upon a stereotype to condense the information. We use it to decide whether we share interests, or are threatened by them. We categorize all people into groupings: we assume Italians enjoy tomatoes and make passionate lovers; while Germans are neat, orderly people who prefer beer.

But even if this stereotyping function gives us the right information about the group, it can give us completely wrong information about individuals. It is possible to have an Italian who is allergic to tomatoes, or a German person who is disastrously messy.

2. Increasing interaction with groups means stronger stereotypes

The more cross-cultural engagement we have in society, say via social media, the more our stereotyping function goes into hyper drive. We continue to associate groups with their preferences and actions, and an individual member who does not share these is still “tarred with the same brush”. This is not always fair, but it is not necessarily oppression.

3. Voluntary groups are more fair. 

Some stereotypes we make for ourselves. We may enjoy crafts and therefore become known amongst friends as ‘a knitter’. This might cause people to associate you curling up with a book by the fire. Or, someone might think of Mrs Molly Weasley from Harry Potter, or assume you have ten cats. These are unfortunate associations, and may be untrue, but they are not oppression.

Neither are associations which produce negative reactions because of actions groups can and should be held responsible for. For example if you state, “I’m a biker”, and people assume you are selling illicit weapons or drugs and you dislike this, you have two options. The first is to brand your biker gang as different from other biker gangs that do illegal activities, or the second is to leave the biker life altogether. You can do this at any time.

4. Non-voluntary groups are less fair. 

But some associations cannot be dropped very easily. And therefore, it is harder to prevent the consequences. These are stereotypes that come from characteristics we can’t or that we find difficult to change.  For example, where you are born, the colour of your skin, your gender, and some aspects of culture.

This ability once assisted survival. For example, stereotyping was highly useful if you were standing on the English coastline in medieval times and you saw a Viking ship. The assumption could be made that the big man wearing a Viking helmet wanted to pillage your city. And even if this particular Viking had no interest in looting but sought a quality conversation on a Spring evening and perhaps a tour of the castle library, villagers would still have an instant rush of adrenaline at the sight of him. And, should the innocent Viking receive the blunt edge of the village army, he might feel oppressed, but would not actually be oppressed by the villager’s assumptions about him. Many other ships had come before, and pilaged. We could however, say that the reponse was unfortunate. And, we could even say it was unjust.

Where it is particularly unjust is when a stereotype is associated with a group is entirely false, and they cannot un-identify with it. A person with Down Syndrome may find it difficult to change stranger’s impressions about their abilities, which link them due to their appearance. If the assumptions are true for most Downs Syndrome people, but are untrue for this Downs Syndrome person, we can call still this unjust.

5. Oppression is a “fundamental injustice”.

The social scientist Ann Cudd in her book Analyzing Oppression defines oppression as the “fundamental injustice of social institutions” (Cudd 2006, 26). She identifies four necessary conditions to qualify as “oppression”:

1) actual harm must have occurred either physically or emotionally
2) to a clearly defined social group (the oppressed)
2) while another gains privilege over them (the oppressors);
3) this privileged group must use coercion to maintain power (Cudd 2006, 35).

So if a group was trafficked as slaves, sold to plantation owners and whipped mercilessly, that would be actual harm. Say we identified that group as “African Americans”. Then, we linked certain privileges that people with white skin received, as opposed to this group. And, say police were still killing Black men on the streets, gunning them down without a fair trial – well, we could say definitively, yes, that African Americans in the USA are oppressed.

So, when asking yourself “Am I oppressed?” you can now ask four questions:

Q: what real harm has occurred?
Q: to what group has this harm been incurred?
Q: what privilege has been gained by the group which has caused this?
Q: How do the group use coercion to maintain their power?

In the case of a conservative Christian white male, we can say with quite a lot of certainty that no real harm has occurred to this group. Some privilege or advantage has been lost. Sure, certain individuals may point to an experience of real harm, and maybe even have been martyred for the faith. But there is no one group that wields coercive power over white conservative Christian males. They still, on average, hold more power than any other group in the Western world.

Phew! So you can breathe a sigh of relief.

If you’re a white Christian male religious leader, you’re not oppressed.

And this means we can also let go of any correlations with Bonhoeffer, who by standing with an oppressed group (the Jews) and rejecting their treatment at the hands of the Nazis, suffered an unjust death…. Unless of course, you’re standing with an oppressed people group against an oppressive force. In that instance, sure, you may have a case.

Why Australia’s “Religious Right” are Divided By A Change in Leadership

It’s the end of a big week in Australia, with plenty of us left licking wounds. Despite Pentecostal pastors’ warnings, even they couldn’t resist an inflammatory tweet or two. This is a classic case where the “religious right” that many Australian scholars consider a homogeneous unit stand divided despite their common religious belief.

(In other words, this post may explain why you can’t bear your new friend from church online).

Let’s start with things we agree on. Here is an Australian, named Tony Abbott.

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He’s a good bloke. And he was Australia’s prime minister for one year, 361 days. That’s no small achievement, we Australians are a rowdy lot. Abbott had good days but also a number of bad ones while in office. During his leadership, Australia was in the media regularly. And Abbott managed to be the centre of attention, while doing some silly things:

Look, there’s no need to harp on. The guy had a magic talent of getting himself into the press. For all the wrong reasons.

It created a particularly awkward situation for Australia’s Christians, something Tony highlighted in the moments before the “#Libspill” vote. And, his final speech concludes:

Finally, I thank my country for the privilege of service. It is humbling to lose, but that does not compare to the honour of being asked to lead.

In my maiden speech here in this Parliament, I quoted from the first Christian service ever preached here in Australia. The reverend Richard Johnson took as his text ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?’

At this, my final statement as Prime Minister, I say: I have rendered all and I am proud of my service. My love for this country is as strong as ever and may God bless this great Commonwealth. 

Tony is a devout Catholic, and I’m sure his sentiments are pure. He did his best. It’s over now, and he probably does pray that God would continue to bless Australia.

But, it was noted by the press as unusual that an Australian Prime Minister use this much religious language to address our secular nation. It’s clearly written for his most loyal supporters, conservative Christians.

These Christians take literally the biblical passage “Fear God. Honor the King” (1 Pet 2:17 NJKV; also see verse 1-2 & 13). The word ‘honour’ is rarely used in Australian culture, but is a value they hold – in this case interpreted to mean something like “do not criticize the government”. The logic is that criticism often leads to disunity, and disunity promotes anti-Christian behaviour (violence, rioting, etc). They would much prefer to leave politics alone, peacefully sing together, and pray (Col 3:1-2). And of course, there’s wisdom in this.

For these Christians, if the Prime Minister eats a raw onion, then laughing about it online with your friends is anti-Christian behaviour.

These Christians tend to like one, authoritative voice speaking on behalf of any organization – most particularly the government, and the church. Thus, obviously, laughing at the person with responsibility of spokesperson is disrespectful – it challenges their authority, and therefore the institution itself.

Flying around the internet this week was a range of views – some mocking the former Prime Minister, others angrily defending him while decrying the new government as “bullying” and “back-stabbing”. A memorable response was from my Christian friend who affectionately dubbed our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, “Brutus”.

The passage right-wing Christians quote most often states that Prime Ministers are appointed directly by God (Romans 13:1). And thus, whether or not they know it, they back the idea of an autocracy. This is similar in logic to European theological doctrines in which God appointed both King, and church leaders into authoritative positions. In this sense, to challenge the King is to challenge the church.

Thus, the most appropriate online response is for Christians to stay silent, and pray for their leaders. Hopefully, they pray that a leader would be motivated to be kind, humane, and act on their behalf. It’s a spiritual contract that seems to lend itself to a particularly stable type of world.

And it creates an interesting tension, that relates to and is outworked within religious frameworks. Because singing, or “Praise & Worship” isn’t the only biblical response to government. Jesus seemed to have a subversive sense of humour he used often against the Pharisees, and he also didn’t get on very well with the Romans, who crucified him.

Not only this, our world is changing fast, and urban centres all over the world are dominated by “Cosmopolitanism”. This ideology has been identified by scholars from Hegel to W.E.B. Du Bois, to Ghanaian Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in the post-9/11 world. Most generally agree that cosmopolitans elevate the ‘politics of ideas’ over the ‘politics of identity’ (Clarke & Jennings, 2008, 267).

Let me explain. Cosmopolitans are a globalized generation of highly educated people. They come from all races and ethnicities – and yet, they have striking similarities. Cities around the world all host large communities of cosmopolitans – e.g. Beirut, London, Melbourne and Delhi.

This group read a lot, and they compare books. They get news quickly from the web, and interact with it online. Because they are so diverse, they don’t expect that any one voice could represent the institutions they participate in, let alone the nation. They believe that all ideas should be expressed, in order that the best ones can win. In this sense, they are a product of the information age. They think differently to their conservative parents, and siblings, who refer to the ‘traditional’ ways things are done.

Cosmopolitans have big dreams. They want to (and do!) work hard in multinational corporations, in banks, and/or universities. The more competitive, the better. But on their weekends, they probably just kick back at the movies with their conservative buddies. They like poetry, and are considered “omnivores” when it comes to music, consuming both high class (classical) and low class (pop) genres.

Cosmopolitans are the new global elites.

But this isn’t what you think – it’s an anti-elite system. Cosmopolitans don’t work from daddy’s contacts, and they aren’t necessarily impressed if you flash a BMW or Mercedes symbol on your key-ring. They believe in meritocracy. A meritocracy is a system in which the most competent or skilled people take charge.

And there are plenty of Christian cosmopolitans.

They’ve read the bible – in fact they’ve studied it in depth, and are convinced it’s the best explanation for the meaning of life.

But… in regards to politics, they see differently to their conservative church friends. They believe that while God always has ultimate say in who comes into power, “time and chance happen to all” (Ecc 9:11). They believe God has an interactive relationship with the world, and grants power to people who give governments power. When talking about political leadership, they separate it from church leadership, citing 1 Samuel 8, a passage in which Israel cries out and God grants them a King, with all the problems that entails. The story of Israel shows earthly politics as a temporary system. Kings are highly fallible. And thus, cosmopolitans tend to think that leadership must be held accountable to the people.

The world is full of cosmopolitans now, particularly in urban areas. And they are drawn into Australia’s fast-paced Pentecostal churches that value excellence, and offer service options on the weekend.

But regarding people, cosmopolitans tend to think there is oversupply. People move, and change. And so, they believe that if a leader ceases to be the most competent or skilled, they should step aside (or be stepped aside) for the good of the community. Cosmopolitans do fine with change. After all, they live in an age where moving global capital designates state success. Failure is as common as success is nowadays, it seems. But failure can be surpassed, if you respond quickly enough.

Cosmopolitans tend to rate ideas not on their own opinion – but the response of the collective. So, if a Prime Minister eats an onion with the skin on, then they laugh about it on facebook, not because they are trying to ruin the country, but because they are trying to work out how to build it. If someone’s antics seem counter to nation-building, to talk about it seems natural. Should he do that? Why would he do that? What does it mean for us? This is the kind of banter an cosmopolitan engages in at the water cooler, and now in the online space.

So… oh look, here comes Mr Turnbull, walking down the corridor. He’s competent. At many things. Running businesses. Speaking articulately. Not eating raw onions in public. Maybe he wasn’t directly elected by the people. But he’s in touch with the Australian cosmopolitans.

And he can see their fears – that Australia is becoming an autocracy. Or at least, it would be until Labor’s next, landslide election. Turnbull sees that with himself and Julie Bishop, it is possible to communicate Australia as a meritocracy. He believes he can implement a new system, in which the most competent person is in the job, and where the best ideas win. In his dreamy, unicorn filled world, policies either are the best ideas, or they are declared the best ideas, and everyone waits for a better one to become more popular.

While the pews are filled with cosmopolitans, the Australian church leadership is by far weighted towards conservatives.

So, the question is, will Turnbull be able to stand the scathing responses from religious right leaders? And, does the conservative Christian voice still have enough power to bring back an autocracy?

Only time and God can tell.

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?

The Exile Files #1: Insights for Church Pastors and Leaving Members

Most mornings I’ve spent here in Los Angeles, I drink one truly great coffee, my mind wandering from my assigned texts to Fullerton’s pretty fountain with blue painted tiles, and sparkling water. You can probably already tell some days are more productive than others. Recently, I was reading a method text in Phenomenology (the study of real life experience) when I realized it held mysterious healing properties for church members who have decided to leave a congregation, and pastors reeling in the wake of the member’s departure.  This may also have been prompted by a facebook post from a young Assemblies of God minister; “Will it ever stop hurting when a congregation member leaves my church?” And the response of solidarity flung back over cyberspace “No. I’ve been a pastor longer than you’ve been alive – and it will always hurt”.

This older pastor’s response caught me off guard somewhat. A church is usually considered a spiritual home by its members, who use it to structure their life in multiple ways; time, finances, friendships and activities. Some attend irregularly, but others attend weekly (or even daily). Leaving a church could be for all manner of benign reasons, such as physical relocation, a change in career, or new life stage (getting married, becoming a grandparent, those kinds of things). In most cases it’s positive for those involved. But in others, leaving a church causes immense grief and loss for the former member, and friends who stay. And, it seems, also the pastor. No matter what people tell you, when you leave a church, things change. In particular, relationships with those still attending. Some members continue to demonstrate love, and keep up the friendship despite increasing distance, but others do and say painfully spiteful things. It’s clear many aspects of this real life experience are not examined in church by pastors. So I’ve called my thoughts “The Exile Files”, which is intended to represent the mysterious hole where a church member once was.

Institutional messages are sent (both intentionally and not) by members leaving (or being absent from) a church. An absence may be slow and quiet, finally noticed by a pastor some months later (or noted with relief the week after an angry member yells and stomps out). That pastors get “hurt” by a members’ decision is often just a regrettable byproduct of events –  the decision to leave is often a long conversation that drags on for years. And, sorting through memories in the wake of a choice to leave a church is like playing a card game while missing a suite of hearts; the perspective of the ‘other’ party is not there, so sorting through data seems useless.

Firstly, out of empathy for all those in pain, I wondered “how has church membership gotten to this point?”, and concluded, with the help of the discipline of Missiology (or Mission Studies), that this is due to the new religious economy.

… In the old days, membership into a church was gained as byproduct of nationality. Whatever the King was, his subjects were also. Missiologist Dana Robert in her book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion provides an illustration of Pope Gregory I spotting two little blonde boys for sale in a marketplace in the year 590, and, after pronouncing them Anglos or “Angels” (and hopefully sending them home to their mothers), he became intent upon the lands beyond Roman jurisdiction. In missionary old-old-school style, he and an entourage of forty men traveled to Kent in Britannia. They proudly lapped the court before King Ethelbert (D. 616) showing off flags and gilded outfits, and greatly impressed the King with their wealth (I heard they brought an elephant, I’m not sure if it’s historically factual). The Frankish Queen Bertha was already Christian, and Gregory’s mission was declared a success. On Christmas Day 597, King Engelbert was baptized with 10,000 English warriors (this simultaneously marked allegiance to the King, their conversion and membership into the Roman Catholic church) — and, all of England was declared saved. Simple. Following this event, Augustine (D. 604) was allocated land at Canterbury for a church and monastery, from which he drew up the new English Christian laws.

England (and most other kingdoms) see-sawed back and forth in their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church, with changes of monarchs, and with political strategics. Monks acted both as a help and a nuisance to popes and kings alike over the years. In all seriousness, there was little opportunity for families to freely declare religious allegiance until well after the Reformation in the 16th century. Even then, choices were limited (claims of sedition resulted in death), so families played their best possible hand until the latter part of the 18th century, when the French Revolution communicated something significant about the power of the people to “the people”. With the industrial revolution and free trade, religion changed in unthinkable ways. Without Roman central organization, Protestant states appropriated Reformation ideas differently, creating variety of church practices and denominations. Visibility of these different churches increased with travel and the decreasing price of printing. This is when, ‘individual choice’ became suddenly important. And at this point, we see European missionaries, unlike Pope Gregory, internally wracked over the state of the souls of unreached people groups – particularly remote tribes with low access to the Christian faith, or people speaking other languages who therefore lacked understanding. Passionate university students formed a conference in Edinburgh in 1910 to strategize towards the evangelization of the entire world, because every.single.soul.mattered.

It seems like only historical soundbites later, when the Beatles announced proudly on British radio that they were agnostics, started taking LSD and visiting shrines in India wearing Hare Krishna outfits. Young adults and university students worldwide followed suite and… the Hippie movement was born. It was clear religious choice was now influenced by new kings. Power shifted away from the state but also religious figures, perhaps due to reputed centuries of hypocrisy. The marketplace designated the new rulers. While Kings and Bishops still played a role, individuals could choose to migrate between states, and also reject or embrace Christianity. This meant that geography, which was once so simple, got mucked up – as in, places that were already “won” for Christianity began to seek alternative spirituality (New Religious Movements or NRMs) at an astounding rate and be “lost” while at the same time sending thousands of missionaries out to other continents seeking conversions. Phew! How confusing.

Which is exactly my point – the new religious economy is confounding; and varieties of Christian spiritual practice on offer for individuals are overwhelming. And this is just talking about Christianity! We live in an age when a Methodist congregation of two hundred meets next door and at the same time as an AME congregation of two hundred, in a building that hosts a Korean Pentecostal congregation of six hundred in the afternoon.  Members navigate their “followship” under various leaders, and attempt to make the best choices for their families’ spiritual health.

So, here’s some thoughts:

  1. Members, maybe spare a thought to your pastor, who may feel your departure more than you thought they did.
  2. Pastors, it’s a jungle out there. Please bear with us – and if you’re super resilient, and seem to have our best in mind, we might be back before you know it. No-one really likes a whole lot of change. But some of us are looking at jobs where we may have to relocate every three years. We want to have great experiences because we carry our relationship with you into our next church. And, others of us are just being… well, human. Just like every child at some point packs their bags and announces to their parent that they are running away, almost every member in your congregation is going to do this at some stage. So, please don’t over-react, just keep the door open!
  3. Evangelists, consider going back to using elephants. Only joking. No, but we do have to stop thinking about only the individual, but also consider the network of people they are embedded in.
  4. Christians: Maybe we should work out mature ways to talk about this.

I’m can’t wait to post part #2 of the Exile Files next week.

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1. The above mentioned empathy for those struggling members departed from a community is genuinely my motivation for this post — but is also perhaps a topic of reflection due to the sad announcement we will be leaving the USA, where my husband is currently employed. I am so, so sad to be leaving Orange County but I need to do my PhD fieldwork in Australia. I *think* this is temporary, but I don’t actually know. It’s a crazy time for us. I love my North Hills congregation, so peeps, let’s just deal with this sans crying, and other unexpected stuff, or I will hug you like a turtle, which is just super awkward. I hate leaving but I think the USA will be slightly better than our Italian church friends who plead just like an ancient civilization well-schooled in persuasion. “Bella! You staaay with us! You come and live here!” …. ohhhh… I hate goodbyes.

Is there any glamorous leadership? Christianity and poverty

Reading Paulo Freire earlier this month, I had an epiphany. Well, it was really a series of epiphanies. All reinforced by sharing some conversation space with two fantastic Latin American leaders and musicians here at a Calvin College seminar.

One principle I hold to is that if the church is going to declare something universally true, then it has to hold up to scrutiny from other parts of the world (pretty darn simple premise, yes?).

Well I’ve been warned by Christian pastors to be careful with who I hang around, as those very people affect your potential. The idea is that hanging out with turkeys prevents an eagle using its wings, or that being among frogs will prevent a fish from swimming successfully. Well that seems like a load of powerful posturing to me, a hierarchy of sorts in humanity. And it also seems entirely unbiblical. Not only was Jesus ‘unmarred’ by the strange group he hung around, the reality is that there is no such thing as glamorous, always-a-great-hair-day Christian leadership in the Bible. There are scenes of human leadership beset with sin (aside of course from Jesus), overcoming despite themselves. Paul. David. Moses. Deborah.

Although Jackie Onassis type images of Christian model glamazons are common, with their Ralph Lauren husbands spouting tweetable, funny pastor types jokes, this is simply cultural rather than biblical. I don’t begrudge most of these people their culture – in fact, I find it entertaining, and I believe that God can and does use people like these. But let’s be real about it, as Richard Wuthnow shows in his excellent exposition of American Christianity, the deal is that most Christians in the West are highly privileged. We are not  poor in the West… we are rich. And yet, we don’t know what to do with this power. The models of leadership we have are on one hand an impoverished Christ handing himself over to the Sanhedrin to be crucified, and the other a rich church. And, strangely enough, here in the States there are many Latino or Hispanic Christians living as Christ was, preaching wanderers, accustomed to poverty. Enough to make one pause and think.

According to Freire, if you are a leader, the only way to possibly be great is to have the identity of the person you are leading rub off on you. He considers truly great leadership to occur only when:

“[the leader] stops making pious, sentimental, and individual gestures and risks an act of love”

Beautiful thought, hey. And, in fact, I’d like to get up close and dirty with those I’m in community with, and risk an act of love. I’m sure most of us would prefer a gospel that allows us to be human, even if we’re intensely scared of that very thing.

Where is Australia’s ‘The Eagle and Child’?

Tim contacted me yesterday reminding me that I need to pick up a cross for our Senior Pastor, Doug. In our Californian church, Doug has a wall of crosses that hang in the foyer of the church. As the central symbol of our Christian faith, this seems more than appropriate. It is also a beautiful symbol of the international faith community the church is connected to through missionaries and various travellers. Some of the crosses are made of pieces of wood picked up in slums and hewn into this enduring Christian symbol. Some are finely painted. They are all indicative of the geography they came from, and the more authentic the story, the better. There are about a hundred crosses but none from Australia, and I was asked to find one.

So, as I was at the time on vacation in Australia, my dad and I got in the car and ventured down into The Ping, the suburb we live in Sydney, as we wanted to present a cross that represented this town I lived in most of my life. After assessing the OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship?) shopfront dad stated that he didn’t think there would be a cross there, so we went to the Seventh Day Adventist shop. Dad reflected that its offerings were particularly evangelical, complete with Kari Jobe CDs and Billy Graham boxed sets. This surprised us as Hillsongers- we kind of giggled that we were expecting a particularly Saturday experience. The assistant there was lovely, and while she didn’t have a cross we could hang, she suggested we go upstairs to St Vinnies, the Catholic second hand shop. We walked up, and had a great talk to three ladies gathered around the counter. Other than an overload of blue eyeshadow, they were perfect. And smelled nice, which is a weird but important observation when you are in a second hand store. All of these experiences were positive, and local. But what we were looking for was a little out of the ordinary, so they suggested that we go down to the large bible and Christian book supplier in Sydney.

At that point, I felt particularly sad. The place they mentioned I know well, and is a fantastic bookshop which carries a stack of resources – most of which are American, or at the very least, can be described as global. There are probably crosses, but it is unlikely there is anything distinctively Australian. They carry a lot of mass marketed products, and as a case in point, when looking for my PhD entrance exam books, they had none of the twenty three texts on the shelves. I’m not the world’s most intelligent Christian, but I feel a genuine sense of sadness reading many of the books being sold in this type of bookshop. Sometimes I wonder if ideas could be bought in the form of a tweet, whether that would save us the time browsing through thousands of shelves. I don’t say this with any malice, but I do say it with a bit of experience. I worked for at least two years as a sales assistant at this store. As far as connecting local pastors with global trends, it does that successfully. As far as breeding local pastors with intelligent thoughts, I’m not so sure.

This whole reflection has made me long for an ‘Eagle and Child’ experience – as the pub in which C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien (among others) would sit and talk for hours about their latest philosophical theories and thoughts on Christianity. Apparently C.S. Lewis handed out his manuscript for ‘The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe’ and let the boys go to town on it before he published it, which must have been a very vulnerable act. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be dumbed down. I want to be smartened up by the people around me. I’ve learned that if you hang around intelligent people, you might even get to sound intelligent. I suspect that’s what my PhD cohort is doing for me, helping me to sound intelligent ;-). And those types of people do exist in Sydney – in fact, I’ve loved the conversations that I’ve had this week with Christian academics and leaders, conversations that are honest, raw, prophetic and very importantly, biblical.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m so desperate I’d be happy to compromise the pub aspect and have this community encounter over basically any beverage. Or sans beverage if necessary. Maybe it could be done from home with a coffee and a laptop. I’m not sure, but I’m at a stage of my life where I’m not looking for clean places that sell beautifully packaged tame ideas, but gritty places that have the raw energy of developing leadership with all the tenacity and determination this takes. And my hypothesis is that this is better done through face to face interaction than in a commercial or sale transaction. Look, conferences are brilliant, but I’m lamenting the lack of a local gathering place for forging truly great spiritual leaders in our nation. Maybe it’s time for Christian leaders to stop wistfully looking at the Chinese church and wishing we were growing that fast, or the American church and wishing we were as strong. Perhaps its time to look at the ways in which we nourish the spiritual growth of our people, and particularly our thinkers. Sigh. And if you know of a local Eagle and Child, I’ll put it in my next Sydney itinerary.
Oh, and if you have an idea about where I can get a particularly Australian cross, your thoughts would be much appreciated.

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