The Danger of Conspiracy Theories according to Colossians

Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.

What is QAnon and why is it dangerous?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’.  For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.

At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.

“In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear”.

In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.

The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.

QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.

This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.

Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,

“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”

In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.

LaFrance explains,

“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made SimpleDefeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.

The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,

“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”

There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.

QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as  Joe Carter writes,

“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”

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Photo by Dominika Kwiatkowska on Pexels.com

 

How Colossians warns us against conspiracy theories

I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.

In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)

Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.

“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)

Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.

In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.

The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.

 

Christians need to push against conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness.

Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.

Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.

The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.

We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.

The world’s best food is found in Menton(e)

Mentone has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious culinary titles, “the world’s best restaurant.” This highly charged competition creates a stir every year as judges tour the world, noting the restaurants that offered them the finest dining experiences. Restaurants and Chefs rise to global attention, while others are shunned. Taste buds, noses, and eyes survey plates, tables, and venues, looking for originality, composition, and that good old subjective sense of ‘wow’.

In the recent award ceremony held in Singapore, the world’s best restaurant for 2019 has been given to Mentone! Yes, we are on the map! Global recognition has finally reached this beachside area.

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Ok, the award is for Mentone France, not Mentone in Melbourne. And in Mentone, they drop the final e, making it Menton. There does exist a close relationship between two towns for Mentone is named after Menton; just that one knows how to spell this English name and the other doesn’t!

The Menton restaurant that has been awarded this prestigious title is Mirazur.

Mirazur is described in the following way:

What makes it special: Unrivalled views of the French Riviera, three levels of cascading vegetable gardens churning out the sweetest produce and a team of outrageously talented cooks and front-of-house staff combine to make Mirazur the ultimate restaurant experience. Mauro Colagreco’s unique cuisine is inspired by the sea, the mountains and the restaurant’s own gardens, including Menton’s emblematic citrus fruits.”

I like to eat delicious food. I appreciate fine food. Susan and I once enjoyed a meal at last year’s “world’s best restaurant”, years before it was recognised as such.

It would be pretty cool if Mirazur had opened its doors in the Mentone of the south. We could do with a few locations for foodies. Mentone may not be a choice suburb for fine dining, but we do have a food experience of another kind, and I reckon it is even better. In contrast to this restaurant that sounds truly quite amazing, Mentone (Baptist Church) is serving up a very different meal. This meal costs a huge price and yet it is free. It is deeply satisfying and yet we are welcomed to eat and drink some more. It is intense in flavour and yet delicate on the palate. It is beautiful to behold and yet it is not pretentious.

At Mentone, we don’t expend all our energy on the packaging. No one is photographing what we serve. The building in which we meet looks as though it belongs to a vintage garage sale. The people are quite ordinary in appearance. The website doesn’t have the habit of making viewers drool at the sight of artistically plated courses. The meal, however, is worth everything.

The meal is in the message, and the message is about a person. It is God’s loving message about his Son, Jesus Christ. The message is one that engages the mind and moves the heart and feeds the soul.

Jesus said,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:27)

““Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

This meal is regularly available to anyone who wants to visit Mentone, and indeed many of the other Churches around Melbourne that love Jesus. Churches are not interested in awards, community recognition, or popular adulations (or at least we ought not). We have been invited to eat at the grandest table, not because we are rich or famous or because we have the right contacts in the culinary world, but on account of a loving God who hates spiritual destitution and dereliction.

To the poor, to the hurting, to the hungry goes this invitation. A table filled not with egos but with gratitude, not with critics intent on deconstructing the slightest fault, but hearts and stomachs filled with unspeakable delight and joy.

I love good food. For one reason or another, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down at a table of some of the world’s great restaurants. These are memorable experiences, for which as a Christian I can acknowledge the creative genius of men and women and enjoy the astonishing tastes and smells of God’s creation. The best of food is like viewing a Picasso or Pollock, only that you get to eat it. But these delectable delights are momentary and passing compared to the food that God offers in Jesus Christ. In fact, heaven is described as a banquet, the supersize table where forever God’s family are welcomed to enjoy him and one another and a feast without ending. You see, Christianity doesn’t starve the intellect, the body, or the soul, the Christ of the Bible stimulates the senses and amazes us with the deepest satisfaction.

To those who can afford to eat out and enjoy the world’s best restaurants, there is better food available for your body and your soul. Why live for that which ends up in the toilet when we can eat food that gives eternal life?

To the majority who can never afford to pay for such a luxurious food experience, God offers food that will never spoil or perish, and that one day will make Kings and Chefs envious for that they passed it up in favour of a short-lived morsel.

Be more like Jesus: Responding to Christchurch

I had just finished writing my sermon for Sunday when I saw the news breaking out of New Zealand. Unfolding during the course of the afternoon, gunmen attacked 2 Mosques in Christchurch, killing at yet unknown number of people and injuring many more. News outlets have confirmed what already seemed obvious, that the intent was to kill Muslims while at their Friday prayers.

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The Bible text that I’m preaching this Sunday is Matthew 15:21-28. It retells an occasion when Jesus was traveling through a region outside Galilee and Judea. As he traversed between Tyre and Sidon, two cities that were populated with followers of various religions (views of God that differed greatly from Judaism), a woman identified as a Canaanite pleads with Jesus for help.

The disciples on this occasion react with disdain and bigotry. The Canaanites were traditional enemies of Israel, and even in the First Century AD, cultural differences existed as well as irreconcilable religious differences. The disciples’ response to the woman wasn’t uncommon. Jesus, however, repudiated their hatred and acted contrary to what the disciples were asking. Instead of pushing her away, Jesus engaged with her, affirmed her cries for help and restored her troubled daughter.

“So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”And her daughter was healed at that moment.”

Jesus’ first words might appear harsh at first, even with a tone of disdain, almost as though he is mimicking the disciples; which of course he is. Jesus was repeating the disciples’ attitudes back to them while also drawing out the genuineness of the woman’s faith in him.

The lesson Jesus was teaching the disciples remains one that we cannot afford to lose today in our age of outrage and the at times, appalling acts of evil. There is a time for anger. There is a time for hate – to hate evil and those who perpetrate evil. But how does Jesus respond to difference here? What we see in Jesus is him entering a territory where the God of Israel was not worshiped and where the law of God was not esteemed. He doesn’t respond to the woman with bigotry and exclusion, but with compassion and inclusion. She calls out to Jesus to save her daughter, and he did.

Surely Christians must respond to others as did Jesus. Not because we are playing silly theological games of ‘all religions are the same’, but because we all share the imago dei and because we have come to know the beautiful grace of God and desire others to know this freedom and life.

We can love Muslim neighbours by praying for those injured and for the many who are now mourning incredible losses. Prayer is not wasted breath, but the extraordinary invitation of loving God who is Father.

We can love our Muslim neighbours by showing kindness to them. On the street, offer a smile. Take a few minutes to chat and offer some kinds words of encouragement. If we don’t have any Muslims in our circle of friends, why not? What can we do to change this omission?

We can love not only by renouncing the hateful speech of those who oppose Christianity on the left, but also publicly repudiate those on the extreme right who support, urge, and carry out malicious attacks on Muslims, on Jews, and others.

Too many tears are being shed in Christchurch tonight, and they will flow for many days to come. Let us sit down and weep with them.

Christchurch is a city name that evokes the most righteous and good, loving and kind man who has ever walked the earth; yes even God himself. He rebuked hate and he loved. Let us learn to become more like Jesus.

The Glass Ceiling Women are not allowed to break

Recent conversations about abortion in Australia and in the United States have made it clear that it is not enough for a woman to be a woman, nor is being a feminist suffice; one must also publicly support abortion. A woman may reach the zenith of public office but it is apparently redundant if they are not promoting a particular type of womanhood. It is not enough for a woman to be woman (which I assume is insulting to many women), but you have to be a woman who talks to and represents a particular agenda.

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Last week the world witnessed over 3 million Americans marching through their cities, protesting the Presidency of Donald Trump. These protests are understandable given the unacceptable views on women that the new President has expressed. I want to emphasize how appalled I am by his comments about women. However, not everyone who wanted to march in support of women was welcomed, those who describe themselves as ‘pro-life’ were excluded.

The new Minister for Women in NSW is Tanya Davies, and within moments of giving her first press conference as minister,  numerous journalists and social commentators began calling for her removal. The reason? What atrocious deed is lurking in her wardrobe? The problem is, Tanya Davies is pro-life.

She said,

“Personally I am pro-life … but in my role I am there to support all women and I will support all women, and I will listen to all women and I will take on board all the stakeholders’ comments and feedback … and ensure the best outcome for all women is secured,”

In today’s The Age, Jenny Noyes made it clear as translucent silica that one cannot be Minister of Women if one does not support a woman’s right to abort her children,

“the appointment of Tanya Davies as the new Minister for Women was immediately soured when she admitted during the press conference to being “personally pro-life.”

“This simply is not good enough…NSW needs a Minister for Women who will actually fight for women’s rights, who is willing to put reproductive rights on the table – not to wind them back…”

The comment that I found most troubling was this one,

“The so-called “pro-life” movement says a life that hasn’t even begun is more important than the self-determination of a living, breathing woman.”

First of all, let’s not fudge the facts: life has already begun. Treating unborn children as pre-life and pre-human counters what we know to be true scientifically and ethically. To grade human beings according to levels of humanness is gross and immoral, and reminds us past generational ideologies which rightly cause us to shudder. Life does not begin at birth; our children are living sentient beings inside the womb. They are feeling and thinking and feeding and growing, responding to music and to touch.

Noyes’ also misrepresents the “pro-life” paradigm, painting  an either/or fallacy. It is possible to be both for unborn children and for women. But in the highly charged individualism which so much feminism has now adopted, room isn’t permitted for women (or men) to both support a woman’s health and life, and the health and life of the child in her womb. 

In Ancient Rome, baby girls were often abandoned and left to die in the open. Today, it is not sexism and misogyny that is responsible for most abortions in Western countries (although evidence suggests that the majority of world-wide aborted babies are girls), and neither is it the endangered-life of the mother, but the endangered life-style of women who are encultured to smash more glass ceilings. 

The irony is, Tanya Davies is cracking another panel, but it is not one that some women want broken.

As a Christian I can’t help talking about Jesus, for I reckon he is more relevant to these discussions than we often think. We know Jesus’ views of women countered the norms of his day, which angered many men who sought to subjugate women. Jesus also taught us to welcome and care for little children. A healthy and mature society will do both.

I wonder, instead of women and men jumping to break more ceilings, what if we learned from Jesus, and stopped climbing on our step-ladders and shattering glass all over those underneath us? How often in advancing our own dreams we sacrifice others whom we leave below? Jesus accomplished the greatest act in the history of human rights, not by asserting his position but in laying down his life out of love for others. He flipped on its head the alleged axiom of ‘power verses abuse’, when he chose to serve those with whom he held strong disagreement. And instead of discarding those whom we perceive as holding us back, Jesus gave them dignity and called them to walk with him through life. At least to me, this sounds like a better way forward.

Christmas is optional, Jesus is not

Should Christians defend Christmas?

In recent days Federal Government Ministers, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, have come out to bat for Christmas, arguing that political correctness has gone too far in curtailing the religious significance of this national holiday.

When a listener called into 2GB and shared how his children’s school had blacklisted Christmas Carols, Mr Dutton responded,

“You make my blood boil with these stories… “It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it.”

“Many of the people, regardless of their religious belief, would be there happy to sing along with Christmas carols, happy to enjoy the fact that we celebrate Christmas as a Christian society and it’s beyond my comprehension.”

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They have a valid point, there is a movement of Grinches emerging across the country, seeking to control and even remove Christian vestiges from the season’s festivities. References to the Magi, Shepherds, and Jesus Christ are harder to find, which is perhaps why we are pleasantly surprised when we hear an entertainer at Myer Music Bowl Carols or see a shopping mall nativity scene redirect us to that wondrous night in Bethlehem.

Christmas remains a national public holiday, and is almost certainly the most enjoyed day of the year for the majority of Australia’s 24 million people. For many there is no religious sentiment attached to Christmas, and yet people happily gorge themselves with many of Christmas’ associations. It is also true that Christ-less Christmases have become the norm for many families. One friend conducted a straw poll on Facebook last week; some friends admitted that their children didn’t associate Jesus with Christmas, and one child had never heard of Jesus Christ.

While previous generations may have connected Christmas with Christ, this is disappearing, partly due to Australia reconfiguring into a multi-faith society, partly because of secularism, and even our exuberant consumerism blinds us to what lays behind the tinsel, turkey, and toys.

The diminishment of Jesus in Australian Christmas celebrations grieves me, not because December 25th matters, but because it indicates how our culture is shifting further away from the greatest and most beautiful news we can ever behold.

I’m not suggesting that the Australia of my childhood was somehow more Christian than today. It was okay to sing about Jesus in 1980 and Church attendance was more common, but it is quite possible for a culture to be deeply embedded with Christian themes and festivals, and yet be utterly impervious to their significance.

How much should Christians defend Christmas?

First of all, celebrating Christmas is not a requirement for Christians, let alone for anyone else.

Nowhere in the Bible are Christians told to celebrate a day called Christmas. Indeed, Christians are warned against legislating special days, as they can mislead and manoeuvre  people into a form of self-righteousness that opposes the Gospel of grace. Under the Old Covenant Israelites were given special days for observance. These days were tied to events with theological and historical significance to that nation, but once the new covenant was instituted by Jesus Christ, such festivals became unnecessary. There was freedom to observe or not.

This may sound anathema to some Christians, but it doesn’t matter whether we celebrate Christmas or not. Christmas is a religious and national holiday, one we can choose to celebrate or not, eat Turkey or not, sing carols or not, give presents or not. We have freedom to skip over December 25, although your kids might be a little miffed on Christmas morning. 

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that we dump Christmas from the national or ecclesiastical calendars.

I’m no Puritan when it comes to Christmas. I love Christmas. The Campbell house in December is bouncing with Carols and the aroma of pine, we’re eating up pre-Christmas Christmas food, and my kids are exclaiming, ‘Dad, not another Christmas movie’. But celebrating Christmas is a cultural advent, not a Biblical mandate.

Second, are we trying to introduce people to Christmas or to Christ? The answer is not necessarily either/or. For example, Christmas is an opportunity to remind our mates that the Christ has come. It is an easy route for inviting friends to Church and to swing conversations around to the Gospel. However, while we may bemoan secularism taking Christmas hostage to its truculent ideals, are we better off investing our efforts in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ? In advocating Christmas are we sending mixed messages about Christianity?

My question is, are we about promoting Christmas the event or Christ the person? I sense that some of us are leaning heavily toward the former.

Perhaps we should exert less concern about protecting the day called Christmas, and make more effort to live and speak the reality of the good news that entered the world that dark and unfriendly night in Bethlehem.

Leaving aside the word ‘Christmas’ and the day December 25th, in uncovering the birth of the Christ child we discover truth that is too good to ignore, too wonderful to brush off. In the bleak mid-minter God came down and took on flesh. God the Son lay aside his glory in heaven in order to suffer and die on a cross for people who have ditched God.

If we’re intent on waving a ‘save Christmas’ placard, we must avoid communicating that we’re trying to revive a celebration for the remnant of conservative and traditional Australia. I want my secular friends and my religious friends to fall in love not with Christmas, but with Jesus. In a year where refugees have once again dominated the news, where transgender issues have made news, and where hurting families make headlines, let’s make effort to show people Christ.

In the bleak mid-winter 

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter

Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

(Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1872)

Earth Hour and Resurrection Sunday

This year, Earth Hour shares the same day as Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yes. Timely? Perhaps so.

Earth Hour began in 2007 in one of Australia’s colloquial towns, Sydney. A year later Melbourne joined with hundreds of global cities to participate in Earth Hour. According to the Earth Hour website, there are now over 7000 cities and towns participating worldwide.

It is hard for my wife and I to forget Earth Hour, given it coincides with our wedding anniversary. Nothing makes for a romantic dinner than having the power turned off for an hour!

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Earth hour is a one hour ‘lights off’ event. Between 7:30-8:30pm homes, businesses, and public places are encouraged to switch off their lights as a way of communicating the threat of global warming and showing consensus that we need to do more to limit its consequences.

To quote, we “show their support a low pollution, clean energy future, one in which we can continue to enjoy the best of nature and our great Aussie outdoor lifestyle.”

Earth hour is symbolic, a gesture indicating a concern and call for responsible living in this world.

This year, Earth Hour synchronises with Easter Sunday, or Resurrection Sunday as it is also known. This is a day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Far from being symbolic, Jesus’ death and resurrection is historic, literal, and real. We may turn the lights off for an hour, Jesus experienced the darkness of death.

His work changed the world. While the resurrection of Jesus certainly has a future looking fulfilment, it is has the power to change the human heart even in the present. And far from ditching this current world, the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection affirms the value of creation. We are not left disregarding the world and neither are we left pinning the hopes of the world on ourselves.

Earth Hour reminds us of the fallenness of this world, and indeed how complicit we are in this; the resurrection of Jesus proclaims the redemption. We need a God-sized solution to our world’s problems, whether it is global warming or a thousand of other insurmountable issues that weigh down humanity and stifle life, truth and love.

As the Apostle Paul wrote,

’We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22-25)

The ultimate answer to Earth hour is Resurrection Sunday.

As we turn off our lights for one hour and commiserate the global sized problems before us, why not also reflect on the tangible hope offered us in the person and work of Jesus Christ?

A Christian response to bullying

Michael Jensen (Rector of St Mark’s Darling Point, Sydney) has written this helpful piece about bullying and what a Christian response should include. I have published it with his permission:

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That people are bullied, victimised, and even assaulted because of their sexuality in contemporary Australia is completely unacceptable.

For me, this is a simple corollary of the teaching of Jesus Christ. And as a Christian, and particularly as a Christian minister, I am compelled to stand against those who would advocate or participate in such treatment of GLBTIQ people, or anyone else for that matter.

It has to begin at school. The school playground can be a tough and even brutal place.

I had a great experience at the private boys’ school I went to. I was tall for my age, played sport, I was white, I didn’t have anything foreign on my sandwiches, and I wasn’t gay.

But even then, I do remember episodes when my mettle was tested by the crowd. I was teased for being a minister’s son, or for having ideas beyond my station, or for having pimples – ‘Pizza Face!’ being the taunt.

This was nothing. I brushed it off, because I had all the advantages.

The bullying was noisiest for the Asians, who of course couldn’t pretend they weren’t who they were. Their difference was obvious, and they were teased because they inspired envy – many of them took the top spots on the merit list each year.

But there was one boy, smaller than the others, who was always at sea. From the beginning of Year 7, he was singled out as the ‘poofter’. It was determined that he was gay, and that too great an interest in him or too deep a friendship with him, would render one’s own sexuality suspect.

I don’t recall the victimizing of him ever becoming physical (though of course he might tell a different story). But I can only imagine that school was as isolating and lonely for him as it was exciting and encouraging for me – and I shudder at the imbalance of it.
Recently I met his father at a reunion. Without betraying confidences, all I can say is that my classmate’s life has not turned out well.

Later when I became a teacher, I often heard students call each ‘gay’ as a term of abuse. To be gay was, in teen-speak, to be despised. I knew that there were students who would identify as gay, or who were at least questioning their orientation. The menace to them of this language was obvious. And it seemed obvious that this language, and the attitude that generated it, needed to be challenged. It was simply unchristian.

The Christian faith has bequeathed to our culture a great gift: the teaching that we are all made in the image of God. That concept permeates even apparently secular documents like the US Declaration of Independence. It coaches us to see humanity in the face of the other. It was this conviction that held good against the social Darwinians of the late nineteenth century, who would rather have placed people of different races on the lesser rungs of the human ladder.

Add to that the experience of Jesus Christ: rejected by his own, abandoned by his friends, convicted by a corrupt and lazy government, tortured, tormented, and killed. At the heart of the Christian faith is the sign of the cross, which calls us to remember what we human beings are capable of as well as to recall what God offers us.

How could a person who worships a victim of bullying turn away from those who are being victimized and bullied?

Christians, Muslims and God: Does it matter?

The Wheaton College controversy regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her comments about Islam is gaining momentum not only in the United States, but also here in Australia, with the ABC publishing two articles on the issue this week.

The controversy relates to this statement made by Dr Hawkins on twitter in December last year,  “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book”, and “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

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Dr Hawkins has been suspended by the Council of Wheaton College, and discussions are being held regarding potential dismissal from her teaching position.

There are many issues surrounding this saga, for here, I wish to offer comment on two of the questions: One, does it matter? Does it matter whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God or not?  Second, is Prof. Miroslav Volf right to use a Jewish view of God as a defence for the proposition that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

First of all, does it matter?

Writing on The Drum, Ruby Hamad has bemoaned Wheaton’s position, referring to the ‘wildly disproportionate reaction from the college’ and  “it’s surprising that such a statement is even considered enough to raise an eyebrow.”

Hamad believes that Muslim and Christians do worship the same God:   

“That the world’s three great monotheistic faiths worship the same god is, or at least has hitherto been, a mainstream position to take. Muslims accept it as a given, the Catholic Church has taught it since the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Francis – who Hawkins referred to her in her statement – reiterated this last November, when he said that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”.”

As someone raised in the Muslim faith, I find it bewildering that anyone denies that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are indeed the same deity. Muslims are taught from a very young age that Mohammed is the last in a long line of prophets tracing back to Adam, and that includes Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.”

Leaving aside some fallacious rewriting of history whereby she claims that “three great monotheistic faiths worship the same god is…a mainstream position to take”, and her strange recounting of Islamic teaching whereby young children are taught that the Christian God is identical with the Muslim God, I want to make mention of the Trinity and its place in this debate.

Hamad makes a passing reference to the Trinity and to Christology, but apparently these basic tenants of the Christian faith are no obstacles to someone wanting to insist that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God.

Really?

Now, there are theological arguments at stake that require careful exegesis, and many a tome has been written attempting to consider God. Although there are ideas here that have stretched the greatest minds in history, the essence is simple. One person may be an expert in trigonometry, and another not, but a triangle is a triangle and both can identify it as such. My point is, there are basic theological convictions held by Christians that are irrefutably denied by Islam, and there is no meeting place in the middle.

For example,

Christians hold that that God is triune, one God in three persons. Muslims, on the other hand, insist on God being a monad.

Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human. He is the eternal God, God the Son, the second member of the Trinity. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet from God, but he is not God (and neither did he die on the cross).

It does not require a scholar to appreciate that Christians and Muslims have a vastly different view of God. Christians love, worship and serve God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Quran explicitly rejects this God, and instead speaks of another who is monad. We can caste doubts on this clarity by writing lengthy and complicated essays, using lots of big words that no one understands, or, as Ruby Hamad has done, we can ridicule Wheaton College and suggest they are extreme, bigoted, and naive for holding to their beliefs. After all, none of us want to side with the stupid or the hate-filled! Sometimes, though, differences are self-evident and irreconcilable.

But does it matter? Is it a big deal? It is certainly a significant issue if truth matters. It is a big deal for the many thousands of Christians in the Middle East who are being persecuted and threatened with death if they don’t deny Jesus Christ is God. And it does matter if a person’s identity and being is to be honoured.

Allow me to illustrate by speaking about my wife, Susan. Susan is a particular human being, with a particular personality, history, attributes, likes and dislikes, appearance, and so forth. If I call her Lisa or Stuart, she is unlikely to respond, given that her name is Susan. If someone asks me to describe Susan and I begin talking about a 24 year old 5ft 10” red head who enjoys motocross, eating mexican food, and works in real estate, you may want to question whether I know Susan at all, let alone being married to her.

Manufacturing false allegations about a person in public may make me open to a defamation case. Misrepresenting a person is demeaning and exemplifies either ignorance or incredible rudeness. 

The caricature of Susan that I offer above is so far removed from the real Susan who lives and breathes and whom I love as my wife, it is nothing short of a fabrication; an unreal Susan. If it is respectful and right to represent a human being accurately, how much more if that person is God.

If God is real, it is only proper to describe him truthfully. If this God is holy and light and love and truth and Sovereign and personal (as the Bible teaches), then how much more care must we take before dishing out more relativist offal about religious sameness.

I now wish to turn to a second question, which relates to an analogy used by Miroslav Volf in his defence of Dr Hawkins view, an analogy that has since been repeated by others, including Ruby Hamad:

“This argument, however, is easily dispelled given that Judaism also rejects the trinity and doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone worship, Jesus as God. And yet, no one is proclaiming that Jews and Christians have entirely different gods”.

Is this analogy of Judaism valid? While this argument sounds lucid, it is in fact a logical fallacy, for the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is significantly different to that between Christianity and Islam.

There are not two different Gods in the Bible, one in the Old Testament and a different one revealed in the New Testament. That view is known as Marcionism, and it has always been rightly referred to as a heresy.

The God of the Old Testament is self-identified as the Triune God. The God worshiped by Israel was the Triune God, although it must be said that much more is made of God’s unity in the Old Testament than of his diversity.

Old Testament Judaism did not reject the Trinity, it alludes to it and prepared the people for the full self-disclosure of God who is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Islam falls outside the parameters of Biblical testimony, and beyond fullness and finality of God’s self-revelation that is in and about Jesus Christ. If Judaism is an artist’s sketch, Christianity is the sketch being painted,  coloured and completed. In other words, Judaism leads to Christianity, whereas Islam rejects Christianity. That Mohammed borrowed some names and ideas from the Bible when writing the Qu’ran does not mean synergy of faith, indeed links are no stronger than those which Mormons have with Christianity.

Dr Al Mohler has offered this critique of Volf’s analogy:

“But this line of argument evades the entire structure of promise and fulfillment that links the Old Testament and the New Testament. Abraham and Moses could not have defined the doctrine of the Trinity while they were on earth, but they believed that God would be faithful to all of his promises, and those promises were fulfilled only and fulfilled perfectly in Christ. And, going back to John 8:56-58, Jesus said: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad … Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Evangelical Christians understand that, theologically, there is a genetic link between Judaism and Christianity. That is why Christians must always be humbled by the fact that we have been grafted onto the promises first made to Israel. In terms of both history and theology, there is no genetic link between Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an claims that to confess Jesus Christ as the divine Son and the second person of the Trinity is to commit blasphemy against Allah.”

It is possible to believe in the true God and yet worship him wrongly, whether by attributing false characteristics and ideas about him, or by creating erroneous criteria for knowing him. But the view of God, as articulated in the Qu’ran and the Hadiths, does not fit into this category.

Volf and Hamad both argue that the real issue at Wheaton is not concern for God’s Being, but has to do with bigotry and anti-Islamic sentiments. I cannot speak for the Council of Wheaton College as I don’t know them personally and I certainly don’t have access into their hearts, but from what I have read, I have not picked up such a distasteful tone.

Given the allegations, it is still wrong to denude the major theological differences that exist. The truth of God matters. The glory of God matters. However, irreconcilable difference does not mean Christians and Muslims cannot be friends, and cannot work together in many areas of society. This does not mean that we cannot support the many Muslims who are suffering terribly in Syria. This does not mean that we cannot welcome Muslim refugees to Australia, and to provide them with a safe and caring community. This does not mean that we outlaw their beliefs, simply because we disagree with them. If Christians believe in freedom of speech, then we hold that conviction for Christian, Muslim, and atheist alike.

A true knowing of God will produce not only clear and robust convictions about God, but growing humility and thankfulness. For we do not own God. God is not our possession or our knowledge that is attained by some pseudo-superiority complexion. The God of the Bible is known only by grace, because of his incredible love toward defiant creatures. Grace produces humble convictions and loving concern for our neighbours, even our Muslim neighbours who matter to God and ought to matter to us.

Sermon on the Mount

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In this tumultuous world where following Jesus Christ means growing opposition and cost, what better words to meditate on than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

In 2016, at Mentone Baptist,  I will be preaching on Matthew chs. 5-7, starting January 31.

Check out our promo

 

Religion Makes us Meaner

I agree.

Like sharks smelling a drop of blood, the media is swarming around the latest ‘religion is bad’ news story. This time, it comes in the form of a report that has been published in the journal Current ­Biology, by a group of researchers at Chicago University.

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Research leader, Dr Jean Decety, has said, “Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite,”¹

That is one gargantuan call to make, and with significant implications should the assertion be true.

The Australian newspaper offered this helpful summary of the study (Nov 6):

“In the study, more than 1100 kids aged between five and 12 were asked to share stickers with anonymous schoolmates. The subjects lived in North America, the Middle East, South Africa and China, and included Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.

Those from agnostic and atheist households consistently proved less likely to keep the best stickers to themselves. “The more religious the parents, the less altruistic the children, irrespective of the religion,” Dr Decety told The Australian.

He attributed the findings to a phenomenon dubbed “moral licensing”, where people’s perceptions that they were doing good — in this case, practising religion — exempted them from the obligation to perform other worthy deeds. “Apparently, doing something that helps strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour,” he said.

The study also found that when the children were shown videos of “mundane” affronts, such as people bumping and pushing each other, religious kids were more inclined to decide harsh punishment was warranted. Dr Decety said this supported previous findings that organised religion promoted intolerance and punitiveness.”

I agree…in part.

I affirm the idea that religion can make people meaner and more selfish. This idea is hardly new, Christians have understood this since its earliest days, and it conforms to what the Bible has been saying since it was first written, millennia ago.

As Tim Keller put it in The Reason for God, “Those who believe they have pleased God by the quality of their devotion and moral goodness naturally feel that they and their group deserve deference and power over others. The God of Jesus and the prophets, however, saves completely by grace. He cannot be manipulated by religious and moral performance–he can only be reached through repentance, through the giving up of power. If we are saved by sheer grace we can only become grateful, willing servants of God and of everyone around us.”

According to Roman ch.1 religion stems from suppressing what is true, and creating and then depending upon things that are not true for meaning and salvation.

Subsequently, it is unsurprising to learn that religion is largely about self-justification; it is the human attempt to persuade God and others of one’s worthiness and goodness. Religion is about doing things and saying things in order to win God’s favour. Even acts of kindness can be a cover for gaining approval and for feeling better or happier about oneself. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that religion can make people, even children, mean.

The study doesn’t only suggest that religion makes children mean, it would have us believe that atheism makes children kind. Does unbelief enhance out potential for true altruism? A survey of non Government welfare agencies and charities will be hard pressed to find more than a handful that don’t have their foundations and funding in organised religion, especially Christianity. How many atheistic organisations can you think of that are working in our local communities and across the world to care for the poor and needy?

The average Australian gives away less than $200 each year, whereas Christians give on average, 5-9% of their annual income, and many give considerably more².

While I know some very friendly atheists, atheists are also among the most intolerant people in our society; listen to how many journalists, politicians, and social commentators now address Christians. For not subscribing to the secular agenda, Christians are labelled stupid and bigots, and Christian programs are being shutdown across the country.

History and contemporary society demonstrate that both religion and atheism are a problem. Should we debate who is worse, ISIS or Stalin? Surely evil is evil, whether it is perpetrated by the religious or irreligious.

How then, do we explain the findings of this outcome?

While I’m not dismissing the research, there are problems. For example,

1. In my opinion the study does not adequately differentiate between nominal religious believers and those who actually practice their religion. In particular, I am thinking of the distinction between Gospel (or Evangelical) Christianity and cultural Christianity. The use of the Duke Religiosity Questionaire may be useful as a sociology calculator but it is a poor theological and spiritual one.

2. The findings don’t properly differentiate between various religions. Islam and Christianity are at times lumped together, while other religions didn’t receive a large enough sample size to warrant analysis.

3. The research is making strong claims based upon limited research. Children completed a game and parents filled out a questionnaire, and from this we can now confirm that non religious families exude greater kindness than religious families? I think we call that, overreach.   

4. “Children from religious households favored stronger punishments for anti-social behavior and judged such behavior more harshly than non-religious children”. Why is this deemed a negative? It is quite possible that children from religious families have a stronger moral compass and therefore a greater sense of justice.

5. The study involved children from 6 countries: Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. To what extent have the researchers accounted for cultural differences, and how these affect the way children behave? The way that culture and religion relate in Jordan is different from China and indeed the USA.

In my view, there are simply too many questions for people to be jumping on the bandwagon. Remember, this is one study, and it is worth noting that its findings conflict with other research that has been conducted in recent times, which have found that belief in God makes people happier and more community oriented (https://murraycampbell.net/2015/09/24/new-evidence-suggests-that-the-closure-of-sri-was-a-mistake/).

Dr Decety and the team from Chicago University have driven us to an all to familiar dead end street: we want to maintain that religion and irreligion are our only options, but there is a third way. That is why the message of Christianity is so subversive and why it does not fit with the dimensions of human expectations.

Christianity teaches that everyone is sinful, yes, even children. Isn’t it ironic that when Christians make this suggestion it is called ‘child abuse’, and when secular academics make the same observation it is called science! We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that young children exhibit selfish and judgemental traits; it is human nature. Sometimes we clothe it in God-speech and promises of eternal reward, and other times we simply call upon humanitarianism.

Altruism is unattainable because we simply cannot do it. Both religious and non religious people are capable of love and acts of kindness, but inconsistently, partially, and often for self-seeking reasons. The history of the world is our autobiography, and we are seriously kidding ourselves if we think that we have climbed up the evolutionary tree: domestic violence in 1 in 3 Australian homes, over 80,000 unborn children killed each year, the revelations on Ashley Madison, cruel Asylum Seeker policies, ka-ching and the masterminds behind the pokies industry, and on and on.

But in Jesus Christ we see perfect love, selfless service and sacrifice for the good of others; he is uncompromising in holiness and generous in mercy:

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”. (1 John 4:10)

This is the essence of Christianity:

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” (Tim Keller)

When a person comes to know this declaration of God’s love, they are changed, forgiven and liberated to truly love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour. It changes us to give without expectation of return, and to sacrifice for the good of those who despite us. Religion and irreligion are proven dead ends, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises a light that changes how we see everything.

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  1. http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2015/11/05/religious-upbringing-associated-less-altruism-study-finds
  2. See NCLS research for information regarding giving habits of Australian Christians. A summary of broader Australian giving can be found here – http://www.businessinsider.com.au/here-are-the-top-20-most-generous-suburbs-in-australia-2014-5