Archives For Deliberative Theology

So I penned some quick thoughts today for an old friend concerned about the state of things in Australia. I’ll post it here as I have on social media, because it might help put some things into perspective for you the same way it has for us.

Remember Italy has the highest older population in Europe. It also didn’t close down it’s borders until late in the game. Whereas Australia, followed the U.S and banned travel pretty much right of the bat – smart decision.

Australia is also an island continent, meaning the cases we have here, shouldn’t increase much more than they have – despite predictions; it can be contained better, and those who are infected can receive better treatment.

I think the bigger concern for us, is trade, the economic impact – purely because we are an island continent and import a lot of goods. This could be a good thing, though for local producers, though, as demand for their product increases, simply because it cannot be sourced anywhere else.

I’m not saying the COVID-19 issue is going away anytime soon, or that it’s not serious, it is. I’m saying our ability, say as compared to Italy and Spain to contain, treat, and slow infection rates, is far greater. Due largely to decisive, unpopular action early on from Morrison, and his continued vigilance, through working with Labor, and state governments in a “war cabinet” in order to better serve the needs of Australians.

He’s clearly putting party divisions and politics behind him in this regard, which is good leadership.

So a) we are already, as a nation, socially distanced because of our geography b) we have a war chest, so we’re better positioned economically, thanks to good management of the economy c) we have a leader who has taken the reigns and pushed beyond petty political manoeuvring (such as the Greens are doing) in order to see us through.

Strategically speaking we’re doing well so far. Let’s hope and pray it stays that way.

I’m not sold on the “things will never be the same again”. Neither should you be. This was said after 9/11, and sure things did change regarding security etc. But we’re smarter and understand a lot more about our world because of the event – call it beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3).

I believe the same Biblical example applies here.

We can either learn from this and improve ourselves, both as a society and as individuals, or fail to recognise what generations before us have. That even ‘in suffering we should aim to affirm life’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

We should recall that deliverance is the point of Easter. God cares for humanity, and has made Himself known through his covenant with Israel and in Jesus Christ. God redeems the irredeemable. We are not abandoned, though we may find Him silent from time to time. He isn’t beyond liberating in the present, having already proven Himself to be Our past and future liberator.


Bonhoeffer, D.2012.  God is On The Cross: Reflections on Lent & Easter, Westminster John Knox Press (p.52)

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

© Rod Lampard, 2020

McArthur’s words sum up the boundary at the core of my Christian life – John 14:6; asking God to show me what He sees, so as to guide, guard and direct my path.

Scary prayer to pray. It means allowing grace to ignite and illuminate darkness. To see myself as the sinner I am, in the light of His Gospel and Law. To see where others too have sinned and fallen short of His glory.

As such it’s been the uncomfortable centre of my approach to the cycle of abuse, lies, welfare addicted, abusive, & highly dysfunctional home I grew up in – It’s essential to the Christian life, and not an easy boundary to live out. You’ll lose friends, family, maybe even a church or social club, and they’ll hate, manipulate and undermine you in ways you never thought were possible, wearing the veneer of victim-hood, maturity and innocence.

Then there’ll be the sycophants, who, to avoid conflict, or to maintain a position of acceptance with those people, enable that hate, accusing you of betrayal, being unchristian, discounting your own trauma, who don’t care to know the truth, will ostracise you to the outer circle, and talk behind your back. All for living out this boundary. But it’s worth living out, not for the sake of truth, but for the love of the vulnerable victims who fell prey to those people, and the hope that Christ, through letting His truth work through us, redeems and sets free, via this boundary, as it redefines those relationships, and liberates us from tyranny and the tyrannical.

I inherited nothing but ashes and brokenness. Yet, by Christ, in Christ, through Christ and with Christ, I am told by the Creator of the Universe that I don’t have to live there, stay there or wallow in that mess. The same goes for you. In Jesus Christ, we are embraced by grace – to quote Karl Barth: God the Creator reaches for His creature  – we should, and ought, therefore, to reach for the One, who reaches out to us through His Word, in Spirit and in Truth.

Indeed, ‘unity is never to be sought at the expense of truth.’ We must question the “new normal” and resist its culture of silence, by following the Holy Spirit’s lead, not falling into step with the spirit of the age.


© Rod Lampard, 2020.

If I’m reading a book, I’m usually stopping to look at the books the authors have read. The bibliography, (or more to my own liking) references in the footnotes, are a powerful add-on provided by the author. This isn’t just to add weight to their argument from an authority other than themselves, but also to help take the reader deeper. I’ve chased a number of these references down over the years, and on occasion found myself buying the book referenced. From it I learn more by reading the reference highlighted in the initial text, because reading the text alongside and through its references, expands interaction with the subject.

I’m often keen to go further, understand better, and walk the road the author has taken, by engaging with material that relates directly to the era, or the subject in question. The most recent example for me is the 1048 page biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written by his student, and nephew-in-law, Eberhard Bethge. I followed up three books mentioned by Bethge, and have one more bookmarked for another day.

There’s risk and reward in doing this. One of the traps to avoid in research are tangents. Following a rabbit down a hole is an easy snare to fall into. What looks relevant may be a wide, time consuming distraction. That’s going to mean time lost reading material that was already covered by the original text. This is a lot like Twitter, when someone throws a red herring into a comment thread unrelated to the original tweet. If the red herring isn’t recognised, the whole thread devolves into an endless – usually abusive – and time consuming round of back and forth, up and down.

It’s true that sometimes chasing the rabbit down the hole is a “necessary evil”. As is said, ‘you need to dig in order to find the gold.’ In this case it’s important to be mindful of the overall purpose of the research, taking note of anything along the way that relates directly to the subject matter discussed by the original text. If I stumble on something that I find interesting that isn’t related, I’ll note it as a resource. Then return to the source to study it a bit further, once I’m free of current subject.

An efficient way to follow-up without falling into the costly rabbit hole is to check a Kindle sample via Amazon, Google books or the better option, Archive.org. While Archive.org has a limited range of books it’s the best place to start, followed by Amazon – as long as it has the Kindle preview option, & Google books, as long as it has the search text option. Searching a keyword, page number, contents or bibliography keeps things simple. Books can be expensive and libraries don’t stock everything, this is why I consider these three options to be the best place to start.

Reading a text alongside its references provides better context. This in turn creates a higher degree of transparency and confidence. I can see where the author was going, and improve my understanding of what they meant. Taking the greater context into consideration permits a practical level of confidence in paraphrasing quotes from the original text. The paraphrase is more likely to maintain the integrity of the author’s original meaning because context has been thoroughly considered.

Reading the text alongside and through its references expands interaction with the subject. I’m big on this process. It can be costly, though. If you’re not using or are unable to access places like Archive.org, Amazon Kindle or Google Books. The benefits of doing this mean a greater understanding of the author’s subject matter, and consequently, the ability to simplify a large body of information.

I think this does justice to the painstaking effort the author has put into indexing, citing, and referencing their work. In a sense the process is about ensuring intellectual integrity, utilising a rigorous scientific method to analyse and respond to the subject or premises discussed by the original text. It also upholds the integrity of the author’s intentions, or perceived intentions, perhaps helping them achieve what they hoped their work would achieve. This is why referencing is important.

With Bethge, it’s been a journey that took me three summers to complete. Reading secondary material referenced by Bethge means being able to not only stand on his shoulders in order to see what he saw, but to better hear what he heard. Instead of being a spectator, we become participants.


©Rod Lampard, 2020 

Peter Tabichi, a 36 year old Franciscan Monk from Kenya, has just won the Global Teaching prize, funded by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation. This year the award was hosted by Hugh Jackman, and carries with it a $1 million prize for excellence in teaching.

Tabichi was selected from ‘over 10,000 applicants from around 179 countries’ and was one of ten finalists, which included U.K. teacher, Andrew Moffat, famous for gaining the ire of parents in Birmingham, for teaching LGBT ideology to kids, in a primary school with a large Muslim demographic.

Largely focusing on the fact that Tabichi “gives away 80 percent of his monthly income to the poor”; like most media outlets, SBS in Australia, stopped short of giving any direct mention of his Christian faith, or giving any credit to Christianity.

Maybe SBS thought, why state the obvious? This would be a legitimate excuse, had they shown a pattern of consistency with their headlines and reporting in the past.

Why single out SBS? It’s not a good look for a broadcaster whose charter claims to be the epitome of anti-racism, anti-phobias, intolerance and inclusion.

Google, “SBS Christian wins”. Then compare that with a search of, “SBS LGBT Wins”, or “SBS Muslim Wins”, and a pattern emerges.

For example (et.al):

Muslim Wins Veil Case, 22nd Aug, 2013

Muslim Woman Wins Handshake Discrimination Case, 16th Aug, 2018

Australian Muslim Challenging Mainstream Narrative, 7th Feb 2019

SBS is congratulated for not misidentifying those who self-identify as LGBT or Muslim, but their concern appears to end, when it comes to Christians, the Church or Christian theology making achievements beyond that break the negative stereotypes.

In an age where not using the correct 62+ gender specific pronoun, can land someone in prison, or see someone arrested, it’s not unfair to suggest that SBS (and others) need to do some soul searching.

If misgendering or misidentifying someone is a modern sin, why avoid a direct reference to someone being a Christian?

There aren’t too many answers to choose from:

Either, a) SBS doesn’t want to upset their viewer base, which would suggest that there’s a ton of bigotry against Christians among SBS’s viewer base; b) SBS is betraying its own anti-Christian prejudice through discriminating against Christians. c) SBS doesn’t care.

On balance, there are a few milder exceptions to the rule, The Guardian, noted that Peter was from the Franciscan Religious Order, but The Guardian avoided any direct reference to his Christian faith. In addition, The ABC didn’t do much better.

Had Peter been of the approved variety and/or minority, there’s no doubt that his Christian faith would have been mentioned, if not highlighted.

Still, given the work Peter is doing, and the difficult context he’s doing that work in, he deserves every pat on the back he gets.

According to the Varky Foundation, Peter ‘teaches Science at Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School in Pwani Village, situated in a remote, semi-arid part of Kenya’s Rift Valley; and takes joy in seeing his learners grow in knowledge, skills and confidence.’

The same page also noted that his

‘Students come from a host of diverse cultures and religions learn in poorly equipped classrooms. 95% of pupils hail from poor families, almost a third are orphans or have only one parent, and many go without food at home. Drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, dropping out early from school, young marriages and suicide are common. Turning lives around in a school with only one computer, poor internet, and a student-teacher ratio of 58:1, is no easy task, not least when to reach the school, students must walk 7km along roads that become impassable in the rainy season.’

In January, Peter posted a short bio to his Facebook wall:

“I was raised up in a remote village, in a family of teachers. I lost my mother at the age of 11. We were brought up by our dad, who would look after everything, including preparing meals, educating us and most importantly instilling moral and Christian values in us. This tough experience taught me how to tackle various challenges of life. Growing up I saw first-hand the dedication that teachers bring to the community, and I have come to view the teacher’s role as enlightening others on how to tackle the challenges of life. I wanted to give teaching the honour it deserves. I joined the religious life because I wanted to be able to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to helping others. Your prayers and support have made everything possible. United, we can make this world a better place to live in. Thanks be to God and be blessed!”

Peter’s Christ-like example teaches us.

According to The ABC, ‘Peter plans to use the prize money to improve the school and feed the poor.’

Teachers Magazine also quoted Peter as saying,

“I’m immensely proud of my students. We lack facilities that many schools take for granted. As a teacher, I just want to have a positive impact, not only on my country but the whole of Africa. To be a great teacher, you have to be creative and use technology – you really have to promote those modern ways of teaching. You have to do more and talk less.”

Perhaps we would all benefit from Peter’s example, by acknowledging the source and motivation for it, instead of actively trying to suppress it.


References (not otherwise linked):

[i] Teachers Magazine also refused to mention Tabichi’s Christian faith.

Global Teacher Prize, Peter Tabichi

The Guardian, Teacher targeted over LGBT work shortlisted for $1m global award Sourced 25th March 2019

The Guardian, Kenyan science teacher Peter Tabichi wins $1m global award Sourced, 25th March 2019

Magdalene Wanja, Daily Nation (Kenya), 31st Dec. 2018 Award winning teacher raising hopes for poor students, sourced 25th March 2019

Brennan Manning’s passing prompted this tribute-contemplation. I invite you to sit, and wonder with me, at the significance of what happens when, despite human opinion, the Glory that God deserves is given back to Him.

 ‘The ragamuffin Gospel’ is an impassioned critique of churches that worship doctrine, conceal God and betray grace. He states that ‘Jesus invites sinners and not the self-righteous to his table’[1]. This re-enforces his concern that the church can at times project a ‘watered down Grace’[2]. Consequently, what is demanded is an allegiance to doctrine rather than an alignment to Christ. This makes for a ‘twisted gospel of grace, and results in a religious bondage which distorts the image of God’[3]. For instance, ‘any Church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of Grace’[4].

Reputation is not character. Some of the current expressions of church value appearances over against substance. They are communities defined by ‘fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism’[5]. This is form of sophistry that begins with the individual Christian. Brennan Manning argues that anybody who focuses on a pious reputation over against character is wrong. This exists where ’fellowships permit no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal their sin from themselves and from their fellowship’[6]. It’s easy to see the pragmatic and contextual out working of Manning’s paradox, ‘our doing becomes the very undoing of the gospel’[7].

Consequently some churches become consumed with public appearance[8]. Putting on a show becomes God. This idol turns our conformity into a way to earn salvation, rather than a doorway for discovering salvation. For example: the impossible ideal of a perfect Pastor. Someone who looks great in a suit, has the newest model car, the castle sized mortgage, the beautiful smiling wife, the 2.5 well behaved scripture quoting children and an unblemished Church attendance record. Such standards are closer to the ‘strange paradoxes of the American Dream’ (King), which is only really mounted on the metaphor that, ‘castles made of sand fall…melt…and slip into the sea eventually’ (Hendrix, 1967). While modesty and self presentation is beneficial for every Christian, it does not make you a Christian nor does it necessarily reflect your salvation[9].

A dichotomy exists between being righteous and appearing righteous. Evidence of this is found in the ‘seeming good is better than doing good age’ (Bolt), which feeds self-righteous and Lordless ‘isms’ (Wright) . Those who propagate such ideology, reject the theological Trinitarian reality which acknowledges that grace is a gift  from the Father, transferred to us through Son and worked out in our lives by the Spirit. God’s ‘furious love’[10] for humanity funds dignity, grace and mercy.

This begins with the acceptance of grace, ‘for acceptance means simply to turn to God’[11]. This is an encounter where I am no longer removed from my problems, my sin and my inability to repent because I ‘accept the reality of my human limitations’[12]. In other words, Manning does not endorse a ‘fast-food-cheap grace’ Churchianity.

The Ragamuffin Gospel presents a relational God who reaches into the ragamuffin’s brokenness and provides rescue, ‘inviting us to be faithful to the present moment, neither retreating to the past, nor anticipating the future’[13].

I come to accept that through grace I am dignified and worthwhile. Deemed to be so by the actions, words and approach, of a loving Father towards His children. God isn’t obsessed with, or anxious about our ‘’epic fails’’. God desires the correction of the sinner, not the death of the sinner (Luke 5:32; Ambrose of Milan, ‘On Repentance’). God is not a manipulative father, nor is He like the pagan gods, who demand sacrifice to appease their anger. We do not serve an angry, distant un-relational God who is unconcerned with who we are, or what we do. 

Manning illustrates for us that God seeks out the ragamuffin. Manning’s own ministry and his journey through alcoholism exemplify the message which ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ communicates.  The message of the Ragamuffin Gospel is about a freedom that is completely reliant on a view grace which does not abandon human culpability, in the name of ‘tolerance instead of love’ (Bill ‘birdsong’ Miller).

This freedom is found acquired through a response to grace that empowers a living relationship with the gift of Jesus Christ. This freedom stands as a warning to those who ‘accept grace in theory but deny it in practice’ [14].Manning writes that the ‘deadening spirit of hypocrisy lives on in people who prefer to surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus’[15]. Being honest and expressing the need for grace and not works begins with us, the Church.

Writing about Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Manning states:

‘written in the heat of the moment, the letter is a manifesto of Christian freedom. Christ’s call on your lives is a call to liberty. Freedom is the cornerstone of Christianity (see 2 Cor.3:17[16])…Freedom in Christ produces a healthy independence from peer pressure, people-pleasing, and the bondage of human respect. The tyranny of public opinion can manipulate our lives. What will the neighbours think? What will my friends think? What will people think? The expectations of others can exert a subtle but controlling pressure on our behaviour’[17].

Brennan Manning encourages Christians to let go of  demands which control us, by entering into step with the Spirit, and consequently stepping into a life of freedom that is accountable to God. This freedom ‘lies not in ourselves, who are by nature slaves to sin, but in the freedom of his grace setting us free in Christ by the Holy Spirit’[18]. Christians are living in ‘the presence of God in wonder, amazed by the traces of God all around us’[19], not just in a building or a doctrine.

In concluding, the merit of this book is that Brennan Manning provides a reflection of the human struggle with addiction and idolatry. At times, Manning may seem a little unforgiving in his harsh critique of the institutional Church. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Manning seeks to address practical atheism, by reassessing doctrines and expressions of church, that have by default, replaced God. 

In order to achieve this Manning asserts that the Christian walk is one of risk, founded on a dignity which is grounded solely in God’s intervention on our behalf. The Ragamuffin Gospel addresses the failure to live out independently the character of Christ without Christ. As a result Manning successfully reminds us that God is in fact consistent, fierce, loving and interested in redeeming us, even in the midst of the messiness of our lives.


References:

Manning, B. 1990 The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah Books, Sister, Oregon 97599, USA

Casting Crowns, 2003 American Dream: from the album Casting Crowns
[1] Manning, B. 1990, The Ragamuffin Gospel p.7, Authentic Classics, Multnomah books, Sis. OR.

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[2] Ibid, p.6
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[3] Ibid, p.1
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[4] Ibid, p.13
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[5] Ibid, p.34
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[6] Ibid, p.107 & p.115
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[7] Ibid, p.39
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[8] Ibid, ‘publicity’ p.1
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[9] For example: Facebook memes that encourage us to ‘share if you’re saved’ or like ‘ if you want to be’. As if our spiritual status is determined by how many times we shared or liked such drivel.
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[10] Ibid, p.19
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[11] Ibid, p.24
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[12] Ibid, p.31
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[13] Ibid, p.35
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[14] Ibid, p.117
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[15] Ibid, p.110
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[16] 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (ESV)
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[17] ibid, pp.120-121
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[18] ibid, p.129
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[19] Ibid, p.72

Unexpected Rescue

January 31, 2018 — 4 Comments

There are days when no matter how hard we try to realign our attitude, the overwhelming feelings we might encounter in our situation, become a flood that sinks us further into a feeling of pointlessness. We’re in too deep.

Days come and days go. We watch them pass by from sunrise to sunset. The pace of life smothers us. The things that we felt so qualified to do, no longer make us feel all that qualified.  Instead, we’re overcome by despondency, disillusionment and then despair. Almost breathless, all attempts to make sense of the place we find ourselves in fail.

Though people surround us, there is no one really near us. We hear the noise of those around us, but struggle to process the fact that when we speak, we only find ourselves contributing to that noise. From here we come to the point where we realise that no one can hear us because everyone is listening to the sound of their own voice, answering the applause or condemnation of the world that follows it.

Most are dealing with something, wrestling with their own fears, failures, excesses and successes.  Some give in and slip into a slow motion view of the world.  Faces and facts are distorted. The noise around them drops in pitch. Their world is turned from the sounds of bustling activity into a slow monotonous drone.  Some go faster, live harder, decide to medicate themselves and give their lives over to the consequences.

Surrendering their lives on the altar of human wisdom, both slide into oblivion. Trapped by the cave of their own existence, they refuse to hear any word spoken from beyond it. Creatures of habit, they lean on their own understanding and conclude that any such word is a lie. At best a figment of their imagination, at worst, a tool designed by others to control and deceive them. The word that penetrates the noise of the world around them is too strange, too much of a contradiction, too foreign for them to be comfortable in acknowledging it.

This word in its contradiction speaks of hope, of water in desolate places, of dry bones coming to life, of possibilities within impossibilities. This word contradicts their entire world. It is a word that challenges all human presuppositions about their situation. It is spoken and it speaks to the despondency, disillusionment, despair, and breathless uneasiness.

This word speaks and stands in the way of our own words, answering the applause and condemnation of the world that follows it. It is spoken and it speaks of liberation from both the world’s applause and its condemnation. It is spoken and it speaks of liberation for both the one living in slow motion and the one given over to the self-destructive consequences of their defeatist, live fast, die hard philosophy. This word is a contradiction to their sacrificial slide into oblivion.

They’re in too deep, but this word throws to them a lifeline. Supported in the midst of their impending drift down into the abyss, they are confronted by its strange rescue. This word and its rescue exist despite what they were told and in contradiction to what they were sold. It makes no sense to them. It doesn’t look the way human wisdom says it should. It is an unexpected rescue.

The world’s eloquent words that denied the simplicity of this word cannot save them. Their rescue by this word comes to them out of the act of the One who spoke it, not by the eloquence of the world’s wisdom spoken to them. They are summoned to grasp its grasp of them.  They are summoned to believe, not because human wisdom sold it to them at the “right” price, out of protest, through manipulation or well-crafted words and sugar coated rhetoric. They are summoned by this word to believe because this word is acted upon by the One who speaks it.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’  (John 1:1-4, ESV)

This Word became flesh and dwelt among us[i].  He now becomes the contradiction to all of our impossibilities and the foundation[ii] for all our possibilities. The Word of the cross is the testimony of God, Jesus Christ and Him crucified. This is a word testified to, as God testifies about Himself through it.

‘but neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire [of Rome] had been instigated. To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator , Christ, had been put to death in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But despite this setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome.’ (Tacitus, Annals circa 116 A.D)

Committed to His Word, God dived in deep to throw us a lifeline. Days may come and days may go. We may watch them pass by from sunrise to sunset. The pace of life may smother us, but the Word of God stands forever.  The possibilities that come with this Word stand as a living, breathing, defiant contradiction to the threat of oblivion and any despair the threat of irrelevance might throw at us.

In light of this Word, we can stand firm against all that ‘assumes to itself authority, and does not allow itself to be regulated by the word of God, reckoning as nothing all the applause[iii]’, and condemnation of the world. This is because it’s ‘light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:5, ESV)


References:

[i] John 1:14, ESV

[ii] 1 Cor. 3:10-15, ESV

[iii] Calvin, J. Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3

Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909

The quote below, taken from Tolstoy’s ‘A Confession’, reads like a critique of the leviathan that is social media:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions:
What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.
Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over Russia, and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us. It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that’[i].

Of course, it is anachronistic to suggest that Tolstoy was talking about social media as we know it. Tolstoy’s words are, however, a critique of 19th Century, Russian media, its medium and the noise therein. Therefore, they are an early critique of the content and form which makes up a large part of social media. As such, they are a relevant criticism for us to take seriously, particularly when applying them to a 21st Century context.

Henry Ergas from ‘The Australian’, made an interesting observation. In writing about sensitive information, how it is monitored, distributed and delivered. He provided an historical insight, which although topically unrelated, helps us to contextually frame the sharp poignancy of Tolstoy’s reflection:

“19th century’s Pax Brittanica, was built on a solid technological foundation: Britain’s control of global telegraphy. As late as 1890, 80 per cent of the world’s submarine cables were British; Britain ruled the wires even more decisively than she ruled the waves… The sophistication of today’s communications networks is obviously many orders of magnitude that of Britain’s global telegraph system. In 2012, daily internet traffic was in the order of 1.1 exabytes, one billion times more every day than the 19th century system could carry in a year. And the growth rates remain breathtaking: wireless traffic alone is now eight times larger than the entire internet in 2000’[ii]

If Ergas’ facts are correct, that is a lot of information being exchanged. For better or worse we engage, encode, disengage and decipher information at ‘breathtaking’ speeds. Matthew McKay suggests that ‘55% of all communication is mostly facial expressions’[v]. Thus, my conclusion is that because most of the information exchanged via social media is in written form, it seriously limits our ability to receive a message, in the same way it was intended to be received by the author. (there are many examples of how comments have been wrongly interpreted).

I consider Tolstoy’s reflection a full-stop. An important interruption that encourages us to take a breath and ask ourselves:

  • Is the information we are consuming authentic, well-informed, or is it just propaganda; distortion (noise)?

Further questions might be:

  • Are we consuming information without really processing and retaining what it is being said?
  • Who is saying this, and why are they saying it?
  • Is the source trustworthy?
  • Will my time be well spent reading this or not?

There is a further word worthy of consideration here. Augustine, in his day, had this to say about grace and human nature:

…’many sins are committed through pride; but not all happen proudly. They happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness, and many are committed by people, weeping and groaning in their distress[iii]’

Perhaps there is a timeless clarity by which these words help us to reflect on the interpersonal conduct, and content of the information exchanged on most prominent social media sites today?

Diary of Leo Tolstoy

Diary of Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even with all its pitfalls, the strength of social media is in its ability to connect people and strengthen relationships. I remain a cautious participant of social media, aware of its limited ability to ‘properly allow a healthy and fair exchange of ideas’ (Elshtain, 2007). Therefore, I find here in Augustine and Tolstoy’s words, a reminder about the limits and the responsibility which coincides with the right to use such mediums. Augustine’s insight here could be bridged to Tolstoy’s reflection, and therefore buttress our proposition. Their words present us with a useful framework for a theological critique of social media.

If we look at Proverbs 4:20-5:6, we can see a parallel logic that could exonerate this train of thought.

Be attentive to God’s word

Keeping them close.

Guard your heart with vigilance,

Avoiding spin and smear.

(“Refusing to be conned by the rhetoric of either the Right or the Left’’)[iv]

Looking forward, ponder the path of our feet.

Be attentive to wisdom.

Use words that guard knowledge,

And ponder the path of life.


Related articles

Tolstoy’s Faith – GVL

The Who, What And When Of Social Media – RVD, The Christian Pundit

References:


[i] Tolstoy, L. 1879 A Confession (Kindle for PC ed. Loc. 92-100).
[ii] Ergas, H. 2013 Wrong for Abbott to follow Obama and add lying to spying, The Australian, Sourced 25th November 2013
[iii] Augustine, ON NATURE AND GRACE (With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Ed. Loc. 704-706
[iv] Wright, N.T. 2013 Creation, Power and Truth: The gospel in a world of cultural confusion, SPCK & Proverbs 4:27
[v] McKay, M., Martha, D. & Fanning, P. 2009 Messages: The communications skill book p.59, New Harbinger publications

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