The Mainstreaming of the Niche

The rallying cry for arts to be in church is being heard in many places. It has become (almost…?) mainstream. Even saying that the church used to be a centre and a patron of the arts — and should be again! — is mainstream.

We can’t get anywhere productive until we consider the reasons why the church doesn’t have this place in the arts now. (And perhaps the reasons why it did –some of which aren’t so pleasant.)

Here it is: faith has been reduced to a set of premises. It’s been boiled down to a (supposedly) logical argument. This is “preaching”.

It’s not just words. It’s a certain genre of words.

And then along comes art. Art doesn’t interest itself in logical arguments. It explores life on a much bigger canvas. It reflects on the absurd, the grotesque, the unpredictable, as well as the noble, the beautiful and inspiring.

Feeling and thought; real and imagined.

This isn’t where the established church loves to camp. The church, in its current iteration, still loves to make sweeping declarative truth statements. Art doesn’t fit easily into propaganda. Not for long, unless an artist is getting paid somehow.

If we think that we can solve the divide by upping the appreciation of art, and purchasing a handful of art pieces, that will only make the divide deeper.

In the broad strokes, art is exploration. 

The church hasn’t (re)discovered that this is its purpose. At least, not yet. It’s still stuck trying to do stuff which is concrete and tangible.

This isn’t to dismissively imply that there aren’t artists in church. Or to imply that what a church does is somehow not “real” art. Rather, it’s to recognise that the church isn’t typically warm to the concept and process of art, just its fruits.

The church cannot be a patron of the arts if its artists are still largely misunderstood and unwelcome.

If art is merely another way to express the same tired, superficial, certainty-infused messaging of the church, most artists will not participate. Those messages are old. They do not reflect the growing clamour of perceived and intended meanings within our culture. Therefore they cannot speak to our culture’s needs.

These are aspects of art we’re going to need to be comfortable with:

  • Not every artistic endeavour is worthy of attention.
  • Not every journey arrives at an important or even meaningful destination.
  • Nothing is guaranteed to have a singular interpretation.

Indeed, we’re going to have to get comfortable with this unsettledness regarding many aspects of human creativity.

I think we can. And I think we will. But only if we begin to grapple with truth in a deeper, more candid way than we’re currently known for.

“Winner Take All” Doesn’t Solve Anything

Watching the US election 2016, I’m surprised at the level of surprise.

The way Americans debate is infused with force. I’ve noticed this in every forum I’ve encountered. Over the past few decades, the US has declared itself the arbiter of democracy, and yet it has civil war in its own past. This should not be understated — it has unresolved, deep issues with race and reconciliation that go all the way back to slavery. It was forced to resort to blatantly non-democratic way to try to fix them. That is its history. Did it work?

Look at examples like the persistent existence of the KKK, the troubled history of the Black Panthers, the entirely fractious efforts to end segregation and the viral nature of #BlackLivesMatter. America still has a pretty serious racial chasm.

Additionally, no race is a monolith; there are conflicting perspectives within races, which complicate the tensions between them.

And that’s just race. Now apply that same phenomenon to every imaginable demographic and issue, and you start to get a clearer picture of what’s going on.

Everyone seems surprised at the level of animosity and fracturing. But I’ve been watching this unfold for some time now. You may think that the way people talk to each other online is just a twisted representation of their much calmer, real-life selves. I do not — I believe it truly represents the way they think and feel. People are scared and angry, and especially after the election result, this needs to be taken seriously.

A common refrain is “Haven’t we solved this already?”

The problem is that war doesn’t solve anything. It just pushes the problems off for a bit, and give the victors false confidence. Then the problems manifest another (likely far more subversive) way.

The way the 2016 election went, it was very like a war, at least rhetorically. There isn’t just a winner and a loser. There is dancing and rioting in the streets — to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference. There is an outpouring of vitriol from the winners, and mass-anxiety of the losers. The country is not united.

Truth is the most bloodied casualty in the streets, and now laying shell-shocked and disoriented in the infirmary. Some are suggesting it may never recover. Indeed, it may not.

Affiliations of all kinds are caught up in this, trying to sift through the rubble to figure out what to be confident in, and what to be afraid of.

A large number of values that were thought to be shared are being discovered to wildly one-sided.

Starting long before this election, every social issue is being fought with this “winner take all” attitude. Any group’s “thems” are not just different, they are strange, dangerous and most likely evil. From same-sex marriage to climate change, the rhetoric is all designed to quickly and simplistically write opposition off with caricaturing labels — as hopelessly prejudiced against “the facts”. When every group is adopting that language and strategy, the only solution is war.

“Them’s fightin’ words!”

The better argument will not prevail. Rational, intelligent appeals to empathy and a shared understanding will not work. When one side is determined to win at all costs, and the ends are casually assumed to justify any means, then you either join that game, or you lose.

When faced with confusion, we’ll concede to the promise of power.

I hope that America will discover why democracy needs to have philosophers and lawyers in its highest offices. It isn’t to restrict access to narrow professions. Just the opposite: they’re the people who have the largest view of human history and thought, who can be counted on to keep the country open. They’ve studied law. They’ve experienced it.

Giving a cut-throat, unfiltered, fickle, business-savvy mouthpiece the presidency over a poralised, fragmented population, isn’t likely to get a more stable, unified and contented nation.

Surprisingly, some people may indeed be surprised by that.

Surprise!

Donald Trump is president-elect. Wow. I never saw that coming. But even more surprising, based on his acceptance speech, he might turn out to be a good president.

I definitely never saw that coming!

He gamed it — he gamed the whole election. I don’t mean he controlled it. I mean he played like there was no possible way he could lose. (And to a certain extent, that’s true.) It makes some kind of sense that a population who loves reality TV found its hero in an aggressive, flippant gamer of systems. Perhaps now that the election is over, it’s the beginning of a brand new game.

But there’s a lot more to consider.

All of his crass posturing flipped over every imaginable rock, revealing the hidden nastiness beneath.

  • That’s not pretty.
  • That’s not politic.
  • That’s not the established practice.

Whether or not you believe he’s complicit in the nastiness, or even an agent of it, he has undoubtedly provided the country with a mirror to itself.

There is no way to ignore that now.

I mean, people can try. People *will* try. People will protect themselves from feeling their guilt and misgivings with accusations and counter-accusations. For the foreseeable future, rhetoric wars will wage white-hot between all the polarised factions zig-zagging through the country like fault-lines.

  • What happens to all of this anger?
  • Where does this fear lead?
  • How does character factor in here?
  • What about expectations of quality leadership?
  • Do the ends even come close to justifying the means?

There is a considerable number of echoing, foundational questions which can’t be answered easily.

But, as is demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, the voter base’s memory is very short. Therefore, through the force of self-fulfilling prophecy, and a first-hand understanding of the country that I have no doubt the election run gave him, Trump might find a way to lead well…if the majority who voted for him (and at least a few who didn’t) are willing to pivot with him.

If people get busy accomplishing a goal, their personal differences won’t be as stark or meaningful.

Despite all the grumbling, outrage and false-nostalgia, “Make America Great Again” may actually be a prophetic rallying cry — not least because its citizenry gets to (re)define ‘great’ on its own terms.

Trump might turn out to be a good president. And if he does, then the American people are wildly, unimaginably and unbelievably lucky. Because in all honesty, that isn’t anything like who they voted for.

A Radical Welcome

The more I’ve shared the disquiet I’ve had around this issue, the more people I’ve discovered share it.

The less radically welcoming church is, the more incapable it is of connecting to those who may need it the most.

When it comes to faith, there is a growing awareness of all the things we don’t get to pick.

Faith is accepting something as true — it is an internalising journey. Unfortunately, too often it gets pitched as externalising one — that truth inherently requires an outward projection.

“Turn or burn!”

This is a problem when it comes to trying to convince someone else of a truth — where there is no credibility, truth cannot be shared.

Active, vibrant faith embodies invitation — not just to one specific, singular experience we have — but a whole fabric of experiences. Within church, this likely includes components of ideology, culture and even language.

The more strict the orthodoxy in a given group, the more nailed-down and codified these experiences tend to be.

And the more narrow they are, the smaller the group they “work” for.

In fact, the most restrictive theological paradigms view this as a good thing. They view a selective invitation itself as a good thing. They’re eager to share that the straight and narrow path is inherently unpopular.

They invest a lot of energy in deciding who is “in” and who is “out”. And the people who are “out” are thus unwelcome. Permanently.

This can easily turn into a circular vortex of exclusionary folly.

Fixing it requires a examination of some fundamental assumptions. How high do we want the bar to be before people join us in our beliefs?

Angry, bitter debates are still being had about this between high-church and seeker-sensitive camps.

We need to do some honest thinking about how narrow a welcome we’re prepared to live with.

From the record of Jesus’ life we have in the Bible, his welcome was radical. From my reading, it doesn’t look like there was a filter. (Unless it included people like the Pharisees, primarily because their welcome was imminently selective.)

He didn’t insist on certain, predictable ways of relating to him, either. 

A confident, internal truth exudes humility. It doesn’t make unnecessary truth claims, or unverifiable if/then statements.

It listens, it understands and it knows. And it speaks only when it’s convinced that is for the best.

Extravagant Generosity

No Surprise Here

Anyone who’s even passingly familiar with Christianity is probably familiar with the fruits of the Spirit (or should be). It’s easy to slavishly rattle them off like a check-list of to-dos:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

That’s why I think the Message’s fresh approach is worthy of attention:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Galatians 5:22

We’re sometimes tempted to think of fruit as the product of hard agricultural labour.

Well, sure, fruit takes attentiveness.

But on our own, our efforts to grow fruit are about as productive as running flat-out in a hamster wheel.

A Better Picture of Fruit

Hey, full disclosure: I’m not a really big fan of fruit. Everybody in my life knows that. It’s a common joke with my family and colleagues. But I have an appreciation of fruit as a metaphor that I think is worth sharing.

As a missionary, my Dad took his students on outreach trips. One of these provided a picture which has become formative for how I think about spiritual fruit.

On one trip into the bush, they arrived at the zenith of watermelon harvest. Watermelons started coming one-by-one, carried on the heads of women. Then two-by-two, carried by men. Then they were delivered by wheel-barrow. And finally a donkey cart, stacked to the sky!

These watermelons are not cut into dainty little cubes, or even triangle slices. They are hacked with a machete-sized knife into full length wedges.

With so many watermelons on hand, they could all afford to be picky. If a watermelon was cut into, and wasn’t juicy enough, it would go to the livestock, and another would be chosen.

Watermelons were consumed eagerly, indelicately, satisfying hunger and thirst simultaneously, amid the smiles, laughter and easy conversation of new friends.

Dad brought one home with him, and our family ate it like they did in the village. It was hilarious. We ate it outside in the front yard and my brother, 3 at the time, was stripped naked so he could easily be hosed off when we were done — a smart move, as it turned out.

Eating fruit like that is not a prim and tidy experience. The juice runs off your chin and elbows.

It gets all over you!

The Whole Point!

This is about “exuberance of life” — fruits of the Spirit are not a grind. They are the very signs of life!

Maybe we need to raise our standards.

Maybe we need to live into a heightened appreciation of abundance.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to discard a few of the less-than-satisfactory fruits we’ve been snacking on.

If we are the witnesses of an extravagantly generous God, our lives should probably resemble that.

If Only…

If the majority of your thoughts include the phrase “if only,” you need some better thoughts.

“If only” means you’re fixated on limitations, roadblocks and lack. The only one who can make your dream transcend that stuff is you.

Start by believing your creativity is stronger than the factors which impede it.

There are things you cannot change right now. There are things you will never be able to change. There are things you wish you could change that should not change, ever.

Sometimes — too often, perhaps — it feels like life is just putting in time.

  • Working for the weekend.
  • Working for the next vacation.
  • It’s not about quantity time, but quality time, right?

We don’t want that feeling — great stories don’t have dead air. We have all this pressure to do stuff — great stuff! And time is an unpredictable and finite resource. So if not now, when?

All that and more.

The problem is that the urgency to act, to take bold steps, can lead us right down the garden path.

Is your “if only” about the change you want to make, or the best change you can make?

Is it just a means to another, better means? Or does it actually relate to the ends?

It’s very easy to let this “if only” routine take on a life of its own.

That’s a choice you can make. But you can make better choices, too.

  • Identify the ends — what does success look like?
  • What does each “if only” tell you about the ends?
  • How can you circumvent it?

Be less concerned about the new and the next, and tune in to the present. What are you doing right now that’s feeding your dream, vision, passion, calling, etc. You don’t need more training. You don’t need more equipment. You don’t need less anxiety.

You don’t need anything more or less than starting. Right now.

The Problem of Violence

Violence is the problem.

People who believe that violence is the way to solve problems are part of the problem.

People who believe violence is the only way they will get attention are part of the problem.

People who only pay attention when faced with violence are part of the problem.

People who provoke violence are part of the problem.

People who justify violence are part of the problem.

People who minimise violence are part of the problem.

People who don’t care about violence are part of the problem.

People who only care selectively are part of the problem.

People who make the tools of violence are part of the problem.

People who sell the tools of violence are part of the problem.

People who defend unrestrained ownership of the tools of violence are part of the problem.

People who feel the need to own the tools of violence are part of the problem.

People who propagate a culture where owning the tools of violence is a felt need are part of the problem.

People who think that blaming politicians will solve anything are part of the problem.

People who think that blaming anyone will solve anything are part of the problem.

People who flippantly tell other people that they’re part of the problem are part of the problem.

People who believe that any effort to solve the problem is doomed to futility are part of the problem.


The problem will be solved by crossing the dividing lines of fear. Of mistrust. Of profound, entrenched hatred. Of reinforced, natural patterns of thought, and expected consequences.

The people who do this will bear the burden of immense fear, mistrust, hate and shame.

They will be vilified, worst by their own camp — considered sell-outs, seen as conspiring with enemies, and viewed with suspicion by all sides.

But they will also be loved, for love is how they will choose to live. It will be the reality that shines out of their lives, as they forge new hope, richer understanding — a fresh re-awakening.

And that love will quite possibly turn them into martyrs.

The Clash of Legal and Moral

I was listening to a podcast where a book on love was recommended, though the author was criticised for unnecessarily pushing his religious views.

Think about that for a sec: What did the author do to impose his religious views on the reader?

In a democratic society, the very exercise of reading a book is voluntary (even in school where the book is part of the curriculum, though that choice may have a cost). There is no insistence that anyone read anything — in the broadest strokes, nothing is being “pushed”.

Rather, the assumption comes from the reader in this case: the relationship is presupposed as a pushy one. It is an unfair, bad-faith assumption that a book which is being read voluntarily is pushing its views.

Part of the interplay of plurality is allowing there to be messages and meanings in the world that we disagree with. They should not presumed to be insistent, or even instructive.

It’s enough for them to be descriptive.

If they’re viewed as descriptive, we can learn from them. We can understand divergent worldviews. And the better we understand, the more rich and hospitable a conversation we can have. If they’re viewed as a play for power however, then we feel the need to react in some way or another — either adoption or rejection.

I wish more people paid attention to their desires and feelings — what motivates these reactions? — instead of simply reacting.

I’m not unfamiliar with the unpopularity of religion in the west. And yet, even within that framework, there is a problem the church needs to internalise and grapple with.

The church is pushing its religion. It’s supposed to. But all too often, it’s pushing the wrong aspect of that religion — a subjective, superficial, non-essential, moralistic one.

Bottom line, if what the church is preaching requires a pre-existing belief in God to make it true, it’s preaching to its own choir.

That’s without the wild assortment of adjuncts that have been added which Christians can’t agree on.

One of the great ironies that the church blames the population for its inability to change the population’s laws, when its arguments don’t even find resonance within all of the church — a minority of the population.

If the church can’t operate from a position of unity, it should stop trying to impose more uniformity on the broader world.

Offering people more freedom doesn’t mean by default that individual or group morality is in jeopardy.

The broader world largely accepts diversity. Effectively, more freedom merely means that we have more freedom to not do what the law permits.

When it is perceived that morality is being imposed, there is a backlash.

This is hypocritical, because some kind of moral is constantly believed to be larger than oneself — this is evident even in the reaction.

What I’m saying is that at some level, everyone believes that some kind of morality should be imposed.

The very act of loudly resisting someone else’s moral standards is imposing one’s own.

That’s not wrong. We should not be feeling the pressure to compromise, so resistance is necessary. And yet, we should recognise that our loud resistance can be quite easily a call for others to compromise.

This is why people have a hard time talking about politics civilly.

Sometimes grace means inviting people to think about an issue more deeply.

Sometimes grace means making a case for people raising the bar on their moral standards.

But sometimes grace means letting people be wrong, and loving them anyway.

Because in all that rabble-rousing about ethics and morality, it’s easy to miss that love is the highest virtue we’re called to.

Has Morality Failed Us?

There are two primary problems in the world. I know it seems like there are a lot more. But trust me, there are just two:

  • Knowing what the right things are.
  • Finding the will to do them.

If you think that distilling all of life into two distinct problems makes it easy, you’re wrong.

Cultural cohesion around this stuff is eroding. The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time.

Bigger:

We are becoming more aware of profound divergences which influence societies all over the world. The moral conclusions people arrive at are so radically different that they can be baffling to the uninitiated.

Smaller:

Globalisation means that differences are all being constantly shoved in everyone else’s face. Not literally, of course. But where those differences are the most stark, it can sure feel like it. People are likely to respond emotionally!

One of the biggest contentions in morality is the difference between prescriptive and proscriptive.

It’s the difference between should and should not.

Far too often morality is couched in negative terms, trying to censure actions, words and even thoughts. It sets up morality to be combative, even hostile, as if we can fight our way to more harmony.

There is little energy given to imagining more, better and richer ways to live.

It’s not too surprising though: in its giddy rush to embrace strict theological paradigms, the church has been systematically rejecting the lofty, unrestrained imaginings of its poets and prophets.

We have to invest more energy into presenting a compelling dream of what life can be.

Many of the ways culture is moving sets up paradoxes. It traps people into hypocrisy. Humanity cannot be confined by, or even described with straight lines and right angles. The harder the push toward a moral standard, the more evident the hypocrisy — people’s logic will inevitably be used against them.

Aside from the most extreme cases, appealing to some baseline morality is mostly ineffective.

There is less “obvious” in our world. People don’t “just know”. The definition of morality is shifting — in some ways, dramatically!

And here is the controversial kicker: it is allowed to!

The Question of Levels

We have to recognise that instead of trigger points, there’s a sliding scale of levels.

  • There are people who are unknowingly harming themselves.
  • There are people who are unthinkingly hurting other people.
  • There are people who believe (or perceive) that there is harm, but who cannot demonstrate or prove it in any objective, concrete sense. (Which effectively means that it doesn’t count.)
  • Then there are people who see the intention to hurt where it doesn’t exist, and they twist their own pain into abusive accusations of others.

Ultimately, there is a line so disgusting, so gruesome and so horrifying that the vast majority will agree that it shouldn’t be crossed. Ever!

But that’s way down the road from where a lot of Christian I’ve heard make their assumptions about “universal morality”, and bring to bear every manipulative trick in the book to push their agenda.

(Of course, this isn’t specifically a Christian thing. It’s a human nature thing, though people seem mostly oblivious to it unless it’s done to them.)

When people put all their energy and intention into drawing their line so early that it just sounds bizarre, and there is no justifiable rationale to back it up, it will become ignored…or perhaps lampooned.

If your goal is to win hearts and minds, getting lampooned by the majority is not generally a pathway to success.

In a democracy, we have to go with the will of the majority.

When the morality of the majority shifts to an apparently more lax standard, it causes discomfort for the people who wanted it to stay where it was. Or get more restrictive.

So, Where is the Line?

  • Do we let people live in a way that we believe is self-destructive?
  • How do we intervene in a way that will become sustainable without us?
  • How hard do we push against someone’s attitudes or behaviour before we become the element of destruction?
  • Does our definition of evil require obvious consequences?

The external signs in all of this can be deceiving. People can care deeply, and be silent. The loudest people may not actually care much at all.

Finding the Good

As usual though, the most important differences are made through from celebrating and reinforcing positive change. (Not berating the “guilty”.)

We bear the onus to demonstrate how adopting your perspective will improve people’s lives — not in abstract, hypothetical ways. In tangible, practical ones.

In other words, how would people become objectively better?

And if we can’t do that, maybe we should go slow in making moralistic declarative statements.

Strength, Gentleness and Identity

Courage is found in all of the following:

  • Action
  • Reaction
  • Resistance

Seeing as these can clearly become polar opposites, courage cannot be the only benchmark by which engagement is measured.

Courage is generally regarded as a virtue — one that we assume our ideological opponents lack.

Yet courageously holding to folly is clearly not virtue.

KOL29831

The only chance we have to manifest the virtue of courage is if it is internalised, not externalised.

In other words, true courage is the ability to let others continue on in our definition of wrong if we cannot form or articulate adequate reasons to correct them — or indeed, if they resist our correction.

Our courage is formed in identity; the more confidence we have in identity, the more gently we can hold our convictions.

The courage to examine and hold loosely to ideas is inherent to being a growing, changing person.

Whimsical change is not an objective virtue (shifting shadows). But then again, neither is artificial rigidity, couched in terms of “faithfulness” (stiff-necked).

When we have our anchors in the right places, we’re able to be impressively malleable, flexible and accommodating.

How do we know if we’ve put our anchors in the right places?

Once again, we need better, deeper, richer tools to understand character.