Month: August 2013

a question of trust

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of James K A Smith lately. I find his emphasis on our bodiliness tremendously stimulating — especially in tackling the challenge of how to co-operate with God’s Spirit so we increasingly embrace a kingdom vision for our flourishing.

But I’ve also been vaguely troubled his (Augustinian) emphasis on the centrality of our loves in all this — and how our ‘thick’ practices and habits can gradually carve new channels for our affection to travel along.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for rightly-ordered loves. And for working hard at how to train our hearts.

I’m fully convinced that sin is fundamentally a worship issue rather than a worldview issue.

That’s why I agree with Smith that the widespread assumption that change and growth in Christian maturity comes primarily by getting things straight in our heads definitely needs displacing.

No one grows as a Christian (or becomes a Christian) simply by gaining more information, having more truth laid out before us, or developing a more consistent and well-rounded Christian worldview.

That’s just not how the spiritual dynamics of growth (or conversion) work.

But it’s in thinking about how we actually do grow and change that I start to hesitate.

Because at its heart I think maturing spiritually is a matter of faith. A question of trust. That’s why the write to the Hebrews says what he does about the necessity of faith for entering God’s rest.

So I’m with Tullian Tchividjian on this one:

Love is absent to the degree that faith is missing. If I’m not trusting that everything I need in Christ I already possess (lack of faith), then I will be looking to take from you rather than give to you (lack of love). I’ll be concentrating on what I need, not what you need. I’ll be looking out for me, not you.

In the original context Tchividjian is talking about our ‘horizontal’ love for one another. But I think it also makes sense to say this of how to kindle the rightly-ordered love for God that alone can power our spiritual growth.

your formative years?

I’ve been reading James K A Smith’s book, Desiring The Kingdom. And I’m absolutely loving it!

Although, I have to say that it leaves me in equal parts thrilled and freaked out.


Check out this provocative description of what makes many people’s time at university so formative (pages 115-116):

[T]he university’s formative, liturgical power extends well beyond the classroom and the lecture hall; indeed, it might be that the dorms, stadium, and frat houses are even more powerful liturgical sites within the university — shaping students into certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent on certain ends.
Consider, for instance, the consummate ritual of initiation: Freshers’ Week (or “Frosh” Week, as it’s known in Canada). This is an intensive experience of initial formation that functions as a veritable boot camp — a week of immersion in the life of the university that often has quite little to do with the task of learning or research. It is intensely communal and intergenerational, where older students initiate new students into the books and crannies of the university’s life and not so subtly communicate what is valued, which often amounts to carefree social interaction lubricated by alcohol, cult-like devotion to the football team, and the solidification of social networks that will be instrumental and instrumentalized for the sake of personal benefit and gain.

(Obviously, this reflects the North American campus experience. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make the necessary mental adjustments for our Australian context!)

As an example of Smith’s larger argument, I hope this gives you a sense of what’s so thrilling and frightening here.

I’m excited by his affirmation of the importance of our bodiliness — and with it our ‘thick’ significance-laden, identity-forming habits and practices (think spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting your tousled look rather than your regular tooth-brushing).

And I’m freaked out by the picture he paints of the pervasiveness and power of the (liturgical) identity-sculpting forces coursing and heaving away beneath the surface of university life.

How can we resist — or equip university students (or potential students) to resist — something that seems as inexorable and irreversible as erosion?

This is the challenge that’s got its hooks into me at the moment. So expect to hear more about it!

Attention! Attention!

Apparently we’re living in an attention economy — where one of the most scarce and precious commodities is our attention.

What this means is that whoever and whatever can capture and hold our attention ‘wins’. (Which I guess means it’s fitting that I read about this attention economy by following a link from my Twitter feed.)

I certainly feel like ‘attention economy’ pretty accurately describes the situation in my household with an incredibly active and curious almost-two year old.

And I suspect many of us can resonate with this more broadly. Can’t we?

Think about the prevalence of the soundbyte. Or the highlight reel.

Or think about how quickly posts seem to appear and then disappear from your news feed on Facebook. Blink and you can miss massively important announcements — weddings, births, new jobs…

(In fact, the ‘experts’ tell me that in university student ministry, the ideal number of times to Tweet each day is between 2 and 8 times! That’s every day. Every. Single. Day. Posting mostly the same content. Just so people have a chance of seeing it.)

It’s like survival of the fittest for ideas!

But as well as keeping everything brief and punchy (to avoid tl;dr), our attention economy rewards novelty.

It’s all about freshness. Originality.

Everything’s got to be new — or at least wrapped in a shiny new package.

All of which poses some distinct challenges for Christians.

Because Christians are people who say we’ve had not just our attention but our loyalty captured and held by one thing. One person — Jesus.

Worse, the writer of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”!

Worse still, Jesus himself tells us (in John 5) that he is supremely unoriginal. He does nothing new — but only what he sees his Father doing: “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”.

So in this attention economy is there anything that can stop Christians being boring when we always want to keep talking about Jesus?

And, maybe even more significantly, is there anything that can stop us getting bored ourselves? Not so much turning our back on Jesus as getting distracted — having our eyes and hearts drawn away towards something newer and fresher?

Well… Maybe.

I’m sure this is the bit where I’m supposed to pull a rabbit out of a hat and resolve the attention economy dilemma.

That’s certainly what I’d planned to do. I’d planned to point to the inexhaustible richness of the Bible’s testimony to Jesus.

And I wanted to sketch out a flexible framework that would allow this rich, multi-dimensional witness to emerge with relevance to the questions and issues we encounter in our everyday relationships…

But I’m not sure I know how to do this. All I’ve got is a hunch — a hunch that people like Tim Keller are on to something when they talk about the “irreducible complexity” of the core Christian message about Jesus.

Commenting on how ready the Apostles were to draw a line between true and false gospels, Keller observes (Center Church, chapter 2): “It would be impossible for Paul to condemn a ‘false gospel’ and affirm the preaching of Peter as ‘the gospel’ without assuming a consensus body of gospel content. And yet it is obvious that the various biblical writers express the gospel in significantly different ways.”

It’s almost like God’s anticipated the problem of our attention economy. Or maybe it’s not such a novel problem after all…