A Thorn In Our Collective Flesh?

A Disappointing Choice

Maybe it’s unnecessarily dark and dramatic. But I’m starting to think of tomorrow’s federal election a bit like this:

“So that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself.” (2 Corinthians 12:7 HCSB)

You may have seen the Cathy Wilcox political cartoon doing the rounds of social media — the one with voters marking their ballot papers from ‘least disappointing’ through to ‘most disappointing’.

It captures how many of my friends are feeling about tomorrow’s federal election.

Tomorrow Australia chooses.

But by almost any measure, it’s a pretty disappointing choice.

A Thorn In The Flesh?

Which brings me to Paul’s thorn — and how this election and its aftermath might be the thorn in our collective flesh.

Whether it was a physical illness or a ‘spiritual’ condition (a besetting sin Paul was struggling with perhaps), it’s clear that Paul regarded this thorn as an unpleasant imposition. He calls it “a messenger of Satan”. And pleads for God to remove it. Repeatedly.

In short, it doesn’t exactly make Paul’s list of Awesome Stuff I Hoped Would Happen To Me.

And yet Paul could also see that God was using his thorn.

He could see God’s hand in it. See how God was humbling him. And teaching him about the sufficiency of his grace, and about his all-surpassing strength in the midst of Paul’s weakness.

Learning From The Thorn

I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to say that tomorrow’s election — and whatever government it delivers us — doesn’t exactly make my list of Awesome Stuff I Hope Would Happen To Me.

I may not be quite ready to assign it a satanic origin. But it sure feels like a thorn in our collective flesh.

Which leads me to think that maybe we need to start asking the kind of ‘What could God be teaching us?’ questions that Paul asks.

So here’s my list (for what it’s worth). Maybe you could add to it?

1. It could remind us of the ‘imperfectability’ of human leadership

We need to smash the idol of human leadership that grips the hearts of Australians.

Don’t believe me that we idolise our leaders? Think we’re too cynical for that?

Actually, our cynicism just proves it. We’re cynical because we’ve set our hopes unrealistically high.

Our crushing disappointment reveals that most of us want our leaders to do far more for us than simply administer justice. Instead, we want them to fill our lives. Give us peace. Security. Hope. Salvation even.

Maybe this election will be a good thing because it will sear the lesson into us that human leadership is not only imperfect but imperfectable!

2. It could help us rediscover the breadth of public life

Maybe the results of this election will force us not just to nod our heads to but to actively embrace the fact that, as
Michael Allison and Richard Glover
put it, “politics is about more than voting, governments and governors. Politics is primarily about citizenship – how you conduct yourself in the community.”

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we went back to advocating for stuff we cared about the old fashioned way?

Not by ‘outsourcing our values’ — e.g., by voting in a candidate or party we want to perfectly represent our concerns. But by pitching in together. Using our different gifts. And making our legislators listen to us.

Are you any good at research? Good! Use your abilities to do some research about the things that matter to you — say … the economic value of resettling asylum seekers.

Any good at communications? Great! Turn the research your sisters and brothers produce into something compelling that wins hearts — and a hearing in Canberra.

At the very least, start talking to your local member not just whinging about whichever party they represent!

3. It could drive us to prayerful witness — maybe even martyrdom

Ultimately, Paul’s thorn to teach him that God’s grace was sufficient, God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

It forced him to look away from himself and to the Lord — drawing others’ eyes there in the process.

And maybe the outcome of Saturday’s election could do something like that for us.

What if having some of our key concerns marginalised drove Christians in our nation to prayer?

To call upon the Lord instead of looking to ourselves — our influence, insight and strategy — to make things right.

To cry “Come, Lord Jesus” instead of plotting the second coming of Christendom in Australia.

Even to risk social (if not literal) death in order to testify to the perfect, just and compassionate rule of our Risen Lord instead of desperately trying to bend the instrumentality of our society’s organisation towards our ideas of justice and compassion.

Marginalisation won’t be fun. Neither was Paul’s thorn.

But a thorn in our collective flesh might be exactly what we need to rediscover that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and his strength is made perfect in weakness…

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!

rethinking idolatry

I feel like I’m only just catching on, but idolatry’s kind of a big deal right now. It’s the new black when it comes to thinking about evangelism and Christian cultural engagement.

Everyone wants to identify and expose the idols of our hearts and culture.

And there’s a lot going for this approach. Not only is idolatry a major theme in the Bible but as Tim Keller points out, it can have real traction in raising the topic of sin with postmodern people:

Instead of telling [people] they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their careers and romances to save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for in God. This idolatry leads to drivenness, addictions, severe anxiety, obsessiveness, envy of others, and resentment.

That’ll certainly preach!

But I’m starting to wonder about what it means to identify contemporary Western idols. And what our method is for doing that. (I’d like to claim this as why I never finished my series of reflections on consumerism — but the real reason is that I got caught in the holiday whirlpool of consuming!)

What’s prompted my rethink is the repeated pairing of ‘eating meat sacrificed to idols’ and ‘sexual immorality’ in Revelation 2-3.

We were chewing over this in my church Bible study group last week. And I think we came to the conclusion that applying this to us might be a little more straightforward than Keller (and the Biblical Counselling Movement among others) may have us believe.

We began by questioning the typical method of ‘translation’ from one culture to another.

I’m sure you know how it goes. First we identify the deep spiritual/emotional needs first century pagans were (supposedly) looking to meet through their idol worship — e.g., a sense of security, acceptance, control, or power.

Such idol worship is idolatrous, we suggest, in so far as it involves treating good things as ‘God things’ — relying on them for the satisfaction or salvation that God alone is meant to provide.

Then we pick out our own culture’s array of illegitimate means of meeting these same deep needs. And voila — our contemporary idols!

The problem is that when it comes to something like consumerism or materialism in our own culture, it’s not immediately clear that these things really are ‘idolatrous’ in the sense described above (although the biblical equation of greed with idolatry may indicate that they’re idolatrous in some other sense).

As one member of our Bible study group pointed out, I could find myself at a shopping mall not because I’m deeply involved in some religious devotion to finding satisfaction and ‘life’ in the stuff I buy, but simply because I need some new work clothes.

Does this mean I’m swept up in idolatry by default? I’m not so sure.

It hardly parallels the situation in most ancient idol temples — where it seems fairly unlikely that you’d find yourself accidentally swept up in worshipping another god when you’d actually just turned up for some other more mundane reason (making due allowance for the dark objectivity of idolatrous practice — where ‘mental reservations’ don’t get you off the hook).

Of course, my capitulation in the dynamics of consumerism at the shopping mall may still compromise my confession of faith. After all, Jesus did talk about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon.

The energy and concern I invest in clothing myself may well put the lie to one key way I’m meant to be different from people who don’t trust Jesus — just as taking part in eating idol meat and sexual immorality would have put the lie to one key way the recipients of Revelation 2-3 were supposed to be marked off from their non-Christian contemporaries.

These things do run against the grain of our identity in Christ. But I’m no longer convinced it’s true or helpful to characterise them as idolatry.

What do you reckon? Has this got legs?

consumerism and idolatry (iii)

In the previous post in this series I flagged the connection of consumerism with greed. But this apparently obvious connection raises questions. In particular:

5. How should we ‘map’ the connection? Is greed the idolatrous dimension of consumerism? Or is greed the essence of consumerism — such that consumerism is merely the ‘clothing’ greed wears in the late modern West?

Why does this question matter?

Well, if greed turns out to be the idolatrous dimension of consumerism, then it probably isn’t so helpful to condemn consumerism as idolatry tout court. Rather, we should take issue with greed-tainted consumerism (leaving open for now the issue of whether there is any such thing as consumerism untainted by greed).

But if, on the other hand, consumerism turns out to be the contemporary form of greed — or otherwise to have greed as its essence — then we have to start asking questions about what we gain by using the label ‘consumerism’.

Not that there are no good answers to this question. It could very well be that it’s a necessary — and illuminating — matter of translation, for example. Contemporary Westerners may not recognise themselves as greedy (reserving that label, e.g., for big business or people like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street — the 1% targeted by the Occupy movement). But they may recognise themselves as entangled in consumerism.

Alternatively, things could run the other way. Helping someone see they’re entangled with consumerism could well lead them to say, “Big whoop!” Whereas showing them that they’re implicated in greed could prove to be the really arresting thing: “You mean that thing I hate in big business is at work in me too? Ouch!”

Enough throat-clearing! I’m half-way through my ramble already — I was heartened to notice that Brian Rosner took nine chapters of his book on greed and idolatry to get to this point.

Let’s just run with the Consumerism Is Idolatry line and see where it takes us…

consumerism and idolatry (ii)

The link between consumerism and idolatry is topical. Earlier this week, James K. A. Smith posted some evidence confirming his ‘reading’ of shopping malls as cathedrals of consumerism.

So let me continue to share my collection of half-baked hunches about consumerism (I posted the first two HERE):

3. If we’re treating consumerism as idolatry because we’ve decided ahead of time that this is what it is, then I wonder whether we’re in danger of stretching the language of idolatry totally out of shape.

Sure, it may mean we can drape it over every sin. And doing so may even bring some of sin’s psycho-spiritual dynamics into focus — helping us zoom in on how we’re treating good things as God-things, as they say. But the cost is that we risk losing any contour-hugging specificity when we identify as idolatry things that never get spoken of that way in the Bible (like King David’s sinful dalliance with Bathsheba or the Jewish people’s hypocritical failure to obey the Law that Paul exposes in Romans 2).

If this is the game we want to play, then I feel like we’ve got to ask ourselves some hard questions about how much of a service it really does us.

4. If, however, there is something distinctive about consumerism that makes it fitting to identify it with idolatry — as Smith’s post suggests — then surely our starting point needs to be the conceptually and verbally related biblical equation: “greed … is idolatry” (Colossians 3.5).

The benefit of this is not simply that it’s biblical but also that it suggests that this is in fact a fruitful direction to (metaphorically?) stretch the language.

It may still leave me a little puzzled about which particular demonic power lurks behind the ‘idols’ of greed and consumerism — where more familiar forms of idolatry maybe don’t leave me guessing quite so much (see 1 Corinthians 10.18-22). But at least I’m reasonably confident this way of applying the language of idolatry does less violence to the biblical weave of the concept. Because it’s meant to stretch this way.

consumerism and idolatry (i)

It’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. And that means not only is present-buying on the agenda. So too is the obligatory Christmas critique of consumerism.

While Christians aren’t alone in mounting the Christmas consumerist critique, it is something many of us like to indulge in. And given the way Wikipedia defines consumerism, it’s not hard to see why:

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

Certainly, a set of social and economic dynamics that make acquisitiveness part of the air we breathe — either by pandering to our existing anxieties or by eroding whatever sense of contentment we’ve managed to scrape together — seems ripe for critique.

But I’m not sure I want to go there. At least not just yet.

So I’d like your help thinking it through. In that spirit, let me share 10 thoughts about consumerism and idolatry — taken one or two at a time…

1. That consumerism is (a form of) idolatry is an equation so often made that it’s could be axiomatic. At least, that’s true in the Christian circles I’m familiar with. So I guess it’s either axiomatic or an unsubstantiated rumour that we’re hoping will be rendered more certain by constant repetition.

2. It’s worth pausing to ask why — or in what sense — we consider consumerism to be idolatry. Is it simply because we think that everything that can co-opt or, as James K.A. Smith would have it, ‘enlist’ us apart from the gospel is idolatry (whether it’s the nation or materialism or whatever)? Or is there something distinctive about the phenomenon of consumerism that merits our identification of it with idolatry?

contextualisation FAIL

Contextualisation is one of the hottest topics in contemporary thinking about mission.

It’s roots lie in wrestling with how to connect with people in cross-cultural situations — that and Paul’s words about becoming all things to all people. But it’s come to be applied much more widely. And sometimes far more controversially.

So I cackled when I read this in Moby-Dick (Ishmael, the narrator, has been invited to join in worshipping the portable idol his new friend Queequeg carries around):

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our consciences and all the world…


get the syncretistic log out of your own eye…

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard missionaries from various parts of the world talk about syncretism.

Syncretism involves a melding of Christianity often with traditional belief systems, such that what looks good and Christian turns out to be something quite different once you peel back the veneer.

It’s pretty much always a disaster — whether it’s folk Catholicism in Latin America, in which the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints simply gets laid over the traditional pantheon, or the kind of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ popular in some Pentecostal circles, that missionaries tell me closely parallels African spiritism.

The funny thing though is that it’s very easy to spot syncretism elsewhere. As even the two examples I’ve given show, it’s the kind of thing Westerners are accustomed to seeing outside the West.

It’s a cultural blindspot. One I’m fairly sure I share in.

Can you help me? Do you have any ideas about where a shallow Christian overlay is being wheeled out to ‘baptise’ cherished, non-Christian Western beliefs and values?

I have a few hunches. But would love to get a sense of what others reckon.

why receiving God’s gifts thankfully is easier said than done

This year at La Trobe Christian Union, we keep circling around the theme of idolatry — or, put positively, of how it is we can trust in and put the living God above all.

I’ve suggested before that if we want to take seriously the biblical call to combat idolatry, then we must resist the temptation to refuse to have anything to do with any created thing that can be elevated to the position that God alone deserves. But our response to the recognition that some good created thing — like family or alcohol or sex — can be idolised ought never take the form of radical renunciation, a refusal (on principle) to have anything to do with it. For this would be to pit God against his good gifts to us in creation.

The obvious alternative is to receive God’s good gifts thankfully. And so to affirm the gift character of God’s creation. Thus relativising it before the one who graciously gives us every good thing to enjoy and share. That is the way to combat idolatry — not to reject alcohol, for example; but to receive it as God’s gift and to do with it as he wisely dictates.

But all this is easier said than done, isn’t it? The deep-rootedness of idolatry — which I would suggest we glimpse in a phenomenon like addiction — tells us as much. In his important article, ‘How to say YES to the World’, Andrew Cameron has a go explaining why:

We could almost say that God has made his world “too good”. We attach ourselves to aspects of it too hard: voraciously, intensely, obsessively, and destructively. The young man loves sex and freedom so much that he won’t give himself to a woman to welcome her babies, and both a sex industry and a strange logic of de facto relationships grow up to give him what he wants.

It’s not the objects of our desires that are suspect. Rather, it’s the way our desires run chaotically to excess. This is what explains why asceticism won’t work and why idolatry is so profoundly difficult to root out.

how (not) to fight idolatry

Maybe it’s me, but it seems like idolatry is something of an obsession around the traps at the moment.

Various pastors of booming American megachurches keep banging on about it. It’s the ‘golden thread’ that’s meant to be weaving its way through the year at La Trobe Uni Christian Union. Even Byron’s getting in on the action with this terrific post about joyfully embracing less (and more!).

Now, it’s relatively easy to spot idolatry as it’s happening — ie. when career or family or even creation itself gets elevated to the place in our lives that belongs to God. (At least, it’s relatively easy to spot once we’ve got far enough down the track for it to be clear just how much of a grip it has on us … by which time it may be too late!)

It’s much harder to know what to do about it. Of course, repentance is the obvious remedy: turn ‘from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess 1.9).

But what does repentance look like? How do we stop idolising family (say), and drive it out of the territory it’s illegitimately occupying so we can love and serve God above all? In particular, if we’re to heed Jesus’ extreme-sounding words on the topic, must we turn our back entirely on our obligations to family so that they no longer compete with our devotion to God?

I can’t help but think of Isaiah’s caustic exposé of idolatry’s stupidity (Isaiah 44.9-20).

Isaiah underscores the folly of cutting down a tree, using half for firewood and then turning around and worshipping the rest (v 19):

No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’

I take it his point is pretty clear.

Notice, however, that Isaiah doesn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t have cut down the tree in the first place’. It’s important not to lose this. Sure, we sometimes need to play hardball with idolatry. But a general policy of ascetic self-denial is not the way to do it.