Wednesday 29 November 2006

Broad not narrow

Jesus' words about sticking with the narrow gate are about entering the kingdom, and they risk getting distorted when applied to politics. It seems to me far better for Christians to be broad in politics. But we struggle to do it. In America, the Christian Coalition has booted out its new leader before he got started. Joel Hunter wanted to broaden the group's focus to look at both 'right' and 'left' issues—AIDS as well as abortion, poverty as well as sexual morality, global warming alongside . I don't know all the details, but it seems to me a shame.
To boast a little, Australian Christians are moving ahead of the US on this one. The 'About Us' page of the Australian Christian Lobby website still sounds very 'family values', but the group has worked hard in recent times to broaden its focus so that in the corridors of power it can represent Christians across the political spectrum. A quick look at their news and articles will see commentary and proposals on cloning, aboriginal health, business ethics, family wellbeing, and international poverty. This has got to be healthy for a Christian political vision that minimises its blindspots and represents Christ in all his fullness.

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Wednesday 22 November 2006

Silly point

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
If Lee don’t get you
Warnie must

It’s been a long wait through 2006 for cricket fans. Finally, the English side has arrived to defend their unlikely and unthinkable status as holders of the Ashes, the famed cricket trophy that means more to many Australians than the national anthem ever will. Tomorrow, the Brisbane test match begins. Tomorrow, the short English reign enters its death throes. My prediction is 5-0 to Australia, with a possible boring draw in Adelaide. Bring it on!

But while those of us who feel that all is right in the world when white-clothed figures walk onto a green expanse to hit a red ball around sit back and ready ourselves for the series, let’s spare a thought for those who haven’t been blessed with a love of cricket. This game can go for five days (five times!); it dominates certain TV and radio stations all summer; it has arcane language and strange rules; it alienates non-fans; and it’s just a game.

Life goes on around cricket, and cricket lovers needs to remember it. Especially cricket lovers whose allegiance is first to the Son of God and only second to the King of Spin, Mr Cricket and Pup.

Furthermore, to my regret, I haven't been able to construct any very strong cultural apologetics based around the game. Can anyone help?
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Tuesday 14 November 2006

Poverty close up

U2's visit to Australia is but one of the cultural events throwing a spotlight on world-wide poverty. This Thursday in Melbourne a Make Poverty History forum will discuss ways of influencing the G20 agenda in favour of poverty alleviation.
For Christians, poverty is a complex issue. The Bible is neither pro-poverty, nor against it. It doesn't see poverty as a barrier to faith, nor as a spiritual good to be sought. The Bible is, however, against selfishness, love of money, and ignoring your neighbour in need. It is also pro- healing, sharing, loving and sacrificing your own comforts for others. Christians have to approach poverty through all of these spiritual guidelines.

But extreme poverty—stupid poverty, as Bono and Geldof call it—is such an affront to human existence that it can't be ignored, especially if we have the means to eradicate it.

A friend in politics, in his HSC economics textbook, quotes the humanist philosopher Thomas Pogge:

"How can severe poverty of half of humankind continue despite enormous economic and technological progress and despite the enlightened moral norms and values of our heavily dominant Western civilization? ... Our world is arranged to keep us far away from massive and severe poverty and surrounds us with affluent, civilised people for whom the poor abroad are a remote good cause alongside the spotted owl... Extensive, severe poverty can continue, because we do not find its eradication morally compelling."

But, thanks to technology, the moral distance between the well-off and the impoverished has been closing. It has become more compelling. TV, the internet and global events like Live Aid have turned Africans into neighbours, harder to ignore, easier to help. And there are more groups trying to help than ever before. Lobbying governments and large corporations to make a difference is becoming an artform.

For Christians who want to love their neighbours, it's just a matter of choosing a way to do it from the many great options available. There are no sure-fire ultimate solutions to extreme poverty outside the New Jerusalem, but there are plenty of working solutions and they are just a click away.

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Monday 6 November 2006

Like a song

In the week of U2’s Australian tour, I’ll explore some of the songs that are likely to be on the playlist and what they say about the Christian faith. I’ll add songs daily to the bottom of this post, to keep them all in the same place. Add your comments!

It never really works to talk about lyrics. They have to be sung. So I’ll do my best to turn my writing into singing, relax the grammar a little, try to lean on the notes and let it ring, repeat, and rest. The assumption: that you know the songs and the lyrics, or can find them online at somewhere like I’m not being exclusivist; it’s just that printed lyrics aren’t going to sing, either.

Miracle Drug
This is a song about my wife. It’s also about eschatology. Two of my enduring subjects of interest and delight. It’s a hard song to listen to if you have a family member threatened by chronic illness (MS in our case). Amelia is doing fine (‘not visibly disabled’, as they say), but the song forces me to imagine a future I don’t want. Bono has contextualised the song, saying his inspiration was a severely disabled boy he met at school . I had wondered whether he also had in mind John Goldingay and his very disabled wife —he wrote Walk On about his life with his wife (who also has MS) and how U2 had sustained him.
This song has been one click away for years now. I always have in mind Amelia, and wanting to “trip inside her head” if, God forbid, she should ever not be able to tell me what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. To be able to see “the songs” in her eyes, but not to hear her or know what is going on inside her head. Outrageous and unthinkable.

The production of this song is beautiful, the microphone halfway down Bono’s throat, picking up every catch and croak, the lament and the call to hope. He isn’t giving up on a miracle drug—there’s hope that things could change, there’s still the chance for freedom, there’s still a better future to imagine (and the Dublin boy did get a drug, and he could write the songs that his mother could see in his eyes).

There is amazing strength here, and optimism: “Of science and the human heart, there is no limit”. It could almost seem like hubristic humanism, but it’s grounded in a great reality. Bono prays breathlessly, nearly subsonically, “God I need your help tonight” before preaching his vision of the kingdom coming:
Beneath the noise/ Below the din/ I hear a voice/ It’s whispering
In science and in medicine/ “I was a stranger/ You took me in”
This is resurrection theology, the idea that the kingdom is not only coming, but has already come and the curse is reversing, and we see glimpses here and there, whispers of the time of no pain and no suffering. Just whispers—in science and in medicine, especially when it lifts up the least and the lowest. That’s what seems to drive U2. It’s only part of my eschatology, but its very moving.

I’m also driven to tears by the lines that follow. They are not the sort of thing you expect to find in a rock song. Isn’t rock about chaos, passion and dropping out? So why does Bono sing:

Love makes nonsense of space
And time will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love….

He sings it because he’s a resurrectionist, a God-truster, a believer in the Great Beyond, on the side of meaning and purpose and plans and the coming age of peace. And he sees signs, here and there, that this age is but upon us, if only we can hang on and hold the faith, and live out the curse-reversal. Reason and love—and even logic—tell us that this world is a poor shadow of the one to come. He’s “had enough of romantic love” and would give it up for the drug that makes everything good again. Science as more redemptive than romance—what a message!

I’m enough of a fan to know that the drug is a cipher for Christ himself. Jesus as a drug. Great apologetics. He’s the fix, except that you score him through love, and reason, and welcoming the stranger. I might want to focus the eschatology a bit more on the One who is to Come, to balance out Bono’s emphasis on the One Who Is (in other words, I think my eschatology is a bit more futurist than Bono’s), but I’m with the song. I just hope I never have to sing it for my wife.

The sheer bravery of it. Naming God in a song title. Not Allah, not just God, but Yahweh, the God of Moses. Lest we just take this for granted, remember that this song was released in the context of war in the Middle East. If you want evidence of U2’s spiritual convictions, turn it up.

It didn’t grab me on first listen. Now it’s my daily prayer. Bono’s vocals are so laid back, so barely in tune, barely melodic that this last song on the album passed me by until on one listen I heard the line, “take this shirt, polyester white trash made nowhere, take this shirt and make it clean”. Then all of the world’s lost souls were before me—all the suburb dwellers, factory workers, fear-faced students, garbage mountain prospectors, street walkers, no-name children of no-future space-fillers, dross of humanity, the people no one but God would miss.

Take these people, and love them so much that you wash them whiter than pure.

I suddenly got it—this was the prayer of the disciple who looks at himself and all those around him, and throws himself on the provision of God for he can do nothing less.

Bono sings this prayer, and in the Vertigo concert footage I’ve seen, the band is often standing in a line, literally praying it over the audience: take us, Lord, take our mouths (“so quick to criticise”), take our hands (“don’t make a fist”), take these shoes and fit them to the good deeds you have prepared in advance for us to do.

And he prays that God would take our souls, “stranded in some skin and bones”, and make them sing. There are clues in a few songs to Bono’s view of human identity and our future status where souls merge together (“all the colours bleed into one”) and people are deeply connected (on another song, he speaks of his father as “the same soul”). I’d love to know more about this…it’s a vision of human unity that we don’t hear often. Get me that backstage pass and an hour or two to talk mind-body philosophy…

But, yes, take this soul and make it sing. And take this city, he sings, in a splendid, marvellous eschatological statement. “A city should be shining on a hill”. It’s the words of Jesus, its Augustine, its Calvin’s Geneva, it’s the New Jerusalem. It’s people together, a society God would be proud of, a place God could dwell. But it belongs to God, not us. The title ‘Yahweh’ was brave, but this line is even braver: “Take this city, if it be your will/What no man can own, no man can take”. This, into a political climate of battles over Jerusalem, is nothing less than prophecy. It’s a call to humility, and to an end to zealous violence. The city belongs to no one but God, no group can claim it, not even any religion. It is God’s to take, and God’s to abandon. Pray, with Bono, that God would take it.

And throughout the song, the chorus returns us to the human situation—suffering and hope. We are waiting for the birth of a child, always painful, always anticipating joy, always anxious. Switch images to sunlight for another eschatological claim: the sun is coming up, the sun is rising, the new day is upon us. Any love we experience now is just a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what remains to come.

And any suffering is just the same drop. But for us polyester white trash, the question will always be there: why Yahweh, why the darkness before the dawn, why the pain and the terror and the injustice and unfairness? How long, O Lord? How long to sing this song?

All Because of You
This is what they do best: spiritual and Irish romance all at once. “All because of you — I am”. It’s an obvious lyric to anyone who has spent time in the Hebrew Bible, thinking about the name of God, “I am who I am”. The Great I Am. We are everything we are because of I am. It’s mystical grammar that makes sense of the great Personality at the heart of everything.

Then Bono turns the spotlight on himself. He becomes the ‘I’: an intellectual tortoise, enjoying the sound of his own voice, full of himself and hard to love, really. He’s not broke but you can see the cracks (I love that line). This combination of hubris and humility always works for him, because he gives so much. We know he knows that we know he’s a hustler. He’s telling us he’s not perfect, but he’s still taking centre stage. He knows he’s full of himself, but he knows he can’t fool us into thinking he isn’t.

Nor can he fool the I Am. So he doesn’t try. Instead he begs and prays: “You can make me perfect again”. It’s King David calling out to the one who made him. It’s the Apostle Paul asking for unthinkable forgiveness for the Chief Persecutor. It’s Luther sinning boldly and repenting just as boldly. It’s every honest son and daughter not pretending they are anything other than children of grace, ugly, confused, carrying ‘high rise’ burdens on their backs.

And then the song acknowledges that the beginning and the end are all in I am. I am is where we are born, and who we return to. It’s when we set out, and what we want to get back to, back inside the womb, in every way born again.

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