faithfullydoubting

The sacred godless

My last post expressed the nausea I felt at the launch of an Atheist documentary, likening it to my experience of church. But last night at the Brisbane launch of The Sunday Assembly – Sanderson Jones & Pippa Evans’ godless congregation – my experience was almost the exact opposite. I think I felt the spirit move.

After the opening secular number (which couldn’t have had a more Southern-Gospel feel if it tried) came the only direct religious reference during the entire program:

“Since starting our godless church, we have received a lot of opposition from evangelical, fundamentalist, militant Atheists. Apparently the way we don’t believe in god is the wrong way not to believe.”

And I for one liked this way much better.

As Jones repeatedly reiterated as one of the central tenets of the project, the night really did take all the best bits of church without the god part. And there was something really comforting about that.

It was only last week when I was venting about the way that many preachers get away with being unqualified motivational speakers, because they quote their holy book throughout their talks. But at The Sunday Assembly, they shamelessly preached to motivate and inspire, without feeling the need to quote scripture and verse (though they were based on the classic three or five-point sermon!).

But that’s not all they “pinched” from their religious forerunner.

Jones gave a stirring thought about dying, describing it as having the potential to be one of the most “freeing and joyous” ideas to meditate on. But unlike religion, the positivity about impending death was not linked to some fear-driven theory of judgment; rather the focus was on valuing today and getting the most out of what little time we are gifted with as humans. Like Jones said, “a star will never get to experience the pleasure of a sausage.”

This led into a moment of silent reflection that Jones daringly likened to prayer, sheepishly stating, “we can do that too!”

And I think it was this sheepishness or humble honesty that sold me. It was almost as if I found myself in a more genuine kind of church, where the liturgies and practices of the traditionally sacred were exposed for the secular object that they are.

At one point, Jones even admitted that he had always struggled with how to smoothly transition from the mingling part to the sermon part, thanking the Brisbane crowd for coming up with the solution of applauding the band as a transition.

Honest.

Many Atheists want to oppose religious belief at every given opportunity. But like Jones said to me after the service, “Sometimes that can feel like a guy who has broken up with a girl and then never stops talking about them. You have to wonder if maybe they’re not over the relationship!”

Like last month’s doco premiere, there was a lot that reminded me of my last Hillsong experience. But unlike last month, The Sunday Assembly won me over with their successfully-achieved motto of encouraging people to “live better, help often and wonder more.”

The (unbelievable) Unbelievers

I had the privilege of attending the Australian premiere of Richard Dawkins & Lawrence Krauss’ documentary film ‘The Unbelievers’ at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney yesterday. Here are some thoughts.

From the opening sequence involving numerous scientific intellectuals such as Cameron Diaz, to the outsider’s perspective given solely to Muslim and Christian fundamentalist protesters, to the behind-the-scenes-of-a-rock-and-roll-tour-style cinematography, it all felt a little nauseating.

After showing numerous discussions between Dawkins & Krauss both on and off stage about the need for critical thinking, the doco-film climaxes at last year’s Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. This is where the nausea started affecting my breakfast.

Dawkins entered to hysterical applause, banner-waving and name-chanting. Immediately, I was taken back to my Evangelical megachurch conference days, where “DAW-KINS!” was replaced with “JE-SUS!”

But it got better.

He then celebrated how many people had attended despite all of the logistical challenges, claiming the event to be the largest gathering of Atheists anywhere, ever.

Again, classic megachurch language.

Dawkins was also joined on stage by another speaker who gave a rousing sermon about the need for Atheists to reclaim American Patriotism, as it has been stolen from the predominant Judeo-Christian culture. This guy may as well have been Pat Robertson talking about Islam or homosexuality.

Backdropped by an image of a slow-motion American flag blowing in the wind, text then appeared on the screen reiterating the large-scale nature of the rally. The final words prior to the credits stated that not one major media source broadcasted the event.

‘We are big and powerful but we are an oppressed minority’ – it could not have been more churchy if it tried.

Separate to the documentary itself, I think the most unsettling experience was the emotive nature of the audience in attendance. Krauss – who introduced the movie in person – opened with “Good morning everyone and thank you for getting up this early on a Sunday. It was a much better idea than being at church.” I snickered at what I considered to be a throw away line, but apparently Krauss had just delivered the most witty joke in human history. The theatre – full of skeptics, intellectuals and media personalities of all ages – erupted in laughter before continuing on to applause.

Yes. Post-laughing applause. I kid you not.

The session ended with questions from the audience, the last of which was a young person asking how he could better preach the message of the film to convert his religious friends.

New Atheism may very well be God’s gift to modern religion. However, I can’t help but think it is simply another form of fundamentalism, bringing with it all the same issues it hopes – in the words of Krauss yesterday – to “destroy”. As much as I love Krauss’ numerous quotes about questioning everything, even more innumerable were the number of his sentences ending with “that (or they or it) is just wrong”. Dictionary definition of hypocrisy…check.

Which leads to the biggest issue for this movement of ‘challenge everything’, fact-critiquing free-thinkers: the lack of challenging, critiquing and free-thinking of the self.

Anyone can externalize their “confronting” way of thinking, seeking to prove another’s outward beliefs as wrong. The much more difficult task though is to confront the believer in the mirror; to seek to prove one’s own motivations, approaches and conclusions as wrong. A true unbeliever is a believer who unbelieves their own beliefs, skeptically analyzing the operative power of their belief, not simply offering a new set of beliefs as a replacement.

The answer to religion is not to believe again; it is to truly unbelieve.

Yesterday was disturbing not because it was worlds away from the last Hillsong conference I attended, but precisely because

I felt like I was at church.

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Wind riders

Some words I put together after a day on my motorbike about the shared experience of exiting religion…

Wind in the face
Sky never so blue
Don’t know how we got here
Or where we’re headed

But we’re here
And it’s been a while

A while since we did what we want
A while since we let go of it all
A while since this freedom was felt
Deep, deep down
Freedom as deep as the look in her eyes

Because to see is to believe
And she helps me believe this might be real
The escape can be lonely
But when you both run, you run faster

You get anywhere quicker

And so we push each other forward
Not knowing if it’s backward
Not caring either way
But we’re both convinced it’s forward

Once a corpse of conviction
We’re now breathing confusion
And we’re killing condemnation

We’re the effed up kids of religion
We’re the ones who were chained in “freedom”
And have now broken from our shackles of “love”
In the name of love

And it feels good
It feels right
But is there any other feeling these days?
When was the last time it felt bad?

But maybe this is true freedom
So unfamiliar we can’t see it
So brainwashed we can’t feel it

The choice must be made
Pursue or retreat?
But the very question drives us even further away

And so we ride
Ride into the distance
Wanting, searching, hoping to feel
Because that seems to be all that matters now

To feel
Anything

wind rider

Love the sinner, love the sin.

I found myself alone in the reception area of my office this week.

For a moment, I imagined what it would be like to be a client of the Department of Housing. How it would feel to be the person I have interacted with on numerous occasions every working day for over five years.

I noticed the cold, unwelcoming colours on the walls and the cheesy, oversimplified posters covering them.

I heard the constant sound of printing and typing, thinking to myself, ‘What exactly are they doing if they can’t house me?’

And I saw the formidable Perspex screens and dominating security cameras from another angle, giving me the impression I was a direct threat.

The experience reminded me of those rare moments in church life when I would actually engage with outsiders. Though we talked and preached and sung about it most weeks, sometimes we actually shared a meal with a homeless person. But despite the overwhelming claims of achievement and accomplishment after such events, I recall this strange sense that I was completely misguided and missing the point somehow.

While sitting alone in the reception area of my office this week, I think I discovered why.

Jesus didn’t do good things for bad people. His wasn’t a UN-style, throw-the-aid-out-of-the-plane kind of ministry. He was counted amongst sinners and was identified so closely with them that they labelled him a drunkard.

Jesus obviously didn’t care much for avoiding the appearance of evil.

But more than that. The radical nature of Jesus’ message was that he didn’t just hang around the sinner. He became sin.

I think the sense of humiliation and shame that I have felt when interacting with the outsider has been that I interacted with an outsider. Instead of becoming one of them, I helped one of them. Instead of identifying with them out in the cold, I warmed them up then returned to my own home.

If we want to experience the scandalous nature of reconciliation, we need to move beyond loving sinners and hating sin. We need to become sin until they become

one of us.

Art thy Saviour

A (Facebook) friend of mine is currently travelling South-East Asia indefinitely. This week he posted a photo of a 93-year-old lady who is one of the last bamboo tattoo artists of her kind in the world. The reason that this tribal practice with a rumoured history of over 1000 years has become a dying art form? It was outlawed by early Christian missionaries due to its evil nature.

I think I can relate to both sides of this story.

I grew up in a world where art was both suppressed and encouraged at the same time.

Every piece of media went through a very thorough screening process. I was one of those kids who wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons because Bart called his dad Homer, not dad. Art forms that were explicitly Christian though – like cartoons about vegetables who told Bible stories or people dressed as giant Hymn books – were allowed. (For a good laugh, click both of those links.)

I remember the first time the lines were blurred. I had come across DC Talk‘s ‘Welcome To The Freakshow’ album at the local Christian book store and wanted it for Christmas. However, DC Talk were quite pioneering in the Christian rap/rock genre and my parents couldn’t believe that they were on the Jesus team after listening to a song. I told grandma (who I knew didn’t have a compact disc player) to buy it for me. And so began my love affair with music.

Fast forward years later and I’m the band director at my local church. I wrote a list of all the creative ways I could play the same Hillsong songs that were sung every week. I quickly gained a reputation for making the music team’s job harder, because I had a different crazy idea for each service. Though I was limited to a narrow, explicitly Christian worldview, creativity was still inside of me and trying to find a way out.

Another example of this edited expression was when I started posting photos of cloud formations and sunsets. I needed a name for the folder so I went in search of a scripture that referred to God creating the heavens and ‘psalm nineteen’ was born. I see lots of other young Christians doing similar things where an Instagram photo of a ‘one way’ traffic sign might be accompanied by a comment referencing Jesus’ words about being The Way. Or when Christians are happy to use secular art – like singing a Mumford & Sons song as a church item – but only because the content is so similar to what is already overemphasized.

The issue I have found with this approach is not the fact that every piece of artwork must have some kind of biblical basis. It’s easy to find a chapter and verse to justify any thought or idea. The problem with Christian art is that it always lacks a depth. It lacks reality.

As Peter Rollins often says, every modern church song can be summed up in the phrase “Jesus is my boyfriend”. Positive, affirming, predictable lyrics. It’s not the fact that every song is based on the same four or five chords (though that also gets old really quickly). The reason I used to only listen to Hillsong United and now never want to listen to Hillsong United, is that I know what I’m going to get: God loves me a lot and everything will work out.

Where’s the mystery? Where’s the depth? Where’s the reality?

Faith isn’t hopeless. But it’s far from predictable. And art needs to reflect that. Otherwise things get really confusing and people fail to connect with the heart of the artist.

I experienced this confusion recently when I fell in love with Peaches’ F*ck The Pain Away. I figured my attraction to the song was probably based in some kind of rebellion to embrace what was controversial, but hoped it was simply the catchy tune. Was I connecting with a deep meaning in the song or did I just like it for the sake of liking it on a completely superficial level?

A reluctance to embrace the complexity of art will always make things complicated.

And then I heard an interview with Iggy Pop where he referred to the song as “beautiful” and “nice” and spoke of how much he appreciated the artistic nature of it.

In that moment, I felt that I had just received permission to like the song. I was free to sing it as loud as I wanted, with no need for further justification. And it was amazing.

I had stumbled across the nature of art: untameable, unpredictable and out of control. And when we can express that with one another – whether that be through bamboo tattoos, talking vegetables or a punk girl singing about f*cking pain away – we will find a dimension to life that is sorely lacking within the institutions of faith.

It is the power of art to express, free and comfort the human soul.

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My traditional, radical grandad

“If you want to preserve tradition, don’t wear your grandfather’s hat; have grandchildren.” – Picasso

I remember the day I found out my grandad was the first to import Subaru motor vehicles to Australia.

Can you imagine what that does to the worldview of a 10-year-old? It became my go-to line in the playground. “Oh yeah? Well if it wasn’t for my grandad, none of us would have cars!” It didn’t sound like such an exaggeration back then.

Recently I have discovered that Subarus aren’t the only thing my grandad pioneered. Throughout his long history in the Christian Pentecostal movement, grandad was, to his knowledge, also the first in Australia to:

  • Open a Christian book store;
  • Start Christian meetings in pubs, with up to 130 being held each month nationally;
  • Coordinate a $7m cutting-edge, non-denominational project at World Expo ’88;
  • Introduce Mayoral Prayer Breakfasts in Australia, with most mayors in Queensland still hosting the annual event.

When I found out about all this, I felt proud. I felt inspired. Which is odd. The last thing the world needs is another Christian book store or church meeting or over-priced event trying to get conversions. So what was with the ego boost?

In recent times, I have been pushing my own personal boundaries when it comes to faith, doubt and meaning more than ever. And no matter how loving and accepting my family have and continue to be, I cannot help but feel a scary sense of separation and even isolation from them. But when I heard these tales from my grandad, all of a sudden I found solidarity.

I felt like the kid in the playground again, because my grandad was revolutionary.

It was the opposition and abuse from the religious powers-that-be over the years that really got me. All for daring to think that different churches should actually work together. For trying to raise millions of dollars to fund a high-tech project he believed in. For holding Christian meetings in pubs. Today these ideas aren’t that radical. But back then, they were young and new and outside the box.

So what’s with this sense of isolation and why do I feel that even grandad would not accept most of the vision for my faith of the future?

I think I feel like book stores, pub churches and Subarus have become the hat that Picasso was referring to.

If I opened a Christian book store tomorrow, I don’t think I would ever make a profit.

If I started an Evangelical, Pentecostal, “Spirit-filled” meeting in a pub next week, I don’t think it would have a big impact.

And if I opened a car yard and only sold 1970s model Subarus in their current condition, I don’t think you’d see much change in the Aussie car market.

The source of the excitement, hope and magic that grandad instilled in me the other night came not from the static objects that he spoke of. It came from the glimpse of a radical way of thinking that changed everything. An ability and determination to see things and act in a way that is outside of the currently-existing worldview and to continue challening, opposing and enacting whatever that happens to look like.

As I type, I am starting to realise why I was so obsessed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from such a young age.

I’ve always said I would be hardcore racist if born 50 years earlier. And that thought has always scared me. This is why I loved Dr. King so much – for not only could he see the invinsible, but he also found a way to cause others to see it as well. 

While bragging about grandad in the playground, I was making projects about MLK in the classroom. Maybe those two facts are a lot more related than anyone could have guessed.

The challenge for myself, my grandad and those around me? Let us value the “good ol’ days” by messing them up. Let us continue the progress of those before us, while understanding that such progress will look nothing like it did back then. I want to follow in my grandad’s footsteps, but those footsteps may lead me to a place that grandad never knew.

After all, grandad has invested a lot more in his grandchildren than his hat collection.

Selling Water By The River (A sentence-per-chapter summary)

Books are too long.

I tend to read reviews instead of books. More out of laziness than anything else.

So if you’re like me, maybe you’ll appreciate this.

Below is a summary of the last book I finished (subtitled “A book about the life Jesus promised and the religion that gets in the way”), with one sentence dedicated to each chapter.

Because no one needs to read an entire book when they can read 14 sentences.

The Bible is a 3-D object that needs to be viewed from different angles. If we live our lives with the same, flat-like people, opinions and beliefs, it’s kind of like holding a house together with sticky tape. We need to remember that although Christianity as a religion is one way to experience Christ, it is possible to experience one without the other. Experience trumps opinion and our beliefs should always be open to change when life finds them lacking.

While beliefs do have a function as helpful tools for life, they should never be seen as the point. This is true of a belief in fear, which should journey towards a better belief in Love. We don’t need to fear being wrong through this journey, because Grace will be there whenever needed. Like a living, ever-growing garden, Jesus’ message of grace should be nurtured, but it cannot be contained. It crosses all boundaries put around it and is on the inside of everyone, right now. Experiencing this message is about having the desire, not the detail. It’s about knowing the difference between the temporal and the unchangeable. Jesus is hear to lead us to that experience, whether he gets the credit or not.

Death is coming and that fact should make us all the more urgent to experience eternal life in the here and now. We are nothing apart from dirt with breath and yet the Mystery hidden within that breath can only be described as Divine.

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Posting food on Instagram? May as well be praying.

As with most Christian households, our family always said “grace” before we ate. It was usually a very quick affair.

“DearLordthankyouforthisdayblessthisfoodtoourbodiesinJesusnameamen.” My sister and I had it down to a fine art. We never took longer than two seconds flat.

When I grew up and started eating out more, the habit of saying it died a little. But lately I have randomly felt the urge to ‘say grace’ again. Well at least I thought it was random.

The desire to pray seems to be directly related to not when I eat or even why I eat, but what I eat.

The other weekend I found myself sitting down to a feast of fish that my friends and I had caught only hours before. As I described in a previous post, the sense of awe that I experienced from that 3-day immersion in nature was quite surreal. And that awe only increased when I sat down to eat what was part of  my environment, as I in some strange way would become even more intimately connected with the world around me. It’s one thing to see, touch and smell something; it is quite another to consume it.

In that moment, I felt the urge to pause. To reflect on the life that this animal had lived, the work that had been done to get it on my plate and the effect it was now going to have on my body. And it caused a deep gratitude to rise.

Now I know this sounds overly spiritual. Way too deep. I hear it as I’m writing. But this isn’t normal. I don’t get this every meal. I’m yet to pause and reflect when opening a packet of Pringles or proceeding to smash a burger from Maccas. And you probably don’t either. Why?

We have lost our connection to the only thing that becomes part of our own body.

It’s hard to feel connected to a box that has pictures of nature, knowing the food inside has no resemblance to those images. There’s no sense of awe attached to a list of ingredients that are man-made, including these ‘foods’ that are described in numbers because their laboratory name has too many letters. Ain’t too much satisfaction when buying food that you know no human has ever touched – let alone looked at – thanks to the automated food processing technology of modern companies.

We need to get the connection back. And whether you’ve acknowledged it or not, I think we all know the feeling.

It’s that feeling you get when you look at your food and take a deep, satisfying breath in, repeatedly thanking whoever was responsible for preparing it. Or maybe it’s that urge to take out your phone and share the view of your plate with the rest of the world. For me, that’s as good as any grace that could be said.

Interestingly enough, our bodies seem to support this pause-with-thankfulness-before-eating theory. When our senses become aware of food that is about to be consumed, the saliva glands immediately kick into action as if you have already started eating, in order to aid the digestive process. It is widely thought that pausing before eating a meal is the best way to take advantage of this natural phenomena.

So thanks dad for teaching me the importance of grace. Whether it be a prayer, a “this looks amazing mum!” or a photo on Instagram, consider doing it more often. And if you don’t feel the urge to say grace in whatever form that takes, maybe you need to eat something with a bit more love in the ingredients.

instagram food

Scary numbers #5

It has been reported that up to

80% of “food”

on supermarket shelves did not exist

100 years ago.

Eat real food.

 

try organic food

 

Westboro Baptist: The best Christians

I watched Russell Brand’s interview with Westboro Baptist again this week. And it’s got me thinking.

Not about the gay debate. Not about how angry Westboro Baptist make me. And not about my love for Russell Brand’s brain as much as his body.

Okay a little about his brain.

But here’s what is plaguing me the most: Westboro Baptist are doing a better job at being Christians than the rest of us.

I’ve watched several docos on these guys talking about why they do what they do with the conviction that they do. And it sounds like a completely logical, loving approach.

If the Bible really is that sacred and the way most Christians read it really is that correct, then these guys are doing a better job than anyone. If every word of the Bible is just as important and relevant today as the whole book, and there really is a literal hell, and there is a remote possibility that homosexuality could factor in sending someone there, then Christians should be using the most shocking, attention-grabbing ways to scream the dangers of this truth to the rest of the world.

Westboro Baptist are simply doing what the rest of Christianity should be. Apparently.

I feel like a lot of Christians have – myself included – tried to negotiate this fundamental part of the story (the homosexual = higher risk of hell part). We try and minimise it, glossing over it and sometimes questioning it, but never standing in direct opposition to it. In doing so, we are subtly justifying it and giving it enough room to breathe, like a guinea pig in a shoebox that we don’t want our parents to find.

But if we don’t want to be a bad version of Westboro Baptist, we’re going to have to seriously challenge that doctrine. Which involves seriously changing the way we read and understand the Bible. Which involves seriously undermining our entire faith.

We have to let that version of our gospel die a painful, violent death.

If you’re a Christian who has a problem with Westboro Baptist, maybe it’s because on a sub-conscious level, you have a problem with your own faith. Maybe the more passionately you despise them is a sign that there is a part of your own spirituality you despise just as much.

If we want to be people who live radical lives, we need to take our beliefs to their logical end. And I suspect a lot of Westboro haters are scared to do such a thing, lest they realise that they themselves are just a failing Westboro Baptist wannabe.

Why do we do this? I think Russell summarised it best:

“Imagine like, if they’re right and we all get to heaven and God’s like, ‘You f*cking idiots’. Oh no…they told us!”

To all the Christians: Are you prepared to risk everything, including your beliefs, for the God of love you claim to believe in?

There’s a lot of homosexuals waiting for your answer.

 

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