To those who fast this Lent, don’t forget the freedom you’ve received

To those who fast this Lent, don’t forget the freedom you’ve received

It’s nearly Ash Wednesday, the traditional commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance in readiness for Easter. I’m occasionally asked why not all Protestants observe Lenten fasts and I explain it’s basically about freedom from legalism. But it’s also about sausages. Yep, a lot of Protestants don’t observe Lent because of the humble wiener.   Way back in the sixteenth century, a dissident group of Swiss Christians were putting together a new translation of the Epistles of St Paul. The edition was being published by a very prominent citizen of Zurich, the printer, Christoph Froschauer. Printing was still a relatively new trade, and wildly popular, so Froschauer had become a wealthy businessman, prestigious and influential. He was also a Protestant, having been caught up in the liberation and excitement of the Reformation that had begun to sweep through Germany and was creeping into eastern Switzerland. Froschauer’s priest, the forceful and charismatic Ulrich Zwingli had brought the teachings of Martin Luther to Zurich, and he had seized upon the need to publish the New Testament in the vernacular, as well as distributing tracts and sermons to the citizens of the city. The priest and the printer became a formidable duo. Anyway, in the spring of 1522, as the first copies of the new edition of

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Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

Should we be helping other Christians before we help non-Christians in greater need? This question came into even sharper focus recently when the Trump administration announced that its nominee to become director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) was Ken Isaacs. The IOM has an annual budget of over $1 billion and is tasked with providing secure, reliable, flexible and cost-effective services for those needing international migration assistance. Refugees, basically. So alarm bells started sounding for some when it was revealed that Ken Isaacs, currently the head of international relief for Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, has made comments that in some cases Christians should receive preferential treatment when being resettled from hostile areas. These comments appear to have been made on social media, reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and were coupled with disparaging references to Islam as a violent religion. Mr Isaacs has since apologized for these remarks and said, “I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.” Okay, give the guy his due. He has been committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. But his remarks, though retracted, reveal an underlying belief within the Christian community that we should help Christians

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A Misplaced Habit: the slow death of the newsagent (and the church?)

A Misplaced Habit: the slow death of the newsagent (and the church?)

When I was a kid there were all sorts of shops that don’t exist today. And I don’t mean a few local stores went out of business. I mean those kinds of shops hardly exist any longer. Our town had a little local hardware shop and a plant nursery, both of which were gobbled up by a big box hardware store and garden center. The haberdashery store closed. So did the pinball parlour and the billiards hall. The local post office closed and moved into a tiny shop above a Chinese restaurant. I get it. Things change. I guess there were blacksmiths and coopers before my time. But there is still one last vestige of the 19th and 20th centuries holding on, although I think it’s days are numbered. I’m talking about the once ubiquitous newsagent’s shop. The newsagent’s shop is a particularly British thing. North America has its newsstands, but in Britain and Australia we had these stores that sold newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, snacks and sweets. They were usually dark because their windows were plastered with newspaper advertising. They doubled as the local stationers, the only shop where you could get your school supplies like pencils and pens, exercise books, cardboard, glue, and plastic for covering your textbooks. The newsagent’s was a place of fascination to children, a darkened room full

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Do we really need a war on “manophobic hell-bent feminist she-devils”??

Do we really need a war on “manophobic hell-bent feminist she-devils”??

“We’re in a vicious war about the structure of reality.” – Jordan Peterson   Some time ago, in an era before there was any such thing as the alt-right or fears about “cultural Bolshevism,” our three daughters went to a single-sex high school named after the Australian writer and poet Dorothea Mackellar, most notable as the author of My Country. Born in 1885, Mackellar was a young woman of independent means, fluent in French, Spanish, German and Italian, who hosted luminaries and dignitaries in her handsome home at Lovett Bay. She dabbled in acting, enjoyed horse-riding on her country estate, and broke off two engagements when the blokes threatened to cramp her style as a writer and diletant. So you can imagine that at a girl’s high school named after her, the memory of the formidable Dorothea Mackellar was invoked at every prize-giving night, graduation and school performance. In the late 1990s and 2000s, I lost count of the times I heard my daughters and their classmates being reminded that, like Ms. Mackellar, you girls can achieve whatever you set your minds to. In fact, the school motto was “Girls Can Do Anything!” (I’m not sure if there’s an exclamation point in the motto, but there should be). We thought it was great. But that was before people like Jordan

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We stole your land, your language and your wages, but hey let’s celebrate!

We stole your land, your language and your wages, but hey let’s celebrate!

“To change the date of Australia Day would be to deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history”. – Owen Laffin   “Australia Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all of the things we’ve achieved.” – Tony Abbott   Whichever way you choose to look at it, everything changed for Aboriginal peoples on January 26, 1788. Their land was stolen from them on that day, and more of it would continue to be stolen for generations to come. The first fighting in what would become known as the Frontier Wars took place several months after the landing of the First Fleet. That fighting would continue for another 146 years, resulting in the deaths of at least 20,000 indigenous Australians (some estimates go much higher) and around 2,000 Europeans. The loss of land meant the loss of Aboriginals’ traditional hunting grounds, which led to their starvation. And the introduction of European diseases like smallpox, the common cold, flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis, hitherto unknown by Aboriginal peoples, had an even more devastating effect. Smallpox alone is estimated to have halved the Aboriginal population of eastern Australia, even before settlers crossed the Great Dividing Range and

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Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

It’s greatly concerning to learn that during the very period the church has most aggressively pursued a strategy that emphasizes growth in numbers, it has also seen continued and exponential decline in size. In a previous post, I compared this situation with the American policy of relying on body counts during the Vietnam War. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary series points out, while the body count made it look as though the US was winning the war, they were in fact heading toward certain defeat. That was in part because of the American inability to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam. Not that the USA didn’t know this at the time. They had instituted an operation called “Winning Hearts and Minds” (yep, the acronym is WHAM) to pacify the increasingly disillusioned South Vietnamese. After all, there was no point killing more North Vietnamese forces if the very people you’re fighting for – the South – despise you. As we now know, that was exactly the situation. American ignorance and arrogance put the South Vietnamese off-side from the beginning. So did their support for a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government. But one of the greatest problems for Operation WHAM was the immorality of the American GIs. Saigon was turned into a cesspool of prostitution and

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Body Count Syndrome:  How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

Body Count Syndrome: How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The Vietnam War. It’s ten hours of unrelenting political/military folly and unadulterated human misery. But it’s fascinating. I was intrigued to discover in Episode 4 that one of the biggest challenges for US military leaders in Vietnam was figuring out how to assess their progress (or lack thereof). Vietnam was like no war before it. Those Americans who waged it were World War II veterans who were used to assessing the progress of a military campaign by how much ground had been taken from the enemy, by how many of their cities had been captured, and how many military and industrial installations had been destroyed. But none of that applied in Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese army waged something more like a guerilla campaign. They would ambush American forces, attack them swiftly and then melt away into the jungle. If the Americans bombed their networks of trails and tunnels, the North simply built more nearby. There was no traditional “front”, so there was no way to measure whether the Americans were advancing. No one could tell if they were winning the war or not. Back in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his coterie of whiz kid number-crunchers needed data desperately. With the anti-war movement building, they wanted to

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What Oprah 2020 tells us about the power of the spoken word

What Oprah 2020 tells us about the power of the spoken word

The whole lesson of history is that preaching doesn’t work. – Alan Watts   When Alan Watts made that claim in his provocative talk “Preaching is moral violence” he was convinced by his reading of history that no meaningful change in human conduct ever occurs as a result of listening to a speech or lecture or sermon. He’s not the only one. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that preaching is redundant in the age of Google, that it’s an inefficient method of education, that digital natives are used to interaction and can’t understand monologues, etc etc. But then along comes a moment like Oprah Winfrey’s triumphant acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globe awards. Her rousing presentation resembled a sermon or a political stump speech more than a Hollywood acceptance speech. She wove together her own rags-to-riches story with references to Sidney Poitier, Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor, as well as exhortations of press freedom, justice for sexual assault victims, and the contributions and sacrifices of ordinary women around America. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote for Slate, “It was mesmerizing, pitch perfect, and gave voice to many lifetimes of frustration and vindication with eloquence and a full authority she has earned.” It put me in mind of the then Senator Barack Obama’s keynote address at

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Misspeaking in a Post-Christian Culture

Misspeaking in a Post-Christian Culture

It’s common to refer to contemporary Australian society as post-Christian, and while shifting moral values, church attendance, as well as the lack of interest in statements by church authorities, would bear that out, it’s not like some switch got pulled at the turn of the century converting us from “Christian” to post-Christian. Neither should post-Christian be equated with non-Christian or even anti-Christian. At Christmastime, two very public Australian Christians made ham-fisted statements about their faith and both were taken to task for it. But interestingly, the reactions of journalists and social commentators to those statements showed the range of understanding of the Christian faith in our so-called post-Christian society. The first case was the admittedly awkward Christmas greeting by the conservative National Party politician, Bob Katter. He was captured on film by Channel 7 News wishing the people of Queensland a happy Christmas and finished his greeting by saying, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. And we don’t have to die. That’s the important message.” Now, to the ears of churchgoers that sounds like a pretty standard salutation. Nothing too odd about it. Aside from Bob Katter’s usual ineptitude as a communicator. But the social media boffins at Channel 7 posted it online as “Bob Katter’s bizarre Christmas message – complete and uncut”. Bizarre? Oh, you mean that

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Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?

Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?

It’s called Scène du massacre des Innocents (“Scene of the massacre of the Innocents”), and it was painted by the largely overlooked Parisian painter, Léon Cogniet in 1824. Today it hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. If it’s not the greatest of Christmas paintings, it must be one of the most haunting and affecting. A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages. Most painters of this scene turn it into a huge biblical spectacle, making it a revolting tableaux of death and mayhem. But Cogniet focuses our attention on one petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child. She envelopes her doomed child, her bare feet revealing how vulnerable they are. There’s no way to run. She is cornered. Wisely, Cogniet doesn’t show us the carnage. It is hinted at in the rushing figures in the background. Another mother is seen carrying her own children down the stairs to the left, running for their lives. But Cogniet shows a level of artistic restraint not seen in many depictions of this story. He forces everything to the background in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face. That face! Staring at…

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Fans Arise!! When nothing is too esoteric to be outraged by

Fans Arise!! When nothing is too esoteric to be outraged by

I’m no Star Wars fan. If you ask me, most of those movies are sort of okay. Some are literally unwatchable. So, I find myself on the outer when it comes to fan fights about the minute esoterica of a film series with which I’m not terribly familiar. I don’t care that replacing Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi made no sense. I’m not gonna fight about whether it’s believable that a bunch of Ewoks could defeat the Galactic Empire. Jar Jar Binks has zero effect on me. And I have no opinion on whether Han shot first. In fact, reading the high dudgeon being expressed by fans over whether The Last Jedi burns the franchise to the ground or not is kinda quaint to me, actually. When fans start carrying placards protesting that Disney has ruined Lucasfilm, I might look up from my breakfast cereal for a second, but, meh, I don’t care. Good for them. All power to them. I’m gonna keep scrolling through my newsfeed. Which might be the same reaction most of the world has when Christians start splitting hairs and debating the minutiae of their doctrine. Like Star Wars fans, we can get so outraged so quickly by the tiniest difference of theological opinion, while most onlookers are, like, huh? This happened this

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The Gifts of Advent 4: RECONCILIATION

The Gifts of Advent 4: RECONCILIATION

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks is an Amatjere woman, born in the outback in 1937 at the height of Australia’s so-called assimilation policy. At that time, it was believed that Aboriginal peoples were so vastly inferior to the culture of white settlers that they would soon die out altogether. The government adopted a policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families in order to be assimilated into white society, for “their own good”. (Think Rabbit Proof Fence, if you’ve seen that film) Children were taught to reject their indigenous culture and history and to adopt the ways of white society. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and others were placed in institutions, many of which were run by Christian denominations, where abuse and neglect were common. Little Rosalie Kunoth was nine-years-old when her father naively took her to Alice Springs, 260 kilometres from Utopia Cattle Station (Arapunya) where she was born, to “get some white education.” To his horror, his daughter was taken from him permanently and made a ward of the state. “We put our heads in the noose, and it tightened very fast,” is the way Rosalie Kunoth-Monks describes it. Little Rosie was assimilated. Raised and educated in a Christian boarding school, she went on

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