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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The Gifts of Advent 3: WHOLENESS

The Gifts of Advent 3: WHOLENESS

[This is the third in a four-part series on the gifts of Advent. The first post explored BEAUTY and in the second I looked at JUSTICE]   Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in. ~ Leonard Cohen The song Anthem first appeared on Leonard Cohen’s 1992 album, The Future, and quickly became one of his most enduring and oft-quoted lyrics. Typical of Cohen’s work, it contains allusions to his Jewish background, as well as references to the Buddhist religion of his adulthood and the Christian faith that continued to intrigue him. These are the words of a man searching for human wholeness. It’s this, the healing and renewal of human beings, and indeed all of creation, that I want to explore in this post. Wholeness is the third gift of Advent.   RING THE BELLS THAT STILL CAN RING When Cohen calls on us to ring the bells that still can ring, he’s urging us to keep searching for the holy, to not give up the hope that there is healing in the offing. In his book Diamonds in the Line, he wrote of this lyric, I mean, you have to come up with a philosophical ground. We’re in a dismal situation… and the future

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The Gifts of Advent 2: JUSTICE

The Gifts of Advent 2: JUSTICE

[This is the second in a four-part series looking at the gifts given to us in the coming of Jesus. The first gift I explored was BEAUTY. You can read it here.]   One of the most powerful ways to show people the truth of Christianity is to serve the common good. ~ Tim Keller   In his first advent Jesus promised justice for the oppressed, something that will be ultimately and completely dispensed in his second advent. In this vein, at Christmas we often hear preachers refer to the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, such as those in Isaiah 9: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. (Isa 9:6-7) The first advent of King Jesus heralds the establishment of a just and equitable kingdom of God on earth. NT Wright calls it “…the explosive news of a different empire, a different emperor, a different kind of emperor.” He continues, Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes and who will then let them down. His way

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The Gifts of Advent 1: BEAUTY

The Gifts of Advent 1: BEAUTY

Beauty – Katrina Lambert Beauty lives In the hollow of the itch you can’t reach. Its first gift is a jolt of recognition – A reflection of something Deep and hidden within us.  Beauty lies In the stitched line of the horizon. Its second gift is the joy of communion – A joining of our inner world  With the boundless sky of billions of heavenly bodies. Beauty inhabits A time beyond time. Its third gift is the glory of eternity – As we are pulled through a pinhole in the present To the infinite beyond that is our true home coming.   The best poetry doesn’t need analysis, but the author of this poem is also a preacher and her thoughts on beauty are as sharp as they are splendid. Katrina Lambert recounts the three gifts of beauty and I want to use her thoughts to explore beauty as a gift in itself, that is, as a gift of God, given in the first advent of Christ and promised in his second.   1. THE JOLT OF RECOGNITION According to Lambert, beauty presents us with that taste of something delicious we’ve been hungering for, or as she describes it “a reflection of something / Deep and hidden within us”. When we encounter beauty it tugs at our spirit. It triggers a sense

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