Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

It hasn’t been a good week to be a social justice warrior. And I don’t use that term in its pejorative sense. To me, a social justice warrior is what the term suggests at face value, a person committed to fighting for justice. I know Twitter has turned “SJW” into an insult to describe young progressives, offended by everything, incapable of reasoned debate, blah, blah. But for me, fighting the good fight for justice and peace in this world is exactly what Jesus calls us to, and what his followers have been doing for centuries. Being a social justice warrior shouldn’t put you on the left or the right. It shouldn’t deem you a liberal or a conservative. Rather, it should put you firmly in the will of God. The kind of religion the Bible advocates is rooted in justice that flows from the heart of God. It seeks to bring all things into the wholeness of God. As one justified by faith in the God of all justice, I believe we are to experience the wholeness God brings and extend it to others.   This week, those of us committed to that task were dealt a crushing blow when the richest nation in the world, and the one most likely to refer to itself as Christian, enacted a policies that

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Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide at age 61 has got me thinking. I know suicide isn’t the exclusive domain of any particular age group, but recently I’ve been troubled by the number of well-known and highly successful men who have ended their own lives in their 60s. Maybe that’s because I just had a birthday and, well, frankly, I’m closing in on 60 myself. The reasons for Bourdain’s suicide aren’t yet known. He was working on a new series of his television show when he died. He was in a new relationship, was exercising, and had given up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. All good signs. And yet… I won’t speculate on a topic I know nothing about. But, as I said, Bourdain’s is just one of a long list of self-inflicted deaths of successful 60-something men. In 2004, writer and actor Spalding Gray, 62, drowned himself after suffering from depression that resulted from the debilitating effects of a severe car accident some years earlier. Legendary Chilean footballer Eduardo Bonvallet, 60, hanged himself in 2015 after struggling with stomach cancer for several years. Likewise, Tony Scott, 68, the director of such films as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Crimson Tide, jumped from a bridge in LA in 2012 after fighting a lengthy battle with cancer. And comedian and actor, Robin Williams,

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I held an old man’s fragile, weathered hand today

I held an old man’s fragile, weathered hand today

I sat beside a hospital bed and held an old man’s hand today. His skin was thin and papery and he struggled to open his eyes. Even when he did blink them to life, he didn’t initially recognize me. It had been a long time. I first met him in the late 1980s when I had just been appointed the student minister at Seaforth Baptist Church in Sydney’s north. It was a small congregation, many of them aging, which is why they could only afford a part-time student minister. I wasn’t exactly what some of them wanted in a minister. I didn’t wear a suit or preach with a booming, authoritarian tone. I was chastised by one older member because she thought the way I conducted the Sunday services was “too cavalier.” The treasurer – a nervous man who squinted a lot while pushing his glasses up his nose – suggested I should stop spending all the church’s hard-earned money. Although, for the life of me, I have no idea what I was apparently frittering it all away on. I didn’t win any friends when I closed their dwindling Wednesday night prayer meeting (at which I was expected to bring a sermon) and tried to start home study groups. One fellow said I would “go down in history” as the

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Should a pastor ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht?

Should a pastor ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht?

Remember the controversy Tony Campolo caused back in the day when he announced that you can’t own a BMW and be a Christian? Well, the recent revelations about Bill Hybels’ treatment of female colleagues raise the question about whether a pastor should ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht.   Many years ago I recall a Baptist minister telling me how, after moving into the manse or parsonage of his new church, he noticed there were metallic handrails sticking up out of the middle of the back lawn. When he asked the church elders what the handrails were for, he was informed that the church had purchased the property years earlier at an extremely good price but it had a swimming pool in the backyard. The elders felt that it was too ostentatious for a pastor to have a swimming pool, but the house was so cheap they couldn’t pass it up. Their solution: purchase the property, but fill in the pool and plant lawn. Those handrails remained poking through the grass as a tangible reminder of two things – the church’s thriftiness and its modesty. The story about the underground pool always got a laugh and a roll of the eyes every time he told it. Those were the days when pastors were expected to display unstinting

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Four times the church got weird… and was better for it

Four times the church got weird… and was better for it

It feels like the church gets weird every four or five hundred years, and it does the world of good. In fact, it could be argued that the church is at its best when it throws off its desire for acceptance and conventionality and launches into the strangest and most counter-cultural behavior. Here are four times when the church did exactly that, and history was changed.   1. The Hiberno-Scottish missionaries (Sixth Century) The Hiberno-Scottish missionaries were Gaelic monks from Ireland (in Latin Hibernia) and the western coast of modern-day Scotland, who re-Christianized Britain and Western Europe after the fall of Rome. You might have heard of a few of their leading lights: St Columba of Iona, St Aidan of Lindisfarne [pictured], St Columbanus of the Franks. They were wild people from a wild land, who harnessed their considerable passions and energies into Christian devotion. Rather than undergoing complete personality transplants, the Hiberno-Scots disciplined their passions without extinguishing them. They retained their sense of rowdiness and their love of wild, elemental places like the coastline of Scotland and northern England. They harnessed their love of drinking and singing and storytelling and directed it toward God. They practised hospitality, welcoming all comers. They were deeply shaped by their new-found triune faith and saw the Trinity not only as a doctrine but

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Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

When I was a kid, I gave an opposing player some lip on the rugby field and he punched me in the face so hard and so quickly I didn’t even see it coming. One minute I was trash-talking him and the next minute I was on my butt, my head spinning, watching him run back to join the flow of the game. It was embarrassing. I remember how for weeks (months?) later I kept fantasizing about how I could have got back at him. I imagined clobbering him, humiliating him in front of others as he had done to me. The impulse to respond to violence with violence is primal. It’s almost involuntary.   When we feel personally assailed we want to return fire, to make our attackers suffer as much, or more, than we have. It’s a very human, visceral reaction. Even when we see horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated in cities like Paris or London or Nairobi, that same impulse rears up. We feel threatened, and we clamor, “Do it back to them. Return violence for violence. If they’re trying to kill us we should kill them.” Whole nations can become inflamed by this hunger for revenge. After the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US responded by bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq.

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Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Remember that line in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, when the protagonist tells his visitor, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Can stories really do that? And if they can, shouldn’t film have even more chance to convey belief in God, given the visceral impact they can have? So, which films would you recommend as those most likely to make someone believe in God? My mind went immediately to films about people struggling with their faith, like Black Narcissus (1947) or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), all masterpieces of religious-themed cinema. But in each of these cases, the viewer is invited to observe the characters’ tenuous hold on faith. Would they make someone believe in God? Any film that could evoke a sense of God’s presence would have to be extremely challenging one, the kind of visual experience that demands much of the viewer. I mean, God is worthy of our undivided attention, right? We’re not talking about Bruce Almighty (2003) or The Shack (2011) here. So, here are three admittedly extremely challenging films that I think could at least help you believe in God.   TREE OF LIFE (2011) Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life is a film like no other. It

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God Shows Up… roughly:   the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

God Shows Up… roughly: the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

When Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out on DVD in 2004, in the extras it included an interview Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach did with Italian film critic Antonio Monda. Typically, it’s slightly absurdist, with the odd moment of sincerity, like the time when Monda asks Anderson and Baumbach if they believe in God. “No,” replies Baumbach without hesitation. So Monda directs his question to Anderson, “What about you?” “I think so,” Anderson says sweetly. Baumbach looks surprised. “Really?” Anderson demurs only slightly, “Yeah, I mean… I mean, roughly.” To me that seems like an entirely appropriate answer for a filmmaker who addresses huge issues like the nature of family, human brokenness, grief and depression, the challenges of under-parented adults, and a hunger for purpose, but in whose films God only appears obliquely. Critic David Zahl writes, “The very mention of a religious dimension to Wes Anderson’s films may sound surprising, even bizarre. It is certainly not what he is known for.” In fact, Zahl observes, rather cleverly, that because Anderson’s films are so extraordinarily intricate and perfectly balanced, “…it seems there is no room in a Wes Anderson film for any deity other than Wes Anderson.” But God does show up in Anderson’s films. It might take some faith to see it, but in

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Stronger men? Let’s not dish up lazy male stereotypes in the name of Jesus

Stronger men? Let’s not dish up lazy male stereotypes in the name of Jesus

You might have seen the promo video for the Stronger Men’s Conference coming up on April 13-14 in Springfield, Missouri. It features commandos rappelling onto the stage, an MMA cage fight, monster trucks, and a guy firing semi-automatic pistols. In the video you can hear one of the speakers announcing that while the devil likes to make strong men weak, God loves to make weak men strong. There’s been quite a backlash to this promo and the whole premise that strong men are into all this stuff, as well as woodchopping, firestarting, and motorbikes (which feature in an earlier Stronger Men’s Conference promo). Leaving aside the concerns I have about a Christian men’s conference featuring gun play and violence, I have no problem with the fact that a lot of guys love monster trucks and starting bonfires. In the video, NFL players lob footballs into the crowd, and there’s a basketball player getting air, and a drum circle and jets of fire on stage. Cool. My concern (aside from the cage fight and the guns) is the assumption that all this epitomizes masculinity. That to be a strong man you have to be into all this. More than that, to be a godly strong man you should be into all this. I get that those Christian men who do like chopping

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Paying for the sins of our fathers

Paying for the sins of our fathers

Next time you read someone whining about the church being under attack from a heartless secular society, think of what’s happening in Bungwahl, New South Wales. You’ve probably never heard of Bungwahl. It’s one of those blink-and-you-miss-it hamlets on the mid-north coast. It’s not like one of those towns that had a hey-day but fell into ruin after the freeway detoured it. Bungwahl has never amounted to much. It was always just a dot along the road that hugs the edge of the Myall Lakes between Bulahdelah and Seal Rocks. In 1870 or thereabouts, a canny Scotsman named Alexander Croll established a sawmill in the area to service the shipbuilding industry of Port Stephens. He owned Croll & Sons, sawmillers, until his death in 1917 at the ripe old age of 82. Back in those days, wealthy Christian businessmen were inclined to build amenities for their community, especially when most of that community was in their employ. So Alexander Croll built a small church on the hill above the lake and in 1888 gifted it to the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle. It’s called St James Anglican Church and it’s nothing to look at really. Just a neat little weatherboard chapel but with sweeping views of Myall Lakes through the trees. In fact, none of us would ever have heard of

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The only woman to give evidence at the trial of Christ

The only woman to give evidence at the trial of Christ

It is one of the most famous depictions of the trial of Christ. And the detail of each character is impressive. Pontius Pilate is there, brittle with stress and apprehension, his brow furrowed, his arms awkwardly crossed, sitting in judgement of Christ. The chief priests and elders surround Pilate, badgering him for a verdict in their favor. The baying crowd, held in check by a Roman centurion, lean around each other to catch a glimpse of the accused. One man throws his hands in the air and cries, “Crucify him!” Christ himself, ghostly and otherworldly, stands still in the center of the picture, gazing at the Roman prefect as he vacillates before pronouncing his judgement. Christ Before Pilate was painted by the Hungarian artist, Mihály Munkácsy in 1881 and was an immediate success. During its first showing in Paris it attracted thousands of people every day. Munkácsy then arranged for it to go on a four-year tour across the galleries of Europe. He was hailed as the new Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Those who viewed the enormous canvas, 20 feet long and 13 feet high, reported feeling immersed in its drama, surrounded by the fury and the tension of the scene it depicts. But soon, viewers began to ask who was that young mother of Raphaelic beauty standing by the pillar

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What would you know about fair play, Mr Turnbull?

What would you know about fair play, Mr Turnbull?

Warning: this post contains references to an archaic and almost unwatchable game still played by a few British Commonwealth nations.   Cricket. It’s like baseball, but on valium. It’s slow. It’s boring. And no one outside England and a few of her former colonial outposts play it. But it’s come to epitomize the best of British values like tradition, gentility, and insouciance. Cricketers use quaint terms like tally-ho, and pucka, and huzzah. Okay, I made that bit up. But they should. And so it pains me as an Australian to admit that this great and ancient game has been brought into disrepute by my own countrymen. While playing our fellow former colonial outpost, South Africa, the Australian cricket team has been caught ball tampering. I know the term ball tampering doesn’t sound like the worst crime in the world. In fact, it sounds a bit comical. And I don’t fully understand it myself, but apparently you can fiddle with the ball in such a way as to make it fly at the batter in less predictable ways. And in the world of cricket, it is a complete no-no. The rules state: “The Laws of Cricket allow for manipulation of the ball to some degree, but there is a definite line that must not be crossed. A match ball may be

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