Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

In my previous post I mentioned I’m spending Lent meditating on Andrea Mantegna’s astonishing Renaissance painting, The Lamentation of the Christ, also known as The Dead Christ. This week in particular, as I’ve been contemplating it, I find my eyes drawn again and again to Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus’ feet. When you think about it, not many artists concern themselves with the soles of Christ’s feet. We get lots of pictures of his sandaled feet. And plenty of pictures of his feet anchored to the cross with nails as thick as your thumb. But not the soles. Which is odd really. I mean, this is the man who called people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps. You’d think we’d be more familiar with the feet of the one we’re trying to emulate. Alongside my reflections on this painting, I have been re-reading John’s Gospel. This week, I came to the lengthy conversation Jesus has with his disciples while sharing the Passover feast on the eve of his arrest and trial. The feast begins with Jesus performing the scandalous duty of washing his disciples’ feet, a necessary and routine practice, but one never undertaken by a teacher or master to his followers. Peter voices the feelings of all the disciples when he recoils in horror and says, “No, you

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A month with the Dead Christ

A month with the Dead Christ

I’m going to spend 40 days sitting with the dead Christ. I was inspired by one of my teachers telling me he spent every day in Lent contemplating a single image, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Spending forty days sitting with Dali’s God’s eye view of the crucifixion, running his eye down the length of Christ’s cross-anchored body to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, centered my professor on the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God the father. So I’m trying the same thing this year, but with a different painting, although one that takes a no less unlikely perspective on the Easter story. Andrea Mantegna was a Renaissance master from Padua in northern Italy. Some time in the 1480s he painted The Lamentation of Christ (also known more bluntly as The Dead Christ). It’s an Easter composition unlike any other. Mantegna’s perspective is so rare, it takes us aback. Christ doesn’t writhe in agony on the cross. He’s not wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He doesn’t stand blood-soaked and humiliated before us, a crown of thorns gouging his head, a garish robe of red around his stooped shoulders. We are accustomed to all these views. In Mantegna’s vision, Christ is dead. He’s like stone. Like the marble slab upon which

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Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

I’m no celebrity – not even close – but I have been asked to autograph someone’s bible before. On a few occasions. In certain church circles it’s actually a thing to get people to sign your bible. I recoiled the first time it happened. It seemed like desecration to add my pathetic signature to the pages of the Holy Bible. And when I demurred, the person looked genuinely hurt. They couldn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t do it. I guess they figured it was a weird cultural thing that Australians have with not autographing the Good Book. But actually, Australians have their own version of Good Book signing in the so-called Fleet Bible, which was brought to Sydney Cove on the first fleet of colonizers to arrive on our shores in 1788. Rather strangely, it has been signed by every monarch to visit Australia in the past century, including Charles and Diana, Will and Kate, Queen Elizabeth and her uncle, the short-lived Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. I just don’t get it. I really don’t. Why is it considered appropriate to have celebrities scrawl their names on an ancient holy book? I mean, isn’t it kinda, um, desecration? This question was reignited last week when President Donald Trump signed a bunch of bibles at

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How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

There’s a national election due in Australia soon, and the options for a pro-life, pro-peace, pro-planet, pro-religious freedom, pro-refugee, pro-Aboriginal reconciliation, pro-poor, kind of Christian voter like me are extremely limited. The conservative government has continually disappointed people like me with their draconian approach toward asylum seekers, their rejection of the Uluru Statement, their enthusiastic support for the coal industry, and their consistent cuts to foreign aid. But the Greens continue to alienate a lot of Christians by campaigning to decriminalize abortion and prostitution in all states, to end chaplaincy in public high schools, and to threaten religious freedoms for churches not willing to provide same-sex marriages. Then this week, the Australian Labor Party pledged to build an abortion clinic in Tasmania and to push for the decriminalization of abortion in South Australia and New South Wales. Even if a Christian could live with these pledges, hoping for a world where terminations are “safe, legal and rare”, as the saying goes, the ALP went even further. They enshrined a new policy of requiring public hospitals to provide termination services through commonwealth funding agreements. In other words, no abortions, no commonwealth money. What’s a voter like me to do?   Is it too much to ask for a truly pro-life political party that supports the poor and takes meaningful steps toward

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To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

My friends know what’s in store. I won’t be here anymore. I’ve packed my bags I’ve cleaned the floor. Watch me walkin’ Walkin’ out the door.   We’ve become used to the term, “nones” to describe those who have no religious affiliation or faith, but Josh Packard, the author of a University of Northern Colorado study, recently coined the term “dones” to describe former churchgoers who nevertheless maintain their faith in God and their Christian identity. And according to his research, this describes an estimated 30 million Americans. Not only that, Packard says there are another 7 million “almost dones” coming up behind them. In 2007 the Pew Research Center conducted its Religious Landscape Study with a massive survey of 35,000 individuals and found that about 16 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that same study reported the number had climbed to 23 percent. Way back in 1980 only eight percent of those under age 30 were “nones.” The Pew Center says that number has risen to 32 percent. People are leaving the church in droves, especially so-called millennials. But the picture that seems to be emerging isn’t a simple one of wholesale church decline. Part of what is happening is that many committed Christians are continuing to pursue their faith outside institutional church membership. Indeed, Packard’s

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Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Suburban people love lawn. We cut it, fertilize it, trim it, edge it. Some people even color it. No matter how good your own lawn might be, there’s nothing like the twinge of covetousness and admiration you feel when walking past the lawn-keeping skills of a grandmaster. We love it so much we think nothing of the prospect of watering and trimming a sizeable carpet of grass week after week. The perfect length and trim; the alternating mower lines; the absence of weeds — ah, there’s nothing like it. A perfect lawn epitomizes the suburban values of uniformity, symmetry, balance and neatness. American columnist Dave Barry writes, “The average American home owner would rather live next to a pervert, heroin addict or communist pornographer than someone with an unkempt lawn.” In fact, Americans spend $27 billion per year caring for their lawns, which amazingly is ten times more than they spend on school textbooks. But what if I told you that lawn breaks every rule of nature. Actually, lawn is a freak of nature!   Lawn is a monoculture, but every law in the nature handbook tells our planet to strive for biodiversity. Biodiversity is life; monocultures are on the verge of death, which is why lawn can’t survive without an elaborate life-support system of phosphate-based fertilizers, garden pesticides and herbicides. And

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Explaining Billy Graham

Explaining Billy Graham

On May 9, 1979, I attended a Billy Graham Crusade at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. I had access to the lawn area in front of the blue grandstand. I don’t remember that. It says so on the ticket I kept from that night. I don’t really remember anything from Billy Graham’s talk that night either. But I do recall hundreds of people going forward in response to the appeal to invite Jesus into their life. I went forward too. But not to give my life to Jesus. I just went forward to see what happened to all those who did. I meandered through the crowd, overhearing the respondees repeating the sinner’s prayer after their counselor, phrase after phrase like wedding vows. It must have had a big impact on me because I kept my ticket all these years. The 1979 crusade was Billy Graham’s third in Australia. He first landed on our shores in 1959 and that crusade is considered a watershed event in Australia’s religious history. During the ’59 meetings 130,000 Aussies went forward in response to Graham’s altar call. In Sydney alone it was nearly 57,000. It was the closest thing to a revival the city had ever seen. But the Billy Graham phenomenon had begun only ten years earlier in Los Angeles in September 1949. At just

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Let’s talk about virginity shaming

Let’s talk about virginity shaming

You don’t actually have to be watching the sixth season of Australia’s version of Married At First Sight (MAFS) to know that one of the participants has a very dark secret. His confession has been heavily featured in the show’s endless promos. This week, 29-year-old Matt Bennett was “married” to a woman he’d never previously met, but not before making his embarrassing confession to all the other male contestants at the bucks’ night, and in on-camera interviews with the show’s producers. Even on his wedding night, he was quick to reveal the ugly truth to his new “wife”, Lauren. And it sure was awkward. “For me, honesty is very important. I feel like there’s something I want to tell you and something you should know about me,” Matt stammered, “I’ve sort of been on the fence about whether or not I should tell you because you know it’s been weighing on me a bit, it’s a big thing.” Pause for effect… And then… “I’m actually still a virgin.” Lauren’s response to this news summed up the mood of everyone on the show. “Shit!” she gawped. The idea that a young man could nearly make it to 30 without ever having had sex is a matter of genuine surprise to all. In an earlier episode he revealed his chastity had nothing to

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Outspoken people are so annoying

Outspoken people are so annoying

Recently, during the normally benign blather and cheesy product endorsements that make up the bulk of morning television, things really blew up when one chat-show panelist accused another of making racist remarks. Things were only made worse by the fact that the one being accused of racism was an older white woman known as the “queen of daytime TV,” and that her accuser was Yumi Stynes, a young woman of color. The Twittersphere and mainstream media blew up with all the usual angsty stuff about what actually comprises racism and lots of “how dare she say this or that”, etc. But one reaction caught my eye. It was penned by the former producer of the very show the altercation took place on. Robert McKnight was the executive producer of Studio 10 from 2013 until 2017, and in an extraordinary blog post he revealed that he would never allow Yumi Stynes on the show when he was in charge because she’s too opinionated. “Morning television is like having a cup of coffee with a friend,” he wrote, “viewers do not want to watch world war three erupt.”   That’s interesting because he doesn’t say he would never have Kerri Anne Kennerley, the aforemented queen of daytime television, on his show. No, he wouldn’t have Yumi Stynes on his show because you

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Lies they taught me in school about the ‘Brown People’ of this land

Lies they taught me in school about the ‘Brown People’ of this land

When I was in school in the 1960s we were all made to read a book entitled, The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings (1965). That book was dedicated “To the Brown People, who handed down these Dreamtime Myths.” Those “Brown People” — the original inhabitants of the nation of Australia — were presented to us as a simple, primitive, childlike people. Their stories were quaint. Their children were cute. They lived aesthetic lives as hunter-gatherers in the wild interior of our country. But more recently I’ve discovered that so much of what I was taught about the original inhabitants of this great land was based on misinformation or racism. Even today I’m still learning how limited my education was in my youth. Here are a series of myths you were probably also taught. It’s time to bury them for good.   MYTH 1: THERE IS ONLY ONE ABORIGINAL CULTURE That book I mentioned earlier, The Dreamtime, was written by anthropologist Charles Mountford and illustrated with the surrealist paintings of artist Ainslie Roberts. It was a collection of origin stories, a bit like Kipling’s Just So Stories, only set in Australia. But neither Mountford nor Roberts were Aboriginal people. In fact, Roberts was British. And they retold the Aboriginal myths as over-simplified, popularised, and radically contracted versions of the original stories.

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Do we really want to conserve all the values of that so-called “Christian era”?

Do we really want to conserve all the values of that so-called “Christian era”?

My father was part of what is referred to as the Greatest Generation. They were the guys who fought the Second World War, defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, and returned to build the booming post-war economy. They built family homes in the suburbs and bought nice cars and refrigerators and television sets. They were the churchgoing generation who attended church picnics and potluck suppers, and whose children crowded Sunday schools and vacation Bible camps. In Australia, where I grew up, church attendance in the 1950s approached 50% of the population. In the US, it was well over 60%. When Billy Graham first visited our shores in 1959, my father’s generation turned out in droves to hear him preach. Between his 14 meetings across ten cities, around 3 million people heard his message. And that’s out of a total population of just over 10 million. More than 143,000 people attended his Melbourne Cricket Ground rally alone. People reported that alcohol consumption dropped in 1960-61, and that the crime rate slowed during that period. Less children were born to unmarried women, businesses reported a spike in the repayment of bad debts, enrolments in Bible Colleges went through the roof. Some have called it a revival. In fact, those days are considered such a golden era for religion, I regularly hear people calling

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In the year #MeToo went to church, I had a very Hybels kind of 2018

In the year #MeToo went to church, I had a very Hybels kind of 2018

In the year #MeToo went to church, I guess it was fitting that I had a very Hybels kind of 2018 in the blogosphere. My top three posts for the year all addressed the topic of sexual propriety in the church, each bouncing off the unfolding fall from grace of American megachurch pastor Bill Hybels. Hybels’ story is instructive because allegations against him weren’t taken seriously for many years, even though they were coming from more than one woman. As a highly successful pastor, and an author whose writings focused on integrity and courage, there was a reticence to believe that he could be guilty of the kind of abuse that was being alleged against him. Indeed, some questioned whether the charges could even be categorized as abuse. I mean, if little physical contact occurred and intercourse didn’t take place, is it abuse? So 2018 became the year when the church was forced to acknowledge that the term ‘abuse’ can be used to describe any situation in which a minister, priest or church employee attempts to use their position of power over or proximity to someone to sexualize their relationship. And Bill Hybels isn’t an isolated case. Thanks to both the #MeToo movement, we now know the sexual exploitation of women by ministers is not uncommon. In fact, some researchers suggest

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