Can we crowdsource theology?

This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:

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This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.

This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.

And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.

There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.

The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.

This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.

Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.

Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.

In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.

Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.

Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.

This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.

There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.

Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.

My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.

There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,

The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?

These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.

Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.

In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.

Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”

Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.

Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.

When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?

And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.

The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.

A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.

I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.

That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.

If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.

I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.

And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.

There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.

The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.

The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.

I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.

Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.

Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.

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Pulling the plug on Christian reviewing

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Last night I watched Grace Unplugged. It was suggested to me, I would say recommended but that might be putting it a bit strong. The Netflix introduction warned me what I was getting: “Every Sunday Grace performs at church with her ex-rock star father, but she longs to share her talent with the rest of the world”. Despite this preview I was still surprised to hear the film start with the familiar chords of Matt Redman’s Never Let Go. It was going to be one of those films.

I wish it wasn’t. I wish a mainstream film started with a typical church worship service, but this was a Christian film. Quite what makes a film Christian is open for dispute, but this certainly was one, the content was explicitly Christian, and it was squarely targeted at the fellow brethren.

I’m going to spoil it for anyone planning on watching, so if you’d rather not read on, head over to Netflix and then come back.

The plot is predictable, and even in that predictability it is disappointing. It’s a prodigal story with a girl rebelling against her parents and heading off to the big wide world (LA I think) to seek stardom. She’s encouraged to do things that go against her faith, has a shock when she’s set up with a TV star to gain her some publicity – who’s just trying to get her into bed. She fails to write a song she needs to prove she’s not a one hit wonder (she rerecorded her father’s hit song). There’s the requisite good outside influence in the form of an intern who was at a church service she and her father played at some time before, and is surprised at her presence in the secular music industry. When things come crashing down she goes to dinner with his family, and in one of many montage scenes we see her gloom lift and she gradually becomes happier. This leads to her returning to her room, picking up the guitar, writing a great song, and returning home and to church to play before the congregation. The film ends with her and her father playing with Chris Tomlin and engaged to the good intern.

Two things appalled me about this film. Firstly, that the definition of doing the good Christian thing was returning to lead worship and not playing secular music, despite her being good enough to do so (a point well made in the Christianity Today review). This is bad theology, the only glimpse of a better perspective was a comment from the good intern that he guessed there needed to be light in this kind of place. This felt like a self-justification of the genre this film belonged to, Christian art for Christian audiences. The idea of the sacred and the secular that such films play into and feed off is nonsense.

Secondly, her descent into darkness was really not that much of a descent. One scene of her being drunk while on a date, and another empting a bottle of non-descript alcohol while trying desperately to write a song of her own. It meant that her dramatic return to her family and the church was lacking the pathos it needed. One caveat to this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to portray sin in specific defined ways to need redemption, in fact I think it would be interesting to explore what it looks like in the absences of sex, drink, and drugs. But this film doesn’t offer an interesting alternative tale of rebellion it just weakly and unconvincingly hints at the conventional narrative.

Most reviews from Christian websites I browsed raved about its wholesome content and positive Christian storyline. In fact, one complained that it showed her return to the family fold in too simplistic terms, pointedly stating that for many they never return from heathen nirvanas such as Hollywood or Nashville. This is why I really valued the review that Christianity Today produced. Recently they wrote an incredibly scathing review of the new Left Behind film, and then followed it up with a piece explaining how and why they write reviews. Their review included the memorable conclusion: “We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”

I value it because I trust them not to write puff pieces and say something is good simply because it has the Christian tag on it. Whether a film, or a book, or an album, an artist or musical can be ‘Christian’ is a debate for another day, but sometimes it seems as though the moniker means that we leave our critical faculties at the door and give something five stars for effort regardless of the quality of what is produced. Or rate it positively simply because it doesn’t do the things mainstream films do (drink, drugs, and debauchery).

For many offerings the quality isn’t dreadful, it’s just not great, and doesn’t reach the hyperbole of those promoting it or those reviewing it (which can sometimes seem like one and the same). One recent example was the musical Love Beyond, which I went to see earlier a few weeks ago. To its credit the actors were good, the musicians and dancers talented and it was put on with great professionalism. But I didn’t think it was very good, I thought the script lacked inspiration and it failed to deliver a memorable song, which for a musical is a difficult failing to overcome. Taking the story of the Bible and condensing it into a single evening’s performance is quite a challenge and I credit the effort put into it, it condensed the Old Testament post fall into a single scene (probably the best of the whole show), but then refused to wrap things up succinctly with scene after scene that I thought, and hoped, would be the last. It told the story of the Bible, in parts very well, in others confusingly and uninspired, but as a result it wasn’t novel to Christians, nor accessible to those who weren’t.

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The bigger problem came the next day when I read a couple of reviews from others that had been there. They were relentlessly positive, and I felt they couldn’t possibly be from the same performance I had watched. I hesitated at the time and I hesitate now from publishing my verdict, I know (although not well) people involved in the show, and I don’t want my criticism to be seen as a rejection of their effort – it’s far easier to critique a film like Grace Unplugged that I don’t even have the faintest connection to.

In the same way that I don’t want to be unfair to the show I don’t want to be unfair to the two reviews linked above, they may have not found anything to fault in the show, and if they didn’t that’s their prerogative. But something I’ve noticed is that Christians tend to give soft reviews, and as a result this can create a culture where criticism is silently frowned upon.

I’m fortunate to work somewhere which gets sent review copies of Christian books on a fairly regular basis and I have the opportunity to write reviews of what I read. However, often after reading something I decline to write a review because I have insufficient positive things to say. Sometimes the books are bad, but more often they are formulaic and dull – the same book has been written with a different cover dozens of times before. Often the only basis for publication is that the author has a significant profile in the Christian world.

When I have reviewed something, and have the space for more than a very brief comment I usually have something to critique even if I have thoroughly enjoyed and valued it. Because I don’t think it does anyone a service to be unfailingly positive about something simply because it is written by a Christian. If books that are repetitious and full of jargon continue to get amazing reviews they will be bought and publishers will commission more of the same.

Of course, readers have the choice to read what they want, but I think there is also a duty for reviewers to maintain their integrity. Here’s where I make a baseless allegation, my fear is that reviewers hold off criticism because they want to get a book deal, or because they have one, or publications want to attract adverts from book publishers.

What’s ironic is that Christians aren’t known for their avoidance of disagreement. Just visit the internet. We’ll happily offer our opinion of someone else’s, we’ll argue with their point of view, debate the merits or foundation of their position. But something strange happens when it comes to what could be broadly described as Christian art, what Christians have produced we want to support and affirm. I want to do the same, I want Christians to create pieces of art, films, music, books that are remembered for centuries to come. I want us to be culture creators. And I want those pieces of culture created to be for all of society, not just for a warm fuzzy feeling for Christians.

I have certainly valued (even if a little painful to take) criticism of things I have worked on. If I ever write a book I’d love to get great reviews, but I want them to be on merit, I don’t want to get them simply because no one has the guts to say something true.

Leonard Cohen’s popular problem

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Just before his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago Leonard Cohen released his thirteenth studio album, Popular Problems. Last year I perched near the rafters of the O2 to watch him perform a three hour set, complete with six song encore. It was phenomenal.

Cohen has never been the cheeriest of performers, but on that night, and I think in the past few years he has started to have fun again. I think he has started to enjoy being back on the road, and I think this new album is his best in a couple of decades and possibly more. There is material on here that stands shoulder to shoulder with the haunting lyrics of the late 60s and 70s when the poet first wound his graveling melodies round rhyming couplets.

He was infamously forced back onto the road by his partner who had made off with most of his life savings and needed to sing for his supper. But after paying off his debts and putting a little aside he kept on travelling. Two years ago he release Old Ideas which I skeptically purchased having thought very little of his only previous offerings during my music conscious lifetime – Ten New Songs and Dear Heather are better forgotten. But in Old Ideas was the emotion and lyrical artistry that helped him in those early years overcome a limited musical ability, but also a freshness that was reflected when I saw him perform live.

Popular Problems is a short album but stuffed full of brilliance. Several songs have stuck with me as I’ve listen through over the last couple of days, but one stands out: You Got Me Singing. The lyrics are below as is a video. This song would make it into my top ten Cohen songs of all time: it’s not got the strength of lyrics of The Stranger’s Song, the self deprecation of Chelsea Hotel No. 2; I doubt it will be covered ad nauseum like the Hallelujah hymn it references and nor does it shock the listener as Sing Another Song, Boys does in it’s closing stages. But it is beautiful. A

As with so much from Cohen’s pen one has to wonder at the possible theological meanings of every line. These meditations are not clear in You Got Me Singing, but unambiguous in others, in Samson in New Orleans and Born in Chains, it is impossible to avoid.

The test for the greatness of an album is not whether I enjoy it today but if I’ll still be selecting it in years to come. Nearly 50 years after Songs of Leonard Cohen was released I have high hopes for this 13th chapter of the canon.

You got me singing even though the news is bad
You got me singing the only song I’ve ever had
You got me singing ever since the river died
You got me thinking of all the places we could hide

You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the hallelujah hymn

Singing that hallelujah hymn

You got me singing like a prisoner in a jail
You got me singing like my pardon’s in the mail
You got me wishing our little love would last
You got me thinking like those people of the past

You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all went wrong
You got me singing the hallelujah song

Singing that hallelujah song

How I found freedom from the prison of ego

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As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.

Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.

When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.

I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.

I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself.

When others were weirded out during the prayer ministry time, I was unfazed.

Ten years ago I remember chat boards discussing this or that issue, some theological debate, whether a certain band was better than another. I would spend many an hour formulating the killer argument. I remember writing a long paper on whether God heard the prayers of non-Christians. (The answer is yes. I’ve got better at being succinct. But not that much better cf. this post.)

I thought that because I recognised the bubble which existed, I thought that because I would critique it, and at times subject it to ridicule, I was better than it. I thought that I wasn’t captured by the tyranny of culture that makes faith a thing to be practised, perfected and performed, I was immune to it.

Faith meant something to me, it wasn’t just a culture that I was absorbed into, it was something more. Knowing God made a difference: it helped when I was lonely, when I’d stand at the back of the hall and no one would speak to me. It helped when I was in a crowd and acting cool, but not too cool, because that would be uncool. It helped when things went wrong, when the thing I had set my heart on crashed before my feet. I kept walking through the rubble knowing I was not alone.

My belief in God, and that he loves me, mattered when I messed up, when I disappointed, when I did not do the things I should and did others I shouldn’t.

I spent too many years hanging off the coattails of the vanguard of Christian culture. The people I was with were ahead of the trend, and I thought, by association, that was enough. Being innovative, creative, different, was important. Rejecting conformity, orthodoxy, ritual, was a badge of honour. If people weren’t objecting to what you were doing, it wasn’t radical enough.

When handing out chocolate selection boxes to the neighbours at Christmas is radical action, provoking ire and critique, something somewhere has gone wrong.

Many of my fellow travellers on that road those years ago are now on different paths. Some who walked this way in recent times do not any more. For some it was decisive, deliberate, definitive. It was giving up on a childlike ways, it was parting company with a life they were opting not to lead. It was the decision to leave God behind. But for many others the path is less certain, less clear cut, and cloaked with frustration, doubt and hurt, emotions they felt were not accommodated.

Not accommodated in a church where having it together was only optional if you were cool enough not to care (and your trousers were baggy enough and slung low enough around your thighs). Even then, being cool enough not to care about being cool was a carefully manufactured image.

Church was a place for worship, and for belief. It was a place for reaching to God, calling down his presence, sending out his disciples, going to the ends of the earth to comfort the wounded.

But often the wounded were sat next to you.

Often the wounded did not know what it was to know with the certainty they were told to know. Did not believe as earnestly as they hoped they did believe. Jessica Misener recalls her youth: “My desire at that moment was for Jesus, or as 30-year-old me wants to declare in hindsight, what I earnestly believed was Jesus.”

Others were hurt by decisions the church took, or what leaders they looked up to did when people weren’t looking.

Mike Pilavachi, leader of the Soul Survivor youth festivals and church, has commented on the different tenor to the conferences aimed at teens and Momentum, which is for students, 20s and 30s. For the younger attenders it is hopeful and optimistic: it is about changing the world for Jesus. For those a little older the dreams have sometimes been dashed, sometimes the hopes have faded, and the world has not changed how they expected, and maybe Jesus seems a little further away – seeing through a glass darkly resonates more than doing all thing through Christ who strengthens me.

I never gave up on faith, but there were many days, long periods, when I was stuck on autopilot. I was doing the things I needed to do, attending the meetings, reading the books, listening to the music, understanding the concepts I needed to grasp. But sometimes one was missing. Sometimes I wasn’t sure that I was sure enough that I believed.

Sometimes I wonder what it is I have spent the twenty years, since I went to the front at a meeting aged ten, doing. Sometimes I wonder who it is I’m praying to. I wonder if I am actually going mad and talking to myself.

But I never gave up, and instead I have learnt to let go. I learnt to stop performing, stop worrying, and know that peace is more important than knowledge. I needed to know that last week. This is not a past story of my teenage years, it is a daily walk.

It’s the paradox of childlike faith. Doubt isn’t the enemy, it is what makes belief matter. Children know with certainty but never stop questioning: everything is definite and nothing is sacrosanct. It is my hope that I know with certainty that I am loved, but I never stop asking.

Many who don’t currently go to church never decided that was it, they were not betrayed or hurt. Going to church just stopped happening. For some they still believe, they can still be still and know that God is here. For others God seems distant and a relationship with Jesus part of the clichéd Christian culture they are embarrassed to have embraced with such abandon.

My story is not one of rebellion, it is not one of rejecting God, it is not one of walking away. I was the one who stayed and kept up appearances. For me that mattered, for me hanging on when I felt god was not hanging on to me was important. But it also grew me a hard shell, it grew a heart that was harder on the outside, and a vulnerability on the inside I dared not expose.

It taught me that being seen as with it, together, sorted, grown up, mature, responsible, was what mattered. It made me hide shame with secrecy, and fear of failure with planning and perfection.

I wish that if I or anyone else could answer, beyond doubt, criticism or rejection whether the Bible is inerrant, infallible or trustworthy for faith and conduct and what that means, it would solve the problem many have with the Christian faith. But I don’t think it would. There are men and women who defend the faith with deftness and dignity, winsome writers who tell of the divine. And I wonder if it misses the point. The answers we give aren’t always the answers many are looking for.

There are people I know who left church behind, others for whom God is not what he once was. But in equal measure there are friends who find this road once more. Who perhaps stumble a time or two. Who perhaps wonder whether this is the place they can call home. Who nurse the wounds caused by hurt and betrayal. Who do not always believe with the fervour they feel their faith should elicit.

And one thing Jessica’s deeply moving piece portrays is that communities of belief are important, the place where we worship and the people we join with, makes a difference. It is why in the nineteenth century atheists set up secular societies, it is why in the twenty-first the Sunday Assembly copied church services but dispensed with the faith bit. Jessica says: “Losing Jesus, someone I talked to both hunched over in prayer groups and in the darkness of my bedroom, felt like losing a friend, even if he was an imaginary one all along.” She goes on: “With a divine outlet compelling me to focus on something besides self-preservation, I felt free from the prison of ego.”

Commenting on someone else’s beliefs, even when published on Buzzfeed, is a vulturistic past time. Stopping blogging for even a few months last autumn taught me a little about disengaging, leaving aside the controversy of the day, the outrageous statement, the fact that someone somewhere on the internet was wrong. I let it go.

So I’ll leave it at this: I believe that faith in Jesus frees me from the prison of ego, and I believe that enough to let it matter. That prison was broken down, not by the force of certainty, but the cracks that let the light in.

The art of faux vulnerability

I learnt a while ago that a certain sort of post works well, it gets attention, it is shared, liked, commented on. And I feel that I’ve done a good job.

It’s the posts where I’m vulnerable and honest. It became my thing.

I learnt how to bleed onto the screen, find the valve of my emotions, my thoughts, my fears; and spill into words the pain and anxiety I held captive. I hit publish and shared with the world.

I wrote naked and people stopped and stared.

Brené Brown shot to fame with a TEDx talk a few years ago. Four years on with over 15million views her talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched videos on the site. I recently read her book, Daring Greatly. And it is possibly changing my life. In her talk she says, and you can watch the section here:

‘So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, I brought in my list of how the whole hearted live and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those because their BS meters are good. And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood S#*!. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. [you have to watch it to really get this!] And I said, “It’s bad, right? And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

‘And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.’

And I thought that vulnerability was my thing. I thought I had a unique selling point beyond being a guy writing about relationships.

I wrote posts where I winced as they went live, those I agonised over for hours and those I wrote in breathless minutes. I wrote pieces which part of me wanted ignored and a lot more of me loved being noticed.

I tore open my heart and threw it onto the screen to get noticed.

I wrote posts I regret. Not because they were wrong, or offensive, or unhelpful. At least not unhelpful for others. That was my rationale, the one I gave myself. I told myself I was helping people address issues no one else was, I was saying out loud what others were thinking. I was facilitating conversation, helping others open up. I convinced myself I was helping, I think in a way I was.

But I wasn’t helping myself. I was using vulnerability.

Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviours that are so common place in today’s culture.”

I had learnt the art of faux vulnerability and it was costing me dearly.

It was when someone I only know moderately well, but hold in great respect delicately expressed some concern about what I was sharing online that I paused to think. Initially I was defensive. It’s okay, I know what I’m doing, I regulate. I don’t overshare.

And I don’t. I know exactly how much to say online to have the affect I want it to have. I know the necessary emotions. The right amount of contrition, of personal reflection, the appropriate deflection and shift to abstraction from making something too much about me.

I was using vulnerability like a currency to get what I wanted. And like the Wizard of Oz, what stood beyond the curtain of my exposed vulnerability was where the wounds really lay.

I was using vulnerability as a strategy to avoid being vulnerable. I had corrupted the good and turned it inside out and put it to dubious use.

And yet. And yet, the answer is not to be less vulnerable. But to be truly vulnerable. In letting it all hang out, or being seen to do that while actually remaining resolutely in control I was numbing my emotions. I was manipulating them and putting them to use but I was not accepting and listening to them. I was pretending to be something other than that which I was.

In Brené Brown’s TEDx talk she talks about numbness. You can’t decide to just feel the happy thoughts and not the said. Numbness affects them all. It stops us experiencing joy, and kindness, and sorrow and grief.

Nor is the answer to never write publically about relationships, about emotions, about struggles with shame – yes shame, that great predator lying in wait to snatch vulnerability away – about what I don’t understand and what I do not know. But there are boundaries and boundaries are healthy.

In manufacturing vulnerability I made it harder to be vulnerable.

In Daring Greatly Brown talks about floodlight oversharing, and perhaps that’s partly what I’ve engaged in. It makes it hard for people to respond to, there is too much, too quickly, and without the foundation of relationship to digest it. When I share with a friend over dinner in a pub, or as we walk we take time to hear what each other is saying and doing. When we broadcast our vulnerabilities we are not looking for assistance or acceptance but affirmation.

Vulnerability is not one of those things where you can fake it until you make.

The sermon from about a month ago that got me thinking about this.

Should we mock David Cameron on twitter?

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David Cameron has done it again.

He’s tried to be nice to Christians and it went a bit wrong.

But this time my annoyance is not with him.

From time to time the Prime Minister makes comments in statements or interviews about his faith and the role of Christianity. He might compare his belief to being like listening to the radio in the Chilterns, fading in and out. He might suggest that the Bible is not a bad moral guide.

And we might pick holes in what he says, criticise the understanding of the Christian faith. I did.

On Wednesday various Christian leaders went to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s Easter reception. There were church leaders, evangelists, anti-poverty campaigners, those working with the persecuted church and victims of trafficking.

Normally such events are little more than a PR exercise, they’re press released and managed to present the Prime Minister in as good a light as possible. This one feels a little different. There was no press release, no prepared speech, and only belatedly a transcript of the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Those there swiftly reported what David Cameron had said. A single news story led to many others and by the evening the Prime Minister was being mocked on twitter.

When I read the full version of what he said I squirmed slightly at how evangelism was expressed (as little more than doing good). And yet the words I read were an encouragement to the church across the world frequently persecuted for their beliefs, and to the church in the UK to be dynamic in bringing life to communities across the country. A boost for parish priests who canoed through villages during the storms earlier this year.

The words were warm, and Cranmer notes: “clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister’s spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England’s ministry than anything he has previously disclosed”.

Unfortunately David Cameron doesn’t make it hard to be mocked, comparing himself to Dyno-rod was an unusual analogy. But it was the Big Society (yes, with capitals) that got the ball rolling. Perhaps appropriately for an Easter message, the Big Society is a concept that refuses to die. As Christian Guy tweeted:

This is where my sympathy for David Cameron goes into overdrive. He was trying to give the church credit for their work and respond, as he has repeatedly done, that all his packaging did was take what the church has been doing for centuries, millennia, and get more people involved.

As reported in the Times, a No 10 spokesperson commented: “The Prime Minister has long made the point that he may have coined the catchphrase but he didn’t invent the concept. All sorts of organisations from different faith backgrounds have made a positive contribution to society, including schools and charities.”

When the Big Society was first announced, churches jumped up and down yelling that they’d be at it for ages. Now he agrees the response is: stop thinking you’re doing God’s work. He can’t win.

You might consider the Big Society to be a cover for cuts, you might think it is painfully hard electoral message to sell on the door steps.

But I think there is a challenge to us all in how we respond to politicians, how we engage with them, and how we judge their beliefs and actions. I am certain we should not sycophantically praise politicians to get an invite through the famous black door. I don’t think anyone there got there by doing that. I think there is a vital prophetic role for the church to speak truth to power, to tell when the least are forgotten, when the abandoned are cast away, when the stomachs of the hungry groan, when the shelter for the weak is not there.

There are many things we can criticise the government for. We can say their welfare changes are pernicious, we can say their changes to marriage undermine the family. We can criticise governments for taking us to war, for favouring business over caring for the environment.

The bible tells us in Psalm 146 to put critical distance between us and our leaders, to be reluctant to place too much trust in what they can do: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

And we should remember that politicians are fallible, they are like you and me, they make mistakes, they have mixed motives, they put priorities in an order that fails to reconcile heaven and earth.

But maybe because of that, criticism should not be our only posture, in fact, I don’t think it should be our primary posture. It is useful, it is vital, we must critique what is unjust, but we shouldn’t start there.

Political leaders, like all other leaders, are taking responsibility, they are exercising authority, and as such, in a way that is always limited, never absolute, they are exercising God’s authority.

Jesus, before Pilate, asks where his authority comes from.

Jesus tells the challenger seeking to trap him, to give to Caesar what is his, knowing that the image of Caesar on a coin demanding fealty is itself an image reflecting Caesar’s creation in the image of God.

Paul writes to the Romans reminding them that the governing authorities only have authority because God has given it, and that those in authority are God’s servants.

In 1 Peter we are challenged to do good and honour our rulers: if that is a challenge today what must it have felt like to those under Roman oppression?

And in 1 Timothy asked to pray for those in authority – that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

This is not a weak prayer, a surrender, it is a challenge. It is a hard task.

There is a responsibility given to leaders that should provoke respect but not blind loyalty. There is an authority to rulers which we should live under but also challenge.

And when we turn to twitter (admittedly there were some funny tweets) to mock leaders who express gratitude to the church for the work they do, and stand with Christians persecuted for their beliefs across the world, I got annoyed. But more than that, I was also saddened because I think it undermines the prophetic voice we should have. A voice that respects, but is not cowed, by authority.

Watch the Prime Minister’s Easter message:

I got addicted… to 2048

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To 2048.

On Friday I saw someone playing it on the tube.

On Saturday I was introduced to the game and shown how it worked.

On Sunday I downloaded it and started playing.

On Monday I got 2048 and won.

On Tuesday I deleted the game from my phone.

In five day I went from never having heard of the latest craze game to removing it from my phone to cut off the addiction that had developed.

Addiction is a strong word. And the one the best fits.

I thought about the DSM screen for problem gambling, and reckoned I would answer positively to enough questions to be classified as a problem gambler. The lack of money traded and lost, and therefore the questions about getting money to play being inapplicable, only making the impact more marked in other areas.

From Sunday evening until Monday evening I played in virtually every spare moment. On Sunday evening I played for several hours straight. I went to bed with my head buzzing, unable to sleep. I woke and calculated how long I could play before I needed to catch the train to work. And of course I played on the train.

What’s crazier is that after work on Monday I hit the jackpot, I arranged the numbers to reach the elixir of 2048. And yet I went on. I wanted 4096.

Each time I lost I thought I could easily have not made the mistake that led my downfall.

Each time I thought the next time would be better. That if I got to the next milestone I would be satisfied.

On Monday evening I had watched Rev, but realised when reading the discussion the next day I had paid scant attention. Because I was playing 2048.

Sunday night when I want to relax I got more wound up as the numbers stacked up in unhelpful patterns.

A game, that thing intended as leisure, had become a point of stress.

I didn’t want to play for hours on end. And yet I was.

So I took drastic action. I deleted the game.

Sometimes that’s the only way to deal with something.

2048 is a brilliant game. I love it. And I also hate it. It is good, and yet it was damaging me. It had to stop.