Why We Can’t All Care The Same Way About The Same Things

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I like brie. Very much. Brie tends to be expensive, so it’s a treat when I have it. But I really do love it, in all its creamy, rich goodness. I don’t expect everyone to like brie. My wife doesn’t, for a start. My foster son calls it ‘white person’s cheese’. If everyone in the world liked brie there’d be a worldwide brie shortage, the price would skyrocket and I’d never be able to have it. That would clearly be A Disaster.

I support Arsenal Football Club (this isn’t a bid for sympathy, by the way), as my mother did and my grandfather before her. Much as I enjoy making friends with other Arsenal supporters, I don’t expect everyone to support Arsenal; in fact, that’s the point. Different people support different clubs, and we exchange jokes; going to a match as a fan of the away team can be a lot of fun (it can also be quite dangerous, which is when, of course, the point has been missed and a line has been crossed).

Scanning social media feeds, or listening to people who are passionate about one thing, can sometimes feel like the whole world is being urged to love brie or support the same team or Bad Things Will Happen. I know this, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve mistaken something I love or something I feel passionate about for something everyone should feel the same about. The reality is that this is not only undesirable, but impossible. We Christians – and especially those of us in leadership positions  – can be especially guilty of this. Guilty is an important word here, because it’s precisely that which we load on people if we’re not wise – and load on ourselves if we take it all too much to heart.

The latest iteration came for me this weekend, in the wake of the Irish referendum on relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws. This isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of that referendum per se; it’s more about what we say about it. Many times I saw arguments that went something like this: ‘If you’re not as passionate about refugee children as you are about abortion [or the converse] then you’re a hypocrite’. Now like all the best lies, there’s an element of truth here; American Christian activist Shane Claiborne writes and speaks eloquently about the importance of being ‘pro-life’ (as opposed to anti-abortion) in all our theology and politics, not just one area. There is a risk of hypocrisy, and we must be alive to it for hypocrisy is an often justified criticism of Christians. But the issue that concerns me is the level of passion or commitment that’s expected.

We’ve all been there. You’re deeply affected by a song or a movie, and you gush about it to whoever comes across your path and find yourself slightly offended and lost for words when someone says ‘Well, it’s OK I suppose’; or worse ‘I hate it’; or worse still ‘It’s wrong for a Christian to love that’. I get confused, for example, when I meet people who don’t love the movie Pan’s Labyrinth as much as I do; It profoundly moves me every time, I think it’s basically perfect and God even speaks to me through it. Amazingly, some people find it too violent, boring or too Spanish. It can be rather like that with causes. I, for instance, find myself passionate about homelessness. I want others to be too. At times my passion for the cause can tip over into a guilt trip, manipulation; the expectation that everyone else should not only agree with me but should feel the same.

The reality is that we can’t all feel the same way about everything. I have friends I admire deeply who are passionate about (for example) accessible education for all or care for the environment. They feel about those issues like I do about homelessness. If I felt about those two issues they way I feel about homelessness, whilst maintaining my passion for the latter, I’d quickly combust. Let alone all the other issues that are important – social justice-wise, doctrine-wise, practise-wise and the like.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One is (of course) Jesus. He cares about all this stuff, deeply, to the extent that it should be cared about and more. And he does so without combusting. He holds the fire for it, so to a certain extent we don’t have to. But there’s more; we are made in his image. We (partially) reflect Him; which means we sometimes find ourselves taking on the care for one or more of these issues from Him, because we’re His ‘hands and feet on earth’. It’s what Christians sometimes call a ‘ministry’ or a ‘burden’; but one that’s easy fitting. It’s given to us, with all our imperfections and gifts, because there’s something that fits well with us about it. We get to engage with the church and the world, promoting the issue and inviting others to respond to God’s call on it, inviting the church to act on it and so become more the church we’re meant to be.

Call, invitation is the key here. We’re not to treat people like a race horse, whipping them over the finish line; no, like Jesus we’re to call and invite until people respond as God places it within them to do so. Together we all make up a church, in the language of 1 Corinthians 12, a body. We can’t all be hands; we can’t all be kidneys. We can’t all give the same energy to homelessness or the environment or doctrine or abortion or refugees or …  But between us, we might just get there.

That’s why leading on an issue, or leading a church, can be so hard. You can see where we could be, maybe even what the church could look like; we want so desperately to get there that we’ll do anything to make it happen. But we mustn’t do ‘anything’; we are to act and invite in grace. Now there always moments and seasons, currents of the Spirit that are inexplicable; or emergencies in public life that require us to pitch in, even if we only know it to be right in our head but struggle to do so in our heart. It seems #metoo and #churchtoo, for example, may be an example of just that. We can’t, though, all feel   the same way; we’re finite, limited and fragile; social media, politics, the church all shout urgency about myriad things. It’s the ministry of leadership and corporate wisdom to discern when is a ‘moment’ and when is ‘just’ something important that a number, perhaps even a growing number, are called to. All of us may need to change our thinking or behaviour on something; we may need to confess, repent and change in some way. But the leadership on any given issue is left to a few. We can respond with prayer; with actions big, medium or small; with money; with support and encouragement in other forms.

So let’s be kind to ourselves and one another in our posts, in our sermons, in our words and actions. We are called to walk the way of Jesus; in doing so, each of us finds we walk like Him in a certain way that few seem to share. Following Jesus is always done in a group, never alone; a group where diversity of passions and interests and hopes and experiences is both welcomed and encouraged.

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Closing The Circle: Social media’s subtle temptations and opportunities

Dave Eggars’ latest novel, The Circle is on the face of it straightforward. It’s an easy to read yarn about a woman taking a job working for a fictional hybrid of Google and Facebook, telling a gripping story of conspiracy and manipulation on a grand scale. This is Dave Eggars, though – a self-consciously brilliant writer (his first book, a kind of memoir, was called A Hearbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius)  – and he’s always as much about ideas as he is about story. That this book manages to twin the two so well is testament to his skill.

The book holds a mirror to our digital culture and invites us to consider if we like what we see. The fictional company  – The Circle – has combined online shopping, social media and web searching and seems to be on an unstoppable run of innovation and invention. It’s moving towards total market domination of more or less everything – what will it mean when ‘the circle is closed’? What will that look like, and what will it do to us? It’s an ultimately chilling conclusion.

In the process we see a series of different realities reflected to us. The novel portrays the desire to record and log everything we do, the measuring of viewpoints and popularity by ‘hits’ and ‘likes’, the addiction to screens and surveillance, the habit of experiencing great things second or third hand rather than directly, the need to present to the world a transparent picture of happiness, integrity and balance. The digitized life is well and truly under the microscope here.

It’s an achingly real vision of where we are and where we might be going. So much so that I was stunned to discover that many consider this to be science-fiction; I really don’t see it that way. It seems to me to be simply one perspective, only marginally exaggerated for story purposes, on where our society is headed. I’ve visited the Google campus in California twice; I can tell you that the workplace depicted in Eggars’ novel has roots in real life bricks and mortar. What’s on-screen in the novel’s world is equally recognisable.

Most of us use social media, but increasingly – especially in Christian circles (there’s that word again) – it has a bad reputation as something at best to be wary of, at worst something that’s eating us alive. Whether it’s privacy issues, cyber-bullying, the breakdown of ‘real’ community (a conveniently ill-defined term in the debate), the by-the-back-door marketing, or dangerous #neknomination style crazes, Christians are being warned frequently about the dangers these technologies present.

All of which obviously makes me think about playing music backwards. When I was a young Christian the biggest danger was, apparently, heavy metal. If you listened to it you were worshipping satan; there were messages so subtly written into the songs that they could only be discerned by playing the songs backwards. Slowly. But no matter! Listen to music often enough at the right speed, forwards, and the messages would seep into your soul and soon you’d be sacrificing kittens or killing yourself. Seriously.

It was absurd, of course. Not that there wasn’t destructive music out there, but everyone was looking in the wrong direction. So called Christian music was dangerous for sucking people into an artificial sub-culture of sub-standard music which took them away from the very people amongst whom they were meant to be salt and light. You didn’t have to listen to it backwards to see the danger, but that seemed irrelevant to most. Stick a Christian label on it and it must be kosher.

I was reminded of this when I was thinking on a friend’s recent Facebook post. She lives in a different country to me, and her family was experiencing a horrible crisis. The way she communicated updates and requests for help and prayer was through Facebook. It was such a good way for us all to be connected and involved. As the emergency abated she posted ‘I know Facebook has a bad reputation but …’. She went on to say what a good source of support it had been for her in this hard season. It was that first part of the post that intrigued me – the bad reputation. Add to the mix that one American mega-church has seen fit to set up its own social media platform, which is how much of its material and information is released. Not a Facebook group, you understand. I mean its own equivalent of Facebook. You can only join the platform if you’re a signed up member of the church. It’s Christian social media – for Christians only.

What is going on here? It seems to me that what’s being missed is the simple truth that social media is simply another incarnation of an old Christian dilemma. We see a new thing producing bad fruit, so we retreat and build a Christian version of it. Which misses the point. We brand the thing as evil, forgetting it’s people who make bad choices, not pixels or musical notes. Putting a ‘Christian’ label on something doesn’t make it better; too often it’s just a pale, lifeless version of the original. Ever listened to a Stryper album next to a Metallica one? Don’t. In fact, just don’t listen to Stryper.

These things are what we make them. What social media gives us is a unique opportunity to shape a vision of life that’s true – or false. We can do the bland sun-drenched, Instagrammed version of life or we can do something more real. We can put struggles and confessions of sin up there alongside chilled white wine and cute puppies (don’t put those last two together; chaos would clearly ensue). We can do real debate alongside status-update moralising. A few weeks ago I got into a Facebook argument with someone (another Christian leader) who decided, ultimately to block me. He said he’d rather not engage with me at all than disagree publicly.

Really?

I – and he – handled that incident badly. However, does it really do any good, as Christians, to present to the world a fantasy of smiling agreement? Or do we do better to put our sin, brokenness and disagreement on display as we try to work out what it means to be Jesus-people here and now? We need boundaries, of course; as The Circle shows us there are some things we shouldn’t share, some sins that should be confessed privately, some areas that must remain private. We are made to have boundaries. I’ve also learned that for me, Twitter is a bad place to debate. It’s hard to say something helpfully and clearly in such a short space. We all have our limits.

We, though, are called to be living sacrifices, people who live with whole lives laid down before God as worship, open to His use and purifying fire. Shouldn’t that make us more open with the world, not less? Either we do the age-old dance of retreating into a Christianised ghetto, in reality no more than a baptised theme-park version of reality; or we’re so eager to ‘win’ the world and the culture that we present a version of ourselves and our faith and our relationships, so filtered through sunny idealism that it won’t stand real scrutiny away from pixels in actual flesh and blood.

Live life online and in flesh and blood. Like flesh and blood, your online life is what you make it. Be wise, but be honest. Close the circle, but close it with humble honesty not grasping control. Don’t hide your sin; confess it appropriately the move on. Don’t retreat or seek to win the culture war. Just be there, living life and living it well. On screen and in person.

In a word it’s called incarnation. Which has, I think you’ll agree, a noble history.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

When dry isn’t dry and healed isn’t healed

I often find that the best people to speak to are recovering addicts. I mean by that the people have been through some version or equivalent of the 12-step process. I am privileged to count some of these people amongst my friends, and also have encountered their ministry to me in my different professional capacities over the years. I find that in conversation with people who have come to terms with their addictive dispositions and have done something about it that we do not encounter any of the tortuous self-justifying in the face of the bald facts of sin which so many of us undertake. I am powerless. Left to my own devices I am a slave to something other than God. Herein lies the first step on the road to healing. It’s no coincidence that this admission of  powerlessness is both the first of the 12-step process for [alcohol, drug, sex … ] addicts and also a crucial, unavoidable step for all of us on the path of following Jesus. Admitting I am powerless.

The key in this for the addict (and as I often find myself saying, we’re all addicts; to misquote a character in one of my favourite films, some of us just happen to be addicts in more socially acceptable ways) is that the process identifies the problem as wider than just the substance or behaviour. The substance (let’s call it that for now) is the toxic catalyst through which the addict has been bought to her knees; but what lies behind the addiction, as the 12-step process will reveal to her, is that there’s far more going on here than loving cider too much. A view of self and others is being covered up, a pain medicated rather than treated.

This is why people often relapse – slip back into the addictive behaviour – once the process has been started. Starting to peel back the layers is a painful process, and it’s perfectly human to want to opt out of that. The ‘typical’ addict will need to start all over again, several times. It’s possible, you see, to give up the substance without giving up the behaviour. I’ve heard recovering alcoholics call this being ‘dry drunk’. The person may not have had a sip of alcohol for years, but she’s still covering up the pain with something, medicating in a more ‘acceptable’ way. The 12-step process is a 12 step process (say those last 3 words slowly and distinctly) for a reason.

Which brings me, naturally, to social media. I know people for whom serious problems are raised through social media. Social media, like alcohol, are not the problem; Facebook, Twitter are simply the crucible through which the problem is exposed. What’s painful about this is that it’s disarmingly public. It’s very easy to use these media to Instagram your life – to present it as a beautiful series of triumphs, successes, deep moments of revelation and joy. Or the converse – as struggle after struggle. In short, to use these media to suck the ‘normal’ out of your life. Occasionally something normal will seep through, though. The ‘normal’ here are the parts of us we cover up with the negative, positive or dramatic we present to the world; these are exposed through a well (or sometimes not so well) meaning comment or tweet, a misunderstood ‘like’ or a hashtag hijacked. Then comes, for some as I’ve noted with what appears to be increasing regularity recently, the social media sabbatical or full-scale opt-out.

Now that may be a good, necessary and healthy thing to do. It may well be. This represents no judgement on any one individual by me; there is no one person on my mind here. Doing so, though, may be the social media equivalent of going dry-drunk; cutting out the presenting issue but not dealing with the root-cause. We can get addicted to anything, really. We love enslavement so much we seek it out in subtle forms which we can over-paint with the word ‘freedom’ and kid ourselves that we’re free just because we say we are. Social media are, in truth, just the latest version of that. We do need to know the particular temptations and pitfalls of this still new reality; we need to be wary as much as we need as Jesus-followers to engage with it in constructive and loving ways. Like anything containing people, which is what these media are about at the end of it all, these media will bring out the best and the worst in us. They will present us with our capacity to show compassion and our potential to hurt with anger; they will show we can be brave and that we can be egocentric cowards.

All of which is why ‘healing’ may not always be healing. I know of cases where people have been prayed-off addictions. In some cases that may have been necessary to save a liver or a life. But has the prayer addressed the heart? Has it replaced one addiction with another? Maybe, in some cases, it’s addressed the whole person. In others, maybe not – the healed still has a way to travel to embrace full healing. I know of cases where people have been instantaneously healed of depression; if that depression is purely chemical, then let’s rejoice. If there’s other, more complex reasons for the depression, then harder questions may need to be asked, more steps taken and prayers prayed. I know of people who have, after prayer, opted out of a church or a community or social media. Maybe that was necessary. Have they, though, gone to the heart? Maybe … or maybe not.

I don’t mean to judge healing or opting out of something. I really don’t. Sometimes instantaneous healing really is immediate and total. I’ve seen it happen and rejoiced in the fruit. Sometimes the opt-out is a wise, life-giving choice. I also know, though, my own capacity to deceive myself into looking good, holy, healed and a little ascetic  in the face of others. It may look pretty or godly to them; it may be the stuff of front-of-church testimony and comforting Christian paperbacks. The reality is in that often sung-about but rarely actually experienced, secret and quiet place I know God wants deeper work. Which is less comfortable, less pretty and longer-lasting.