A post I wrote for Tabor MTC’s blog “Manna” on the challenges of listening to different perspectives and voices in a cultural context that encourages us to only engage with those we “like” …
One of the highlights for me at last year’s Rethinking Conference was a talk by Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC (and a Christian). He spoke about the fragmentation of the mainstream media and the impact of social media. And he introduced me to the idea of the “echo chamber,” an enclosed space where sound reverberates.
As I’ve expressed in two previous posts, I am still processing many ideas from the Rethinking Conference in Sydney 3 weeks ago. It seems I am not the only one! Here are a few links, both to reflections from those who attended the conference, and to some transcripts and summaries of ideas from those who presented at the conference.
My friend Mike blogged his three key “learns” from the conference:
Another conference attendee, Will Briggs from Tassie, has blogged a “brain dump” of what he gleaned from the conference in three parts, starting here, which contains some excellent summaries of the whole range of speakers and topics.
One of the sessions that I most enjoyed was a talk by Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC. I’d love to get a transcript, but at this stage all I can find is this brief article highlighting a few key ideas.
Mark spoke about the challenges of the “new media” environment and its inherent contradictions. Most significantly, he spoke about the challenges for Christianity, which no longer has a dominant voice in our society. He encouraged Christians to see themselves as outsiders, who should not expect a presence in public conversation as an entitlement, but as based around the compelling nature of the contribution we have to make. We need to be thoughtful and intelligent contributors to public debate, as demonstrated by Volf so well on QandA.
Mark also highlighted the danger in the new media environment that Christians will retreat and create their own echo chambers, living only in that bubble. He suggested that our best example for how to engage in a post-Christian culture is to look to the pre-Christian engagement of the early church, finding points of connection to engage with people, demonstrating who we are in how we engage, and providing a compelling alternative as we engage with issues around the whole of life.
I’d encourage you to read the transcript of Greg Lake’s talk given at rethinking, which is on his blog. Greg got lots of people at the conference talking with his honest insights into both the realities and the political complexities of issues surrounding Australia’s response to asylum seekers. He worked in management at both Christmas Island and Nauru, but ultimately found himself unable to reconcile his faith with what he was being asked to do in his job. That is not to say that he now sees himself as a “whistle-blower” or even a refugee advocate, and I was impressed by the way he worked hard to maintain his integrity in the way he left the Department. But I think his perspective is a really important one to listen to when it comes to our conversations around this issue, and particularly engaging with many in our country who may not be asking the same questions I am. The Centre for Public Christianity have a 10 minute audio interview with him as well.
Finally, if you want to know more about why I found Miroslav Volf’s talks so engaging, CPX also have a 10 minute video interview with him, which gives a great overview of his position on public faith. If you have more time, you can also listen to the session he did in Adelaide on a different topic – forgiveness and reconciliation – where he shares some of his own personal story which powerfully illustrates his theological argument. (His main talk starts at the 7 minute 55 mark, and goes for about 40 minutes, followed by some Q & A.)
As previously noted, I really enjoyed the Rethinking Conference in Sydney a couple of weeks ago. It provided plenty of food for thought. Someone I learned a bit about was Australia’s first “public Christian”, Richard Johnson.
The Tuesday night public lecture by Miroslav Volf was the Richard Johnson Lecture, and I have to confess that despite growing up in Sydney and studying the First Fleet in both primary and high school, this name didn’t ring any bells for me. John Dickson gave us his biography, and it was a fitting tribute to a man who by all accounts sought to follow Jesus and whose faith compelled him to seek to work for the good of society. He was praised by convicts as the “physician of body and soul” and remembered as one of the few who was willing to visit convicts who lay dying in the putrid conditions of the disastrous Second Fleet. Details are sketchy, but evidence that he was willing to present himself as a “hostage” to an Aboriginal community to guarantee safety for the leader talking to the Governor, and that he gave his daughter an Aboriginal name, suggest he interacted more graciously with indigenous people than many others. It speaks well of him that he had been commended for his role as the new colony’s first chaplain by leading evangelicals of the day including gospel champions John Newton and William Wilberforce.
On Wednesday afternoon for my elective I was part of a small group walking tour with historian Stuart Piggin. We visited the site of Australia’s first church service, as well as the first Anglican and Catholic churches. Stuart spoke of the challenges Johnson faced in his role, particularly as he sought to balance his calling to preach the gospel and care for the lost and the least with the public position he was given as magistrate. His successor, Samuel Marsden, is far better known than Johnson, but for all the wrong reasons, as “The Flogging Parson” who seemingly enjoyed his punishing role.
At St Phillips Church we were able to see and read Johnson’s Bible, from which he preached the first sermon in the colony on Psalm 116:12 “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits to me.” It was interesting to speculate on his intentions in choosing that text. We also read from his prayer book, which had a nice connection for me as it would have been from this book that he read the wedding service at the marriage of two sets of my great-great-etc grandparents – William and Mary in June 1788, and William and Kezia in August 1793.
Our context today is so very different from Johnson’s. He is an example to emulate and learn from, but also a reminder of the dangers of mistaking publicly expressed faith for publicly enforced faith. Volf’s lecture presented some interesting continuities and discontinuities with Johnson. The commendation to Christians to be people who work for the good of society as a whole, demonstrating compassion and care for all, regardless of their status or beliefs, is one he seems to have lived out well. The warning, however, that Christianity is in great danger of compromise when it finds itself aligned with power, is one that he and his contemporaries did not heed. Two hundred and twenty five years later, Australian Christians are still dealing with some of the fall out of those decisions. For some churches, recognising that taking on positions of societal power and authority has damaged their witness to the gospel, and reversing the consequences of those positions, is still very much a live issue.
My own context as a Baptist is a little different – there is a sense in which our movement realised 400 years ago that the church operates best from the margins, as an alternative community seeking to influence, challenge and bless the society in which we live, rather than control it. (When Volf commended the ideas in a 17th century book by “someone you’ve probably never heard of,” Thomas Helwys, a few Baptists in attendance were quick to let him know we certainly are aware of the thinking of this pioneer of our movement!) And yet we can still suffer the remnants of a cultural or ideological “Christendom” – the thought that the church by nature ‘should’ be central or powerful in Western society. Perhaps there is some deep-seated and long-standing “unlearning” for Christians as we engage in the public sphere, recognising our positions as a minority view, without entitlement, and perhaps even willing to embrace the maltreatment that may come from being “outsiders,” as Jesus himself did.
As someone who now calls South Australia home, I also had opportunity to reflect on our different history, with this state founded as a “dissenters’ paradise,” where settlers sought to provide space for the exercise of non-conformist religious and political beliefs freely. In theory, what Volf explained as Christianity’s ability to embrace political pluralism whilst maintaining religious exclusivism, is how we have lived here for the past one hundred and eighty years. And yet it can sometimes seem that the greatest barrier to the positive contribution and witness of public Christianity today is our own failure to understand and embrace the lack of power, entitlement and status inherent in who we are called to be. What do you think?