Archived entries for society and religion

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren

The cover of "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLarenWhat compels clergy to write? Is it to reach their congregations beyond Sundays? Are they peeved that their carefully crafted sermons are are only given one airing, and then forgotten forever-more? To have a resource that they can sell to raise funds? Or maybe it’s pride in thinking that one’s theology is somehow unique, or that they possess the skill to explain it better than any previous works in the vast realm of existing Christian literature? Whatever the reason, there sure are a lot of published pastors, because there’s enough printed material to sustain multiple franchises (e.g. Koorong, Word). Do other religions even have bookstore franchises?

At least Brian McLaren is more qualified than most – not in the sense of any religious accomplishment – but for the fact that he holds a Bachelor degree “with highest honour” (summa cum laud), as well as a Masters degree, in English. He also holds a controversially liberal view of his religion, which is the crux of A Generous Orthodoxy – to encourage Christians toward an idealised form of the faith that he describes as being both “neo-liberalist” and “neo-conservative”. Each chapter of the book provides a brief historical context of a particular denomination or orthodoxy, followed by the merits that warrant inclusion in his generous orthodoxy*.

I’d be punching above my weight to pretend that I know my left from my right, and all that religious and political speak other commentators take for granted, but what I can tell you is that I share much of McLaren’s views, except McLaren’s insistence on God. For example, the chapter on “Charismatic/contemplative” speaks out against rampant consumerism:

One acquires more and more things without taking the time to ever see and know them, and thus one never truly enjoys them. One has without truly having.

… which is quite agreeable. It should be enough just to stop here and encourage one to stop consuming beyond one’s means to appreciate that which is being consumed, but he goes on to suggest that the remedy must be in God:

I feel […] that I am carrying around this hilarious secret: that I actually own all things, that all things are mine-because I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, and God allows me to have things in the way that matters most. Not having them in my legal possession […] but by having them in my spiritual possession.

I despise this kind of forced analogy between the physical and spiritual realms. What does it even mean to spiritually possess a physical object, other than assigning arbitrary moral values to them? It’s this kind of thinking – e.g. disputes about the sacraments – that led to the need to have a generous orthodoxy in the first place!

I feel similarly about the rest of the book – that there are many merits to the existence and efforts of the church: community, co-operation, tolerance, charity, repentance – none of which ultimately requires attribution to God except to use Him as the glue to join all these unrelated parts together in one big liberal ideology.

If you’re predisposed to noticing the faults in religious discourse, you’ll find plenty of fodder in A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren’s literary background also sadly fails to inoculate him from the usual religious shtick of cheap, meaningless analogies (“Think of the difference between a corpse and a living, breathing body, and you’ll understand the difference between a bunch of words and words vitalized with God’s breath.”) and mangling the language (“What if we were to redefine protestant as “pro-testifying”?)

As usual, my pointed criticism has probably made me sound overly harsh. It’s not entirely intentional. As I alluded to before, the book contains much worth in regards to educating the Christian and secular reader alike about the many and various denominations of Christianity, and what there is to like about each. McLaren is a clear and lucid communicator, and while he’s no C. S. Lewis, this particular work doesn’t bring any discredit to the realm of Christian writing.


* I strongly recommending skipping past Part One entirely though, as McLaren spends an incredible amount of verbiage apologising for everything from the state of the Christian religion, to his lack of qualifications on the topic, to the very existence of the book itself – towards the end of it he’d almost convinced me not to bother reading the rest.


This book review is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

The Emperor’s New Thought


When it comes to the subject of sex, my beliefs tend to fall on the conservative side – a random mix of Asian attitudes combined with a “brief” flirtation with religion. I also believe that I’m living in a highly sexualised Western form of society1, hence I often find myself at odds with liberalists in the circles that I frequent, who reckon things are about right or could even be less restrictive.

That’s why I’m surprised at the conclusion I reached while thinking about the “recent” hoo-ha in the media around body image issues, which is: our society needs more nudity. To recap, or for those of you who weren’t paying attention, here are a couple of events that lit up blogs, discussion forums, talk-back radio shows, letters-to-the-editor pages and wherever else a person can get a word in edgewise (probably not a good idea to click the links if you’re at work):

Prior to this *ahem* revelation, I’d been thinking about being unable to come to terms with my mortality2, and how as a society we hide death. Dead animals are swept away. Thrown out. Disposed of. Dead humans are packaged up and buried in specially designated areas. With the exception of the odd friend or relative passing away, our society systematically sanitises every indication that we’re all racing towards the grave.

In a different-but-same kind of way, I think this is what’s happening with our less-than-perfect bodies. Society strives to hide them away like Adam and Eve covering themselves upon discovering the shame of their nakedness. It’s becoming increasingly rare to see what a “normal” naked person looks like – or more precisely, the full spectrum of shapes and sizes that human beings come in as opposed to the parade of evil 666 clones: six-foot tall, size six (women), and six-packs (men). Against this tide of beauty served up by the media, yada yada yada, body image and nakedness have now become unequivocally equated with sex.

BreastfeedingThe culture I see around me now now is such that breast-feeding is an act considered so sexually provocative that people clamour to censor it from the public eye, lest a minor (God forbid!) accidentally catch a glimpse of the side of a boob3. And those who choose to practice public nudity are treated as if they’re handing out invitations to perverts and paedophiles.

As a conservative, I used to think that the solution to the problem was to rage at the media and tell them to cease-and-desist with their barrage of soft-core pornography, but now in light of the above I’m thinking that it will only serve to exacerbate the problem. A better solution might be to redress the imbalance of body types by encouraging works that display our humanity in all its glory – literally.

Not that I know how to appreciate art, but I can honestly say that there are some artists whose works I previously would have deplored, but can now entertain a kind of begrudging respect for (again, not safe for work):

It’s easy to dismiss these as pornography purely because their primary purpose is to depict nudity, but stripped of eroticism – particular Friedler’s books where individuals are displayed clothed and unclothed in side-by-side shots to show the contrast between the two – doesn’t the fault really lie with the viewer if sexual stimulation is the primary response? We must retrain our minds to appreciate the human form for purposes other than sex.


And finally, a few random pieces of information that I wasn’t able to work into the above piece, but which I think are still worth mentioning:

  • It’s backed by Science! In an SBS program called “What’s the problem with nudity?” scientists concluded that being clothed helps prevent promiscuity while bringing up children. The problem that I see here is that the assumption nakedness = sexiness is already baked into the experiment a-priori. What about those primitive tribes where the people wear very little clothing, and the women go around topless?
  • Artistic nudes – paintings, statues and other works of art featuring nudity practically have a category of their own. How did the people of those times (say, the renaissance period) treat nudes? Was it the equivalent of pornography in their age, or were they able to appreciate the human form objectively because their society wasn’t affected by hyper-sexualisation?


Epic footnotes!

  1. That is, on any reasonable day, you will encounter sexually suggestive material regardless of whether you wanted to see it or not.
  2. Read: I’ve always been scared shitless about dying. If you want to correlate this with my recent religious conversion: You’re wrong. Go away.
  3. I will not entertain the possibility that some think that breast-feeding is too disgusting to be seen in public. Might as well say that people should always dine in private – the way some people eat is infinitely more disturbing than seeing a mother discreetly feeding her baby.

Evolution vs. Creation – what’s the story?

Tell me a story It’s generally accepted that in order to subscribe to atheism, you must believe in Evolution and renounce Creationism. Despite proclaiming myself to be an atheist, I don’t see the point.

At church on my birthday, which happened to fall on a Sunday this year, I listened to an excellent sermon by Robert Fergusson on “The Theology of Ignorance”. Simply put, he explained why the correct answer to the question of how the was Earth created, for practically every Christian, is “I don’t know.” The Bible does not provide any details about The Creation, which, as Fergusson explained, means that God did not intend for His people to know.

Yet there’s still such a strong compulsion for people to probe and ask questions about the Creation, why? Because it’s a compelling story. In their rabid adherence to logic and reason, what scientists (and militant atheists) fail to understand is the power of narrative. Regardless of race or religion, creed or culture, story-telling is deeply seated in our ancestry. We are wired to understand characters and plots, and forever seek to understand things within a coherent narrative framework. Books, movies, video games, TV – all are stories to some degree. Large portions of human endeavour can be interpreted as attempts at turning facts into stories to help others understand – the super-luminous Stephen Hawking couldn’t resist the urge, authoring a sci-fi trilogy for kids called George’s Secret Key to the Universe. Dawkins, even: “The Selfish Gene”, “The Blind Watchmaker”, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, etc.

The reason why Evolution is failing to oust Creation isn’t because people aren’t getting it into their minds, it’s because the lack of a compelling narrative means that Evolution is failing to capture peoples’ imaginations. Therefore, instead of arguing whether or not Creation has a place in high-school Science classes, we should be asking ourselves why the story of Evolution isn’t being taught to kids in pre-school.

As it is today, the story of Evolution lacks the core fundamentals of a good tale: relatable characters, and a compelling plot. In the quest to keep strict boundaries between fact from fiction, those responsible have stripped away any semblance of fun and excitement. The whole process is dryly told as how man came to be, from an unbroken chain of organisms originating from the first life form that appeared in the primordial soup.

Atheism doesn’t need any more scientists trying to save us from our unenlightenment. The time is ripe for authors, poets and musicians to take charge, and turn our history from boring lists of theories, formulas and equations into something that is inviting, interesting and entertaining.


A short addendum to the post, from an interview with Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy in The Weekend Australian Review – May 1-2:

There’s also something of his grandfather in Pullman’s love of telling stories. This, for him, is how we humans come to terms with the mysteries of life, death and existence. And it is not a trivial matter; he believes fiction ranks alongside the scientific method and the symphony orchestra as our greatest discoveries.

‘”People have a hunger for stories that explain things,” he says. “That is what myths are: stories that explain where the seasons come from or where sin originates. The story of God was a story that explained a great deal, but it has now become incredible, impossible to believe.”


This post is part of the series An Atheist In God’s Kingdom.

Shun the unbeliever, shuuuuuun!

Shun the unbeliever!I suppose that when one declares an unbelief in God as I did in a previous post, there’s no avoiding the fact of the matter regardless of how much I wanted the discussion to be about the consequences of my decision rather than the decision itself. The irony is that while I continue to support the Christian community in the intellectual sense, they are evidently supporting me in the religious sense in such a way that it appears to the casual observer as if there is disagreement or conflict between us. There is not. (For those of you reading this on cyberseraphic, there was a fairly lively discussion “behind closed doors” in Facebook.) The comments formed a perfect proof of the point that I was trying to make: friends past and present, my church community, rallied around to provide their love and support.

While I don’t want this series to be an intellectual discussion of theology, I will spend one post briefly elaborating on how I arrived at my present position, after which I intend to close the door on this area of discourse.

As I said in the footnote of my previous post (for the record, there is a slightly extended version on my blog which didn’t appear in the Facebook version), there is some degree of semantic trickery involved in labelling myself as an Atheist because language is not a perfect tool that precludes misinterpretation. In a sense, I absolutely believe that “god” is possible. “Aha!” I hear you say, “that makes you agnostic!” but I stand by my assertion that I do not believe in the possibility or existence of a real and present God. You can provide as many theological or apologetic arguments as you like pointing out exactly how or why I’m mistaken about this, but all that matters is that in my entire Christian life, I have been categorically unable to find God through any of my physical senses, faculties of reason, intellect or emotion, or through any of the prescribed means of “hearing from God”. Playing “hide and seek” is not my idea of a close, intimate relationship with my lord and saviour. Hence atheist.

I hope that those of you who knew me during that part of my life never thought that I was anything other than earnest in my beliefs and actions, and likewise ask you to understand and accept that I am now moving forward with the same sense of conviction and honesty in seeking out the Truth albeit in a new direction. Long as these posts are, they’re still way too short to convey every step of the personal journey that led me to the above conclusion, and it’d be just as futile to attempt to thrash it out in a long trail of comments. It didn’t appear to me in an epiphany, and I didn’t just suddenly decide to switch over one night.

As previously mentioned, my objective is to promote harmony between religious and atheist groups, and penetrate the fog of misconceptions through which the groups usually see one another.


This post is part of the series An Atheist In God’s Kingdom.

An Atheist In God’s Kingdom

Let me come right out and say this: I am an atheist – identifying myself as Christian is simply shorthand for describing the complex worldview that I hold*. This may shock and surprise those of you who’ve often heard me declare that I’m a Christian, but there is no hypocrisy: I have never had a real, empirical, first-hand experience of God, or even any semblance of an experience that could be described as supernatural, and therefore have no rational reason to believe in a god (or gods). However I firmly believe in the benefits of “church”, which is why I still attend one, and is a subject which will form the basis of a series of posts titled An Atheist In God’s Kingdom – starting with this one. I intend to be a voice for a group that currently isn’t very well represented: atheists who support and encourage the institution of religion, if not necessarily its underlying beliefs.

Peter Singer, a prominent Australian ethicist who spoke at the recent Atheist convention in Melbourne, once proposed the “golden rule” which he reiterated at the convention: “that it is a function of our development as humans who feel pain, take time to raise our helpless young, live in social groups and need to co-operate” (quoted from The Australian). That is, we are intrinsically social beings and cannot live or function in isolation.

I had a very profound personal experience of this several years ago, a couple of years after I came to Sydney. Sitting alone in my apartment one afternoon surrounded by books, games, computers, musical instruments and endless other things that I had gathered together for my personal enjoyment and entertainment, I was suddenly overcome by a crushing despair, and completely overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness. Afterwards, it became clear to me that although I have the kind of personality that doesn’t get along well with other people, I still needed close friends (to my friends in Adelaide who are reading this: I mean ones that live in the same city). The problem was, I didn’t know where I could find any.

Faced with the same situation, some of you would probably consider going out to a public place like a bar or club. Now I’m not criticising any of these things, but I had quite a sheltered upbringing and don’t drink, smoke, dance, or chat up strange women (however attractive), so that form of “socialising” contained too many obstacles of too great a size for me to overcome on my own.

Now consider the church – as in any significant gathering of people from a religion, not just Christianity. Before I go any further, I need to level-set with you: what I’m about to talk about here is the Ideal Church. Such a thing does not currently exist, and probably never will. It’s certainly not unexpected that you’ll be able to think of specific examples that illustrate failings in the areas that I mention. As I go further into it, you’ll see that this Ideal Church may not even be a church at all, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The “body of Christ” welcomes one and all with open arms – there is no requisite to believe, since converting the unbeliever is part of their remit from God. And there are certainly no material requirements – you don’t have to be rich, good looking, or socially adept (but as with every other area in life, having those things does help). It happens reliably week after week, and as long as you keep going to the same place you’ll always see the same people. And there are loads of these pre-packaged communities.

I can’t think of anything in the secular that can even remotely compare. Book clubs, hobby enthusiasts, rotary, etc. – all but the largest of these community groups (e.g. Scouts) are dwarfed in size and scope by even the smallest of church gatherings. Here are people gathering together in communities every week, building lasting relationships and helping one another out, united in mind and purpose.

And therein lies the rub: secular society lacks a consistent, coherent system of communities. Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al are barking up the wrong tree in trying to tackle the problem intellectually, targeting religious belief systems such as Creationism. They need to build and present a viable means for people to come together under a broad-ranging common banner. You could point to interest groups and the like, but these are way too specific to be of any use to the general populace. That the need is there is apparent – over 2,500 people attended the Atheist Convention mentioned at the beginning of this post. Atheist groups can also deny that their gatherings are like a church of unbelievers, but in truth this label opens up many more possibilities to them than if they are closed to the idea simply out of fear of being labelled as an alternative religion.

What form would these meetings take? I couldn’t possibly know, but I would once again defer to religion to provide the model. Having a person to deliver a short, life-affirming message, not based on religious dogma but around human achievement and experiences. One organisation that’s already doing something like this extremely well is TED, with their 18 minute time limits and topics that always inspire, but they need to break out from their current demographic of intelligentsia, celebrity and academia, and realise that they have a huge global following amongst the laity and use that to help bring people together at the local level.

I’ll bring this very long post to a close by mentioning that one of the strongest criticisms often levelled at the church is the amount of money that it draws from its congregations. Think about it though: people will invest both time and money into something that they value, and the rarity of being able to find a good community is probably what allows churches to command a high price.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there’ll be more in this series. I hope you find it interesting enough to keep coming back or subscribing to, and I always welcome your thoughts and comments.


* I admit that there’s a certain degree of semantic trickery involved here and that I should probably just go with “agnostic”, but let me explain: agnostic is to belief and non-belief what omnivore is to carnivore and herbivore. Unlike agnostics, I’m not taking an each-way bet – either there is a god or there isn’t; none of this “it’s impossible to know” business.

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