I do not follow Australian rules football, the career of Australian pastor Guy Mason, or that of television presenter Ryan Kochie but, a month ago, they collided on Australian television. Andrew Thorburn is a banker who has a lay leadership role in an Australian Anglican congregation, City On A Hill. He was recently hired and then abruptly (within 24 hours or so) fired as the CEO of an Australian football team. The presenting issue is his congregation’s stance on homosexuality. Apparently, the team hired him without vetting him very well and, when they had a celebration of homosexuality, there was a conflict and Thorburn was fired. In the interview linked above, Kochie interrogated Mason about his church’s views. You should watch the interview for yourself but, arguably, Mason did not cover himself in glory—he was calm and polite. Tim Keller says it was “an excruciating experience” to watch Kochie “skewer” Mason. It is painful to watch principally because Mason tried to paste over the differences between late-modern, postmodern, neo-pagan Australia and Christianity. To be sure, as Keller says, it is not easy to be on television. The makeup, earpiece, bright lights, and hostile questioning can be rather intimidating.
Our Negative World
Keller uses the opportunity to defend himself against Aaron Renn’s criticism that he and others do not seem to understand where we Christians are. In August of 2021, Renn published an essay arguing that Christians in America now live in what he calls a “negative world.” Here is his chart:
- Positive World (Pre-1994). Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.
- Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.
- Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.
I would expand this chart. What Renn calls the “negative world” arguably began, in principle, by 1650 in Europe and the British Isles. Christendom was functionally was dead by 1918, after World War I. It died in the USA about 1968. It took a few decades for consciousness of the death of Christendom to sink in, but the cultural-sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 70s, which hit hyper speed in 2015 (Obergefell), confirmed it.
On Monday of this week Renn added, “In fact, in a negative world where Christians are clearly a minority, the culture war model as historically understood is obsolete.” Indeed, we can trace five states of Christianity relative to the broader culture:
- Ignorance (AD 33–64)
- Hostility/Persecution (AD 64–313)
- Recognized (AD 313–80)
- Christendom (AD 380–1917/1967)
- Post-Christian (1918/68—?)
Most of the Roman world knew little of Christianity. The first numerically significant persecution was part of Nero’s cover up of a land deal that went bad. There were numerically minor persecutions in the early second century but there were fairly widespread persecutions of Christians through the third century under different emperors right up to the point at which Christianity was declared, like Judaism had been for centuries, a legal religion, and Christians were allowed to meet and their property was restored to them. Christianity was made the state religion by Theodosius in AD 381 and, even after the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, Christendom continued to exist de facto. In the USA, though it was not the established religion nationally (and the states were disestablished by 1833), Christianity was privileged until the repeal of the blue laws in the 1970s and 80s. Consider this: In his D-Day prayer—think of that—during a radio broadcast, President Roosevelt prayed for the preservation of “our Republic, our religion, and our civilization…”. He cast the war as a battle between the forces of light and darkness and prayed that those Americans who died fighting the Fascists and the Nazis might be received into God’s Kingdom. Until quite recently American politicians regularly declared America a “Christian nation.” President Clinton made a show of carrying a large Bible to church. President Obama said, in 2008, that the rejected same-sex marriage on the basis of his Christian convictions. Now, imagine a national politician declaring America a “Christian nation” or praying for the preservation of “our religion.”
The evidence seems overwhelming that Christians are in a “negative world” in 2022. Look at the URL (internet address) for the Australian Broadcast Corporation report on the controversy. It includes the word “homophobic.” Any dissent from the new sexual orthodoxy makes one “homophobic” and this despite the fact that, though the Australian constitution forbids the establishment of a national religion, the Australian government funds Christian schools and chaplains and, apparently, it might be possible for the various Australian states to have an established church.
Of Nice and Winsome
The question that Keller raises, how should we speak in public in our age, is a very important question. Television and the internet have changed the rules. Marshall McLuhan noted decades ago that television is a “cool” medium. The first one to lose his temper on TV loses. It is an intimate medium. Members of a panel are in people’s living rooms and one may not ordinarily start yelling when visiting someone else’s home—unless, of course, one is watching a Nebraska football game, then it is encouraged. The problem, intimacy, is intensified with smart phones (tiny mobile computers) and social media. This is why people now text others before calling them. The telephone used to be on the wall, in a hallway, or even in a closet by the front door. Now, “the phone” is in one’s pocket (or more likely, in one’s hand). An uninvited telephone call is now intrusive. To the degree that we are all wired together, we all live in a very small town and small town rules apply.
The number one rule in any small town is to “be nice.” On investigation, it turns out that the word nice is extraordinarily difficult to define. I have been writing about (or trying to write about) niceness in contrast to the Christian ethos of love (charity) since 2009. The definition of niceness is very slippery indeed because it is highly subjective. I know what counts as nice in Nebraska. Minnesotans claim to be nice and they probably are but I doubt that any people are nicer than the people my hometown, Lincoln, Nebraska. Walk up to any door, in any neighborhood, and ask for help and I think that person would help you. It is the culture of the place. In Lincoln, nice is Christianity and Christianity is niceness. I suspect that Lincoln is not alone.
Winsome is the new nice. Winsome is the new evangelical law. Whatever is not winsome is sin. Who died and made winsomeness the Christian ethos? Scott Swain (who is a genuinely nice guy) says that niceness is counterfeit meekness (see the resources below). Will the pagans like us if we are sufficiently winsome? I doubt it. Guy Mason was impeccably nice and how far did it get him?
What We Can Learn From Our Past
How did our pre-Christendom forebears speak to pagans about pagans? If Renn is correct, that we live in what is, in effect, a post-Christian world, this seems like a useful question to answer since our time seems increasingly to resemble their time. How did the author of the treatise (probably a speech) speak to Diognetus to a pagan about paganism? How did Justin Martyr and Irenaeus et al speak to and about the pagans? I think Tertullian gives us a way forward. In Prescription Against Heretics he wrote,
These are “the doctrines” of men and “of demons” produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called “foolishness,” and “chose the foolish things of the world” to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Æons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed—Whence comes God? Which he settles with the answer: From enthymesis and ectroma. Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions—embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,”who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with25 all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1
Tertullian, writing in the early third century against those who sought to corrupt the faith, reveals the principle by which he interpreted pagan philosophy. This one paragraph (or chapter) is replete with references to pagan philosophy which reveal how well read he was. He was no obscurantist or fundamentalist who refused even to read the pagans (for fear of being corrupted by them). He read them, engaged them, and refuted them without compromising the faith. He certainly believed in natural revelation but he prioritized Scripture over nature and where philosophy (nature) conflicted with Scripture he rejected and criticized philosophy.
The principle by which he engaged his opponents was this: “From this point onwards I shall contest the ground of my opponents’ appeal.”2 Though he was writing against heretics, this was the principle by which he argued with the pagans as well. It should be the way we argue with pagans too. Mason missed an opportunity to contest the ground of his opponent’s appeal by accepting his definition of love. He should have replied, “Mr Kochie, the Christian definition of love is Jesus’ definition of love. Our Lord was very critical of sexual immorality. He said that anyone who even looks at a woman in order to lust has committed adultery (Matt 5:28). He said that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality has himself committed adultery (Matt 19:9). He said that the natural order of marriage is for a man to marry a woman (Matt 19:8). Are you accusing Jesus of being unloving? The Apostle Paul explicitly condemned homosexuality (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). We think that it is loving to warn people about the danger of sin and to invite them to repent and believe in Jesus. Are you more loving than Jesus or Paul?”
We do not know with certainty, but it seems probable that Diognetus was a Roman official. An anonymous Christian apologist (likely) made an address to him c. AD 150 and in it he savagely criticized both Judaism and paganism. It is certain that Diognetus was a pagan. Let us call our author, Mathetes (Greek for disciple, which is the word he used). He challenged Diognetus to have an open mind and to use his intellect (2.1). He immediately begins attacking traditional Greco-Roman paganism. Like an Old Testament prophet, he notes that Diognetus’ gods are made of stone, bronze, and wood and that this is the same stuff out which we make our eating utensils (2.2). The wooden gods rot and the silver gods need a guard to protect them from thieves (2.2). Pottery gods are made of the same stuff out of which we make our toilets (2.2). The gods only have the form they do because the craftsman forms them that way. He essentially deconstructs paganism by noting that the gods could be other than they are. They are literally a construct that can easily be deconstructed. The God of the Christians is not a construct. He cannot be deconstructed because he is simple (i.e., one thing). He is not a creature but the Creator. He simply is. We did not make him and we cannot unmake him (2.3). Further, all the gods made by the pagans are deaf, mute, and blind. They cannot say, hear, or speak (2.4). “These are the things you call gods; you serve them, you worship them, and in the end you become like them” (2.5). He indicts Diognetus by pointing out that they only reason the pagans hate the Christians is because the Christians refuse to acknowledge creatures as gods (2.6). Indeed, he says, the pagans despise and mock the gods by worshiping them and by leaving them unguarded (2.7) and only preserving the valuable (silver) gods under lock and key. If the gods are aware, Diognetus is insulting them. If they are not aware (and they are not), then he is exposing them for what they are, stupid idols (2.8). No human being would tolerate the treatment reserved for their idols (2.9). We Christians are not “enslaved to such gods” (2.10).
I submit that the rhetoric of Mathetes and certainly the rhetoric of Tertullian does not pass the winsomeness test. It is too contentious. It is too sharp and it cares too little for what the pagans think of the Christians. Indeed, Mathetes is ruthless, but no more than Tertullian after him. Justin was sharp too. This is not to say that they were rude or disrespectful. Like Polycarp before the Proconsul, Mathetes (who might have been Polycarp) was respectful of the person and office of Diognetus, but he was brutally honest about the nature of paganism.
One response to this line of argumentation is to say, “we are not in that world.” That assumes what must be proved. I think we are in that world or we are very close to it. We could easily transpose Kochie’s interrogation and put it in the mouth of Celsus or of any number of early critics of Christianity and it would fit quite nicely. The essence of Kochie’s argument is the essence of the Greco-Roman critique of ancient Christianity: you are haters of humanity (e.g., homophobes). You refuse to conform to our culture and you think that you have the only way of salvation. It was not true then and it is not true now. Our job now is to do as Paul did at the Areopagus: Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious. It is not that Paul was religious and the Athenians were scientific. It is not as though Kochie is “scientific” and Mason is religious. Both are religious. Kochie was (at least for the purposes of the interview) articulating neo-paganism and Mason’s job was to articulate Christianity. Paul preached the law (indicting their paganism) and then he preached the gospel of the resurrection. That was Mason’s job. Instead, he tried to find a way to appear to be sweetly reasonable to late-modern Australian pagans. He did them no service. The Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the law to teach sinners the greatness of their sin and misery and he uses the preaching of the gospel to bring the elect to new life and true faith. If we get martyred for doing that, so be it. Get over it. As Bob Godfrey says, “sudden death, sudden glory.” Christians will never be of use to late-modern neo-pagans until we get over our desire to be approved by them.
The good news is that this is old hat for us Christians. We faced this criticism in the second and third centuries. Indeed, we suffered rather worse than being mocked on television. So far as I know, no one took Mason by the arms and led him away to the lions or to the stake. His biggest struggle after that interview was to get the mic pack off of his belt and the pancake makeup off of his face.
It seems likely that Mason’s responses, such as they were, will be quickly forgotten but we are still reading Tertullian 1,800 years later. We are still reading and learning from Mathetes. There is a reason for that. Nota bene.
1. Tertullian, The Prescription against Heretics, in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 246.
2. S. L. Greenslade, ed. Early Latin Theology. Library of Christian Classics vol. 5 ( (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), cap. 15 (p. 41).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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