walking on water

If you’ve ever heard the expression “walks on water”, it has something to do with being able to accomplish amazing feats that no-one else could do (though not with the miraculous, just with a high level of talent).

This miracle appears in three out of four gospels, and seems to be about demonstrating Jesus’ power over nature. There are some different details (Bethsaida and Capernaum are both near the edge of the Sea of Galilee). 


Matthew 14:22-32 – Jesus Walks on the Water

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 14:22–32.


Mark 6:45-52 – Jesus Walks on the Water

45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mk 6:45–52.


John 6:16-21 – Jesus Walks on Water

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 6:16–21.


In Matthew, Peter walks out on the water with Jesus, but in the other two, this detail is not present. Are all three records talking about the same event, and emphasising different things? Or did something similar happen multiple times?

The disciples, who were already familiar with Jesus and what he taught, were terrified. What do we make of someone who has this kind of power?

feeding the 5000

The figure of speech here is “loaves and fishes” – by some miracle stretching out a small resource to accomplish a lot.

And it dates back to a couple of events in the midst of Jesus’ ministry: the main one is called “the feeding of the 5000”.

This is such a famous miracle that it appears in all four gospels, reported in different ways. See what you think: here’s Mark’s gospel, usually the most brief in its coverage, but here setting some context. The disciples are tired after a busy mission trip, and Jesus takes them away for a break, when a crowd visits.

Mark 6:30-44 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

30 jThe apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 

35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mk 6:30–44. 

Matthew – a former tax collector – writes this up differently. There’s less detail in the background story. 

Matt 14:13-21 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 14:13–21.

In Luke’s gospel, which is more concerned with both historical detail, and the plight of the poor and powerless, there’s still a lot of similarity: we have a named location, and the characteristic summarising of teaching.

Luke 9:10-17 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version

 (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 9:10–17.

And then John’s gospel, written years later, is a bit more reflective. We have a location, a time of year (near Passover), more detail about the crowd, and we answer the question: why does a group of 12 disciples have only 5 loaves and two fish? There is a boy who brought some food. The disciples hadn’t, it seems, even planned as far as dinner for themselves!

John 6:1-14 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

1After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 6:1–14.


It’s this clue of the Passover in John 6:4 that reminds us of why this miracle is a big deal – it links to the time that Israel spent in wandering in the desert, and saw God provide them with food (manna, if you recall, but that’s a bit out of scope for looking at the gospels). When Jesus shows his power in feeding a group of people by a miracle, he’s showing that the power comes from God, and is associated with the history of God feeding his people. This is such a clear insight into who Jesus is that it makes it into all four gospels.

What do you make of this story about this miracle?

lost sheep

The idea of the lost sheep is deeply embedded into western culture. In the Shaun the Sheep movie, the premise was that the shepherd had gone missing, and the sheep had to find him, so a reversal of the “lost sheep”, but not an ignorant one.

Jesus actually tells this parable about the lost sheep, which is where the concept comes from. Here’s the version that Luke writes, to a group of people who were complaining about Jesus’ company at breakfast.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

Luke 15:4-7, ESV

In Matthew’s gospel, there is a little more context provided for the telling of the parable. Greatness in the terms Jesus is talking about involves humility: being like a little child. 

Who Is the Greatest?
18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 
Matthew 18:1–6, ESV

Soon afterward, after some descriptions of what’s involved in “sinning”, we hear the parable again. The story of the last sheep also informs the idea that young people, who are otherwise defenceless like sheep, need to be cared for, and not harmed.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 
Matthew 18:10–14, ESV 

the return of the prodigal

The idea of a prodigal son (from the Latin word prodigus meaning “lavish”), who would take half his father’s property, squander it all, and then come back and ask for mercy, is a famous one in western culture. And it’s one of those ideas that comes from the teaching of Jesus.

This story appears only in one of the four gospels – Luke’s. Say what you like about Luke’s gospel, it has a big heart for the lost: for people on the fringes of society. The gospels speak about Jesus as someone who has “come to seek and save the lost”.

By way of context, Jesus is talking to a group of people from a Jewish background who were outside the main, devout group, and there were two other groups of people – the Pharisees: highly religious Jewish people who had non-religious jobs, and the scribes – the professional religious people – listening on too.

15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1-2, ESV

Jesus tells a couple of stories about something valuable that is lost and sought out, and then he tells this parable. (A parable is just a story with a particular message)

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 

Luke 15:11-16, ESV

You can still feel the humiliation and helplessness of this story, even two thousand years later, can’t you? There’s something timeless about this kind of situation, the riches-to-rags story. 

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 

Luke 15:17-24, ESV

If you don’t know the story, you might think that this is where it ends, but in fact there’s a third act, where the older brother gets right-of-reply.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”

Luke 15:25-32, ESV


origin story

There’s one aspect of the Batman story that is revisited time and time again. The origin story: how a young Bruce Wayne, scared of the intensity of the entertainment they were watching (The Mask of Zorrro”), left the performance early with his parents, ended up in Crime Alley, and saw his parents killed in front of him.

It’s been told again and again. Here’s a mashup someone made. 


What do we make of the origin story of Jesus? Where would we even find the story?

There are four gospels – four biographies of Jesus – in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark starts out with Jesus’ cousin – John the Baptist – about to baptise an adult Jesus. John starts out with a discussion about who Jesus is, in abstract terms, and then we see an adult Jesus baptised.

So all the stories we hear in endless Christmas pageants come from just 2 gospels: Matthew (written by a tax collector with a Jewish background) and Luke (written by a doctor / historian).

I want to keep this series concentrating as much as possible on just reading the Bible, so here are a couple of sections of the Bible to read, to see where the ideas you may have heard about Jesus come from.

 Luke tells us the story of a census, the manger, and the shepherds:

The Birth of Jesus Christ
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 
14 “Glory to God in the highest, 
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 
21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:1-21 ESV

 It’s from Matthew that we read the story of the wise men, in the first 12 verses of chapter 12:

The Visit of the Wise Men
2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 

6 “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
for from you shall come a ruler 
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Matthew 2:1-12, ESV

back to the future and me: understanding the timings of the Christian gospels

My kids are getting older, but they’re still not quite old enough to watch the Back to the Future trilogy. We were talking about Rube Goldberg machines, and the kids love to watch YouTube videos of the different machines that people have made.

I remember the start of Back to the Future, how Doc Brown has set up a machine to feed Einstein a fresh tin of dog food, and the next thing I know, we’re watching the opening titles for Back to the Future.

I first saw Back to the Future on the big screen with my Dad when the movie came out in late 1985: over 31 years ago. A lot has happened in my life since then, and I’ve interacted with that movie and its sequels a number of times over the years, and I still have a strong recollection of the events of the film.

And this wasn’t even a set of events I lived through: just a film I saw.

The back to the future trilogy is particularly interesting because it talks about 30-year intervals of time. The film is set in 1985, and involves journeys to 1955, and later to 2015. Watching the film again in 2015, I was struck by the sense of distance that comes from a 30-year period: just as I was watching a film that looked back to my childhood, my Dad would have been watching a film that looked back on his childhood.

30 years is a long time. And not a long time.

Which brings us to the gospels. As we head back to ancient times, the standards of document copying and reporting change significantly. It was not possible to photocopy the documents you would want to: indeed, it’s more expensive to write things down in general. And so people were better at remembering things they had been told, and tended to have a more formal process for memorisation, and – when something was important enough to write down – it was written in a way that tried to conserve space on the page.

If you date Jesus’ life from a birth in 4BC (should that be BCE?) and death in 33AD (should that be CE), then there’s a gap of some 30-35 years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the early gospels: there are a range of scholarly opinions around the dates of the gospels, but here’s a rough guide:

Mark: 65-70 AD, just before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies.
Matthew: 75-85 AD (though some say 60-70 AD).
Luke: 80-85 AD
John: 85-95 AD.

Source: Eric Hatfield, Were the gospels written al long time after the event?

I have a pretty good recollection of the Back to the Future films, and the events in them, and as much as I like them, I don’t think they are of eternal significance, nor have I spent a lot of repeated energy learning about them. The people who wrote down the gospels were motivated and well equipped to investigate the events of Jesus’ life, and would have done the best job possible. These documents could still be verified by people who were still alive at the time of circulating them – so there was a built-in fact-checking.

Can we trust the gospels? I think they’re a spectacularly good record of a long distant period of time.

What’s in the gospels? That’s for another post.

where do your ideas come from?

Surely no-one is surprised at the latest revelation that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on 689,003 of its users, without breaking the terms of use that you agreed to when you signed up for facebook. If you’re curious, they found that reading a bunch of negative, or positive posts is somewhat contagious, and will affect the emotional terms you use in your own posting. Ethically concerning? Probably, but someone signed off on it.

It makes me reflect: to whom have I outsourced the media input, the stimuli that I take in, that in turn helps shape what I’m thinking about, and how my opinions evolve?

Logos is where I go to read the bible (and try to keep my Koine Greek language skills alive). I’ve been starting my day with the app for most of this year, and it’s been a helpful spiritual connection.

Feedly, which I use to keep up with 300 RSS feeds is something of a special case: at least for the most part I’m delegating to actual people who run websites for the content I’m reading. In case you’re curious, some of the Feedly content I push onto a stack to read later – either their “saved for later” content, or sometimes to Instapaper, which I read occasionally, but mostly don’t get back to.

Gmail seems a necessary evil at the moment, and its rules and spam handling keep a lid on how many different sources of information have the chance to interrupt me.

Twitter is more about when I choose to dip in, and which chaotic run of tweets will scroll past my eyes at a given time.

With Instagram, I’m still looking (at least briefly) at every photo, as I don’t follow enough people for it to become something I just dip into.

But other sources of information and entertainment include Facebooklinked in (which continues to copy Facebook in its approach to being a source of reading matter) iView player, YouTube, Vimeo and some movies, that I generally find via Apple TV).

For these, the content is curated by algorithms from a series of companies (who I trust with varying amounts of personal data) – it’s these sites that decide where my inputs come from. They present enough of a range of choices as to give the illusion that you have a well-rounded selection, but in fact, this is classic filter bubble

Even when I asked my friends (via Facebook) for suggestions on new podcasts to listen to (I use a combination of the Downcast app for iOS and a website called HuffDuffer for one-off MP3’s), I find them already closely aligned with the kind of generic-interest-with-a-touch-of-comedy that I had already stumbled upon. Does this mean that podcasts outside 5by5, the NPR family, and Ear Wolf don’t exist, or am I not well-connected enough to people who have more diverse interests?

What’s the call-to-action for this post? Think through how much time you’re spending soaking up ideas from sources where you should be more critical of their origins.

hot air about a balloon

Today and yesterday there was a lot of media coverage (e.g. Fitz, ABC news in the US, Herald Sun, SMH, Daily Mail) of the hot air balloon that an Australian gambling company sent flying over Melbourne. Based on the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro

It looked like this:

Depending on who you ask, it was some harmless fun, just promoting the World Cup and trying to encourage the Australian supporters not to give up on their team. That is was not actually promoting gambling (surely that’s a bit of a stretch with the company logo so prominent on the balloon). At the other end of the response spectrum it was an incredibly insensitive thing, associating Jesus with gambling.

The social media response to the balloon was certainly mixed, as it ever is. For what it’s worth, the hashtag chosen seems to have a broad variety of comments, not just those related to the campaign, so perhaps it needed a little more work.

There were plenty of prominent Christians quoted, but the sound-bites that made it through were about the Jesus who turned over the tables of the money changers, and that Jesus would be against gambling as it was exploiting the poor. It seemed a bit of a missed opportunity to talk about the Christian message more broadly, so I thought I’d have a quick go.

The reason Christians make such a fuss about Jesus is tied to those things that we believe about him. That he is God’s Son, that he came to earth to die on a cross (the iconic gesture of outstretched arms we see on the hot air balloon), and be raised back to life.

Why? People were not living lives that were up to God’s standard, and so God intervened so that the relationship between God and people could be restored. Someone who wants to become a Christian asks God for forgiveness through Jesus’ death, and then, having been forgiven by God, seeks to demonstrate gratitude to God by living a life in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

It’s at this point that the anti-gambling message would come in: gambling would be among the less sensible things that can be done with money, and promoting gambling tends to encourage the people who can afford it the least to allocate more of their money than they can afford, with a hope of getting a giant windfall.

There was a lot of hot air spent on the balloon, but on the positive side, a giant Jesus in the sky is surely an excuse to talk a little about the Christian message.

#sydneychallies: How to use emerging media for the gospel

Even though I read much of what Challies writes on his blog, I didn’t realise he was coming to Sydney until I saw it on Dave Meiers’ blog. I was able to get a free night, and so I went along to the “social media for pastors” evening, despite not particularly identifying as a “pastor” as such.

Challies has been blogging every day for the past 7-8 years, has written books on technology and the gospel, and transitioned in his career from web developer to associate pastor at his local church (Grace fellowship church in Toronto). He has made blogging a part of his thinking process, helping him work out what he thinks about a particular topic.

Here is an edited version of my notes from his talk at Toongabbie Anglican on May 14th, 2014.

Starting out with a range of stats on the subject of how many hours children (8-18 years old) spend online – 7 hours 38 minutes on average, and how many text messages that teenagers send (on average 3364 per month). 

First exposure to internet pornography is age 12 (and falling). The pace of change is very fast. The author of Little House on the PrairieLaura Ingles Wiler – was born 1867, and died in 1957. In her lifetime, she went from being amazed by steam locomotives to seeing the dawn of jet travel. Imagine the changes a child born in the age of the iPhone will see!

Challies placed “born in 1980” as the cut-off between digital immigrant and digital native (though I’ve heard elsewhere that this is more a  convention than anything approaching a strict rule).

An eight year old today will assume that it’s completely normal that everyone has a cellphone (and looks at it all the time). Your age frames how you understand and relate to technology. For pastors, this leads to a different kind of challenge depending on whether you have an older or younger congregation, and challenges in getting different groups to talk to one another.

Three points on a continuum for our relationship with technology: 1. Enthusiastic embrace 2. Strict separation 3. Disciplined discernment. We should be looking to embrace the virtuous, reject the unwholesome; live with God’s word as our guide (cf Titus 2 – live self-controlled, godly, upright lives.)

Even though there are societal commentators like Malcolm Gladwell (who in Blink says you look at something, and immediately, intuitively know about it), there’s not much from a Christian perspective: our theology about technology is poor. Challies has been trying to bridge this gap a little: we want both to think and to live as Christians, in a distinctly biblical way.

Every technology brings risk and opportunity. The charge in Genesis 2:18 and Genesis 3:8 is to fill the earth and subdue it: this means creating things (technologies). Harness the world. Plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. What is the oldest technology in your house? The PlayStation One? How about your cutlery, or even the wheel on your car!

Subduing the earth involves the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes. But the kinds of technology we have to create are impacted by living in a sinful world. For example, in a perfect world, you have no need for military technology.

It’s not the technology itself that is good or evil, but the human application of that technology.

Be careful that the technology does not become an idol in itself: an idol is something that gets your allegiance in the place of god.Promises satisfaction, fulfilment. Pleasure. (cf Romans 1:22-23 – Worshipping and serving the creature instead of the creator.)

John Calvin: “We gather that man’s nature,so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Science is the new religion

For most of us, our hope is in Jesus, not in technology. But wherever our loyalty lies, our digital technologies can enhance the power of that idol. Possible idols: Power. Money. Popularity. Pleasure.

Some teenagers need power so they turn to cyber-bullying.

Digital technology allows the idols to take root and enhance the hold they have on our lives.

Romans 12:2 Have your mind renewed day by day

Technology brings risk and opportunity.

Some things are revolutionary, others are evolutionary.
Eg Segway. Amazing thing, but just an evolution of walking.

Often you’re using a device and it brings good and bad.

Television: good for broadcasting information, bad for changing morals. Destroyed community – people stopped talking to one another outside family units, and then within families.

We tend to believe that new technologies are primarily beneficial. (This, perhaps) is a tribute to the effectiveness of technology marketing)

The risks of a technology only become apparent over time.

If you have kids, you need to get them a computer so they won’t be left behind. But what changes to the experience of childhood have come along with the technology?

The Pastor’s response
Be an example: 1 Peter 5:12-13 equip the saints for the work of ministry until we attain maturity.
With regard to technology, the pastor is to be an example in their

  1. Thought
  2. Use
  3. Dedication

The people in church are learning from you: you’re modelling technology use to them.

Teach and model maturity. Are you teaching and modelling spiritual maturity in all things?

Closing thought:

Model thoughtful engagement with devices and online.

1 Corinthians 10 – you can use any social media or devices to the glory of God. Honouring and serving the Lord and carrying out His mission in the world.

Q&A Session

After the initial presentation, there was a brief break, and then we had a lengthy Q&A session. Here’s some of what was discussed:

Q: 90-95% of the posts (on Facebook) are nonsense. How to make it more helpful?

Is Facebook like standing in the town square, yelling, or is it like listening to people speaking quietly in their lounge room? A bit of both. It can he a helpful measure of what’s happening in the life of a congregation, but much of Facebook content is going to be unhelpful. Challies doesn’t really use it.

Q: Recommended books/authors for further reading?

McLuhan, Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (affil link)

Leading the way from their material.
More recent books: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

There are few Christian books about living in the social media world: there’s a gap for a book from a Christian thinker over the top of this social media world.

Part of a pastor caring for people is to teach them how to live with the technology. You need to be well thought out in this area so you’re teaching them from a theological framework.

Q: What about technology within the church gathering?

The last corporate technology to make its way into church was PowerPoint, and we took it in willingly, and uncritically. But what’s the difference between congregation members holding, even owning their own hymn books (to sing at home), and reading the ethereal lyrics on the screen? A great deal. Similarly with bible reading on a PowerPoint screen.

Q: Is it possible to have a serious discussion on fb?

No. Too much chatter, not enough thought.

Groothius: As the voice extends, the person recedes.
As society becomes more digital, the face-to-face interaction of church will be more appealing.
Coffee shops tap into a need for people to be together, even as they’re together alone.

Q: Computers may be altering our concentration spans. Is this okay?

Even as a kid, Tim was taught to skim, as the initial overview of a work. But now, looking at the website stats, few people make it to the bottom of an article.

Skimming, and distraction, are the dominant forms of reading. Make sure you’re training yourself to focus and read the things in depth that you need to be dwelling on.

Q: Youth groups are building increasingly shallow friendships – how to encourage people to invest in the relationships?

Give them a chance to talk face to face. Build activities where people will be forced to speak face to face for longer periods of time.

Q: What about video games: good? bad? indifferent?

What is in your heart that is drawing you to that game? Games, reading. Playing sport, playing with friends. How many hours should kids do something? Hard to tell – look at the wider context of their lives – aim for balance.

Q: How to engage kids with the bible?

God’s word has conquered every medium, but we are still figuring it out. At Tim’s church, the kids are loving flannel graph.

Q: North American reformed church scene. Where are the pressure points there?

It’s just a tiny fragment of a wider “Evangelical” prosperity gospel. Egalitarianism and implementing that.  Do we spend to much energy making church attractive to outsiders?

Q: Is PowerPoint appropriate for a sermon?

Tim’s preference is not much ppt, but not a biblical argument. Preaching is declarative. You want to take people to the bible. Tim preaches from a printed bible, and printed notes. Culture of honour / shame.

Q: Can social media be used to reconcile, or only to “take someone out”?

Christians tend to eat their own when a big name messes up.  In some ways, we have a “print mind” – we assume something printed has been vetted and approved. Let’s be cautious: soothing printed in social media does not have the same weight as something that has been reviewed by an editor in anticipation of publication.

Better than hearing Challies talk was getting to meet him and chat briefly. He takes his faith seriously, but he’s a warm, gracious man with a strong work ethic. I look forward to continuing to read what he puts out.

It was also great to meet Dave Miers, whose work I’ve been enjoying for quite a while.