Messages of Hope

Month: October 2017

Building a brand

Published / by Sandy

John Naughtan, in The Guardian, writes about the 500 years this week since Luther posted his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Here is an excerpt. 

new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it. In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

It would be a tough assignment. But take heart: there once was a man who had similar doubts about the dominant power of his time. His name was Martin Luther and 500 years ago on Tuesday he pinned a long screed on to the church door in Wittenberg, which was then a small and relatively obscure town in Saxony. The screed contained a list of 95 “theses”challenging the theology (and therefore the authority) of the then all-powerful Catholic church. This rebellious stunt by an obscure monk must have seemed at the time like a flea bite on an elephant. But it was the event that triggered a revolution in religious belief, undermined the authority of the Roman church, unleashed ferocious wars in Europe and shaped the world in which most of us (at least in the west) grew up. Some flea bite.

What made Luther’s theses really provocative was that they represented a refutation of both the theology and the business model of the Catholic church. In those days, challenging either would not have been a good career move for an Augustinian monk. Challenging both was suicidal.

But Luther understood the significance and utility of the new communication technology better than his adversaries.

Unlike most scholars of his time, Luther was both interested in and knowledgable about the technology of printing; he knew the economics of the business, cared about the aesthetics and presentation of books and understood the importance of what we would now call building a brand.

He knew, for example, that his message would only spread if he gave printers texts that would be economical to print and easy to sell – unlike conventional scholarly books in the early decades of printing. Because paper was expensive, printing a standard scholarly tome required capital resources for buying and storing the necessary reams of paper. And because there was no developed market for distributing and marketing the result, many printers went bankrupt – which is why most printing and publishing was concentrated in large towns with established universities where at least some of the necessary infrastructure existed.

Although the original 95 theses were in Latin, as were most theological books of the period, Luther decided that he would write in German. In doing so he immediately expanded his potential market by orders of magnitude. He also developed a literary style that was “lucid, readable and to the point”. But his masterstroke was in enabling printers to make money by publishing his works. Because paper was expensive, he channelled his output into extended pamphlets that could be printed on one or two sheets of paper, suitably folded into eight or 16 pages at most.

The strategy worked. Within five years of posting his theses he was Europe’s most published author. A printed sermon or a commentary by Luther was a surefire seller, and appealingly inexpensive to produce. The nascent printing industry was quick to respond: Wittenberg, which had a solitary shambolic printer when Luther began, was soon home to a handful of presses, including one run by Germany’s most accomplished publisher, Moritz Goltz. Luther, proactive to a fault, took care to spread his work among all of these new publishing houses and was “sufficiently popular to put bread on the table of publishers throughout Germany”. By the time Luther died in 1546, nearly 30 years after posting the 95 theses, this small town in Saxony had a publishing output that matched that of Germany’s biggest cities.

One thing above all stands out from those theses. It is that if one is going to challenge an established power, then one needs to attack it on two fronts – its ideology (which in Luther’s time was its theology), and its business model. And the challenge should be articulated in a format that is appropriate to its time.

The full article is on this link. It goes on to provide examples of theses for our internet world.

Bad Religion?

Published / by Sandy

by Andrew Dutney

from his blog:

It’s been reported that two out of three Australians think that religion does more harm than good in the world. That’s not encouraging news at a time when there are questions being asked about whether or not the various tax exemptions and privileges that religious organisations enjoy in Australia should be wound back – or even dispensed with.

But the Ipsos Poll on which the report was based gave mixed messages about Australians and religion. While 63% agreed that religion does more harm than good in the world, 84% agreed with the statement, “I am completely comfortable being around people who have different religious beliefs than me”. So, on the one hand, scepticism about the value of religion and, on the other hand, high levels of toleration for religious diversity. What might this poll be telling us about Australians and their religions?

It’s worth thinking about how a poll like this works. In this case it was a telephone poll of more than 17,000 people across 23 countries. There would have been an attempt to get balanced representation but, even so, it could have involved only a very small number of Australians. Probably fewer than 1000. Also, those being polled were simply asked if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements such as “My religion defines me as a person” (27% agreed) or “Religious people make better citizens” (25% agreed). So when some hundreds of Australians agreed with the statement “Religion does more harm than good in the world”, it’s not at all clear what they were actually thinking. It would have been a range of things. Certainly they would not all have had the same reasons for agreeing with the statement.

Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to think about what some of those things might have been. What harm does religion do?

Some may have been thinking about religious bigotry and the harm that does in some families and communities. Australia has a sorry history of sectarianism – particularly of bitter conflict between Protestant and Catholic people. Thankfully those days are behind us now, but it was still a very real part of Australian society when I was growing up. Some people might have been thinking about religious extremism or about religiously motivated conflict. Some might have been reflecting on the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

But about a third of those Australians who were polled did not agree with the statement. They thought that, on balance, religion does not do more harm than good. They might have even thought that religion did more good than harm (but we can’t know that). So what good might they have thought religion does?

If they practice a religion themselves, they probably do so because they find or believe that it has some benefit for them. There are many studies now that associate religious practice with improved mental health and wellbeing. They might have been thinking of the community life and pastoral care that’s made available to them in their faith community. But even the Australians polled who do not practice a religion themselves might have been thinking of the caring services that religious communities offer. Christian congregations run drop in centres, op shops, playgroups etc. Most religious organisations run schools, community services, hospitals etc. UnitingCare Australia, e.g., is a network of some 1600 sites with 40,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers. Their impact for good on Australian society is huge.

In the light of the Ipsos Poll a journalist asked me whether religion “should be trying to redeem itself” in the eyes of the Australian public.

I replied that I thought not. The place of religion in Australian society has changed dramatically in recent decades. The proportion of Australians participating in a religion is now smaller, and the religious groups that Australians are involved in is now much more diverse. The community no longer automatically looks to religious representatives for moral leadership – or even for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. In this situation it’s important that religious organisations don’t pretend that nothing has changed, and don’t try to steer things back to the way they once were – if that’s what “redeeming” themselves means.

Instead, religious organisations need to get on with doing what they do – developing communities, practicing their faith, serving their own members and the wider community at real points of need. And they need to do what they do with integrity, fairness and transparency. That will be more than enough for Australians.

Time and Sabbath

Published / by Sandy

Time and Sabbath – a service for daylight saving
Pilgrim Uniting Church 9.30am, October 1, 2017

One cannot talk about time in a Judeo-Christian faith context without placing Sabbath and Jubilee at the centre of consideration.

I accepted the invitation to help with this Daylight Saving Service not because I have clarity about the central Biblical tenet of Sabbath, but because I continue to struggle with the whole idea!

I always have.

As a young Christian in my teenage years, I thought Sabbath meant that I didn’t do anything but attend church on Sunday. So, outside of this, I moped about the house, totally bored. And when I needed to train on Sunday morning to continue to play basketball at the highest level, I became totally conflicted, repressing my sense of guilt for breaking the fourth commandment.

Eventually, I gave up the struggle, deciding that the idea of Sabbath as rest might have been sustainable in an agrarian economy, but was unachievable in the modern world.

By the time I was an innovative science teacher, I didn’t give it a thought when I ran into inexplicable tiredness on weekends, this was the onset of serious depression.

That was the time when a host of Baby Boomer humanistic corrective bandaids began to appear. Self-help books, all manner of workshops and retreats, the emergence of Buddhist techniques, and the massive uptake of anti-depressants. Some Ministers moved into social work or psychological counselling. The Centre Of Personal Encounter (COPE) was established in Hutt Street, later to evolve into Relationships Australia.

COPE, I think had a truly prophetic name – all these movements were trying to help us cope with a new age – new freedoms, mass communication, global exploitation, mass transport, population explosion, pollution, immigration and explosion of knowledge – challenging, and continuing to challenge, every culture.

I threw myself into humanistic education and established Health Education at the suburban High School where I was teaching. Rev Dr Malcolm McArthur had the role of shaping all the non-traditional emerging curricula in the Education Department – Religious Education, Health Education, Social Studies, Driver Education and so on.

The churches lost their battle with popular culture. Leisure, shopping and sport became the new Sabbath activities. But family time continued to be valued.

Church attendance, which had been associated with a traditional notion of Sabbath, inevitably declined. For some churches, the threat to remain sustainable, became all consuming. Church makeovers with new noticeboards in the hope of renewal, demonstrated a complete lack of understanding and engagement with the deep and rapid shift of our cultural context.

Many churches, holding strong dichotomies like sacred and secular, became reactive to these cultural movements: self-interested, attempting to pump up their profiles – all the while, the many saw past these attempts at regaining popularity and control – and all the while the churches generally not understanding that God loves and is active in the world. They thought God-things only happened within the church!

A contemporary Jeremiah might say that God was and is abandoning the Church, much like the ancient Jeremiah prophesied that God would destroy the Jewish Temple with ISIS-like invaders from Babylon, and the people would go into exile.

A modern Jeremiah might rather say that the institutional church is self-destructing.

‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, said Jesus.

I suggest this might be our starting point for re-imagining Sabbath.

Secondly, I suggest that in re-imagining Sabbath, we might affirm we are not created for ‘work’. The Exodus story of freedom from oppression might be our teacher. The parallels to today are stunning!

We might begin to re- imagine Sabbath by confessing that from 5 to 65, we are obsessed with ‘work’, creating our identities, and consuming us. Clearly, the evidence is in that the increasing demands of elite taskmasters for ‘efficiencies’ is repressive, and all the anti-depressives in the world won’t change that! The research shows that over 70% of the workforce only show up for ‘work’ in order to get a pay cheque. It’s not working!!!

Thirdly, in re-imagining, we might place at the centre of our understanding, a cyclical understanding of time in which Sabbath is understood as disengagement from our anxieties and pressures and engagement with ‘being’.

Fourthly, Sabbath cannot exist in a scarcity culture – a culture we ourselves often construct to prove something to ourselves – but in a culture of abundance and generosity. Sabbath and not ‘work’ is meant to create our identity.

Sabbath was made for man, says Jesus, so that we might delight in an abundant life.

In the end, Sabbath might actually be about abundance – abundant generosity, abundant hospitality, abundant trust, abundant faith, abundant love. The fruit of such Sabbath might be gratitude, bursting with praise for the life the Creator has gifted, humility to know our honoured place in the scheme of things, meekness, empowering our determination for human equality, compassion for those whose circumstances are grim, and, above all, joy for the abundant life God wills.

Sabbath may well be about keeping on returning to refresh those deep and practical dynamics that provide abundant life.