My last exhortation
One year ago today, I gave my last exhortation at my home ecclesia (and it had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day…). Now that time seems a world away, but here are some reflections on that exhortation:
How I could give an exhortation at all while very near to quitting.
Reflections on the importance of careful and accurate Biblical exposition, a puzzling Bible contradiction, a failed Psalm, Biblical propaganda, generational change in Melbourne Christadelphia, and fighting the long defeat.
For non-Christadelphians, the “exhortation” was a Sunday address on a topic of the exhorter’s choice. Some thought that since “exhort” meant “to encourage” an exhortation should be encouraging, but that wasn’t really necessary. As a jargon it grew its own meaning, but that meaning is probably closest to “a sermon”. As a lay-preaching community it was customary for the responsibility for exhorting to be shared among the male members of the ecclesia. And the “ecclesia” really just meant the “church”.
(soon I’ll be needing a Christadelphian glossary to link to on every Christadelphian post - otherwise I’ll have locked out the general public).
I typically gave one new exhortation every six months at my home ecclesia. I also led and participated in various other Bible-based talks and discussions, repeated exhortations when visiting other ecclesias, and edited a young people’s magazine.
But a quick cross-check against the dates in my 2016 review will show that at the same time my situation had gone beyond severe doubts: I was actively investigating whether I could keep my faith at all. A difficult conflict to manage, but it was very important to me to keep my commitments (made months before) to the best of my ability.
I used the following principles to try and manage these mental conflicts while not giving up completely:
- Use sound Biblical exposition: My role was to be a Bible speaker, and my message would start and end from the Bible. Some points might be controversial and different from traditional Christadelphian interpretation, but they had to be able to be presented and defended from the Bible.
- Be trustworthy: As a speaker, I was in a position of trust with a captive audience listening to me. Sometimes, saying what I really thought would have been abusing that trust. It also wouldn’t have been helpful for the audience I had. I wanted people to be able to accept and learn from what I presented, whether or not they got the exact same messages as I did.
- Expose listeners to new ideas: I didn’t want to hide behind the same simple Bible messages I had preached in past years. I had learned a lot about the Bible from a wide spectrum of interpreters, and I wanted to share some of this. Yes, some of those interpreters had contributed to my faith being challenged. But I wasn’t trying to lead others to the same conclusion as me. If I used a tool or interpretation, it was because I thought that was a good way to interpret the passage or theme I was discussing.
So it was OK to put in subtle hints of where I had really come to. Sometimes it was entertaining too. But a call to reconsider belief in God or in the Bible was completely off the table. No matter whether I was giving that same call to myself privately. No-one was going to be “forced” to agree with my viewpoint. Though I would be fine with my thoughts prompting them to do the work of searching out the viewpoint and coming to accept it.
What? You didn’t know a skeptic and near unbeliever could be so principled? Well, I could. But there was one more factor in play: an obsession with being able to leave in my own time and on my own terms. Making my meaning too clear wouldn’t have served my purposes.
That said, though, it sometimes surprises me how much you can get away with saying something against the grain. If people think you are saying something that you couldn’t possibly mean, they may just assume you are joking (you could call that hiding in plain sight).
If this sounds cold and calculating, remember that I am trying to reflect on and discuss past actions in a way that is clear and obvious. I am quite sure I attempted to act for the best following a strict set of principles in a difficult situation. But I am not trying to defend those actions as right. I still don’t know whether they were right or not.
The other important point is that I had developed over the years something of a split personality. When I was speaking, I was a different person. Sometimes I said things off the cuff that were much stronger than I intended, and which I really believed while I was speaking. Things that I later remembered with surprise and privately disagreed with. I’m not sure how healthy that was, but I did have the ability to put on a different persona, a persona that said “If you’ll just grant me that God exists and the Bible is his inspired word, here are some conclusions about this passage and what it means to you”.
When giving this exhortation, I knew it was almost certain to be my last exhortation at my ecclesia: an ecclesia that I was a founding member of, had been attending for over ten years, and which had been something of a home to me. That filled me with a mix of emotions, including both sorrow at all that would be lost and relief that the struggles might be over. To others, it was probably just another week. Everyone else in the audience could reasonably expect to hear me exhorting again in six or twelve months, so I doubt if the occasion stood out in their memory as it does in mine.
Now, with the scene well and truly set, I can actually talk about the message of the exhortation. This wasn’t going to be some famous “Last Lecture”. It wasn’t going to give my final key message to Christadelphia. Struggling for ideas and motivation, I fell back to the daily readings, and was fascinated by the message of Psalm 78. At first, I saw it as just a simple history lesson. But as I pondered it further, I started to see something deeper and perhaps more subversive at work.
And here is where my wider perspective started to come in. I knew that it was commonly thought that significant portions of the historical books were motivated by the North vs South struggle (Ephraim vs Judah). That some at least of them were written or edited into shape after the fact to present that message. I don’t know if that was considered a heretical thought, but knowing it made me wonder “What if this Psalm was a PR exercise? Perhaps an attempt to show the northern tribes to come back to the House of David and to God?” And that’s not me trying to impose a message onto the Psalm - it’s based on how the Psalm is framed.
Most of the Psalm is remembering the national foundation story: plagues in Egypt, Israel led out of Egypt, wilderness wanderings, being brought into the promised land, and rebellion against God as a recurring feature. But it begins the story with a reference to the Ephraimites running away in battle, and ends it with God rejecting Ephraim and choosing David, Jerusalem, and the tribe of Judah. The first reference to the Ephraimites (verses 9 - 11) is a curious one, which is difficult to tie down to any event recorded in the Bible. I suggested that at the time this Psalm was written it was a well-known recent event, and was intended to give the message: “You are failing right now because you have forgotten our shared history and rejected our God and the dynasty he placed over us. Come back to your true home.”
I then connected it to a battle between Israel (Ephraim) and Judah in 2 Chronicles 13. Not saying that it had to have been written then, but that as a PR stunt it was consistent with the message Abijah presented at that battle, and could be a good followup to Judah’s victory in battle. Particularly given the victory was attributed to their trust in God.
And this is where I allowed another sliver of doubt to creep into the message to provoke thoughts. I called the speech of Abijah puzzling, because it got the history wrong, and yet God listened to it. Basically, this version of the story is that the kingdom was given to David’s dynasty by God as an inalienable right. The secession of the northern kingdom 20 years before had been an opportunistic and selfish land grab, an open act of rebellion against both man and God. This is in clear contrast to the Kings record, which showed that God had promised to divide the kingdom, and give the northern part to Jereboam, who was still king in the time of Abijah. Shortly after the secession, the original king went to war to try and reclaim his kingdom. However, he received a message from God that they were not to go to war, because God had given the kingdom to the northern king. An odd contrast, really. I can understand a southern king conveniently forgetting that history, but why did God play along?
As an interesting aside, I realised recently that each of my last three exhortations had included explicit references to “troubling verses”. I don’t know if anyone else noticed this, and in fact I don’t think I noticed it at the time. But it was perhaps an indication that not all was right, and another example of hiding in plain sight. Maybe having doubts and pushing boundaries makes some people’s faith stronger, but it certainly didn’t mine (though it may have made the talks more interesting).
After setting up that possible historical context, it was time to move onto what I saw as the central message of the Psalm. And though, as I said, this wasn’t intended to be a sweeping “last message” from me, it actually could have been. Because that central message was about how to pass faith down to future generations. A link that had clearly failed for me.
The message is that each generation needs to accept the stories and the message of God’s power from their parents, and then to pass that message on to their children. Those children would then be in a position to pass it on to the next generation. As I noted, this is also the model that was prescribed in the law, and nowadays provides the main source for the next generation of Christadelphian believers. There’s a word for this: indoctrination. Though naturally I didn’t use that word (I was trying to provide accurate Biblical exposition of a passage that viewed this as a positive thing, and “indoctrination” doesn’t have the required positive vibe).
In making this point, though, I also had to emphasise that this Psalm too had failed. The kingdom of Judah and the House of David did not last for ever. The link between generations was broken, and apostasy and judgement followed. To maintain a Christadelphian presence in Melbourne we could not just rest on our laurels and assume everything would be fine. The message had to be upheld and passed down from generation to generation. Constant vigilance was required.
And it was illustrating this point that brought me to the words above all others that to this day I do not know whether I was right to say. I said “If I were to walk away from it all tomorrow, what would be the effect?” Obviously, my expectation was that I would be walking away within months, not days. But my conclusion was that my individual decision to walk away would have no effect on whether Christadelphia in Melbourne continued. And so far that prophecy has proved correct. To the best of my knowledge no-one has seen me walk away and been encouraged to follow. However, as I went on to say, if the next generation were to walk away en masse, there wouldn’t be much of a Christadelphian presence in Melbourne in fifty years. Similarly, if my generation stayed around to be with their friends, but lacked a strong faith to pass on to their children, the days of Christadelphia in Melbourne would be numbered.
And I hasten to say that I don’t believe that to be the case. The majority of my peers are (as far as I can tell) as committed as ever. Maybe they are as good at hiding doubts as I was. Or maybe they will come closer to my perspective over time. But I don’t think it very likely that most of them will.
However, though they may retain a firm belief in God, I suspect generational change could lead to a watering down of traditional Christadelphian beliefs and practices. I think it likely that many of my peers will accept some form of evolutionionary creationism, and will question the traditional authority of the man and the prohibition on women speaking, reading, chairing a meeting, etc. Either of these could lead to a big, ugly split in Melbourne and resulting disillusionment and infighting. Some holding these beliefs are likely to consider leaving for other, more welcoming churches, while others may get sick of the struggles and come to see that belief in God is no longer necessary or helpful. And if there is a split, future generations will inherit that split, which could similarly drive them away from accepting it all.
Bleak? Sure. Accurate? Well, time will tell. I don’t predict the death of the religion, because I have observed that so far those who have predicted the imminent death of religion have failed. But I think there are plenty of threats on the horizon, and am not sorry that I no longer have to worry about those threats. And no matter how strong it appears, if steps are not taken to keep the message going it is always a generation or two away from complete failure.
And this leads me to my final important concept: “fighting the long defeat”. It’s a concept you can find in popular fiction like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In fact, apparently the term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, though I think the concept pre-dated him. The idea is that in a world of change and decay, success is temporary, and it is hard work to keep the things going that you want to keep going. Evil is always waiting in the wings to take over, and the best you can do is resist the evil now and then pass the responsibility on to future generations.
Tolkien viewed it as a fight with plenty of setbacks and occasional glimpses of a final victory (in Christadelphian parlance, this final victory is “the kingdom”). Personally, I think this introduction of Christian theology spoils the message, because it leaves the temptation to give up and fail in the fight. The equivalent of just throwing up your hands and saying “God will fix everything in the kingdom”. To truly fight the long defeat, you need to do everything you can to resist the evil of the day, whether or not you expect a perfect fix to come later. And it is interesting that while Harry Potter has souls and an afterlife and a fight against evil from generation to generation, I don’t think it has any concept of a final victory for the world.
I may explore this theme more later, but for me, competely absent of Christian overtones, this concept of the “long defeat” is important. Based on what we know now, we expect entropy to increase to the point where it will not sustain life (or at least not life as we know it). Our actions in this universe do not have some kind of ultimate significance. But there is still value in trying to do right and preserve right for a little longer. Sure, I would love to get rid of all ignorance and all pain and make everyone perfect forever. But the best that I personally can do is to combat it myself, and provide the next generation with tools to do the same. It’s then their world and their choice whether they fight it or not. But we can hope that if we give them a world with some compassion showing and with ignorance a little at bay they will have a better chance of keeping it going for the next generation.
Naturally, I did not conclude my exhortation with these thoughts on the long defeat. Traditionally, an exhortation is given before the taking of the bread and wine, and the exhorter should in some way bring the thoughts of the audience back to the death and resurrection of Jesus. And I did so, calling his death a temporary setback and his resurrection a hope of the future kingdom with its victory over evil. The same deus ex machina that I’ve just comprehensively rejected. I really don’t know what I thought about that back then when I said it, though with my exhorter hat on it still seems like the logical conclusion. In reality, I was probably pretty exhausted by the mental strain of giving a sometimes impassioned last exhortation without letting on to anyone in the room that that was what was happening.