[Pick the date]
MCGHIE THE ELEPHANT BOOK
Theology for the Non-Religious
2 The Elephant Book
Introduction ............................................................................................................................................ 3
Part One – Is There An Elephant? ......................................................................................................
The Beginning...................................................................................................................................... 7
Elephant Footprints Around the Universe ........................................................................................ 12
Elephant Footprints on the Inside..................................................................................................... 15
The Elephant Who Came Out of Hiding ............................................................................................ 22
Part Two - Getting to Know the Elephant ..........................................................................................
The Cross ........................................................................................................................................... 29
The New Contract ............................................................................................................................. 34
The Process ....................................................................................................................................... 38
Part Three – The Big Stuff..................................................................................................................
Bible .................................................................................................................................................. 45
Church ............................................................................................................................................... 50
Worship ............................................................................................................................................. 56
Part Four – The Small Stuff ................................................................................................................
Self Control ........................................................................................................................................ 61
Money ............................................................................................................................................... 64
Politics ............................................................................................................................................... 67
A Bigger Passion ................................................................................................................................ 78
Part Five – The Final Stuff..................................................................................................................
Prayer ................................................................................................................................................ 82
Suffering ............................................................................................................................................ 86
Heaven .............................................................................................................................................. 95
Epilogue ...................................................................................................................................... 100
Bibliography ............................................................................................................................... 103
3 The Elephant Book
There's an elephant in the room.
About 80% of Aussies believe in God but only 10% would call themselves religious.
Everybody prays in a crisis but no one wonders whether God wants anything from
them. Ned Flanders lives next door but he's not part of the family.
As a generation we're pretty comfortable with the idea of religion but spend so much
effort trying to keep the conversation at a safe distance. Most people are happy to
answer the question, 'What about God?' with 'I'm not religious', and leave it at that.
But for such a big question, it's odd that we shouldn't have more to say about it. It
always seems that somewhere beyond the point of spiritual D & Ms it all gets
awkward and someone feels like they're being preached at. So we find something
less important to fill our conversations, and God remains the biggest thing we never
With such a long history of religious dysfunction maybe it's understandable that
God's a touchy subject. I've been thinking about God for as long as I can remember
4 The Elephant Book
but I'll be the first to admit that I find conversations about Him a bit uncomfortable.
No one likes feeling ignorant, causing offence, getting too personal or just looking
like a massive tool. It's probably not an accident that anyone in the media spotlight
who's passionate about religion gets labelled a fundamentalist (among other words
beginning with f). The rest of us non-fundamentalists can agree to a vague sort of
default spirituality and get on with not talking about it.
But when you think about it, not too many questions affect your life as much as the
big one about God. No matter how much or how little you think about it, one way or
another the answer sets your parameters for the way you think about everything else
in your world. Someone who lives as the product of a random universe is going to
have a very different life to someone who sees themselves as a created being sent
to change the world, just as someone constantly afraid of God will live differently to
someone trying their best to love Him. It's more polite to think about religion as a
private side of your life but the reality is that your concept of a Higher Power affects
everything you do in public. He sits at the top of your worldview and shapes
everything else underneath Him.
I wanted to write this book to start the awkward conversation. If you're curious about
the idea of God or want to know more about Christianity from the inside then I hope
this helps. Maybe you won't agree with everything I've written but at the very least
you should understand Christians a bit more, and when you think about the way our
5 The Elephant Book
media tends to build up stereotypes and smash them together to make headlines,
this can't be a bad idea.
A long time ago I decided I believed in all of it and signed up for the whole package -
God, Jesus, the Bible, worshipping with music, the lot. Because this isn't a popular
choice I've had to do a lot of thinking about whether or not I should send it back, and
up until now, I haven't. Hopefully the book will explain why.
There's one more thing before we kick off. I wrote all this to start the conversation
rather than to have the last word so after you've finished with a chapter you might
have questions or points that I haven't covered. After the epilogue I've stuck a list of
much better books which take the conversation further on each topic. You'll get a
better perspective from reading those and you'll also spot where I've pinched their
arguments, because original ideas can be very hard to find sometimes.
Now there's an elephant I'd like you to meet...
6 The Elephant Book
Is there an Elephant?
7 The Elephant Book
I wonder if you’ve ever thought about how strange it is that you exist.
It’s not something I go around shopping centres thinking about but it’s worth
pondering anyway. Not just you personally but me, this book, the room you’re in, the
country, stars, streets, light bulbs, kangaroos, planets and the universe in general.
Where did all of this stuff come from?
The stock answer at this point is that everything has its own beginning and every
cause has an effect. You and I from our parents, the book from trees and plastic, the
solar system from matter and forces, and the rest of the universe from a combination
of causes working with and against each other producing everything that makes the
world the way it is. Follow the trail even further back and you get to the point of
the first beginning when the universe exploded into existence and everything kicked
off. This probably isn’t anything new - if you’re educated enough to read this, then
chances are you’re already familiar with the Big Bang theory.
What’s interesting about the Big Bang is that it has to be an exception to the rule of
cause-and-effect because there’s nothing left to cause it. The big idea behind the
Bang is that the universe isn’t a constant, it’s a result. As hard as it is to imagine,
8 The Elephant Book
apparently space, matter and most importantly, time as we know it had a starting
point. Something definite and precise outside those three boundaries acted as a
cause, and they are the effect. But whatever the something was (or is), it wasn’t (or
isn’t) part of the universe itself, in other words, nothing at all. The writer GK
Chesterton summed up our position like this: in the beginning there was nothing, and
then nothing exploded and became everything. It does seem like something’s
At the moment the best theory for what caused the Bang is the idea of pressure
building up as all matter was squeezed into a tight space, which might conjure up the
image of a small round object containing all the elements of a potential universe
suspended in mid air, holding itself together before exploding. But the problem with
this or any other explanation is that time, space and matter all began with the Bang,
and words like ‘build up’, ‘pressure’ and even ‘before’ don’t mean anything.
Somehow conditions without time, matter or space brought about the existence of all
three. And if I walk around shopping centres thinking about this then I need to sit
down for a minute.
Everything came from nothing, but that thought doesn’t come easily to us. Try to
imagine ‘nothing’. You can’t. The closest I can get to it is a dot in an empty room,
which doesn’t work because both of them need space. Then I press the switch and
make it a dark room, but still no good. I can take the dot away but the act of
9 The Elephant Book
picturing it – anything – means that what I have in mind isn’t ‘nothing’. You might as
well try imagining an atom. We just have to accept that the concept of ‘nothing’ is
possible, but well beyond what we can our minds can work with.
But whatever you can or can’t say about ‘nothing’ as a set of conditions, you’d think it
would be permanent. How would ‘nothing’ change? What would it turn into if you
left it alone for long enough? Probably more ‘nothing’. It just doesn’t seem like the
right set of ingredients for an explosion. In fact, without a timeline for anything to
happen at all you’d have to say that the forming of a universe seems the most
unlikely thing possible. But here we are.
Is it possible that this universe came from another one? Not unless you can find a
way to use the concept ‘another’ without borrowing the conditions set up in this
universe. We call Australia and New Zealand different countries firstly because
they’re made up of different land, i.e., different matter. Even if both were identical,
right down to the last molecule (as a surprising amount of people overseas tend to
think), the two countries would still exist in different spaces at any one time. So in
order to separate one thing from another we need both to exist in a common set of
parameters of space, time and matter. Take out those three and the idea of
‘another’ universe loses its meaning.
10 The Elephant Book
In any case, one thing experts tend to agree on is that a working, sustainable
universe requires a huge amount of factors to be set at very exact values. If you
could adjust the speed of light, strength of gravity, weight of atoms or any of
countless other settings by the slightest of margins then the whole thing either
implodes or fizzles out. In many ways, this seems like the only possible universe.
So there is only one way to cut this. A higher power acting outside time, space and
matter is the cause of everything around us. The power needs no beginning, no
room to work with and no materials to make the universe out of because its
existence is the cause of all three. It is the Ultimate Source of our reality. This isn’t
easy to grasp but this analogy might help.
While I’m typing this, I keep a notepad in front of me so I can distract myself by
drawing pictures when I should be writing. With a bit of work from the pen I can
sketch a stick figure on the corner of the notepad. If I draw enough of them in every
corner and flick through the pages I can make an animation of him playing soccer.
By flicking through at different speeds I can make his time go faster, slower, or
freeze time without him knowing about it. The timing, space and raw materials of the
whole animation are at my disposal, because I don’t live under the restrictions of any
of them. If I leave it alone and do some real work then the notepad stays blank and
on my desk. I am the higher power behind his universe.
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It seems that something like that must have happened to kick start our own.
Not that the stickman makes a perfect analogy – his universe is really only part of
mine, whereas ours must be all there is. But whatever sketched us into existence
must have done so, as the old theologians put it, ex nihilo (literally ‘out of nothing’).
Some kind of higher power outside time, space and matter drew all three into being
and the image of an animated soccer player might be as close as our minds can get
to grasping this concept. We have to accept that nothing became everything, and
that Something has done it.
12 The Elephant Book
Elephant Footprints in the Universe
We’ve probably never met, but from reading the first chapter and introduction to this
book you should know a bit about me already. If you looked really hard and you’d
done a bit of training you might know things about me that I don’t know myself. The
finished work says something about the cause behind it. So if apparently there’s a
Higher Power operating somewhere outside of time and space, and all it left behind
is a universe, then the next step must be to look around the place for clues.
The first thing we might find is that the Higher Power must be massive. It would
have to be bigger and stronger than everything it left behind. Having blasted the
universe into existence from the outside, it would have to be a greater force than
anything on the inside. Anything responsible for an explosion big enough to launch
galaxies would not be worth meeting on a bad day. It would be stronger than all the
strength in the universe put together. In fact, it would be the source and definition of
So it also makes sense that if anything controls this kind of force it could potentially
act in all the space in the universe as well as all the time, having brought both into
13 The Elephant Book
existence itself. Like the manipulation of my stickman in the last chapter, a Higher
Power could speed up, slow down or pause our timeline without us knowing any
different. If it had eyes, than it would have observed and maybe even controlled
everything that has ever happened in history. But I’m moving too far ahead with that
thought. We haven’t established whether this thing has anything resembling a mind
or not – only that it has to be bigger and more powerful than anything else in our
universe. In every way the Higher Power has to be the ultimate expression.
The second clue is that the Higher Power must be more complicated than anything
else we know. The stickman is only a very simple version of me because that’s all I
can manage (well I’m not an artist). A professional animator might draw up
something very realistic, and if they had the right tools it could end up as something
very close to the real thing. But it will not get beyond that point. The fact that the
source of the animation is a human being means that the cartoon will never quite
reach the level of sophistication and complexity of an actual person. A river can’t go
uphill to the point of being above its source. So whatever source was behind the
forming of our incredibly complex world must be unimaginably more complex in
itself. Us trying to understand the Higher Power would be at least as difficult as
trying to understand the most complicated thing in our universe, whatever that might
14 The Elephant Book
Again we need to guess whether the Higher Power has a mind or not. If it doesn’t,
and whatever brought into existence matter, space and time did so by accident, then
we may need to accept that we can never understand this thing. The idea of
something more complicated than the entire universe put together, acting
independently of the universe itself is probably beyond what our brains can handle.
After all, the universe is all we have to work with.
On the other hand, if it does have a mind then the word ‘mind’ doesn’t really do it
justice. It would have to hold every possible piece of information about everything
that ever happened. The gap between the mind that controls the solar systems and
mine which forgets my postcode at times would be massive. How would you
describe a designer who put the ecosystems together? It would be like trying to
explain the internet to an ant. Or soccer to my stickman.
So after a whole chapter and a lot of effort I’ve managed to establish that the Higher
Power is both a) powerful, and b) high. Congratulations, McGhie. But before I break
for lunch and reflect on this groundbreaking work of logic, it might be worth thinking
about the implications of both statements. If there really is a God, as many of us
think there might be, He has to be in every way a lot more than what we can
imagine. Anyone whose image of the God responsible for the universe is small, soft
or simple might want to think again. Trying to manipulate that kind of Higher Power
might be just as impossible as defining Him.
16 The Elephant Book
Elephant Footprints on the Inside
So after searching an entire universe for clues about this Higher Power all we know
is that it’s very big and probably incomprehensible. But there’s one place we haven’t
looked yet. Some of the most important clues about the Higher Power might be
uncovered by looking inwards instead of outwards. We could just find the ultimate
Cause behind the universe simply by being ourselves.
Almost everything we know, or at least everything we believe, is taken in based on
the authority of the person telling us. Straight away that sounds like something only
gullible people say but if you think about it, there isn’t much of an alternative.
Everything I know about hippos, rockets, the pyramids, Roger Federer or Mexico is
based on authority since I’ve never seen any of them for myself. Bearing in mind
how unlikely it is that the rest of the world is in on some huge conspiracy to fake
them all at my expense I have to assume that all five of them are real.
A much smaller amount we know by observing. I know where the White House is
because I’ve been there. I know what U2 sound like because I’ve heard them. And I
know what polar bears look like because I’ve seen one in a zoo. But this is where
17 The Elephant Book
we hit the next limit of our understanding – I don’t know what it’s like to be a polar
bear. Human nature I know from the inside as well as the outside, but polar bear
nature is more of a mystery. Some things are hidden from our observation; we only
know them by experience. So despite having no idea what the world must be like for
Inuka at the Singapore Zoo, I do know what it’s like to be human. Is there anything
about useful about that which might point to the Higher Power?
The first clue I could think of is this obsession we have with the Higher Power, and
the uncanny belief that we can access Him/Her/It in some way. For whatever reason
we have an instinct that leans us toward the idea of an unexplainable force beyond
the ordinary physical world. Somehow across all cultures and countries human
beings have picked up the idea that supernatural beings made the universe and
keep interfering with our lives. It’s one of the distinguishing marks of ancient ruins
that, if the makers were human, there will always be some trace of a religion.
Anthropologists often call this the religious impulse and it happens to be one of the
features that make humanity unique.
As well as making us apparently spiritual by default, something about being human
involves acting on the supernatural impulse. It would have been one thing if our
instinct pointed us to a spiritual world that was real and dangerous but otherwise just
part of life (like sharks maybe). But something about the concept of the supernatural
draws people to worship. And that’s not what you might expect. If a dolphin or a
18 The Elephant Book
martian were studying the human race from the outside they’d be more than a bit
confused at the way these animals bend over backwards to make their gods happy
without getting a lot in return. Even the ones who don’t believe in Higher Powers
seem to have superstitions and have to fight against their own impulses to maintain
their worldview. Are we all insane? Why are we so obsessed with things we can’t
Of course not everything said or believed about the Higher Power over the ages can
be true, and a lot of it came with assumptions about the universe that we now know
were wrong. But the fact that such a powerful mark runs right across the human
race is significant enough for us to take notice. For such a complex piece of
metaphysics, the idea that there is a Higher Power acting outside of time, space and
matter comes surprisingly easily to us. Apparently belief in the supernatural is our
Another odd thing about human nature is our belief that the universe ought to be
different. Not just that it can or should be different, but that we seem to share the
common idea of a better universe and at the back of our minds is the irritating
reminder that the one we’re in right now doesn’t measure up. Despite a lack of any
reason to think so we have very high expectations of the world, other people and
even ourselves. Somehow by instinct I genuinely expect the universe to give me a
purpose for my life, punish anyone who doesn’t act in a moral way (whatever that
19 The Elephant Book
means) and make sure that everyone has a fair go. And it’s always a small surprise
when I find out that it doesn’t. When the newspapers cover a tragedy, however
many tragedies like it have happened already this year, it’s only a matter of time
before the word ‘shocking’ comes up. It’s like looking in the mirror every morning
and being shocked at the shape of my head. What was I expecting? Apparently
something better (from the world - not just from my head). When the inevitable
happens, whether it's natural or human disaster, it always seems as though the
world expected better.
I'm not saying this isn't useful. There’s no doubt that the vision of a better society is
the driving force behind the best movements in humanity, religious or not. Every
significant step forward in our history has been the result of people who stood up and
acted on this expectation. As handy as it is, though, it’s such an odd thing that we
have it at all. How did we come to expect things like purpose, goodness and
fairness if there were none in the universe to start with? Where would we get those
ideas? They don’t sit well with a theory of improving the race through natural
selection. The whole concept of charity for the poor or disadvantaged members of
our race living thousands of miles away makes a mockery of a system based on the
survival of the fittest, but people without a belief in any power higher than that
system seem to buy into the concept as much as anyone. You have to wonder
where such a dangerous instinct came from.
20 The Elephant Book
Like morality, the ideas of purpose and justice are embedded in our thinking from
day one. Two more ideals that have no use in helping us survive but to try and weed
them out seems unacceptable. For the last few hundred years existentialists have
delivered the disappointing news that the universe is meaningless. If they’re right
then it raises the question of why this is a) disappointing, and b) news? How did a
race of pointless creatures living in a world empty of fairness and direction become
obsessed with both? This must be another clue: We live in a certain type of
universe but feel entitled to another. We are naturally surprised at our own
Before I get to the third clue, I should probably go through some objections to the
last couple of paragraphs. Evolutionary psychologists often point out that the conflict
between our moral instinct and our survival instinct could happen due to our moral
instinct developing in communities, where individual survival might come second to
the importance of keeping the group safe. It’s up to you whether or not you believe
this (it’s only ever speculation anyway) but I don’t think it’s a good enough
explanation. For one thing, the moral impulse has an authority about it that other
instincts don’t have, and this is apparently universally recognised. We judge other
people’s actions by appealing to something bigger than a personal opinion,
something which we and they and everyone else knows by instinct, and something
we expect all of them to act on. If the whole thing turned out to be only a pattern that
developed in our heads we could no more object to a dictator committing genocide
21 The Elephant Book
than we could disapprove of his moustache. Even those who believe that morality
was just a psychological accident will nonetheless appeal to it, since like anyone else
they expect moral behaviour from others. As C.S. Lewis argued, a man will say he
doesn’t believe in objective morals, but break a promise to him and he will be the first
And the concept of broken promises is actually a nice segue for the third clue. We
are completely and personally unable to create the kind of behaviour that might bring
this better universe into existence. Despite all our conviction that life should be
different and our expectation of a better society we fall hopelessly short of meeting
our own standards. The gap between what we expect and what we have is almost
always our fault. How much of the suffering around the world is exacerbated, if not
caused, by people exploiting each other? How many times this week did I
personally fail to meet the kind of standard I expect from everyone else? And how
quickly do I come up with a list of excuses for not meeting it, proving that I believe in
the standard and that actually I’m a bit embarrassed over getting caught?
As depressing as it is to write this, the problems with humankind failing to meet its
own expectations are everywhere you look. Nearly every page of the newspaper
points to an example of the damage being done by greed, hatred or abuse of power
somewhere around the world. Advertisers constantly appeal to our fears and worst
instincts to try and get an edge on their competitors. Our planet suffers more and
22 The Elephant Book
more each day from the cost of our excessive lifestyles. Sometimes I tell people I
have a vague sort of optimistic belief in my fellow man, but I also carry a set of keys
and have to memorise all kinds of PINs, codes and passwords because I actually
don’t trust my fellow man as soon as my back is turned. There is a good reason for
this: I can’t trust my fellow man. And I’m sure he feels the same way about me.
This is the tragedy of human history. We have an internal driving force which makes
us work desperately for a better world but don’t have the right materials to make it
out of. Empires, civilizations, technologies, government programs, revolutions and
treaties all promise more than they can deliver. Eventually people find a way to
exploit each other in the end. Maybe it says something that after thousands of years
of human government the best political systems we can come up with are ones with
enough checks and balances to minimize the damage done by bad leaders. As hard
as we try, the kind of world we expect to live in seems as far away as the moon.
So there are three odd things about human nature. First, we naturally believe in a
Higher Power beyond space, time and matter and will go miles out of our way to try
and make It happy. Second, we have strong expectations of a certain kind of
universe much better than the one in which we happen to live. Third, when it comes
to our own contribution to building the kind of universe we expect to live in, we fall a
long way short.
23 The Elephant Book
All three of them are interesting enough, but if you bring in the Higher Power Himself
the whole thing goes to another level.
24 The Elephant Book
The Elephant who came out of hiding
In an earlier chapter I borrowed a bit of philosophy from Malcolm in the Middle when
I wrote that trying to understand the Higher Power would be like being an ant trying
to understand the internet. It’s a great image, but if you look at it from another
perspective everything changes. Maybe the reason we can’t get these ideas through
to ants is that we don’t know their language, but with a bit of hard work and research
we could find a way to communicate with them. It might be a bit of a stretch to
explain the internet or trigonometry to one of them but you’d think we could get a few
basic ideas across.
If the Higher Power behind the universe had a mind – and it would be a mind much
bigger and more complicated to us than the internet would be to an ant – it’s just
possible that the mind knows enough to get some basic ideas across. After blasting
the world into existence and knitting the ecosystems together it’s not too much to
expect for Him/ Her/ It to learn how to speak English. So we may not be able to
reach high enough to see if there really is a God, but He could (if He wanted to)
come down to us. He could tell us what we needed to know.
25 The Elephant Book
So the only way for us to make sense of the Higher Power depends on the Power
coming out of hiding and finding a way to communicate with us. How would it do
that? It could have put us in a small corner of a massive universe, big enough to
overwhelm us with sheer size and power, complex enough to point to an even
bigger, stronger and more complicated Power behind it. It could have produced us
as a race with certain default settings – urges on the inside which led them naturally
to an obsession with the Power and with a different kind of universe to the one in
which they found themselves. It could have left them with expectations and desires
that nothing in their world could satisfy. And then the Power might start to talk in
more specific terms.
As the race begins to form into civilizations and empires, one particular group
emerges with unique ideas about the Higher Power. Unlike the rest of the world’s
religions around them they believe that the Power is One, that It does have a mind
and that He has deliberately made humankind for a purpose. They say He has a
specific design for how the world is supposed to work, and that humanity’s role is to
put it into practice. His design for the world echoes in our minds and is the reason
we naturally expect things like justice and morality despite living in a universe without
any trace of them. They say that all people are essentially a smaller version of Him –
made in His image – but the race has somehow corrupted this, leaving the uncanny
feeling of disappointment that things aren’t what they should be.
26 The Elephant Book
The people that introduce these all these ideas to the ancient world aren’t exactly a
dominant force. Their armies are smaller, their technology is less advanced and
their trading powers are weaker than just about every other nation they come up
against. They seem to attract trouble like no one else; in fact even today there are
plenty of anti-Semitic voices ready to pop up and hate them without any apparent
reason. But despite small numbers and a violent history of being knocked around by
stronger powers they have a presence and influence that goes way beyond their
capabilities. Many times in their history the Jews are able to survive - and even
benefit – from circumstances that would send other races into oblivion. And the
explanation they give for their success goes back to the Higher Power.
They believe that God has chosen them as a key part of His plan to put human
society back to what it should be. He wants to use them to show the world how
things could be better, and to hopefully attract the other nations into joining their
community. When they fall short of setting the kind of example He wants, He
punishes them. On a few occasions He disciplines them almost to the point of
wiping them out just to get across how serious He is about morality, and how
passionately He wants them to get their act together. As a side note, the Jews also
believe that their God has a plan to fix the planet once and for all, and that one day
He will send someone to deal with the problem personally.
27 The Elephant Book
Then one day the game changes as a Jew named Jesus Christ turns up. He is born
in a shed at the back of a pub, lives as a carpenter in an anonymous corner of a
massive empire, and dies 33 years old as a criminal. But just like His people He has
an impact way beyond His position. In three years of teaching He introduces a
revolutionary new way of living which inspires more than anyone else’s life’s work,
before or since. Even among people who hate Him there is a kind of respect for His
philosophy which recognizes the presence of something truly significant. But right
at the centre of His world-changing message is the claim from Him and those around
Him that He is God. Not that He knows about or shares a thread with or is one of
many but somehow, uniquely and specifically is the timeless, infinite, eternal Higher
Against all the odds, one of the fastest movements in history is formed around this
massive claim within a generation of His death. In the face of intense violence from
the government and social exclusion from their own people, a small group of
Christians are prepared to give up everything and stake their lives on the idea that
the man was right. They go from city to city declaring that Jesus Christ, a dead
criminal, was actually the Higher Power with skin on and that His death and
resurrection is the key to our universe. Amazingly enough, their work succeeds.
A few generations later the movement becomes a fully institutionalised religion. By
now people are joining for all kinds of reasons; for money, power or social status but
28 The Elephant Book
at the core there is a commitment to the man and His work around the world. Every
force that threatens to shut it down only strengthens its influence as the church
manages to outlast empires, revolutions, competing philosophies. The real damage
is done from the inside; whenever corruption or manipulation is allowed into its
leadership, the church is crippled. Still, the line of committed believers through the
ages keeps the church alive and growing until today. At this point over a third of the
world’s population count themselves as part of the Higher Power’s attempt to
communicate His message to humanity. 2.1 billion people – more than any other
movement in history – have heard God’s efforts to get some basic ideas across. And
their number grows every day.
This is the elephant in the room. When people ask me why I decided to hang on to
the religion I grew up with, I have to explain that it makes more sense to me as a
worldview than anything else I know. Christianity covers the mystery behind the
great Beginning, the unique life of Jesus Christ and our expectations for a better
world in a way that nothing else does. The Higher Power who is responsible for the
entire universe wants to relate to people and set the world right.
I don’t know which is more terrifying – the thought that there is no God and we’re
alone, or that there is and we don’t know what He might be like. Both of them come
with a lot of emotional baggage so if you find the second statement likely but
uncomfortable, I don’t blame you. God-talk is easy when it’s only words on a page
29 The Elephant Book
but the possibility of a Higher Power behind the words makes it more than a choice
between statements. When you’re faced with the question of a real, tangible,
actual, living, breathing, world-making God, your response is a lot more important
than ticking a box on your census form. If there really is a Person behind the Power,
it might not be that important whether you know He exists. The real question may be
what your relationship with Him is like.
30 The Elephant Book
Getting to know the
31 The Elephant Book
If you worked in God’s marketing department I wonder if you’d be happy with the
way things turned out. After starting up the Church, He wants to spread the
message that the world is changing – the Higher Power who blasted the universe
into existence is about to put everything back to the way it should be. The good
news of a God who came to Earth is making its way around the globe bringing hope
to anyone who believes it, and apparently the most appropriate way to brand this is
with a cross. A symbol which represents the most painful execution method you
could imagine is supposed to communicate hope.
This odd piece of branding must have come from someone who’d never seen a
crucifixion, because there’s not a lot about it that says ‘good news’, ‘power’ or
‘hope’. It just about screams the opposite. It’s like an international peace movement
decorating their letters with photos of machine guns. But for Christians, to put the
Higher Power together with a piece of old wooden torture equipment points to the
event which changed everything. Somehow the death of Jesus Christ has made a
32 The Elephant Book
new way for humans to relate to their God, and the messy brutality is what makes
the whole thing significant.
There are two ways of relating to God, and the older way is the hardest but also the
most popular. You find it nearly everywhere you find formalised religion, and
especially in places where you don’t. A lot of people don’t bother with religion
because they believe all of them are essentially the same, and on one level, they’re
right. They could be saying it because they don’t have a clue about any of them (a
bit like saying everyone in a certain race looks the same), but there’s something
important that runs across every religious expression around the world. Like the
concepts of fairness, morality and worship, something in our default settings keeps
bringing up the idea of a contract with the Higher Power.
In the Old Testament God gives the Israelites over 600 commandments, beginning
with the big ten, that spell out the terms of a deal He wants to make with them. He
promises to bless their work, water their crops and protect them from their enemies
and in return, they promise to worship Him faithfully and get along with each other. If
they can’t (and eventually don’t) keep up their side of the agreement, He can (and
eventually does) stop blessing them and then they suffer the consequences. Good
behaviour gets rewarded, bad behaviour gets punished. It’s the same contract that
pops up whenever humans think about the Higher Power.
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Sometimes the contract is called karma – the idea that the universe, or the Power
behind it, makes sure that everything I do happens back to me. Other cultures have
an idea of God judging each person after they die by weighing up the good and the
bad, and sending them to either a big reward or a big punishment. Others like the
idea that you profit for the good decisions in your current life by coming back as
something better in your next one. Everywhere you find religion you get the same
kind of exchange between ordinary people and the supernatural. They always draw
up a contract promising good behaviour for blessings, and bad behaviour for
Even people who aren’t religious know about the contract. Just about everyone
who’s been through a tough situation has found themselves praying to a God they
don’t believe in, drawing up a contract from the crisis. I do the same thing. One
minute I’m reasonably happy with my life but the next, as soon as something
awkward or difficult comes up, I’m making promises to God with a kind of fanatic
devotion I never knew I had. I tell Him I’ll pray more, give up everything fun or spend
the rest of my life in the monastery of His choosing if He can just get me out of
whatever it is I can’t get out of by myself. Despite living in a secular culture all my
life, I keep appealing to the same thing at the back of my mind whenever I get into
trouble. Even today a modern Australian idea of Heaven involves being judged
outside a set of gates somewhere in the clouds. We can’t shake off the idea that
34 The Elephant Book
God and the human race have made a contract between them, and that all the good
things in our lives depend on keeping Him satisfied.
But the problem with making any kind of deal with the Higher Power is that He
literally has everything you could possibly hope to offer Him. We live on His land,
breathe in His air and are the tenants in His universe. Anything you want to give to
God was really only on loan from Him in the first place, and either way, probably not
very impressive to Him. It’s like trying to pay my landlord the rent with items of his
furniture. The best we could hope to achieve would be to break even – we give back
exactly what we owe Him by living all our lives in complete obedience to His
rules. Now if we could manage that, the world might look something like the ideal
universe in which we expect to live. Unfortunately we live in a world of PIN numbers,
road rage and war crimes so in contractual terms, we’re a long way behind in our
So as long as humanity keeps appealing to this contract it’s stuck in debt. We need
to give God a perfect life to earn His blessing and deserve a complete punishment
for not being able to meet His standards. It's a hopeless position. But then the
Higher Power makes His move.
Without being invited, God turns up on our side of the contract. By choosing to live
on Earth as one of the human race He puts His own name on the dotted line next to
35 The Elephant Book
ours. All of a sudden God Himself is subject to the other end of the contract and has
to live under the same terms as the rest of us. And having signed up for a massive
debt He didn’t owe in the first place, He starts to pay it off.
The exchange works something like this. As a human Jesus Christ is able to face
God the Father as one of us. By living He can offer God the kind of life humanity
was made for, and by dying He can pay back the penalty for everyone else failing to
achieve it. As a representative from both sides of the table He gives the perfect life
and receives the complete punishment. Both terms of the contract are satisfied and
as God He can do it perfectly, once and for all. And I have to go for a run to burn up
all the energy in the room after I write that because this whole thing is fantastic.
This is why Christians talk about the cross as the centrepiece of history. Because of
what God chose to do for the world all the guilty torture we put ourselves through for
not being better people can be put to rest. The empty promises you made to God,
all the hard work you feel guilty for not doing, any karma you expect to face for not
living the right way, any punishment religion can threaten you with, all died with Him
on the cross. That whole side of the contract has been paid off. The only thing left
over is blessing.
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The New Contract
So Jesus dying on a cross means that the world is finished with the contract. All the
old religion has filled its purpose and we can live guilt-free in God’s universe,
knowing that our rent has been paid off. Now the new religion begins to talk.
Christianity is all about the process of God putting away the old contract and drawing
up a better one. Unfortunately some Christians never get this far into their own
religion because the old contract is a lot harder to let go of than you’d think.
The problem is that trying to live perfectly under the contract all the time is a tough
habit to break. It’s actually quite hard to relate to God when you suddenly don’t have
to feel guilty for anything. Instead these Christians go back to the old system - they
burn themselves out trying to pray enough, read the Bible enough, be nice enough,
go to church enough, live religious enough to feel as though God rewards them for
all their hard work. After all, this is religion by definition; to work your way up to
God. They skip church after a bad week because like dodgy tenants they avoid the
landlord when they owe him rent. And the worst thing about this type of Christian is
that they constantly want to force the religious guilt they feel onto other people as a
distraction. They call other tenants to account for payments that they weren’t able to
37 The Elephant Book
All this is just an appeal to the same old contract we had from the beginning, without
any room for the work of Jesus. You might call it Christianity without Christ. But the
fact that Jesus has paid off our debt and taken our punishment means that there’s
another way to live. It’s possible to not only work for the landlord as a tenant but live
with Him as part of His family.
One of the major prophetic themes in the Bible is the promise of a new contract
between God and His people. Even while the Jews are working under the old one
God keeps dropping hints about a future agreement without the guilty sacrifices,
knowing His people intimately and writing the new contract on their hearts. Although
they can’t see any way out of their current contract the Jews hang on to this promise
through the centuries of occupation and exile until 400 years later Jesus takes the
concept further in a story about a family. It’s the most famous parable and you’ve
probably heard it but I’ll sum it up quickly here.
A farmer has two sons living on his property. One day his younger son insults him
deeply and publicly by taking half of the family’s money and going to live by himself
in the city. The son parties and gambles for a while but when everything in his wallet
has been spent or gambled away the kid is left broke and unemployed, desperate to
survive. Eventually he decides to return home without a shred of money or dignity
38 The Elephant Book
and beg his father to give him some of his old life back. Beyond his expectations he
gets it all back – the money, the lifestyle and his spot at the table as one of the
family. The father forgives everything and throws a party of his own to celebrate the
return of His lost son. In a Disney movie the credits would start rolling here but
Jesus makes a point of mentioning a third character in the story.
The older son hears the news while he’s out working in the fields, and isn’t too
impressed with his father’s decision to forgive everything. Apparently he’d been
labouring under the assumption that the title of ‘son’ was a reward for doing farm
jobs, and now this new guy was getting the same salary despite turning up at the last
minute. He thought he had a contract. All the time he’d spent ploughing while his
brother was out partying must have earned him something? But the father sees him
sulking and his response is incredible. He says to him, “You are always with me,
and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this
brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Jesus ends the parable halfway through their conversation and we never find out
how the older son responds to that. Does he end up joining the party or going back
to the fields? He’s left with the choice between a relationship and a contract, and
maybe Jesus cut it short because at this point the character’s choice is the same as
39 The Elephant Book
The big landlord has done away with the lease and we can live in His universe guilt-
free. What you make of your life after that sinks in is up to you. If you wanted to you
could pull out the old contract, dust it off and pretend that your prayer time, gifts to
charity and the size of your Bible are all enough to pay God and keep Him satisfied.
If you’re really good at all that you can stay busy with your religion and look down
your nose at everyone else. Good luck to you. On the other hand, if you’re not such
a good person or only have a pocket-sized Gideon’s Bible you might have to deal
with a lot of guilt. Either way, the old contract is still available for anyone who wants
to live under it.
The other option is to take God’s gift as God’s gift and leave the old contract in the
drawer. He has a new one He wants you to see. You could stop trying to earn all
the good things in life, realise that everything He has is yours for the asking, and
begin a relationship with a loving Father. You could forget about religion altogether,
sign the new contract and find out what being a part of God’s family actually means...
40 The Elephant Book
The purpose of life as a Christian under the new contract is to literally change the
world. God's original design for the planet hasn't gone anywhere - He still wants to
see it happen - and to bring it into effect He needs to transform both our communities
and the people who live in them. He has planted the blueprint for our world at the
back of our minds and it keeps popping up to get our attention wherever the world
around us needs to change. And to maintain the transformed society He constantly
chips away at us from the inside, building the type of personality strong enough to
handle Heaven on Earth. So as you watch Him work you see Him moving in two
directions: His manipulation of your circumstances begins to mould your personality,
and your reshaped personality begins to change the circumstances themselves. So
becoming a Christian makes you a kind of catalyst, as God works through your world
to change your life and through your life to change the world. The chapter's getting a
bit wordy here so maybe an illustration would help.
One of my favourite characters in the Bible isn't much of a hero but I like what
happens to him. In John chapter 8 a man invites Jesus to his house for an afternoon
41 The Elephant Book
meal and soon finds out that the Son of God is a much bigger drawcard than he
expected. Instead of booking the local convention centre or the council hall, he sets
up his home for a soiree with a few selected guests. The guests happen to include
some of the more important figures in the Jewish community so their host apparently
had a kind of networking session in mind. So it must have been a real shock when
hundreds of uninvited and unimportant people turned up at his doorstep wanting to
In spite of the change of plans our host runs around trying to make the afternoon
work, and he organises finger food while Jesus preaches in the house. But the
crowds keep on coming and there are people lined up outside the windows and just
as the garden fills up a group of vandals jump the queue. They push past everyone
outside, climb on top of the house, knock a hole in the roof and lower their crippled
homeless mate through to the floor underneath. Then, as if the lost networking time
and damage to the house isn't enough to ruin an afternoon, Jesus says something in
front of everyone that seriously offends the power players (it's to do with the old
So the in-crowd leave in a huff, the out-crowd leave footprints in the garden and
Jesus leaves a cripple-shaped hole in the roof. We never find out what happened to
the man who organised the party but I'd like to think he got something out of all the
42 The Elephant Book
chaos. Maybe later in his life he would watch the ex-cripple walking around on his
new legs and remember the part he played in a genuine miracle. I hope so, anyway.
It sounds a bit rough on the guy but actually this is what happens when you invite
Jesus into your life. Plenty of Christians plan out their faith as a kind of private
soiree with selected guests but find that the presence of Jesus has a drawing power
that tends to attract the unimportant and uninvited people into their lives. Back when
I started taking the whole thing seriously there were cliques I wanted to get into and
connections I wanted to make, but God was in control and apparently He had other
ideas. Pretty soon I found out that having Jesus in my life not only introduced me to
some of the weirdest people on Earth but forced me to become friends with them. A
few people I would have otherwise moved house to avoid have set up camp in my
world and now rely on me for friendship and support. Mind you, some of the
Christians I lean on probably feel the same way about me. I can live with that. All the
weird people in my world have been more of a blessing to me than they realise.
The bottom line is that God's plan for human society involves a community, and for
that to happen we need to learn how to depend on each other. As He transforms the
structure of our relationships and brings new people into our spheres we get a sense
of giving and receiving, relying on others and having others rely on us. There may
be a few surprises in store as to who receives from whom; either way, the whole idea
43 The Elephant Book
of climbing social ladders for personal success has got to go. God wants to
constantly break apart and reform our cliques so that no one misses out.
The other part of the story that jumped out at me was the hole in the roof. In
Matthew 9 Jesus promises that anyone who loses their mother because of their
choice to follow Him will receive more mothers as compensation. The same goes for
brothers and land. I'm not exactly sure how to take this verse because I have a
mother - just the one - and that's actually enough for me. Not that our relationship
isn't good but it is kind of exclusive. He can give me more money or more muscles if
He wants to but more mothers isn't necessarily better than having just the one. More
mothers is just...more.
It doesn't sound appealing straight away but this actually sums up what God does on
the inside of a person once they let Him in. He works away at their personalities to
make them become more alive. To cry more, to laugh more, to feel more joy and
more pain. Becoming a Christian makes your life easier and harder, better in some
ways and worse in others, more demanding but also more rewarding. Actually, the
only word to describe it is more. The path God gives you might go straight through
everything in life you'd hoped to avoid, but it also takes you out the other side. The
effect is almost exactly like having a hole knocked in your ceiling.
Most people build roofs over their lives to protect themselves from exposure. They
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put ceilings over their passions, protecting their souls from excitement and cutting
themselves off from the people who could let them down. Part of growing up is this
inevitable slide toward pessimism that lowers your expectations and sneers at
anyone naive enough to believe in something. These people become life's
commentators, analysing other people's work from the sidelines without risking
enough to achieve anything for themselves. They call it maturity, and it keeps them
safe. It isn't worth it.
When Jesus pointed out that you need to become like a child to understand the work
of God He wasn't being sentimental but stating a fact. A cynical 'grown up' mind that
sees the worst in everything is going to miss God simply because He's not where
they're looking. But when you're naive enough to see the best in everything
suddenly He's everywhere you turn. The world doesn't need any more cynics,
critics, commentators or Eeyores, sitting on the sidelines and sneering at anyone
with the audacity to try and achieve something. We've got enough of them already.
What God wants and what the world needs are people brought to life.
Calling people to life is God's work, and He does it by opening them up to the
elements. Sometimes people wonder why Christians get offended so easily but the
fact is it comes with the package. You can't be offended until you care passionately
45 The Elephant Book
about something, and passion is another one of those things that gets exposed when
God takes down your defences. You can try and protect yourself from the pain of
other people around you but when you have Jesus on the inside He wants to knock
a hole in the roof and let them in. That way He can speak to them Himself.
The effect of God knocking down your defences is to make you more open, exposed
and alive. He brings you to life on the inside and brings people into your life on the
outside. Everything has to change. No wonder religion does so much damage
around the world - there's nothing safe or predictable about a person genuinely alive
and passionate about something. It also happens to be the only way of achieving
Life is painful. Passion is dangerous. People can be disappointing. The world
doesn't measure up to our expectations and after living in it for a while we put up our
barriers, protecting us from each other and from ourselves. What God does with the
new contract is reverse that process and bring you back to life. He wants to make
room in your world for life as He intended it, and if you hang around Him for long
enough you get the terrifying feeling that this could mean anything is possible.
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Our culture doesn’t really do Holy Books. No matter how good the text might happen
to be, the idea of trusting your life on the unquestioned authority of one book sounds
like a kind of intellectual suicide. The country has a Constitution which has about as
close as we get, although the fact we can vote to amend it or throw it out if we want
to maybe indicates that the highest authority we recognise is ourselves. Today it
seems almost medieval to give one book the kind of authority that comes with the
title of ‘God’s Word’, especially one that begins with a talking snake and ends with a
man killing a dragon. How do you justify a sacred text in the 21st Century?
One of the biggest clichés in police movies is the montage of people in suits taking a
stack of papers out of a yellow folder with the killer’s name on the label, and sticking
them all to a noticeboard. They pin up everything they can find – newspaper
clippings, handwritten notes, conversation records, witness accounts – anything with
a connection to the guy they’re trying to track down. When the music fades out and
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everything’s up on the board the detectives start making notes and putting together a
case. I do have a point to this.
And here it comes - the Bible works a bit like the yellow folder in the montage. Over
thousands of years of encounters and wrestles with God the church has put together
a kind of scrapbook containing everything they could find with a connection to Him,
in the hope of building a profile. Some of the documents they kept were historical
records, transcripts of conversations with Him, poetry written by people close to Him,
some witness accounts from people who knew His Son and letters between people
who worked for Him in the first generation of the church. After twelve centuries of
writing by forty different authors on three continents they came up with a folder of 66
books, with all kinds of genres and ideas between the covers.
But at that point the analogy breaks down. In this case the suspect actually helps
the police with their enquiries by guiding the process of putting the folder together.
As long as the church has had the Bible it’s been respected as more than a book
about God – they believe that God has intervened personally to help write His own
profile. Everything written in the scrapbook has come with His stamp of approval.
Obviously the danger of putting this kind of authority on one text is that He has very
little control over how people interpret the message. The Bible has a long history –
maybe longer than any other book – of people using its authority to justify whatever
49 The Elephant Book
hateful injustice they want to wreak upon the world around them. Words are twisted
easily, and if the authority is used when the interpretation is wrong it can be
devastating. But apparently He thought it was worth the damage, and if this sounds
unlikely it might be worth thinking about what it would be like if He hadn’t.
Earlier in the book we had to face the possibility that the Higher Power might always
be a complete mystery to us. In the second chapter I spent a lot of time and effort
establishing that the Higher Power was high and powerful. Now I need to bring that
up again. The thing about having a God working behind the universe is that the
distance we have to travel to understand Him is just massive. We can't figure Him
out by studying our surroundings any more than a snail could work out our bus
system crawling on a timetable. Anything we want to know about Him is going to
have to come from Him directly.
Not that the size of this gap has ever kept us from trying to get across. As a race we
have a religious instinct we can't shake off and a fascination with the supernatural
which plants the Higher Power permanently at the front of our minds. Every rumour
we hear about a world beyond our own is hunted down, exaggerated and savoured
like water in a desert. There is a gap in our minds for the supernatural that we fill
with whatever theory seems to fit, so that one way or another we're bound to have a
number one source of authority on God. If the Bible disappeared one day then that
authority wouldn't vanish with it, instead something else would slot into place as a
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substitute. Either we let good movies, bad sermons, rainbows or childhood
experiences shape our idea of God or He will come forward and shape it Himself.
And If He wanted to bridge the gap by communicating something important it's not
surprising He chose to write it down. Books tend to stay written and once copies
have been made, they're not easy to re-write. By putting His story down on paper
God gave His people a fixed way of accessing in their own language something
which was otherwise beyond their comprehension. If you want to sum it up in a
cheesy kind of catchphrase, the Bible is a physical link to a spiritual God. It
introduces us to the Higher Power on levels we couldn't reach by ourselves.
Another reason God got involved with the process was to give Himself the best
possible material to communicate with. Some people like to play a kind of charades
with God by trying to understand the signs He's apparently giving them whenever
anything happens. Other people play Scrabble with Him by putting together coded
messages in conspiracies involving ancient paintings. Even Christians have a
tendency to internalize everything and convince themselves that God mainly speaks
to them through their guts. But if He really wanted to speak to humanity one-on-one
you'd think His first choice would be with actual sentences. If God really does speak
to people with sunrises and special feelings than He must be very talkative when
He's allowed to use words.
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And actually, He is. If you read the Bible for yourself then you often get the uncanny
feeling that Someone is speaking directly into your situation from over your
shoulder. Not only does God allow the Bible to explain His character to the reader
but He puts it to work in the reader's life, highlighting specific verses for
circumstances and wisdom when they need it most. The verses have a kind of
explosive quality about them and because He shaped them Himself, He can use
This is where the Bible is the most dangerous: By reading it you invite God to work
on your life with His own tools. He chose to place an authority on the Bible and a
power at work within it, interacting with the reader's perception of God and reshaping
their personality. The minute you flick open the covers you might as well lie down
and pass Him the scalpel. It's awful to see that kind of authority misused by people
with agendas but the bottom line is that we have a God who loves and takes risks
like that. In the end He wanted to communicate with humanity so much He had to
risk being misunderstood.
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In the first part of the book I mentioned the sketchpad on my desk with a drawing of
a stickman and a soccer ball. I’d like to bring him back in this chapter as a real man
in his house kicking the ball around his backyard. It’s his house and his ball and no
one else is around so eventually he comes up with a one-man version of backyard
soccer, which becomes a kind of hobby. After a few months he decides to join the
local soccer club, and at this point his experience of soccer turns a corner.
Everything becomes more complicated when you add people. The team he joins
has other players; some of them are much better than he is and others aren’t as
good as they think they are. They play under a coach who makes bad decisions
every now and then and sometimes really lets the team down. There are referees,
sponsors, administrators and dozens of other people working at the club who all
have their own agendas and often ask for money. The team trains every week,
which is boring, and there’s always pressure to perform on game day.
Overall, signing up to a club involves a plate full opportunities to be disappointed but
it’s the only way to change his one-man skills into actual soccer. If he joins a real
53 The Elephant Book
team he becomes a better player, makes friends and discovers the sport for himself.
If he decides not to join one he can keep kicking the ball around as the champion of
his own backyard, but he can’t call himself a real soccer player.
Most people get turned off by the idea of organized religion but the truth is it works
the same way as organized sport. Like soccer, Christianity is a team game and
although you can technically do the basics on your own, the real thing only happens
when people act it out together as a church. Even the word 'church' gets thrown
around as a reference to an institution or a building where it should be used as the
collective noun for 'Christian'. This should be a clue - there will be people involved,
and God happens to feel very strongly about them. Joining up is going to be
different to anything you could experience with God by yourself. You can enjoy
Jesus in your own backyard and never have to worry about being offended or
disappointed, or you could take things to the next level and see what He does on a
bigger scale. It makes going to church that much more complicated, powerful,
frustrating and worthwhile.
With that in mind, anyone who walks into church expecting a kind of club for nice
people is about to be disappointed. Whenever you bring people together things will
get messy, and for some reason this is always a surprise when it comes to
church. Even some Christians who have a pretty solid respect for Jesus talk about
the Church like His drunk cousin who somehow keeps showing up at family
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events. They complain about the people inside without realising that none of them
have been handpicked for being especially good, smart, friendly or normal.
Inevitably some of them will be mean, stupid, unfriendly or weird; the question for the
moment isn't how bad they really are. If you're trying to decide whether their church
is worth attending then maybe a better question is whether they'd be worse if they
weren't Christians. Actually, an even better idea would be to stop playing Spot The
Hypocrite, let them sort themselves out and decide whether or not you need to go for
your own sake. Either way, isn't some kind of conflict exactly what you might expect
from a room full of people who only have the one thing in common?
In fact, the one thing they have in common is what makes the whole concept so
important. I mentioned earlier that life under the new contract is about the process of
change in your surroundings and your personality, transforming our ordinary world
into the kind of universe we only know by instinct. This is exactly what the churches
meet around. God is reshaping the Earth through the lives of those connected to
Him, and in the Church we get to see His work coming together in several different
people at once. Every person sitting in their pew is undergoing the same kind of
operation on the inside which is knocking holes in their ceilings and turning their
worlds upside down. Some of them have moved a long way into the process while
others have developed in only a few areas in a young relationship with Christ. But
55 The Elephant Book
the experience of God's new society entering our world is one they all share, and it
holds the whole thing together.
So whenever Christians meet each one brings with them a small piece of the new
society. If you can get enough of them together then the pieces begin to find each
other like a jigsaw and the new society comes into focus. You can see it in both their
words and their actions - the friendship that stretches across age and backgrounds,
the favour given that wasn't asked for and can't be returned, the word of
encouragement when you didn't know how badly you needed it, or the piece of
advice from someone committed to caring for you regardless of how you treat them
in return. The old universe gets a glimpse - for a moment - of what only exists in the
back of our minds as an echo. This is what it means to be a city on a hill - a vision of
what the world could potentially look like if God's blueprint was put into action. It's
not a complete picture, in fact some churches still have a lot of the old society
hanging over their meetings, writing picket signs and getting in the way. But when
they get their act together the combined work of God in the room is incredible.
Just seeing the pieces come together when the church gets it right might be a good
enough reason to turn up once a week, but as usual with God there's another
element working underneath the surface. It turns out that His work has a kind of
explosive effect which grows larger whenever it comes into contact with anything
similar to itself. In sport people talk about a team's spirit, and the way it fires up
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when the players and their supporters get together with the same attitude. The Spirit
of God works a little bit like that. Every Christian walks around with God constantly
calling them to life as He changes them from the inside. When two or more of them
get together His voice echoes off itself, louder and louder and louder as the process
accelerates in all of them. Each individual piece grows bigger as they connect with
one another, and suddenly the room holds not only God's new society but also God
He turns up to make the process happen. Nothing powers the work of God like the
presence of God, and this is why the church is so important. The reason Christianity
only happens when people get together as a church is because that's exactly how
God wants to reach the world. You can't act out a new universe by yourself. More
than anything He desperately wants the Church to get its act together because they
carry His presence and act as His hands and feet in our universe. I dropped a bit of
a cliché back there when I wrote that ‘church’ is a collective noun for ‘Christian’. I
should find another way to say that because it makes ‘Christian’ look like the more
important word. Actually it’s the other way round. The church doesn’t exist as a
collection of Christians; it’s Christians who exist as individual parts of the Church.
It’s a tough idea to swallow. I’m happy enough believing in God and thinking about
my deep, profound bond with the Higher Power, but apparently that has to come with
a deep, profound bond with some people who drink tea and wear sandals. Not to
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mention some of the most corrupted leaders in the last 2,000 years of history. This
is high commitment stuff. Isn’t religion supposed to be private? Well, yes, in the
sense that you have the right to choose for yourself what you believe and to let that
shape your personality in whichever way you choose. But Christianity, should you
choose to accept it, is all about the fact that God is trying to heal the universe and to
achieve that He needs to use all of His people together. God doesn't roll His eyes at
the church as He pulls up His sleeves and goes to work on the world through
individuals. He plugs away on the inside of the church because His work in the
world happens through her.
In that sense, telling someone I 'go' to church is a little bit redundant. I might as well
say that my elbows go to Paul every weekend. Where else would they be? They
don’t belong to my body, they are my body and if I lost them one day I wouldn’t be
able to bend my arms. God forbid that ever happens because they wouldn't be
much use on their own.
When you put all those awkward metaphors together it's a wonder that people find
going to church boring. It turns out to be the most high-commitment, fascinating,
dangerous and essential thing in the whole Christian package. Every meeting is a
different combination of Godly strength and human weakness which will either hurt
you or heal you, depending on which one comes to the surface. In my case I've
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seen enough of the first to convince me that it's worth putting up with the second,
and if you find a good church you'll probably end up agreeing with me.
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One of the oddest things about watching a musical is how natural it all seems. The
world doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, spontaneously burst into song whenever
something important happens but I will happily forget this boring, irrelevant fact for
two hours to watch a story express itself on a stage. As long as it’s performed well
and it’s the right type of song for the situation I won’t even remember it’s a story.
The illusion only falls down when the music is wrong, bad or not there at all - if you
watch a movie without a soundtrack the first thing you'll notice is how flat the whole
thing seems. It might be that after watching enough entertainment we get
conditioned into expecting a certain kind of music for each type of event.
Watching people express themselves by singing at each other doesn’t seem as
weird as it should do because we use music as a kind of emotional currency.
Dates, weddings, sports games, funerals and even driving to work are enhanced by
the right kind of song, and like in the movies they all feel flat without a soundtrack.
There is something just electrifying about the blending of the right song with the big
moment that blows on the coals of whatever you happen to be feeling at the time
and lights you up like a bushfire. When you add music words become lyrics, poems
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become anthems, emotions become passions and feelings become expressions.
Human expression always seems to intensify with the right music.
When footy fans want to make noise during a game they start singing their anthems
because the expression becomes that much more intense when it’s sung together as
a group. When a church full of passionate Christians comes in front of their God
they sing for the same reason, as a group and with God as their audience. They
want to show their respect for the Higher Power, give Him credit for His work in their
lives and thank Him for paying off the old contract. Above all they want to express a
very intense kind of love and the best way to mark the moment is with music.
Sometimes this involves leaving a bit of dignity at the door and really going for it, but
relationships are often like that. There’s a level of passion which looks ridiculous in
other people until you experience it for yourself.
So in this sense worship isn’t something you do, instead it’s something you give. We
offer God our songs as a present in the same way that partners in a relationship give
gifts to each other. Growing up in churches where this happened a lot I used to
wonder whether God was insecure about His position, or if the only way to get
anything out of Him was by sucking up and telling Him how wonderful He was. I
didn’t realise until much later that the constant affirmation of a partner is what makes
the relationship work. It would be very odd to stay married to someone without ever
paying them a compliment, or complimenting them once and then promising to let
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them know if the situation ever changes. Being in any sort of healthy relationship
involves a constant expression of love, and with God this happens through worship.
And this is where I hit a wall. If worship happens in the context of a relationship (and
I think it does), then singing church songs only covers one side of the dialogue. That
might be a good enough spiritual exercise in itself, but actually there’s something
else going on in the atmosphere which is much harder to write about. It just
happens that there is a real, live, dynamic Worship-ee on the other side of the music
who cuts across and encounters the worshipper, changing their lives from the inside
out. Some of the best praise songs I’ve heard should have come with disclaimers
attached to them because they leave you dangerously open in front of the Higher
Power, inviting Him to go to work on your personality. We offer God our songs as a
gift to Him, but every so often He takes over the atmosphere and uses the same
songs to encounter us.
So in this sense worship is might be something that happens to us. Or in us. I’m not
sure. How do you write about that?
I don’t have enough words to describe what it’s like to have a chorus grab you by the
guts, burn the lyrics onto your soul and echo through your mind for weeks.
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To walk into church with more situations than answers, and feeling them all dissolve
off your shoulders by the end of the first song.
To walk out of church with your heart still burning, wondering if you’re the same
person as the one who walked in.
To sit on a bus with your iPod breathing hymns through your body, feeling like your
core is being melted down, shaken up and poured back into your chest.
Or to lie on the grass at 2am in a heavy silence, having run out of songs and
tears, not knowing or caring about anything else in the world.
Where would I start? It’s the most addictive and satisfying feeling in the world.
You’ll just have to put the book down and experience it for yourself.
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The Small Stuff
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If you ask someone to explain their church's position on alcohol then you might not
get a straight answer. Talk to a group of Christians about politics and you'll be met
with opinions from right across the spectrum. Not many arguments have split the
Church around the world as much as ones about sex, and the biggest area they
disagree on is money. It all makes this section so much harder. I thought I'd write a
few chapters on the biggest topics in modern life but it doesn't seem like God has an
obvious position on any of them.
Other religions don't have this problem. When they don't like something they tend to
be pretty clear about it - Muslims can't drink, Jehovah's Witnesses can't vote, Bahai's
can't accept money from other sources and Buddhists can't have sex during the
daytime (look this one up if you don't believe me). But with Christianity you get the
impression that all four of them can be made right under some conditions and wrong
under others. The church raises funding as a form of worship but calls the love of
money the root of all evil. The Old Testament celebrates the mysteries of sex but
warns that no man can take any partner he wants. John the Baptist doesn't drink but
Jesus makes wine at a wedding. Apparently God's people are allowed to make up
their own position between the extremes, and as a result, they waste so much time
fighting over them.
The problem is that the Bible doesn't really come down hard on any of them. It
doesn't even seem to try. Instead you get the sense that sex, money, power and
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alcohol are just the smaller things in a bigger picture, and therefore always slightly
out of focus. The closest you'll get to a manifesto on any of them is a call for self
control. When St Paul writes to a church that are trying to build a set of rules over
each subject the most absolute command he gives to them is, 'Do not be mastered
by anything'. Apparently the question isn't what you're using, it's what's using you.
You know already that someone who can't control their desire for sex, drink, money
or power is headed for disaster. All the natural instincts have a tendency to go bad
when they take the centrestage of your life. On the other hand, anyone who shuts
them out completely is only excluding themselves from some of the best and most
powerful things in life. Good wine, wise investments, effective government and
happy relationships are only possible because we have these drives for alcohol,
money, power and sex. The key is to keep them small enough to control.
Imagine you live in a house with a fireplace. As long as the fire stays behind the grill
the house is kept warm and the fireplace is an asset. But if you take away the grill
then the flames are exposed and the fireplace is the last thing standing when the
house burns down. Like the fire these elements could potentially work either way in
your life. It's just a matter of keeping them in their place.
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These are not going to be long chapters because if they're kept in their place, the
subjects aren't as big as they seem. Hopefully I can write something useful about all
three, and then we'll come back around the idea of self control. See you then.
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Some people get very offended when money and religion are mentioned together.
They just don't seem to mix well. One of the most impressive images in the Gospel
is Jesus powering through the temple with a whip, cutting down the money makers
and chasing them out of the house of God. Whenever someone wants to complain
about the church's attitude with money that's usually the example they pull out. But
the most difficult thing about using Jesus as a pawn in your argument is that He's
such a hard character to pin down. As it happens He spoke about money more than
any other subject in His ministry, and some of the things he said made people very
One of His shorter parables was about a man who owned a wheat farm. After a
massive harvest one year he decided to store up all the grain in his barns and send
himself into early retirement. The next thing he does is tear down all his old barns to
make room for bigger ones, thinking about how easy life is going to be from that day
onwards. But before he could begin to enjoy living off his massive pension God
appeared to him in a dream and called him a fool. The farmer died during the night
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and had nothing to show for his life except a massive harvest and a series of
unimpressive half-built barns.
The sudden ending makes the man's story a bit more dramatic but the point of the
parable was that he was already dead. He had no reason for staying alive, no
purpose beyond himself, and as soon as he stopped working he had no function in
the society around him. Somewhere along the line he'd become convinced that his
life was all about raising enough money not to have to work any more, and once he'd
done that it was all over. What did for him in the end wasn't an overload of money
but a lack of vision. With nothing else to live for he just stopped living.
Another parable Jesus told was about a servant who managed a rich man's
accounts. One day the man heard a rumour that his master wasn't impressed with
his work and was on his way to fire him. Straight away he summed up his position
and decided to make use of the boss's money while he was still in charge of it.
Before his boss could sack him the accountant ran up to each of his friends who had
owed him money and cut down their debts on his master's behalf. Eventually he'd
lined up a stack of favours from people, all of whom could help him out when he
inevitably lost his job.
So one man planned his superannuation and another man interfered with a debt he
didn't owe. But surprisingly the second example was actually the smartest move in
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both parables. The accountant realised that his master's money wasn't as important
as his life, so he swapped the temporary means for a permanent end. He used the
money to save his life, whereas the farmer in the first parable only used his life to
save his money. The difference is that one man had a purpose and the other one
The trap of money is to give it the qualities of things it can only buy. If you want to
achieve anything significant, good or permanent in this world than the reality is you
will need to raise some money before you can achieve it. But when we think of
money as significant, good or permanent in itself we only get into trouble. The idea
is to keep it within the context of a bigger purpose. Money can be a great help in
achieving something but isn't much of an achievement on its own. It's just another
small thing in life pretending to be a big one.
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You don't need to tell me how lucky I am to live in a democracy. Not too many
countries in history or around the world have had elected leaders, a free press and a
set constitution all at once. As an Australian in 2009 I feel very fortunate to take
advantage of all of them. That said, when I try to sit through an hour of Question
Time I want to throw my TV out through the window.
Am I the only one who feels like this? There's just something frustrating about
seeing some of the smartest and hardest working leaders in our country spouting
catchphrases and shouting each other down like preschoolers. Even the way it's
reported is frustrating. It's just as painful to watch the best of our media write
headlines to chase ratings, fanning up conflicts between polemics on both sides. No
wonder people don't like politics. For all the benefits of living under a system like
ours, we must be doing something wrong if this is the best we can manage.
Before I get back to that thought I wanted to mention why it might be worth putting a
political chapter in a religious book.
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Some countries around the world are still governed as theocracies. As it happens,
most of them are Islamic. The idea behind them is that the nation should be run
according to a Muslim worldview, and therefore any other philosophies aren't
welcome in political discussions. All their offices and legislation are based on the
Koran's teaching on how a leadership should run their country. Most of them will
allow you to be an Atheist or a Christian as long as you do it in private, but when it
comes to public matters the entire country is assumed to be Muslim. Their laws,
policies and constitutions are based on an Islamic worldview and that's how they
want it to stay.
A lot of Aussies, including Muslims, would see this as a textbook argument for the
separation of church and state but it's actually the opposite. Maybe they don't spot
the irony but anyone who complains that religion shouldn't mix with politics is
essentially calling for another kind of theocracy. This is exactly what the system will
look like if 'no religion' is seen as our country's default position on everything
political. After all, by 'no religion' we effectively mean atheism.
In the same way as in a theocracy, people who complain about someone holding a
political opinion based their religion are assuming that their own worldview isn't
subjective like everyone else's. For the same reasons they expect their own
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opinions to have the elevated position. They say religion is a private thing and
shouldn't affect public life, so just like the Muslim governments they allow you to
keep your own worldview in private as long as you agree to hold theirs in public.
They don't realise that a politician who votes for something because they believe in
God hasn't been any more influenced by religion than one who votes the other way
because they don't believe in Him at all. Both have formed their opinions in private
and it affects their actions in public. Neither has been more influenced by their
worldview just because they've gone in different directions. A government that tried
to keep religion out of all its decisions would be just as undemocratic as a purely
The truth is that a non-religious opinion isn't any more impartial than a religious one.
Your opinion on God - whatever it happens to be - sits at the top of your worldview
and affects everything else underneath it. Politics and religion have to mix in public
because they already mix in private, and the moment one worldview steamrolls over
all the others then we lose our democracy. There isn't any neutral ground, it's just a
matter of whether they can all get along and share the toys. The church and the
state shouldn't control each other but we shouldn't completely separate them either.
With that in mind, the church might have something interesting to say about the way
we approach politics in the 21st Century. As it happens, I think it does.
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Whenever the subject comes up in the New Testament the key word is 'respect'. In
2 Peter the church is told to submit themselves to the authorities, 'showing proper
respect to everyone...fear God, and honor the King'. In 1 Timothy Paul takes this a
bit further, urging believers to 'pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may
live peaceful and quiet lives'. If that seems like a big call with our government, think
about what that meant for the people who first read these verses, who were being
told to respect the regime that was trying to get rid of their church through violence.
But even in their situation respect for authority managed to change the whole
To make the big decisions facing our country we should have a government.
Instead, we have politics. Obviously we need an element of conflict to pick the good
arguments from the bad ones, but somewhere along the line we made conflict the
biggest element in the whole game. Nothing rates like a good argument, so the
shots of fired up politicians tearing into each other are constantly up for the best
spots in our TV and our newspapers. Every party wants to promote themselves by
pointing out how different they are from the other mob. No wonder we think our
politicians are all talk. As a country we just find our problems more interesting than
the process of solving them. Politics is more popular than government, and here we
find another small thing pretending to be a big one.